A pink taxi

A pink taxi

September 30, 2010

The Iranian Hospital

It was another era.

In the 70s or 80s, Al Wasl Road didn't extend all the way to what was then the Chicago Beach, now renamed the Mina Salaam hotel. That was considered very far and you could only reach it on the single lane Beach Road, past fishing villages, now replaced by strip malls and nip/tuck clinics.

Al Wasl Road used to be called "The Iranian Hospital Road", the hospital having been founded by my grandfather, Abu Torab Mehra. It was a grand hospital, providing the brand new nation with state of the art health care. The building's architecture is reminiscent of Iranian architecture, its arches and tiles worthy of a miniature painting.

In order to attract the best doctors from Iran, my grandfather built an accompanying infrastructure for them. They enjoyed modern housing, on campus or close to the hospital. A very large and beautiful garden surrounded the central buildings: an oasis for an emerging desert city. In the garden, discreetly hidden behind the main building and the doctor housing complex, was a large swimming people for their recreation. Fridays, the doctors and their families gathered there for chelo kebab which was always delicious! We were part of the "faculty family" and we stood in line for self service rice and koobideh on trays. I still remember the single orange or apple for dessert.

There was also  a set of swings and see-saws for the doctors' families and the children who visited the hospital. I often enjoyed playing on hospital grounds with my cousins. An elder paternal cousin and my youngest maternal aunt once babysat me there. I fell of the see-saw and broke my arm, and of all places on these hospital grounds! I twisted my arm in the cast and  have since kept the souvenir of the fall: a strange twist in my elbow, which I call my trademark!

This small misfortune wasn't a discouragement from taking my sons to this same hospital, many years later, when accidents have occured: a broken wrist or stitches. There is a such a large turnover in the cast and stitch rooms because of all the workers who come as a result of  accidents in the workplace. Indeed, the hospital is a quasi charitable organization, with medical care subsidized by the Iranian government. Even the drugs that are prescribed are given free of charge to the patients... well, those patients who are willing to swallow elixirs with exclusive farsi labeling.

Abu Torab Jr, my son, asked me recently about the friendship between  my grandfather and the Sheikhs of Dubai. How did "Jedo Torab" know Sheikh Muhammad? I told him that the present ruler must have been in his late teens when my grandfather met him. My grandfather also knew his father, Sheikh Rashid, very well. He frequented his majlis and probably had much in common, as the ruler was building a new city in which my grandfather was an active participant.

Today, In the heart of Satwa, once the "Irantown" of Dubai (gradually changing into a little Manila), the Iranian Hospital, despite the change of regime, has not altered except for renovations and some growth. Only the swimming pool has been removed. I often personally benefit from the good will of the institution. I went for my second pregnancy test there and was blessed with a warm "mobarak khanoum" (congratulations madame).

My husband has his own anecdote of arriving with a swollen finger, his new engagement ring put on his right hand, which had been priorly injured. The doctor took a look, called the maintenance man, who came with huge pliers and  was advised to cut the gold ring off his finger. The ring was cut in half (but not the finger thank God) and was melted at the gold souk for a new one.

I always remember my grandfather when I enter the gardens, cross the corridors or walk to its adjoining polyclinic. A very adequate anecdote expresses my grandfather's philosophy: he once awaited the arrival of health officials and inspectors from the Home Country, Iran. He stood at the entrance of the hospital, elegant in his searsucker suit. The cars halted, and just as the VIP stepped out of his chauffeured limousine, the man decided to spit. Nothing bothered my grandfather more than these unhygenic bad habits. He preceded his hello by bending to the area the guest had spat on and wiping it with the silk handkerchief he had in his lapel pocket, in front of a stunned audience.

Sometimes, when I drive by the Iranian Hospital, I feel tears stinging my eyes, because I miss my grandfather so very much.

September 29, 2010

Open: A Tennis Champ's Autobiography

"Open" isn't merely an autobiography. This one reads like a very good sports commentary as well. "Reading" about the matches felt as though I were watching them all over again. However this time, the vantage point is at Agassi's eye level, on the court, in his mind.

His narrative is pleasantly detailed, even superfluous at times.  However, they satisfied my curiosity. He explains the intricacies of the competitive game, the accessories of tennis that mean so much for a meticulous player like himself, for example,  how the grip of the racket has to be personalized. Indeed, I learned many tennis trivia, such as the difficulty of moving from one type of tennis court to the other: hard, grass, clay, and the impact such shifts have on the body.

If I exercised my memory, I could probably remember the most remarkable games he has played; at least when and where he won the grand slams. The book is therefore a Titanic kind of story, because we know that his ship will eventually sink. Agassi, as we all know, is retired today.

The narrative is catchy and unpredictable. Most of the time, we are surprised by the outcome, as Agassi himself seemed to be. But we don't have to be a good tennis player (which I am not), just a good tennis fan to know that you play worst if you play against someone whose game is inferior to yours. Agassi confirms it: "I am at my worse against lesser opponents". It feels good to hear it from him. I was not speculating after all!

Agassi has the charm of the vulnerable champ. He has always cultivated that image. In this book, he explains his feelings of vulnerability, the ones I could decipher on his twisted brows. His grand slam games are like arena fights or boxing matches: Indeed, his dad was a boxer and trained him to become a "boxer with a racket".

He describes his opponents well. These are often famous, perhaps not charismatic. He is often reverent. However, sometimes, and with humor, he admits his antipathy. Take Chang, who demands God's protection on court. "I beat Chang and savor every blasphemous stroke." There is no doubt Andre is always the "bad boy" ont he court. Did he consult Steffi Graf, his spouse, when he used the German word, "doppelganger"(his double in name) to talk about his most decisive opponent: Andrei Medvedev, the man he faced before winning his fourth different slam?

In the post- match against Baghdatis, the imagery of the locker room resembles a scene from the film "Rocky". Agassi makes a clear statement, with fancy vocabulary: "tennis is non contact pugilism". The tennis players are wiped out and acking from injuries. His opponent could be a lion, or a bull and he is a Roman gladiator despite himself. He is modest in admitting his fear, he is honest in describing his opponent. He does not pretend to be "above it" because of the spirit of sportsmanship.

What is surprising is that, even in the late eighties, a champion like Agassi, wouldn't have thought of getting a fitness trainer sooner. Doesn't a tennis champion or even a golf, swimming, soccer athlete need body conditioning? I remember wanting to join the swim team in college in the late eighties and being required to do weight training as well. (I thought of it as being too time consuming and decided thus not to join the team). In this decade, even all the desperate housewives, one of which I can confess to being, have fitness trainers!

He openly talk about his addiction to junk food. I therefore wasn't all that wrong  when I told my kids, in extremely simplified terms. "Why did our hero lose and stop playing tennis? Well he became old because he stopped eating his veggies. So did Zeinedine Zidane."

Although Agassi became too old for a tennis career, I thought he was quite young to write his autobiography, Agassi now  a retired champion, comments on his childhood. I peeked on the jacket of the book and the New York Times Review of Books coined it as a "bildungsroman". Another  adequately used german terminology for a coming of age novel,  like the epitomous "Catcher in the Rye".

