Monday, 28 March 2016

The Lure of Water

Faruk Šehić – Quiet Flows the Una
Translated by Will Firth

Published by Istros Books
ISBN 978 1908 236 494


This is an extraordinary book by the Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić . The language is lyrical and poetic. The writing cannot be categorized, it escapes all definitions, one form metamorphosing into another, just like the river that is the central character and forms the constant, a paradoxical constant, for even as it is always there, a presence that is both reliable and loved, its nature is shifting and protean.
'Our town grew out of people's bond with the river' he writes, in The Smell of the Burned Town. 'All the people of this town are believers in the water. They know very well that most problems vanish by simply watching the flow of the river.'

Each chapter in this book is self-contained, a story, a dream, a memory from childhood, an imagined conversation, and, towards the end, a description of how the book came to be written, that process from initial ideas (and he lists the possible titles he started with) to the decisions about content and subject matter and approaches. In The First Words of the Book he writes 'In the end, I've resigned myself to the journey, guided by instinct, that most reliable of compasses, towards uncharted land.' 'Objects couldn't last' he says. '..I began to believe in words....Words are above destruction. If you erase them they are right back on the tip of your tongue again. That's why I started describing just things that were important to me, like a maniac.'

So he includes the process, as it too, is part of the story and it too has a place in the landscape, just as the river is both constant and changing. The river is an emotional geography, and Šehić describes its varied aquatic and plant life, the people and houses that live close to it, the memories that are formed by it and washed away with it, on its journey.

In 2007: According to Gargano, he gives a description of the town, Sarajevo. 'You're now a phantom town' he writes. This is what it has turned into, and he describes too what it was before the war – you realise that the past is utterly persistent, living in both the remembrance of good times (before the war) and the accentuated bitterness of what it has become. If memories are alive – and they seem to have that kind of living energy, a mood we wear, even if unchosen, uninvited, even if despite ourselves – they are part of the present, as it is affected by our feelings, as we create and contribute to the present or build the solid structures – the buildings, the meetings, our careers – that will become the future.

Although he does refer to the war it's not his intention to document that time in his life. Rather than a detailed description, Šehić's approach is an almost meditative wondering. In Growing with the Plants, when 'the war year 1992 was far away' he imagines putting questions about what would happen to his belongings, the TV, his letters, photos, books, cassettes, coins, his house. This focus on the life of objects, their tendency to be broken, destroyed and disappear, underlines the fragility of our own lives; there is an unstated but clear transference of identity through the associations we all recognize with possessions that are so much a part of our lives that they've come to share in our identity. This can happen through repetition and habit, can come about almost without us noticing it – until they are removed, stolen, destroyed.

This catalogue of objects is like an inventory of his identity ticked off, signed off, scored out. Lines through each one, a musical score of loss. Feelings are a series of bridges, always connecting us with someone or something else. Words become a little treacherous here, implying that we are separate from objects we own and people we love, that emotions are discrete 'things' whereas of course their nature is movement, they are like the river, the paradox of (apparent) constancy and change.

In fact, this meditation is very much on the nature of what is solidity and separateness, and what is change and movement. Each of these chapters forms a whole, a completeness in itself, yet there is also a continuity, as sinuous as any river, through dream-like associations, words as boats on water surface slipping past the wall-builders and plasterers, the artisans and sculptors of narrative. Of course there is a huge amount of craft involved, in this atmospheric, associative writing. At the same time it manipulates definition and disarms the categorizing mind.

To truly appreciate this writing you have to abandon, so I found anyway, ideas of what you are reading, (is it poetry, fiction, a memoir, a factual account, a dream?) allow yourself to be carried by the current. And you don't know where it will take you and you won't always feel comfortable with who you meet, or where you go. But that's part of the lure of any journey isn't it? Šehić hasn't just written about a river. He draws the reader in and it's the way of water to merge and join, to erase boundaries, so that you too become part of the river and part of his world.

