A Clash of Voices: The Middle Easterner in America*

May 5, 2017

When foreign students come to study in the United States, certain of their cultural and language habits often interfere with communication and lead to misunderstandings. This is as true of students as it is for any others, suggesting that it would be prudent for teachers to know something of the linguistic practices of their guest-students to facilitate mutual comprehension.

In this article, we will review how, in intercultural exchanges, characteristics of speech and culture often conflict with mainstream American communication patterns. This should be especially useful to counselors and instructors who are in contact with foreign students or those working with or employing people from Arab-speaking countries.

In the so-called Muslim world, the Arabic language is highly regarded as the vehicle that was used by God to communicate with the Prophet Mohammad. As such, for Muslims, Arabic is the epitome of stylistic and grammatical construction. Because the Qur’anic style is as important as the messages it conveys, those who master its highly poetic qualities are credited with superior wisdom and learning and thus are often considered persuasive. Therefore, it is no surprise that educated Arab speakers frequently adopt the lyrical style of the holy book (Nydell, 117). But, such poetic ability is not necessarily universally admired or credible. In fact, it can arouse suspicions of a speaker’s craftiness.

To many Americans, the combination of charisma and speech ability is frequently considered potentially demagogic, more frequently associated with fascists and other misleaders of the world than with “plain speaking” democrats. In other words, in the USA, eloquence is commonly seen as a craft with which people are “bamboozled” by unscrupulous fast-talkers. Consequently, the eloquent, well-intending foreigner, in conversation with Americans, may come across as long-winded and evasive. He may even be considered untrustworthy.

Interestingly enough, in the Arabic conception of language, words have almost metaphysical or magical powers. Words are thought to be able to influence events themselves, thus epithets and blessings are common, while cursing is normally avoided. Speaking ill of individuals, especially in public, where repercussions can be certain, is normally avoided. Thus Middle Eastern students may be surprised at the use of vulgar speech in American public life and open criticism leveled at people without regard for personal feelings. (Of course, this has changed considerably at the political level when Arabs level insults at those they oppose publicly. It’s not unusual for calls of “Go to Hell,” and similarly offensive talk, to be levelled at the police and non-Muslims, probably as there are no consequences.)

Amongst Arabs, open expressions of admiration for things are traditionally avoided. For instance, when a foreigner comments favorably on some possession someone has (“I love your watch. Where did you get it?”), the Middle Easterner just might offer it as a present rather than be envied for it (Nydell, 119-120). This can lead to confusion on the part of the person making the compliment.

In Middle Eastern cultures, speaking indirectly replaces the “direct” speech favored by Americans. This is especially so if the subject matter might be embarrassing or hurtful. Still, Arabs are able to glean meaning from subtle clues in a conversation. Here, a circumspect style is used to “save face” for all concerned, or to conceal the intentions of the speaker. For instance, I have been told that at a prominent school in an Arabic-speaking country, the word “cheating” is not used to direct students not to peek at each others’ exam answers. Rather, students are cautioned to avoid “cross-communication”. This cautious choice of language allows those who haven’t been able to resist temptation to save face. The kind of bluntness (“Call a spade a spade!”) that Americans are used to is simply bad manners in many societies. So, it is often with shock that the Arabic-speaker is directly confronted when he expects an artfully delivered, soft rebuke. Conversely, Americans are frustrated hearing “soft-pedaling” when they expect “plain talk”.

To convince others of something, Arabic-speakers frequently employ appeals to the emotions rather than to reason. The impetus behind this is that in the Arab world, people, not reasons, data, or factual evidence, are instrumental in making things happen. An appeal to the human heart rather than to the head is more difficult to resist. Moreover, in arguments, Arabs tend to follow a circular line of ideas rather than the common linear structure of English. This makes it hard for non-Arabs to identify the “point” of the talk (Feghali, 361). In Arabic, asides and personal anecdotes are common. They take matters out of abstract realms into the concrete world of everyday life.

In conversation, Americans might note that Arabs like to resort to compliments. These are usually conventional phrases offered as part of good manners. However, compliments (“You are such a good teacher…”) can be repeated to the point where foreign listeners wonder whether they are being buttered up for a request. Conversely, if criticism must be leveled by an Arabic-speaker, it comes in a softer form than Americans are used to, or it is given through an intermediary. This round-about route, in itself, could be misperceived by an American who expects a message up-front, delivered face-to-face.

The tone in which things are stated is also very important in Arabic speech. Tone of voice conveys the sentiment and degree of seriousness behind the message. Here, a level, controlled American voice can be misinterpreted by the Arab as lacking seriousness or resolve. To an Arabic-speaker, a “weak” tone seems to flow from weak intentions, whereas a forceful, loud (or angry) delivery, with frequent voice modulation, is not only captivating but “determined” (Feghali, 368). Moreover, the ironic tone of voice, or witticisms commonly used by Americans to signal an attitude on a subject, is generally avoided in Arabic speech. This also holds true of using slang (Al-Kaysi, 142).

Culture determines what people talk about. For instance, the Arabic-speaker learns that anything to do with his family is not to be discussed in public (Al-Kaysi, 143). He or she does not normally talk about mothers and sisters, nor about himself or herself in any boastful way. Arabs also learn it is bad manners to be inquisitive of others or to display pleasure at someone’s misfortune (Al-Kaysi, 139-140). So, it may be confusing to hear individualistic Americans speak of themselves in the first-person singular as though they alone existed. Where Americans often begin an utterance with “I”, Arabs begin with “We,” reflecting the importance of the group over the individual.

Finally, what can well-intentioned, non-Arabs do to facilitate communication with an Arab speech-partner? First, they can speak more slowly to give the foreigner a chance to hear what is being said. Then they can listen and give the speech-partner full attention. They can also establish a human rapport that goes beyond impersonal relationships — by asking about the newcomers’ problems adjusting, progress of their kids in school, and so on. They should avoid jargon, word play, and double entendre, or slang, and colloquialisms. Speakers can rephrase messages to assure clarity and use simple sentences that don’t run on and on. But, most of all, speakers can consciously be aware of speech conventions that are commonly used and can cause problems in communication.

*First published by IATEFL Issues, Nov.-Dec., 2003

References:
Anderson, Janice Walker. (1997) “A Comparison of and American Conceptions of ‘Effective’ Persuasion” in Larry A. Samovar, R.E. Porter, eds. Intercultural Communication. 8th Edition. New York: Wadsworth, pp.98-107.

Al-Kaysi, Marwan Ibrahim. (1991) Morals and Manners in Islam. A Guide to Islamic Adab. Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation.

Nydell, Margaret K. (Omar) 1996. Understanding Arabs. A Guide for Westerners. Revised Edition. Yarmouth ME: Intercultural Press.

Parker, Orin D. (1976) Cultural Clues to the Middle Eastern Student. Washington, D.C.: AMIDEAST.

Ideological Blindness and Political Extremism, a review of Jamie Glazov’s United in Hate. The Left’s Romance With Tyranny and Terror (2009)

April 17, 2017

The personal becomes the political. I’ve reflected on this idea over the years, concluding that our individual needs and wants eventually express themselves in our political persuasions which, unfortunately, often become fixed even though we otherwise evolve over time. So we tend to see the world in terms of concepts and impressions usually gathered in our teens, and carry these like so much outdated luggage into the future, interpreting events in terms of an acquired Weltanschauung. Many of the people I grew up with are stuck with the same world-view they had in the days of their youth, unwilling or unable to see the world anew despite radical cultural changes, demographic shifts, fantastic technology, and possibilities of thought. Why is this so?

In my teens, I admired “revolutionary” heroes. I applauded the Cuban revolution wholeheartedly, seeing those who fled Communism as “gusanos” — essentially, as traitors. I also did my little bit to protest the Vietnam war, and have not changed my mind about its waste of life, but otherwise have remained open to opposing viewpoints even though, on an emotional basis, I felt the right-of-centre was somehow “wrong.” The good guys were socialists, Leftists; even the Baader-Meinhoff gang had a romantic air about them. I had no sympathy for their many victims, although that has changed over the years. So I would say my opinions have changed, but the question remains why some people can’t transcend their narrow prisms and re-consider their beliefs.

To answer such questions, I have read people like Wilhelm Reich, whose Mass Psychology of Fascism influenced me greatly. I’ve also turned to Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Man for Himself, The Art of Loving, etc.) who wrote from a Marxist perspective, tracing submission of the masses to dictators back to early Protestantism and its sense of alienation, sin, and struggle for salvation which individuals still experience in the modern age. To escape these psychological pressures, people turn to mass-movements, ideologies promising a new way of being, none of which have not ended in a bloodbath.

More recently, I turned to Jamie Glazov, author of United in Hate. The Left’s Romance With Tyranny and Terror (2009). Lest the title puts off some Left-leaners, most of what he says is equally valid for the extreme Right. The point of all these studies is that we choose political views that address deeply personal issues like social alienation, our sense of justice, but at the risk of becoming part of the darkness we fear most. Each of these works offer insights into ourselves and a chance of acquiring an equilibrium during times of ideological extremism. But we need to be aware of why we choose sides and avoid adding to the injustice.