Hilarious childhood stories abound. But also sad ones. The story almost reads like "David Copperfield" or "Tom Sawyer". His childhood is bitter sweet. Agassi has a harsh father and an even harsher coach, Bollettieri. When he becomes a teenager, he chooses to rebel. The look he first brought to court was really his own. He decided on the mohawk and the now trademark earrings as a way of getting across to the tyrant Bollettieri. The latter, who recognized his talent, gave in to him because he could predict his success. What is most noticeable is how resolute the man is. Agassi can be so stubborn!

Agassi has jazzed up tennis, the ultra conservative sport, with his denim shorts and Las Vegas attitude. He has also made it an emotional game; bringing his heart, tears and feelings to the court. That is how I became a fan. He seems to have jeopardized his health and well being for our entertainment. He was an idol and I appreciate his sacrifices.

In the book, he does use another German term (that I looked up with curiosity) : "wunderkind", which is child prodigy, to describe Roger Federer. I have been very fortunate to watch them play in Dubai, not atop Burj Al Arab as they did for fun on the helipad, but a real match. Agassi lost. My son and I dried our tears and transferred our affection and attention on the" best tennis player ever": RF!

Andre Agassi had passed the torch. In his own words: "I can't help but stand back and admire his immense skills, his magnificent composure. He's the most regal player I've ever witnessed." Agassi became a king maker by expressing his reverence and respect for Roger. In his American English he says: his "jaw breaks" in amazement.

Long live tennis!

September 28, 2010

Open: Confessions by Agassi

I held the paperback book with caution. The cover picture was glossy and I didn't want to bend it. On the cover, was the close up photograph of Andre Agassi, an illustration to his autobiography. A very nice photograph of him. I say this without all the bias, some of which got in the way to purchasing the book in the first place. My husband gifted the book to me, a token of love, because he knows how much this tennis player means to me.

 I am not a reader of autobiographies. I know they are not literature nor do they pretend to be, and since I am not entertained by them in most cases, I abstain from reading them. Second, I have followed Andre Agassi from the beginning of his career in 1986 (when I was 15) till his last professional game in 2006 (when I was 35). Twenty years of being a fan. I didn't want my image of him to be altered by confessions. I held on to the image I've kept of him as a fan. The way he always  looked at the four corners of the court at the end of a match, and bowed for the cheers, his fingers to his mouth to kiss the public in thanks.

The title is perfectly chosen: the first connotation "Open" has in regards to Agassi is tennis. US Open, Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. I have rarely missed Agassi playing these tournaments.  Truly, in this book he opens his heart. His first confession is that he hates tennis. It is hard to understand that from a man who has the talent and also the "openness" to admit it to his fans, some of whom love tennis only because of him.

His second confession, is much less significant but as sincere, and it could have been kept a secret, but he chooses to divulge it here: his famous shaggy hairdo was a wig!

He also doesn't leave out experimenting with various narcotics. He doesn't leave out his love life. He got attached to Brooke Shields the same way he got into tennis, against his own will. He never mentions a derogatory word about her. It was always his fault. He just couldn't adjust to her. I would add that they married at a bad time in his career as well. I know he rose again in tennis after their divorce.

The cover photo is certainly an illustration of the openness. We do not see his body,or more specifically his tennis instruments: arms and legs. We see a very close up of his face, almost the reflection in his pupils. Agassi was always a player who revealed his personality. On the court, he was open in his expressions. Hence the feeling, after so many years as a spectator of his games, that I know him.

The incipit of the novel begins with "I open my eyes". The style is franc. The man has always been candid. Perhaps, he has not  actually written the book (unless he is a sportsman with a wonderful penmanship). Regardless of who wrote it, the style goes with the perception I have of him. If he did hire a ghost writer, credit to him/her for capturing the spirit of Agassi. It is written in present continuous even when relating to past events ex: "my father is driving me..." which gives it Andre-speech. The vocabulary at times is even savant: "segue" for example is a word I had to look up! (Transition in conversation)

There is a lot of humor too, because Agassi is honest and his honesty brings comedy to the narrative. His attitude on the court, namely his swearing (at himself) and the way he reacted to reprimands, made my husband and I laugh our hearts out (yes, those passages, I read aloud). Both of us remembered the body language and the attitude of my favorite player.

In the opening chapter, I was overwhelmed by the intimacy of his tale. The book begins with the moment he wakes up on the last day of his career. How can you start a book with a first chapter called "the End"? Between the Beginning and the End, there is a battle. Andre is constantly struggling with his dislike for the game of tennis but playing it anyway. His game is an inner game: quitting, starting again, quitting, starting again. Or losing, winning, loosing, winning. A battle between his good and his bad will. He strays and he comes back. Isn't tennis a constant stop and run game?

The book has that "if I were a fly on the wall" feel, where Agassi tells it all: the moments backstage, getting dressed for the match, heading out to it. The small preparations and the mental challenging he does to himself.

I thought Agassi's image would be scathed by the book. Everyone was whispering rumors to me: "apparently, he...", "did you know he tried...". Instead, after I read this book, I felt more endeared to him than before it,  when I followed each and every match.

I still remember meeting him in Dubai, once at a practice session at the Aviation Club. His mind was elsewhere. I came, baby in hand, and he barely signed an autograph. He describes those moments of absent mindedness with the fans in his book (making me feel better,  perhaps it wasn't personal). At the Dubai tournament against Federrer, when my son and I lost our voices cheering him, with the same French "Allez Agassi" (that he mentions hearing at Roland Garros), Agassi lost. It was the End (as titled in his first chapter).

September 27, 2010

Lack of Inspiration

Blame it on Agassi, or my beloved routine.

I just cannot find the inspiration. Where is my muse?

Even though I was in a sleepy town, I was able to come up with the minute things to write about (there is a correlation between the quality of the coffee and the inspiration) . Now I look around, in this vibrant city, and nothing pops in my mind. Not a memory, not a thought, not an opinion.

I tried going to Starbucks for a caffeine high but I soon discovered that the coffee is too mild (it gets a C). It doesn't turn the bulb on. I alternate with Cariboo and despite the grade B coffee there, still nothing. Only once, at Barista (grade A) did the light bulb shine bright with a pilates posting.  That is when I typed away.

Inspiration, where have you gone? Why haven't you hit me, like a brick at a traffic light?

Perhaps I have fallen behind in my Le Monde reading, and no movies have been worthy of a critique. I went to the premier of Wall Street II: it would take me a sentence to opine on it. It is a chick flick with remnants of finance. I hate it when movies are customized for the largest common denominator!

Agassi has distracted me! All I do is read his book and write about it. I have been so engrossed with his book that I will now post TWO entries on the tennis champ. Sorry for those who don't like tennis, or sports.

I was asked the other day: how is it that you get so involved with sports icons? It's a childhood thing, I was a tomboy. Then, as a mother of boys, it just continued. Choosing one athlete over an another, a team over another always starts with associations: the French soccer team or the originally Iranian Agassi.

I type this preview of the up and coming double entry on Agassi. I hope the sequel will be more substantive than Wall Street II. Perhaps once I post Agassi, I will get the distraction out of the way and a cup of Barista will get me back on track!

