Kept well to the
Nowhere better actually. Just nowhere. The people are wonderful in every country, the tragedy is galling, but the smiles are pure music. The headscarves, wraps, dresses are all magical, and my two favourite ‘perfumes’, the diesel and the dust, are everywhere. There is nothing not to love about the continent: they must make it, just must.
I cannot pin point the best country or town and seat in Africa to sit and write your novel, but where ever it is, the novel will swirl around you, day and night. The difficulty is squeezing it into your pages quick enough.
Once an ex-US Marine
gave me a job in Sierre Leone
my job was not too complicated
wake up in the morning
sit on the front of a truck
with a shotgun
during the diamond run
and also bring back the pay
the very same day.
As a writer I could not refuse
and I knew
nothing is more similar to the holder of a pen
than the trigger of a gun.
takes me home
to watch drops
roll on a window pane
waves caress sand
-a background refrain
I walk the forest
in my step
it leads me away
from where I came
of the Amazon has gone
the storm that lashed my skin
nectar of native fruit sinned
her arms tightening
under the lightning
I’m not tamed
for the soft shores of a final destination
that to roam is my home
that my peace is found
in the eye of the monsoon
the wind speaks
Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) wrote most of the poems for his first book in 1982 and 1983, when the Israel Defense Forces were invading Lebanon, leading to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. But it was in 1948, in Muhammad Ali’s village of Saffuriya, captured by the army of the newborn Jewish state, that the seeds of The Fourth Qasida were probably planted.
Along with most of the village’s population, the teenage Muhammad Ali and his family fled on foot to a refugee camp in Lebanon, where his 12-year-old sister, Ghazaleh, died of meningitis. They were able to sneak back a year later and eventually even to obtain Israeli residence cards, but were never to return to their ancestral village, as Saffuriyya had been razed to the ground and turned into Tzippori, a moshav or Israeli settlement. Taha Mohammed Ali settled in Nazareth instead, where he opened a souvenir shop for Christian tourists.
In his poem “The Fourth Qasida,” Muhammad Ali addresses Amira, the girl to whom he was betrothed in childhood, but whom he was not able to marry because she ends up on the wrong side of the Lebanese-Israeli border. Amira’s mysterious departure, never to return, can be equated to the events around Saffuriyya, but is left open for the reader’ s own interpretation at the same time.
The deeply moving poem is full of the flavour of what used to be known as ”Asia Minor’, with its references to nature and fruits, which add tragic appeal. The Fourth Qasida can thus almost be tasted, and is a poem, like many in Arabic tradition, that should be read or ”thought” aloud.
With each reading one discovers more, as always, and for me, in the latest reading, it is when a sudden ”powerful feeling” grows, that Amira might return, and then the sudden shout of ”Amira!” of the last stanza, that echoes still now. Enjoy the read.
The Fourth Qasida
When our loved ones leave
as you left,
an endless migration in us begins
and a certain sense takes hold in us
that all of what is finest
in and around us,
except for the sadness,
is going away—
departing, not to return.
The pomegranate trees
whose flowers you loved,
drooped and their shade withdrew,
and the path, and the china bark tree,
and the brooks—
after you left
and won’t return.
During the winter
strange birds seeking refuge arrive,
among them quails
and songbirds with colorful wings,
and also birds of prey,
and some that are sad and frail
and hold you spellbound in their goodness
gathering pebbles and grain,
and trembling in the tremendous cold
and out of a sense of profound strangeness—
though all of a sudden together they leave.
They come as one in winter suddenly,
as with it they suddenly flee.
I have, Amira, a strange and powerful feeling,
which grows still stronger in winter,
becoming increasingly forceful
and I sense that you’ll arrive
one day with these birds,
an olive’s dove—
graceful and gentle,
the almond tree in our garden.
A dove whose feelings of cold are fatal,
whose sense of strangeness can kill,
whose longing for the olive
grove is lethal;
a dove who smiles,
her eyes holding gardens of sadness,
while joy’s remains linger on in her coo.
