Friday, December 27, 2013

What did you say?

“Hi. How are u tomorrow I wana go to a picnic I invite u if u come”

The texter appears deficient in English syntax and this quote is only relevant because it provides clarity on how subsequent events occurred, and, maybe, it also provides a small comedic hook.

Naturally, I agreed to attend the picnic, even though I was somewhat of the skeptic because “tomorrow” happened to be December 26th and Kurdistan is not warm in the winter.  I was also hesitant because, as the text foreshadows, it seemed evident there would be moments of miscommunication.  The linguistic obstacles the traveler encounters are enjoyable, at first, but in pessimistic moods the novelty is more exhausting than entertaining.    

I met up with the picnic crew at Soran’s market.  After careful deliberation we bought the appropriate amount of meat, chicken, pita and vegetables. Then, we left the city chaos and checkpoints to make our way through the mountains of Kurdistan. We followed a road guided by a clear stream being fed by meltwater. We picked a spot to settle between mountains and, after a short climb, we made our temporary campsite. A fire was prepared along with the food, and, before long, glowing embers were making meat edible.    

I was soaking up the panorama and, giving nature a nod of approval, I told my friend, “I could write a poem about this.”

He translated the message. A serious mood settled on the picnic party and the once cheerful faces, now worried, scattered to find pen and paper.  I tried to quickly explain that my expression was figurative, and that by wishing to write a poem, I was merely suggesting that the environment was having an effect on me; obviously if my former statement lacked clarity, the later explanation appropriately increased the urgency of the search.  Everyone began flipping coats and pulling out pockets for a poem that was never intended to be written.
In an exhale of relief, a loaded quill was found and the innocent side of a receipt was provided.

There I sat with four sets of eyes waiting for me to write.  I wrote things down, but didn’t think they would ask me to read the scribbles; why would they? They didn’t understand English. Then, trying to hand the pen back, with Gabriel’s prodding, I was compelled to recite.  Well, the absurdity of the request also makes it equally absurd to refuse.  Would you deny your voice to a tone death audience? Or your paintings to owners of braille bruised fingers?  

So I read my poem; and knowing that the words mattered little, but inflection of voice and animation of hands were paramount, I recited accordingly. 

After the curtain closed on my short, bard-like drama, the four men erupted in applause.  I returned the claps with a congenial nod downward and we resumed our poetry blessed feast.

I may retire from poetry.  I reached the pinnacle.  What better stage than steep escarpments; what better ushers than shepherds, what better aisle than a babbling brook; and what better audience than my four jolly, Kurdish brethren.    

I briefly wondered what elements of this experience were fraudulent:  Was the applause earned?  What actually was applauded? 

I recalled a festival in Southern India where participants gather at a town to recite endless passages of sounds.  The tradition has long outlived the languages that created it, so it is not known what is actually being said.  Are they telling family epics? Are they speaking the language of the gods? No auditory understanding accompanies the recital, but these vacant syllables have become sacrosanct recreations of existence.     

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Ode to the Traveler

Why does the traveler choose the violent dislocation of bone and body from tender loved ones? Why do they caste themselves into strange, septic environs, where the joints and soul will ache; where they will be diagnosed with that debilitating disease called “Homesickness”?
To my friends wandering in the fields of medicine, if you don’t find “Homesickness” listed in your medical journals, please, petition, with the urgency of an epidemic, to add this ailment to your AMA Physician’s Guide.  Otherwise, you may come across a patient who is melting at the bones and sucking the air out of the examination room with deep, quivering respiration and be absolutely puzzled as to the cause and be equally hopeless as to finding a remedy. 
As one who has suffered paralyses from more exotic strands of the disease, I have earned the title: The Notary of Melancholy.  As such, I offer a recommendation for how one could characterize this strange disease:

Homesickness  A condition affecting a person who has moved away from their home and domestic structures.  The infinite details that constructed the habitus of the infected are gone.  This loss causes a psychological shock.  The person, perhaps now your patient, may have intense visual imaginations of family and friends who are suffering, and, on occasion, dying.  This symptom has yet to be distinguished between a self-important projection of the self, or, the mental manifestation of the dying habitus of which that “suffering” person use to sustain.  The behaviors that a person previously solicited from the infected are dying through asphyxiation, and that trauma is visualized in an imaginary suffering.  Naturally, an emotional desire to return home is surging through the infected body, with the aim of protecting the psychological status quo and the familiar habitus.  The experiences of your patient may be as frustrating as this definition. 
The patient, an alien of sorts, has been placed in a foreign space and is obliged to bring order to the universal chaos known as life.  The task is exhausting.  Despondency brings tiredness and loss of appetite; appetite loss will lead to a vitamin deficiency; headaches follow any deficiency; headaches amplify the despondency.  The cycle is as ruthless as your patient is rootless. Usually severe cases are coupled, hardly coincidentally, with jet lag.
Best known treatments:  Moleskines, coffee shops, postcards, books, lonely plant, travel forums, tourist spots, spots without tourist and learning the language of wherever the infected has been transplanted.  Please don’t confuse Moleskine with moleskin, because the traveler, though blistered, will find no relief with that fuzzy tissue.

The characterization above is, superficially, negative.  But, what exists past these troublesome symptoms is the developed condition which is regenerative and comprehensively positive. The opportunity to be reborn exists in the state of travel; to start anew. The psychological constitution is ready for amendments and the daily habitus will be reorganized.  The grand canvass of your life is becoming visible. 
If you have ever wondered what it was like for Adam to open his eyes and see everything in grown splendor—to see the molten hearth resting on Earth’s mantle—then buy a one-way ticket. 
And please don’t think these effects are solely emotional or spiritual:

.he is in the thick of travel and the certainties which anchored his being are distant relics, the archaeological remnants of his personal civilization, one he may return to, or may not.  Even his physiognomy is being renegotiated.  As he discovers new places and warehouses new experiences, he finds a new shelf to rest his brow in curious anticipation, or a steeper ridge to slant an intimidating glare needed to parry menacing scowls.  His luggage of facial expressions was inadequate; he has to create new faces:  a face of sheer bewilderment; a face of utter humility; a face of fear.  New facial muscles are flexing, old ones relaxing, and after a week of travel and surprises, our friend, to some, would be unrecognizable. 

Put simply, traveling is the greatest reminder that you are living.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Watermelons and Iraq

Those midnight hallucinations passed and it was time to start the day.  I was staying at a hotel near the Irbil Airport (Irbil also being spelled Arbil or Erbil) called the Sipan Hotel.  Heading for the breakfast buffet I noticed odd news being broadcast.  In morbid silence there was a series of shots zooming in on puddles; puddles in streets, puddles in yards, and puddles in parks. Apparently these puddles were putting Iraq in gridlock.  I scoffed at the puddle drama. 
My driver was late.  We were supposed to be heading to Soran Kurdistan two hours ago.  We made our way out of the city and soon we were racing through the plains of Mesopotamia.  From the horizon, I saw those Mongolian hoards charging their cumulus white steeds in reenactment of 1258’s great drama.  We drove down a steep hill and streams of water were carrying rocks down with us.  The puddle drama was worth that mourning silence I saw on the news.  The fog and rain was so bad that we stopped at a roadside market.    
There were watermelons for sale.  I picked one up with the intent of purchasing.  The driver refused to let me pay and I indulged him.  He went to buy my watermelon, but, then, the shopkeeper refused to let him pay. Stealing the driver’s gift, the clerk covered the charge.  I guess the economy here is based on some complex system of hospitality and gift exchange (Malinowski would have a field day).  I was confused.  I didn’t know if I should thank the driver or the store manager, or both.  Staring at those watermelons, memories swelled inside and I recalled my first frightful nomadic steps:

The word California was becoming a mantra, awkwardly replacing that beautiful word and syllable “om” with five flashy ones: “Caaaaaaallllllliiforrrrrrnnneeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaa.”   Listening to Phantom Planent’s “California” –before the hit show O.C. – the word came to represent everything inaccessible in my small town.  For me and a few friends, a trip, no, a sojourn was becoming imminent.  
A fortunate series of events brought the California trip into fruition.  Jeremy had been debating between going or staying, but he seemed set on a sedentary summer.   Then, he read the first chapter of Rick Warren’s, “Wild at Heart”, and, slamming the book down, he called me.  With evangelical urgency he told me, “The time is nigh, and we should leave tomorrow.”  I had that basket of envelopes the high school graduate is blessed with and I thought I had money to blow.  Only now do I realize, in the great balance of life, I will pay back every cent of those graduation gifts.   So we packed our things and got ready to leave.  After intense persuasion, we convinced Jordan that El Dorado did in fact exist and it may lie somewhere between Toledo and L.A.  He was recruited into our fold.   
 Jordan apparently realized after buckling up that the faster he drove, the sooner we could get there and the sooner we could come home.  A furious dash to the West Coast followed, leaving Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National park and the Grand Canyon in the dust of our Ford Taurus.    
A hippie, who somehow harvested a crop of small watermelons, welcomed us to our first spit of California coast: “Welcome to the best beach in California bros!  Watermelon?”  Fuck yea we’ll take some watermelon hippie dude.
Well, it turned out that that beach was terrible. There was glass in the sand, trash in the waves, and hard rocks in the water made walking look like a rite-of-passage.  We left, and in awkward silence we returned to the car, each of us hoping this wasn’t all we came for. 
It was getting late and we were looking for a place to stay on Ocean’s Boulevard.  I remember feeling like I was a foreigner, waiting for someone to call us out as posers, failed dreamers: “You guys aren’t from around here.”  I saw a rat scurry up a palm tree.    
Despite my graduation booty, our options were limited.  I was basically bankrupt by the time we got into L.A. Did I spend my money on drugs? Gambling? Maybe too many hookers? Maybe a classic Western stick-up?  Nope.  It was smoothies that left my wallet frozen in my back pocket.  I had spent Denver to California in one cold tremor.   “Wh…wh..where we gonna stay guys?” sipping my last smoothie with crack-like fidgeting.
We found a parking garage and snaked our way up to the top.  We were pretending to be calm. Then, as our breathing made the air thick and windows began beading from our respiration, it became clear that there was a general phobia to slit the windows open—all those demons of Hollywood needed was a tiny crack to slip into.   A brotherly argument ensued:  “Crack your window” “Why” “Yours already is” “Increase circulation” “Dude”.  These fraternal confrontations are precipitous; in these moments, mere observations are laden with family histories and the suggestion to “move your feet” can carry the weight of a Godfather betrayal and subsequent violence.      
Anyway, the windows were slightly opened, and from sheer exhaustion we began to drift asleep.  I woke up suddenly. Was there a noise that warranted an arrest of my REM cycle?  Or was this all a smoothie hallucination? I pulled out my at-the-ready Leatherman, thrusting it into that green globe of a fruit and carved out my ration. Jeremy and Jordan heard a smoothie-vore munching into something.  “Are you eating the watermelons?”  It was 4 a.m. 
On top of a parking garage, in humid congregation, we had a fruitful fellowship. 

Why and how we remember certain events is unknown to me.  Why I taste Strawberry Kiwi at the first showings of winter only furthers the mystery.  But, on my way to my teaching post in Soran Iraq, I remember the first trip that brought the roads of travel under my feet.  I remember the fears of a young sojourner and even when surrounded with the choicest comforts, the novelty of travel was terrifying.  Now, 9 years on, with a watermelon in hand, I’d gladly visit hell if I could find the visa office. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

The mad man is free and the modern man is mad.

