The eyes of Granada…

Originally posted on Passages Home Blog:


Dale limosna, mujer, que no hay en la vida nada como la pena de ser ciego en Granada. 
(Give him alms, woman, because there is nothing worse in life than to be  blind in Granada). Francisco Alarcón de Icaza

My friend Aukjen sent me the translation of Alarcon’s lines this morning, as Granada’s weather was by turns sunny and drizzly, the sky a searing blue and then a dull grey. Alarcon is speaking, she said, on behalf of the blind one.  For him or her, nothing could be more cruel that Granada.

In fact, before I received the English translation of Alarcon’s words, yesterday, at the Alhambra, I thought my eye lids would simply close after so much pleasure, after so much saturation of visual sensation.  But they did not, for hours and hours of focused work, though palaces and gardens, fortes and baths.

Ahambra, for all its beauty, is…

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Amman rooftops…

~~Our afternoon in Old Amman begins on Rainbow Street, with falafel, at Al-Quds Falafel.  I am told that this hole-in-the-wall with a very amicable falafel maker is the oldest in Amman. His offering is delicious, unpretentious and not heavy on the spices.  We eat our sandwiches standing up, outside the store, among the ambling crowds.  A boy with fiery eyes approaches us, asks for money.  My companion offers to buy a falafel sandwich for him instead of giving him cash.  He takes the sandwich, crosses the street, and climbs atop the stone fence of a makeshift playground where a group of boys are playing football.

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From there it is a nice walk to the heart of Old Amman, those traditional stone homes of beautiful exteriors and spacious, cool interiors–the Mango House,  the Mufti House, the Sabbagh House, and my old high school, the Ahliyyah School For Girls (formerly known at the Christian Missionary School.)  This Amman is one of the most beautiful parts of an otherwise lackluster city, harking back to a time when Amman was a sleepy old town oblivious to the future waves of foreign money (from the Gulf, then the rich Iraqi exiles of the two Gulf Wars) and refugees fleeing the unending wars of the region.

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Many of Old Amman’s streets have been turned into bustling sites of pedestrians, coffee and juice stands, restaurants, and artisan shops.  Beggar boys and girls are reminders, though, that the underside of Old Amman is far less pleasant and vibrant.  We sit down for some tea.  From our perch, the downtown is a jumble of cluttered rooftops. In the distance, we can see all the way to the Citadel.

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“You see all these rooftops with all the zbaleh (trash) on them?”  The speaker is a friend of my companion.  “We’re going to turn all these rooftops into gardens.”  He speaks with contagious enthusiasm.  “All of it. Families will be able to sit on their roofs, children will water the plants.”  True, Amman rooftops have everything–broken fridges and bikes, torn mattresses, old tires. Junk.  As he speaks, I imagine shrubs and trees and flower and vegetable gardens, herbs and sunflowers, lavender and za’atar.  The picture is beautiful, a far cry from the present. He appears determined; he’s young, speaks with energy.

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After tea and falafel, it is dusk, and we are ready to call it a day–the promise of the rooftops in the distance, the lurk of the boy with sandwich behind us.  All of it, we’re going to turn all of it into green gardens where young boys and girls will water the gardens, play in the shade.~~

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In the Jordan Valley…

After a summer break of some two months, Passages Home is back!

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During these months, I traveled to Jordan and to Palestine.  Access to wifi was slow, border crossings were frustrating, and the general mood of the people was wistful for better times. Still, the weather was transcendent, the reunions with friends from decades past affirming, and the return to spoken Arabic  restorative.

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The day after my arrival in Amman, we set out to the Ghor, the Jordan Valley, known for the fertility of its soil, the warmth of its winters, and its proximity to sites of religious significance.

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It was late afternoon when we got there, and immediately began our meanderings–in the distance, the strange whiteness of the Dead Sea, on our skin the stinging warmth of the setting sun,  and all around us this beautiful tree whose name we did not know.  No one seemed to have an answer for us.  We were about to leave the area when we happened on a small group of workers at a building site.  We asked, they did not know. Then, one of the men asked a couple of other men working a few meters away if they knew what the name of the tree was.  One of them stepped forward a bit awkwardly, feeling his way almost.

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“It’s called jamila,” he said.  Jamila is Arabic for beautiful.

