From the Archives–travel: Spain 2

~~ This essay was originally on June 4, 2011, shortly after we had visited Sacromonte inAndalusia.  It was later published on the blog of the radio program “On Being.”  ~~ The Trail to …

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From the Archives–travel: Spain 2

~~ This essay was originally on June 4, 2011, shortly after we had visited Sacromonte inAndalusia.  It was later published on the blog of the radio program “On Being.”  ~~

The Trail to Sacromonte

The road may be—and almost always is—made of our footsteps, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other.  The Camino Sacromonte which we climbed yesterday all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail, the rain and mist our only companions, is such a place.

We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail.  On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra, on the other side, and at a sharp elevation we could make out the Abbaye du Sacromonte.  It was a grey afternoon.  We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not a much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away–literally.  And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.

Then, it began to rain—first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers.  The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour.  We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey.  The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again.  For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement.  But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape—the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water on its surface, glistening.

It was not fear that seized me for that instant though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other.  It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures—the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century—would suddenly jump out in an ambush.  But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something aptly transcendent.

We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight.  We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate.  In the distance the Alhambra extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies—the quintessential moment of faiths in a violent embrace.

We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, like pure contentment at being here, in this place, at this moment.  Then, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home.  We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.

There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees—even if you are a card-carrying secularist—and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods.  Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter.  You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while—and a bit less wet.

Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.  We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street.  It was going in the opposite direction, up to the abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in.  Inside the bus, was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus.  They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way which is more likely.  Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey.  No one did, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of theravine, on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts which inhabit these mountains.  But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty wild.

We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin.  No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands—the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers.  Those who were burned at the stake, those who were expelled, and those conquerors who built their monuments on top of the destruction.

[All photos by Tamar Salibian]

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On Asghar Farhadi…

~~In the wake of Asghar Farhadi’s win of a second Oscar last night, I am re-posting this 2012 review of his earlier masterpiece “A Separation.” I have not seen “The Salesman” for which he won the second Oscar. I read murmurings–sometimes quite snide–that his film was not deserving of an Oscar, and that the award was motivated by political concerns. Which is another way of saying that he was used though he boycotted the ceremony.

Used or not, Farhadi’s films combine two seemingly contradictory qualities: the content of his work is modest, bringing into its sphere the mundane, the everyday, the fleeting. The form is ambitious and grand, a weave of highly dramatic scenes that fit so tightly as to imbue these everyday incidents with a narrative energy that gathers force as it moves forward. The core of his work is moral and ethical, but Farhadi has no interest in being a moralist. In this regard, he is an old-fashioned film-maker whose allies are literature and drama rather than visual art and technology. And to borrow the words of a friend, to be old-fashioned these days is to be revolutionary.~~


Finally, I saw “A Separation,” the Iranian film which has generated so much praise and which is up for an Oscar in several categories. I say finally because I have been waiting for it since I first heard about it from friends in Paris, in July.

“A Separation” is a remarkable film, one of the best Iranian films to grace our screens, perhaps one of the very best films ever so skilled its narrative, so delicate its weave, so authentic its characters. Yeah, yeah, everyone says its themes are “universal” but, really, that’s often another way of saying that it is not too “Iranian, ‘ya know.” It is set in contemporary, post-Islamic Revolution Iran; its characters speak an often loud Persian; and their drama is intertwined with law, religion, class, but most of all with the day-to-day hassle of living, of taking care of aging parents, keeping a job or creditors off the door, being a good parent–and doing all this while trying to adhere to the tenets of Islam.

Without qualifications, without relativizing everything to death, and with a touch as light as a feather, the director of “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi, asks, What is the truth at the heart of this family/courtroom drama? And who decides? The courts? The extended family? The two young girls who are at once observers and participants? The adults? Or the audience?

More: What demands does the truth place on the parents, on the children? And which is more important, to tell the truth and risk the complete rupture of the family or to circumvent it, deflect it, for the sake of the young and the very old? A film populated by more than half a dozen memorable characters, each beautifully portrayed, A Separation is a high-wire act, with plenty of close-ups, each scene building on the previous one with ferocious energy and skill.

