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Hearth

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It snowed, without stopping, for over nine hours. That was a number of years ago. Today it has rained all day. Then, the streets were empty and an unusual silence sat where the car tyres normally swished by. It was white everywhere. Although it was nighttime, the air was bright and clear, silvery blue, and every leaf and branch was frozen still, immobilized as in a picture.

The road home

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We sat in front of a log fire, working, curtains drawn, wood smoke and ash in the air. This was a brief spell, a cold snap, and the picture was sharp and clean, not yet the slush brown of melting snow.

 

That morning our sitting room was bathed in light. It faced the early morning sun and on a day that was crystal clear, the sun shone like a strong beam of light and the room was ablaze with a brilliance that was at once liquid and hard.

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The focal painting at the north wall of our sitting room is a market scene, colorful with dazzling yellows, reds and pinks that flourish like petals but are really scarves or headgears. Many of the women, in the painting, carry umbrellas and their goods or baskets are tin or brass bowls  on the floor beside them. It was as if the light that flowed into our room flowed straight through into this scene in Lagos, a Mavua Lessor painting.

 

The log fire was burning in our fireplace. The flames were wrapping their tongues round a slender log, kissing and licking it and then dancing upwards, pointing towards the chimney. Odd and infrequent flakes of red hot ash flickered and died as suddenly as they rose. A low hum, and a quiet swirl of air, and the crackling and snapping sound of burning wood intermingled to say what couldn’t be said in words- It is hot, it is heartwarming, a hearth encloses the feeling of life, of joy, of closeness and family.

 

That morning, a new, previously unknown creaking of the floorboards started in a corner of the bedroom. It was surprising. That corner had never, previously, shown any inclination to draw attention to itself in 10 years. Usually, the floorboards underneath the radiator creaked as it stretched its length and width, pushing against the joists, limbering to the task of supporting our feet as we woke up to another morning. Then, there would be the low, thrumming, that rumble of the heater as the boiler started, far in the undergrowth of the house. But, this morning it was an alien creaking sound, perhaps of ghosts or spirits visiting, perhaps it was our own presence well ahead of schedule moving about whilst we lay in bed. Who knows?

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The wall behind the head post of the bed separates us from our next-door neighbor. At the unearthly and magical hour of 3 in the morning, strange whirring noises, machine-like, buzzed (not exactly), more like a rotatory metallic sound came forth. What could this noise be? Doors opened and shut and then the lavatory flushed. The first time we heard this noise, we wondered whether it was a drill. Could our neighbor be a DIY fanatic, waking far before dawn to fit a picture hook or hang a mirror? But, the noise that had gone on for over 5 years, with no plausible explanation, suddenly ceased.

 

This same neighbour woke to start his motorbike at 4 in the morning for a ride that lasted 10 minutes at most, if that. Was he a drug pusher taking delivery or delivering? Was he an insomniac? Was he a spy, of the old school, making a drop? And the drilling noise, the clanking, the flushing of lavatories, what mysterious nocturnal activities did they signify? He has now changed from a motorbike to rattling the chains of a pushbike at the same unearthly hour (why exactly unearthly?), for the same brief, inexplicable ride before dawn.

 

The trace of imagination in the wake of snow arches upwards and inwards fueled by the warm fires of the hearth.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Diwaniya

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Last Friday I attended a diwaniya. This was a male only gathering. My host, Ahmed, held irregular diwaniyas, inviting his friends round to his home. He told me that diwaniyas can be political but his were social in nature.

 

When I arrived there were already 6 or 7 men there. I took my shoes off and went into the diwan. The seats were against three sides of the wall of the room. I was introduced to each person, in turn, and shook hands with them. I noticed that when other guests arrived depending, I suppose, on the closeness or depth of friendship there was an exchange of kissing on each side and once again as appropriate.

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Arabic coffee was served by an elderly Pakistani or Indian servant, a small man with greying hair, oiled and smoothed back. He sat with an impassive face, avoiding any direct eye contact, showing an inscrutability that spoke either of an indifference to the subject matter being discussed or perhaps pretended to an absence of spirit. First dates, then the most sparing of coffee, tribute to the toxicity of the drink. The usual manners were waived for me. I did not have to wiggle the top of the cup to indicate that I no longer wished for further cups! I simply cut through the air emphatically, as if saying off with his head! That seemed to say it clearly enough.

 

Then tea. Not mint tea but just tea in another small cup. This was sipped leisurely. Afterwards we were invited to join our host on the floor for fruits displayed in two bowls: oranges, tangerines, bananas, grapes and plums. More people arrived but now we did not stand up to greet them, it was not the order of things. My ageing joints had enough trouble sitting crossed legged on the floor, it would have been trying to keep standing and sitting.

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Diwaniyas are banned in the Empty Quarter, for fear that they would turn into political events. Apparently they have been preserved at their purest form here. Every district, tribe, etc have their own diwans and hold regular diwaniyas. Sometimes the topics are strictly set as in an agenda and adhered to. Politics happens in these settings.

 

One of the guests, a young medical student talked about how he had lost interest in studying, in reading. He had decided to seek an administrative post once his medical studies were over. I had never met such loss of drive and enthusiasm. Apparently a lot of the youngsters feel this way. To be burnt out even before you’ve really embarked on life. To be bored, indifferent, without ambition, was this  ennui?

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Russian novels of the late 19th century have characters like this. Chekhov is full of these men from the gentry who lead dissolute lives, who have no ambition, no beliefs, no desire to achieve anything. I had imagined that it was a symptom of a serf economy. But maybe the the Empty Quarter has a serf economy, tremendously undeserved wealth and dependence upon an army of servants.

 

This ostentatious wealth coupled with the absence of need to work in order to live well probably serves as the ground for listlessness. A pernicious disease of be spirit that strikes at the core of the person, killing off the spring well of desire and resourcefulness. This young man’s revelation troubled me for a few days afterwards. It seemed to say our environments determine our inner spirit!

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In Chekhov’s The Story of a Nobody, this young man reminded me most of Gruzin

 

a long-haired blond with bad eyesight who wore gold spectacles. I can remember his long, pale fingers, like those of a pianist; and in his figure as a whole there was something of the musician, of the virtuoso. In orchestras such figures play the first violin. He had a cough and suffered from migraines and generally seemed sickly and weak. At home he was probably undressed and dressed like a child…His attitude to work and to his moves from one post to another was exceptionally frivolous, and when people talked in his presence about ranks, awards, salaries, he would give a good-natured smile…He was a flaccid character, lazy to the point of indifference to himself, drifting with the current who knows where and why. Wherever he was led he would go.

