A pink taxi

A pink taxi

August 31, 2010

Lara Baladi

Lara Baladi's art is truly a celebration of life. Her collages are always on a large scale, representing colorful panoramas of mermaids and starfish, or deserts and pyramids, safari animals, or even night club ravers!

The Egyptian-Lebanese artist's own joyful composure is reflected in her work.I have encountered her at two different occasions, for the openings of her shows, and she listened to my applause with pleasant humility. One of my nephews, who lives in New York, is lucky to inhabit the room with the largest empty wall in their house, just the appropriate space for Lara Baladi's "Justice for the Mother". He sleeps in a room with statues of lions resembling those in front of the NY Public Library, giraffes, the artist's father on a motorcycle, a tiny picture of John Travolta dancing for Saturday Night Fever, some panthers and zebras, and many more figures, all collaged in a stunning compostion three meters long!

When I saw her most recent show however, I was shocked by its gloomy thematic. While  "Justice for the mother" was a celebation of her deceased father's life, in this show, she relived his difficult time of illness. She created a very large artistic production composed of 81 collections of photographs of Arabic coffee cups. Each one is different, placed in chronological order. She had photographed the coffee cups offered to every visitor that came to her father's bed side. Some of the coffee cups had lipstick stains, others were turned over, ready for coffee cup reading, some had small memos jotted next to them, others were in the sink ready to be dishwashed.

I marveled at the idea of her selling them one panel at a time, each with nine coffee cups. The art buyer would then own a piece of a whole, a moment in time, although a sad one for the artist. But who has ever claimed art grows of joy? The best art is a product of sorrow.

Nevertheless what touched me in a most meaningful and personal way was how she identified arabic coffee with sorrow and loss. I refuse to drink Arabic coffee nowadays, as its taste only reminds me of the days we mourned my grandmother, sitting for those four long days of condolences, where they traditionally only offer bitter Arabic coffee and water. I was touched that Lara Baladi shared in the same personal identification as I did, and expressed it in such an artistic way, one that made me smile, as even her saddest piece of art can  bring a smile to one's face.

August 30, 2010

Tamara Drewe

I read about Peggy Simmonds in Le Monde in 2000. I realized that if the comic book "Gemma Bovary", a modern version of  Flaubert's Madame Bovary,  had been translated into French, it meant it had to be good. My husband bought it for me in London as I always prefer to read works in their original language.

 I read Simmond's other comic book, "Tamara Drewe" about four years ago. This time it was an adaptation of a Thomas Hardy's novel, "Far from the Madding Crowd", which I have yet to read.

I'll start by stating that I am not an avid comic book reader. Except for  the classic Tintins, I  have rarely ever finished an "Asterix et Obelix" or an "Archie". My son has the whole collection of Naruto Mangas. I have read some more recent Manga autobiographies out of curiosity. The only other comics I have truly enjoyed are Marjane Satarpi's "Persepolis" when it was a French kept secret, before the dissapointing film came out. At least the film adaption of Peggy Simmonds' "Tamara Drewe" turned out to be impressively good!

The poster as posted above is eye candy for the guys, but might be the only thing that will keep them interested. In the story, as soon as Tamara Drew lands in the middle of nowhere in Britain, all eyes are on her. While the subject is a tad bit feminine (as most British films, except perhaps Austin Powers and James Bond), I can't state that the film itself is a chick flick. It has the intelligence of a Jane Austen movie, without Gwyneth Paltrow putting on her spouse's British accent.
"Tamara Drewe" is a BBC production with English actors (and a random American in his role as an American, in the same way Hugh Grant plays the role of the odd English lover in American movies). Everything British is authentic: the countryside, the interiors of the homes, the accessories. There is an English Martha Stewart, who changes aprons for every scene (strewn with flowers and even chickens), and bakes scones and minced pies, her table laden with British porcelain. The characters all drive Minis, old Land Rovers and the latest Range Rovers. They wear Barbours and Irish knit sweaters. The tea isn't omitted either!  It's unbelievable how much the characters resemble the ones drawn in the comic book, some of them basically identical.  The pace of the movie was very pleasantly quick, as was the reading of the comic.

To those who want to see the movie, run to a bookstore first, buy the comic book, read it in two nights and the third night go see it. In the end, this recommendation is reserved for the female readers of this blog. Like Jane Austen's novels in the 19th century, I think I can claim that the comic of "Tamara Drewe" is chick-lit for the 20th century....Perhaps a sensitive male could venture and give it a chance?

August 29, 2010

Lettres Suisses

In the 18th century, Montesquieu wrote a book entitled "Lettres Persanes", in which he imagined two Persians traveling in France and writing letters to their compatriots about French customs. A new book, reminiscent of that famous novel, is "Marche sur Mes Yeux",  in which a Swiss writer and a Swiss photographer travel in 21st century Iran, writing correspondence in blog form to their compatriots and fellow French readers about Iranian "happy" customs. They went in search of Irania Felix.

My personal formal introduction to Iran and its modern culture was in Professor Chahabi's class at Harvard, while I was studying towards my masters degreee. He asked the large lecture hall a single question that suddenly dusted all the cobwebs of my misunderstanding and demystified my motherland:

"What percentage of Iranian people are Persians?"

 In 1991, only 49% of the population was Persian. It was then that I learned about the Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Armenians, Bakhtiars, and Baluch. I finally understood that Iranians are not all Persian or even Farsi speakers. The rest of the class offered me the historical and political information that I lacked at the time. The talented professor also spoke at length of the culture, which I comprehended but never read about theoretically. I consequently understood better the concept of Taa'rof , the formal and flowery terms Iranians use constantly in their conversations with one another. Taa'rof  is well illustrated in the title of the book "Marche sur mes Yeux", which literally translates as  "walk on my eyes", a saying many Iranians use when they want to insinuate that they would do anything, figuratively, for their loved one, even allow them to walk on their eyes. My own Farsi is still devoid of these lyrical sentences, perhaps out of embarrassment to use them at the wrong occasion, for they are used very specifically. The ones I use more commonly are are "khasteh nabashin" (I hope you are not too tired), and"dastetoun dard nakonad" (may your hand not hurt), both after I have been guests at an Iranian home and have been treated to a delicious dinner for example.

Given my own Iranian heritage from my mother and the amount of time I have spent with Iranian friends, in addition to the trips I have taken there recently, I can claim that I am very much aware of what the Swiss authors write about. However, his close contact with the Iranians, his research skills and his acute descriptions are comendable. He discusses such issues as the Iranian ways of mourning and the veneration of martyrdom. He coins the events of Ashura, the time Shiite Muslims mourn the death of Imam Ali, with a very fine title: "the pleasure of crying" (in French there is a poetic alliteration of the "p"sound: "le plaisir de pleurer"). He evoques the pride in the tears, especially for macho men. Also he informs his Western readers about the progressive stance of Shiite Islam and its openess to interpretation (Bab al Ijtihad).

A few details were even unknown to me. Take the Paykan car that is made in Iran. I didn't know that it started out as a British car that was manufactured in Iran and never stopped being produced there. The author mentions with irony that in this special case the older the car model the better because the old Paykan models were more authentically British!

What was most interesting in the book is how the authors manage to deconstruct typical western stereotypes of Iranian society. He encountered various characters: women in complete "tchador", couples in "sigheh" (temporary marriages), bazaris (merchants),  bassedjis (paramilitary), clerics and artists. The  general atmosphere of Iran as described in this book reminded  me of the large canvases by Rokni Haerizadeh of the streets of Tehran: Iranians picknicking everywhere, people in traffic jams.