“A Separation” twists and turns from one scene to the next, revealing complex characters against the backdrop of class, family, religion, law, and private desire. It is also a grand narrative of generational continuity and tension, where the young are clearly and unequivocally foregrounded in a way which Iranian–and also French– movies are so skilled at doing. In this respect, they put to shame American movies where children and young adults are treated either as shrunken grow-ups or silly little brats.

It is, in the end, the 11-year old Termeh who asks the defining question of her father. It is also she who has to make the final decision which will no doubt define her life in ways neither she nor we can imagine. (The end is strangely reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” with which A Separation shares some uncanny similarities.)

But “A Separation” does not take the easy way out by suggesting that the truth is completely subjective and relative. What it does instead is show the ways in which the truth is interwoven with the larger issues and contexts of family, of society, of religious faith, of the educational system. Withholding judgment on any of his characters, rendering them as individuals, Farhadi emphasizes the threads and bonds between and among individuals, from the neighbors to the in-laws to the tutors. For viewers tired of watching the diminished lives and internalized dramas which have become the staple of so many of our movies, A Separation offers a large-scale display of an entire society–contentious, young, its revolution still evolving. It asks the big questions; and it does so with an effortlessness that often takes the breath away.



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From the archives–Travel: Spain

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 work–the kind of work one associates with reading because Arabic-language Alhambra is a glorified reading, of rooms opening onto rooms of Q’uranic verses etched in stone and tile, on wall and ceiling.  Its strange combination of majesty and simplicity takes your breath away, holds you in your tracks, makes you wander if you are worthy (if anyone is worthy) of this much pleasure–pure.

Perhaps, as our landlord said, this is why “everyone thinks of Granada as home.”  Be careful, he added, that you don’t get too attached to Granada.  As I write these words, from a hole-in-the-wall internet store run by Morroccons, outside a group of Flamenco singer and dancers are singing and clapping, and I think it is not only blindness that would be the curse of Granada but also deafness.  So, with the fewest of words, I finish this little post and go out toward the source of the music.

Around every corner, there lurks a deep, sublime madness–of the gods.  And so, you take your soul into your hand, and walk into the alleyway.

The Generalife, Granada.


Ceiling, Alhambra

[All photos: Tamar Salibian]



Hagop Oshagan: December 9, 1883-February 17, 1948

~~Tomorrow is the sixty-ninth anniversary of Hagop Oshagan’s death.  The massive heart attack that took him began at his writing desk, in Aleppo, where he had arrived a few days earlier for a jubilee celebration of his life’s work.


His death came the night before he and a group of writer friends, including Shavarsh Missakian, were to set out on a memorial visit to the killing fields of Der Zor. Oshagan was buried in Aleppo. It is estimated that some 20,000 mourners were in attendance.

The large turnout notwithstanding, Oshagan would have found irony, if not the cruel hand of fate, in the choice of his final resting place. He loved Aleppo deeply, but his preference was elsewhere.  In his words: “–In the shade of Ararat: Even without a tombstone, without a sign, without an inscription: But the warm earth on me, in the depths of my ancestors’ blood.”

The burning earth of Aleppo, light on Hagop Oshagan. ~~

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John Berger, again…

~~I heard the news of John Berger’s death in the late afternoon, around tea and dried fruit, with friends.  There was a moment of silence, and then words of sadness, not so much about how brilliant of a thinker and writer he was, but about his humanity though none of us had met him.  That was the John Berger we were mourning now, so soon after his death, the one we knew personally and profoundly.  We spoke as if we had lost a friend, which we had.  For a figure so public in his political allegiances, his polemics, and his use of television in the 1970s and beyond, Berger was also a companion of the road; a man of lived, visceral wisdom extracted from the bowels of living; a person one could turn to in moments of doubt or elation or esthetic pleasure for solidarity, for solace or unabashed joy.