 

I hadn’t thought that I would ever meet a Gruzin in real life or Ulrich from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Musil’s Ulrich was like my young man too-

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”Give a fellow a totally free hand and he will soon run his head into a wall out of sheer confusion.” Or this: “A man who can have anything he wants will soon be at a loss as to what to wish for.” Ulrich repeated these sayings to himself with great enjoyment. Their hoary wisdom appeared to him as an extraordinary new thought. For a man’s possibilities, plans, and feelings must first be hedged in by prejudices, traditions, obstacles, and barriers of all sorts, like a lunatic in his straightjacket, and only then can whatever he is capable of doing have perhaps some value, substance and staying power.

 

Yet, I was surrounded by conviviality at the diwaniya. Even my young man without qualities took his estrangement seriously, examined it like a newly discovered archaeological object that had landed at his feet, prodded it and measured it, took a scan of its dimensions and inner structure but remained baffled, thinking ‘How have I come to this?’

 

Might the diwaniya not simply be ‘the impractical room that’s devoid of content’ that modernity fashions everywhere to be occupied by the emptiness lurking beneath the weave of clothing that masquerades as man?

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Photos by Femi Oyebode

 

Travels into wilderness

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Now, in the Assir, I was standing on a mountainside forested with wild olives and junipers. A stream tumbled down the slope; its water, ice-cold at 9,000 feet, was in welcome contrast with the scanty, bitter water of the sands. There were wild flowers: jasmine and honeysuckle, wild roses, pinks and primulas. There were terraced fields of wheat and barley, vines, and plots of vegetables. Thesiger, 1959

Thesiger’s Across the Empty Quarter, strangely, was the backdrop to our recent trip to California. It is odd how quite disparate settings call across time through the intercession of writing, and speaking clearly, pure as a bell to someone radically different but yet similar. When I looked at the Golden Gate Bridge, at the top of the pillars vanishing like a trick up there into the mist. At the  mysterious brick red upwards thrust of steel halfway to heaven suddenly not there and not courtesy of any magic of the eye, I was straight back with Thesiger.  Across the bay of San Francisco the city was bathed in light, the buildings all huddled together like a multi-story castle, alien and like Kafka’s Castle, formidable if not impregnable. In the distance there was a flotilla of yachts, with white sails, gliding over the water to attempt the impossible, to conquer the Citadel. Alcatraz is the Duke’s lookout post, most foreboding, right there at the mouth of the bay.

 

Up by the bridge, I discovered that the San Francisco Bay has a microclimate, one that is blustery and more than 10 degrees cooler than the city itself.

 

Back down at Haight Ashbury, it is like nowhere else. At the corner of Haight and Masonic, we stopped for coffee at a cafe (Coffee to the People) overlooking Jammin N Haight a tattoo palace. The window display had manikins with radiant purple hair and hippy dresses from the 60s. In our cafe there were several dream catchers on the wall. Next door was Gypsy Street Wear.

 

By the bus stop there was an older man lying on his side, on the pavement with his property, all of it in two bags. Behind me was an apparently mentally ill woman who was talking endlessly to herself, her skin had that sad sallow unkempt tint, of halfway to dying, from excessive dope and drugs. It is the more shocking to find a girl barely 15 perhaps 16 with shorts into the crack of her buttocks. The driftwood and the carefully cool side by side, if not remotely touching.

A man with severe Parkinson’s disease walked past, tremulous, loping in his uneven and uncertain gait. The manner of living and dying was like this young woman’s raspy cough, a smokers cough as well as a harbinger of loneliness and probable solitary death. Next, a young black man, merely a boy, so obviously camp, so obviously on the rent, walked past. The sun was now like a smeary light in a sky that had gone dull.

“You’re on board Car No 1070 down Market Street to the pier”. Our car was early 20th century style, with green leather seats. Not New Orleans and definitely not named ‘Desire’. We all got off at the pier and wandered through the flea market stalls- mostly jewelry. We bought a small driftwood branded with “Yes, I’m a goddess” and then a wonderful tie dye dress for the granddaughter.

 

Before I knew it, I was drinking an infusion of ginger stem, honey and whatever else. Next to me was a bike rental place and ahead the grocery stalls of mangoes, plums, pomegranates, and in the sun looking as if I was in a Greek Island market. It was that kind of day with autumn in the air but in that sun nothing mattered. We were not yet mourning the summer that never really was and that’s now over.

 

Here in SF it was not New England and the turning of the leaves was not much to regard. In fact, It was a line of palms that I had in my line of vision.

 

This morning I left my notebook in the hotel and I have had to stop to buy a new one- from Alexander Book Co. Our assistant was a light skinned black man, camp with glee in his eyes and full of humour. We laughed over the most mundane exchanges –“That’s an ordinary pen, is it?, Not a gizmo” “It’s not automatic and doesn’t swivel and speak”. In America it is good to be served by a black person who is not a minion but an equal, one who is confident, not resigned or defeated.

 

Our guide on the ‘Hop on Hop off’ bus tour yesterday was Willie, another black man of my age. He was hilarious. He was inventive and entertaining. He asserted his authority and expertise with panache. Now his was another method of adapting to the treacherous place that is America- he met with optimism and inner strength the brutal, uncompromising callousness of the system of living. That’s what resilience is, at least in my book.

 

I was sitting by Pier 39 watching people go by. An elderly man beside me is eating a chocolate ice cream. A clutch of black people was taking selfies directly in front of me. Young Chinese men are re-inventing the ponytail sitting on the crown of the head and everything else shaved off. It was relatively easy to distinguish Chinese Americans from tourist Chinese from Mainland china- it was something about style of dress, something about self-assurance, and also something about the size of groups.

 

It was impossible not to marvel at the sheer variety, the plenitude of human forms. There was no valorization of any particular attribute, every description was part of the infinite variety, the infinite characteristics that went to inform life. This was not Hollywood where an aseptic and impoverished monoculture dominates life. In this motley crowd, what constituted beauty? Judging by what was parading in front of me, it was the obese that won hands down.

 

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We were now out of the city heading for Yosemite. The dominant colour was Marilyn Monroe blonde – a variety of yellow that glowed in the evening sun and that was endless across the vast vistas, dominating the hills and valleys. Surprisingly, amongst this were patches of dense green, the dark compulsive green of bushes and trees. We drove through almond orchards, vineyards, stretches of maize but it was the yellow grass, carpeting the hills, valleys and plains that were breathtaking. This was also farmland. Cattle, sheep, grazed on this impossibly dry or burnt dun colored earth.