 The writer also gives an intimate portrait of Khosrow Hassanzadeh, the famous Iranian artist, who I'd only known from his paintings, those of wrestlers, mothers at their sons' tombs and other traditional figures. Hassanzadeh is a reformed Bassidj who became a liberal apolitical artist. After I read about Khosrow through his eyes, I began to appreciate his art more. It appears to me that it is authentic, real. The Swiss author gave him a certain credence.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the unusual correlation made between Mashad the center of pilgrimage and the promiscuous activities that take place there (ranging from sigheh marriages to prostitution). I also learnt that the pre-revolutionary oppostion meetings (circa 1978) were held at Beheshte Zahra, the large cemetary where the Shah's men respected the immunity of the place and did not harass dissidents. It was there that Khomeiny held his first political speach. However Beheshte Zahra has since lost its immunity and the green revolutionaries of 2009 were arrested there during their own mortuary celebrations. Serge Michel speaks of these revolutionaries at length in the book. He followed them very closely, saw them in their protest movements and read their blogs. He called them the Pop Revolution. It made me smile remembering the same generation creatively playing music in the film Persian Cats.

I was brought to tears of laughter in a chapter called Mehrdad, the story of a soldier who criticizes his unit, which was responsible for stoping the convoys of drugs from Afghanistan. First he admits that they were frightened silly to fight the Afghan drug importers. Most of the time the Iranians just tried to keep out of their way. However when they did catch a heavy cargo once, the Iranian soldiers took some of the confiscated drugs and  got high themselves. The chapter read like an Italian comedy staring Adrien Brody.

Regarding the much politicized nuclear project, the Swiss authors make a valid point: when did Iran ever make an offensive move anywhere? This is a point made by one of his interviewees, but the Swiss do not contradict him.

 In many ways, reading this book made me  feel nostalgic for Iran. I came close to experiencing what the author did when I traveled there  with my brother on a trip organized by Le Monde. Today is his birthday and so I would like to send my travel companion all the best wishes for a very happy birthday!

As I know you will enjoy it just as much as I did, I will pass on this interesting read when I see you very soon.

Happy Birthday and wishing you many many more to come!

Lady Diana's Blue Dress

I find it surprising that  most people remember where they were when Princess Diana died. It has become an event in popular history at the same scale of  John F Kennedy Jr's death or even of  September 11th. I am thus reminded of when my parents discovered the news of the Shah of Iran's death, while we drove through the Loire Valley.

More than her unfortunate death, I have fond memories of Lady Diana's royal wedding, which I saw on TV. We happened to be in London that summer of 1981, which made the event all the more special for me. It also was one of the first "global events" since it was now broadcasted around the world.  My mother had just delivered my younger brother and we vacationed for the first and last time in London. That is the summer I discovered British milk delivered in glass bottles and the Madame Toussaud Museum, which terrified me so much that I in turn scared my brother with tales of dungeon wax men marching to his bedroom at night.

I was eleven when Lady Di got married, an age that is conducive to daydreaming. Finding a role model is what many children do at that age. I chose the shy, elegant, charming bride as mine. I purchased all the memorabilia associated with her. I believe my parents bought me two photo books that I studied with much curiosity. With my younger sister, we used to select which photos were of her and which ones of me, carefully imagining what we would look like in the dresses and gowns she wore. I also had paper dolls of Diana, Charles and Mrs Reagan that Diana had met. Naturally, neither of us wanted to be Nancy Reagan, quickly dismissed as the lady with the big head, or Prince Charles, who was starched looking and boring. Even us children could tell that the royal couple were not well suited.

When we returned  to Dubai, my mom would pour the Nido milk that I abhorred, in one of those memorabilia mugs with Diana's effigy . Diana's smiling face and trademark haircut were not encouraging enough for me to drink the powdered milk, while I missed the fresh British milk.

I brought back other memorabilia.
I purchased a folder for my now more complicated school work, since I was in 6th grade. However, I was too young to understand  that I was attending a French school in the Francois Mitterand days, and the teachers were socialist, not royalist. Furthermore, the British-French divide dates from the War of the Roses and the engagement photo of Diana and Charles exacerbated my French teachers' anti-British feelings.

By 1982, I had convinced my mother to cut my hair short for the first time. I now sported the Diana haircut which gave me the confidence I needed at age 12. Incidentally, it was the year my youngest aunt got married. Her dress was fluffy and romantic like Diana's. She also had a Diana hairstyle and I was her bridesmaid, my first public role.

I obviously wasn't the only one infatuated with Diana. She had fans all over the world, namely, the Pet Shop Boys, the very British group I love, composed a song about her. Here below are  some of the poetic lyrics.

Dreaming of the Queen

Visiting for tea
You and her and I
And Lady Di
The Queen said: "I'm aghast
Love never seems to last
However hard you try"
And Di replied
That there are no more lovers left alive
No one has survived
So there are no more lovers left alive
And that's why love has died
Yes, it's true
Look, it's happened to me and you
Then carriages arrived
We stood and said goodbye
Diana dried her eyes
And looked surprised

Depeche Mode, also my favorite British group alluded to her Blue Dress, the one she wore on her engagement. In the bedroom where all four siblings slept, I insisted on hanging the poster of Charles and Diana as seen above in this posting. She is wearing her blue iconic dress and sporting her sapphire ring. My brother swears that at night, her eyes used to move from side to side!

August 28, 2010

La Bulle d'Air

I found a magical music and arts center for children in Geneva called "La Bulle d'Air". An Orange poster drew me in 8 years ago, when my first born was 18 months. The picture was of dancing elves playing musical instruments. Every summer since, I have enrolled my children in  their  day camp  program.

We began with "Mommy and Me" classes. Once a week, a violinist made us sit in a circle and taught us classic songs, while we played various instruments along with him. It was then that my son discovered the violin and it wasn't long before he took violin classes while still in diapers!

When we left for Dubai, the music classes for infants at Jumeirah Music Center were above satisfactory and  represented an introduction to music theory to my children. However the classes lacked the "ambiance" of those early Bulle d'Air classes. This may be due to the cultural barrier: we much prefer to sing in French for example, but the atmosphere without a doubt was different.

First of all,  there are no grungey teachers in Dubai.  No organic meals are served after class either. La Bulle d'Air must have the largest collection of musical instruments you are "allowed to" handle. When my four year old son took an "orchestra class" there, he played with wind instruments, drums, strings, and keyboards. My daughter concentrated on African instruments and built her own "djembeh" with goat skin. Her teacher was from Burkina Faso and also was a talented guitarist that would get most campers singing simple African songs or more complex French ones. On any day that I pick them up from the lovely and elegant villa that hosts La Bulle D'Air classs, I can always hear guitar or piano notes slipping out into the large garden where kids have their lunch and play hide and go seek behind the trees.

La Bulle d'Air isn't just a music center. My kids have taken drama, arts and crafts and painting, and even interdisciplinary classes that focus on a theme like the circus, the desert or dragons and integrate theater, painting and music. It is truly a center for the arts.

Here below, especially for the French readers, I have added the lyrics to a song the kids have learnt at Bulle d'Air this summer. My favorite part is the "zeste deplace!"

"Connaissez vous l'histoire

(Choubidou bidou ah)

D'une petite mandarine

Qui s'en allait un soir

Au bal de sa copine

En chemin elle rencontre

Un jeune garçon citron

Il lui dit vient chez moi

On va danser le rigodon

Pendant qu'ils s'embrassaient

Pendant qu'ils s'enlaçaient

Le jeune garçon citron

A eu un zeste déplacé

Et en rentrant chez elle

La petite mandarine

A dit à sa maman

Je vais avoir un gros pépin

Et neuf mois plus tard

La petite mandarine

Accoucha d'un bébé

Qu'on appela Clémentine"

August 27, 2010

Lettre ouverte a ma Soeur

Chere Soeur Adoree:

Cette centieme ecriture, je te la dedies, a toi, qui m'a tant encouragee a devenir une blogueuse! Regarde ce que tu as fais de moi....car ce blog, nous l'avons ecrit ensemble. Derriere moi, tu me corrigeais. Tu transformais mes paragraphes en lecture lisible. Jamais tu n'as fait une suggestion de sujet, et seulement une fois tu as refuse de me publier. Car tu me publies, c'est toi l'editeur technique, avec pour aide ton beau-frere, mon mari, qui touche a la technique quand tu t'absentes. Tu es la seule a m'editer. En de rares occasions, tu n'as pas pu le faire, ou alors tu as juge le texte lisible, alors il a ete publie "tout cru", comme celui ci. Une surprise!