I began reading Berger in the early 1980s. Since then, I have read and re-read him many, many times, anything he wrote or spoke.  I have also taught him, the obligatory “Ways of Seeing” whose density of thought often leaves students frustrated and confused.  But Berger was best, I think, as an essayist, and I learned an immense amount about the essay from reading his short meditations, longer analytical pieces (I say pieces because some of Berger’s best work eludes clear classification), and his specific treatments of individual artists.  I learned that the essay is truly an open form, an exploration, travel without an itinerary; that words carry huge loads of weight of knowledge but also of the struggle to liberate oneself of that knowledge; that the best writing is a combination of heart and mind and body, of distance and closeness to the material one is writing about.  I also learned that the essay is a most forgiving genre for those of us who come to it with some uncertainty and even confusion about our subject.


Beyond craft, though, I learned one other thing from reading him. It’s an idea, or an attitude I have tried hard to practice and refine, with varying degrees of success.  The idea is outlined in one of his most consequential little essays, “Toward a Small Theory of the Visible.”    In this essay (I think it was published in “The Three Penny Review”) he skirts around the idea of receptivity as the most generative approach to art but also to life.  It is a seemingly modest idea, with some religious, new-age overtones, which Berger quickly and masterfully demolishes early on with the weight of examples he gives.  The examples, seemingly unrelated to each other, accumulate; the writing style shifts and bounces; the ideas and observations collide and then merge.  All this, as the heart of the essay itself, begins its ascent to the visible.  That’s how all of Berger’s shorter pieces work, by struggle and embrace because, I think he would have said, receptivity is not passive acceptance; it is work, hard work, often born of conflict and contradiction.  (Berger often uses and twists the epistolary idea in his writings, sometimes very deliberately as in one great novel, a love story told in letter form, “From A to X” but also more pervasively in his essays, all of which have the sense of being written for a specific person, for a listener or a reader known to the author.)

images-1Of course, John Berger’s contributions to our ways of seeing art, the world, and ourselves go far beyond the personal.  He singlehandedly revolutionized our ways of seeing; pushed Walter Benjamin into the center of the English-speaking world; offered generously his support to political and social causes.  All that, yes, and more.  Along with the larger strokes and big ideas which touched and inspired at least two generations after the 1960s, Berger’s writing had the capacity for intimacy, of words devoid of academic jargon and high-flying theories.  Reading his best work–the novels, the essays, the literary criticism, the petitions–was like being with a  friend or a lover, in deep conversation of consequence and change.

That was the John Berger we spoke about last evening, all of us together, in solidarity.  No better way to go, no better way.  Farewell, dear friend.



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John Berger…

~~John Berger died today. It is a sad evening for those of us who loved his writing, his presence, his humanity; who loved the weave of art and life that was his way; who loved his mix of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom.

A few years ago I wrote a little essay about John Berger, which I am re-posting below.  There will be many words, may tributes to this great international treasure who touched so many of us in such a profound way. Here are mine, from the past when Berger was alive.

Today, the world is a little less without him, a little diminished.  A sad day, indeed.~~


It’s always like this with John Berger’s writing–you turn to it, in moments of intensity.  It almost does not make a difference which book you pick off your shelf. You pick one, open it at any page, and start reading. And as you read, your heart is gripped by the words as though you were in the presence of a dear old friend, an old love, who was at once familiar and utterly new.

You turn to the writing.  You read on, follow the path of Berger’s digressions and returns.  You read on for a page or two, if you will. Or more. It really does not make a difference because you know that you will return to it or some other work at a later time.  You know, the writing is always at the reach of your fingertips, there on your shelf, when you are most in need.

In a few minutes, a few pages, Berger has opened a way, offered you sustenance and solace.  And for this reason, there is no other living writer like Berger, no other writer to whom you can turn this way, with this kind of abandon.  He is for you, and for the generations. Home.


~~From And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger~~

Originally home meant the center of the world–not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how home was a place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he says, “at the heart of the real.”  In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding choas existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal.  Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality.  Without a home everything was fragmentation.

Home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one.  The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld.  The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places.  Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead in the underworld.  This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestial journeys.


Emigration does not only invole leaving behind, crossing water, living amogst strangers, but also, undoing the very meaning of the world and–at its most extreme–abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd.

Emigration, when it is not enforced at gunpoint, may of course be prompted by hope as well as desperation…But to emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.


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