 

Sonoma Pass was an 8-mile long winding, hairpin bends, tract going ever upwards, 4,000 feet towards Yosemite. By now our journey was through spruce and firs, mountain ash and perhaps larch. Except for the road we were by ourselves and surrounded by the forest. The sky was an impeccable blue, that is, there was not a fleck of cloud. But, the blue was not cornflower blue or even necessarily beautiful. Close to the horizon it had the color of mist and haze. Where in SF, the houses clung to the hills and cliffs for dear life, as if any minute now, they could slip into the Pacific. And, in truth these houses just might at some point. Here at Yosemite, it was pure nature. There was no large-scale blot on the landscape of human artifacts. It was exactly as it ought to be, grand and severe.

 

Big Oak Flat Road was miraculous. It had grassland sweeping down to meet pine splendor. And in the background, layers of mountains as in a Japanese print. The rocks- Half Dome and El Capitan seemed to reflect back to us aspects of ourselves- resoluteness, obstinacy, resilience, a kind of grandeur that has heroism at its core.

 

Up there, at Glacier point, in amongst the pine, cedar and spruce, we had yet to encounter a bear, neither brown nor black. The air had a Pine freshness to it. Again the sky was an indecent blue and the light touched and stroked everything with gold dust. Across the valley, Half Dome, Mount Clark, and the other granite rocks like the Earth’s vertebrae rose up magnificently to our view.

The drive to Sequoia took us through Oakhurst, Coarse Gold, Fresno, Clovis, Minkler (Pop 30), Squaw Valley, by Kings River and Freint-Kern Canal. This was wine country of grapes, peaches and lime. The dry sand colored grass climbed up the hills and in the evening light, for all the world to see, it looked as if talcum powder had been sprayed on the hills. The homesteads had paddocks and horses, also cattle, goats and chicken runs. The tar with its yellow road markings and white line edgings cut through the landscape- a human artifact scarring nature. What a pity!

 

We had lunch at Mono Meadow, down a dusty path into the valley. I was not sure we actually made it down to Mono Meadow. Where we stopped was not particularly picturesque or memorable except for the sounds of at least two woodpeckers at work.

 

We stayed at Sequoia National Park in Montecito Sequoia Lodge. We arrived just before dinner ended, at 1929 hours. We rushed to make a meal from the scrapings. I had rice, chicken and grits (Easy Rawlins favorites) and bacon. Jan chose wisely, you could hardly go wrong with salad.

 

Our bedroom had a double bed, a bunk bed, a chest of drawers from before the Ark, a walk in wardrobe that Elizabeth Taylor would have found commodious and a bathroom squeezed into a rat’s hole- wonderfully basic and unappealing. The décor was from the days of flower power. But we were grateful to lay our heads for $ 200 per night. The fellow behind us, Australian and his partner were turned away –no room at the inn. Except there were no other inns for another 40 miles along treacherous mountain passes that doubled as roads. Frightening.

 

On leaving Sequoia we stopped for lunch at the Gateway Restaurant overlooking Kaweah River. That wondrous sound of rushing water played backdrop to our lunch of burger for me and, quesadilla for Jan. We spent all morning and early afternoon marveling at Sequoia. It is nigh impossible to describe the magnificence, the imperiousness, the astonishing charisma of these silent but imposing trees. 2-4,000 years old, some of these wonders were already saplings before the Romans came to power, well before the Icelandic Sagas, and perhaps just after the Pyramids at Giza were built. When there were 3 or 4 them together, it was like a convocation, lost in deep thought, deliberating and waiting to declare what life is and is for. The zenith of our trip, literally, was to climb to the top of Moro rock, 6,500 feet above sea level and to look out to the known horizon- layers of mountains, the tops of sequoia trees, and infinite expanse of bewilderment and puzzlement. Words cease to have the audacity to describe what was plainly in front of us.

We came down from the heights of Sequoia, down to Three Rivers –by the Kaweah River Valley, then onwards to Paso Robles, Morro Bay- 160 miles or so of the straightest roads after the Romans. Initially at the foothills of Sierra Nevada and then onwards aiming for the Coastal ranges, mighty impressions of sand dunes in the Sahara or the Arabian Deserts. These undulating and rounded hills once again covered in yellow grass and grazed by beautiful black cattle. Suddenly instead of aiming for these hills in the distance we were surrounded by them. This was the gateway into wine country.

 

Paso Robles was the beginning of wineries. We took a detour through Old Greek Road, an English Country lane with wineries by the dozens. Then suddenly the Pacific was visible between an aperture of light and the country. That night we stayed at Pacific Shores Inn- in an ocean view room. We had dinner at Off the Hook, overlooking the Pacific- yachts in the bay and sea lions swimming and noisy close by. The sea was glistening like molten tar in the moonlight. I had seafood pasta made of crabmeat, clams, prawns, mussels and lobster meat. Jan had Cobb salad. I had Californian Chardonnay, Krugs and Jan a local light ale. Then we walked back to our rom. That was our night at Morro Bay.

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Cayucos has a pier that led out to sea. A Mexican couple told me they had seen dolphins but I had no such luck. Next was Cambria but before that we stopped off briefly at Harmony with its population of 18- what had once been a thriving dairy town on Route 1 but was now a dead town. Cambria was an empty beach with a short walk down to the beach where if you looked hard you might just find jade! We found a handful. Between San Simeon and Raggly beach there was a partly rocky beach with a colony of seals. It was a stopping point for groups to gaze at these enormous males, elephant seals fight to determine the dominance hierarchy and mating rights. The extent of sexual dimorphism in these seals is a measure of the intra-male rivalry and competition for access to the female harem. The males are considerably larger than the females.

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At Monterey we stayed at Cannery Row. At the famous aquarium we found the jellyfish special. Then we drove out to Salinas, to the Steinbeck Centre. There was a wonderful exhibition of his life and works. I have two memories- reading either parts of journals or letters at age 13 years and discovering that writing was a self-conscious act, involving discipline and self-scrutiny; The other was reading East of Eden on a greyhound bus between Lagos and Ibadan in 1973. I sat next to a white American man of my age. He was surprised to meet an African reading Steinbeck and I was surprised to meet an American travelling to Ife to study African art. So there, for our youthful misunderstandings and prejudices.

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Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown is a fertile valley, acres on acres of plains, growing cabbage, artichokes, cauliflower, broccoli, avocados and strawberries. The strawberries were being picked by a line of dozens of people in straw hats bent over under the midday sun. In Cannery Row next door to the aquarium is the preserved house of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s best friend- The Pacific Biological Lab. Ricketts was the model for Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

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I bought a book, Travels with Charley and then we went off to Rollicks for coffee. We were served by a young woman with severe acne- she could do with isotretinoin.