The brick must hit me and the bulb must turn on!

Crayons and Clocks

We constantly use objects and produce and consume them. Industrialization has made them banal and accessible. They become trivial to each new generation. I am a 70s child and certain objects remain unique, and a few of them are fetish.

Arman, the French artist from Nice, recently deceased, has placed the object at the center of his art. His favorite one is the violin. He has painted them in all colors, accumulated them in sculpture, painting or even taken the real violins and broken them in pieces to celebrate the pieces of wood.

Unlike Damien Hirst, who was undoubtly inspired by him and who accumulates, in a hygenic, esthetic order that is closer to todays mentality, Arman was a deconstructionist.

Breaking the very fragile musical instrument is not an act of revolt, it is a glorification of the object. His message may be: "the violin in all its forms is beautiful, the one that is perfectly tuned is the same one that I just broke. I broke it so you could see it's intestines. I gathered the bits and pieces in this epoxy cube so that you can keep it forever. In fact the plastic won't break and you will keep these broken bits forever."

Daily, I wake up to the accumulation of alarm clocks by Arman, standing gracefully in its plexiglass, on my bedside. These silent alarm clocks are the traditional round ones with two bells on either side. He has taken twenty identical ones and broken them, as anyone would dream to do when awaken by its "Drrrrrrrring!" Their guts, springs and mechanisms are out, their arrows are flying all over the place, the quadrants now useless.  Arman humors me early every morning.

I love crayons, Caron D'Arch Swiss crayons. My uncle, Amo Bahram, the husband of my second aunt, once gifted me with a set, kept in their tin thin rectangular boxes. Till this day, I remember how the colors were aligned. I also always remember my uncle's generosity. I considered the crayons to be beautiful and precious. This is why I would like to embed them in plastic as a beautiful ornament to admire. This is obviously not my idea but Arman's because he has a few pieces of those crayons, preserved in the "sacrophage" of plastic, accumulated in the hundreds, and colorful like a rainbow. At every art fair or art auction, I score for this piece of art: the accumulation of Swiss crayons.

Arman has accumulated golf Ts, paint tubes, toy planes and toy cars. He has accumulated chupa chup lollipops too. That work signing him of with certainty as a very talented pop artist.

September 25, 2010

A Golf Vignette

What were we thinking, playing golf , in September, in Dubai?

Granted, we had  just gotten back, slightly over enthusiastic about starting again and my son has signed up for a par 3 tournament next week, for which he needed to practice. He took the initiative to play on the 9 hole par 3 course at Emirates Golf rather than at the location of the tournmanent, Creek Golf, even though the first one is a tougher course.

We began the golf game at 9am precisely. We were holding up well after the first two holes. But slowly, as the sun ascended, we got hotter despite the light clothing we were wearing, the sun screen,  and the Roger Federrer caps. It was obvious that sweating would be the best and the only way for us to combat the rising humidity.

My son looked at me and attempted a valid complaint: "Isn't it hot?"

"Don't think about it," I responded. "Sweating is good for you. Just be zen. It's like bikram golf!"

September 24, 2010

The News

It is a mystery and an a feat, how my household survives without TV during the school year.  My children do complain and then O.D. on their programs all summer long. Most people are surprised that my husband and I accept the sacrificefor our kids sake.  But everyone invariably asks us: "Don't you miss watching the news?"

They are probably referring to CNN International and BBC World. To be honest, I can totally live without those channels, even though I give Hala Gourani the credit she deserves. Although we miss on "breaking news" and Obama's speeches, we survive on the written press and the internet. In fact, from the USA, I miss NPR news on the radio more than I ever miss CNN!

In strong paradox to what I have mentioned above is my behavior during the summer months. In Switzerland and in France, the 8 pm news becomes a family ritual for which I am the enthusiastic conductor. I don't watch anything else on TV in Europe. However, as soon as "Le Journal de 20 heures" turns on, as the French call it, I push everyone and everything aside, and take control of the remote for a half hour. I switch channels from France 1 to France 2, depending on what is being covered.

In France,  news coverage is not sensationalist. It is a soft ritual of domestic, regional, international and cultural/sports news. Its slow tempo relaxes me. The presenter has a monotone and familiar voice, rarely fluctuating with a smile or two. There is no drama, even in the even of a catastrophe. Mostly, we watch important trivialities: olive picking, the infamous French strikes in transportation, baccalaureat results, President Sarkozy's official and non official trips, ballets at Avignon, the G8 summits, traffic congestions for vacationers. I insist my children watch too. They have become accustomed to the randomness of the news stories.

I always remember my two grandmothers watching the news. The Palestinian one used to watch the "Akhbar" of the post colonial Arab world, always dramatic. The American one settled in her armchair, with a bowl of fruit, for the 6pm news with Peter Jennings or Dan Rather, with even more drama in a post 9/11 world.

The evening news truly is a down time for us all.

September 23, 2010

Think Pilates

I should have written about pilates long ago, given how passionate I feel about this "sport". Nothing comes between me and my pilates mat! Originally, I began my classes with a characteristic nonchalance. I thought pilates would be a fitness program, a simple activity. At the eleventh hour, about to quit, something clicked and.....I was hooked.

At first, the passion was compulsive. I had to go daily, blindly, religiously. My body did the work but the mind was somewhere else. I thought the activity was relaxing so I allowed my mind to wander. I returned to that happy childhood daydreaming trance.

I am not sure when I began to change. Perhaps I have forgotten the sessions of sermoning, the exasperation of the instructor, even the anger. I certainly remember his patience, effort, dedication and skill. I was told to "listen", to "concentrate". I tried, yet I didn't understand the level of mental involvement. I fine tuned my "listening" and I shut off the world. I concentrated. That is when I "understood" pilates (and I relaxed even more). Pilates is about serenity. Breathing properly and NEVER showing the strain on our faces. That just consumes unnecessary energy.

When I began to understand the various exercices, I moved away from the misconception that I was just there "to work my abs and improve my posture". I could work on my arms, my hamstrings, my abductors. I was performing a full body work out and exercising in an extremely safe way. In fact, the "work out" in the studio (which is the base of my sports routine) facilitates any other sport I want to do: golf, bikram yoga, swimming, stair-climbing and occasional skiing (and for those who know me well, dancing the night away!). The stretch is best described as a "self massage". Bring your tired or sore muscles to a pilates class and they will be all released....till you wake up with sore muscles because you worked areas of your body you never knew existed.

Gathering all my humour and lack of modesty,I must confess that I didn't know I had sit bones till I was thirty eight and I was asked to sit on them in order to align my posture! Best of all, I "transfer" that posture outside the studio, the pilates part of my brain switches on and demands that I sit adequatly, insuring that my chest and shoulders are positioned in the proper range.

Much of pilates is performed while lying on your back. The beginner's sessions involve a lot of "pelvis tilts" that properly align the spine. The beginner will also learn to "stalk the spine one vertebrae at a time", or peel it off the mat. These motions have entered my subconscious and when I am laying in bed, even sleeping (I suppose), I am actually also adjusting to the correct tilts and movements to insure a restful pose for my spine. Tilting the chin by a few centimeters allows you to straighten your spine from the neck down and makes for a much comfortable position.