So, what do we learn from the book? Glazov refers to Eric Hoffer who talks about the spiritual emptiness and dissatisfaction that drives individuals to join groups in the hope of easing their pain. Such people identify with “victims” of the “capitalist” world, yet not without a sense of guilt as they have benefited from the very system they despise. They come to admire “whomever…society disapproves of and fears” — in our time, terrorists, anarchists, religious fanatics. Glazov says the Left wants to destroy the society they were born into and build a utopic system in which they will figure prominently, a society in which they will be “taken care of.” Such people express approval for groups like Hezbollah, Al Quaida, the Taliban, anarchists, and other enemies of contemporary civilization, yet if they had to spend time with such fanatics, they’d wet their pants.

(It’s all about controlling who believes what.)

Today, the disaffected are legion. They inhabit Western universities, schools, the media, and public institutions. They speak with self-righteousness, asserting their “right” to judge those who do not share their narrow perspective. Glazov includes in his collection of the self-righteous George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, H. G. Wells, and a host of “Leftists,” many of whom closed their eyes to Stalin’s massive crimes while expressing alarm at right-wing atrocities. Such figures “considered free expression their inalienable right, but hated the society whose institutions gave it to them,” says Glazov, characterizing them as hypocrites.

Today’s “Leftists” have names like Oliver Stone, Naomi Campbell, Normal Mailer, Susan Sontag, Francis Coppola, and even Steven Spielberg, according to Glazov. All have had free access to the media to spread their dissatisfaction while benefiting enormously from the society they denounce. For such people, the Third World is full of “victims” who are somehow “pure,” simple, and innocent, while the capitalist West is the grand oppressor. And, says Glazov, among the underdogs are Muslim fanatics whom Leftists mistake for “revolutionaries,” despite their misogyny, intolerance, and totalitarianism which the Left, supposedly, abhors. Glazov sees the contemporary Left as aiding and abetting Islamists, of finding excuses for their atrocities, lacking in all sympathy for the maimed and killed. In this, he is correct to a great degree.

However, I would not limit Glazov’s profiling of “believers” to those on the Left because the Right is just as misled, just as naive, and just as capable of one-eyed vision. The point is to understand how personal feelings determine political allegiances in times of increased polarization and violence. None of us are not immune from being taken for a ride by those with media access. That, for decades, most of the media has been dominated by Leftist liberals has unbalanced our political understanding and is threatening our democracies.

Today, the trend is towards less variety of expressed opinions, increased surveillance, coercive Political Correctness, and a narrowing of the mind. The recent resurgence of right-wing political parties is a reaction to the predominance of liberalism. Unfortunately, once the pendulum swings, it usually goes too far in the other direction, and we become just as blinded, making it harder to assume a balanced, intelligent perspective.
_______________________________________________

For something on the Baader-Meinhoff “revolutionary” mania, see this film review, then see the film for yourself:
http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2009/08/hitchens-guerrillas200908

A History of God (book review)

April 1, 2017

Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God (1993), which became a popular read, tends to focus on common ground among the world’s major religions, no doubt trying to defuse conflict with interfaith understanding. She was a doctoral student at Oxford, but failed to get her degree (for unspecified reasons), yet ended up becoming a popular presenter on UK television. For her interdenominational work, promoting mutual comprehension, she has received numerous awards, although plenty of criticism, too, for what is seen, in some quarters, as being apologetically pro-fundamentalist Islam.

In her year 2000 publication, The Battle for God. A History of Fundamentalism, Armstrong continues her comparative approach, focusing on rival religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to show a common difficulty reconciling the modern spirit of logos with the mystical, traditional mythos, respectively polarities of Science and Religion, rationalism and faith. She sees modern life lacking in religious feeling, myth, and faith, dominated, as it is by scientific and technological rationalism. What she does not investigate, however, is how the Arts can fulfil the human need for transcendence, mistakingly assuming that religion has a monopoly in the spiritual department. But then, she is a believer, and her views reflect this.

So, what can we take away from her Battle for God? I found interesting her explanation of how Christianity did not, at first, conflict with scientific rationalism because early European scientists were believers who saw no contradiction in examining God’s footprint on the natural world. Studying creation was not the same as denying a Creator. Thanks to this mindset, Christianity became forward-looking, in contrast to Islam which experienced a decline in progress and fell into nostalgia for its “golden age.” Europe developed industrial societies while Islamic regions remained agrarian, looking to tradition for how to live a correct life. The two worldviews clashed with the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt, coming with modern weapons and the new science of archaeology that threw Islamic values into doubt. Since then, says Armstrong, Arab Muslim states have tried one or another approach to “catch up” to Christian countries, all without success. The result has been resentment and rage. She says a sense of helplessness and “fear of annihilation” characterize Islamic societies, hence today’s fundamentalism.

Also interesting is Armstrong’s account of differences between Martin Luther, who seems to have hated everyone (not just Jews), and John Calvin, the Swiss theologian, who promoted the value of hard work, progress, and the rational study of Creation. She claims Luther was more of a mystical reactionary, making Calvin the true father of progress. Also interesting is her portrait of Newton: she sees him as wanting to analyze scripture rationally, de-mystify it, to reveal the blueprint of God’s creation, so to say. However, she notes, such attempts were met by rejection in the form of witch-hunts and persecution, not unlike what infects fundamentalist Islam today.

According to Armstrong, a prevailing fear throughout history has been of technological and intellectual developments that pitted logos against tradition. Such periods were met with fears of the Apocalypse — not unlike what we see in major religions today. Armstrong notes that American religious “awakenings” (revivals) preceded the American Revolution and other periods of instability, phenomena which informed the Iranian (Shiite) revolution of the 1970s as well. When times become turbulent, says Armstrong, people look to fundamentals for stability – not a new idea, but Armstrong traces this theme through the development of the three major faiths to make her point.

Lest we see fundamentalists in purely negative terms, Armstrong reminds us of the critical role that Christian evangelicals played in the emancipation of slavery and the promotion of women’s rights. Social progress in America was pushed by religious groups when, in Europe, it fell to socialists and communists to improve the lot of the ordinary human. Europe, too, responded much more to rational discourse on sacred texts than did America, while figures like Karl Marx, or Julian Huxley and others, taught “scientific rationalism” as the key to liberation from mythical thinking. According to Armstrong, rational thinkers are behind the absence of religious faith and responsible for a sense of abandonment which she thinks characterizes Europe. They are also responsible for Jews becoming secularized and integrated into countries like Germany (before Hitler), or abandoning religion altogether for socialism and atheism. (Armstrong seems to see this as tragic.) She blames progress, and the insecurities it brings, for push-back millennialism, times of mass-neurosis that culminate in great wars. World War I was one of these, according to her. Of course, her implication is that, once again, we find ourselves in an unhealthy, historic sitution today.

Armstrong tries to convince us that Islam can be “modern,” but in its own way, although this would require a lot more logos than mythos, far less dogmatism and mysticism than is currently spread around. She cites several attempt at “reforming” Sunni and Shia religious teachings, but notes repeated setbacks initiated by the imams who have always feared losing power. She affirms that modernity cannot be foisted on Islamic societies, saying they need to find their own accommodation with the future – which partly explains the “theologies or rage, resentment, and revenge” we see today. Islam may be struggling to advance itself, but there is definite push back from the hard-liners, and there are many of them.

Another point, worth commenting on, is Armstrong’s view of Naziism as a “secular ideology,” a view that is disproven by research into how “mystical” the Nazi movement actually was with its torch-light parades, blood and soil rituals, blood flag rites, its symbolism, mass “revival” meetings, and pseudo-scientific research into “racial roots.” We could view National Socialism an attempt at reclaiming the religious solidarity that was eclipsed by modern individualism, an attempt at reigniting faith over rational thought, recapturing the sense of security when God was in his heaven and all below was in order. But then, Armstrong doesn’t study fascism as much as she studies religion.

So, now what must we do? Well, Armstrong would not have been rewarded recognition if she weren’t “politically correct” in encouraging mutual understanding among the faiths. According to her critics, she leans a bit too far in one direction rather than assuming an “objective” stance, but then encouraging tolerance might be the only thing we can do, considering the mess the world is in. However, this doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Societies can’t have material progress, science, and high-technology while subscribing to superstition, coercion of its members, misogyny, and genocide of tribes they don’t like. Modernity requires some trade-offs. Religion needs to become a personal matter, not a political ideology that keeps the masses subservient to the religious establishment. Dogmatism is passe, and the sooner we realize it, the sooner we will begin we are capable of moving on. The future beacons the brave, not the fanatics.

Karen_Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

 

Cuba Story

January 26, 2017

Cuba is one of those places that beguiles because of its “stuck in time” reputation. Admirers and detractors alike mention the vintage automobiles that have been kept running with duck tape and wire clothes hangers, colonial buildings that haven’t seen upkeep or renovation in ages, and wonderful people full of love and music. Admired, too, is the resilience of the Cubans who have been defying an American embargo for decades. This plays especially well for critics of US foreign policy and America-haters worldwide. Communist-run Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, is a curiosity, and an icon of resistance against the boogeyman of global Capitalism. Or so it is presented. When one actually visits the island, one finds a slightly different reality, especially on the cultural front.