We moved hotels from Cannery Row Inn  with our partial sea view room and a king bed to Monterey Hotel, downtown, opposite the Golden Gate Theatre. The Monterey Hotel in its heyday was the hotel in the West, the first to have gas, electricity, etc. It was in a busy district but without the advantage of double glazing- hence the risk of noise. Well, we were forewarned. In fact, it was fine or we were too tired to notice.

 

At 7.45 pm we walked across the road to the Golden Gate Theatre to listen to Art Garfunkel. He is 75 years old but sang as if he was a younger man. He sang Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Scarborough Fair, Sound of Silence, Boxer and a song by Gershwin and another by Randy Newman. He also sang a number of new songs. He read excerpts from an upcoming memoir. It was an enjoyable evening.

 

I hadn’t realized how pure his spirit was. His voice was clear, the color of water, transparent, totally true and yet vulnerable. The theatre was ornate, like the Alhambra in Bradford. There were fake battlements and castellations, decorated doorways that led nowhere. The painted ceiling had a figure between a representation of the sun and the diadem of a star. We sat next to a couple from Texas, golfers, who told us they came often to Monterey. The wife was surprised that we followed “our music” and then that we seemed too young to have known Garfunkel. I thought better of telling her that I had listened to Simon and Garfunkel as a student at Ibadan. She might have been even more surprised. The husband was interested in Brexit- he said “Sure you’re from England not the UK!” He also told us that Texas was agitating for Texit.

 

After 1000 miles and 10 days, our last night in SF was spent at Blues and Biscuit listening to Joe Louis Walker. We sat in the back row of a club that was packed. We had hot chicken wings and yam fries. I had Californian Merlot and Jan a G&T. Next to me sat a black couple. The wife had a round face with the sheen of mahogany whilst the husband wore a black Stetson, carefully shaped grey beard and his skin was flawless ebony, magnificent for a man of 66 years. They lived in Sonoma County. He came from a family of musicians and had played with Joe Louis in his youth. The wife sang in church on Sundays, no profanity for her. When he had his Stetson off, he was not so tall after all. He had a huge head with prominent teeth.

 

There was some drama when he discovered that he had left his glasses in his car and went to retrieve it only to find out, to his consternation, that the parking attendant had lost the car keys and worse still had left the car unlocked! Well, you can imagine his anger. Luckily the keys had been left in another car that had already driven off but was at least traceable.

 

 

The wife talked to me about Trump, his dishonesty, his hate for anyone different from him and the fear that Black people had for the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Next to Jan was a white couple- the wife was an anesthetic assistant, just retired. Like us, they were into travel but had yet to visit Cuba, Grand Canyon, Bryce or Europe. They had both been previously married. He had 3 sons and grandchildren and she had a son who was a nurse in North Carolina. We talked about the poor state of the American healthcare system and the unbelievable deprivation sitting alongside extreme wealth in America. I cited the example of Native American reservations along Route 66. She told us she was brought up in the Appalachians where water and electricity were often not available. That’s America.

 

Joe Louis Walker was the most inventive guitarist that I had heard in a long time. His keyboard player played the KORG as if he was on fire. The sounds that Joe Louis plucked out of the guitar were unimaginable. He was also a master of atmosphere- like a Debussy or Ellington, creating a mood, a color, textures that had spirit and mystery. Jan said that’s “virtuosic” and it was. We witnessed an exhibition of intense creativity and unfaltering joy in the midst of deepening racism and prejudice. Joe Louis’ daughter and wife were in the audience. Joe Louis told the couple next to us that his daughter used to tour with him, singing but he could no longer afford her fees. That’s life for you. She was there with her son and husband.

 

Joe Louis was a young looking 67 year old with dreadlocks, lean and lithe. He gave us a brief history of the blues and played homage to Earl Hook, born Zebede Hook! At the end we walked out into SF windy, uphill streets to our hotel, into the Library Bar with its art deco chandelier and light shades. And that was it.

 

Photos by Jan Oyebode

 

 

 

 

Giulietta’s balcony

Juliet's balcony

We are in Italy and have travelled two and half hours through olive groves, vineyards, oleander and the occasional maize crop. The road from Milan to Malcesine is a drive on roads sandwiched between the Alps and the country and then between the Alps as backdrop and Lake Garda on one side and the dramatic granite upswing of land. We arrived well before sunset at our well- appointed dwelling, with balcony looking out to the hills, brushwood and olives carpeting the hillside. There was a magnificent fleckless blue sky acting as the dome of the known world.

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I am writing this as I sip from a glass of Pinot Grigio, golden to the eye, to the palate only the slightest hint of bitterness and to the nostril a whiff of innocence, pre-pubertal innocence. A Lagos-type breeze is blowing and banana plants alien and lonesome in this climate edge the boundaries of our dwelling and swing in time to the breeze. There’s a lone bird, white like a cattle egret in the far distance, but it must be lost or being impersonated by a local bird of prey or a greater sea gull.

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Last night in Milan, our bellboy was Senegalese, Ahmed. He was tall, maybe 6 foot and had a round, handsome face. He was that sheen of black that shines in darkness. I imagine him to be Mandinka. He told me that he earns € 700 per month and after paying his rent he has little left to send to his parents in Dakar. His tip was all of € 2.50! Our waitress, in the restaurant next door was of mixed heritage. I asked her point blank whether she was African, I had reckoned that she was East African given her European features but was caught off guard when she said “My dad’s from Congo and my mother’s Italian”. I responded “From Kinshasa?”, “No, Congo Brazzaville”. I hadn’t realized that there were that many Africans in Italy, or should say I in Milan.

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This morning, at the Milan Duomo, an elderly black man of my age, rather shortish, approached us with his books about Conakry. I thought he was Guinean but no another Senegalese. And at the square many more Africans trying to sell pieces of colored string. Who would want to buy colored string? And at street corners, other Africans loitering or “liming” as the Trinidadians would say, and looking lost and aimless. 

 

We are on our way to Verona via Malcesine. We are here for the opera and love is the subject of both operas that we are due to see. In literature as in life, there are varieties of signals of love. There’s the yearning and longing in the eyes that pools, a bottomless dark lake, wistful, and sorrowful. But, it’s the stillness of the face that frames that kind of love. Then there’s the sudden lurching at the ankles, even when seated, the hip slumps to one side and then a hurried, embarrassed exit to powder the nose. I’ve heard quavers in the voice, a loss for words, and asthmatic in-drawing of breath matched only by a stutter. Finally, there’s the studied indifference.

 Verona R&J statue

Chekhov’s style is to examine the relationships and their awkward processes rather than the minutiae of gesture or expression. In “A Misfortune” Sofya Petrovna says to Ivan Mihalovitch

You follow me about like a shadow, you are continually looking at me not in a nice way, making love to me, writing me strange letters…

and she went on 

Let us be as good, true friends as we used to be, and give up these sighs and groans, which really don’t suit you…

and he responded

I’m not in the least tempted by friendship with the woman I love.