I have never been so thankful to be having a nightmare.  Are you familiar with the relief felt when waking up from an awful dream to realize it was all a great fiction?  I had this sensation upon waking amplified by the many miles which separated me from the location of the nightmare. Such distance made it nearly impossible for those subconscious phantoms to spill into my sober state.  I imagine the most terrifying dream would start and end on the bed you’re resting. Anyway, in my dream I was continually accosted by one man who was every judge, policeman, dean, lawyer, priest, cleric and politician.  I was confronted at every trivial point by this individual and any inquisition into their authority, any resistance, was met with punishment, until I found myself serving a 6 month prison sentence, in my basement, for J-walking.  Friends were near, showing condolence, but didn't dare intercede in my favor.
I woke up sweating, at a time when few bodies are awake and revelations abounding search for restless vessels. Quite selfishly I enjoyed the wisdom of the writer’s sleepless hour.  Like whales speech in water, through midnight paste profundities resonate in high frequency and in clear form: 
The mad man is free and the modern man is mad.  The two are not the same. Madness in the beginning is different from madness in the end.  In Arabic, there are two variants for the word eternity: eternity without beginning and eternity without end.  What language gives us deserves examination: 
If I could see one man who was, for my convenience, the totality of modern man, I would grip his lapel with my left and, with my right, reach to that eternity behind me, swing round with open palm and give him a prodigious slap.  Then, with his cheeks stinging and eyes blinking, I would look at this intelligent, but clumsy man, and, if able to resist a second slap, I would begin a conversation.  I wouldn’t let him say much, because he has been speaking for a long time, in fact, silence could benefit this well dressed creature.
I would tell him this story:
There were three men in a village who had been the recipients of great educations.  They decided to go for a walk in the bush one day and exercise their great knowledge.  As they were heading out, a very wise friend, but not learned, asked if he could join them.  One of the three contested, saying that uneducated man has no business walking with them.  The others convinced him otherwise.   
As they were strolling through the bush, they happened across the carcass of a lion.  The three learned men said to each other, “Let’s show our intelligence by bringing life back into the lion.”
The first learned man reorganized the bones and ligaments putting them in their proper alignment.  The second learned man reattached the muscles and skin.  The wise man, but not learned, suggested they not do what they were doing. Noticing his comments were being ignored, he decided to climb a tree. The third learned man said he would breathe life back into the lion.  So he breathed into the lion.  As soon as the lion came back to life, it also regained its fierceness and quickly jumped on the man who had just breathed into him. Then he quickly jumped on the other two learned men and killed them.
The wise man stayed hidden in the tree and, after waiting for the lion to wander off, he jumped down from the tree and walked back to the village. 
I would tell my friend, still rubbing his cheek, that he is one of the educated men.
“But certainly I’m not that foolish.”
With such great learning you build technologies that kill.  How absurd is the energy you put into things which only destroy.  With such great learning you build bombs, drones and weapons.  Is this not madness?  You take nature’s innocent elements, you reorganize them into real nightmares.
To separate man from nature is a continual error.  Remember that Solomon shared his chambers with geckos and the spit of a Gila monster is curing diabetes.  In this way, borders are absurd.  Do you notice that animals could care less for those political fictions? Does the Lizard in Mexico, crossing into Texas, get her white belly stamped at customs?  Does the Pied Wheatear boast of her stamps in her passport?  Stationed in Greece, does she honor no-fly zones in Iraq during her annual transit to China?  
“But we are not birds or ants, we are men.”
Are we better than an ant?  For the religious parts that constitute my friend, I ask him, when has an ant deviated from god’s calling? When has the ant neglected its natural duties?  This is perfect worship.  Watch the ant, not the priest or cleric. For his Atheist constituents, I ask, what is our lot without the bee?  We certainly don’t have to worry about being stung, because we will be dead. 
Can the Taj Mahal match the Himalayas?  Can the Capital Building compare to the Grand Canyon?  One solicits taxes, the other, awe. 
“Government, currency, security and trade, we needs borders for these things”
You only need borders for dictatorships, inequality, wars and exploitation.  Your religions give sanction for these things.  As religions grow, they take the same bureaucratic shape of that Babylonian tower and within this insidious evolution the madness of man is moralized in the positive and praised. 
Your prophets have become your gods. The prophet is only a vessel for eternal truth.  Honor a prophet as you would honor a cup.  The cup brings nourishment, but, on occasion, poison as well. 
Should you take the lottery winner and celebrate their ingenuity, turn their life into a map we use for those searching for success?   You have a better chance winning the lottery than becoming the next Steve Jobs. Fortune, success, all these things are contingent on fictions.  The terrible man will enjoy wealth; the honest man will suffer in poverty.  I come to a foreign land with nothing in my pocket, but I am welcomed and money is thrown at my feet.  Another man, wiser and older, comes from another place and mops the dirt off the floor.  There is no rationale for this.  There certainly are explanations, but a Socratic dialogue will reveal nothing rational.   
Your experience is everything, but it means nothing; you are either a probability of nature, or the whim of a god. If you are that jackpot of a probability, let nature be your god, because it created you and sustains you; forgot the word atheist, and worship the things to which you are intrinsically bound.   If you are religious, know that you never enhance or diminish the glory of your god, and the greatest manifestation of your god is nature.    

The crepuscular rays of morning are taking effect, and those wise apparitions of midnight are spinning away with that implacable shadow; the near sun gives light, but the cavernous immensity gives darkness.  How my interlocutor would respond is becoming hazy, but, I need to shower, because I have a meeting in two hours.  Anyway I will see him soon, everywhere; humanity's nightmare.  But at least I was mad from the beginning.