Sunday, May 24, 2009

Retiring in Asilah

I'm thinking about my own retirement those days (maybe related to my slow productivity with summertime).
I think I'll be going off to a town on a hill somewhere, maybe Asilah in Morocco.
Now, when I swing from euphoria to stupor to just plain pain, cling on to things and then never get to keep them, my consolation is that one day I'll be an old lady. An old lady with a full life and stories to tell in a house on the hill where I would cook for those who escape the city for the weekend and tell them not to take life too seriously. To reassure them that nothing matters but the small moments, like this moment when we are sipping coffee on my balcony and truly bonding.
I'll tell them that at times where I risked breaking my neck or at times when gold dust slipped through my fingers, I cried, but that I know only remember the thrill of the chase and how I didn't crack under all the pressure. I'll tell them that at times when I worked my ass off and sprained my ankle running, I got there, but the euphoria lasted about 15 minutes after crossing the finish line.
That all throughout, what mattered was a mars chocolate bar from his backpack, a day at the beach with the girls, a hand in the small of my back while we're dancing the night away, the making-up after the fights, friends' consolation after loss, the no-number on my phone's screen and then time after time the familiar voice, communicating without words, analyzing drawings, singing at the top of our lungs, conversations on the train that last all the way from Cairo to Alexandria, guessing that someone will like a song or a movie and finding they already do, a call from a friend sharing updates on their new crush, starry nights on my friend's rooftop smoking mint slims, cooking a good meal for the family, surprise birthday parties, cards we make for tearfull farewells, 2 page emails, epiphanies, planning a new trip and above all, a good cup of coffee on this Balcony on a Saturday morning.

I think that more than retirement itself, I long for the wisdom that comes with retirement. This is the place where I will tell my story (Asilah, Morocco).

Note1: the story of the old lady is inspired by a real old lady who lives in the hills near Alicante, I never met her, C&M did.

Note2: the moments are best described by my friend K.R. in a new year email he sent to all of us, wishing us more similar
Also my friend J.D. describes herself as "a collector of moments".

Note3: After writing this, I watched the movie Waking Life:
-"I keep thinking about something you said.
-- Something I said?
- Yeah.
-About how you often feel like you're observing your life...from the perspective of an old woman about to die.
-- You remember that?
- Yeah. I still feel that way sometimes.Like I'm looking back on my life. Like my waking life is her memories."

Note 4: few weeks after writing this, I came upon a blogpost where a girl is telling her stories long before retirement, made me smile :)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Snapshots from Rome

Remembering Rome I pass two red lights on my way back home. Charming, sensual and elegant like its citizens, grandiose like their ancestors. The city of seven hills.

Feet pounding the cobble stone I roamed the city looking for a poster of the Godfather for my beau who was in a mafioso phase at the time. Explaining in broken Italian "foto ... Il Padrino". After flipping through Sophia Lauren's black and white pictures and posters of old Italian movies I can't recognize, at dinner time I finally find It. I go home with the unique father and son scene, only to find that a friend has gotten him the same picture in a glossy postcard format conveniently
purchased from the United States (and that's when I scream "damn the supermarket culture").

The kiosks display postcards from Roman Holiday, Audery Hepburn and Gregory Peck at the Fontana di Trevi, La Bocca de la Verita, at the Coliseum, at the Piazza di Spagna, sipping coffee, eating gelato, speeding away on a motorino. Simply romantic in black and white... as the movie ends, Audrey Hepburn, when asked what city she liked most in her tour around Europe, casts all political correctness expected of a young princess like her, and says " all means Rome"

ALL this build-up to find a piazza di spagna that is filled with tourists clad with shapeless shorts, armed with cameras and sipping fizzy drinks, people selling cheap imitation designer bags, flowers with colors too bright, and a huge Bvlgari ad behind the Obelisk.
I simply hate the pictures I took that day.