Yes, the signals are important for Chekhov but it is the complexities of relationships that matter most to him. In “Terror” The signals of love are concealed and revealed in the use of language-

You are dull without your friend. We must send out to the fields for him

or

You only come here on account of Dmitri Petrovitch.

This story deals with the inexplicable- Dmitri Petrovitch told our narrator that his wife on consenting to marry him had said

I don’t love you, but I will be true to you.

But, what can it mean not to love someone but be true to them?

I love her, and I know that my love is hopeless. Hopeless love for a woman by whom one has two children! Is that intelligible? And isn’t it terrible?

Here is Chekhov at his best exploring sexual love, lust, betrayal, and friendship.

 

I can imagine a casual, polite hug turn into a clasp that like a vice squeezes the air out of the loved object’s bellows. Surprised at the feeling carried in the muscular grip that he almost loses balance. In “Terror” the heroine says

I can imagine how miserable you would be if you were in love with me! Wait a bit: one day I shall throw myself on your neck…I shall see with what horror you will run away from me. That would be interesting.

 LAKE GARDA

Last night we walked along the lakeside path to Malcesine. Starting just before dusk, the sun was dropping into the lake and leaving a reddish, pinkish afterglow, like the wake of a boat. The sky was broad and blue, the lake pinioned between the two arms of the mountain range, vanishing into the distance. And, Malcesine was brick red against the slope of the hill, our goal.

 

We stopped for dinner at a pizzeria. Our risotto della mare was more clams, prawns, mussels, than rice. We had to search for the rice! The sauce was delicious. Our cappuccino was bitter. The walk back was under a starry sky, the Plough close and large, perhaps a hint of the Milky Way too.

 MOnte baldo

Yesterday we went up Monte Baldo. The cable car queue was 30 minutes long. And if like me you have sciatica that’s a very long queue indeed. The ride was two-staged: the first stage was probably more than halfway up, then we changed cable cars for the second stage. These cars turn as they move, so that you might for instance, start looking back down at the lake and then face upwards towards the mountain by the end. At the top there was a glorious view of the Alps and back down at the lake. It was a hot, impossibly hot day. Even I, am now brown as a nut!

 

Later back down in Malcesine, we walked to the castle or should I say around the castle. There was an artist’s gallery next door. He had photos of females posed in such a way that suggested their heads were missing.  These black and white photos were strange, disturbing but yet beautiful.

 

For dinner, I had spaghetti carbonara and Jan a salad. Then it was time for a free jazz concert by ‘Swing out Brothers’ doing classic big band Cole Porter, Gershwin and some more contemporary numbers such ‘Fever’, ‘Save the last dance for me’, ‘Johnny’s Mambo’, and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’. The woman keyboard player was also our host. She spoke in the most sensuous Italian accent you’ve ever heard, swaying this way and that like a blade of lemon grass in the wind as she announced the next song. Her long arms and her slim torso in a black long dress cutting a fine figure in the artificial harbor light. The band was in an old caravel moored and lit up for the show. The audience was made up of a crowd of revelers, late diners, families waiting for something to do, and people like us, fools for any free concert. It was a tolerable evening, not spectacular, not memorable.

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Along the lakeside path from our hotel, about halfway to Malcesine you can stop and, directly in your line of vision will be the aperture between the Alps and the town itself. It’s a tight waist before the upper body. At dusk a misty haze settles like netting over the giant’s head as she lies down into the distance.

 

One evening we went to the opera, La Boheme. The castle theatre was in a marquee. All in all there were perhaps 50 of us tourists. It was a cut down version of La Boheme. The choral pieces were missing. It was the most memorable opera we had even been to but not for the singing even though that was fine too. The whole opera was accompanied by a riotous tropical storm. The set rattled, the curtains billowed and the lightening lit up the stage in spectacular unplanned fashion. Thunder roared and clapped, sometimes appropriately as emotions rose but at other times, ironically accenting humor where none was meant. If you’ve seen James Bond, Quantum of Solace, there’s the murderous scene carried out against the backdrop of Puccini’s Tosca. Well this was a real life example of the elements and drama interacting, combining in the most unique and extraordinary manner. Mimi’s dying scene amplified and exaggerated by the roar of thunder and the wind rising and rising, pulling at the marquee, swelling the curtains and competing with the singers to be heard. Well I never!

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We walked back to our hotel along the lakeside path. The lake thrashed against the shoreline, it might as well have been the Atlantic at Lagos, pounding the beach. We walked briskly hoping to avoid the unavoidable downpour. We just about made it. As we approached our hotel doorway, giant raindrops dropped out of the sky!

 

The journey from Malcesine to Verona was punctuated by a stop at Mantua. We had lunch (we seem to spend most of our time eating) at a pizzeria. We sat outside, alfresco style, on the pavement. The market was just closing and we had a wonderful view of the traders shutting up their mechanized motor stalls. It was quite something to see these large contraptions fold and retract into the roof of the vehicles. 

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Mantua is a small town of 50,000. At its height, Mantua was ruled for 400 years by the Gonzaga family. It is still an enclave even today, separated off by an artificial lake that acts as a moat and a well- preserved city wall. The young Mozart played in Mantua at age 9 years. Virgil and Dante are both commemorated with statues. The library is worth seeing, as is the theatre. I could very easily live in Mantua part of the year in a flat.

 

Verona is a different place all together. We are here for the opera, on Friday Turandot and Saturday Il Trovatore. We are staying within the courtyard of Giullietta’s house and famous balcony! We have a studio flat decorated in the Renaissance style of painted ceilings. Even though we were in the heart of the city you could hardly tell. There was no early morning bus noises, no trams, and the human voice was at a human level. We have a view of the balcony directly from our own window. We had to force our way through the entrance to get to our front door. There was a massing of the young and old, both sexes, wanting to catch a glimpse of the balcony. The passageway into the courtyard had graffiti of the expected kind- so and so loves so and so, with various sized hearts colored in. 

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Dante’s connection to Verona was more substantial than that with Mantua. There was a statue of Dante not far from our residence. Catullus is the real poet of Verona. I can’t say that I’ve read him and I have now added him to my to read list.

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On Friday we hired city bikes and rode first to the church of St. Zeno, an African nicknamed “Moro” (The Moor) because of his dark skin color. He is the patron saint of Verona. Then we rode along the river to two bridges, Ponte Petra and Ponte Scaligero. Also the cathedral and Chiesa Anastasia with its magnificent arches, painted ceilings, Old Masters, and chapels.