Je redige en Francais car le sujet se prete a cette langue. Nous parlons ici de literature francaise. Tu vois bien ou je veux en venir! Nous en avons discute tellement de fois, toi qui es convaincue que la literature francaise est en convalescence. J'ai toujours pense le contraire et je me suis mise a une tache cet ete, c'est de decouvrir les auteurs francais contemporains.

Mon ete a donc commence avec le plus evident: Le Clezio, le prix Nobel. J'ai repris Le Desert que j'avais lu il y a vingt ans. J'ai ete decue, une adulte ennuyee par des descriptions rebarbatives.

J'ai ensuite lu Rouault, Champs d'Honneur. J'ai hesite devant la couverture mais c'est un laureat du prix Goncourt. Ici, j'ai ete surprise par l'humour et la nostalgie de l'auteur. Ensemble, avec Annie Ernaux (La Honte, La Place), je me suis retrouvee au coeur de la France, celle de Maupassant et de Zola, mais a l'epoque de Pompidou. La France dont je sentais encore les odeurs des annees 60 dans les dernieres editions de Jours de France.

J'ai pris du Houellebecq, a contre coeur, peut etre pour te prouver que meme le plus cynique, le plus meprisable des auteurs francais est aussi talentueux. Dans "Particules Elementaires", il choque, mais pas avec autant de crudite que dans Plateforme! Mis a part son cote provocateur, sa narrative est collante, elle t'oblige a le suivre. Son talent est celle d'un conteur (seulement dans ce roman, pas dans ceux qui succedent).

Autant dire que c'est une parodie car Houellebecq est certainement un ecrivain litteraire. Ignorons les sujets et les details vicieux et passons a l'essentiel: son style et sa facon de captiver ses lecteurs.

Ensuite il y a eu cette femme qui lisait un livre a couverture multicolore dans le bus. Je l'ai abordee alors que je ne parle jamais a personne. J'avais reconnu le livre pour l'avoir vu partout dans les librairies. Elle m'a dit que c'etait passionant et que le nom a resonnance anglosaxon etait bien celle d'une ecrivaine francaise. J'ai donc achete "les yeux jaunes des crocodiles" de Katherine Pancol. Dans un autre bus, je l'ai commence. Des son incipit, je l'ai adore. Je me dedie a le lire au plus vite avant mon depart pour te l'envoyer par courrier suisse, au dessus des flots atlantiques qui nous separent.

Cinq auteurs francais differents pourraient-ils te convaincre du caractere dynamique de la litterature francaise contemporaine? Renonces tu a decrier la passivite d'un art toujours tres vivant?

Je rentre a Dubai avec du Marguerite Duras, du Colette aussi a relire. De la litterature moderne qui a inspire tout ces nouveaux ecrivains. Je serais toujours prete a reprendre un defi! Tu es Charlotte Bronte et moi Emily?

August 26, 2010

Le Radeau de La Meduse

I always enjoy reading Ali Khadra's editorials in his position as Editor-in -Chief of Canvas. In the Summer Issue 2010, he asks the important questions we have all wondered about, in the wake of Christies' extremely successful sale of Modern Egyptian Art.

It goes without saying that the Middle East art market, which has become very dynamic in the last five years, fluctuates depending on the results of sales at auctions. Both Sothebys and Christies make excellent selections of art lots. These events are educational as well as commercial. Therefore when William Laurie of Christies curated a superb sale of pieces from the Al Farsy collection, he was setting a trend: encouraging the collection of Modern Middle Eastern Masters. The time may come for a finer appreciation of Omar Onsi and Saliba Dweihi, the latter having been highly recommended by Sotheby's Dalya Islam.

In his editorial, Ali Khadra questions the collectors' picks for understandable reasons. Which artists will make it, he ponders. The answer to his question lays in the pages of his own well documented Canvas Summer Issue. At Basel this year, Ghada Amr and Youssef Nabil sold with success. What these two artists have in common, besides being Egyptians living in the USA, is that they have pushed national and cultural boundaries. Their art rarely alludes to the Middle East and if it does it is because they are revealing their soul or their past.  These two artists, alongside Lara Baladi, Mona Hatoum, Kader Attia, Djemel Tatah, Shireen Nishaat and Reza Aramesh have been trained in the West, and this is evident in their work. Their artistic endeavors do not clash with self censorship or a forced attempt to recreate "home".

If you take a closer look at Reza Aramesh's photographic work, you will notice a few things. He creates masterpieces, without a doubt, consisting of  black and white staged photographs of men in modern urban clothing (jeans, t shirts, sneakers, sometimes bare chested) set inside museum, in poses that are deliberately imitative of historico-journalistic events. This work, which requires research, directing, high standards of photographic vision, is only Middle Eastern because the photographer is Iranian and because, sometimes the images have a political or religious componenent to them. Often, and especially at first glance, the Diesel clad actors fit the "Middle Eastern" terrorist stereotype, but that is an ironic "clin d'oeuil".

I have selected two of my favorite pieces by Aramesh. I have been fortunate enough to discuss them with the photographer himself. He was startled by my analogies, because he had not even considered, consciously at least, that he could  have been influenced by the paintings I had assumed had inspired him. In fact we looked up the "Radeau de la Meduse" by Gericault to discuss my point. The commonalities are the triangular composition of both pieces, with the men accumulated on top of each other, the box prop Aramesh uses as a reminder of the wooden raft and the man with the T-shirt on top of his head like the flag of surrender in the painting. Only the exquisite curtains and the fireplace make it different.

The other photograph of the single shirtless man, his hands tied in captivity behind him and the proud look on his face, so similar to that of San Sebastian, as painted many times during the Renaissance. Only in the photograph, the actor stands on his knees in the center of a perfect circle, checkered the way the floors were in the Renaissance days.

If I can dispense any advice it would be to buy contemporary art that has no cultural boundaries like Aramesh, Neshat (she doesn't just photograph women in veils!), Nabil, Attia, Amr, Baladi and Hatoum. They are great artists no matter their national affiliation.

Contributing Post by Amira: Ramadan 2010 in NYC: a Lesson in Sprituality

This morning, unlike my usually mundane mornings, as I was reading the NY Times and having breakfast with my family, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. My mornings are never truly relaxing, in the real sense of the term. I have my cappuccino with my husband, amidst the chatter of my kids and their cartoons, attempting to read my beloved newspaper, while still feeding them and tending to their needs. But for a mother of two, these busy moments are part of our reality, and so I have simply taught myself to remember where I've left off in an article.

My husband and I fight over pieces of the Times. Depending on who is foaming the milk for our cappuccinos, the other one steals the front page section of the NY Times. The Sports section is almost always strewn onto the floor, to be recycled, except during the World Cup,  the US Open, or maybe the Olympics, which warrants the reading of an article or two. My husband surrenders the Thursday and Sunday Styles to me, some of the more relaxing sections of the Times. We tend to fight over the Science section, every Tuesday, although it’s mostly riddled with anxiety giving information. The Real Estate section is naturally his to read first. In the ‘Dining In’ section, he hands over to me the recipes he would like me to cook for him, which I save in a little pile on the kitchen table. Once in a while I surprise him by cooking one of them for dinner. That’s how we spice things up in our marriage.

But today, and might I add, this week really, I scanned through the front page section and felt alarmed. I have to begin by admitting that I am not fasting this year and feel guilty about it. I didn’t feel capable of handling the grueling hours of fast, without a morsel of food or a drop of drink for such long hours. Summer days in the West are long, and life does not come to a halt as it does in most Muslim countries. I am also still nursing my youngest son, so I do have a valid excuse, but I am not even sure I would have fasted if I wasn’t nursing. That is to say, the act of fasting is an unbelievable feat of strong will. That my community manages to do so, wherever they are in the world , humbles me. I have fasted throughout my life, since puberty, even managing to slip in days here and there from the age of 9. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing. The feeling of peace within is even better. While fasting, your priorities change, your mood becomes solemn, your thoughts suddenly more pure. The tremendous sentiment of solidarity is overwhelming . And yes, when you walk past homeless and destitute people on the streets of NYC, who have no other choice but to starve, you truly understand their sorrow. Although I do not believe fasting is healthy, it is cleansing in both a spiritual and physical way, and by the end of the month, you feel better about yourself, albeit exhausted and drained.