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I noticed that one of his eyes had a white film over it, which suggested that he was blind in at least one eye.  “It is beautiful, indeed,” we said.  “Yes,” he said.  The men all agreed it was beautiful.  It may have been that the name that we were given was made up on the spur of the moment, improvised.  It didn’t matter really, though I did feel a little foolish hunting down a name, trying hard to fix abundance to a word.  Any word would not have done justice, so why not jamila?

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From Feuntes’ “Myself with Others”

I went back to my notes from Feuntes’ Myself with Others, after I heard the news of his death.  They are as alive as they were some twenty-five years ago, when I wrote them down in a notebook whose pages have turned yellow and whose ink is a paler black.

Not his great work, and Feuntes’ literature not as monumental as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s.  Still, a book of intimacies, to which one can return time and time again.

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~~”One afternoon, on the beach at Lota in Southern Chile, I saw the miners as they came out, mole-like, from their work many feet under the sea, extracting the coal of the Pacific Ocean. They sat around a bonfire and sang, to guitar music, a poem from Neruda’s “Canto General.” I told them that the author would be thrilled to know that his poem had been set to music.

What author? they asked in surprise.  For them, Neruda’s poetry had no author, it came from afar, it had always been sung, like Homer’s.  It was, as Croce said of The Illiad “d’un popolo intero poetante,” of an entire poeitizing people.  It was the document of the original identity of poetry and history.”

~~”Nothing is shared in the abstract. Like bread and love, language and ideas are shared with human beings.”

~~”You start by writing to live. You end by writing so as not to die. Love is the marriage of this desire and this fear.  The women I have loved I had desired for themselves, but also because I feared myself.”

~~”Ancient peoples know that there are no words that do not descend from other words and that imagination only resembles power because neither can reign over Nada, Nothing, Niente…”

~~”No desire is innocent–because we not only desire, we also desire to change what we desire once we obtain it.”

~~On Maria Callas: “This woman I now saw, thinned down not by her will but by her sickness and her time,nearer every minute to her hone, every second more transparent and tenuously allied to life, possessed a hypnotic secret that revealed itself as attention.”

~~On Mexico: “Mexico is the sacred zone of a secret hope: the gods shall return.”

~~The language of the Mexicans springs from abysmal extremes of power and impotence, domination and resentment.”

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Carlos Fuentes has died…

~~In his gem of a book, Myself With Others, Carlos Fuentes has a chapter titled “How I Wrote One of My Books.”  The novel in question is Aura.  The chapter is a curious mix of evocation, meditation, memoir, and theory. Its opening sections are set in Paris:

But Paris is a double city; whatever happens there possesses a mirage which seems to reproduce the space of actuality.  We soon learn that this is a form of deceit.  The abundant mirrors of Parisian interiors do more than simply reproduce a certain space.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that with their army of mirrors the Parisians create the illusion that their narrow apartments are double the real size.  The true mystery–Gabriel and I know this–is that what we see reflected in those mirrors is always another time: time past, time yet to be.  And that, sometimes, if you are lucky, a person who is another person floats across these quicksilver lakes.

I believe that the mirrors of Paris contain something more than their own illusion.  They are, at the same time, the reflection of something less tangible:the light of the city, a light I have attempted to describe many times, in political chronicles of the events of May 1968 and May 1981 and in novels such as Distant Relations, where I say that the light of Paris is identical to “the expectation that every afternoon…for one miraculous moment, the phenomena of the day–rain or fog, scorching heat of snow–[will] disperse and reveal, as in a Corot landscape, the luminous essence of the Ile de France.

A second space: a second person–the other person–in the mirror is not born in the mirror: she comes from the light.  The girl who wandered in from her living room into her bedroom that hot afternoon in early September more than twenty years ago was another because six years had gone by since I first met her, in the budding grove of her puberty, in Mexico.

But she was also another because the light that afternoon, as if it had been expecting her, defeated a stubborn reef of clouds. That light–I remember it–first stepped through timidly, as if stealing by the menace of a summer’s storm; then it transformed itself into a luminous pearl encased in a shell of clouds: finally it spilled over for a few seconds with a plenitude that was also an agony.

In this almost instantaneous succession, the girl I remembered when she was fourteen years old and who was not twenty suffered the same changes as the light coming through the windowpanes:that threshold between the parlor and the bedroom became the lintel between between all the ages of this girl:the light that had been struggling against the clouds also fought against her flesh, took it, sketched it, granted her a shadow of year, sculpted a death in her eyes, tore the smile from her lips, wanted through her hair with the floating melancholy of madness.