The minute I see her, I’ll know her,
and recognize, too, catastrophes’ rings
hanging from her tender neck.
I’ll know her clear, springlike glance,
her dewy gaze
like the dreams of lakes.
I’ll know her shy, velvety steps,
her measured paces,
like breaths taken by seedlings of lettuce.
And I’ll know her sweet, singular, lilac voice,
which—every time I heard it—
I sensed was coming from deep within me,
a remote place within my soul,
lost and unknown—
this voice that reaches me
and which I greet
and embrace before my hearing stirs.
I will not mistake it,
for I can distinguish between
the voices of all the doves of the world
gathered together in a single garden.
And when I see her, my feet will set out
for the heart’s site within my breast.
But I will not let her see the tears
welling up in my eyes,
neither the tears of my joy for her,
nor the tears of my fear for her,
and not the tears of years of sadness,
nor my years of pain.
My blood will rush in my veins
to meet her then and welcome her.
And she will know us as well,
our sadness will lead her to us,
our anticipation will lead her to us,
the longing will lead her,
the evenings, the ardor.
The night will guide her,
and the clouds and grass
and the forest will show her the way,
the seasons and rivers
all will guide her towards us.
And she will know us and cry
remember us and weep,
gather the greens and grain
tremble from the force of the cold
and the depth of strangeness,
We’ll tell her of the fields of thorn,
the colocynth fruit
and crimes of the wind,
the fangs of dispersal,
the mill of night and its cruelty,
the ardor of evening;
we’ll speak to her of defeat,
of bitterness and the loss—
and remind her of the olive buds,
as she weeps on and on.
She’ll neither find us strange nor fear us,
and she will not draw back from us,
but suddenly she’ll depart
as suddenly as she appeared,
and the winter that brought her
with it when it arrived
that morning will pass from our garden
swiftly like a train.
Waking from her slumber
in terror then, she’ll cry
and hanging from one of its coaches’ windows
withdrawing into the distance,
the tears filling her lovely eyes.
When our loved ones leave us,
as you left,
an endless migration in us begins,
and a certain sense takes hold in us
that all of what is finest
in and around us,
except for the sadness,
is going away,
departing, not to return.
There Was No Farewell
We did not weep
when we were leaving—
for we had neither
time nor tears,
and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
We did not stay
awake all night
(and did not doze)
the night of our leaving.
That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamp misled us;
we didn’t receive our share
would wakefulness have come from?
Should you wish to ”hear” some more from Taha Mohammed Ali, please do click on this poetry reading of ”Revenge”, read by the poet in Arabic, then by Peter Cole in English (just before the 4th minute), a pearl of an experience.
When I used to teach Creative Writing I sometimes would have the students troop of out of classroom or lecture hall into a nearby forest or field, just after the first snow had fallen, or at least a good frost, or when a coating of thin ice had covered grasses and branches. They were not allowed to wear coats or gloves, and I’d have them plunge their hand into the snow for a minute, or breakthrough the ice over puddles.
Then I’d tell them to write their last letter to the world. Some would be shivering. But all would write – and fast – creativity used to come crystal clear. On most occasions these student would be using English not as their mother tongue, but as a second, or third language. Most could knock off a few pages in minutes. I would walk around the group that I would scatter far and wide throughout the forest, motivating them by telling them how cold they felt, how their fingers were getting numb (they were) and how they had to get their ideas out on page before it became more and more difficult to write.
I prefaced these sessions by looking at Scott of the Antarctic’s last letter, or a meditation exercise, or other features, before going outside.
When the students read their ‘letters’ at a later date, some of the material was quite emotional.
For those who want to write, have the will to write, need to, have to, breathe to, but still get blocked, there is sometimes no other way than to put one’s self into a position where only by concentrating on the given story and getting it out onto paper brings warmth. Forcing the story that you know is there out of you.