The majority of my family fasts. My brothers have never missed a day of fast, whether for a law school exam or for a hectic day at the office. My sister is fasting in Geneva, from 5am until 9pm, with three little kids in tow and activities to run to all about town. I am immensely proud of them. The month of Ramadan is probably what I like best about my religion as it brings out the best in everybody. This year, being in NYC in the midst of the controversy of the mosque, I have felt embarrassed to have the physical appearance of a white American. I am blond with blue eyes, never categorized as an Arab, much less a Muslim.

And as I read through the NY Times this morning, I suddenly felt anxious, nervous, even uncomfortable. An innocent Muslim cab driver had been stabbed numerous times in the neck and face because, in what he believed was a friendly interaction with a customer, he admitted he was a practicing Muslim. I have often stepped into cabs and, seeing a Muslim name, felt compelled , in an act of solidarity, to ask them if they were fasting. I always leave them an extra tip, as these men work hard, navigating the crazy streets of New York, away from family, and since September 11th, (but let’s face it, since long before that day) in a city that doesn’t welcome them with open arms. And now I wonder, would I dare ask anybody again, without worrying that I am threatening them or humiliating them? Could a pudgy white racist man have altered my relationship with my community because I could be likened to him?

This terrible incident wouldn’t be so frightening to me if it was completely random. It is true that there are lots of mentally insane people out there, and that such things happen all over the country, and to anybody. However, in light of the horrifying commentary about Muslims and Islam these last few weeks in conjunction with the controversy over the Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan, such an incident becomes haunting. The NY Times this week had at least ten articles written about this cultural center, but what is of course fueling the media frenzy, are the emotions. Many New Yorkers wouldn’t consider themselves to be racist, but when they speak of Arabs and Muslims, some begin to show their worst side. A lunatic minister in Florida wants to burn Korans in a bonfire, and although we can claim Florida is provincial, that still feels too close to home for me. Passersby are shouting out xenophobic and racist insults at civil rights supporters of the cultural center. This is a cultural center for God’s sake, it just happens to be for the Muslim community! But this controversy has managed to expose America’s underbelly, the racist past they apparently cannot separate themselves from.

There are leaders who have spoken up for respect and adherence to our beloved Constitution. I have newfound respect for Bloomberg in the way he handled the situation. He has spoken up openly and without shame, even attending Iftar dinners. Although Obama has been criticized for not speaking out enough, he did make an important statement reminding all of the importance of our freedom to practice any religion. Can we expect any more from the man who was called a Muslim, in the most derogatory way possible, when he was running for president ? But where are the religious leaders? Isn’t it their role to teach people right from wrong, to give advice, calm, and educate their constituents about common decency and peace? Will they not summon up the courage to quell the anger rising in these people’s hearts? Priests, rabbis, and imams need to meet, and discuss and not find excuses for this type of attitude. We need an outcry rising through the pulpits and temples and mosques. The Muslims need to be reminded that they should not fear, and that they should practice as they always have. Something needs to be done or we are slowly and bitterly falling into a world reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s, one incident leading to another, hatred and fear growing, and finally a society so divided, people will wonder how we got to this point.

It is true that at least we can have a debate in the US, unlike in today’s Europe where far right wingers are basically neo Nazis under a different cloak. But words of hate and rage need to be subdued. Especially during the month of Ramadan, when more than ever, the majority of Muslims, the normal tolerant ones that do not make the news, are on a spiritual journey with their community. It is truly disrespectful and heartbreaking that so much hatred has managed to penetrate the holiest and most peaceful month for all Muslims. I am impressed by the lack of response by these same Muslims, who have managed to contain their fear, their anger, their shock, before these ignorant people who have politicized their religion. We all mourn the loss of lives of 9/11, as human beings with hearts and souls. But enough is enough! American Muslims need not bear the burden of it. We need not apologize for what happened. It wasn’t our doing.

August 25, 2010

Geneva's Street Food

This posting will make a good sohour reading in the month of Ramadan because if like me you are fasting, it can be torturous to think about food during the long hours without it.   When I wander the streets of Geneva during daylight hours, and all the outlets are open and clients consuming, I know  it is a true testament to my willpower to resist all those temptations.I  have stragenly always enjoyed fasting in the West because I feel the experience is all that much more memorable and challenging.

Let us begin with my favorite coffee outlets. Cafe Aeur is probably my preferred because of its pleasant location on the tram street, where you can spend time casually watching pedestrians walk by. The cafe resides beside its own chocolate store, where you can sneak a few chocolate covered almonds with your coffee.  Cafe Leo, on  the Rive roundabout also has a very good coffee. I think I order the lemon tart with it once a season (and then I am lemon tarted out). The renverse coffee (Swiss cafe au lait) is fantastic at Globus, where you can sit indoors in the department store and gaze at shoppers. I still prefer my sunday personalized renverse at Cafe des Arts, when I step in and the coffee is served without me placing an order. Yet,  I always enjoy being surprised by delicious coffee at random neighborhood cafes, at parks, train stations, especially by that final coffee savored at the airport, at the end of my stays in Geneva.

My children often accompany me on my street food indulgences, and enjoy all of them but for the above mentioned coffee of course. In French, we call it "manger sur le pouce",  or eating on the run but literally translated as "eating from your thumb".

I will begin with our favorite street food. The panninis. Fabrizio Panini started as a one man show. The owner, who could pass for a soccer player, used to serve his customers  from a trailer. The lines were long, his product delicious and so his business grew. Now his paninis are sold in dozens of other outlets and catching a sight of him is a rare thing: "there is Fabrizio!" say my kids.

For sushi, we used to cross the lake by shuttle ferry to reach Mikado, a Japanese grocery store with a few tables to dine there. They also expanded and opened a large restaurant behind our house, with the same concept of self service bento packed meals and have a good turnover. My kids love the shumai and the teriyaki chicken and of course the sushi. I always get side orders of seaweed salads.

For more fish, we go to the department store Manor and buy salmon pizza. These pizza slices are cut from a large three square meter pizza straight out of the oven. We like to sit beside the geranium frilled fountain outside the store, and enjoy our pizzas. The fountain is also a good place to rinse your fishy hands after the meal.

In addition, the Italian grocer in BelAir will make homemade lasagna that you can purchase by the slice and take home to warm in the oven, or deliciously stewed bolognese sauce. He will also cut the breasaola slices you ask for and put it in some olive foccacia bread with arugula (and butter, I can't omit that).

While all these finger foods are delectable, the most unique shopping experience (well not as unique anymore since La Duree is crawling in every neighborhood in Paris and has even been rumored to open at Dubai Mall) is walking into the La Duree store with my daughter. This is a rare occasion and often happens as a consolation after a visit to the pediatrician. The elegant pistashio colored metal door opens and the aromas coupled with the jewel like decor of the shop are feasts for the eyes. My daughter reaches for the counter, on her tip toes, and gazes upon the pastel colored macarons, all stacked in neat lines. She hesitates, asks me to read the flavors, enjoys the enumeration of names such as green apple or rose petal or almond. Her favorite flavor is caramel but she will sometimes venture into a coconut or lemon. She is only allowed to choose one for herself and one for each of her brothers who predictably like chocolate. When her turns comes, she smiles because the salesman with the black tie or the saleswoman with the lace apron is all ears, like a salesperson at Cartier or Bulgari. The order is taken, the salesperson handles the macarons with white gloves, weighs them delicately and requests an exorbitant price. The shopping experience lasts five times longer than the bite it takes to devour the macaron on the side walk as the metal door closes behind you. I wonder if one day,  many years from now, she will smell the aroma of a macaron by la Duree, after not having had one for a long time, and if it will transport her to these beautiful summers in Geneva, like the famous madeleines of Proust.