“Here, everyone takes what they can,” says a character in a film made in Cuba, suggesting a degree of desperation, which is exactly my impression when I spend a week in Old Havana. My first impression on waking in my casa particulare, located on a pot-holed street dotted with roaming dogs, just north of the Bario Chino, is of roosters crowing and people calling out to each other: “Hey Julio. Get the hell off the shit pot and let Claudia use the can!”

I put away my earplugs and head for breakfast to meet the middle-aged couple I came to Cuba with, Doug and his wife Annie. As part of the deal, we are served by our hostess, Mercedes, mother of a teenaged girl, wife of an electrician working in Miami, or so we are told. Breakfast consists of fruit, strong coffee, a couple of white buns, and scrambled eggs — every day.  The bed and breakfast costs $35 US Dollars per room, paid in convertible pesos (CUC) which foreigners are obligated to buy so that the government can accumulate foreign cash. We are satisfied with both the breakfast and the accomodation although the apartment is dark and desperately needs rennovation.

dsc06084

On the streets outside, there are few foreigners in sight, but many Cubans are on the way to work or just hanging around, seemingly recovering from a night of partying. Idle men lurk in doorways or sit on benches, or line up with housewives outside filthy department store windows, waiting to be allowed in. There are similar lines outside grocery-depots where you ask for products on the shelves behind the counters. No self-service here. I note that people buy small quantities, and prices are not cheap unless you manage to work in the tourist trade as a guide, driver, hotelier, or prostitute. And, I was told that — except for the last option — you often have to buy such jobs from an employer. That says a lot about the socialist economy.

“Hi. Where are you from? First time in Cuba?” The familiar opening lines of a jintero. These are hustlers who work the streets, hoping to engage you in conversation at the end of which they will offer you “cheap” cigars (supposedly provided by cigar factory workers at great discounts). Jinteros also offer you girls, boys – anything goes, as long as it reeks of money. And, when it’s not a taut flaunting something in your face, you may well hear: “Oh, lovely dress. Do you have one to give me?” This request, outrageous as it seems, is for products in a country where certain (quality) goods are not available, unless smuggled in. Such goods include mobile phones and outdated computers or, as in this case, coveted clothing that makes the wearer unique. So much for the new Socialist Man and Woman. Whether its taxistas, tour guides, sellers of whatever, in Cuba everyone is out to make a buck, and you are considered the sucker.

 

On the Melecon, a long stretch of highway that follows the Havana coastline from Old Havana to New Havana, ideal for carefree wandering under a blue sky and even bluer ocean, we come across a taut who offers us a horse and buggy tour of essential Havana. “One and a half hours, only thirty Dollars. Cheap,” he says. (Fifty USD per month are a good wage in Cuba.) OK, we say and hop into the carriage. The man claims to be a former chef, now boxing instructor and tour guide who lived in Australia for seven years, although I detect no Aussie accent in his poor command of English. Seven years?

We travel along the Malecon, then turn up one of the streets leading into the belly of the old city. It is still morning, people are going to work, busses spew out volumes of black exhaust. Taxis (collectivos) suck up passengers until full, before emitting grey clouds of dirt. The street hasn’t been repaved in sixty years; there are potholes here and there, and there’s crap that no one has swept up. Bottles from last night’s parties litter stained sidewalks where pigeons, cats, and dogs shit, and old men smoke cigars. It all provides atmosphere. The sun climbs into the sky, and the heat increases accordingly. But, it is winter, thus bearable.

dsc05824

“Ola Carlos!” shouts our guide. “Hey, Francisco!” He seems to know a lot of street types along the route. “You wan’ cigars?” he asks us in a conspiratorial voice. “I can get. Cheap.” Doug’s ears pick up. Cigars are one of his coveted items to bring back from Cuba. He assents, too eagerly in my estimation, but what the hell. The jintero gives instructions to the carriage driver, and we shoot down a side street crammed with people, taxis, more potholes, clothes hanging from balconies of crumbling buildings that seem to have barely escaped a war. The street is dark in the shade and somewhat claustrophobic, but typical of the old town.

We stop in front of a nondescript building, are told to wait on the sidewalk while our guide enters a doorway. Then we find ourselves in a living room with a TV set, some odd pieces of furniture, and a shiny, expensive-looking motorbike. A muscular, tattooed mulatto comes from an adjacent kitchen to greet us. “Welcome. Welcome. We have cigars…,” he says. We shake hands all around, entering an air of conspiracy, for we believe we are going to buy “high-quality” cigars at “discount prices” (as promised), provided by employees who make a bit of cash on the side. “Of course, all legal,” the seller assures us, but locks the front door and closes the windows, just in case.

dsc06143

The deal for the cigars, involving several hundred dollars, is completed, and we want to leave. But, that’s not so simple, for now there is a police car parked just a few meters from the door. Our guide looks out the window, indicating we need to wait a while before leaving. So we sit, commenting on how wonderful the premises look, which they do, given that the whole street looks disastrous. Clearly, this fellow knows how to make money in the underground economy. Our guide looks around too and says his place is not as nice. Apparently, he has a ways to go before becoming a Somebody in socialist Cuba.

For a moment, I think If this were Mexico, this would all be a setup, with the cops raiding the place, taking any cash we had on us, then splitting it with the guide and cigar seller. But, happily, we get to resume our tour after sneaking out of the house and crossing the road where the horse and carriage are waiting. The tour, however, doesn’t go as planned. We are taken from one unimpressive place (like the Plaza de la Revolucion) to another, and finally to a restaurant in the fixed-up harbor district of Old Havana.

dsc05589

Eager to get rid of our guide, we ask how much we owe him and are shocked at the answer. Sixty Dollars! I protest, saying we negotiated an hour and a half for thirty. But, he says, our tour added up to three hours, and so it’s sixty. He grins in triumph. We give him fifty, and are satisfied to be rid of him, although not without a sour taste in our mouths for we have been ripped of on our first day in Cuba. And it doesn’t end there. When the bill for our mundane meal arrives, we are taken for an additional sixty dollars. (Ten dollars per person for lunch is normal in Havana.) We pay, reluctantly. On the way out, the owner of the place offers us a “40% discount” if we return for lunch tomorrow. Welcome to Cuba. Here, everyone takes what they can.

cell-madness-02

dsc06178_cr

We spend the rest of the afternoon negotiating holes in the old streets, past idle men leaning up against ruined buildings, some without window panes, doorways falling apart, walls cracked. The men seem stunned, as though waiting for someone to wake them out of their coma. But that opportunity comes only from ripping off tourists, or from selling sex, of which there seems to be plenty. I get inviting glances from well-dressed, young mulatto women lounging on benches on the Paseo del Prado, a shaded promenade flanked by one-way streets and four-star hotels like the Inglaterra and the Telegrafo. This is where the nocturnal action is. The Gran Teatro and Capitol are just up the street, as are bars once frequented by American gangsters and Hollywood stars, casino goers, and men out for a wicked time. The area still has some of that flavour, although everything seems subdued – fraught with desperation. It’s as though someone is watching, somewhat tolerantly, as the city falls into sinfulness, but there is little choice for lack of a viable economy.

Many of the elderly citizens of Habana look prematurely aged, as they drag their modest purchases home for lunch, but the younger ones seem healthy enough. Many are well-dressed, carry cell-phones provided, we are told, by relatives from Miami. These can be used in public “hot spots” to access the Internet, at a price, of course. The young people seem ready to embrace the wider world whereas their grandparents may just be satisfied to have survived.

dsc05975

I note a couple of middle-aged men stuffing mattress springs on the sidewalk of the Old City. They use some vile-looking, stringy material that may be coconut “hair.” They wear surgical masks while doing this. Another elderly man is fiddling with a microwave oven, presumably repairing it. These become typical street-scenes because homes are too dark and crammed for workshops. There are stores and small shops with grimy windows. We enter one that seems to be a beauty shop, but on looking around, it is just someone’s living room where a woman is having her hair braided.