She was another, she had been another, not she who was going to be but she who, always, was being.

The light possessed the girl, the light made love to the girl before I could, and I was only, that afternoon, “a strange guest in the kingdom of love” (“en el reino amor huésped extraño”), and knew that the eyes of love can also see us with–once more I quote Quevedo–“a beautiful Death.”

The next morning I started writing Aura in a café near my hotel on the rue de Berri. I remember the day…~~

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May 15: The Nakba at 67

May 15 is the day Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights to self-determination commemorate the Nakba, or Catastrophe, which forced hundreds of thousands of the native population out of Mandatory Palestine.  Today, the Nakba is 67 years old.  On this occasion, I’m re-posting an entry from two years ago: parts of Mahmoud Darwish’s 2004 Amsterdam Speech, and the half a dozen lines from Darwish’s Under Siege, “If You Were Not the Rain, My Love.”  The art work is by Vera Tamari, extraordinary artist, and friend.  In ceramic, wood, acrylic and paint, these two images are part of a series on ancestral memory and loss. ~~

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A person can only be born in one place; however, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be re-born out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.

You know, of course, that I am from Palestine. What an exciting name; ambiguous, open to every possible interpretation, it evokes a certain longing and counter-longing, and triggers emotions of pity or anger. But the imaginary ancient Palestine, called “the land of love and peace”, mother of the prophets, and the meeting point of earth and sky, does not resemble the real Palestine flooding with blood and tears. It is denied peace because its people are deprived of freedom; denied love because its people are deprived of justice; denied a better tomorrow close at hand because its occupied present is surrounded by walls of hatred that deprive its people of hope.

~~~

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If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree
Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.
And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone
Saturated and moist,  be the stone.
And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon
In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.
This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.

~~Excerpt from Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish~~

Translated from the Arabic by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis

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Reading Yessayan, Oshagan, Charents at MIT: an introduction

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PROGRAM

The Armenian Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
The Berlin International Festival, Berlin
Lepsiushaus, Potsdam
present

A World Wide Reading
Commemorating the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide

April 21, 2015
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Welcome
Armen Samurkashian

Introduction
Taline Voskeritchian

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Zabel Yessayan
1878-1943
Աւերակներուն
Մէջ (In the Ruins)
Translated by G.M. Goshgarian
English: Judy Saryan
Armenian: Danila Jebejian Terpanjian

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Hagop Oshagan
1883-1948
Մնացորդաց
(Remnants)
Translated by G.M. Goshgarian
English: Nanor Kebranian
Armenian: Gerard Libaridian

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Eghishe Charents
1897-1937
Իմ
Կէսօրին (To my Midday) and Տխուր Կարուսել (Sad carousel)
Translated by Susan Barba
English: Susan Barba
Armenian: Areg Danagoulian

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Introduction

Thank you all for being here tonight for this memorial reading on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Our reading is part of a network of such events, spanning several continents and cities—Muzuzu, Malawi; Mexico City; Cairo; Paris, Brussells, London; Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Oslo, Norway; Burgaz and Plovdiv, Bulgaria; Los Angeles, Montreal, NYC, and beyond. All in all some 66 cities in 28 countries, where readings are taking place on this day. Chances are that at this time, somewhere in the world, there is a World Wide Reading for Armenia.

The organizers of the World Wide Reading are the Berlin International Festival and the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam. Some of the best-known international writers of our time, among them a few Nobel Laureates, have endorsed this initiative. We’re honored that Boston is part of this network of readings.

Thank you also to our readers who agreed so graciously to participate in this memorial event.

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 Tonight, we commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide—what we Armenians call the Aghéd—by paying tribute to three giants of Armenian literature: Zabel Yessayan, Hagop Oshagan and Eghishe Charents.

The lives and deaths of these three writers intersected with some of the most cataclysmic events of the Armenian world in the first four decades of the twentieth century: The Adana massacres of 1909 about which Yessayan wrote after a visit organized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople; the destruction of the Armenian population of Van in 1915, which Charents memorialized in the poem, Danteesque Legend; the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and writers on the eve of April 24, 1915 in Constantinople, Yessayan being the only woman on the Ottoman lists; the formation of the Armenian fugitive underground in Constantinople where Oshagan was in hiding for three years, escaping seven arrests.

