Tuesday, 23 March 2010

In the Kingdom of Ali Pasha

I've been working on the talk I'm giving tomorrow at the Theosophical Society, on Byron's meeting with Ali Pasha. There's an article about my trip to Ioannina, Ali's capital, now in Greece, in his time in the area known as Epiros, on Balkan Travellers.

The drawing is by Edward Lear, who visited Ioannina in 1849, and so it must have looked much the same then, as it did in Ali Pasha's and Byron's day.

Ali's statue is at Tepelene in Albania.

Helena Ghika [aka Dora d'Istria], a 19th century writer, wrote several books and many articles about the peoples of the Balkans. In her Women of the East, parts of which I'm translating into English, she describes at length not just Ali, but his mother Chamko, his sister Chainitza, and various other women Ali was involved with and this excerpt shows just how dangerous it could be to attract his attention.

The unfortunate Euphrosine was ..... a poignant victim of the scheming and malicious family of Ali Pasha. This beautiful young woman was the daughter of a rich Christian of Ioaninna. Her uncle Gabriel, the archbishop of the city..... was her only protector, as she was an orphan when she married one of the leading merchants of Ioaninna. This merchant was called to Venice on business and placed her and her two children under the pontiff's protection. But the archbishop was powerless to protect her from the passions of the ardent Mouctar-pasha, Ali's son. Mouctar frightened Euphrosine into overcoming her resistance and remorse. But the love she inspired in this spirited man became such a source of pride to the young woman that she imagined because she was loved by Mouctar she would become the queen of a vast empire. This kind of relationship however did not fit in with the vizir's plans. Like all dictators, Ali put himself above the laws of morality when it suited him, but if other people committed similar transgressions, he set himself up as a pillar of moral rectitude. To make matters worse, he had to put up with the jealous complaints of his daughters-in-law. So Ali decided to put an end to his son's disruptive behaviour. He sent Mouctar,.... to subdue Georgim, the pasha of Andrinople, who had risen up against the Porte. At the same time, he sent Vely-pasha, Mouctar's brother, to Tepelene to recruit the Tosks.

As soon as his sons had left, Ali took up their wives’ cause, condemning the bad affect that shameless mistresses had on their families, as well as on public morals. The self-appointed guardians of morality suspected Ali of having his eye on Euphrosine's wealth and so were quick to recommend a harsh judgement. Another reason for Ali's determination to find her guilty was his own failed attempt to be Mouctar's rival. Euphrosine, warned of the imminent danger, was in a state of turmoil when, on the night of the 20/21st January 1801, the doors of her house were forced open and Ali came in, flanked by two torch-bearing hired assassins. The young woman believed that he was motivated by greed and was looking for a pretext to seize her wealth, so she piled gold and jewels at his feet.
'Easy enough to return my own goods to me' Ali said in a harsh voice, 'but can you give me back Mouctar's heart?' And, heedless of her weeping and tearful appeals, he had her put in chains and dragged to the women’s quarters of his palace.

Immediately after her arrest, the vizir gave orders for fifteen Christian women belonging to the most notable families of Ioaninna, to be thrown into chains. This immoral and hypocritical tyrant had introduced into the town a moral laxity it had never known before. Yet he claimed to want to make such shocking examples of these women to show the importance he attached to the morality of the people submitted to his care.

At the hearing, he named the sixteen people who were to be offered as sacrifices to dishonoured virtue. Euphrosine and her companions....were condemned to death. For two days they waited in prison for their sentence to be carried out. In the middle of the night, Tahir, the chief of police, flung open the prison door. The executioners took hold of the seventeen young women and flung them into the lake. But when it came to Euphrosine’s turn, the waters of the lake swallowed up a lifeless corpse; she had already died of fright.

In the meantime, Mouctar, after toppling the pasha of Andrinople, was in a hurry to get back to his beloved Euphrosine as fast as possible. On the way, he received a letter from his brother, Vely-pasha. He called out her name 'Euphrosine' in an agonised voice, grabbed one of his pistols and shot the messenger, who fell dead at his feet. Once Mouctar had calmed down he made a vow never to see his wives again and condemned them to be widows for the rest of their lives. That was the only vow that Mouctar, a true son of his father, ever kept.