Annie wants her hair done and enters a negotiation with the hairdresser, but then a dark, tattooed thug enters the place from the street. His bulk blocks the entryway. He glowers at us and asks what we want. The hairdresser, a young black woman, seems a touch rattled by his sudden appearance. She explains the place belongs to him, el patron. We become wary as he looks like an underworld character. We explain we’ll come back “manana,” but he does not seem to want to move from the exit. It is getting dark outside, and I wonder how this will play out. No longer friendly, the hairdresser demands “Un dollar. Dame un dollar!” perhaps under pressure from el patron. Indignantly, we say No and manage to get out to the street. We will have to be more careful.

dsc05819_cr

To be sure, the beaches are gorgeous, even close to Havana, but some of the resort buildings are dilapidated. You can access the beaches by bus from the Inglaterra Hotel. You can also take a hop-on, hop-off tour bus to Nuevo Habana, which is interesting for its 1950s architecture, reflecting the heydays of the city under mafia occupation. But even here, you notice the lack of paint and plaster. Buildings look like they are being eaten away by sea salt or torrential storms. Wear and tear is obvious. Inside the ex-Hilton, now the Habana Libre, where Castro and his revolutionaries once occupied the top floor, everything is neat and tidy and, more importantly, air-conditioned. You can get a coffee, without breaking your budget and wait out the heat of the day. You might want to see the university up the hill, but it’s a walk, and may not be worth it. There are several empire-style buildings worth a quick look-see, but student life is not much in evidence as many faculties are located elsewhere. Still, from the grand staircase to the entrance, there is a great view of Havana city, the ocean in the distance.

But, back to our exploration of Havana. We took the bus through the tunnel to the north end of the city where the citadels are located. These fortresses, in the Gran Parque Morro-Cabana, are imposingly positioned over the entrance to Havana harbor so that canon could blast any intruding navies to bits. When we visited, we had to wait well over an hour because, as was explained, the lady who was in charge of selling tickets at the entrance had not shown up for work that morning. Why someone else couldn’t just have collected our money, and be done with it, was a mystery. Several tour buses full of foreigners were turned away, and we soon wandered off to the less popular Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, a bit further down the hill. By noon, we were exhausted.

Cruise ships (American included) now dock at the terminales where the old city has been made presentable. There are large halls of artwork on sale, paintings and prints, all very commercial kitsch of the highest order, but occasionally you’ll spot something unique. Then it’s pricey. Still, you are in the shade at the hottest time of day. There are many cafes and restaurants, a bit overpriced considering you can get the same meals much cheaper a few hundred meters further inland. But then you’d have to walk too far from your cruise ship.

dsc06177_cr

After a three-hour taxi ride (cost $120 USD), we arrived in Cienfuegos. En route, we were impressed by how scarcely populated the land was, and how uncutivated. It seemed to be wild wherever we looked, with only momentary patches of arable land or grazing fields stocked with a few cattle. There were sugar cane plantations, but little else. The highway was barely travelled although in good condition. The only other thing I can recall of the journey was getting annoyed by my friend’s incessant commentary: “There’s a cow. Two cows. There’s small trees. I guess that’s ’cause of the climate. I don’t see any houses. No farms. No towns. Looks like sugar cane. Can you ask the driver if that’s sugar cane? I think it’s sugar cane. How do you say sugar cane in Spanish? Water towers look like UFOs….” I pretended to have fallen asleep, thinking: God-deliver-me.

Cienfuegos is cheaper, not matters of accommodation, but in terms of food. There are state-run shops containing booze and water, cosmetics, toiletries – everything. But, again, it’s all behind the counters. You line up to get into the stores, and you line up at the single cashier to get out. And it all takes time. But then, you have time. And you appreciate eating for half the price you paid in Havana. Rooms in casas particulares are, again, $35 Dollars; thirty for the room and five for breakfast, which vary according to the house you’re at. Compared to Havana, buildings in Cienfuegos have their windows washed, and people are well-dressed, and healthy-looking. By way of explanation, I was told the province has industries. Still, I met a stevedore who took great lengths to tell me he made eight Dollars per month (and then expected me to make up his pay package), so it can’t be all roses for everyone.

As in Havana, Cienfuegos seems to have a lot of idlers hanging around public spaces. As usual, there was a hot spot for internet reception in the local plaza where touts will sell WiFi cards for an extra 50% or so. It seems quite an industry, and I wondered how they get hold of so many cards. Interesting too, in Cienfuegos I noted placards denouncing wife and child abuse, suggesting paradise has its dark side.

dsc05873

The situation in Cienfuegos bus station was confusing, to say the least. I couldn’t make out what people were telling me, so we took a taxi to Trinidad. The trip took an hour and cost thirty Dollars (or CUC). Trinidad is considerably smaller and older, with most streets cobble-stoned, making it sometimes difficult to walk. It’s also a tourist mecca. Some visitors seemed ready to expire from heat stroke as they were shepherded from church to Plaza Major, to souvenir street, and back to the bus. In Trinidad I had one of my rare epiphanies, thinking Tourism is absurd. We invade cathedrals like bats swoop into caves, we buy junk, we get on the bus, and we leave. And tomorrow it’s another band of Visigoths who do the same thing. 

From most people we spoke to, we learned that they all love Fidel — sort of like a family grandfather — and they all value the benefits of the revolution, but prices of commodities have been climbing, wages are frozen, life is harder than ever, so maybe it’s time for a change. This sounds like East Germany before the Wall came down. We learned that the police are well paid, so they’re supposedly honest. They aren’t much in evidence, hence I assumed they are not needed as much say, as in Mexico, where they are armed like shock troops. That could all change with more money coming into the island. Where wealth goes, drugs and crime follow.

I checked out some “modern” artwork in a town square: Che Guevara making eyes at Marilyn Monroe. OK…. (But they don’t dare do that with Fidel.) Old men smoking cigars (for now). Lined campesino faces testifying to hard work, suffering, perseverance: the Old Man and the Sea, the quintessential Cuban male. A dead Jean-Paul Marat with a Vermeer woman, all out of context. When I told a saleswoman who these figures were, she seemed surprised. I suppose, to most people, these are lots of images that say absolutely nothing. But, what the hell. It’s all art. There were also lots of carvings which looked like they were made in Africa, perhaps on sale in Cuba out of socialist solidarity. Who knows. As a tourist you come, you look, but you seldom see.

We also visited Santa Clara where there’s a huge monument to the revolution, a mandatory shrine for all school children and patriotic citizens. I didn’t bother going to it. By this time, my sinuses were so inflamed I could barely go out into traffic. I longed for clean air. I vowed, if there were a next time for Cuba, it would be an all-inclusive, seaside retreat with all the comforts of the first world. Enough of slumming.

dsc05809

dsc06070

dsc05970

Centro Viejo, Taxco

December 19, 2016

Early sleepers lounge,
Eyes in the past,
Legs on ancestral stones,
Birds chirp and sing
Praises to the Motherland,
But it’s only recorded,
Magnified for the deaf
And dead soon to be.
An ancient couple
Making the beggars’ round,
A sad tale told.
Chirp, Chirp – translation:
You’re fuckd, you’re fuckd.
There’s free Nescafe
In the bus depot
But the machine aint working,
Like the rest of the country.
The attendant shrugs.

Bellas Artes at Noon

December 19, 2016

Old man
Sitting in park,
Spittle on his Stalin mustache,
Picks his nose
In tune with a harmonica
Playing in the distance.
Thousands wander by;
A noon day gun salutes,
Women’s heels click,
A bird shrieks, cars honk;
There is a workers’ demo,
Red flags flapping,
Costumed indigenous
Women eating tamales,
Knitting the time away,
A speaker drones on.
Bellas Artes at noon.

Trotsky Agonistes

December 19, 2016

leon-trotsky

“Mexico is where foreigners come to die.” – A Mexican speaking to me

Everywhere you looked there were armoured police: knee and leg pads, bullet proof vests, machine guns slung casually over large plastic shields as though the cops were getting ready to enter an arena to battle lions and tigers. But they were just waiting for the shops, banks, and jewelry stores to open. Mexico today can be a dangerous place, albeit for gangsters and police officers, politicians and the rich more so than tourists who, like me, wander about, ignorant of all this. Yet, Mexico has always been a place of human sacrifice, an idea that struck me as I got ready to head to Leon Trotsky’s house.

Oblivious to the massive police presence, office workers, shop keepers and lesser beings are drifting out of the Metro to their jobs, coffee cups in hand. A suited, pot-bellied businessman exits my hotel elevator, along with his secretary, a briefcase riveted to her bosom as though concealing what happened last night — but maybe they did have separate rooms.

My nose catches whiffs of fumes from large buses idling outside. They are bringing hundreds of political delegates from around Mexico for a conference in the capital. Major roads have been sealed off for the occasion, and an air of the unusual abounds in the morning sunlight. But, none of this concerns me for I dive into the Metro and to Leon Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan, south of the great metropolis.

It is smaller than I remember it from years ago, and it is not frequented by the kinds of pilgrims that flock to Fried Kahlo’s place a few blocks away. Maybe people don’t know who Leon Trotsky was.

walled-t-compound

The fortress, an ugly Coyoacan home turned into a tomb, is next to a modern freeway that did not exist during his four years in Mexico when he was guarded day and night by Communist Party volunteers (mostly Americans) who had little idea of what they were doing. One can imagine Trotsky, by then impoverished, dispirited, and his time running out, waiting for the inevitable as Stalin had put a price on his head. How did he swallow his fear of death each day? Perhaps he secretly welcomed it when it came, as it must come for all. Who knows.

