WHOSE WORLD IS IT? Reflection on “Exit West” by Moshin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is a master story teller.  This book is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people who, caught up in the violent destruction of their Middle Eastern country by militants who are trying to enforce their very narrow world view on the rest of the world, become part of the vast stream of refugees seeking a place to start life over. He does a masterful job of making the story significantly specific (thank you Dr. Robert Price, Professor of English at Otterbein College back in the day)  while making the setting sufficiently vague as to fit many times and places in the modern Middle East. 

Hamid’s words evoke experiences that I can relate to.  He describes personal relationships between family members, friend, lovers that I can relate to out of my life, catching both the hunger for and fear of intimacy.  As the story progressed I found myself increasingly understanding the struggles of refugees, and increasingly identifying with and feeling compassion for them. Refugees have been mostly impersonal to me, stories from the news, brief clips on TV.  My only previous personal experience was with a boy whose family fled Hungary in 1954,  He was in my 4th grade class for a few months, spoke broken English, and obviously had not yet fit into American society in the 1950’s.

Saeed and Nadia finally choose the risk of fleeing over the risk of staying, choosing to walk through the dark door of migration into an unknown future that they hope will be more humane than their present.  But the world is such that they have to make a second move.  Near the end of their stay in the second refugee cap the author writes:

The Fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city.  She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and the buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicaments had not.”  (page 159)

If the reader has a modicum of empathy with which to offset his/her tribal exclusivity born of fear it becomes possible while engaged with this book to begin to put human faces on the geopolitical refugee problems and begin to understand both the clashes and the hopes for acceptance,  for “us-ness.”

Human society is constantly changing.  Like the tectonic plates on which our continents ride, sometimes the movement is outside our ability to notice.  At other times, like earthquakes, the violent pace of change tumbles us in ways that change us forever.  None of us escapes these changes.  In a section where Hamid is describing a resident of California who had lived in her house many years and was now coping with the changes wrought by immigrants, he closes the section with this sentence:  “We are all migrants through time.”  (page 209)

“All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness,  from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away form other people too, people they had in some cases loved…‘ (page 213)

As I closed this book I pondered whether Saeed and Nadia are so very different from you and me…in their circumstances and in their hope and fears and loves and dreams. Tribalism has not worked, nor has fear, nor hate, nor the final solution, nor walls.  Maybe this is the year to give “Us-ness another try, and see if we can make progress.

I urge you to read this book It made several “Top 10 books of 2017”  lists.

And when you read it, ponder and see if you can discover 2 small things you can do this week to create hope;

1.  A positive way to be neighborly with someone who is an “outsider”

2.  An opportunity to speak up against tribalism, supremacy, hatred.

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THE COLORED MUSEUM

Berea College, October 18, 2017

“The Colored Museum “ was written by George C. Wolfe. He has written for tv, movies and stage. He directed “Angels In America” (the original production I think) on Broadway around 2000

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Colored_Museum

https://www.google.com/search?q=George+C.+Wolfe&rlz=1CDGOYI_enUS590US590&oq=george&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j69i59j0l2.4606j0j4&hl=en-US&sourceid=chrome-mobile&ie=UTF-8

There are 9 vignettes in the play each using sacrament irony inversion to make a point about something about racial identity and prejudice.

I think the piece is well conceived and written. It pulls no punches and has some uncomfortable moments. Blacks and whites had different reactions to some lines and circumstances. It calls into question many of the “truths” we know.

It was well directed. She got near professional performances out of several actors. The whole cast of 11 have precious little experience, 2 none before this it was obvious that the director took them deep into self discovery, character discovery, and embodying their characters.

The discussion after was focused and to the point. One quote of many gems: “ can’t live without my pain .”

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VAN GOGH MUSEUM, AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam October 6,2017

Situated next to the Stedelijk Museum and a scant 2 blocks from the Rijksmuseum. The Van Gogh is dedicated to the art work of one painter, Vincent Van Gogh. The artists work is displayed chronologically, divided into periods. It explores some of the influences in his life and demonstrates how those influences impacted his work. There are a few works by other painters, mostly artists who influenced him, although at the end of the story there are several by artists whom he influenced. De Kooning is one. Munch (“The Scream”) is another. There are excerpts of correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo, who was a stabilizing influence in Vincent’s life.

I have studied Van Gogh for several years, so walking into the museum was like meeting up with and old friend I only partly understand.

Seeing the evolution of his work from his dark palette days in The Netherlands (“The Potato Eaters”) to the vibrant colors of his late work in France (“The Yellow House” and “Wheat fields Under Thunderclouds”, both painted in the months before his death in July, 1890) give me a new appreciation for his talent and his astounding ability to grow and invent as an artist. Van Gogh completed approximately 1000 paintings during the 10 years he painted, during the last year of his life he completed almost one a day, an almost unbelievable output considering his hospitalization for incapacitating mental illness during most of those months. Painting appears to have been a healthy outlet for him then, keeping despair from consuming him for a couple of years.