Dangerous times, for messengers as well as beautiful young women who crossed Ali. The strange thing was that Mouctar did not seem to blame his father for his lover's death. Perhaps Ali did not tell him the whole truth of course. Or perhaps Mouctar, even if he suspected the truth, knew that he could not cross his father and live to tell the tale.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Memories of Albania from the 19th and 20th centuries

From the 1940s

When I spoke to H on the phone, she said that she had decided not to go back to live in Albania. It has all changed too much she says. One hundred years ago it was different – sacrifices were made to reach independence, but today Albanians still have the communist regime. Ramiz Alia was the 'genius' of communism if you like, he's still alive by the way. I went to see Lili Berisha, she is about 90, she was an active communist, though Hoxha put her in jail for a while, but still she defends the communist ideology. Communism is like AIDS she says, it's in your blood, you can't get rid of it. In Austria after the Nazis, the government said that we have nothing to offer you except hard work and difficult times. But the Albanian government does not say that. Some people have so much money it's disgusting, when there are so many very poor people. After I came back from Albania in November I was so disappointed that I just slept, sleeping for me she says, it's like wine you know? It's my way of blotting things out.

H left Albania as a child, her parents fleeing the country, just in time before the communist partisans became the new rulers, as her father would certainly have been imprisoned at the very least, by the communist regime. He was in the other resistance movement, the Balli Kombetar, and once the communists came to power, they rooted out the members of the Balli Kombetar, shot or imprisoned them, while many of their families were sent into internal exile. Her father had wanted to leave on his own, did not want to take his wife and daughter into a dangerous situation. Her mother replied that if he went on his own, she would take the mangall [brazier for holding live coals, used to heat rooms that did not have a fireplace] inside the small room – the inference being that in an enclosed space, the fumes from the smoking coals in the mangall would choke her to death. If we are to die we will die together, her mother said. And so they all left for Italy.

Mangall in Gjirokaster's museum.

As soon as they arrived in Brindisi, her father was interned near Rome. H and her mother stayed in what was called a rest camp and they were allowed to visit him once a month. Because H was a child, she was also allowed to eat with her father. Her mother gave her something special to smuggle in to him while they ate together. It was a phial of poison. This was in case he was sent back to Albania. He knew what his fate would be, there. Rather poison than that.

Edison Gjergo (1939-1989) was arrested in Jan 1974 because his painting - The Epic of the Morning Stars – did not glorify the workers, but showed young partisans listening with rapt attention to an old peasant man singing and playing a musical instrument.

From the 19th century: Byron and Ali Pasha

I'm also working on a talk I'm giving to the Scottish Astrological Association, about Byron and Ali Pasha. In Harry Hodgkinson's wonderful essay, Poet and Pasha [part of a collection of his essays which I'm editing for publication] he points out how inspirational this meeting was, to the young poet:

As to Byron, as in some story of the Thousand and One Nights, Ali possessed the formula which magically opened some unsuspected treasure cave within him, transforming the album scribbling poetaster into the irresistible spontaneous poet who speaks for all mankind and the dilettante philhellene into the self-appointed leader ready to lay down his life at Missolonghi. ........ No sooner had he returned from seeing Ali in Tepeleni to his lodgings in Jannina than Byron sat down to write the first stanzas of the poem that was to make him the cult figure of his generation - Childe Harold.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Early Evening - with blackbirds, crows and owls

The present moment – not so much a moment as a mood, a feeling, a canopy of mingled peace and a gathered alertness; it is also perhaps, a time of year and of day – when the light changes texture and becomes almost translucent, letting in something that is other than itself and because of this, it becomes more visible in itself, rather than making what it falls on, visible. Birdsong has a slowed-down, reflective quality to it, as if it too, is lingering in the mood that I can only call this sense of presence. It becomes so pushed aside when we pursue or focus on something that carries us through time, through crowded streets, through shopping arcades, bearing – or being borne on – our singular wave of intent.

The birdsong folds into this tinted light, falling, as notes do, as anything will, let loose from the throat or hand or any part of our so substantial selves, while birds feel, in this twilight cape, like a flicker of a tree's branch, like the solitary crow I saw watching from a tree-top, a sentinel and messenger, a silent marker. Rosy bands of light glint through tree-foliage. One rough crow-sound loops across the evening sky. While the blackbird is like a star-burst, a spiral crackle of sound. And a light wash, a sound of sea, ripples through the trees, then subsides, then gathers in momentum and in breath, then sighs out of earshot.

It feels as if there is nothing to be done except allow oneself to be caught up in this rolling sound, this mood of present-ness. While there is something of peace in it, it is a peace that vibrates, stirs, brushes across the senses, a more subtle desire than longing or excitement. Something finely-balanced between regret for this – why do I ignore this, almost all my life? - and the impulse to ignore again, turn away, continue with the busy-ness, the imperatives of life, the things that must be done, or so it seems, because one thing leads always to another and another – it's only in the gaps, like this, between the chunky baked bricks that our lives lay out – look at the road I've built behind me!– and the pathways I'm still heading in! – that some more subtle sense of who we are slips into this cape of evening and knows that this nameless linking – for it must stay nameless – is when we touch the hand of some being who carries our self for us while we are busy being who we think we are.