This winter I am heading north again to Lappland, to live as the Sámi did, in a tipi for as long as I think will be beneficial. There its write or..well, there is no ‘or’ in these conditions. Writing is the only way to escape the cold. And the book must come, or defeat stares back, numbing defeat, mixed with the plunging cold. My method is not madness, as you instinctively know – those who know that the novel is not merely scribbled out onto paper, or tapped onto screen over a pre-planned duration of something commonly known as time. You already know the toll. The difference here is to keep the turmoil physical as much as possible, so that mentally, it flows – instead of the normal opposite when writing.
So buy a thick sleeping bag, the kind that can see you to a mountain top in the Himalayas. You will need dried foods, a small burner, a mattress, animal skin or straw, tea bags, coffee, pens and paper, gloves with fingers, a spade – the spade is to ensure the ‘floor’ of your tipi has two levels, so that the cold air settles down at a lower level than where you are. Lastly you will need candles or torches. Candles are extremely dangerous for obvious reasons. There is no daylight for the winter months in northern Lappland. This works to your advantage, but it is often more motivating to write in the beginning of the year, when daylight slowly creeps back for a few more minutes every day; somehow that fits well with the progress of your work.
Try it. Or try it with me. The productivity and creativity reaches record-breaking levels. And yep, it hurts. But is there one writer among you who can say it doesn’t; whatever approach we use to get the best, the very best work out?
During those hot sultry nights, when the humidity and heat were so high that the air conditioning immediately condensed, and sent billowing clouds into the cabin, that familiar music would somehow pacify the background and bring a cool freshness to the surroundings.
Entering a Qatar Airways plane at some exotic city in the globe was like an instant massage, be it Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Buenos Aires, Katmandu or any number of desert destinations. There were the stewardesses, usually from Eastern Europe or South Africa, with their bewitching accents, or from Asia, with their enigmatic smiles, and the immaculate burgundy and grey decor. But it was the Qatar Airways tune, piped along with the air conditioning that seemed to really work the magic; when that soothing feeling, of entering the cabin to take a flight from desert to Europe, or desert to more jungle, seemed like real therapy. There is just something in that music they played, better than any James Bond theme song, or Tchaikovsky ballet score, or Rolling Stones latest.
But Qatar Airways offered more: the Japanese stewardess, when I was getting off the plane, who had slipped off shoes to stand on a seat, to bring down a heavy piece of luggage, who gave a small shriek, stumbled and fell into my arms when I offered her a small package, for in those days, with such good service on board, I often brought some small gifts from Europe for the hard-working flight attendants: ”I thought it was a bomb!” the Japanese stewardess had said to me, red-faced, as she sat caught just in time in my arms.
And there was the Slovakian air stewardess, on September 11th, 2002, who when I told her how much I’d enjoyed trekking in the Tatra mountains of Slovakia, had purred: ”therrre arrre two good things that come from Slovakia; the beerrr, and the wommmen,” and slid her hand into my open shirt and wiped it up my chest – electric. And that was on September 11th 2002, heading to Pakistan from Munich,after a couple of people had left the plane, one a woman screaming we were going to crash and the other a bearded Pakistani in pashtun hat after he answered a mobile phone call, both causing the delay which allowed the delicious chat.
Other airlines in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region had their strong points too; Etihad and Emirates, Oman Air, Gulf Air and Royal Jordanian, who brought a plane back to the gate for me when I was late, a plane I boarded with razor blades in my bag, having passed the bag through the x-ray, the security guard asking me if they were there, and I mistakenly answering ”no”, and him replying ”I trust you.”
But Qatar Airways just seemed to be a touch different. And those electric feelings? That’s why I write. I like to set my books in wonderfully exotic locations, but the trips taken to get there are also a secret delight. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who said that it is the journey, not the destination, and he travelled by donkey. I am sure he would have had a few more interesting words to say about his journeys had he been sitting waiting to take off to Tahiti, or Samarkand or Cape Town in those planes with the oryx on their side.
Where is she now?
The girl whose picture I found
Posing just after the last snows
Fresh, in her Yakutian meadow
What were her dreams, back then?
Among the flowers that only bloom in Spring
When she posed so long ago
The dark nights so short, the days so slow
Did she spend each spring in her field?