And Will Firth has done a wonderful job of translating all these descriptions and tangled emotions, capturing the lyric sense of flow and the richness of the language.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Ah, the Sea!

The past few days I've walked beside different parts of England's coastline. From its most northerly coast, at Berwick, to its southern shore, at Folkestone. And along Kent's northern coastline, which goes inland to form the Thames estuary.

At Berwick  the clifftops were misty and cold.

I went down to the beach. The sea was my favourite colour, grey-green. The damp air was cold but it wasn't windy. I walked on the sloping sand that the waves washed smooth, over and over, hissing and sighing, a love that repeats itself, over and over, folds and smooths, foams and blanches, retreats into grey-green, rises into translucence, and breaks on the sand into a thin layer of moving foam.

The white bubbles are left behind, wink out into the wet sand while the clear water returns to the ocean like a stamp to an ink-pad, to be stained with identity.

I imagine living by the sea. Which sea, which stretch of coastline? Would it cure my restlessness? What colour would it be? Ah well, the turquoise waters of the Ionian, Aegean, Mediterranean, come to mind. But these waters too can change colour – to deep blue, purple, slate blue. The sea has so many colours.


On the promenade at Folkestone, an artist has placed a circular palette of possible sea colours, so you can turn it to see which fits the colour of the sea right now as you look at it. Every shade imaginable through blue. grey and green, including white and black. Today, the sea is – white!

But down on the pebble beach it is a little darker, yet neither grey nor blue. And almost motionless.


From Tankerton, on Kent's northern coastline, we walk along the beach to Herne Bay.

Beach huts on the way to Herne Bay

I was there as a small child, I know because there was a photo of me sitting on Muffin the Mule. I remember nothing of the visit or even of Muffin who apparently was a puppet on TV.

There's a fierce and icy wind blowing in our faces as we walk along, but the mist thins a little as we approach the town. Once a popular seaside resort though less so now I imagine, it has retained a dignity, similar to Folkestone's broad Victorian-era buildings. The façades of these are clean, many of them are white, some are pastel colours. And on the main promenade, the wide pedestrian space of the Central Parade, there is a coffee shop, catering to all clients and conversations. There are day-trippers and local teenagers, there are beachcombers like ourselves, weary from struggling against the tearing wind, a bora from the Baltic; and two backgammon players sitting at a table next to ours, with a large board set out between them, elegant and polished. I compliment them on the beauty of their board.

And think of the backgammon players in Greece and Cyprus, sitting under the shade of spreading trees. Here, I was so thankful to step into the warmth of this café, like a glass-house, its huge windows catching and reflecting all the sun's warmth.

The sea in this country always makes me think of other seas, warmer ones. The sea is like an ocean of memory itself, where they are stored, where you can access them, one memory leading effortlessly to another association.

We return along the beach, all the way to Whitstable. 

This time the wind is at our backs, the sun is out, the sky is cloudless and the tide is coming in, the frothy waves coloured with sediment from the estuary bed.

Beach at Kent Coastal Path, near Whitstable

With the sun in the sign of Pisces, it's a good time to be beside all water and especially the sea. The waves smooth you out, release you from the compact kernel of your life, its solidity, its density and demands for regularity and punctuality, deadlines to be met and duties to be fulfilled. The sea teases out the knots of thought, clustered around the unfulfilled, time's barbs and splinters. The ocean eases you into a simpler rhythm.

Of course, there is always something to be let go of, something to release, to say farewell to, at the end of this cycle of the year, and seasons, Pisces being the twelfth sign of the zodiac. Being close to water helps maybe, that process of loosening, spreading out across the ocean surface of the world, one sea leading to another, no boundaries between them no edges to negotiate, no borders to be crossed.

Perhaps only in retrospect will we know what has been let go of. We can of course make our own decisions. But in the deep oceans of the world and currents of our being, there are larger patterns at work. To align ourselves with these is perhaps 'the best luck we could have.'

Just to be held by the ocean
is the best luck we could have.