And this is how I have integrated the movements into my daily life and activities. I stand with my body weight balanced on both legs, avoiding the tilt of the hips to one side. While driving, I scoop in my stomach. I also reach above with my arm and not with my shoulder. My children solicit me while they sit in the back of the car and I send water bottles, or kleenex boxes, or a simple affectionate hand squeeze, with a gentle movement of the arm behind that reminds me of a certain position in "stomack massage" on the reformer!

A good posture gives me the extra centimeters to stand tall, walk and sit with a certain confident stride. The feelings of nimbleness and energy that accompany the practice of pilates can only be translated in well being and self confidence.

Just recently, my children were climbing a very tall beautiful tree, with ropesof rubber tied into ingenious bridges and ladders. One of them lost confidence, and complained of vertigo. Despite my parents reminding me that I was almost 40 and that I shouldn't try, I took up the challenge to teach my kids by example. Without hesitating, I climbed that  tree, remembering that pilates had an exercice by that name, also admitting to how frequently I have hung from the cadillac without fear.

In the pilates studio there is no such thing as "I can't do it".

September 22, 2010

Solar Energy

I 've left sleepy Geneva for vibrant Dubai. I am glad I dozed off for two months in a place I fondly call "an urban village". However, I was becoming eager to return to Dubai for the new school year.

No sooner had I landed in Dubai, that I could feel the vibe, the good karma. Dubai is very real and has so much to offer. People may complain about the half-hazardness of it all but I see beyond that. I realize that this NEW city is doing a very good job at managing itself, as serving its population decent services and superior entertainment.

In fact, I call it ordered chaos (coincidentally Third Line has a show entitled Controlled Chaos, how did we think up the same oxymoron? It must be the ambiance). For example, I had to renew my residency, and the whole process was smooth and far from frustrating. Granted there were hoards of people, and luckily in my case, women only standing in line, but they had a system where a man moved us along like cattle from one room to another, where we were pricked for a blood test and x-rayed soon later. I was very impressed with the Dubai government services. It made me think of all the challenges the UAE government has to serve us with transport, very basic health, education, recreation, security. We live in a clean city and we are fond of its agreeable life style.

For families, opportunities abound. Varied school systems, sports and arts and entertainment galore. Dubai has the large scale entertainment and fabulous energy of Las Vegas without its sleaziness (or at least not out in the open).

The extraordinary thing was that this "Vision" was not a desert mirage: it was real. We have our skyscrapers, our indoor skating rings and ski slopes. We have our neighborhoods and our road grids that connect them. We also have lovely Nathalie, on 92 FM, spinning records and good vibes for our sunny drives from here to there.

People NEVER leave Dubai willingly, they always leave half heartedly. Foreigners  often complain that there is a lack of permanence, a sense of vulnerability. Do they instead prefer to pay taxes and access that comfort back in their countries?

From September till June, I enjoy living in Dubai. The constant sun, the reliable services, the impressive talented people who live here, the always-open work ethics, the burgeoning art and cultural scene, the energetic athletic environment. It is solar energy that fuels this oil state!

September 21, 2010

Self Portraits

There is a fine line between a thoughtful self portrait and narcissism. If we nuance it more, a self portrait can also be seen as the most sincere portrait of an artist, because it is often a reflection of his inner most thoughts, a way for him to reveal his subconscious, in the same way a poet writes a sonnet.
Most recently, we can discover self portraits of artists through the media of photography. Also, I love seeing movie directors who make a more or less discreet appearance in their films: Woody Allen often has a long role, whereas Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and M.Night Shymayalan make very subtle and sudden appearances in their films.

It must be a difficult task to paint one's self. Our external appearance is the one we know the least. Julian Opie simplifies his self portraits, as he creates the same painterly "abbreviations" to draw his own features ( two dots as eyes, smaller dots for nostrils and a line of a mouth) as he uses for all his family members and friends. Despite the commonalities,every person in his portraits somehow looks different (despite these abbreviations) and he retains his own physionomy in all his self portraits. His cartoonized self is endowed with a special spirit.

It is a different task to make a self portrait for photographers.  They either make all the settings and pose from afar on a self timer or they have a method which my brother-photographer uses which consists of photographing his reflection in a mirror.

The nicest auto portrait by my brother is one of him as a passenger in a jeep, in Kabul, with his image very clear, in the side mirror of the car. Like Velasquez holding his palette in the background of Las Meninas, my brother, camera in hand, has pictured Afghanistan. The contrast between the velocity of the car, the fleeting picture of a timeless landscape, and the turbaned bearded old man, struck an emotional chord in me.

I own an autoportrait by Madi, a Lebanese artist who otherwise paints oversized women or repeated motifs. He looks so stern and angular in comparison to the feminine curves he usually paints. We all know Frida Kahlo's disposition to represent herself constantly. The self portraits all look different, a reflection of her inner self at the time. With intelligent humor, Youssef Nabil has made reverence to Kahlo with a photograph that he has "retouched" to call her "My Frida". His appropriation of the painter highlights the value of her auto portraits.

The most cherisehed self portrait I have is by the same Youssef Nabil. This Egyptian young photographer with a rather handsome physique poses for himself under the illuminated cinema sign. The composition is simple but the picture is grandiose.

The self portrait I dream to own is also by the same photographer. In this one, he sleeps on his stomach, bare chested, with the back of his head only appearing, face concealed, a single arm dangling in a pond. He seems minuscule in his lush surroundings. The whole picture is green: a hazy romantic landscape of shrubs, the perilous water murky and dotted with waterlilies. Youssef Nabil is asleep. I think of the legend of Narcissus. I admire the frankness of the portrait. A simple look in the pond and he may fall in!

September 20, 2010

Cross Registering in Four Seasons

                                                      Smith College in the Fall

I enjoy multilayered undertakings. I always try to diversify my experiences. When I was in college, and later in graduate school, my desire to study various disciplines was gratified thanks to the access I had to neighboring universities and their wide curriculum.

At Smith College, I majored in Latin American Literature. I was very content with its scope as it wasn't limited to one country as it would have been if I had chosen Spanish Literature. I also took art history, computer science and a large array of classes on the Middle East. I soon discovered that I could cross-register at four other schools.

It was a unique opportunity for me to take a class on  the "Prophet Mohammad and the Quran" at Amherst College. On the other hand, I think the memories of driving the stunning farmland road that took me to the Gothic Architecture of Mount Holyoke College are more nostalgic than the standard geography class I took there. I wanted to experience a large university atmosphere so I then took a required class in Latin American literature at  the University of Massachussets at Amherst (UMASS)and couldn't help noticing how lax the workload was and how lenient the grading was. I never registered at Hampshire College: my visits there for lectures sufficed. It was too organic and liberal of an atmosphere for me!

I commuted to these colleges enthusiastically, craving the change, appreciating the different experience, noticing the beautiful campuses as the Fall reddened the trees, and the snow covered the hills and the blossoms grew. I lived three of the four seasons the East Coast is famous for, with curiosity. New England was certainly a land of contrasting seasons, with grandiose expressions of it. The only season I did not see in Western Massachusetts was the Summer, but I discovered that season in Boston.