Is it this then? This listening and becoming, in the evening? The soft velvet furring call of the first owl? Is this who we are? Not the plans and purposes at all, not the tangled ropes of memories, the laid-out tools to carve the future, not the values the beliefs or principles that we have carved from rocks that we both lean against and push against, depending on –
not our desires or fears, shaping our attitudes and our perceptions –
but this – a swooping of the evening, a tentative embrace -

If so, it is both fugitive and fleeting, this sound of birds and wind and trees, this secret in the ebbing of the light, that unfolds itself and reveals ourselves to us.
The chill of evening comes in the open door I cannot close. The wind gathers the pine-needles in a rush of sound and nearly drowns the owl call.

Travel, Synchronicity, Metaphor and Pink Leaves

I was on a train from Vienna to Bratislava when I read Dubravka Ugrešic's remark [from her book Nobody's Home] that I've quoted here: '...reality itself isn't so stable. It too, travels.' I knew what she meant and this morning I am experiencing what it means as I know – quite suddenly it seems – that whether you are travelling or not, reality – or your perception of it – can be at a standstill, grounded - or on the move. Travel it seems to me, has two components, and one of them is certainly the logistical, planning one, there are certain things you need to do, in order to go from where you are, to somewhere else. But the other component has to do with an under- or overcurrent, which may hinder or assist this movement from here to elsewhere. If it assists you then the journey will take place, but if it does not, there will be various invisible but real barriers to any setting off. Sometimes the assisting currents are strong leaving you with no doubt that all will take place with little effort on your part, with even the logistics taking place smoothly, but sometimes there is a touch-and-go feel to it so that you cannot be sure until the last moment which energy current will prevail, and while this lends excitement to the journey it also has a quality of insecurity, and a sense of risk-taking, even at times almost danger. And of course, sometimes it is dangerous.

Actual travel nudges you towards metaphor, so that the journey of one's life – which always is a journey whatever you do or wherever you do or do not travel to – by becoming an actual journey can also lift you into the place where the actuality joins up with the metaphor. And by metaphor I don't mean something intangible, or belonging only to the imagination, but I mean our other mind, which could be called the metaphorical mind or the imaginal mind. It is actually another perception, but one which we tend not to be so aware of during the day as we go about the daily tasks where we need to be focussed on what we are doing. Daily mind or la quotidienne tends to be in the driver's seat during waking hours, but imaginal mind has only gone into background, and if we relax focus, we are aware of it – in our daydreams, our spontaneous thoughts, a song that springs to mind for no apparent reason, providing a soundtrack to our lives, this journey we are on. When coincidence or synchronicity occurs – some outer mirroring of what is going on in our inmost thoughts or feelings – this can remind us, sometimes quite strongly, that this other mind or other way of perceiving, is present even if we hadn't been aware of it until that moment. We all know the way that someone can 'come into' our minds, and then the phone goes, and it's them and we say – I was just thinking about you! Today for example, I was on the bus and was talking to someone who got on and sat down beside me. After a short conversation I asked him if he was getting off at Galashiels. You're reading my mind he said, I was just thinking about that – if I get off at Galashiels I can get a lift back with my wife, but I could go on to Selkirk, there's a good butcher there, or I could go to Hawick market.

Last night, I experienced another coincidence. I'd just written the posting that included Asklepios bringing a dream and then I went to Robert Moss's blog, where I found his latest posting was about a healing dream brought by Asklepios!

The metaphorical mind reigns supreme of course, in dreams – where we usually are not aware that we are dreaming – in other words, we are as immersed in the unravelling of the story or narrative, and as forgetful that our daily mind exists, as we are forgetful during the day that our other, dreaming mind, is present and with us. The gesture of setting off – whether by boarding a bus or train or ferry – can be a way of linking you to the ongoing travel that the daily mind is so involved in. This can result in a greater awareness of the expansive mind that we tend to shut out with our intense focus on our tasks – and so bring a sense of engagement and connection with it. So that a journey can take us not just to a different physical and external location but can establish a link with that 'other' that is our self. Our other self. So that the actual journey links with the metaphorical journey.

This for me is the fascination of travel. The movement, the rocking of the bus or boat, inducing a rhythmic almost mesmeric motion that encourages the appearance of that other perception. And then you get the arrival too – the fascination of the differentness of wherever it is you find yourself in – different light, different language, landscape, rhythm – not to mention heat! There is also, as well as setting off for somewhere different, the leaving behind of all that has occupied and immersed you, like throwing off a weight of concerns. The fact that these will emerge again when you get back is not the point. Especially since they will be different, as you will be different, you will have been changed by your experience.