Mediterranean off the south coast of Cyprus


 Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Emily Dickinson

Off the south coast of Cyprus

And in this surprisingly hot sunshine, we enter a new cycle at the equinox as the Sun enters Aries and all the growth that's been moving invisibly through trees and flower-stems pushes up and out through the surface of earth, trees, bushes – tiny flowers, buds anticipating leaves. All these new beginnings are visible in the external world of nature. And what of the new season rising up within us?

Canal at Bisley, Surrey


Today I clear away dead grass, leaves and pine-cones from the garden. Just beyond it, there's a wood, the ground covered with pine needles. So many birds are singing. A woodpecker tap-tap-taps. A more distant, fainter one, replies.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Divided City: Rumi's Invitation

Colourful doorway, Lefkoşa

Alsançak, Kyrenia, Nicosia/Lefkoşa, North Cyprus

The morning is cloud-covered and even rain was forecast as a possibility so I decided this was not a day to go walking but to explore the northern part of the divided city of Nicosia, and possibly visit some museums. So I walk along the pine and olive tree lined road, past the graveyard and the roundabout, past the patisserie to the main road. Within one minute, a dolmus comes along, one of these shared taxis, a mini-bus, which will pick you up wherever you are, and will put you down too, wherever you choose.  All the passengers are fascinating. Some of the older ones sit near the front and talk to the driver. Then there are stylish young women who have stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. They tend to say nothing, look at no-one, and when they get off they rarely speak, but move to the front, and hand over the fare in silence. The young men too, all without exception dressed in jeans and black leather jacket, with styled, set and glossed hair, tend not to greet anyone and look as if this journey is simply a boring necessity.

I get out beside the vast yellow Hotel Colony in the centre of Kyrenia. The dolmus to Nicosia I was told, leaves from just a few metres away. And that's where I find it, parked outside the Café Doping.

With such a departure point how could the journey not be – even just a little – dream like? Travel on a magic carpet? Certainly the journey to Nicosia/Lefkoşa did not take long, the road finding a gap between the Kyrenia mountains and slipping through, into the central plain of the island, and on into the capital.

The tourist information office is located in the Kyrenia Gate. 

Up the main street to the old market, 

and the Great Hamam, 

The faint drizzle changed abruptly, turned to that steady, even rain the Mediterranean countries are so good at. Windless, straight down on your hair and shoulders, on your arms and feet rain. I went looking for an umbrella. In one shop the man said it was difficult to keep his scarves dry in the rain, he had a plastic sheet arrangement at the side, a kind of shelter. Maybe it will be fine tomorrow I said and he said no, it's going to be like this all week. (It wasn't.)

Time for coffee. I choose the Orange Café because it has several outside tables with canopies. Now, to get a good coffee, you really have to go for Turkish coffee. Otherwise, you may find yourself drinking a pale, weak beverage which passes for coffee.

For a change from Turkish coffee, which is black and sweet (too bitter for my taste without sugar) I go for 'cappuccino' which is milky and the light brown colour of a flooded river. So here we are on a rainy day in Lefkoşa/Nicosia where I sit outside under the canopy and watch the umbrella holding pedestrians saunter by. But I find my surroundings so delightful I do not mind what I am drinking.

I then wander through the old town.  

So many ruined tumbledown houses, or still standing houses with open doors with peeled-off paint and inside, just empty spaces, with slats of wood or bits of rubble lying on the floor, you could see this through the partly-open door.

I couldn't photograph them, it was like seeing someone lying in the street, just a blanket over them, a few dusty bagged possessions, a woolly hat over their head, you wouldn't photograph them and it was the same with the houses, all torn up from conflict, emptied, abandoned, their former owners evacuated or evicted or forced to flee or escaped some threatened violence, or feared violence or did not escape.


The rain lessens, and patches of blue sky appear and the sun comes out.


Inside The Mevlevi Tekke & Museum. 

Picture of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi's tomb at Konya


Do you think I know what I'm doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it's writing,
or the ball can guess where it's going next.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.

Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.

Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)