August 24, 2010

Blindness: The Movie

I recommend the movie Blindness to all who have read the novel by Saramago. Warning! Spoiler alert: if you plan on watching the movie, stop reading now, and come back later to read this review and share your own thoughts about the film! I felt that the movie turned out to be a very good interpretation of an extraordinary novel. I don't say excellent because of one point which I will bring up at the end.

The movie's leitmotif is a white screen that falls like a shutter between various scenes, reminding us of that first feeling that overwhelms the population, as blindness hits them.What is extraordinary in both cases, is that we are either reading or watching "Blindness", and those two activities require sight! One third of the movie takes place at the hospital where the contagious people have been quarantined. This part of the story is certainly the most horrific of the tale. Those who have seen the movie without reading the book advised me that the scenes are gory, even disgusting. They had not seen what the readers have read! In the book, the horrors are juxtaposed in a long dreadful collection of dirty and violent images. In fact, the "asylum" in the film was as I imagined it, brown and clinical, and the entrance where the blind plead for food to the soldiers is precisely how I had imagined it while reading. Perhaps because Saramago was so detail oriented in his descriptions that the film director and I understood it in exactly the same way.

The only new thought that occurred while watching the film was the resemblance of the "asylum" to the sanitorium in Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain". Another artistic analogy is the director's nudes are very Lucien Freud looking.

When selecting the cast, the director of the movie immediately gives importance to the Doctor's Wife (played by Julian Moore) and to the evil blind man (played by Gael Bernal) who leads rapes, theft and uneven food distribution. Bernal's role is surprisingly small. Yet Moore's is dominant and even more so than her character in the book. In the book she is the only one who sees. Through her "seeing"eyes we experience the world around her but because she lives with the blind they don't tell us much about her! Her exclusive sight is a burden because she has to lead and care and also "see" the horrors around her.

Film directors always declare that their films are "loose adaptations" of the novels. In this case, the added American humor is an addition. The bad guy sings "I just called to say I love you" by Stevie Wonder because it suits Bernal to play with sick humor. The director also selects his characters to be multiracial: the first man to go blind is a Japanese who speaks Japanese to his wife throughout the movie. The man with the eye patch is black. None of these details are mentioned in the book, nor is it mentioned that they are all white. The director sets the story in an anonymous North American city while I had imagined it to be an Iberian city considering the author is Portuguese.

The first scene in the book is the best scene. A man gets blind in his car while stopping at a red light. It is also the best scene in the movie. In both cases, we are drawn in by the drama of the moment. The film director offers the first blind man and the doctor very nicely furnished homes. Very little of the elegance of their apartments is mentioned in the book.

Nevertheless, the film and the book do not end in the same way. I got the impression that in the film, the end loses its steam, the editing perhaps poor because  the first two parts of the film take up much of the film, while the denouement is abrupt. Luckily, the director cut out a few scenes in the end, such as the old woman eating the rabbits, but when the blind regain their eye sight one by one in the book,  the director only portrays the first man to regain it. I would have liked to see the impact of each of them. Furthermore, the doctor's wife turning bling was not made clear while Saramago had orchestrated it beautifully in the novel.  For this reason alone, my opinion of the film went from excellent to good. I hope you all liked it too!

August 23, 2010

Tetanus Vaccine

I was recently at my family's pediatrician's office in Geneva,  when I asked the doctor about the status of my three children's vaccinations.

My Swiss doctor is a pragmatic one, who believes, for example, that chicken pox vaccines are unecessary because chicken pox has become so mild nowadays. I can confirm this fact, as when my two older kids had it, I felt they got over it so quickly. In general, in Switzerland, the medical mentality is "less is more". They do not operate on lazy eyes, or dialated kidneys unless they have exhausted all non surgical options and supervised the progress for a few years. They are optimists: children illnesses often subside with time.

My mother on the other hand, has become more cautious as a grandmother than she ever was as a mother. Three of her kids were horse jumpers, and now she worries each time her grandchildren get on a horse! Her instinct may have been good,  as my  eldest son  was once rushed to the ER from the stables in Dubai. But it actually wasn't a riding accident. It was a football accident. He was kicking a ball  around with some new found friends (he  makes friends very easily like his father!) in his jodhpurs and boots.  In the midst of it all, he tripped and ran into the wide open steel window of a stable, ending up a few hours later, with many stitches on his head.

My initial fear was whether his tetanus vaccine was up to date.  A few weeks later I asked his pediatrician. She immediately reassured him that he was, but did mention that adults should  be the ones to worry about tetanus, as the booster needs to be administered every ten years. When was the last time you received your tetanus booster shot?

I certainly couldn't remember. I couldn't think of the last time I had received any vaccine, unlike my sister who lives in the US, and gives herself and her entire family the flu shot and the H1 N1 shot, and panicks as all Americans do. I told her the truth. Courageously I might admit, as we all have a family fear of injections, lasting from our mother. You couldn't give my mother a shot, even if you pinned her down. I remember my grandfather running after her with a vitamin B injection in hand, attempting to coax her into it. Eventually, he would catch her. But that's probably because he is her father.

My kids  watched with a certain feeling of satisfaction, as I pulled my sleeve up and she rubbed the alcohol on my arm and prepared the needle. I had three pairs of eyes assist their own doctor in the endeavor. I held my breath and pretended like I feared nothing. She is a good doctor and  it didn't hurt a bit. She did however mentioned I may experience some soreness at the site of the injection as a side effect.

That night, when I turned in my sleep and my vaccinated arm hit the pillow, I went down memory lane to the accurate date of my last  tetanus shot. Beyrouth, 1982. I received my vaccination and was wearing a blue sleeveless dress. I remember this so precisely because of a photograph my father took of me on that day. I am standing with the then Prime Minister of Lebanon,  Salim Al Hoss, for a souvenir pose. The elder bespectacled man put his arm around me and, as the snapshot was taken, the moment immortalized, I winced in pain because he has touched my tetanus vaccinated arm.

August 22, 2010

The Three Kings: My Three Academic Advisors

When I think of the Socratic method of teaching I always remember Prof. Jeswald Salacuse and his large auditorium of fifty students taking International Public Law with me. I used to sit in the front, the nerd that I always was and listen attentively to the questions he posed before us. His lectures, as in all US law schools, consisted mainly of questions leading to yet another question, and yet again another question, finally leading us to one of many possible answers. This method of teaching would be impossible in a European auditorium, where the deified Professor proceeds to lecture in a often monotonous voice to a large group of "unknown" soldiers! I always think of European undergraduate education as a war, with the student constantly battling with difficulties, fighting for survival and chartering unknown territories.

Instead, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I had Dean Jeswald Salacuse, striding in front of his audience, almost like a talk show host, making International Law palatable, by asking the most pertinent questions. We learned from our smart classmates. We also thought about the questions, wondering if we could each venture an answer; thinking is the most active path to learning. Salacuse always greeted the answers with a smile, or a look of interest, never denigrating anyone, and always encouraging participation rather than intimidating his students. I chose him as one of my advisors when I reached the PHD level. I thought a trained lawyer would make a good combination with an engineer and a historian, my other two advisors.

The historian, Dr. Sugata Bose, was an erudite Bengali from Calcutta who was related to the Nationalist Bose. I had ventured into the intricate world of South Asian studies in his classes and had come out scathed from the depth of its analysis, the complexity of subaltern studies theory, the density of the history. I studied hard and still only managed to grasp the tip of the iceberg.  Thus it made perfect sense when I chose field, Saudi Arabia as my field of study: : I had chosen a "modern state" with a thin layer of history and a quasi monolethic cultural paradigm. However I selected Sugata Bose, the gentle yet demanding and sophisticated historian as a challenge and as a guarantor of the quality of my analysis and thought process.

