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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…little town of Bethlehem….

Reposting from 20013, Nada Atrash’s moving memoir of her childhood’s Bethlehem at Christmas.

Passages Home Blog

Pen drawing of Bethlehem by Jan van Scorel, 1520. (Photo:British Museum) Pen drawing of Bethlehem by Jan van Scorel, 1520. (Photo:British Museum)

This evening, all across what used to be called the Holy Land, Christmas celebrations will be held in ancient, weathered churches.   The most emblematic of these celebrations will, no doubt, be the one held in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem itself.

I was born in Bethlehem, as strange as those words sound here, in Boston, so far away from the original site of the Christian story, this Anglo Christianity so foreign to the way we celebrated the three Christmases in our part of the world.  As Nada Atrash writes in the essay below, tonight marks the first of these three Christmases–the English, the Greek, and the Armenian.  And though my Christmas is almost a month away–January 19–tonight opens onto a path back to childhood memories when the words Holy Land carried a strangely sweet, innocent meaning.


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Aleppo, of memory…

Elegy for Aleppo.

Passages Home Blog

~~I wrote this article in 2005, and could not get it published although several “major” US newspapers showed interest only to withdraw at the last minute.  I can speculate, but that’s an obscene luxury now that Aleppo has been reduced to a ghostly shadow of its past glories.

Still, this is the Aleppo of my memory, our Aleppo.~~

Mandaloon Hotel, Aleppo

Halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River, Syria’s second city, which the locals call Halab, is home to some 5 million inhabitants, 15,000 taxis, and a 5000-year history of military invasions and mercantile traffic.

In the last few decades, Aleppo has also become the destination of choice for many European tourists who are lured by its architectural splendors, exceptional cuisine, and atmosphere of urbane sophistication and traditional hospitality.  “Aleppo is the next big thing,” says a Aleppine  hotel-owner.   “Barcelona, then Marseilles.  Now it’s Halab!”

The 1.5 -sq. mile…

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~Re-posting:  This writing was originally posted on May 29, 2013. ~

In Jordan: The return of the second native language

You know the moment, an hour or two before you are to land in a country you know well, have left for some time, and are now returning to it.  The country may be your native or adopted homeland; you may have left it by choice or necessity; your return likewise, by choice or necessity.


The important thing is that you’re coming back to a place that’s known and unknown to you, whose language you learned and loved as an adolescent but which you use now only to listen to (and read) the news on Al-Jazeerah or Al-Mayadin, to pepper your English with words from your past, to make your English alive, breathing and breathtaking.  Your stomach is a knot of tangled viscera; your heart is beating fast; your hands are sweating.

You’ve arrived, and nothing resembles what you have nurtured (or banished from attention) in your memory. Even the airport is not the same. The old one was pretty bad; this one is so new that you’re afraid to walk on its floors.  And your Arabic is rusty, has gone lazy with lack of use.  You may not even be able to put a sentence together, to ask a question at the passport control.  That’s the real trouble that awaits you in a couple of minutes.

The passageway to the new Amman International Airport is long and resembles nothing like the old one. It opens onto a hall on whose left sides are the passport control booths. Bu where is the currency exchange booth?  For a moment you panic and even wonder, in your irrational state, if you’re in the right city, the right airport.  You have to ask someone, in the native language, in your rusty, flaccid Arabic, incurring shame and ridicule for sure.

You follow a line of people going to the right corner of the hall. It’s done, no words spoken, no embarrassments.  And now you’re at the passport control, your identity and your forgotten language wrapped into one existential mess.  Now, you have to speak in your native second language.

How long is your stay?  The official at the control is a young man, kind and soft-spoken.And before you know it, your Arabic words rise from your throat, roll off your tongue, and slide across your lips.

138275The conversation continues, amicably. Perhaps he is amused, you wonder.  But you don’t follow that line of thinking because suddenly, mysteriously, you are again in one of your homes, the home of your adolescent Arabic which you spoke and wrote and read and recited.  This love has resided somewhere in the back chambers of your heart, but this evening, on this arrival, it seems as though you were speaking it for the first time, each utterance new, untried, pure even.  The eternal circle of leavings and beginnings, and your  words the threads that tie the circle’s two ends, “to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot)

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