I went from room to room in the walled fortress, wondering how he tolerated the confined spaces, the small, narrow washroom with bathtub, the little study, a kitchen and toilet, all crammed at times with visitors or just his wife Natalia and grandson, both of whom survived an earlier assassination attempt with machine gun fire. But then a lone assassin’s ice pick found its mark and the great revolutionary’s suffering came to a close, ignobly so. Trotsky did not die immediately, but wrestled with his killer and expired in a hospital some time later.

trotsky-toilet-2

dsc05193

 

 

The assassin, a friend of one of Trotsky’s female assistants, had infiltrated Trotsky’s circle, had ostensibly come to have a manuscript looked at by Trotsky, and had struck the great man down on Stalin’s orders. The murderer served twenty years in a Mexican prison and, on his release, was welcomed as a Communist hero by Fidel Castro in Cuba.

REF.
http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/leon-trotsky-assassinated-mexico

Estapona in the Morning

November 17, 2016

The spindly-legged girl comes bouncing into the hostal lobby,
Through a swirl of mosquitos lingering in the entrance way.
Perhaps they love the scent of the flowers inside.
“Oh,” she says: “Fifity Euros a night. Lovely. Thanks so much,”
And she flits outside where
Her Mum sits waiting, anxiously.

The Concierge is busy rummaging in a drawer.
“Tirador. Tirado. Where’s the corkscrew?”
A clock strikes somewhere upstairs in the hotel corridor.
The sun is high and the shops have closed.
The town goes to sleep.

In the distant mist,
Gilbraltar hovers like a ship’s ghost…
Waiting.

The wind rises in the palms,
Tosses branches like sea kelp,
Sends skirts flurrying,
Tossing rafted refugees
Bent on ruining one’s vacation.

Morning cats and tobacco smoke
In the airwaves,
Trash litters marble-esque walkways.
Dog poo, too, and women out shopping,
Old men loitering in cafes;
Cafe con leche en vaso, por favor.

Mongrol, beat up faces
On short bodies…
Consorted with Moors
And riff-raff of the Med’
Didnt’ ya?
Women walking their perverted dogs
Have forgotten the rules of history.

Storm clouds from Africa,
Palms quiver in anticipation;
There’s more rain coming,
And the carceles are brimming.

The Eclipse

October 17, 2016

The white man is your friend, thinks Mr. Weiss, smiling to himself, as he surveys the tin shack roofs from atop the British Council building. He takes a sip of his coffee and puckers his lips. The coffee is bitter and there is no sugar on hand. Damn war! mutters Mr. Weiss.

Over the dust-layered, corrugated tin sea below, a whiff of decade-old human excrement and urine rises on waves of heat, momentarily catching Mr. Weiss off-guard. But, he recovers immediately for he has been living in Ethiopia for some time, and the odors of humanity no longer touch him, or so he says. Smoke from thousands of morning cooking fires mingle with sour scents to produce a powerful air that (now admittedly) has Mr. Weiss’ eyes burning. But, this, too, is part of what he says he has become accustomed to.

After a few minutes surveying the shantytown from on high, Mr. Weiss admits to himself that he feels slightly nauseous, especially now that the sun is climbing over the hills, with not a cloud in sight. The coffee doesn’t taste right either, Mr. Weiss tells his companions, visitors from a far away country. So let’s go.

addis

With Mr. Weiss leading the way, they troop down the stairwell, pausing here and there to admire an etching or to remark on a lithograph displayed on the walls. The fine lines, someone notes. The pure forms – remarkably realistic. Art presents the possibility of perfection, even in Africa, notes Mr. Weiss.

The four white people manage to get to the car without being hassled, and they are secretly relieved, although they say nothing. After tipping a boy for watching the Land Rover, Mr. Weiss guns it downhill into the city. They pass a monument to the fraternal Soviets — a kitsch monstrosity. Long live the People, blah, blah, blah, thinks Mr. Weiss. Socialism has turned out badly here. On the sidewalks, everywhere, sit idle men and women in cast-off clothes donated by foreigners generous or sympathetic, and by others who just want to toss out old stuff. Sooner or later, it all lands here, ruminates Mr. Weiss.

Nearing the bottom of the hill, the Landrover flashes by an Orthodox church, seemingly a cue for Mr. Weiss to announce: Here we are at the grocery store! Trailing a cloud of dust, Mr. Weiss masterfully pulls into a pot-holed parking lot, swerving around beggars who seem to be keenly awaiting the Savior.

The four white people descend from the Land Rover, carefully covering their complexions against the sun, and quickly make their way into the shade of the colonnade. Something the Italians left behind, says Mr. Weiss offhandedly. But, the beggars have spotted their benefactor. In a moment, a half dozen of them zero in on their prey, hands outstretched like to an old, returning friend. Their mouths are down-turned, eyes squinting and grim.

One beggar stands out for he is smiling. He is the Pretzel Man, as Mr. Weiss affectionately refers to a youngish fellow whose skeletal legs are twisted into a pretzel, forcing him to pull himself on his hands through the dust. The Pretzel Man laughs: You money!…You money!… He knows he needn’t be grim-faced to arouse Mr. Weiss’ pity, for the Master will gladly give a coin or two to a friendly beggar. And Mr. Weiss does. He always makes a point to feed the poor. I even give away my clothes, he confesses jokingly to his friends.

Mr. Weiss wonders whether it would be safe to visit the bar next to the grocery. The coffee is tolerable there, he reports, but there’s always the danger of a shooting, especially if you go downstairs into the bordello. No. Too risky, he mutters: Can’t get tourist killed. Instead, the party heads directly into the grocery where Mr. Weiss gets busy pulling bottles of imported liquor from the shelves, saying to the grocer: Don’t you have any Beaujolais? I thought I’d asked you to order some Beaujolais. Remember?

Outside, a weathered old man, in a make-believe cop’s uniform, prods a beggar who is getting too close to the Land Rover. Keep fingers off the man’s car, he yawns. All part of the job. Suddenly, yellow cab shoots into the car park, raising a cloud of hot dust. Beggars begin to converge. A fellow who is hawking the Economist and Time is already planting his fingerprints on the windows. Inside the taxi, a wide-eyed white woman instinctively shrinks into the arms of a white man. Jesus. Who are they? she squeals.

A novice, no doubt, concludes Mr. Weiss, who has observed. Stupid! But, the man, her companion, seems to have the situation in hand, instructing the taxi driver to scatter the beggars. Not a country for a woman, thinks Mr. Weiss as the bill is being tallied, and the groceries are being carried to the car.

But, where are the guests? Mr. Weiss squints into the noonday glare to spot one of his females in the parking lot, several meters too far from the Rover. The beggars have spotted her too and are being drawn, as it were, into her whiteness. Like hovering planets, they are all around her, a good dozen of them, obscuring her from view. Nuts! says Mr. Weiss. Can’t let my eye off her for a second.

This way Marge! Just leave them. Come this way, he calls authoritatively. The black mass parts, and Marge emerges somewhat frazzled but dazzling in her skin. She skips over potholes to the car and gets in with an embarrassed smile. Silly me. So sorry….

His party safely installed behind tin and glass, Mr. Weiss is secretly pleased at the leadership he has shown. Managed that all right, he thinks as he wheels the car onto the main road, then up, up, up hill into more respectable surroundings. He decides to stop and show his guests the zoo, a place he himself has never been.

addis-zoo

In a moment, they are there. They walk around a structure of smallish cages arranged in a circle, one adjacent to the other. In each, a shabby-looking lion is flopped as though expired, old eyes barely focusing on an assortment of local visitors. The African spectators seem to be waiting for any indication the former old Emperor’s animals are not merely stuffed skin and bone. Everyone seems disappointed. The whites make their way past the African spectators like inspectors from another world, uttering disapproving Tsk, Tsks as though in reprimand to any and everyone. Wildlife Conservation would have a field day with this, observes one of the guests. The Africans are quiet, but their eyes surreptitiously follow the strangers, not sure of what to make of them. Tourists are rare since the war.

Well, that was a disappointment, that was! says Mr. Weiss, noting that he wouldn’t be bringing any more guests to the zoo. Let’s get back home.

Home is a splendid, multi-roomed house high on the hills of Addis Ababa, overlooking shanties and office blocks in the distance, with a few thin, towering trees dotting a landscape veiled most of the day by the smoke of cooking fires. Many of the slopes in the distance have been razed for firewood, and so the soil has massively eroded into the dusty valley below. Mr. Weiss mentions the problem to his visitors who Tsk! Tsk! the results of human imprudence.

The guests are having cocktails. More whiskey Alice? George? How about you Marge? Ever the good host, Mr. Weiss pours drinks before they have been accepted. Food will be ready in a minute. The girls are working on it as we speak.

And, indeed, they are. The aroma of lamb and vegetables wafts up from the kitchen below. More drinks are poured and a bottle of wine is opened. Two Ethiopian women bring the dishes into the dining room as appreciative Yummms! go up from the guests.

Ladies, you’ve outdone yourselves again, says Mr. Weiss to the arriving cooks. They smile. The Master is pleased, says the one to the other with satisfaction. The job pays well, and the Master doesn’t complain when some of the sugar goes missing.