Later, in the 1930s, in Eastern Armenia: the founding of Soviet Armenia and Charents’ and Yessayan’s ideological commitment of communism—Yessayan’s case is more complicated, though; the unleashing of the Stalinist purges, which claimed the lives of both Charents and Yessayan.

Yessayan and Charents were both arrested in 1937 and died some years later; there is no gravesite for either of them. By contrast, Oshagan’s end came with a heart attack in Aleppo, on the eve of a planned memorial visit the next morning to the killing fields of the Der Zor desert where so many refugees of the genocide had lost their lives. He is buried in the Armenian cemetery in the Christian Suleymanieh district of the city. Between them, Charents and Oshagan divide up a privileged space in twentieth century Armenian letters—Charents as the pre-eminent poet of Eastern Armenian literature, and Oshagan as the towering figure in the modern Western Armenian novel.

Other than their literary ambitions, little unites these two great figures—linguistically, esthetically, culturally, but most of all ideologically—Charents an avowed communist Soviet citizen, and Oshagan a writer who rejected all ideological intervention in literature and wrote his most ambitious works after the Genocide, in statelessness.

The case of Yessayan is of another order: She begins as a writer in pre-Genocide Constantinople, is marked for arrest in 1915, escapes, and by a circuitous route eventually settles in Paris. Then in an act of radical reversal, repatriates to Soviet Armenia. Yessayan’s doubly tragic figure hovers over the two major events of twentieth century Armenian history–the Aghéd and Sovietization.

Three turbulent lives, large and impassioned, each the stuff of at least a few novels, each a world onto itself, sustained by torrential forces, extraordinary courage, singular talent, and prodigious literary output. Tonight, we pay tribute to all these attributes, but more so to their common literary project: the project of turning thought (and language) to the horrific and the unspeakable, and against all odds, creating literature—poems, chronicles, novel cycles–out of this fateful, defining encounter with genocide–literature as testament for what was destroyed, obliterated beyond repair, but at the same what was recovered, restored, and imagined anew: Yessayan in the chronicle, the memoir and to a lesser degree the novel; Oshagan in the novel first and foremost but also in the literary criticism/history and the dramatic plays; and finally Charents in the poem. It is an astounding spread of literary forms, languages and intentions, which brings into its sphere Yessayan’s unique re-working and combining of the chronicle, the memoir, and the testament; Oshagan’s architectural conception of the novel, and Charents’ expansion of the idea of the poem as a capacious form that can accommodate the lyrical, the elegiac, the political, even the mythic.

We begin with selections from Zabel Yessayan’s account of the Adana massacres of 1909, Աւերակներուն Մէջ (In the Ruins). The work was published in 1911, after which this remarkable woman traveled to the Caucasus, then to Cilicia again in 1920, back in France until 1933, and finally to Armenia where her fate was sealed.

The second reading is selections from Hagop Oshagan’s monumental and unfinished novel, Մնացորդաց (Remnants), whose third part the author had imagined as a description of the annihilation of the population of his native Boursa. It was written in Cyprus, in feverish speed, and first published between 1932 and 1934.

And we conclude with two poems of Charents from 1935-37, Իմ Կէսօրին and Տխիւր Կարուսէլ (To my Midday and Sad Carousel), both of which were published only much later in 1968 in the first collected edition of his work. These are poems of longing and profound sadness. When Saroyan met Charents in 1934 in Moscow, he reported being struck most of all by Charents’ profound, all-encompassing sadness. No doubt one of the sources of this sadness is that 18-year-old conscript’s experience of the destruction of the Armenian population of Van in 1915.

The selections will be read first in English translation and then in the original Armenian. This bilingual dimension of our reading is a tribute to another, less violent kind of encounter, the encounter of translation, which brings two languages into a common sphere and creates the conditions for a conversation between them, a conversation which will fertilize both. Translation, therefore, is also an act of imaginative renewal, albeit more modest, which turns the original toward a language other than itself, and from this meeting something new comes into being. In an accomplished translation, such as those of G.M. Goshgarian and Susan Barba, we sense not only the vitality and possibilities of the language of passage, but also the echoes of the original.

Oshagan wrote: “Our literature is our homeland.” Homeland, perhaps not– but home, certainly. This home, this evening, is no match, to the homeland, to what was lost a hundred years ago in lives, property, traditions, dialects, artifacts, and more. It is no match either to the three writers we’re honoring. And that is why, in the end, our evening is a kind of wake not only for the victims and survivors of the Armenian national catastrophe but also for that which can be recovered in remnants only. Thank you.

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