Leaving the museum I felt sad, like I have lost a friend. I’m trying to make sense of the tragedy of such a talented visionary artist dying at age 37.

NOTE ON THE ABSENCE OF PICTURES: The Museum does not allow taking pictures. The color reproduction in the exhibit book I bought does not do justice to the pictures. I did not find any to the pictures I saw today on my phone from other sources.

I encourage you to search the web. You will find some of acceptable quality, and sights that give a brief look into his life and work.

Or better yet, a trip to a nearby museum that has some of his paintings.

A good place to start is:

http://www.vangoghmuseum.com

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TWO DAYS IN BRUGGE

October 4 & 5, 2017

Jet lag won over the alarm and an early start. After a noon-time lunch on market square and a brief wander through the Wednesday market we took a stroll to Burg Square. A quaint little quiet place with three sites of historic interest.

Basilica of the Holy Blood dates to the time of the crusades and claims to have a reliquary of Jesus’ blood brought back from the crusades by a Brugge dignitary. As one would expect the building is old, exudes mystery and inspires reverence from those who lean towards Christian belief.

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Next is City Hall, the seat of self government in the heyday of Brugge ( the 13th to 15th centuries). Some of democracy’s roots lie in this room. There are paintings, carvings and tapestries that tell multiple stories.

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Scene inside the hall

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Detail of tapestry in the hall

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Painting of Council in session.

Next was Renaissance Hall, notable for a large oak and marble carving over a very large fireplace. It has served at a governing Palace, council hall and today as City archives.

Ruins of Brugge’s earliest structure (originally a church, later a fort to protect the city from the periodic Viking raids to pillage and rape)are preserved under the current Crown Plaza Hotel. Extensive stone walls remain. Several showcases display various kitchen and dining room artifacts. There is even a leather fire bucket on display. One wall has an open display of pointed oak timbers that formed the stockade.

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Stockade timbers

Next we strolled down Blinde Ezelstraat, a short lane barely 3 persons wide. It ends in a bridge that crosses one of the many canals in Brugge, next to the Fish Market. The street translates to Blind Donkey Alley, an apparent reference to the drivers practice of stopping to put blinders on the donkeys so they would cross the water to the fish market. In those days the Fish Market was just a few kilometers from the sea, a handy source of fresh seafood.

A canal boat ride gives another view of the old city. For centuries business was conducted and deliveries made using the extensive canal system of the city. We cruised last very old buildings and recently renovated ones and many in between. Most had either a door at waters level or stairs leading down to the water. Most were built right at waters edge, some with windows hanging over the canal.

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Additional sites include St John’s Hospital, where Augustinian Nuns and Monks cared for the city’s ill and indigent from the 12th Century until 1970. Brugge was a place of pilgrimage because of the relic (blood of Jesus in a glass vial) and those who became ill needed to be cared for. Others died at the end of their pilgrimage. In those days healing and religion were intertwined. No one understood germ theory. The exhibits here are steeped in religious superstition.

One sculpture of note is a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, the only one to leave Italy during his lifetime. He reportedly took breaks from carving his masterpiece “David” to work on this statue.

Our last stop was at the Groeninge Museum, a collection of paintings mostly by residents of Brugge and covering several hundred years ending in the late 17th Century. The style of the art is generally realism, but the subjects tend to the fanciful, allegorical, religious, and cruel.

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And of course, food, Belgian Chocolate, snd beef. I’ve only been able to sample 11 of the 150 beers available here. It’s been a fun time.

Tomorrow is Belgian waffles for breakfast and then the train to Amsterdam. It’s been a delightful 3 days.

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Amsterdam & Brugge Adventures

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Flying into Amsterdam this morning greeting the first day of our adventure we were treated to cotton-ball like clouds and a thin brushstroke of sunrise. We jumped on the opportunity to purchase cheap tickets ($380 round trip) back in early March, a month before our UK adventure and have been looking forward to this ever since. Landing in Amsterdam made it real.

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After clearing immigration we caught a train to Brugge, changing in Antwerpen-Centraal. We are staying at the Hotel, just a block off Market Square. After checking into the hotel we strolled around the Square, had a cider and a local beer, and an order of frittes. Most of he cafés were full of people enjoying nibbles and sips and taking in the ambience. Two classes of school-aged children walked by while we were sitting there, many of them holding hands.

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After a nap (4 hours of airplane sleep is no longer enough!) we found Le Petit Patron, a delightful little fondue Restaurant and enjoyed a quiet dinner of various meats, shrimp, salad, the ubiquitous frittes, and a hot chocolate sundae. A short stroll through Market Square to take in the sights and dwindling night life topped the long day (Monday in Springboro, transatlantic flight, train to Brugge, and dinner…started at 7:00 a m Monday. It’s now 6 p m Ohio time.)