Next day, Mr. Weiss and company decide to drive to a lake in the south. It’s a volcanic lake, as you’ll see, says Mr. Weiss to his friends. The drive is slow. There are numerous trucks in a shroud of gray diesel smoke on the poorly surfaced road, and it takes an hour just to clear the city. Once in the country, though, the air is clean and dry. Yellowed grazing land is everywhere. In the distance, there is a line of hills fringing a vast plain. Volcanoes, Mr. Weiss points out as the car bumps along under the screaming sun.

Two hours later, the group is standing in the shade of a respectable motel they’ve chosen for the night. Looking out of a panoramic picture window, they see the green waters of a volcanic lake below — like undisturbed grass on a golf course with some seagulls circling lazily above. The motel is on the brink of a deep volcanic crater.

Extinct, we hope, says one of the guests, feigning nervousness.

Mr. Weiss has his own room. George and Alice are married and have theirs, while Marge, a single woman, has hers some distance from the others. All very proper. Sitting at a table outside his room, sipping whiskey, Mr. Weiss thinks of the Africans. They just get a woman to come along, all expenses paid, and they have a good time. Mr. Weiss has spotted a pretty African maid of the motel. She gives him a glance. She is changing the sheets in the unit next door and will be in his room presently. Uhmmmm, purrs Mr. Weiss, thinking of the possibilities.

Another moment, and the maid is stripping — the sheets of Mr. Weiss’ bed. He fumbles with his glass and tries to read her look. He attempts conversation, but the girl speaks no English. She smiles as though she knows a secret. Maybe she is used to this.

But what would the others think? They’d notice. Besides, you can’t tell what these girls expect. Reluctantly, Mr. Weiss turns his attention to his drink. The girl regards him for another moment, then she pounds a pillow into shape. She pouts a little as she leaves, wiggling her hips.

After dinner (not up to Mr. Weiss’ standards), George and Alice turn in early. Mr. Weiss and Marge stay on the patio to finish a bottle of whiskey. An African stranger comes wobbling towards them out of the darkness, saying: Hello people. I notice you speakin’ Inglish. How you do? I speak Italian, Germany and Inglish. The man mentions his quickly-forgotten name and shakes hands all around. He produces his own bottle of whiskey and, uninvited, takes a seat. Then he jumps into a monologue: I HATE Americans and Germans! Want to know why? Mr. Weiss and Marge are too astounded to respond.

The man proceeds to relate how the Americans have destroyed the economy of the country out of pure malice, and how the Germans, in their meddling ways, have cheated the dominant tribe out of aid money in favor of some obscure tribe that deserves to be exterminated. Always meddlin’ in Africa! he says with a slur of contempt. YOU always keepin’ us down.

Mr. Weiss keeps his opinions to himself, but Marge offers quick apologies on behalf of the Americans, and the Germans who, after all, are distant ancestors of her own tribe, the Anglo-Saxons — all tainted with guilt. The African seems satisfied at the discomfort he has caused but still glares at the whites. The next day, the party leaves for Addis.

Back in his villa, Mr. Weiss hears appreciation from his visitors. They had a wonderful two days, although things did get a bit rough at one point. Ha. Ha. Ha. They refer, of course, to the side-trip Mr. Weiss decided to take. What happened was this. Mr. Weiss had a colleague who had sworn that you could drive up to the top of a particular volcanic plateau where there was a monastery that took in guests. The colleague had given vague directions that Mr. Weiss had decided were good enough to go on. So, on the return journey to Addis, the happy group acquiesced to a side trip.

The volcanic plateau was visible across an expanse of dry plain, but the route there wasn’t apparent, even from an elevation. As usual in such terrain, distances were deceiving, and it took hours just to get within proximity of the mountain. After bumping along, backing up, turning this way and that, all amidst great swirls of dust, the group found itself at the end of a deeply corrugated gully. They stopped, not able to go any further. And then they saw them.

drought-ethiopia

From the gully ahead, a dozen Giacometti-type figures, many supported by walking sticks, came drifting in the direction of the Land Rover. In their midst, men carried a small coffin, perhaps that of a child, possibly a victim of starvation, for the country was again in a drought. Quietly, almost as if in a dream, the mourners flowed forwards, then parted in a stream around the car. No one regarded the white people; no one made eye contact; no one spoke. Their steps made no sound.

Once they had passed, Mr. Weiss checked in the rear view mirror to see that they were actually going over the nearby horizon. By the time he had reversed the Land Rover back up the gully, the procession was nowhere in sight.

************************************************************

Today is the day, the butcher is on his way, says a tall Ethiopian who acts as gardener and driver for Mr. Weiss. Yes, thinks Mr. Weiss, Now he’s going to get his comeuppance. In the soft morning light, Goliath the goat is happily munching on grass, oblivious to Nemesis stalking towards the house, in the form of the butcher.

Good morning, calls Mr. Weiss, Glad you could come. The men shake hands, then the butcher unpacks his instruments from a bundle of cloth he has been carrying. Mr. Weiss goes up to Goliath for one last contest. He presents the goat with the bottom of his foot. Excited by whatever instinct drives him, Goliath blindly charges the sole of the shoe and almost sets Mr. Weiss off balanced. Little does he know, thinks Mr. Weiss with smug satisfaction. I’m going to win this contest.

The gardener clamps Goliath between his legs as, with a graceful slit of a curved knife, the butcher severs the goat’s head and throat. As blood squirts, the gardener steps aside. The ram collapses on his forelegs, then he tips over sideways, blood shooting as though from a water pistol. The goat’s eyes are solidly in shock. What happened? they seem to say. The Africans look on, unaffected. Mr. Weiss is pleased he has finally won his ramming bouts.

The Africans hang the carcass from a low tree branch, then the butcher begins expertly removing the skin as though unwrapping a package. The head lies on the grass, left for the birds. The innards will be given to the maids to take home. The skin will be sold in town the very same day. Everything will be used. Goat for dinner tomorrow, Mr. Weiss says to Marge who has been looking on in horror. Mr. Weiss smiles broadly.

This day, the group has been invited to dinner. The hosts are East Germans who have stayed on in Addis after the regime fell, and most foreigners left for home. He is a professor of chemistry while she is a Hausfrau of the traditional sort. Fortunately, they speak English.

When Mr. Weiss and his friends arrive at the gray, Soviet-built apartment block, there is an additional guest, an elderly African professor, also a chemist. Perhaps out of nervousness at being the only African at the dinner table, or perhaps because he is by nature talkative, the old professor tells the story of how, as a bright young man, he had been one of a group selected by the Emperor for the new intelligentsia of the country. As such, he and the others were privileged to attend school at the royal summer house, a palace on a volcanic lake now totally neglected. He recalls seeing Haile Selassie being rowed across the lake in the misty evening, as though the great man wanted to get away from his many guests. The professor had watched in awe, certain that the Emperor possessed God-granted powers. The professor was grateful for having been witness to the scene.

haile-selassie

Once the overthrow came, of course, all of the privileges ended. The Marxists took over, and the economy went downhill where it had stayed ever since. The supporters of the old regime ended up in concentration camps, many others fled into exile. The professor says with a sense of inevitability: I was lucky to have escaped punishment, but I will never again be promoted to anything in my lifetime. Now that democracy has returned, the country will be exploited by the rich and powerful until there is nothing left to sell. Addis itself will become a bordello for those with cash, and the rest of the place will fall into starvation as it always has done. On that note, he chuckles and ends his tale. Outside, the sun has gone down and a somberness has come over the streets below.

The next morning, bright and early, Mr. Weiss walks in his garden fingering the roses. He wonders: How do you get more out of life when satisfaction always alludes you? There’s always something missing… Always something. Such dark thoughts often visit Mr. Weiss. He carefully fingers a new rose blossom. That’s what I like about Addis: things still grow so well here, he ruminates as he sniffs the morning mist.

The notion of growth brings the masses of Ethiopia to mind. Safely encapsulated in his automobile, he sees them every day on the way to work as the car avoids potholes and goats on the road into town. Stick-thin natives come down the muddy roads leading from the hills. They carry firewood and vegetables to market or lug tins of water back up to their shacks. Children go to school in surprisingly clean uniforms. But there are few opportunities as long as the border war continues to drain the country’s resources. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, ponders Mr. Weiss as he crushes a dried-out rose bud between a finger and thumb. The starving season is upon us in the East. There’s been no rain there for over a year. Soon we’ll be very busy, he thinks.

Coffee! calls a maid from the house. He abandons his garden. The image of the Pretzel Man surfaces for a moment, then fades away.

At breakfast, pleased with the way the visit has been going, Mr. Weiss recounts to his guests an incident that happened to him early in Ethiopia. He had gone to a store in the city where someone picked his wallet out of his back pocket. His money gone, Mr. Weiss had given up hope of finding it, but then the thief actually called Mr. Weiss at the office. The man wanted a reward for returning the white man’s credit cards and identity papers. Instead of haggling with the crook, Mr. Weiss handed the phone to an African colleague who told the thief he ought to be ashamed of himself, stealing from the very people who were there to help. The colleague lambasted the thief for being a disgrace to the country and a parasite on society, a low-down ingrate. What should people think of the likes of him?