Linking the two 'minds' - or the two perceptions – is something that I was told a few years ago in a dream, was supremely important. The dream used images, as dreams do, and metaphors, which I wrestled with for some time. I understood the meaning but did not know how to apply this in my own life. It occurs to me now, as I write this, that this is what the dream meant, this linking up of the two perceptions, so that inner and outer interpenetrate each other, for the dreaming mind necessarily connects us to everything that is all around us. 'What is within us is all around us' as Rilke said. When waking mind and dreaming mind are engaged in a 'constant conversation' as Rumi put it, there is no separation, no walls or barriers, between us and ourselves, between us and everything around us.

The bus today took me through the forested hills of southern Scotland, in bright sunshine. There are of course no leaves out yet on the trees, but many of them have a greenish tinge to their bare branches, some of them have a purplish pinkish colour, anticipating the vivid colours of their leaves. Some leaves really are pink when they first come out. The young leaves of a maple in my garden are pink and reddish-maroon at first and only turn green later.

Today I crossed one border, from Scotland to England – and visited the town of Carlisle, last seen in the freezing temperatures of January, when I spent hours in the train station, watching the changing displays announcing trains which were due, and then would dematerialize. But today the sun was shining and a young woman outside the bookshop handed me a plastic cup fullof chocolates – for Mother's Day, she said, smiling.

Carlisle scenes

Friday, 12 March 2010

Astro-Gossip and Asklepios Brings a Dream

New Moon on the Ides of March, 15th, is in Pisces, 25 degrees. And very close to them, [Sun and Moon] at 26 degrees, are Mercury and Uranus, making a spectacular line-up, particularly interesting to those of us whose charts reverberate to late Pisces, or any of the late mutables or early cardinals. Mars at 0 Leo trines them all, and Saturn at 1 Libra opposes them, almost a bucket handle, good old Saturn giving gravitas to what might otherwise be a hot air balloon ascent, if a rather moist one, perhaps spreading outwards like a giant ripple over the oceans, rather than upwards into vertical flight. But Saturn assures us that it will be them, almost a bucket handle, good old Saturn giving gravitas to what might otherwise be a hot air balloon ascent, if a rather moist one, perhaps spreading outwards like a giant ripple reined in, there will be a tight hand on the bridle, no complete dispersal into the upper reaches of the firmament, no extension off the edge of the world, into foamy droplets. Just a struggle between dreams and the hard-edged confines of reality whatever that might be. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling it already, one day dashing off to book my ticket to elsewhere, the next day, pinned to the computer, determined to finish one or six projects. I didn't get that ticket by the way. First of all I wasn't able to book it online, then when I tried to do on the phone and in person, the people said they couldn't do it either. I admitted defeat. Today anyway. Tomorrow – who knows? Things are very changeable. Firm decisions made one day tend to unravel in the night.

I dream of being asked to write an astro-gossip column. And that my friend T finds a path at the bottom of the garden, that leads to a village. I want to find that walk. This reminds me of Cubertou, where I was last summer, where there really were walks from the bottom of the garden, to a nearby village. I also dream of falling from a great height [though I don't hurt myself] onto an earth level and then discover openings, passageways and new entrances to my house, none of which I'd noticed before. The morning after that dream my house goes on fire, it really does. As I speed downstairs to get pots of water to hurl on the flames, I think, this can't be real, this must be a dream, I wish I could wake up. After the water has doused the flames, thick acrid smoke fills my upstairs study. The fax machine has melted and breathed its last. Four firemen soon tramp through my house, only 2 of them in the study as it's too small for all of them to get in. They clear away the debris, the burnt fax machine and lamp, charred papers, burnt bits of cotton tablecloth. One of them asks me if one of the pictures on my wall is of Amsterdam I say no, it's Paris, the Canal Saint Martin, and these ones are of Albania, and those over here are my children. He asks if I'm due to give a talk that week-end. I say no, thankfully. You can see how it all felt like a most strange dream, as I discuss my photography with burly men in orange uniforms who are sweeping up charred papers from the floor and fitting fire alarms. But they were ace these men, utter shining stars.

The fire was started by a joss stick which fell into the waste paper basket. Well, that was the overt cause. Me, I think the acute tension between Saturn and Uranus, with Mars fanning the flames, also had something to do with it. Causes apart, what about the meaning? I think it's saying something like – these passionate, inflammatory ideas need to be earthed, focussed, in the way that lightning conductors earth the crackly energy that's discharging across the sky. Perhaps it's pointing to newly discovered access routes, and passages, as in the dream. One thing for sure is that my study has long been overdue for a tidy and a clear out. Now, as well as that, the walls need to be cleaned and painted. And while I'm at it, I might as well scrub and varnish the floorboards. That should keep me occupied in a physical, practical way for some time.

This is Asklepios, the god of healing dreams.