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BETWEEN TRINITY AND CONCEPTION BAYS

August 21, 2017

Today (Monday) dawned cool and bright. Before leaving Harbor Grace we paused to view a B-23 WW II bomber used as a mail and supplies delivery service by Labrador Airlines in the 1960’s. This service became a new link for people previously dependent on boats to keep them connected across the waters of the bay of St Lawrence to the wider world.

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Standing in front of this plane is a statue of Amelia Earhart, who left here May 20, 1932
On her solo trans Atlantic flight. It’s hard to imagine what air travel was like for her, and for the pilots of Labrador Air back in the day.

(For more information from the town if Harbor Grace, follow this link.)

http://www.hrgrace.ca/site/?page_id=2437

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From here we wandered up the narrow neck of land between conception bay and Trinity Bay, sometimes along the dramatic coastline dotted with small bays and smaller communities, sometimes several km inland I the midst of barrens, bogs, rocks, Alpine ponds and lakes, and tuckamore (scrubby dense tangled second growth evergreen and deciduous trees) that was at once ever changing and endlessly the same.

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We lunched at the Studio, at the tip of this unnamed peninsula in a village called Grates Cove. Terrance and Courtney one snd run this eclectic place. She is from Louisiana, he is from this cove. They met in South Korea when they were teaching English. Courtney’s mother Cindy is spending few weeks with them this summer. Conversations with them gave us insights into why people come here, some to stay, some to leave. Courtney’s Louisiana heritage shines through in the menu. It was hard to leave this peaceful beautiful place and the people who call it home.

Think for a minute about about the perspective, the mindset, the way of life that is reflected in the names for where we were today (and most days get in Newfoundland.). The arm of land is not named on the map but the bay on either side is. Place is not defined by land, but by bates and coves. From the beginning of European settlement here this has been true. It has been the sea that provided sustenance snd transportation and communication. So your village, your life, was defined by the sea.

Life can be harsh here. Paying close attention reveals a number of home sights and fishing buildings that have collapsed into almost nothingness. Occasionally abandoned home can be seen that are near collapse. Life moves on. One must adapt, or move in, or like these buildings, return to the soil from which you sprang.

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OUR ELIZA

Perchance Theatre
Cupids, Newfoundland
August 20, 2017

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Leaving Cupids Legacy Center I picked up a small flyer about Perchance Theatre. This summer they are producing Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “Taming Of The Shrew,” and I was disappointed to find the schedule made it impossible for us to see either one. But a contemporary drama. “Our Eliza,” would be on at 7:00 p.m. We had sautéed cod for dinner (what else up here?!?!) and took our seats in a small replica of the Globe theatre eager for the show.

The story is about an Irish fishing family in one of the coastal villages here. As the play opens Eliza and her father are coping with the death of the mother/wife leaving 10 children, her husband, and the oldest child (14 year old Eliza), in charge of taking care of her father and raising her 9 siblings. Along the way Eliza missed out on the normal experiences of a teen age girl in maritime Newfoundland in the late 1950’s.

The family suffered further hardship with the advent of large commercial fishing fleets making it impossible for the traditional fisherman to earn a living as a result of depressed prices for his catch and a poorer quality catch.

With the fishing moratorium imposed in 1992 families like this one were unable to even feed themselves from the sea.

Eliza struggles to find her voice, struggles for dignity and respect in a world that did not respect her right to express an opinion, to have feelings, to control her own life.

In some ways Eliza is like Katherine from “Taming of the Shrew,” a fact that places this play in place beside the two Shakespeare pieces in the Perchance Theatre season.

The play is written by Megan Gail Coles, a native of Savage Cove, Newfoundland, who besides writing plays is currently Artist-In-Residence at the Arts and Culture Center in St. John’s, NL.

The acting was superb. There are numerous scene changes shifting through time (maybe 45 years of living in the harsh maritime conditions of this island) in a non linear fashion. Eliza adds or subtracts a coat and purse occasionally, and in a wedding day scene adds a white flower in her hair, but otherwise communicates not only the emotional journey but also the differing ages (14 to about 60) by sheer force of her physicality. The sparse set (a table and chairs, a mop bucket and scrub brush) effectively invite the audience into the intimacy and pathos of the play and the flawed reality of the three characters.

This play this evening was an exceptionally strong presentation of what life was like for one Irish fishing family in the semi-isolated coves of Newfoundland. As such it invites contemplation about how we treat each other in our families and how we cope with the adversities in life. It celebrates the women among us who struggle to be heard and respected and simultaneously hold families together.

“Our Eliza” was an unexpected gem tonight. Playwright Megan Gail Coves deserves to be presented on the Stratford Festival Stage.

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