Saudi Sombreros

AsirWomen

Bargaining

And the lady in the big hat is….?

Having a bargaining competition at the souq over the

CuttingVeggies

Herbs of the Day

Selling hats and ghee

Selling hats and ghee

price of a heavy Yemeni clay pot with a woman covered in black,

including her face and hands, is not easy—you can’t hear what she’s saying through her niqab so well and you’re not sure what she’s thinking about your price offer because her only visible body part, her eyes, are already squinting from the sun.

And when she’s wearing a sombrero on top of all that….she wins.  Your whole Middle East fashion sense is turned upside down and the price of the clay pot is less important than asking her where did she—and all the other ladies at the souq—get that hat because the black scarf on your head is sucking up all the sun and you wish you had that glorious large hat to shield you from its menace.

Perhaps the more accurate question would be, “When did you get that abaya and niqab?”  (The Arabic words for the black robe and face cover).  Because in ‘Asir, in southeastern Saudi Arabia, the straw hat i

HoneySelller

Yemeni Honey Seller

s traditional, not the abaya and niqab.

Clothes are politics, and in Asir, a fertile, mountainous beautiful part of the world, the abaya and niqab only started to be worn by women in the 1970s when ‘Asir’s rulers were asked to come closer to following the dictates of the national government in order to receive funding for modernization.  Modernization ironically enough included covering up their women.  The covering up was only a physical manifestation of an increase in the embrace of the Saudi government’s definition of Islam that exists here today in combination with its more liberal past.

Retired School Teacher

Retired School Teacher

Asir Souq

Asir Souq

Ibrahim

This is home to a vibrant artist colony, the only one in Saudi Arabia, a place where a young painter looked at me fiddling to get my hijab to stay in place and said, “Just take it off.  You’re making a mess of it.”  On the other hand, this is also a center of militant Islam.  “When I was in Afghanistan…” a Saudi farmer casually started in response to a question related to the article I was working on.  He also pointed to my headscarf to let me know a piece of hair was sticking out—not okay.  Had I asked why he had been in Afghanistan, the answer wouldn’t have been to paint the mountain vistas.  Plenty of those at home in ‘Asir.

But in the honey scented souq of the capital city of Abha, business is business—and the price of vendor’s prized goods—spices, dates, clay pots, goat–is negotiable, and you win if you’re the one confident in what you’re wearing.  I am not very confident in an abaya and hijab.  Still, I was able to capture some of these faces and lack there of, in this most beautiful and fascinating of places.

Go Ahead and Film Me—Nothing Changes

“So what are you here to film?” he asked from his battered bamboo chair, as he exhaled from the stub of the cigarette in his hand, the smoke blending in with the dust sweeping through the camp.  He was about 40, and had been sitting in that dark alley his entire life.   One of my students took his picture.  He looked at her, Shatila“You should ask me to smile,” he said and smiled, revealing crooked and broken teeth.  She got flustered.  He shrugged, “Film whatever you want.  People have been filming me since I was three-years old.  Me, my dead relatives nothing changes.  You make your film, you show everyone the sad poor people and I’m still sitting here in this chair.  Nothing changes.”

Almost anywhere else in the world, you would tell him, “Get a job, any job, have some pride,” but there are few legal jobs for people in the Shatila Refugee Camp.  They can work odd construction gigs under the table in Beirut, which many of them do, or they can operate a small business in the camp, such as a grocery store, where they can sell cheap food to people who can barely afford to pay for it. Or their parents in rare cases can somehow find the money so that they can go to a college outside the camp, and come back to work in a hospital or as a teacher in the declining education system.  Or they can just sit on a bamboo chair.  Nothing changes.  Unless perhaps they get immigration papers to go to Europe or America.   (For statics on life in the camps, check out Franklin Lamb’s article in Counterpunch:  http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/13/can-richard-falk-achieve-civil-rights-for-palestinians-in-lebanon/)

The father of the family we were going to film scavenges through junk piles in Beirut, bartering and trading junk to furnish their dim and dank cramped room/house.  His wife, Sabah, keeps the room meticulous, and we’re asked to take off our shoes as they are covered with dust from outside.  Sabah explains proudly how she decorated with her eldest daughter, Reem, 15, who dreams of being a designer but will not live long enough to realize her dreams would not have been attainable because she would never have had the opportunity or training required.

