Monday, 23 May 2011

Art and Love and Annemarie's Vision

It's a familiar feeling isn't it, the one described by Erin, in her comment On A Year with Rilke – this closeness to someone when their art touches you, someone one has never met, who may not even be alive....

[she wrote, of Chagall - i don't know how to write his name without saying, dear marc... ]

This love for the distant, for those-not-there and maybe long dead, so-called...

And I was looking at the photo of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and how she leans on someone else half possessive half afraid, and looks the other way, not at her, she looks to the roadside, sombre, her expression dreamy, her stance though, is robust, determined....She is standing on the road beside the car, and her companion sits on the car bonnet, this famous car they drove across the orient, and she leans against her companion's leg and looks the other way. Ella, her companion, also writer and seeker for life's meaning, traveller, one who sets off and travels into yet more life, she smiles, and her hand rests on her companion's shoulder, the one who leans onto the bonnet of her car and onto Ella's leg so comfortable so intimate, or – so determined to be close, so close as water is, or weather, she says, look, this is as natural as sunlight and will not look her feelings in the eye, she has to look away.

I address my thoughts to her I say, as I translate her work, is this a good word, what did you think, what did you feel, how much of what you did not write is there in that gesture, that longing for consolation, that no-one ever gave you, ever, but a tree gave you, somewhere in Africa, in the Congo, somewhere during the war as you wrote reports and people acted wary of you, there were rumours that you were a spy, because you spoke the language of the enemy, a German-speaking Swiss, hardly to be trusted. No consolation there. But then there was this tree -

A tree gave it to you – vision, consolation, breaking up perceptions into shards of light and colour. A tree in Africa. Strangely, what you wrote about that tree, after you'd returned to Engadine, was never published so I think, it lies in some vault in Berne, in Switzerland, for your friends said, no, that's not the way to write about it, try –

and then you died. You had your vision, and you left, ange inconsolable, as Roger Martin du Gard called you. I am travelling in your writing's footsteps, listening for the echo of the unsaid, the hand you grasped then - when it slipped from yours, the journey to the mountains in an Afghan winter, pressing other hands into your own, but always leaving empty handed.

I wish I was that tree, the rainforest, the heat, the light that reached you, Annemarie.

[I read about the details of Annemarie Schwarzenbach's life, and her vision in Africa, in Dominique Laure Miermont's biography of her.]

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Mashhad and the Imam Reza Shrine

I'm working on travel writing from the Middle East for Sons of Camus International Writers Journal [you can read a review of the last issue here].

In Mashhad, in eastern Iran, near the border with Afghanistan, there is a shrine to Iman Reza, which was first built in 818 AD. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt several times, the most recent being 1978 and since then has, according to undergone continuous renovation and enlargement. I'm grateful to this site for the photographs and the following quotation:

A tradition (legendarily attributed to Imam Reza's father) told that a pilgrimage to Imam Reza's grave would equal 70,000 pilgrimages to Mecca and the tomb of the Imam became a holy place of pilgrimage to which people thronged from throughout Persia.

This is part of my translation of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, writing about Mashhad, and the Imam Reza shrine. It's from the chapter No Man's Land. Between Persia and Afghanistan, in Ou est la Terre des Promesses? a description of the journey she made with fellow Swiss writer Ella Maillart, in 1939-40.

Many more pictures from their journey can be seen at this Swiss website

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Ella Maillart and the Ford car they drove to Afghanistan.

We have passed through Mashhad. We are leaving the town behind, its gridwork of new streets and the narrow alleyways of the covered bazaar, plunged in semi-darkness. Towering above it all is the shining golden dome of the tomb of the Imam Reza. It looks like a bell-jar that has descended from the peerless blue sky, a blazing star at midday.

We are leaving behind the imperishable blue of the mosque of Gohar Shad, the crushing heat in the courtyards, which seem to echo a harmony of shapes and colours. We are leaving behind the darkness and the luxury of mirrors inside the sanctuary, the sighs and tears of the emaciated pilgrims, Shi’ites from the four corners of Asia, who for years have dreamed of kissing the bars of thesarcophagus. They have crossed the desert, enduring extremes of exhaustion, to be able to touch the marble floor with their bare feet and to see the fourteen doors of silver, and the two doors of gold, opening in front of them. On theirknees, weeping and crying out with exhaustion and hysterical joy, they clutch the iron railings which screen the Imam lying in the darkness, surrounded by modern carpets, turbans, votive offerings and holy texts.