Yet all this, plus the queues for the hop-on hop-off tourist bus (which by the way I don't recommend, go on foot), and the plastic neon miniature monuments, Pakistani carts selling fruits and juice, plus all the pick-poketing, and the commercialization of elegance (see photo above) do not devoid Rome of its charm.

I can still recall
my first breakfast, delicious bread, zucchini, eggplant and goat cheese, at a bistro two blocks down from my hotel. Years after, while reading The Food of Love, I imagined the place as its setting and its owners as the people who run the restaurant in my book.

I remember fewer times when I have enjoyed walking by myself like I did when in Rome.
Feeling the Roman Empire in the stones of the Aqueduct, and in the carved marble of the street sign of Via del Corso. Treadding narrow streets, following the sound of water at night, to find a vast piazza and a sight that takes my breath away, the Fontana di Trevi (not recommended by day). Wandering around to find I've come to the same exact spot (the plateau up Piazza di Spagna) but from the top of the hill, and looking at exquisite little balconies transformed into little family owned restaurants.
Feeling like a celebretiy while sipping a coffee that costs 5 euros at the renown Café Greco (that's in 2004, when coffee elsewhere cost 90 cents).
Doing the leche-vitrines*, to find that everyone -but myself and other tourists- is out of Vogue. (* French for window shopping, yes I'm being pretentious here)
There are few cities which I fail to describe in words, Rome is one of them.
Wait for my next trip, maybe that will let me depict it better.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Clinging on...

To perfect moments that will never come back again
To places where we've found happiness and had a collection of perfect moments (which by the way require the presence of the same set of people, the same mood, conversations, songs and perhaps the same weather and food)
To people that fit us like old pears of jeans or comfy worn out shoes yet that are soo out of fa
shion (or to those jeans we've outgrown since the last time we tried them on)
Going in circles, trying to smell old breezes instead of breathing fresh air
Struggling to recreate memories instead of making new ones
It's just so pointless to cling on, I wish I could let go...

You've got to get yourself together
You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it

Photo: house in Larache, Morocco - w
hen God closes a door, he opens a window

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Taste of Homes

Mounir's song (طعم البيوت)

The taste of objects lasts a few hours and then it withers and fades
In our hearts and memory the only taste that lives is that of our homes

Walls that embrace many hearts
Doors that engulf the lives of a king or a guard
Windows that hide young beautiful girls peeking through

In our street each house holds a secret, well guarded secrets

At dusk people would gather with loved ones
And the house would watch and remember
Each stone has a heart

You step in …
The house awaits you with open arms
And its tells you the tales of those who lived, the tales of a thousand years before

* translated with a bit of imagination

Houses with a taste

Beit El-Suhaymi, Cairo (photo above, bathroom ceiling which witnessed a unique moment -photo by Francisco Fuentes)
Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Identity

When asked about my identity, whether I feel this or that, whether I totally belong here or there, I try to explain as best as I can that I cannot give a simple one-word answer. People ask and ask again, trying to corner me to get one answer or the other, trying to guess or judge based on their own frameworks, to weigh characteristics in favour of each classification, to observe until they can trace a pattern.

I simply cannot give my answer in one word, why is that so hard to understand?

I am not a fan of labels, classifications, bagging, herds, flocks or boxes. I simply do not see myself fitting into one or under one no matter how hard I try. People still try to form an opinion, throw value judgements, point out things they perceive as contradictory and fail to understand. For some odd reason, they feel entitled to an explanation.

I quote Maalouf "The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions."

I try to describe identity as something more complex than solid colors or neat stripes that never mix. I ramble on, how I see it as a mishmash of crazy colors on a palette, oil paint defying the borders, oil paint on a decent classic wooden palette (not those plastic modern ones where colors are scqueezed and confined into little square spaces, when I see this ugly plastic object one word forms into my mind: ghettos ).

yellow with a streak of green as it befriended blue, white sprinkled with pink as it fell in love with red, a blue that dared to jump around the palette and could never go back, to light blue or even navy blue, it simply came back as purple.

Hard to explain, Maalouf does it best, nothing I write will compare to his book.