It’s the women in the camps that hang on to hope, despite being betrayed by either the stupidity or insincerity of the Palestinian leaders of their parents’ generation, who engaged in the Lebanese Civil War for no logical reason and sending them into further isolation and devastation, despite being the keepers of the rusty keys of their family homes in Palestine that their grandparents took with them during their expulsion from what is now is Israel.  They are the third generation born in these camps, and while the hope of a return home is almost beyond their grasp of those old keys, the hope that at least one of their children will find a way out allows them to live.

In Ain Al Helweh Camp, the women sew Palestinian embroidered pillows for sale abroad during the two hours the camp gets electricity.  The bright spring sun barely makes it through the clusters of blocks on top of blocks and even with the electricity, the women squint to see their stitches.  They are undisturbed by the two seven-year old boys outside beating each other up as an affordable form of entertainment.  They are not fazed when the camp goes into lockdown because the Lebanese army suspects a renegade group of having smuggled arms into the camp the night before.  As our Lebanese taxi driver warned us on the way, Ain Al Helweh is where the “criminals of the world” go to hide because there is no law here.  ShatillaCamp

In Bourj Al Barjneh Camp, when a Syrian man came into the crumbling hospital carrying his six-year old wounded son, the female nurses didn’t ask him who shot the boy.  They just did their best to prep him for surgery and calm the father down.  The women of the camps are born and then marry, feed their children and hope.

We were there that week because we were filming patients of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fun, a US organization that sends volunteer medical teams to operate on some of the sickest kids in the camps.  That week the team was two orthopedic surgeons and an anesthesiologist, all from Chile.

You can see the doctors in  “Dreams in Their Eyes” in Los Angeles.  I’m proud of what my students had the courage to explore with this film.  But I will leave you to this blurb.  Otherwise, it is hard to talk about because I always hear the man in the battered bamboo chair.

 The award-winning documentary (UAE/Lebanon)“Dreams in Their Eyes,” will play at the Evolution International Film Festival on Saturday, July 27, at 1.30.   The film portrays the stories of three children in different refugee camps around Lebanon suffering from diseases too costly to treat if not for the help of the US-based Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.  With unprecedented access to operating rooms and family homes, the film was shot over a week when a volunteer team of doctors from Chile came to treat Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children brought to the Bourj Al Barjneh Camp.  Three young Emirati women directed the film, the first Emiratis to film in the camps, and the film won “Best Emirati Film” at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in addition to having screened at festivals in the UK, India and Spain.

This year over 300 movies out of 26 countries, in 22 different languages were submitted to festival. The final selection includes 24 films in 10 different languages, many with a Middle East theme.

Saturday July 27th, 2013

1.30 to 3.30 pm 

Los Angeles Film School
6363 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

For more information: 

http://www.evolutionfilmfestival.com/

The Green Food Season

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

What Film Directors Look Like

As kids, we grow up with clear imagery of what professionals in certain professions look like.  In my Sesame Street days, I learned farmers wear overalls with checkered shirts, nannies are British and carry parasols, and professional Arabs wear white robes and headdresses accessorized with grenade belts.  These images came to me from film and television, and I bought most of them, even with real live Arab parents there to counterbalance the TV Arab.

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

(Okay, there are some exceptions in which my childhood TV holds true—like waitresses at diners wear white aprons that tie at the waist.  This one persists as the whole diner concept has evolved into nostalgia for an imagined memory of American utopia.)

I wanted to make films, too.  But then I learned from TV that directors-are flamboyant, European, wear berets and ascots, have a cigar and carry megaphones when they talk—and are men.  So I thought about other possible dreams, as I knew that I could be convinced to shout in a megaphone but had no hope of being a man.

Then a person grows up and moves to Hollywood and finds out farmers, at least the organic ones, have pretty hip jeans and cool t-shirts, often with a marijuana leaf on them, the accent that nannies have is Spanish, and Arabs are the mostly like to wear overalls to work at the gas stations, if not wearing polo shirts as engineers.  And directors are indistinguishable from the rest of the angst-ridden people in Los Angeles—although they’re still most likely men.