The engineer turned social scientist was Dr. Andrew Hess. His approach to the study of Saudi Arabia was eclectic. He had lived there as a petroleum engineer and had presented the country as "a traditional country which had experienced the impact of modern technology". His seminar on Saudi Arabia drew me in and I decided to specialize in the topic and wrote my Phd dissertation on "The impact of American educated Saudi technocrats on their society and culture". With Hess, social sciences were a live and concrete study. Our exams were about case studies and scenario building.

Incidentally, the first class I took with Andrew Hess at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy was on Afghanistan. I was cross registering from Harvard. The following year, returning to Fletcher as a full time Masters of Law and Diplomacy student (after a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard), I was sitting in front of Andrew Hess' office when I encountered a fellow student, a handsome Afghan, who later became my husband. And the rest is history....

August 21, 2010

My Own Conceptual Art

Contemporary artists produce installations. Sometimes these installations are a curious melange of objects that require a large display space, or objects that are quite mundane but assembled in an unusual way. Most of the time the installations are video projections. I believe that once I commit to buying a video installation, my comfort level with the medium will alter completely.

A stubborn minority of art collectors, (especially in the Middle East) cannot understand the concept of buying photography at the price of a hand painted oil on canvas. The reluctant purchaser will say: "I can take that photo myself" or "it's just a photo, can't the artist sell hundreds of copies?" with the same logic used a few decades ago  when placed in front of modern abstract art: "my four year old can paint that" or "it's a white canvas".

I must admit that if I considered purchasing an installation, or a now more common idea of a video installation , many thoughts would come to mind: "but why buy a ten minute video, that I would be bored of watching, that would play ad nauseam?" or "would I even bother playing it, dimming the light?" or "won't this video technology become obsolete?" I think a good first step, a leap of faith, would be to buy an important artist, like Shireen Nishaat, and have a film of hers to play ad nauseam. Otherwise, Farideh Lakshai has a solution for the weary like myself: buy her painted canvas with the option to project a video on it whenever you want.

I have never claimed to have artistic talent and thus the following anecdote is merely for humor's sake.  My daughter and I, last year, spontaneously decided to make our own installation , with fine art as the material and photography as the medium.

I own two canvases by the French artist Ben Vautier, always known simply as Ben, who writes two to three word sentences (sometimes the sentences are nominal) recognized by most from his ubiquitous handwriting. He now illustrates calendars, backpacks, hats, tshirts, notebooks etc. Recently his project was to decorate the  tram line stops in Nice: the names of the stops are written in his hand writing, and he has added below each destination, his  clever one liners. For example, one says: "attendre l'impossible" (waiting for the impossible), another says "Ben exagere" (Ben exaggerates). The pieces I own say "Libre de s'aimer" (free to love one another) and "Besoin de l'autre" (in need of the other).

I needed to stretch these two canvases one day. The framing store is two blocks away from my house in Geneva, so I decided to walk,  one painting at a time. When my daughter and I walked with one painting or the other, pedestrians stopped and laughed, motorists honked and waved. I then decided to take a photograph of each painting, in random areas on the way to the framer: next to the traffic light, in front of a bed of geraniums, against the postman's bike, with a coca cola sign. We both had lots of fun doing this little project, bringing each of the canvases to life. It gave Ben the dynamism he thrives on. His art took on another dimension.

The Departure to Boarding School

It was always at the end of August, that, with a feeling of dread in the air, we would finally bid each other farewell in front of our parents' house in France. There was much hugging. Last minute reminders. And of course lots of tears were shed.
Each of us, at different intervals from the 1980s through the 1990s, set off to boarding school in Geneva, an hour's flight from Roquebrune. Those goodbyes occured when we had become seasoned boarders. With much compassion, my parents had accompanied each one of us to school our first year.

I remember the excitement that August of 1985. I was fifteen and it had been our first summer spent in a house still under renovation, in France. My parents had composed a winter wardrobe for their otherwise desert dwelling daughter, which consisted of some hand me down sweaters and a particularly granny looking long coat, some vintage Scottish quilt mini skirts that my mother had worn at the American University of Beyrouth in 1968 (those were so popular that my girlfriends begged to borrow them), a pair of moon boots in case it snowed in Geneva (I took them to the Soviet Union on a school trip and exchanged them for a Lenin bust), and a brand new wardrobe from Benetton, which was a true incentive for me to go to Geneva willingly.

They showed me my boarding room at the girl's villa, introduced me to my Spanish roomate Rosaria who was much younger than me, and didn't speak a word of French or English. With my poor Spanish I memorized: "Apaga la luz por favor" (turn the light off please). My mother taught me how to make my bed with hospital corners, an art she passed on from her mom who was a nurse, to each of her children.
On my bedside table, I had the book  by Brook Shields, "On Your Own", about her own experience when she went off to college at  Princeton. My nails were painted fluorescent green and yellow, and I wore punky black rubber bracelets and leather spiked ones on my wrists, as a true Madonna fan. I was a teenager inspired by 1980s pop culture, always thinking of the movies "Desperatly Seeking Susan", "Flashdance", "Xanadu" and of course "TopGun" and "Karate Kid".

Boarding school was a challenge for me. I had done nothing but daydream the first ten years of my education, and I had a baccalaureat exam to prepare for in three years. I studied past the study hours,  while wearing the back brace my mom had purchased for me to improve my posture . In my free hours, I inked through large notebooks of diaries and pursued my old passion of reading. I also managed to build many good friendships in boarding school.  However, none of the above, not even weekends spent skiing, were sufficient to rid me of my homesickness. My trips back to Dubai on term brakes only reignited the feelings.

My siblings and I are all three to four years apart, so none of us coincided at boarding school. No sooner did I enter college that it was my brother's turn, followed by my sister who  arrived as he was leaving to college. The youngest also experienced the same. Each one of us felt culture shock and some level of homesickness, although with each year, we all felt more comfortable there. Each one of took turns grasping on to our parents by the steps in France, in late August.

Many years have now passed, and we have all grown up and have our own children, all still too young to leave our nests.  This summer in France, as every year, we witnessed la rentree (back to school) in all its glory. The store windows piled up with school supplies, the swallows began their flights back south, in large V shapes. Having enjoyed yet another lovely couple of weeks in the heart of our parents home, we once again packed up, and bid them farwell at the same doorstep, each of us heading in different directions, as the beginning of the school year reaches closer. Now our children linger in the hugs and shed warm tears, as they leave behind their beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, some who live far, as yet another beautiful summer draws to its nostalgically bittersweet conclusion.

August 20, 2010

The Wonderful World of Toys

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Toy Story 3. The movie left me with a fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. The toys felt real in so many ways. They come alive in the movie, and  each toy character is special in expanding a child's imagination during play, even those that are battery operated.

In Toy Story 3, the concept of play was well illustrated. The way children play with toys,  and pretend as is encouraged by educators for preschoolers, the  way they imagine the interaction between a Mr Potato Head and a dinosaur or a romance between a cowgirl and an astronaut (when the obvious would have been with Woody, the actual cowboy!) They pretend objects fly, they lend voices to their toys. The difference between toddlers who misuse their toys and older kids who treat them with care is also developed at length in the movie.

What I most enjoyed was the concept of what happens to those outgrown, lost or broken toys. When I gift my kids toys I choose them carefully. I want the toys to last, so they must be solid and well crafted. I also prefer toys that will captivate them for a long time, not toys that have instant and short term gratification. Many of the battery operated toys (especially the remote control cars and noisy electronic ones) are therefore rarely purchased, although sometimes they are received as gifts. I try to think of whether a toy will have the power to actually entertain and educate more than one child.
Sometimes, the less special toys do end up being given away for charity. My children also gladly offer their favorite toys to their cousins when they outgrow them. They give the puzzles and books to the cousin that enjoys reading and can spend hours putting pieces together. They have given their wooden toys to the baby cousin who is also their neighbor.

For a child, there can be a psychological block to handing down toys and parting with them. It is a difficult task to separate from beloved toys, but knowing that the toys are in "good hands", with children they love, makes it a lot easier and is a consolation.