On identity, Amin Maalouf

Since I left Lebanon in 1976 to establish myself in France, I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese. I always give the same answer: "Both." Not in an attempt to be fair or balanced but because if I gave another answer I would be lying. This is why I am myself and not another, at the edge of two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. This is precisely what determines my identity. Would I be more authentic if I cut off a part of myself?

To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and "Gulliver's Travels" in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.

Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.

Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: "You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?"

This question made me smile for a long time. Today, it no longer does. It reveals to me a dangerous and common attitude men have. When I am asked who I am "deep inside of myself," it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one "belonging" that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our "essence" that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes. As for the rest, all of the rest -- the path of a free man, the beliefs he acquires, his preferences, his own sensitivity, his affinities, his life -- all these things do not count. And when we push our contemporaries to state their identity, which we do very often these days, we are asking them to search deep inside of themselves for this so-called fundamental belonging, that is often religious, nationalistic, racial or ethnic and to boast it, even to a point of provocation.

Whoever claims a more complex identity becomes marginalized. A young man born in France of Algerian parents is obviously part of two cultures and should be able to assume both. I said both to be clear, but the components of his personality are numerous. The language, the beliefs, the lifestyle, the relation with the family, the artistic and culinary taste, the influences -- French, European, Occidental -- blend in him with other influences -- Arabic, Berber, African, Muslim. This could be an enriching and fertile experience if the young man feels free to live it fully, if he is encouraged to take upon himself his diversity; on the other side, his route can be traumatic if each time he claims he is French, some look at him as a traitor or a renegade, and also if each time he emphasizes his links with Algeria, its history, its culture, he feels a lack of understanding, mistrust or hostility.

The situation is even more delicate on the other side of the Rhine. Thinking about a Turk born almost 30 years ago near Frankfurt, and who has always lived in Germany, and who speaks and writes the German language better than the language of his Fathers. To his adopted society, he is not German, to his society of birth, he is no longer really Turkish. Common sense dictates that he could claim to belong to both cultures. But nothing in the law or in the mentality of either allows him to assume in harmony his combined identity.

I mentioned the two first examples that come to my mind. I could have mentioned many others. The case of a person born in Belgrade from a Serb mother and a Croatian father. Or a Hutu woman married to a Tutsi. Or an American that has a black father and a Jewish mother.

Some people could think these examples unique. To be honest, I don't think so. These few cases are not the only ones to have a complex identity. Multiple opposed "belongings" meet in each man and push him to deal with heartbreaking choices. For some, this is simply obvious at first sight; for others, one must look more closely.

Who does not perceive a personal friction in Europe today that will certainly increase between being part of an old European nation -- France , Spain , Denmark , Great Britain -- and at the same time being part of an emerging continental identity? And how many Europeans from the Basque Country to Scotland still feel a profound and powerful attachment to a region, its people, its history, and its language? Who in America today can consider his place in society without any reference to his old ties: African, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish or other?

That being said, I must admit that my first examples do possess something distinctive. All of them are about people who belong to different components of society that are violently opposing one another today; people at the border in a way, crossed by lines of ethnic, religious or other fractures. Because of this situation, that I do not dare call "privileged," these people have a special role to play: building bonds, resolving misunderstandings, reasoning with some, moderating others, smoothing and mending conflicts. Their inherent vocation is to be links, bridges, mediators between different communities and different cultures. This is why their dilemma is full of significance. If these people cannot live their multiple belongings, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions.

"Have to choose," "ordered to get back," I was saying. By whom? Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us. Precisely, because these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.
I feel like screaming aloud: This is how you "manufacture" slaughterers! I admit it is an abrupt affirmation but I will be explaining it in this book.

This article is excerpted from Amin Maalouf’s "Les Identités meurtrières" (Grasset, 1998), Translated for Al Jadid from the French by Brigitte Caland.
Justify Full
Photo: my foot+bell-bottom jeans, foot of an ancestor - Saqqara (photo by F.F.)