But every once in while, your Hollywood childhood imagery is a pleasant memory that comes

Photo by Ebla Maleh

Photo by Ebla Maleh

back to you– like it did when I interviewed Syria’s most acclaimed director Nabil Maleh, during which he gave me a photo of himself as a young director.  There was the beret, megaphone, and still to this day an endearingly larger than life personality.   He has never been a farmer, but on the day of our interview he was the one wearing the checkered shirt.

A Leopard in Winter:  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/9845/a-leopard-in-winter_an-interview-with-syrian-direcn

Nazareth’s Deep Rooted Miracle

Olive Tree Cross

The Olive Tree Cross

This year I happen to have written an unprecedented amount on Christmas related and Palestine related matters, although not in conjunction with each other.   So perhaps it’s best to end the year with where Christmas and Palestine actually met for me a year ago.  Where they’ve met since the beginning of Christianity:  In Nazareth.  At an olive tree, of course.

On the way to visit family last December, I stopped by Nazareth to see the family of close friends of mine in Los Angeles.  Accompanying me on this journey was another friend Cynthia Capriata, a Peruvian artist on her first venture into the Holy Land.  When we arrived early in the morning, Cynthia was in a festive tourist mood, which balanced out the heaviness that often falls on me in this country.

We were greeted by Habib, a guy who understands Nazareth present, past and future better than anyone.  When I asked Habib if he knew the sister of another dear family friend, he of course did, and we started our morning at her house, near the Christmas tree where she read our coffee cups for us.  Her husband, a retired teacher, in typical local fashion, meanwhile grilled me on my family tree until he was satisfied that he had either taught or been taught by some of my relatives. He actually knew more of my family than I did.  After our coffee cups confirmed happy futures, Habib with full graciousness, took us around town to all the historic sites, his 11-year old daughter tagging along.  We saw the churches, the old homes turned into boutique hotels, the old souq with people rushing about for last minute dinner ingredients and gifts.  Until it was time for us to find a rooftop spot at Habib’s mother-in-law’s house, where we had a perfect view, despite the wind and rain, of Nazareth’s annual Christmas parade, a two-hour small town extravaganza that involves Santa Claus, a series of marching bands, and cars with important people of all faiths waving from them.

Christmas Parade In Nazareth

Christmas Parade In Nazareth

The miracle moment wasn’t that the wind didn’t knock Santa down or that our coffee cups assured us of great happiness.   It came early in the day, when we stopped by Habib’s house to wish his mother a happy Christmas.  Habib paused at the olive tree at the entrance of the house.  “How do you explain this?” Habib asked.  He was pointing to the lower section of the tree, where the leaves and branches had formed a cross. At first I thought he’d propped in a cross he’d made of olive branches.  But this cross was unquestionably part of the tree.  The tree has become somewhat of a legend in the neighborhood no matter the season.  Whether you believe it or not, in a land like this, it is a reminder that miracles, often much needed here, are deep rooted–sometimes literally—all year long.

My Very Short Middle East Movie List

Recently a professor in the US asked me if I could put together a list of Arabic language films she might be able to use in her women’s studies and global studies classes.   This is only a short excursion around 20 plus countries sharing a common language and multiple problems and plenty of quirkiness.   Some countries have only one or two features, like Jordan and the UAE, so those were pretty easy to do.  Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, I apologize to all the wonderful films I didn’t list–and to Iraq, the Arab cinema I know almost nothing about yet.  The Middle East also includes Iran, which may have the most powerful films of all, but that’s a whole other list.  For that, see the link below.

EGYPT :

Cairo Station/The Iron Gate (Youssef Chahine, 1958):  A memorable love triangle amongst the workers at a Cairo train station.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Mohamed Khan, 1988):  Two maids in Cairo struggle with their employers and family.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)

Asma (Amr Salama, 2011)  A woman struggles with the shame of AIDS

 

LEBANON

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)  Daily life of five women at a beauty salon in Lebanon.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)  Award-winning film that takes a lighter, simplified  look at the start of the Lebanese civil war.

West Beirut (1998)  Probably the best narrative film on the Lebanese civil war as it affected the middle class

PALESTINE

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, 2005)  Oscar nominated, two young men are sent on a suicide mission.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Najwa Najjar, 2008) A newlywed copes with the sudden imprisonment of her husband.

Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) A Palestinian American goes back to see what was once her family’s home.

PALESTINE/LEBANON/ISRAEL

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)  Israeli animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Under the Bombs (Philippe Aractingi, 2007) One woman’s struggle to find her missing child in the midst of Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel.

SYRIA 

The Leopard (Nabil Maleh, 1973) Freedom fighters as revolutionaries

The Extras (Nabil Maleh, 1993)  Life and love under a police state

MORROCCO

Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, 2011)  The difficulty of proving your innocence when your guilty by ethnicity.

Le Grand Voyage (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2004), A young man goes with his father from France to Mecca on an emotionally challenging road trip.

ALGERIA

Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002):  A woman faces down a group asking her to commit a terrorist act at home.

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966):  An epic about one of the most heroic and bloody fights for independence in modern history.

TUNISIA

Silence of the Palace (Moufida Tlalti, 1994)  A masterful look at the manipulation of  poor women in mid-20th century Middle East.

UAE

City of Life (Ali Mostafa, 2010)  The lives of two young Emirati men collide with the lives of a variety of expats living in Dubai.

Sea Shadow (Nawaf Al Janahi, 2011) A young man tries to understand what love is in a seaside town.

JORDAN

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007)  A janitor pretends to be an airplane pilot to entertain the kids in his neighborhood.
*For a bit of a taste of the grand cinema of Iran, check out this short list from the website Your Middle East  http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/5-great-iranian-films_8295

Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Not So Much Like a Virgin

Madonna’s self-proclaimed world peace tour arrived in Abu Dhabi via Tel Aviv and opened with the Material Girl mowing down with her assault rifle as many minimally dressed, mostly black men with well-oiled muscles as possible while repeating for at least five minutes, “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”  Fake blood included.  Peace. It’s something to get you into the groove.

There was also Madonna swigging from a Jack Daniels bottle, a parade of monks, herself kneeled in prayer in the nativity position of her namesake, a cross, and a lot of toned flesh and cursing.  Heck, more than half the things Madonna did on stage would have gotten a UAE resident arrested.  But Madonna became known for always being able to strut her stuff where others can’t:  For example, she did what she wanted on stage in Abu Dhabi but the Sex in the City ladies were banned from the big screen here.

I’m used to pop stars in the US calling the audience motherf….and stripping down to their black lace bras.  I’ve been used to that since the 1980s, when Madonna pioneered the shock-over-substance approach to superstardom.  It was unbecoming yet charmingly unique 25 years ago when she was in her 20s.  Now it just feels unbecoming because of time and place—hers and her audience’s.

While she kept her 25,000 waiting for three hours in the 100 plus degree weather (okay, by the time she came on it, it was only in the low 90s, so maybe we have no right to complain), we had plenty of time to watch young women who had passed out from heat and alcohol get carried out in stretchers to the first aid center in back of us, little girls arrive in matching Madonna clothes, and the multinational gay brigade come out in full homage.  It was just like being in LA—but in Abu Dhabi.  What I was seeing seemed even less likely to be an outdoor event in the Gulf than if Michael Jackson had eventually taken to the stage instead of Madonna (Given how that the looped track of his greatest hits kept playing while we waited and sweated, it did begin to seem like a possibility).  But Michael Jackson didn’t make it.  She finally did, and that’s when a lot of people left.  It was a mix of the lousy acoustics of the DU Arena, her off sync lip syncing, the general fatigue of standing in the heat that long, boredom with all the tired routines, and people taking offense.

The shock value in LA would have been zero—aside from thinking, “Really? Same old stuff?  Nothing new to do? Fanning your crotch in your majorette outfit for the benefit of the audience isn’t so cute on you at 54-years old.”  At the same time, there’s something admirable about someone who can’t still do the same thing 25 years, like lip sync, pretend to play the guitar and dance all at once–and all in spike heels.  Especially for those of us who couldn’t have done it then or now.

But in Abu Dhabi, the concert seemed not so much out of time, but out of place.  Or maybe it was in place—after all it did really happen—and time is changing the place.  Certainly more than time has changed Madonna.  So how much should time change things?  Too big of a question of us with heads still throbbing to the beat of  “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”   Peace out.