And did her memories leave with the end of summer?
I hope she slipped out of her heels
To walk barefoot in the grass, among scented heather
Did she pluck one wild flower to take home and press?
The girl from Yakutia whose photo I found
In the antique chest I bought last night
From the silver-haired woman, whose eyes shone so bright
Despite an ex-boxer prime minister who arranged to have the country’s president’s son kidnapped, beaten up, and dumped at the border, Slovakia was one of my favourite destinations some 15-20 years ago. More particularly, Starý Smokovec, in the Tatra mountains.
Slovakia was a country with an attitude in the early 1990s. In next-door Hungary the prime minister had just announced he was not prime minister of Hungary, but of all Hungarians; tantamount, just about, to a declaration of war. With its sizable Hungarian minority, history of being invaded by Hungary (the last time in 1968, as fighting strafed the streets of Prague during the Prague Spring), and while Yugoslavia nearby crumbled, Slovakia tensed.
Mercier, the infamous Slovak prime minister, argued for Slovakia joining the newly formed CIS, formed from the ex-USSR, to become the”richest state in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) instead of the poorest in the European Union, and banned shops using only the Hungarian language on their signs.
I loved the atmosphere of turmoil in Eastern Europe at the time. Writers need tension, conflict and pressure – just ask the Czechoslovak authors who wrote the masterpieces they did under the communist regime, permanently fighting censorship or worse.
But most of all I loved coming to Starý Smokovec.
I was in various locations in Eastern Europe in those early years of the decade, but whenever I wanted to add a few more chapters to my burgeoning book, I would head straight for the mountain town for a few weeks, in summer, winter, spring and autumn. I stayed in various different pensions, each one clean, charming, with a table in a room with a view. Considering the pensions started around €5 per night at that time, I was able to spend all my breaks ensconced in a room, coming out for breathtaking walks among trails, or a few Tatran beers, surely the world’s finest beer, made on site.
Starý Smokovec was the ideal writer’s retreat. A small town in the Tatra mountains, with clean air, not too much to do except walk, and write, a language that I did not understand but was charming to the ear, and prices that meant I was able to concentrate on the book without worrying about where my next meal would come from.
The Tatra mountains were just right for the writer – easily accessible but out of the way, with those great mountain hikes and lubrication. Even the tea was good. I wrote in all seasons, in chalets and pensions and bars, over garlic soup, cheese and bread. I took trips to Moldavia, in the new Czech Republic, just as Dubček, one of the architects of the 1968 Prague Spring died in a mysterious car crash. I took trips down to Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, where I travelled with false documents as the Serbs in Belgrade tried to get rid of Milosovic and his Lady Macbeth, until the Serb police got rid of me. I took trips to Romania, during those infamous days when miners were paid to come to Bucharest to crack a few demonstrating student heads open, after the fake ‘revolution’ that got Ceaucescu and his Lady M out of the way (more about that in my book!). And I travelled to the Ukraine, with its visas issued not to the day of departure, but hour.
And I returned to Starý Smokovec to write. Those were special days of change.
In order to write my first book I decided to live in Chamonix, France, next to the Mont Blanc, highest mountain in Western Europe. I worked as a mountain refuge warden there for a while, at some 2,000 metres altitude, but soon enjoyed reading the mountains more than a reader would have reading my never-appearing novel, so I moved down to the centre of town as winter set in. I loved Chamonix.
I loved the friendships I had, with the PGHM, the mountain rescue team, a friendship I struck when working at the refuge, and particularly when one night a hammering at the door woke me; a man in a terrible state, having stumbled and jumped down the steep mountain side to the refuge after watching his wife fall over a cliff, meaning a call for the helicopter. The rescue helicopter went up to look with searchlight and found her, but radioed back they could not get near her in the cliffs at night, and that anyway, she…did not survive the fall, that much they could see. I had gone up anyway to find her, especially after the helicopter team told me in no uncertain terms not to tell the man his wife had been killed in the fall until morning, as he might very well just step straight over a cliffs himself at the news,. So I went up in order to not have to answer his questions and after a few hours saw she was..not in a state of survival. I waited till morning, standing at the door of the téléphérique, the cable car, to tell him, at which he crumpled onto the floor of the cabin, and the big moustached cabin operator later remarked:
”you know Managua, I would have expected him to fly at you in a rage and hit, beat you,”
To which I had answered, ”Yeah, great. Thanks.”