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At night at the Arena we saw Turandot, a Zefferelli production. It is unbelievable that the unamplified human voice can be projected, naturally to a vast audience in an arena where in Roman times gladiators would have fought and be killed whilst being cheered, or booed off. The arena is open to the sky, there is a half moon and a few stars, and in the company of thousands of other souls we heard Puccini’s music given voice. It was a triumph of music, movement, dance, color and song.

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The following night we saw Il Trovatore. We are having a slow lunch in a cafe next door to the Arena. The props and set from last night, the Emperor’s palace, his audience room, are all outside the Arena walls, just next to us in the cafe. Very surreal, this ordinariness of what last night constituted the illusion of splendor and grandeur, now, merely plastic and tacky.

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In opera, love is a drive to action. In Puccini’s Turandot, we find the slave girl (and she is nameless) who sacrifices herself in order to both save her Lord as well as secure him Turandot’s love. This is sacrificial love that accomplishes something grand and ultimate for the other. It is selfless in the extreme. In Il Trovatore, Verdi develops a story of a woman, Leonora, who gives up her life to save her lover, Manricho, from certain death. But, in the end this is to no avail. Her deception of the jealous Duke is found out and Manricho is still killed whilst she dies of self-administered poison. The semiotics of love here are not microscopic behaviors but grand gestures.

 

Now we are on the way back home. The sunset as seen from our plane was to our west and, was blood red through to yellow and then sand colored before turning to an unblemished sky blue that went all the way to heaven. Below was the dense mass of earth, dark. Where this darkness merged with the multifold forms of clouds, all imaginable shapes rose like dark islands in a sea of red gold.

 

We’ve had two glorious days of Franco Zefferelli productions, Turandot with a show stopping Emperor’s palace and Il Trovatore with its Cathedral of light and sparkle that drew a tumultuous clap from the audience and the colorful gypsy camp of streamers, flags and inspired dance movements. 

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The river Adige in Verona is muddy brown. We crossed and re-crossed it at various bridges, cycling and stopping to admire now a tower, there the bend of the river in the sun, and then again, the red, brown, ochre of the houses skirting the river and turning towards the center. Roman, Christian and Renaissance commingling everywhere. The beauty and character of these Italian cities resides in this smooth transition from antiquity to the present. Everywhere you have the most eyebrow arching golden skinned women, smartly dressed and elegant. Somehow all the food hardly does any damage to the exquisite female form.

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The spoken Italian word is like lovemaking. Syllables are caressed by the tongue, held for a moment and tasted by the lips, kissed and fondled whilst being lingered over. It’s not that it’s a language for romance and sensuality but that speech is itself an act of adoration of the words themselves. I could listen forever and no matter that I have little or no understanding. One is both enthralled and entranced!

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 Photos by Jan Oyebode

Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet

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We were staying at the Custom Hotel, a boutique hotel. It was an ash colored building on Lincoln Boulevard. Our room had the double bed in the center. And there was a light that changed color according to our disposition- red, blue, green or via an interactive program into a color that spoke to our mood. At last a mood-color coded habitat.

 

On the 8th floor was a gallery that, unfortunately, was closed. Nextdoor was LA fitness. It was on the ground floor of a condominium that boasted a sauna and steam room, a rooftop Italian garden, etc.

 

Across the road were a traditional diner, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican and a Japanese. The boulevard was as broad as a landing strip, the pedestrian crossings changed in the blink of an eye as if pedestrians were just about tolerated. Well, this was America, after all. The motorcar was king.

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We were having drinks at the bar. I was drinking a Chardonnay and Jan a Pinot Grigio. A cool breeze was blowing and the flags at the tops of buildings were flying. A dull haze hung over the city like a pall. This was a smoky pall from the bush fires that had been raging in south California over the past week.

 

The descent into LA showed a city that was flat and dusty. The earth was between grey and ash. And, there was a way that these cities that are exposed to the glare of the sun seemed somehow bleached and pale. There were trees but they seemed somehow invisible. It was probably the size of the roads, the impossible sprawling infestation of the houses, like ringworm encircling and pushing the vegetation further out into the desert.

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The noise of this city was much like the noise of other cities in the New World but not in Europe. It was brash, abrasive, a congealed cooking oil of car exhaust, airplane, and sprinkled with bird noise and human chatter. Music, the blues, some jazz, soul music like fire that licked at the cooking pot to smoke out some fluidity, to liquefy the noisy sediment that coated the air like plaque on unbrushed teeth. There was an electric guitar in the background, music that seemed clawed out of the strings, an ethereal but very modern noise that marked the outdoor bar as American and genuinely so.

 

Venice beach was only 10 minutes away. The last time I was at Venice beach was at least 15 years before. I had gone to the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Diego, a city that had surprised me. It was the first time that I thought that I could live in the US. San Diego was beautiful and relaxed. The race relations seemed reasonable. You could see black and white walking together down the street, something that was definitely not true for the East Coast in the late 70s and early 80s. And given that my wife is English and my kids are like Obama, of mixed heritage, it seemed plain that living in America was off the cards.

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That same year, elsewhere in the USA, I had experienced some of the crudest racism that America can throw at you. In Minneapolis, at the end of a two-day meeting, at the hotel, the staff were passing the luggage to their owners but subtly and without others noticing, a woman refused to assist with mine, I had to carry mine personally. This was a minor matter. I was used to carrying my own load. But it was the being treated differently that mattered. I came fully to understand the murderous instinct in black Americans.  I was filled with fury. And I was thankful that I did not live in America and that my children were not being brought up there. The previous year in Washington at the Four Seasons Hotel, whilst waiting for a taxi, I was summoned and peremptorily ordered by a white American to bring his suitcase in: “Boy, bring my bags in”. He was as surprised as I was when I responded “Pardon me” in a non-American accent.

 

But San Diego was different. It seemed more liberal, more tolerant of difference. I hired a car with 3 others and we drove to LA, stopping at Hollywood, and doing the usual trips to the Chinese theatre, etc. it was a great and, memorable trip.

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In LA I should have been thinking of Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Fearless Jones, Jackson Blue, Bonnie Shay. But no, my mind was set on Fernando Pessoa and Lisbon his home town. I should have had in mind Easy Rawlins’ statement

In West Los Angeles, when people looked at their TVs they saw themselves and what they wanted to be: James Arness and Lorne Green, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball. They had their own jokes and music and interpretations of right and wrong in the world. People in Watts saw the same shows but not their faces, their dreams, and the hard facts of their lives. In Watts, they spoke the same language in different dialects and at separate schools. For darker-skinned citizens employment was synonymous with toil.