Gained in Translation (and how I lost the ‘dude’)

Interesting.  I wonder what this is about?  That was my initial reaction when I opened a package from my publisher the other day and saw Przepowiednia Szeherezady.  I was thinking that another writer must be as equally obsessed with Scheherazade as I am.  Perhaps she had read The Night Counter, and had liked it so much she had written a book length analysis of it.  Perhaps that was why my name was in big letters under the beautiful Nubian princess on the cover.  We can all be delusional for a few seconds.

The Nubian princess on the cover I immediately recognized was not me.  However, it took me awhile to figure out she was indeed my Scheherazade from The Night Counter.  This was in fact the Polish translation of The Night Counter, with one of the main characters literally photographed in a way I had never imagined her.

Being as The Night Counter’s characters are fiction, I had never seen a photograph of any of the characters in the book outside of my head.  Nor did I ever contemplate how hard or easy it would be for the characters to master life in Polish.  Now sometimes in the space they forever inhabit in me, I can imagine them whipping up some witty repartee in Polish.  At least I hope it’s witty and true to themselves.  But no one ever really knows when it comes to translation.  Indeed, how Dobromila Jankowska (the translator) heard them in English might be different than how I heard them, and therefore they might be slightly different people in Polish.  Just like real humans, characters become slightly different when they move to a different language, let alone a different country.  Even my English doesn’t sound the same here in Abu Dhabi as it does in the US.  There are words I don’t use often now—“dude” mercifully high among them—because they sound foreign in English here and maybe I speak louder and slower.

Humor, which is more based on culture and language, than drama is probably the hardest thing to understand in translation.  In Germany, The Night Counter family is apparently quite funny.  I only know this from sitting at readings in Germany in which I would read in English to relatively stoic responses –I could have been reading a new political manifesto for Europe.  But when the translator read the German version, the laughter told me they were not thinking of The Night Counter as a manifesto, at least not one they took seriously.

The Night Counter became Feigen in Detroit (Figs in Detroit) via translators Nadine Psuchel and Max Stradler.  My German editor at Auf Bau called Max a replicant because he can translate in several languages faster than anyone she’s met, run marathons and raise a son on his own.  Max did the first literal translation and Nadine went in and made the characters authentic in German.  At least that’s what everyone who has read the translation tells me:  They said Nadine was able to deliver fully dimensional characters who sounded like they’d always been speaking German suitable for their phobias and demographics.

When I met Nadine, we clicked instantly, bonded by the hours we had both spent pondering every word in the book, something that creates a natural intimacy, as probably no one else has ever had to be so close to what goes on in my head.  We also had similar sensibilities, key to good translation. Here is an exchange, unedited, between us when she was doing the final pass at the translation:

Nadine:  On page 84: “Yeah, we could call it the International Dateline,” he said. “Sometimes these ideas just come to me. The entrepreneur in me, I guess” (Zade talking about a new cooperative partnership in his match-making services). The pun with date doesn’t work in German so we thought of him proposing the name “Achse der Liebe” – “axis of love”. But of course this would have a more political undertone so what would you think of that version? (We could also leave the name in English. Date in the sense of rendez-vous is known in Germany, so the pun would be lost but the name itself would make sense, maybe with a slightly different wording in his next sentences).

Me:  I love axis of love. It would have been better in English, too.

Translation is complicated, but it also made me understand my own language more–and I got to understand my characters better in talking about them as German speakers.  But perhaps on the other hand its simple.  When I met my Norwegian publisher last year, I asked her why she had bought the book for this country with one of the highest per capita reading rates in the world.  “I loved the story,” she said.  “I could see it in Norwegian.”

That’s it really:  translation at its most noble is love of sharing stories and information. Some of the best things I’ve read in my life originated in languages I only know how to say “thank you” in.  If I have any doubts about how translation makes life better, I only have to look at the woman on the cover of Przepowiednia Szeherezady :  Scheherazade understood stories and the importance of them for survival.  That’s why she’s been in translation for centuries, some translations recognizable to how I know her, and some less so–and one day soon, she’ll find herself saying “dude” in someone’s interpretation of her.