The Charles River and the large green oakes that lead me to Cambridge, to reveal Boston in full summer bloom, buzzing with athletic excitement. In  the Fall, the Indian summer days allowed for students to frolick around town, on campus. The atmosphere is youthful and energetic. In the Winter, the snow piles up high. The sidewalks are slippery and the wind is freeeeeeeeezing! The everlasting winter gnaws onto a rainy spring when the students rush out with frisbees and tshirts.

I attended Harvard University for two years, which gave me the once in a lifetime opportunity to cross register at MIT! The class I took there on  transfer of technology, was not as scientific as it sounds but I take tremendous pride at having taken that single class at SUCH a prestigious university. I walked on a campus I knew well for having friends there and living adjacent to it. It so happened that,  that particular spring term, every  single monday, we would have a downfall of rain before my seminar.

While at Harvard, the more dynamic and less classic classes at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy attracted me: guest professor John Esposito, the expert on Islamic fundamentalism, was teaching the first class I cross registered for. Then, as if by premonition, I insisted on taking a class about Afghanistan at the Fletcher School (not suspecting I would eventually work on my PhD at Fletcher and marry an Afghan!)

Then, when I eventually attended Fletcher, I couldn't resist taking a class at Harvard Law School. It was so fun and enriching to sample classes here and there.....in the midst of the four seasons.

I write this entry on September 20th, the day of my third nephew's birthday. It is the first day of Fall and in this season of new school year resolutions, I wish this young man who has just turned 2, a full academic future, like mine, rich in seasons and flavors.

                                                           Harvard in Winter

September 19, 2010

Joe Dassin

My cousins' father, Amir, was very fond of Joe Dassin in 1978. He probably purchased the cassette in the South of France when he visited there. Iranians of the Old Regime loved Cannes!

I remember listening to Joe Dassin in 1978,  sitting in the back of his car, driving towards the Caspian Sea (Shomal), with my cousins. I hadn't been to France yet, but I was already a fluent French speaker by the age of 7, and memorized the lyrics. We sang, with serenity, oblivious of the grander events that were surrounding us. Those were the last carefree holidays in Pahlavi Iran.

When I hear Joe Dassin today, I return to those childhood days. I think of the jovial but always nostalgic songs like "Salut" or "Champs Elysees". I especially remember the graver melancholic words of L'Ete Indien. "Toute la vie sera pareille a ce matin!" (Our entire life will be similar to this morning). That was wishful thinking for my Iranian family. Unfortunately for them and all of us, my maternal family's life was shaken by the following summer.

Today my kids can recite the lyrics of Joe Dassin. They sing them with innocence and gaiety. They laugh at the words and enjoy the charming tunes. Once, while sitting at an overheated fondue restaurant in a ski resort in Switzerland, "Champs Elysees" came on, and my eldest son, then 5 years old, sang along, louder than any of the other customers there, one arm around me, the other around my sister. He had removed his t-shirt it was so hot, and was quite the sight at the restaurant!
Most recently, and after making the "Champs Elysees" song his class theme, my son (and his siblings), walked down the famous avenue in Paris, like Joe Dassin "le coeur ouvert a l'inconnu", their hearts open to the unknown. And, similar to my car ride in 1978, my son introduced his younger cousin to this joyful song, with their grandparents in the front seats, as they drove through the winding and beautiful vistas of the Grande Corniche.

Here is a link to his nicest songs:




September 18, 2010

Feminist Dropout

Painting by Farideh Lashai, from her Alice and the Rabbits Series

One of my dear friends and an avid reader of this blog, has asked me to come up with a list of feminist writers, more specifically female ones. The only Western feminist writers I have read are Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Wolf, and that I did only superficially.Truth be told, I have never truly espoused the feminist cause, despite the fact that one of my great-aunts, Ambara Salaam, mentioned in an earlier entry, was one of the most outspoken feminists of her era. When she removed the veil in a public act, she changed the course of history for many Muslim women.  I have tremendous respect for her efforts and her stance, and could not imagine reversing the course of history. I quote her here:

"I wore a particularly severe form of hijab since the age of ten. It didn't only cover our faces, but also cut us off from the outside world entirely. I mean that we never saw the people who came to visit the house and my father. Women had their place in society and men had theirs..."

Here, Ambara discusses how she felt when she wore the veil. However, she wasn't stuck in this predicament for very long. Her father, Salim Salaam,  treated her with the same regards as he did his sons. There had always  been equal opportunity in the Salaam household. I wish to live in that same spirit.

That being said, I have never been fascinated academically with feminism. In fact I have always kept away from the ideology, out of pure disinterest or indifference. When I shifted my focus to Saudi Arabia for my PhD thesis, the pre-supposition was that I was researching "women in Saudi Arabia". In fact, except for a small paragraph about them in the dissertation, I do not differentiate the American educated Saudi men from the women (almost wishing that equal treatment in the study would reflect the same in practice). Perhaps, my lack of enthusiasm for the field of feminism stems from the fact that I, and my relatives, have never personally felt discriminated against. I have never felt the struggle that some of these women, like Ambara Salaam or Virginia Wolf, endured in their day. I was lucky, and I know I owe it to these influential men and women who have allowed women to finally stand on a practically equal footing with men.

The most curious thing is that I attended an all women's college, the flagship campus of feminism in the USA: Smith College. I didn't chose the college because I would have better chances to participate in class or because I thought the environment would invigorate my feminist instinct. Many are motivated by those reasons when applying there. I simply considered it to be a very good liberal arts school; in fact I was the defect product on the assembly line. Some may consider that I failed Smith by graduating indifferent to feminism.  Perhaps I was scarred by the unisex education and it manifested itself by distancing myself from the cause. I do regret not having taken ANY women's studies (it was their forte) and especially Women's Biology (it sounds very interesting to me today.)

When I choose a book, I never seek the feminist ideology. I only discover it by chance. Centuries ago, the mere fact that women wrote, was a defiant feminist act: the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Sand (who used a masculine pseudonym to have the opportunity to write) were the early feminists. In the modern Middle East, writers like Nawal al Sadawi and Hanan al Sheikh are feminist.  Painters like Farideh Lakshai and Monir Farman Farmayan are also feminists in their cohabitation in the art world with men, paving the way for Shireen Neshaat and Golnaz Fathi.

To these women, I make my reverence because they have  proven that we can also be creative and opinionated. I especially have selected the beautiful painting by Farideh Lashai to illustrate this entry on feminism because I value my friendship with her and admire her feminist stance on issues as much as I appreciate the high quality of her art.

But many men have taken on the feminist cause. Moliere was one to denounce misanthrophy and Gustave Flaubert was one to narrate in the name of a woman, Madame Bovary, whom he endows with the power of fantasy. I am well acquainted with Atiq Rahimi, a man who wrote the narrative of a strong woman in "Sangue Sabour". Many in the Middle East rejected his portrait of such a strong and self-centered woman, claiming that the woman would realistically be subservient and docile and only altruistic. This author has defended his compatriots and character by denouncing such a generalization: why wouldn't his female protagonist be allowed to be strong headed and narcissistic?