In Toy Story 3,  I was very touched by the scene in which the grown boy gives his favorite toys to a neighbor. I was reminded of my daughter who recently "donated" her softest yellow stuffed lion, the one that had actually been bestowed as a gift to her baby brother whose astrological sign is Leo, but she'd made it her own. The lion followed her everywhere, was dressed in the most unfitting outfits and never spent a night away from her. However when she met her youngest cousin, she unexpectedly and spontaneously gave it to him.

By pure coincidence, this rainy morning I randomly chose a book from the forty library books we borrow weekly which happened to be Hans Christian Andersen's "The Tin Soldier"! As I read to my daughter this story that is also about toys, I realized how few things have changed over two hundred years. My daughter enjoyed the story. Her focus reminded me of  my sister, who used to grasp onto to every word I read stories to her by this same author,  especially when I added  extra drama to the narrative, the endings always so very sad. My daughter's eyes teared up, but I noticed she is a little tougher than my sister, whose tears used to spill from her eyes....or perhaps I have lost my touch!

August 18, 2010

La Princesa esta Triste

It is a known fact that students enter American colleges with an idea of what they would like to study, and graduate as adults with a very different degree in hand. This is a luxury for American college students who can declare their major in their Sophomore (2nd) or sometimes Junior (3rd) year of college, unlike European students who enter a specialized university from day one. The one exception to this rule in the US, is for engineering students who start their engineering courses toward their major their Freshman year, but if need be, they certainly can opt for a different major whenever they choose.

I am one of those students who elected to change my major a few times, first attempting Middle Eastern studies, but I didn't mesh well with the rigid and classic professor of that subject at Smith College who told me: "It's history or nothing".  I chose "nothing", which turned out to be Spanish language classes, and when I added some  Spanish and Latin American literature classes I finally had found a major!

Before choosing Latin American Studies, I tried one more major: Spanish Literature. For that, I had to take Spanish literature from Medieval days to Contemporary and also a course in Latin American literature to make it a well rounded major. I therefore took two classes in each continent: a Medieval Spanish which I despised (all those beggars sitting at cathedrals and Cervantes were at best sopophoric) and a Modern Latin American which I instantly loved. Perhaps had I done the opposite, Modern Spanish and Early Latin American that I would have stuck to Spanish. Such is fate.

However, I must note that it wasn't the predictable magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, nor the lyricism of Neruda, nor even Isabelle Allende's "La Casa de los Espiritos" that enthralled me and convinced me to specialize in the literature of a continent I had never set foot in. To this day I haven't been there....call me an Orientalist! What did entice me to search further into literature of that region was a specific poem entitled: "La Princesa Esta Triste" by Ruben Dario.

Ruben Dario was a poet of the XIXth who was inspired by the French writer Theophile Gautier, whose motto was "art for art". Dario wanted to write a precious poem replete with precious objects, exotic animals and set in a fairytale atmosphere. The poem is long, I will therefore just include the first stanza. My translation is quasi literal. I always wondered what made the princess sad. It is not revealed in the poem. I believe it is "spleen" that is tormenting her, a french term which is taken from Baudelaire's work, and means profound boredom and despair for no particular reason.

La princesa esta triste...?que tendra la princesa?

Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa,

Que ha perdido la risa, que ha perdido el color.

La princesa esta palida en su silla de oro,

Esta mudo el teclado de su clave sonoro,

Y en un vaso, olvidada, se desmaya una flor.

The princess is sad? What can be wrong with the princess?

Sighs escape from her strawberry lips,

That have lost their laughter, that have lost their color.

The princess is pale on her golden chair,

Hushed is the music of her royal bower,

And in a vase, forgotten, a flower fades.

To fulfill my major's requirement I was required to take a course in Brazilian literature. I found a loophole (I wasn't ready to study Portuguese): Brazilian poetry! I attended classes taught in Portuguese and purchased a Portuguese-Spanish-English dictionary. The professor made an exception and allowed me to write my papers in Spanish but I was deciphering Portuguese verse!

Years later, when I was doing field research in Saudi Arabia, I read the two beloved novels by Marquez: "En el Tiempo de Colera" and "Cien Anos de Soledad". Latin American Literature had become entertaining and at that time for me, possibly suffering from the same spleen as "la princesa", they managed to transport me and entertain me when I needed their magic most.

August 17, 2010

Basquiat at Beyeler

Fondation Beyeler in Basel is a destination in itself. An art pilgrimage I always enjoy. I may have taken the train from Geneva three times in five years  in order to visit this small museum by R. Piano. I love the way it fits in the garden and the pond of lilies there! I decided to return there a few days ago with my daughter, and given that it is Ramadan, I was fasting.

Last year, in August, I happened to also be fasting when I paid my visit and saw the beautiful collection of Giacometti they had at the time. This same collection was at  the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul -de -Vence this summer.  I believe that both of the buildings at these foundations have been designed to welcome Giacomettis. The sculptures can be seen from the outside, because the  1950s/1960s architecture of both institutions allowed for large windows. Both Maeght and Beyeler were avant guard collectors and gallerists: the first chose a Mediterranean village while the latter picked a Swiss city.

The geographic locations of their foundations of course makes for slight differences in their architecture. The Basel museum's stone of preference is marble whereas the one in Saint Paul de Vence is built of concrete and a certain granite that reminds you of the sea. While both collectors supported Giacometti, a rather pioneering stance, I believe that Beyeler was the most vanguard of the two because he also bought many Basquiat pieces and endorsed him fully. He even compared him to Picasso!

The exhibit of Basquiat at the Beyeler Foundation is a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness such a large number of this artist's works in such an incredible place.. The show was curated by Sam Keller, who has worked between Art Basel and the Beyeler Foundation. I believe Keller to be amongst the most  reputable in this field. It was not the  way the art was mounted, or the explanations that made the curating job impressive. In fact, titles, materials and provenance were indicated on very simple stickers next to the paintings, and I even had to search for the English translations with some difficulty.

What did impress me were the tremendous amount of works by Basquiat, most of them on huge canvases, one of higher quality than the next. The provenances, except for four specific ones (MOMA,  The Whitney,  The Rotterdam Museum and the Basquiat foundation), were from private collections. An estimate of 90% of the Basquiats there were owned by smart and privileged collectors such as Mograbi, an Egyptian who also collects Warhol, and also by galleries that are holding on to the last works by Basquiat not dispersed yet (mostly galleries in Zurich and in New York).

Basquiat had a very short , yet prolific career of  fifteen years, in the early 1980s, but his works sold very quickly after his death. These rich works, an amalgam of graffiti, pop and primitive art never really made it to the museums. The collectors are probably still alive and have not made their donations yet. I could foresee any of the large canvases that I saw at Beyeler, breaking records at auctions.

I quizzed my daughter before each painting, an exercise for me to assess the works better. I asked her about the artist's use of colors, the images he chose to portray and what she thought about each of them. We noticed a thread in his paintings of crowns and smiles resembling zippers. She recognized his Haitian heritage from the African masks in many of the paintings, that she had been reading about this summer.

Given that I was fasting, the aggressive colors, pictures, and the sheer amount of paintings made me fell dizzy, in a fantasmagorical way. I almost felt like I was tripping (not that I would really know how that actually feels!).  I lingered in front of a specific canvas that caught my eye, asked my daughter to look closely ,and she also noticed the footprints of Basquiat, or should I say  sneaker prints, perhaps 6 of them. She guessed: that his shoes probably had traces of paint and that he had nonchalently walked over the canvas that he had thrown on the ground...on purpose, because he could!

We made sure to end our visit at the Beyeler by viewing its permanent collection of Ellsworth Kellys in the garden, Jackson Pollocks, Picassos, Mondrians, Van Goghs, large Monets, Lucian Freuds, Kandinskys, and of course Giacomettis. Beyeler  only collects the best. However most of these artists required Beyeler's support and recognition at some point in time . He discovered many of them and invested in their talent. The same talent that made Basquiat larger than life.

