Promises, promises: preliminary notes on “The Promise.”

~PROMISES, PROMISES~

I, too, saw The Promise.  Here are my comments in response to the rhetoric and sloganeering that has surrounded this movie since its release:

1. Our story… Is this “our story”? An ambitious man from the villages goes to Istanbul in 1915, falls in love with an Armenian woman who is living with her American boyfriend in a hotel and who seems to have no pangs of guilt about sleeping with two men. That’s a fairy tale not our story.

2. must be told…A fairy tale set against the background of a calamity rendered in an epic style. Can “our story” be told within this mixed frame of reference? Is this the best genre(s) and content — sweeping scenes of carnage peppered with closeups, beautiful sunsets, and tantalizing Istanbul high life a la Masterpiece Theatre?

3. So that the world will know…The world will know what after having seen this movie? That a genocide was perpetrated on the Armenians. Ok. But why? That is not answered, unless one reads the Armenians’ Christian religiosity and goodness in the film as the old, hackneyed and lazy notion that we were Christian and they were Muslim. Not a shred of historical context is available for the non-Armenian viewer.

And for the Armenian viewers who “know” something about our story: That is the most problematic part of the PR-driven comments. Why is it that we want to see the blood and gore over and over–on large and small screens, on book and CD covers? What psychological force pushes us to that, what jouissance do we extract from it?

4. For closure… If a Hollywood production is our path to closure, then our “cause” is in real, real trouble. And what closure? That silly psychological term which has lost all meaning through over-use and over-extension. Couple that with the trivialization of the word trauma, and you have a perfect PR line which rings more hollow with each passing attempt at proving to ourselves that it happened to us.

5. For recognition: We have convinced ourselves that in the cultural realm, the more frequently we show the images, the more explicitly we do that, and the more we talk about it in gruesome ways, the more we increase the chances of the recognition. There is a word for this mode of visual and verbal representation, for this kind of thinking; it shall remain unsaid here.

6. Well, at least it’s done; it’s out there: It’s done, yes–and I have not yet said anything about the movie as a movie, which is the fate of even a second-rate production: to be out there in the world and become a subject of analysis. Not in our case. Our national obsession does not allow for that kind of debate not for this movie, not for all the “genocide art” and “genocide literature” that we have produced over the years. They are there only as parts of the arsenal of cultural productions proving that it happened, as instruments.

End of story.

~~
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“…this city, half fairy tale, half tourist trap.” Thomas Mann

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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 …

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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.~~

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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?

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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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~~~

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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.

Alhambra

Ceiling, Alhambra

[All photos: Tamar Salibian]

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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.

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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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