Today I read Marguerite Duras, Colette, Francoise Sagan. They are women and they are feminists, but I read them for their style and their narrative. Feminism may be the fight of some; I have always appreciated their efforts but I have not investigated it. As a Smithie, I can be coined to be a "feminist drop out", living in its environment, yet choosing not to become one and not choosing a career path either. True feminists believe that we are renouncing our rights if we do not fight for a meaningful professional life. I believe raising a family is self fulfilling. I think, in this era of choice, where women like Gloria Steinem have fought for our rights in the 1960s and 1970s, I should be allowed to choose a life at home with my children, without feeling an outward pressure to have a career, because I have the choice. And once again, I know that having that choice is essential. It is the essence of feminism, but sometimes hard core feminists lose that sense, and belittle women like me, who stay at home.

In the end,  I grew up as a tomboy who was encouraged to be feminine. I could only practice martial arts if I also attended ballet. At the base of my growing up was the certainty that men and women were equal. I think my parents were feminist in building the confidence in my sister and I, that all opportunities were open to us, regardless of our gender. I retain the confidence to always look at a person, male or female, straight in the eye. I believe it is  that confidence that is the basis of equality.

Fournitures Scolaires

The title of this entry has to be in French. It means School Supplies. It has to be French because it covers many more items than any other school system. Unless I don't know what the Japanese require, and I could be sure that their list is as intricate as the French one.

The department stores, supermarkets and stationary stores wait till early August before they assail you with the reminder of the ending summer holidays, the ones you dream to be indefinite and endless, as a child (not as a mom). The dreaded word "Rentree" is spelled in large letters on the store windows or even worse can be found in 1950s style cursive in advertisements.

The 1950s style cursive is still required 60 years later and it explains why the list of school supplies is so complex. French students use pencils for their draft. They use ball point rarely (even though BIC is a French brand). Perhaps that is why BIC also does disposable lighters (for Gauloises consumption). A French educated third grader should know how to use an ink fountain pen: Waterman, Pelican are the most famous but there is also Reynolds. (The nostalgic adults end up buying Mont Blanc).

That fountain pen has its paraphernalia: the ink capsules (lucky we don't carry bottles) and its eraser which is a magic white pen that can delete a mistake in ink. The correction must then be written in a certain blue correction pen. Most of us have had inky fingers, inky clothes, inky pencil cases. Indeed we are required to carry our pen and corrector, pencil, eraser, ruler, sharpener, three colored pens in a pencil case. Each colored pen is for a purpose: corrections, under lining, answers etc.

Our handwriting must be showcased and conserved in note books, small format in primary school and large format in secondary. The pages are quadrilated in Seyes, which are lines that are drawn for handwriting. The t must end at the second line up, the j must go down to second line down. The l will go up to the third line and the f will go down to the third line. Capital letters will go up four lines. There is a single millimeter between each line so the handwriting is a work of precision.

These pages also come with perforated holes for folders. French teachers love folders and they make us add our lessons to folders. If we hand them exams or compositions, they require pages to be doubled which means we hand in four pages that open up like a book.

As hand writers, we learn to become picky about the paper we buy because we want our fountain pens to glide on the surface. We often buy Clairefontaine or Canson. We can tell the grain of the paper at the early age of ten.

French brains are trained to be carthesian so we have all the mathematical tools, the rulers, the compass, the "equerre"(T square) and the "rapporteurs" (protracters). We measure angles and draw circles from the early third grade. Often we are required to perform these geometrical elaboration on milimetered paper.

We are not all fortunate enough to go to France to buy these items. My family wasn't for a long time. Perhaps this has made me "self conscious" and ever since I have set foot in France I have always amassed the school supplies, like a squirrel preparing for winter. My parents have given us free reign in that department telling us nothing was too much for school or books. We treat my kids to the same exuberant school supplies shopping. We hoard on notebooks, folders, pens etc.

When I walk into a stationary, the smell of paper sends me on a rush. I either look for the special personalized item ie a decorated notebook or the ultra classic, simple Clairefontaine paper.

September 16, 2010

A Single Man

Tom and Ford cannot be more ordinary American names, however, if you combine them, you have the next Yves Saint Laurent. The man is smart, talented and  he is very aware of it. He  is whimsically creative. I bought his coral colored designer lipstick and delightfully sported all summer. I was very eager to see his film, "A Single Man", which could have been a theatrical outing, almost a one man show.

Everything happens in one day, in order to respect the rule of time  in tragedies. The set could have been  made for a a Coen brothers' film, minus the comedy.  Tom Ford's "A Single Man" most reminded me of "Ice Storm" by Ang Lee except that here, each of the protagonists interacts with the main character separately. In this film, Julianne Moore plays the role of a lonely, aging, frivolous but kind and supportive friend to the main character. She acts in only two scenes in the film, one as she adjusts her make up sitting in front of her vanity, in a black lace bra and a big hairdo, while some French tune played in the background.

The main character, a professor, is attempting to live his last day, while everybody around him is trying to seduce him!  The music plays a great role here, almost representing the subconsciousness of the main character, from a twist that he dances with Julianne Moore to an Opera piece, and the languorous piano melody that pervades throughout the film.

Since the film is limited to one day, the professor has a many flashbacks in order to reveal the reasons behind his suicidal objective. In class his lectures are on the book by Aldous Huxley "After Many A Summer", which is the story of a Hollywood millionaire who fears his impending death. I am curious to read it now as I am trying to understand the connection between that book and the concept of fear, specifically of minorities, as highlighted by the professor in his lecture. 

The main character lives in rustic wood furnishings with a retro vibe. The photography is akin to the Jane Seberg films. A lot of slow motion filming to create an atmosphere. I could swear the chests in Julianne Moore's living room are Damascean mother of pearl and the small coffee tables in the dining room were designed by Nada Debs, with a more modern take on the mother of pearl. Her house was a show case. Was that an Ellsworth Kelly hanging in her living room?

I am sure I missed  many of the references made by Tom Ford, but I was sure to notice the Ansel Adams black and white landscapes with a scene of the two lovers perched on the high declivity of sharp mountains. I also discovered how Tom Ford focused on eyes and lips for their sensuality but also because they are the windows to the soul. Twice the professor stares surprisingly at the "Alice in Wonderland" neighbor girl with the turquoise dress and matching eyes. Colors are highlighted in the film and the background made sepia in certain shots. He also meets an extremely handsome James Dean character in a Hanes T-shirt and a brushed back hairdo.

We can observe campus life, when 60s architecture was added to all the universities as student populations expanded. There even was a Brigitte Bardot looking student smoking in class defiantly. It is Tom Ford's lens we look through: a tennis player appears in the background,  with his espadrilles, his wooden racket, and his lean muscles. The 60s and all its paraphernalia is exhibited: the Hersheys chocolate tablets, the pharmaceutical products, Arpege perfume,Keds sneakers and even the added egg to hair conditioner for shine are mentioned in conversation.

The screenplay was well fabricated, conversations courteous and many lengthy salutations indicating the formality of the times. I saw all the clocks ticking in classrooms, offices, banks, alarm clock on bedsides, and in bars, except that his wristwatch suddenly stops, indicating a possible change of plan.