After some minutes of this, the thief ashamedly agreed to return the wallet, the money, and the credit cards. He was sorry he had offended such good people and wanted personally to apologize for his disgraceful act. The colleague and the delinquent agreed to meet at a certain place for the hand-over. What the thief didn’t know, however, was that the colleague, who hated thieves, had connections with the police. He arranged to have some cops meet him at the designated place. The thief was foolish enough to show up. In short order, he was set upon by the cops who beat him to a pulp and dragged him off to jail. There was no trial, of course. But, Mr. Weiss got his wallet back. He chuckles at the little adventure.

Mr. Weiss also tells of how he recently drove to one of the airline hangars that his agency rented from the local government. Grain and dry foodstuffs had been coming in courtesy of the US Air Force, and distribution had been going smoothly even though tons of material had already been illegally redirected to the Ethiopian military on the northern frontier. This was the price of doing good in the Third World. The fighting wouldn’t stop despite the starvation, for in Ethiopia fighting was an honorable occupation, and the silly whites had a compulsion to feed the world anyway, so where was the harm?

Mr. Weiss tells how, on the outskirts of Addis, are hundreds of people, all with their skinny hands outstretched to passing motorists who, themselves, don’t know how much longer there will be food available, even though money is at hand. Prices are going up by the day; soon it will by the hour. If there is no relief, anything can happen.

********************************************
An eclipse has been predicted for today. Although Ethiopia won’t experience it directly, everyone is expecting something significant to happen. Many are awaiting the End of the World, the Second Coming, an end to suffering. Nothing is a coincidence. Every entrail of every goat has a message for those who can read the signs.

Mr. Weiss glances at his watch. The time for the solar eclipse is at hand. Megaphones are calling people to prayer in the churches. School has been canceled for the day. There is the usual haze over the city, but an eerie stillness of expectancy prevails.

Mr. Weiss pours drinks for his guests and suggests they go out onto the balcony to watch the last eclipse of the millennium. Maybe it’ll all end here and now, he thinks. With that, Mr. Weiss raises his glass to toast his guests. Let’s go with a drink!

A shadow slowly encroaches the sun; the air has become chillingly still.

To Rimini: a Cultural Tour

October 12, 2016

After an hour-and-a-half on the hydrofoil from Malta to Pozollo, Sicily, then four hours on a bus through orderly, rolling-hilled countryside, I get to the big city of Palermo. At first glance, it reminds me of the Third World, Mexico City thirty years ago, perhaps, but without those magnificent Mexican avenidas. As the bus pulls into town amidst rush-hour exhaust, it begins to rain. Lightning flashes and thunders as rain pounds the pavement. I hang around the train station until the downpour dies. Then, in the light of the falling evening, I anxiously look for a hotel. As usual, I slip by the first offerings to go down a side street where I discover a one-star, walk-up, affair in a very ancient building. Price, about $ 20 US. It will do.

My room, thankfully, faces into a back courtyard, overlooking fungus covered rooftops. All the walls in sight are a sandy-gray, with worn shutters on the windows, and hardly a smudge of recent paint anywhere. Some of the walls are cracked as though entire blocks will soon crumble. Roofs, although shingled, look like they haven’t seen red in ages. And everywhere, old-fashioned TV antennae give the impression that cable and satellite dishes are here unknown. I kind of like it, but I also feel ill at ease.

Out in the foyer, where the day clerk is just surrendering his responsibilities to the night man, a sad-looking computer sits with a sign on it saying “15 minutes internet free.” Unfortunately, the cables that may one day connect it to the greater world are hanging in shreds from the chassis. I point this out to the clerk who scrunches up his unshaven face, smiles and shrugs: “This is Sicily!”

palermo
I decide to skip the E-mail and head down the staircase to the streets. In the rain, I find a trattoria around the corner, minutes from the hotel. It has an English sign on the door, “tourists welcome,” along with VISA and MASTERCARD stickers, as you would expect in better restaurants. I go in and, with a touch of self-consciousness, pass by tables of old-timers watching TV. They are also watching me. Mafia territory, I imagine.

They sit seven or eight to a long table — rough-looking working men with large bottles of beer and dirty plates in front of them. Smoke almost obscures the TV show — some perversion of “Wheel of Fortune.” Fascinated, I watch, too, while waiting for my meal. Every few minutes, the TV show’s host stops the raucous activities to go over to a piano and pound out a tune to the applause of a dozen smiling goddesses clad in micro-minis. Then, when an epidemic of yawning threatens the live studio audience, the girls put on a demonstration of acrobatics with lots of panties showing and legs flying.

Next, a clown strolls on stage to make a commercial for a brand of cake. The big wheel of Fortuna spins again. The prize is a billion Liras. How anyone wins it is beyond me. I give up and concentrate on an equally disappointing meal, some shit masquerading as steak, shriveled beans and carrots, a wilted piece of lettuce. Welcome to Sicily. This is how the mafia really makes its money.

As I make my way past sidewalk puddles, now barely visible in the darkness, I note a group of young men loitering in a shop. The men stare at me as though at some strange bug they can’t quite identify. The scene reminds me of a famous photo by Ruth Orkin. But that was Florence in the 1950s. The men regard me unsmilingly. I am not at ease. That night my sleep is disturbed by several gunshots in the streets below. I tell myself, “This is Sicily; what else would you expect?” and go back to sleep.

The next day I go to the train station, purchase a ticket to Roma, and prepare to depart. I go into a cheese shop nearby to purchase some oranges and water for my trip. As I leave, the fat, elderly man behind the counter seems to enter into a sudden fit of rage as he begins shouting at a youngish employee. As if to make a point, he picks up a huge triangle of cheese and hurls it across the shop, missing the fellow by an inch. The young man might be embarrassed for, with a smile as I am going out the door, he asks: “Amerika?”

“Praego billetti,” the conductor asks. He looks intently at my ticket then clicks it. He is the fourth conductor to do so since the train left the ferry to the mainland. I am now alone in the second-class compartment, a non-smoker. A badly dressed elderly couple and a very plain daughter enter and politely ask whether they might join me. I nod, and everyone lugs old suitcases into the compartment. It takes minutes to stash everything on overhead racks and under feet, but not before taking out buns and sausages, cheese and fruit, bottles of water, and a couple of bottles of beer. They graciously offer to include me in their feast. The daughter figures she is qualified to translate between her father and me. In “a leetel eengleesh,” she introduces herself as a “secretary” at some-place-I-didn’t-catch. Not speaking any Italian, I try to communicate in Spanish, which works after a fashion.

At one point, I try to tell them I am going to make a circular route, beginning in Rome and ending in Florence. This necessitates my extracting a very large road map from my luggage, and spreading it out over all of our laps. Everyone holds a corner of it and gives suggestions where I ought to go, what I ought to see. The senora has a cousin here, and the senor has a brother there, although no one suggests my looking anyone up.

The daughter says I should go to San Marino, famous for its postage stamps and not much bigger than one. Finding it on the map becomes something of a contest, with the father insisting it is “Here. Here. It used to be here,” and the daughter madly insisting “No. No. Not there.” The mother sits in blank silence as if used to this sort of bickering. Father looks up at me, appealing for help, but the daughter wins out. She finds it after no one cares anymore where San Marino is. She has scored some kind of victory I am not privy to. However, I ask about Rimini. I heard Rimini has good beaches. Yes, they agree, Rimini will be nice. It’s an ideal place for sunshine and beaches.

Later, after the oldsters have begun to snooze off, I find the daughter regarding me intently, with a benign, knowing smile on her face. Is she suggesting something? A little snuggle, perhaps? As I have nothing to say, I try to ignore her. But again and again she attempts to draw me into conversation. I just feign fatigue and incomprehension. I yawn and yawn to indicate “sleepy” which, Thankfully!, soon puts her to sleep. I feel relieved.

The same evening, I am in Rome in a hotel that is undergoing renovation, at a snail’s pace from the look of things. Bare light bulbs are dangling from the ceiling in the hallway, and well-worn plastic sheets force guests to step over them carefully lest they trip and plunge into someone’s door. The hotel is listed as a three-star establishment, but I’m happy to be getting it at a two-star rate because of the mess. The room is nice, with a modern washroom, German-style shower, no CNN though, and on TV nothing in any language I recognize.

rome-terminal

In Rome I conclude that the very things Europeans are so fond of — old churches, ruined alleyways, dark and dank cemeteries — now annoy me most. People seem to be proud of these antiquities as though they themselves were responsible for their creation. Perhaps this is because nothing much has been accomplished since. The Coliseum, for instance, which I see the next day, seems ugly to me. It is huge, but incomplete, expensive to enter, and crawling with tourists.