Outside, all around the spacious mosque, the craftsmen – metal workers and goldsmiths, saddlers and tailors – work in kiosks so tiny they are like cages. In rooms with rounded arches full of dusty carpets the sellers haggle over prices and the shaft which leads down from the bazaar to the darkness of the water tank descends for fifty steps. Porters dressed in rags stagger under the weight of their leather sacks.

We are leaving the town behind. A strong wind is blowing on the road that heads towards the east and which will soon turn into a desert track. Here and there the straw coloured fields are wiped out by the grievous drought. From the top of the bare mountains the mounds of kanat come into view again. They are lined up across the plain, the gaping and thirsty craters of the underground canals. They give life to a village, a slip of green around a swarm of earth domes which are cracking under the scorching sun. But, in the inner courtyard of a caravanserai which resembles a fortress, water from the kanat fills a tank and in the vaulted room which adjoins it, men give us tea and melons.

Yes, even here it is possible for human beings to live, and Persia gives us one last surprise, offered like a farewell present to a departing guest as a token of friendship. At two o’clock we take a break and seek out some shade in the village of Torbat. At a junction where two roads intersect at right angles, the central area is arranged in the obligatory fashion for every modern Iranian town, with a police post, a few dried-out flower beds, and a scattering of sand and gravel. Surrounded only by broken-down clay walls, and hollowed out human habitations, in the midst of this sea of yellowed ruins, a gleam of turquoise leaps out, and a winding path leads us right to the doorway of a mosque whose remains evoke all the pomp and beauty of the age of Shah Abbas the Great.

First of all there's a garden, that serves as an entrance. The fan of branches from a spreading pine tree offers shade, and there is grass growing – it seems to us as soft and thick as a carpet. The triangle of a chain in the lower gate, a blind man, who is the guardian, a few young boys and then, encircled by bushes, the yellow and alabaster coloured gravestones. Finally, rising magnificently into the sky, there is the high entrance door, the mehrab, decorated with delicate blue and turquoise arabesques. At the side, half hidden by a wall, the luminous green dome of a mausoleum.

The complete text, including their arrival in Afghanistan, will appear in Issue 8 of the magazine, later this year.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Rock Garden of South East Europe - Extract 1

Extract from the first time I lived in Albania, several years ago.

The title The Rock Garden of South East Europe is taken from an essay by Faik Konitza, an Albanian Writer

Opening of the Covered Marketplace at Elbasan

Elbasan lies in a plain, surrounded by mountains. On one side of the plain is the town itself and on the other - occupying an area which at first sight is just as extensive - is a grotesque array of rusted metal pipes and tubes. This skeletal arrangement is the remains of a metallurgical factory, built by the Chinese during the Communist regime. A trail of yellowish smoke drifts from a chimney and settles in the air over the town.

In some places the road from Tirana to Elbasan runs along the mountain tops, giving views over layers of peaks, becoming fainter and mistier with distance. To make the steep descent, the road curls and loops back on itself. One side of the road is built up like an embankment. Parts of it erupt into mosaics of determined and heroic workers, grasping their hammers and welding instruments, staring past you, out across the Elbasan valley and the sickly yellow smoke dribbling from the chimney.

The morning is grey and overcast. Just past the outskirts of Tirana, we cross a bridge that was closed for a long time because parts of it caved in or fell away. W

told me that it had partially collapsed because some excavation work had undermined the bridge's foundations. Capsized dumper trucks and tractors on their sides lie in the river like forlorn dinky toys.

As we climb up the winding mountain road, heading for Elbasan, we leave behind all signs of habitation and are surrounded by the wildness of the mountains. The landscape becomes stark and bare, a sea of brown-peaked frozen waves, breathtakingly beautiful. Clearly, we are in another world, one that belongs to nature.

It begins to snow a little, small flurries of white blurring the vision of the mountains. The road curls along the top of one of the mountains, with valleys falling away on either side. Some of the peaks are rocky, slanted and so thin they look almost shaved to a point, like giant pencils. Thin cloud dances on the mountain-peaks, throwing off a snow as light as the reflection of emotion in water.

By the time we get to Elbasan the sky is still grey and a light rain is falling. We are here to take part in the opening ceremony of the covered marketplace whose construction we have funded. But before going to the marketplace we visit Kuqan school, whose renovation we are also funding. There are the usual broken steps, plywood doors, huge amount of dust and grime in the classrooms, shabby, rickety desks. The classrooms are unheated, apart from the nursery, where there is a wood-burning stove, which fails to make much impact on the whole room, but does take the worst chill off the air. The little ones are not free to move around, but sit at low tables, crowded together. They all gaze at us fixedly, as we talk to their teacher. This open and unembarrassed curiosity is also present in the older students in the other classrooms. They stand up politely when we come in. And do the same when we leave, with an enthusiastic chorus of 'mirufpashim' (goodbye).