August 16, 2010

Teta Mommy's Creativity

I was clever enough, at a very young age, to concoct a  bicultural name for my maternal grandmother. The first part of the name I chose for her was "Teta" for the obvious reason that I am Lebanese and was living there the first 5 years of my life. However, Aileen Mehra, or Teta Mommy (as renamed by me) is not an Arab, but a tall and beautiful American woman of Irish/French ancestry. I therefore added Mommy after the Teta, to americanize it more, probably having heard my own mother calling her affectionately "Mommy". Teta Mommy is the name my siblings call her as well, although my maternal cousins call her "Mommy Aileen" or "Big Mommy", translated literally from the Persian "Maman Bozorg".

My grandmother, still healthy and robust at the age of 86 (she was born on the 24th of December, 1924, and her middle name is Noel), has a sense of creativity that served her during her married years in  Iran in the 1950s and 1960s. She managed to recreate her personal little America within her household. She had married an Iranian technocrat, whom she met while he was getting his medical degree in the United States, who had a modern mindset and respect for her American ways. It was a love story only novels could have imagined: she was a nurse and he was a doctor. I couldn't read John Irving's "World According to Garp" without thinking of their story.

Her cuisine consisted of Julia Child recipes. She also learned Iranian recipes, which  she always tried to cook with less oil, in order to make it a healthier meal. Her spaghetti with meat balls accompanied by garlic bread are famous in our family. She made creamy peach ice cream in the heat of Iran, that my mother remembers fondly. For me, her eldest grand daughter, she used to bake Raggedy Ann shaped birthday cakes. She managed to continue her tradition of cooking when she returned to the United States with her family in the early1980s, but soon her kitchen was taken over by her daughters, who now cook up a storm for family get togethers, mixing Iranian and American recipes with perfect ease.

I like to think I have a very special relationship with Teta Mommy. Along with the delicious cakes she made for me, she also encouraged me to read by gifting me enchanting Fairy Tale books. She always signed the front page with her cursive handwriting. The same handwriting she used to write her letters with. For twenty years we corresponded regularly. Receiving her letters was a great consolation when I was attending boarding school and then college. I also used to share all my thoughts with her, the books I read, perhaps a precursor to my blog writing.

Another talent my grandmother had was  doing crochet handiwork. She has abandoned this hobby now. I am fortunate enough to own a whole collection of Irish sweaters she has crocheted (ranging from the ones I wore as a baby and toddler then handed down to my kids) to the ones she created for me as a teenager. My favorite one is a gray sweater she made for Dai Rahim and which he eventually gifted to me. I  always remember him when I wear it.

Her crochet work extended to the magnificent thick and multicolored throw blankets she made for many of us. They consist of squares of crochet sown together. They kept me cozy during  my many naps in the long Swiss winters and Boston ones too. She used to sit in front of the TV, while watching her favorite movies and shows on AMC, usually oldies or detective series, and crochet. Her TV guide was always sitting beside her, and she was organized a week ahead for what shows she would watch.  Now that she has given up on crocheting,  her gifts are even more special to me.

 Teta Mommy may  also have been one of my main encouragements to work out, as I remember her exercising till she was in her early 80s. Aerobic classes, STEP, even kickboxing and yoga. Nothing scared her. She is health conscious and lean, and took exercising with the same intensity she takes in cooking, reading and crocheting. All her instructors knew her by name and encouraged her at the Canyon Racquet Club in Sandy, Utah where she lived many years with my grandfather. I know that she is still quite active, going for walks with her daughters in San Diego.

Her creativity, her love for books, her readiness to participate in anything fun, mostly with her children and grandchildren, continue to inspire many. She has ten children and a larger number of grandchildren (the youngest one is 4!) and  a considerable amount of great grandchildren. As a teenager, my first (and perhaps only) act of rebellion was to change my middle name, when I received my US citizenship: I chose her name Aileen over the random Bettina, but that is a whole other story.

Intuitive Learning

I am the one who came up with "intuitive learning" when I described my youngest son to his teacher. She couldn't agree more with me. Perhaps I came up with the expression by contrast with my other children. I just want to explain that I don't compare my children to one another. I look at them case by case.

Do you all remember Sleeping Beauty? The story of the twelve fairies that came to her pram and granted her qualities? Well, the birth of my son had something magical to it as well. It was only 4 years ago.

His name, Mirwais, predates his birth. Yes, I was reading Le Monde when I found the name of a DJ that Madonna, my all time favorite singer, discovered and worked with, was Mirwais. He is Afghan-French. I ran to the record store with the spelled name MIRWAIS in my pocket, came back with a fluorescent pink CD and instantly loved his electro synthesized music. My husband and I decided that this otherwise princely Afghan name would be suitable for a second son. We only had one child at the time. Our daughter came along in Nov 2004 and then came August 16, 2006.

We have never known the sex of the child before its birth. Consequently, we have always set names of both sexes aside. This birth was an easy one. Labor didn't last 48h like it did for the first child, nor was it a C section like it was for the second child. Minutes before the "it's a boy!", minutes before I set my eyes on his cute face and sighed "glad it's a boy, a girl couldn't have that physique", my closest friend smsed me (no blackberry in those days): "push, push, it's Madonna's (50th) birthday!"

My son was born on the birthday of my teenage idol and he was named Mirwais after her DJ. Like Sleeping Beauty, it seemed that the stars had gifted him with the sense of Music.

Parents can grow with pre-suppositions and unconsciously push a child into a direction or another because of their gender, physique, personality, or because of the parents' own ambitions. We make sure not to fall into that trap. We have not exposed Mirwais to more music than we have his siblings. In fact, it is his older brother who took on the violin at the ripe age of 18 months. The reason I didn't do the same with Mirwais, who doesn't play an instrument yet, is circumstantial (no Polish teacher followed by a Jewish teacher with that methodology in Dubai). Now that he is 4, I believe it's too early for HIM to play the violin because he is more intuitive than structured and he won't have the necessary concentration level to play the violin like his siblings do.

Mirwais has a musical ear. He perceives sound, rather than hears it. He recognizes tunes despite the brouhaha of daily life. In a shop, his ears are tuned on the background music and as small as he was, he always pointed to his ear with his finger, gesturing me to recognize the tune as well. At present, when he sees the painting of Liberte Menant Le Peuple by Delacroix he begins to sing: "I used to rule the world!" by Cold Play.

The flip of the coin is that my youngest has never had the occasion of sitting through a session of anything without his mind wandering. Cartoons are only visuals that he catches a glimpse of, as he runs around the house (he never walks, always runs). He has a high metabolism and that also translates into fleeting attention. Teachers tell me he is incapable of sitting for long. During the FIFA, besides the symbolism of the blue French team, all he would do is imitate the sound of the vuvuzelas.

And so I link his music and hearing to his language skills. When I moved him from the Arabic to the French system this year, I asked his teacher about his French. I couldn't judge it because I have chosen to communicate with him in Arabic only. The teacher could complain about his dexterity with scisors and some other motor skills like holding a pen properly; also Mirwais did question her authority too often, but his French, to my surprise, was very decent, very satisfactory.

Which brings me to an educational note. I have always been a proponent of the syllabic method of teaching. Daniel et Valerie in French. Sesame street in English ie po pota potato! I have done syllabic with my first child, mixed with my second and will only do global with my third. He will recognize words as he sees them in a single glimpse. (Later this will help with speed reading too). From early on, Mirwais identified emblems like Carrefour and Starbucks (with me it's evident!) but later he read panini no matter which context. Just recently he saw TPG (transport public genevois) and he read it out loud as HA-FI-LA ( bus in Arabic) for him.

A last thing to point out to is that Mirwais is fond of symbols. He loves numbers. He has adopted the number 11. He asks me to tear it out of my Le Monde and holds it in his little fist. He sees it in every book I read to him. I think he was made for Mandarin which are all characters. He may even have the ear for it.

I write this as an academic view point, not as a boastful mother. Certainly other mothers will identify the same intuitive sense in their kid(s) or adults in themselves. I romanticized it with anecdotes that couldn't be missed on Mirwais' 4th Birthday.