I looked close to see if I could recognize the cologne bottles as being Tom Ford's own. The anachronism of the signature Tom Ford glasses, seen even on a nerdy kid could not be missed. The main character's face is eaten by them. When the character takes them off, he lets go of his formality.

I expected to enjoy a beautifully ornate film and I was not disappointed in the least. His style is revealed in the simplified beauty of the film, where everything is toned and examined in the perfect light, and its bare functionality.

This does confirm the talent of Tom Ford, as beyond a fashion icon but also a creative genius who can create beauty in clothing and on film.

Boarding School Indulgences

The other day, I couldn't resist taking a sip from my son's Ovomaltine. I hadn't drank one in years. It is a Swiss chocolate malt powder drink that my parents used to encourage us to drink because it allegedly has 13 vitamins! They used to order it for breakfast at their hotel when they visited us in Geneva,where we were at boarding school. We used to sneak a few extra sachets to enhance our otherwise boring cafeteria breakfasts. Today's Ovomaltine sip reminded me of those small indulgences in boarding school.

Another one was going to the corner grocer on fridays, on our way from the dorms to school, to buy a sandwich of Tomme. Tomme is a Swiss type of Brie. Those sandwiches replaced the mandatory fish that was served on fridays in a Catholic school. These tomme sandwiches also made for a good iftar, hidden beneath our desk in study period when we looked at our watches that finally indicated sunset. On the way to the corner grocer was a residence with a garden and a dog. The big dog was always locked up behind the gates and would always bark at us. I would bark back and tease him, till the random day the gate was open and I ran for my life in the snow, the dog coming right after me.

Indulgences were not always food related. Throughout my three years there, and long before I read Le Monde voluntarily (my economics professor used to quizz us on distributed articles taken from Le Monde), my father subscribed me to Paris Match. I was very adamant about being the first one to read the weekly gossip. My girlfriends would snatch it  from me right after I finished.

It was these little pleasures that made living far away from family more pleasant. Sharing them with close friends was what brought us more intimate in our very first experience of independence.

September 14, 2010

Literature from the Indian Subcontinent

From the modern artists MF Hussein and Souza, to the contemporary Gupta and Anish Kapoor, we have so much more to discover from Indian art.
I believe however, that I am better acquainted with Indian writers (who write in English), than with Indian artists. So enough about Saramago and French literature, which took up too many entries this summer! It is time for me to share with you the passion I feel for Indian literature over the last ten years, 6 authors of which I will be discussing here.

Although each of these writers are of Indian origin, many of them have always lived in the West.  All of them master the English language beautifully. To make a generalization, I do believe that most  Indians cultivate a very rich vocabulary and that they construct intricate grammatical compositions.  Each of these writers are also endowed with the magic of narration.

I have previously mentioned my infatuation with the author of "Midnight's Children" (see the Incipit entry). Salman Rushdie  truly rules over these writers, even, in my opinion, over Amitav Gosh, who may be older than him. Set aside the fiasco of "Satanic Verses", which turned out to be negative publicity with a silver lining, propulsing him further on the literary stage, and in his wake, the other authors shone vividly.

Reading "Midnight's Children", with its  yellow faded cover, a book I had inherited from my husband who was dazzled by it, felt similar to reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was transported to another world, was mesmerized by his intricate vocabulary,  and by the enchanting voice of his narrative.

Soon after, I read "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth. Seth lives comfortably in two worlds. His Indian origins allowed him to compose a melodious narrative, a heafty 1000 page tome that I carried in each of my handbags, read on every bus, on every step, in every cafe, on every bench, on every plane, on every couch, during lonely meals, and most enjoyably in bed right before falling asleep.

A few months later, I discovered his gem of a book, "Golden Gate". Here, Seth showed allowed his American side to shine, more precisely the Californian, Stanford educated side. His description of white Americans, the vegan Californian techie type was very accurate. The entire novel,with an alluring narative, is entirely composed in verse. I remember the rythmn of his verse resonating  in my mind, even after I'd close the book.

Amitav Gosh's "Glass Palace" was a book I shared with my family. All the members, minus those who don't read novels, read it. Each one of us loved the saga. We discussed it as though we were in a book club, having read it one after the other. The same could be said about "White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga, which I gifted to many, and discussed at length with friends and family.

I will never forget "The God of Small Things" for having read it twice. Once alone and once aloud to my husband. At the time, we still had the patience (and time) of newlyweds and I read him a chapter a day, preferring the alternate days because the chapters alternated between the children's story and their mother's. We preferred the children's narrative, and till this day we both remember the airport scene and the Sound of Music cinema scene. The magic of reading!

Recently, I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories "Unaccustomed Earth" (what a title!). The pink cover with the beautifully painted Japanese tidal wave will remain forever an acurate image of how her story telling pulled me in. I swam to the gentle tide of her simple sentences. Yet her narrative is so powerfully dense that I was caught in the current and I drowned in her stories. Her stories are short but their narrative is novelesque.  The tempo began with slow accurate descriptions of the decor, then the characters built up and the drama along with it. Close to the end of a story, she throws you in a free fall thrust! After I "survived" two stories, I knew to expect the unexpected and slowed down my reading, amplyfying the crescendo every time I took a respite to digest.

Unfortunatly, I have seen the movie based on her only novel "The Namesake" prior to actually reading the book. However, I have gifted the novel to my dad who has read it and I look forward to taking it back, and reading it.
Is that called an "Indian giver"?

September 13, 2010

A poem: Goodbye Geneva

Adieu to our city!

Goodbye vacations

And infinite summer days,

The youngest always asking

If it's night or day.

Goodbye music lessons and sailing,

We abandon the free rental bicycles

To the busy streets of Geneva.

Goodbye Italian restaurants

Paninis shared on park benches,

In favorite cafes, we will be found


Goodbye buses

Always on time

 And dreamy train rides.

Goodbye Lac Leman,

 Always so majestic

Without any tides.

Goodbye urban promenades,

Hushed library conversations,

 Roses and cedars in parks.

 Moments of leisure

And clocks made of flowers.

Goodbye to our first regatta

That bright sunny day

As we watched our brother

Sailing away.

He made us all  so proud.

Goodbye artsy cinema houses.

To Lausanne visits and to Hopper,

For the sake of good art,

We could travel even farther.

Goodbye Basel

Now my daughter can decipher

More than any other 6 year old

Basquiat graffiti and

Ben's clever penmanship.

Goodbye Olympic size swimming pool

And summer days so cool,

Next year we will return

And ride on our "mouettes",

Our favored water taxis.

Through  neighborhoods from "Amelie Poulain"
We glided on our trottinettes,

By the lakeside,

Our sister on two wheels,

For the first time,

 Rode her red bicyclette.

They went to the circus,

I, to the Opera

They cheered non stop:

 Hip hip hip, hourra!

Goodbye Geneva,

we leave you in peace.

Till our next visit

When our joy and life

Will fill your heart again.

September 12, 2010

A Night at the Opera

A few days ago, I went to the opera as an autodictat. "The Barber of Seville" by Rossini, as based on Beaumarchais 1784 play, wasn't my first opera, but I can't seem to remember when my last opera was. I arrived with an open mind and ears. I didn't know the story line. But everything was made simple in this production and  by the end, I felt like I understood it quite well.