The upstairs of this school is blocked off because it’s unusable. The rooms there have no doors and the tiles are completely broken up. There are window frames but no windows. In one room, there are piles of excrement on the floor. But outside, there are neat whitewashed houses, with little yards where vines are threaded up sticks and across a lattice of wire at the top, so that in summer their leaves will provide shade. In a nearby hay barn an old woman is pulling out hay with a long fork. And in front of the school, rows of young saplings have recently been planted. In a few years time they will transform the bare brown earth, and provide shade for the children.

We then head for the marketplace. We stand around in the damp and chill for about half an hour, waiting for the mayor, as the ceremony cannot begin until he arrives. I wonder if his delay is calculated, to emphasise his importance, or simply a disregard for time. W has mentioned that she has had some difficult dealings with the mayor.

His actual involvement in the construction of the covered marketplace has been minimal, but his consent has been necessary at every step of the negotiations. At times, W has hinted, he has been obstructive, deliberately delaying the procedure, just to show his importance, and to show that he is in control. But, despite all the difficulties, the project has been completed. The fruit and vegetable vendors, who have previously had to sell their wares out in the open, in the chill and wet of winter as well as the baking heat of summer, will soon have a covered area to protect them from the elements. So W is quietly triumphant, and tolerates the mayor’s impoliteness, or deliberate show of power, whichever it might be, with a show of patience and brisk politeness.

The mayor, when he finally arrives, turns out to be a large man with a loud voice. He gives a speech in which, W whispers, he takes most of the credit for the undertaking, as if it had been his idea and had enjoyed his unflagging commitment. W’s speech is brief, praising all involved in the undertaking, and not forgetting to give due thanks to the mayor. She cuts the red ribbon, marking the official opening and then things move very quickly. The vendors are inside and have set up shop with amazing speed. Within minutes the counters are piled with scales and vivid colours - apples, oranges, lettuces, leeks, red and green peppers. Customers throng the aisles and the metal roof resounds with chatter. P and I stockpile fruit and vegetables from one of the nearest vendors and we pile them in the car.

After the ceremony, we visit another school, driving on the Librazhd to Kukes road. Librazhd is small but has an elegant curving main street, lined with trees. On the way there we pass an old woman in black, with a white scarf round her head, digging gravel and sand, to make mortar. On the brown mountainsides, there are trees with white and pink blossom. At the Hotolishti school, which we are proposing to fund, some rooms are full of rubbish, as if it had been bombed. Some of the floorboards are wet and we are told that if it rains, the ceilings leak so badly that the room are closed and classes abandoned. To get to the playground, you have to climb up a long flight of steps. There is a fine view from the top, but it is dangerous for there are no protective barriers.

On the way back, Gramoz, our driver, stops and buys some purple flowers. The clouds have gone, the sun is out. Some of the peaks, still capped with snow, are dazzling in this light. We seem to be higher up than everything that’s visible.

Back in Tirana, the evening sunlight catches pieces of buildings, clutches at them, in some rosy sense of memory - walls turn deep and mysterious, puddles

become wells of gold and the few soft, green-feathered branches of drifting trees, shine in the evening glow. We drive slowly through the narrow back lanes, swaying up and down with each pothole.

In the twilight, when I walk down the steps from the office, a rat saunters across the path below. Mattresses, chairs, boots, tiles, and pieces of wood are piled up in the river.

An old woman, bent over from a huge sack piled on her back, rummages through the litter bin. The water from the broken waterpipe has filled the hole in the street and overflowed into the road. Two boys float toy boats, tied to string, on the murky lake that the road has turned into. In the rooster street, with the thin strip of muddy, rubbish-clogged yard, where the hens and roosters peck, a scrawny tree has burst into white blossom, a sudden spillage of emotion, a rustle of light against the flaky grey grime of the buildings.

I come home with a bunch of flowers given to me at the Elbasan market opening ceremony. The flowers are vivid shades of yellow and orange.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Beltane - The Fire

I put you – at the top of the tree,

here, where the gold tangles

with hair and bruised skin -

I pull you out of my heart

and feel the hot brand

tight as a hoop and round as the sun

jump in -

yellow blossom outside,

on the inside, this fire

that aims to consume me

'to my one desire'.