The PGHM had recovered her body and then got into an argument with the local police, who wanted to take the man back to the scene for ‘questioning’.
”I’ve seen it before,” the station head of the PGHM had remarked: ”we’ll have two bodies over cliffs now.”
And the other friendships; with the ski instructor, a woman who had skied down the Bossons glacier, and who giggled at my British reserve when she and her friend had thrown their tops off to sunbathe at a mountain lake only hours after meeting me; and there was Catherine D’Estivelle, the climber, and the woman who owned the bar that let me keep a tab running all winter, the bakery owning couple who made the freshest bread on the spot, which I ate where it was cooked, and the many, many others, who regarded the tourists with mild indulgence; the tourists who had a penchant for acting like tourists – you know what I mean…of which perhaps the most touristy were the Swedes, who drank copious amounts of booze but would not touch the water, for fear of it not being pure, who boasted of a clean Sweden while pissing on the streets at night, uprooting all the Christmas trees in Viking exuberance and drinking coffee slowly each morning, wearing heavy mountain gear that clinked and jangled and jarred on their nerves.
And I decided to leave. To leave the town I loved. The blue/green late afternoons in the shade of the pine tree slopes of the mountains, the cream mornings of snow-capped mountains between open shutters, the beautiful and mysterious neighbour who sunbathed nude on her balcony below mine, the newsagent who gave me my morning newspaper and coffee every morning when I walked through the door, and the mountains, again, and my mountain climbing partners , and the seasons.
My last season in Chamonix was late summer, in the Saami definition of eight seasons. I was living my last few weeks in a tent at the bottom of the Mer de Glace glacier, and my morning plunge into the water rushing off the bottom of the glacier brought a new definition to the word cold, as well as embarrassment, when one morning I had jumped in, lay down briefly in the current and clambered out quicky, and heard a ”coooeeee!”, looked left, looked right, looked behind, looked in front, my skin growing red, my vital parts shivered to mere millimetres, and then heard the ”coooeee!!” again, looked left right front back sideways and finally..upwards, to see a woman on delta wing, circling before landing, and laughing at my lack of restraint.
And the morning I left I met a silver-haired solitary Czech climber, who was hammering nails in his boots and knotting old ropes – his dream happening at last: climbing Mont Blanc, his food with him in cans, his home a tarpaulin over a wire, his happiness complete.
I was going to Oymyakon, the coldest town in the world (lowest temp recorded -71.2ºC/ -96.16ºF) , in Yakutia, Siberia, and chosen because I was sure that sitting in a hut in the coldest town in the world was a sure-fire way of writing, and importantly, completing a book. Immediately I set about planning an expedition through Yakutia, until I remembered it was to write I was going, and to attempt to ensure I was getting myself stuck into a small cabin, with a pile of logs, tea pot and long lost love deep in fur. The last one was not actually a requirement, though it was true that having someone to cook always means a necessary routine can be installed into a writer’s drab existence at the table, which is in reality a window of course.
Yakutia, and in particular Oymyakon, fits some requirement’s of a writer’s retreat, but not all: it was exotic, not pricey – the cash flow is going in 1 direction after all, if the book is to be scribed – and the fish can be caught and cooked, a welcomed way to meditate. Oymyakon is a small town, the nature is beguilingly beautiful, but it forces you back to the writing table quickly, and the natives are not too restless.
The town is found on the infamous Road of Bones. It does get a sprinkling of tourists, which is nice, and not all are similar to the Norwegians who got stuck and needed rescuing, claiming to be broken down, or the Germans who also got stuck and chose not to leave their vehicle when being rescued to thank the rescuers. (They would have been charged in another country of course, in places like Vancouver, but then would have probably found ways to sue for being charged for stupidity, as some do.)