Beyond 100 Goats

Abu Khalil has 100 goats, twelve children, three wives, and few good teeth.  When he hosts people in his main tent, he dons the gold colored bisht (robe), a sign of celebration and status among the Bedu (or Bedouins).

beyond 100 goats

I met Abu Khalil’s family earlier this month while accompanying a visiting American friend on a trip to Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, set in a remote, wind chilling mountainous area with a spectacular other worldly landscape.  The ecolodge depends on American and European tourists.  Urban Jordanians do not have the Lawrence of Arabia romanticism of the Bedu that Westerners have.  However, while Westerners love an invitation to a Bedu tent, the language barrier makes it mostly a case of excessive smiling and nodding at each other.  I fell somewhere in the middle—an unexpected translator for the Westerners, and more importantly to the Bedu, someone they could talk to about the rest of the Arab world, a world which they rarely come in contact with.   They see more Westerners than other Arabs, to whom an ecolodge, the idea of going on vacation in a place without electricity seems like a punch line to a joke.

The ecolodge was built to preserve the fragile environment—and bring work opportunities to the local Bedu.  In return, the Bedu have modified their activities in order to meet the goals of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).  They no longer hunt the cherished but endangered wild rabbits or ibexes to prevent them from extinction.  The Bedu understand extinction, including the possible extinction of their own way of life, something they are both fear and are drawn to.

Abu Khalil married his two main wives in the same year, 1990, but not the same day.  (There was an earlier wife, but he divorced her, and a younger wife who lives in a nearby village).  He is “almost 60” and the wives put their age at 42, although had they not told you, you would put them much closer to his age.  There are reasons for that –brutal winds, sun, poor health care.  But those affect both men and women.

In the pink dawn, after fajer prayers, we watched his wives climbing the mountains, each with her share of the 100 goats, taking them out to feed. Suleiman, at 20 one of the older sons, the next in line to get married, and a guide at the lodge, explains, “My mothers take care of the goats, make the milk, ghee, and jameed (the Bedu’s beloved dried yogurt), feed their kids, weave the goat hairs for the tent, wash the clothes…”

“So what do the men do then?” you ask.

He thinks on this. “Make sure the women are doing all these things,” he jokes, and then quickly adds, “The men go to town to take care of any business, work in the army or police maybe.”

So it’s not hard to understand why in families with only one wife, which is in fact the norm, kids run around in clothes and hair weighed down in dirt, faces with splotches of mud on them, and noses running freely for days.

When you sit with Abu Khalil’s women, the two wives and their teenage daughters, in their part of the tent (tents are divided into thirds for men, women, and livestock), around a fire where they boil tea with sage and a dentist-defying amount of sugar, they are all welcoming, smiling through wind burned lips.  Hospitality is the truest cliché of their culture. They ask all about you, not uttering one complaint about men or goats or each other.

They don’t have TV or the Internet, and they have almost no contact with non-Bedu, outside of what they study in their rudimentary school and now in meeting the guests at the ecolodge.

When they find out you live in Abu Dhabi, they ask you what the people are like there. They don’t mean all the Abu Dhabi expats like yourself—they mean their fellow Bedu.  A son had joked earlier about his donkey being the Bedouin Mercedes.  You can’t bring yourself to tell them that the Bedu of Abu Dhabi have real Mercedes, new, shiny ones—and all sorts of other shiny things.   “It’s nice,” you say.  “But too hot.”

That’s when the randomness of national borders strikes you.  These Bedu, like most Bedu, trace their roots to Saudi Arabia.  But Bedu are nomadic and when oil struck, fate was determined by what side of the post-colonial border you had set up tent.  The fortress houses, cars, designer watches, maids, and drivers of the Persian Gulf have left the Jordanian Bedu in the dust, somewhat literally.  Or so you think with your Abu Dhabi eyes.

Then you ask Abu Khalil’s daughter, who just turned 14, what she’d like to do when she finishes school.  “Keep having a healthy life and family,” she shrugs.  She does not say “in another place.”  When prodded about moving to the city, she fidgets.  Yes, there is another world out there.  Yet, she, like everyone else here, is at home nomadic, no upgraded Mercedes of any kind required, a place where not seeing across the border means this is all that life is—aside from visitors who remind you it isn’t.