But, I was concentrating on Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I was not far off the mark. When Easy Rawlins had a drink of Mama Jo’s potions he saw things more clearly, a phenomenon some term depressive realism. Pessoa had this in abundance

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My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me – memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. I remain unmoved by the light autumnal breeze that still bears a trace of unforgotten summer and lends color to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or even an indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there in the street strewn with boxes.

It was this Pessoa that caught my attention. The tone was a sharp contrast to the brazen, unyielding light of LA. Pessoa was all time asking us to be cautious, to look beyond the obvious, to be skeptical of the façade of kindness and generosity, questioning all the time what that kindness hid, what sins lurked beneath the neat rows of housing, and the kiss and hand holding. This brutal confrontation with things as they were was fraught with risk, as Pessoa well knew

It is as if the draw-bridge over the moat around the soul’s castle had been pulled up, leaving us with but one power, that of gazing impotently out at the surrounding lands, never again to set foot there.

And,

The loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself, the absence in thought of the non-existent stairway up which the soul steadfastly ascends towards the truth.

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In LA, Pessoa without saying anything about Hollywood or even ever having been aware of it, had recognized the need for it, the urgency with which make-believe held sway, creating an unreal and unrealistic world, because the real and actual world were bleak and indescribable by comparison. For Pessoa

A marked talent for self-deception is the Statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. To see clearly is to be unable to act.

In LA I needed all of Easy Rawlins’ patience and Pessoa’s dictum

To move is to live, to express oneself is to endure. There is nothing real in life that is not more real for being beautifully described.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Loire

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At Léré we ate an improbable dinner at the Lion d’Or, much like seeing the Taj Mahal in Walsall. We had come in to moor, as usual, bow in and Jan handling the ropes. The stern turned out before I killed the engine. I shouted out ‘I’ve lost control!’ and both our pulses quickened. A young blond German man came to our rescue. ‘Turn the wheel full to the left and put the boat in reverse for 3 seconds’, the stern duly swung towards land. I was very politely grateful but had thought up till then I had been captain and now I was just an ordinary crewman. Another indignity to add to that of middle age, a young blond man had triumphed where I had failed. He tied the ropes as well and assured us that all was now safe. ‘I saw you earlier in the week practising’. ‘Thank you very much’ I said.

 

We then went ashore to explore the delights of Léré. All these small villages have merged into one in my mind. They all have a Mairie, a community school, a boulangerie, and rarely an epicerie. Jan as usual took her camera out to record the rustic excellence of rural France. The mooring spot itself, on the map boasted a shower, toilet, water and electricity refill facilities but as we had learnt by experience, it was rare for these facilities to exist in fact. At Léré, I cannot recall now whether any or all of these facilities existed.

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For miles the Lion d’Or had advertised its presence so we searched it out. We confirmed that the menu was appropriate and returned at 7.30 pm for dinner. It was obvious the minute we stepped in that my shorts and polo shirt and my rucksack were not in the spirit of the place. Jan looked English in her cropped khaki trousers and top. The travelling and excitement had brought the colour to her cheeks. ‘Are we too early?’ we asked. ‘Non’. That was the start of the most extraordinary dinner in the middle of nowhere in rural France. The Maitre d’Or must have imagined himself in Paris. We were the lone customers and did they wait upon us? You have to imagine the delights of French cooking in a railroad café or in England along a canal side pub. It was unforgettable.

 

After dinner, we returned to our boat. In the distance a dog was barking. The sharp taste of Sancerre rosé like the cooling air and the soft satin light, also the canal water, a murky marine green mirror flowing past fixed the scene, an iridescent emerald dragonfly, in my chapbook, August 2005.

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Soon after Léré, we came to the end of our time on the Loire valley canal system, although the canal itself stretched on beyond Decize. Our final stop here, at Plagny, between two locks, I suppose, was an appropriate end to our adventure. At the start we had assumed that canal boats in France would be like English long boats, barges, but not a bit of it. Instead of a tiller we had a wheel and hence had to learn to steer whilst handling the boat for the first time. This was no mean feat as we had to navigate the famous Aqueduct at Briare on a Sunday afternoon with families and couples on hand to watch our, no, my poor handling of the boat. We swerved from one wall against the other, banging our way through what was after all straight as a die. It was most embarrassing. Actually it was shameful. Jan said, ‘I don’t know how you managed to do that, in front of all those people’. My reply ‘When you’ve been publically shamed so many times in medical school, you become immune to shame!’

 

This was a trip through Sancerre, la Charité-sur-Loire, Marseilles-lés-Aubigny, Nevers and Plagny. We had moored each night with increasing confidence beside fields and woods, alongside roads, under lampposts, and on proper mooring posts, the evening light soft and dawn like dense dark butter, rather tar, melting and lightening to grey and then a glorious unimaginable gold, the whole world ablaze and crisp. That incredible brilliance lasted only for three days, then it was like dawn all day- grey, dismal and uncertain, but cool running weather.

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In the heat dragonflies and water skaters, butterflies and bees, everywhere swallows and even more swallows, occasionally a heron lifting its wings and skimming the water, the canal ahead, hardly a ripple but, behind us, a wake fanning out and rippling against the bank, like a washing machine washing and rinsing.

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On either side a line of birch, elm or mountain ash, the wind rustling the leaves and the sound of rain on rooftops encircling the canal but, in the absence of rain, only a rumour of rain as Andre Brink might have said. We walked too, on towpaths, usually at dusk, two sore thumbs in the empty countryside. When it rained as Simenon put it in The Carter of La Providence, it was a ‘dreary landscape’ but he was referring to Lock 14 at the junction of the river Marne and the canal, we trudged on in our anoraks, bent and crouching, shoulders hunched.

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We haven’t been back to any canal since this trip nor visited any château since then. We have run along towpaths and cycled along the Rea river valley. The one enduring habit from this trip has been Sancerre and Pouilly fumé wines. But, the glorious fantasy world of the Loire valley châteaux has been irreplaceable- Château de Cheverny, Château de Chambord,  Château de Chaumont, etc.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

 

 

 

 

 

 

Empty Quarter

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The Middle East is always a challenge to my values, my sensibility. Yet it also intrigues me with its concealment of the transactions, the human intercourse that propagates life. It’s a mystery how the electrifying romantic messages that wet the juices are transmitted. The women are, at least superficially, cloistered, veiled and, self-effacing. The men avert their eyes from any direct examination of a woman’s appearance and everywhere seem totally uninterested in the delights of the female form. Nonetheless the women take extraordinary care with the artifice of creating an illusion of beauty, the eyes carefully lined, the lips plumped and painted, the skin plastered and smoothed, that is except for those in full purdah.