The fact that conditions were harsh, and risky, like the mountains of Chamonix, is something of a bonus for a writer. But it is also a pleasure when the little luxuries are available – bananas were prevalent, which was comforting, because at -55ºC ( -67ºF) they are more useful to hammer nails into wood than a badly made hammer, and don’t stick to the tongue like the head of a hammer does – something I can personally vouch is true, and if you don’t think you look absolutely stupid walking around town, even in Oymyakon, with a hammer stuck to your tongue, then think again.
The wolves do hunt at night, and it if true that if the cold mist descends with the plummeting temperature in the deep snow and you are lost, then you have about 15 minutes to unlose yourself and find your way. After that your chances get pretty slim pretty quick, except your chances of being found next morning when the day is clear, a mere few metres to your cabin. But this provides the tension for your novel, so is worth the risk..
Did I write the book? Yes. Did I find a cook deep in the fur, in a cabin down the road? The culture in Yakutia is captivating. And for those against fur, I can honestly tell you from experience that artificial fur just shreds; falls apart at those temperatures, and not keeping warm is not a question of fashion.
Join me, soon, when I look at other likely writer retreats, in what will become my ”Writer’s Lair” series.
‘Revolutionary’, in the image of the brutal if sincere Che, has a positive, romantic flair much in the same way as to ‘nurse’ something along is positive, and to ‘doctor’ it isn’t, inexplicably.
But nursing things along is not what revolutionising is all about, according to Che, and I dare say he knew. It is about short, sharp shocks. However, the problem with revolution’s revolutionaries is the penchant for reinstalling a ”past”, instead of wanting to take society a step forward. Granted, the laws of physics apply fully to politics: every action demands an equal reaction. How else could we explain Hitler, Pol Pot, Ayatollah Khomeini and Pinochet? How else could we explain the swing the Republicans took in USA, that sees them now seeking to ‘moralise’ while calling for ‘less government’?
Revolutions can work long-term. 1776 is the classic, as was the French revolution, kind of, and the Haitian revolution against slavery in 1791 (though massive repayments to previous slave owners after the successful revolution permanently damaged the nascent Haiti’s prospects).
Maybe Che Guevera was an exception, but his masters, or minders in Moscow – whether he liked them around or not – were among the most conservative of all, and the Soviet revolution had long lost its way. But Che’s early writings show a doctor horrified by poverty in latin America and its blatant causes, for which the North American and European continent heartedly contributed to.
Tonight 409 years ago, a revolutionary at the other end of the evolutionary scale called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the houses of parliament, in order to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The 5th November has now accordingly become Guy Fawkes night in much of England, when British boys and girls blow their fingers off with fireworks instead. Hopefully not too many this year.
An effigy of Guy Fawkes, wheelbarrowed around streets by children mysteriously asking for ”a penny for the Guy” is followed by the tossing of the straw-filled figue onto a large bonfire in towns and villages nationwide.
The real Guy Fawkes fared little better, and was duly hung, drawn and quartered in the best tradition.
Guy Fawkes night needs to be expanded, to symbolically include all the fanatics and fundamentalists who have found their way through the woodwork, as worms do when the foundations are rattled. The trouble is that the foundations do need rattling. Strongly. Catch-22.
There should be no doors to a church
No nails to a cross on which a victim is hung
In order for us to chant a hymn
No priest in sacrilegious sacraments
No virgins to satisfy the inability of some
There should be no lord no saviour
Except a deep understanding of nature
No flock to follow
Deaf, blind and dumb
No teacups or mugs
With the picture of the pope
No creedence to the belief in any holy goat
No masses to join to whitewash any guilt
Stop believing someone from a fantasy they call history
Has a role for you
Spend a little time in the freedom of natural rhythms
Do not be tamed into becoming sheep
Do not be shamed, into becoming sheep
Even a hermit such as I enjoys the company of guests from afar in the past…