My tour guide, Claudia, now standing before me, along with a rag-tag multi-national tourist horde, tries to generate interest in the monuments. We follow her like sixty sheep, sneaking a photo here and there as she takes us up a steep incline. She carries a car aerial with a yellow pom-pom on top to distinguish our group from dozens of others, equally intent on gawking and clicking without understanding anything. I find I am bored.

At the Coliseum we strain to hear Claudia explain how the structure was dismantled brick-by-brick to build other buildings in Rome, once Christianity had decided it wasn’t fond of gladiators being torn to bits by lions and tigers. By now I am less fascinated by the tour, but increasingly entranced by Claudia’s well-rounded ass under a long, tight skirt. But is she trying to hide a pair of unflattering legs?

In the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls, there are many delegations of people on crutches and in wheel chairs; some are mentally retarded, but all are herded by overseers into the building through one of the special “Holy Doors” opened recently by the Pope himself. They are on their way to celebrate a mass.

The sight of these faithful people has a strange effect on me. I am momentarily chocked up with emotion. The faith of others has that effect on me, the outcast from the flock who could not bring his hand to touch the garment of Mother Theresa as she passed in a cathedral, years before. Perhaps it is a latent “need to believe,” repressed time and again — a fear of all that is medieval: Roman Catholicism, conformism, collectivism, fascism; the surrender of the self to Authority. Something makes me feel faint, and I leave the Basilica to sit on a wall to wait. Rome nauseates me. I resolve to leave for Rimini tomorrow. The old couple in the train had recommended it.

It is gray and rainy en route to Rimini, and nothing about the train ride from Rome to the seaside town is worth recording. Tourists come here for the beaches, which, in comparison to Australia, California, or even the North Sea, hardly deserve the name of beach at all. The beach umbrellas are carefully folded up like so many pine trees in a forest, waiting for the sun to emerge from behind an overcast sky. A few people walk their dogs along the sand. Others ride bicycles on a path parallel to the shore. An air of expectancy hangs over the scene. Then it rains.

I am in a two-star hotel that costs as much as a three-star in the USA. Breakfast is not included. After a bottle of wine on a near-empty stomach, I happily begin to ruminate, as is often the case. I recall the armies of young people in Europe (Italy is full of them), so self-consciously hanging onto their cell phones. Wearing expensive, dark sunglasses, they walk and talk, making sure they are being overheard. You are what you seem to be here: the glasses, the thoroughbred dogs, the cars, the cell phones. The purpose of such display is to be seen to be “in.”

This must be what it is to be a member of a lost civilization. To me it is another sign of a has-been world — the world of the ancient Italians who did accomplish things on a grand scale. They were big cheeses then, two thousand years ago, but haven’t amounted to much since. The other Old World countries aren’t any better. They’re all “make-believe” places out of which nothing of great significance comes but which, nonetheless, want to appear to be “progressive”. They are the Old Europe, as someone says some months later.

I am in the ancient town of Rimini, in search of food. There are dozens of clothing stores, mainly for the tourist chic aria. At six in the evening, people are still walking and shouting into their cell phones. Maybe telephoning is all they can afford, the place is so expensive. As though he were miming how I feel, I note an old man standing on a corner. He is grinding his teeth; his eyes are shut tight as though the world had become too much to take. I want to puke but enter a restaurant instead.

The next day I take a train to Bologna. In the carriage are dozens of school kids, boys and girls with book bags. Some are studying for exams as they hang onto rails to steady themselves. Others are babbling into cell phones. Across from me sits a woman in her 30s, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses. She wears several gaudy rings and lousy pseudo-jewelry around her neck. Her long, tie-die skirt has a slit up to the thigh so that one leg is exposed enough to be interesting. If I were to move my knee, my leg would be between hers. So I sit uncomfortably, wondering if she is aware of this stupendous fact. I don’t think she is aware of me, but I flatter myself thinking she is secretly enjoying this hot proximity. But, life here is so crowded; this is commonplace, and I don’t know the Italians at all.

rimini-italy-beach

I am reminded of what a Russian girl said to me in Sicily: “The people are so superficial here. They don’t know anything; there’s no depth. They make a great effort to appear important.” Over the last week I’ve come to see what she meant, but I wonder if the Russians are any different.

The other thing I note in Italy is the preponderance of police. The train station in Rome was full of them, and now that I am in Bologna, they seem to be everywhere. In the train station, the police look like SWAT teams in berets and extra-wide belts holding big, fat revolvers. They strut around in twos, smoking on the job. Some haven’t shaved in days. Some sport ascots, even in the oppressive humidity. How do they stand it? I suppose it looks macho to look as threatening as mafia gangsters. Bologna is dark and dumpy, and I’m soon glad to be on a train headed to Switzerland.

On the Bologna-Milano-Basel train, I am in an open compartment, first-class, with two women, a mother and daughter from Buenos Aires. They tell me they have been traveling for several days and are going to Lago Lugano. The mother seems very Spanish, in a pseudo upper-class way. We speak in Spanish. She comments on the pros and cons of places they’d seen, but she totally lambastes her native Argentina. She says the government is useless, the middle-class is in decline, the country is going to the dogs, and so on. Initially, I think the daughter cute, but then I note they are of a type, and I long to be alone. As the train pulls into Milano, I help them with a gigantic, battered suitcase and sigh with relief as they get off the train.

After over-nighting in an expensive hotel in Basel, I am in Freiburg, Germany, where I have old friends. She (A) is a buoyant redhead in her early 60s, still full of humor and goodwill. O is less so. He often throws temper tantrums and is happy only when he is in Poland standing knee-deep in a lake with a fishing pole in his hand and a worm on the other end. From what A tells me this morning over coffee, which she has ready by the time I get up, she doesn’t love him as much as he loves her. In the same breath she says how good it is to see me.

freiburg-germany

“When you come to visit, I can get things off my chest,” she says. I am glad, even though at first I am a bit uncomfortable hearing this. But then A tells me she has never been that affectionate with O. She says that when they married, he said he would bring enough love for both of them. In turn, A got a hard-working man who gave her a big house and two girls, now grown up, with lives of their own.

She seems dissatisfied, as if wanting more from life. “But what more can I want?” she asks. “I have everything. And still the human being is never satisfied.”  I know what she is talking about, because I feel the same way, but I don’t tell her that. Next thing you know, she’ll want to run away with me.

A is the compulsive caregiver, the constant mother. Her younger daughter, already in her 30s, still brings her laundry home for A to do, and her father-in-law comes for lunch almost daily. He usually has a pensioner friend in tow. As she tells me this, the doorbell rings, and, speak of the devil, there is M, the father-in-law.

I met him years before and recognize him immediately. “Maximilian!” he says, introducing himself, extending his hand to me. (The friend grins shyly but is ready to be served as a bottle of wine and a casserole are produced from the kitchen.) A has been expecting them. We chat, eat, and drink. I think this is as life should be. It is a rarity for me, this family feeling. But A seems to have had enough of serving others over the many years.

One of A’s little quirks is that she likes to take a shower outside in the yard, by her small pool. She does this naked, saying I ought to try it. It’s so refreshing. Not with my body, I think but, with a grimace, I tell her I’m too shy. I did not grow up in Europe where such things are more easily accepted. She assures me the neighbors don’t look anymore. They’ve gotten used to it.

That evening, A takes me and a female cousin of hers to an open-air concert to celebrate the Equinox. The event is on the grounds of a ruined 13 th century castle overlooking the Rhine, a place that non-locals would never find. A expresses disappointment that the gastronomy promised in the advertisements turns out to be wine, champagne, and wieners. She says this is another sign of how things are deteriorating from what they used to be. She tells me how escargot are no longer available. The demand now is for pizza.

“There are so many foreigners these days. There’s no demand anymore,” she says. Her cousin agrees. By “foreigners,” what is meant is those Germans who have moved to Freiburg from other parts of Germany. “They don’t even appreciate our wine. They’re beer drinkers.” You can tell these interlopers by their accents. I strain my ears, but I can’t make anything out of the general din. Instead, I observe the crowd.

People are correctly dressed, as I had expected. Still, you can tell from the look of them that it’s the professional class who has showed up, and many of them seem to know each other. I note that no one is under forty, except the musicians. People quietly stand around in little groups, with glasses in hand, and the concert begins un-Germanically late.

The big band plays “Hello Dolly,” then Gershwin, but I find it too technical, too mechanical. It lacks soul. But that’s Germany in a nutshell today. Musicians play things which aren’t part of themselves because Germans no longer know who they are. They call themselves “Europeans” as though in apology for being born in a land called Deutschland, something they had no control over. They would have preferred to be English or French, people with a less disgraceful history. So, no German tunes this evening. Just cultural imports played in cramped fashion.

As we drive home in the dark, in a luxury car of German make, I think of how nothing is satisfying anymore. Europe used to be so charming and interesting. Every ancient church used to be a revelation; every strange face was a mark of some tribe or other, a type I had never seen before. Nowadays, it is all rather annoying. I swear I will stop traveling altogether and settle down in some small town somewhere. But then, for the life of me, I can’t imagine where. It rained all the time I was in Rimini, and Rimini was supposed to be stupendous.