The orchestra began first. I forced myself to close my eyes and relax. I enjoyed the classical music opening like the meditative opening "savasna" of a yoga class.

When the curtains came up, a very theatrical set and decor were revealed: I was glad that it was a modern adaptation of the opera! The first scene had a real car parked in front of a three floor building facade. We could see an ice cream store and many balconies. We soon understood that it was early morning (I correctly predicted the opera would end at night, with the importance of the theatrical rule of unity of time and place). A serenade then took place,  Romeo and Juliette like, with the young man singing to a girl standing on a balcony. Like Rapunzel, the maiden had been imprisoned by her tutor, an older doctor who wanted to marry her against her will.

When the building rotated for the second scene, a facade resembling a doll house, with partitioned  separate rooms, and all the expected accessories in those bathrooms, kitchen and bedrooms, was revealed to us. The inhabitants were moving about in these rooms, going about their business. The rotation of decor between the facade and the multistoreyed interiors, was very ingenious and entertaining. This opera had the energy of "West Side Story", dynamic like a broadway musical but not cheesy like most of them can be.

The story, which dealt with the education and marriage of women was very Molieresque: the doctor was a misanthropist, like in "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme". Indeed, in the late 18th century the first feminists were men, like Moliere and Beaumarchais, who denounced the ill treatment of women in their plays.

All the while, the story developed like the novel  by Alla Al Aswani, "The Yacoubian Building", with neighborhood scandals and social injustice. Indeed, this opera buffo includes both comedy and burlesque: a vaudeville of sorts.

Meanwhile I was attempting to set my priortities straight. Do I listen to the orchestra? The singing? Do I look and get distracted by the theatrics? For example the maid does yoga and abdominals, but the music and the voices were brilliant so theystill managed to draw me in.

The go -between, the Sancho Pancho, was the forefather of our modern day supporting actor role. Indeed , The Barber of Seville, named Figaro, facilitated the communion of the couple. The bright Almodovar colors of accessories and decor reminded us that we were in Spain (Seville).

As an opera amateur, such pleasurable moments remind me that I should immerse myself in this world more often. The opera world, intimidating to many, is actually much more accessible that one would imagine. Give it a try, you may love it too!

September 11, 2010

Passport Renewals

In December of 2001, I took my 18 month old son to visit a "jardin d'enfants" or preschool in Geneva. He was a large baby and looked like he was two and half already! I dressed him up appropriately, in his traditional light blue John John (Kennedy) coat, hoping to impress the director of the school. It worked! She had chemistry with him, then offered to take him in January because he was both independent and sturdy. She added that if he didn't acquire the skills of "toute petite section" (2s program), he could return to the same classroom the following fall. That is how my eldest son got an academic head start.

The following fall, after 6 months at that preschool, he switched to a  beautiful school on the lake. This headmistress also took a look at him, his newly acquired skills (his fine and large motor skills) and was accepted into "petite section" (nursery) at the age of two, while most of the kids in the class were three. The only upset person in that plan was his teacher, who was in no mood to be changing diapers. She wasn't a day care teacher after all! A few months later, he charmed her. She passed him into the next class of "moyenne section", or Pre-K.

It was when we arrived in Dubai, to the french lycee there,  that they objected to his young age. They believed only children born in 1999 should be entering moyenne section, whereas he was born in 2000. So, we worked a few "things" out, and returned to them with a valid Afghan passport and residence visa and  a different birth year. He then joined his one year older classmates and he remains with them till this year.

His requirement to renew his Afghan passport came up this summer while we were in Geneva. Things are always simpler in Geneva than in Dubai. Especially if you are applying for an American passport. Luckily for me, the American consulate is across the street from our house. So I expected similar treatment at the Afghan consulate there. I called first to understand the requirements and payment and hours of service. My son and I then crossed to the other side of the lake, near the train station.

The Consulate office met our expectations in decor. In the picture below you will notice that the consulate feels like a Lamia Gargash photo of the UAE from the 1970s. Eventually, the very polite official returned to us with a question: "where was your son born?"

 Forgetting that we had written on his passport that he was born in Kabul for obvious bureaucratic reasons, I instead told him the truth, that he was born in Boston! Anyway, he was smart enough to notice that nobody living in the West would give birth to a child in Kabul in 1999! Besides I looked like a foreigner, so the chances were even slimmer. We got that clarified and he told us to come back tomorrow and pick the passport. He also told me to call ahead and make sure it was ready. He was very courteous.

When I called again another functionary answered. I could tell because this man spoke in broken English and didn't know any French. He also wasn't polite unlike the official I had dealt with yesterday. I was hoping to expedite the passport renewal as  Eid al Fitr holidays in Dubai were imminent, and the renewal of residencies needed to occur before governments closed their offices. He replied with unwarranted dryness, and told me to come at 9:30 am at the earliest.

I was there the next morning at 9 (too early for the man's wishes) and was invited to sit in the waiting room. The place was empty. No other visa or passport candidate were there. At 930 I got up and looked down the corridor and that is when I saw him. The man, who looked like Ahmadinijad, immediately scolded me:

"Didn't I tell you to come at 930?"

 "It is 930 sir", I was looking at his wristwatch, not appreciating at all his tone of condescension.

 He sent me back to the waiting room and it was seconds later that he reappeared with my son's passport.

"Next time don't think you can walk in here and ask for a renewal on the same day! I will give it to you in 4 days". He had adopted me.

I now turned to him sweet as honey and dared a request, this time in Farsi.

"May I ask a KHAHESH (favor) from you?"

 He looked at me with intrigue, arms crossed. I  had nothing left to lose.

"Could you please fax the single page of renewal to Dubai as I don't have a fax and this is very urgent and I will gladly pay the cost, whatever it may be?"

He smirked in dipleasure: "What do you think this is? A post office?"

I was going to reply but now, he'd taken a seat and was developping his rebuttal: "Don't you know the international laws and regulations?"

I smiled at him because I had a doctorate in the field, but I couldn't interrupt his boiling monologue. He kept repeating, "This is a consulate".

Nothing would budge him.

At this point, I was the one growing angry, but withheld all emotion.

I told him in Farsi: "I understand it is Ramadan and we are BOTH fasting. It was a simple request from the mother of Afghan kids at their consulate."

He walked me to the door. I stood by the elevator and then I charged back, this time in tears.

The Ahmadinejad look alike heard me and so did the grand crew of functionaries. They all came out of their offices.

"Your colleague here refused to send a simple fax to help me out!"

Through my tears, I couldn't help noticing how handsome they all were (except of course for my new nemesis) with their green eyes and bureaucratic suits. "Ahmadinejad's"only words were: "khareji hast" (she is a foreigner).

I turned back and said "passporteh afghan daram wa delam afghan-tar as shoma hast" (I have an Afghan passport and my heart is more Afghan than yours).The crew of men agreed with M. Zaseran (I asked for his name) and they gave me the same monotonous explanations that they could not fax the copy. I wished them Eid mubarak and walked towards the post office, forlorn but knowing that this may all be worth it, even if only for my son's education.