The overall effect is that in the few, rare instances when the mating dance is conducted, performed in public, it is embarrassing even shameful. The girl smiles widely and it seems wild. Her eyes gleam and this takes the form of dazzling sunlight at midday. She moves with the unconscious sensuality of I’m receptive to your interest, your daring, but this gesture is magnified and distorted into I desire you and I’m insatiable. There’s no middle course, the absence of eroticism distorts the merely banal into a volcano about to erupt.

All this subdued passion is transformed into gluttony. Hence the oversized abdomens, the sluggish waddle, the indolence that is manifestly amphibian in its stealth and geologic ponderousness. Think glacial time. Corpulence takes the place of copulation!

There’s an even greater ailment. Boredom. Where in Delhi or Lagos you find a frenetic, unrelieved tension and energy. Here it is a sluggish snail pace passivity that receives and then infests the spirit. When everything has been taken care of, what meaning can hard work attract? Servants, underlings, subordinates oil the wheels of the every cart that even sleeping, strange as it might sound, can be done by proxy. How to define death then?

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You can see that I am back in the ‘Empty Quarter’. The plane landed after defending through a cloud of dust. The dust was like spray, straining the evening light. Surprisingly once on the ground there was no hint of sand in the air. Unusually my visa was waiting and the woman immigration assistant found it quickly and my passage through immigration to the arrival lounge was swift. I picked up my luggage and went out to the arrival hall. Mohammed was waiting. He greeted me, welcomed me back.

The drive into town was in the early evening. The moon was resplendent and globoid in the sky. Perhaps there was the rarest sliver of one rim missing, a fingernail. Otherwise there it was, miraculous, as it hung there and far too brightly. I took no notice of the city as it raced past, it was a blur of lights, of a skyline that was dark and cut into the night sky. My driver, a man of perhaps my age, sped with the confidence of a professional driver, avoiding the slow queues and joining the fast moving lanes effortlessly. This was a far cry from the usual Russian roulette- answering phone calls, texting, undoing and re-doing a turban, singing loudly and jerking in time to some music, all whilst driving as if we were on the set of ‘Fast and Furious’. I was always convinced that there was reward on my head and that the driver was determined to kill me. Not this time, though. The drive was a pleasure.

My hotel was on the Marina.

One evening I set off to the Souk Mubarakiya. It was a confusing place to visit if you don’t know it well. I was dropped off in a different corner than I was familiar with. Hence it was difficult finding the carpet quarter. Eventually I found it and it was, as ever, a gem, literally, a gem. I went into Mohammed’s shop, entirely by chance but I couldn’t have chosen better. He was knowledgeable. He gave me a seminar on carpets- kilims from Afghanistan, from Iran and Iran. then more and more varieties of carpets from Iran and Afghanistan, Beluch, Bakhtiari, etc. I was tempted to part with some money but common sense kicked in, how to transport a carpet to Birmingham in a small hand luggage.

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At last I left. Dinner was back at the hotel. Tonight it was in the basement where breakfast was usually served. I was on a small table for three. But there were corporate dinners hosted by drug companies, Eli Lilly, MSD, and others. But the outstanding event was the gaggle of spruced up beautiful women and who, surprisingly were on their own. We guessed they were agents of cosmetic firms out on the night to celebrate their annual sales convention. But in here in the Empty Quarter! I thought they might be friends on a night out. They laughed, smoked cigarettes and Hookahs. A few in mini skirts, an even larger number without scarves and with hair that had been put through a hairdresser’s imagination- glossy, piled up, elegant and like peacock feathers, extravagant and provocative. Definitely not the Empty Quarter! I suggested they must be Lebanese or Syrian and when we asked the waiter he said yes, they were friends who lived in the Empty Quarter but were from Lebanon and Syria, the Levant. Touché.

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It was almost unspeakable to see such unconcealed beauty paraded for all to see. Because of the rules of dress, what would have been modest in London, here, was blatant like being naked to bare skin. These were elegant women, in stylish trousers, in flowing gowns, in blouses that hugged the bosom, in scarves that arched and puckered on the head like lips flaunted for a kiss. It was exhilarating and sensuous. It was orchestrated to claim space, to advance freedom, to dare the conservatives, simply to speak as women everywhere do, without the moral censors. I loved it. It was a kind of chromatography of the hidden composition of the soul.

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It reminded me of my very first trip to the Empty Quarter. I had come almost directly from Peshawar where the Taliban was in charge. The separation of the sexes was so severe that to look at a woman was an offence to the spirit, if not in law. And here, in the Empty Quarter, I was expecting the same rigour, the same strict division but to my surprise, a young woman came to sit next to me. I was filled with terror, I thought “please stay away from me, can’t you see I’m a man, keep your tempting female form away from me! I can’t even look at you, that’s how dangerous you are!” Even today, I still marvel at how quickly I had become acculturated to the absurd, that my whole being screamed in rebellion and terror as I was approached by a young woman.

Yesterday evening along the corniche, at dusk the sun flared as it dropped, and then there was an afterglow, like a blush rising on a young woman’s face when others discover she loves a particular man, a teacher, say. Later the sea out to the horizon and up to the canvas of the sky looked like blotting paper with the ink spreading, another version of a blush but in blue, mauve, grey and darker grey this time.

On my last night I went to dinner in a genteel part of town with individually designed houses, architectural features that spoke of power, influence, and status. These were not mere houses, not homes but palaces in every sense. My host met me on the doorstep. Just outside were two straggly frangipani plants, a banana tree, a pair of mango trees, climbing vines that were dusty and clinging to the pergola. Indoors, in the immediate reception hall, carpets and rugs from Iran, from Afghanistan, perhaps even Iraq. These were everywhere, on the floor and as wall hangings.

Further in, the sofas were in Indian style, carved dark wood, probably copying European baroque furniture with intricate whorls, swirls and flourishes like saris billowing out in the wind as a young woman throws rice seeds with a wide opening gesture of her arms. The sofas lined the walls as if the master would hold court any moment now. What it lacked in intimacy it made for in grandeur and formality.

Guests arrived and there was the usual kissing on both cheeks, hugs, laughter and geniality. Ouzi was served, a lamb suckling laid on a bed of rice. Minced lamb in vine leaves, chicken salad Arab style, wonderful small packets of condiments in fried parcels, then the inevitable sweets, rich and far too sweet. And, suddenly the night was over.

On my final morning the sun rose low in the sky, it was unsurpassable in its brilliance. It shone, bouncing and glancing off the Arabian gulf whilst the sea itself turned molten silver. I looked at it and thought of Ibn Batuta’s words

I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an over-mastering impulse within me, and a long cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.

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Maybe next year Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Isfahan.

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