Our Father who art in heaven, bless the French for having the common sense to celebrate bread in a functional tent without reverence for the ancient stones of Notre Dame, which are neither edible nor pleasurably aromatic.
And thank you, God, for the woman selling candles for 5 Euro a light, who was attentive of both her candles and the time while remaining vigilant for customers, and whose constant activity made it difficult to capture her wonderfully alert and dignified presence on camera so that I really, really had to pay attention to the moment.
Really, we’d had luck with the weather during our stay in Vietnam. After hours of schlepping ourselves through a miserable drizzle among the ruins of the Emperor’s palace, my friend, Zita, spoke from under her hood: “I forgot that there must be a reason why this country is so green; it rains a lot.” Then we slogged on through the slick streets of Hue in search of some chow and a cup of hot, rich Vietnamese coffee with sweet condensed milk.
Upon our return home, I sent her the following excerpt from Catfish and Mandala because it so perfectly captured our day in that city:
“The sky is overcast and the city smells wet and moldy. A sprawl of one- and two- story buildings, ancient Hue seems natural in its state of eternal dreariness… The buildings are crumbly, block after block of moss-furred cement and rained-out plaster. The weather wearing them out more quickly than the dwellers can repair them.”
I love this about good travel writing: it takes you (back) – more intensely than any picture can – to the sounds, smells, and atmosphere of Place. Andrew X. Pham brings Vietnam close, lays it in the palm of your hands, and then lets it fly; he lets you see the gritty and mundane of the streets, yet is constantly seeking transcendence in either lyricism:
I could hear chopsticks rattling in her head, calculating, gauging the omens, scheming”
or the human spirit:
“This time my tears made my relatives ashamed for me. Yet, in this alley-world of theirs where there was no space, no privacy, they gave me both. My aunt said to her son, ‘He got dust in his eyes. Its painful. Nghia, go upstairs and fetch him the bottle of eye-drops.’”
He’s humorously honest when describing his experiences on the road:
“I lay down in two layers of clothes, my head on a jacket, and listened to the couple in the next room ‘thrashing rice stalks.’ I could smell her sugary perfume. The dividing wall fell a foot short of the ceiling and air passed back and forth like breaths between mouths of lovers. I squashed an urge to stand on a chair and have a peek.”
And heart-stoppingly veracious about his mixed feelings regarding his Vietnamese heritage. It’s the rampant poverty, the struggle to survive, that moves Pham to write:
“In this Vietnamese muck, I am too American. Too refined, too removed from my que, my birth village. The sight of my roots repulses me. And this shames me deeply.”
In Catfish and Mandala, Pham bikes across Vietnam searching for equilibrium, for his center, as he grapples with his identity as a Vietnamese-American. The reader, happily, profits from his duality, as Pham takes on the role of translator. He speaks with raucous relatives in Saigon (locals don’t call it Ho Chi Minh City), a charming barefooted fifteen-year-old girl selling rice dumplings on the street, a scraggly bunch of blind passengers on the train from Saigon to Hanoi, a former history professor turned motorbike taxi driver blacklisted by the government for having associated with Americans during the war, and an old peasant farmer who invites Pham to stay the night and shares a homemade dish of clay-pot catfish with him. By translating and sharing these conversations with us, Pham provides insight into the lives of Vietnamese people that, as travelers, we can often only dumbly guess at.
As a Vietnamese American, Pham feels that he is a “mover of betweens,” that he “slip(s) among classification like water in cupped palms, leaving bits of myself behind.” (Oh how I can relate.) On the one hand he writes, “It appeals to me. Riding out my front door on a bicycle for the defining event of my life. It is so American, pioneering, courageous, romantic, self-indulgent.” Yet the adjective ‘self-indulgent,’ implies that he questions his whole endeavor. And even as he pursues this dream of his, the words that a good Vietnamese friend and mentor once spoke to him still reverberate in his mind: “’Your sister Chi – too selfish, too into herself. She wants to be herself. That’s wrong. All wrong. To live a good life, you live for others, not for yourself. Your parents bring you into this world so you be what they want. What do you think: I plant a tree for shade. I water it. I put fertilizer in soil. I wait and I work hard for tree, but when tree is big, tree don’t give me shade. Maybe tree give me thorns. Is that good? What do you think?’”
In recurring episodes, Pham recounts his childhood in Vietnam and his family’s escape from the country after the ‘American War.’ He delves into the depths of family psychology and the effects both cultures have had on them, in particular his transgender sister and strict father. There are certain motifs that repeat throughout his life, just as certain motifs are repeated in a mandala. Again and again, Pham deals with the realities of being an outsider caught between wanting to belong and self-realization, the trauma of anger and violence, the struggle to survive and what it means to truly live. Similar to the act of drawing a mandala, the writing of this book seems to have had a therapeutic effect on Pham. And at the end he finds some peace, if not a center.
under the wide, dusty streets with their scavenging
packs of dogs,
beneath the blocks of grey, communist-era buildings,
behind the neon red Cyrillic signs and KFC ads
is a palace for the people
below the unsmiling uniforms with their huge
hats and intimidating willingness to corruption,
the nine-inch stilettos and nineties hair,
the calloused, cigarette-pinching fingers,
the headscarves bent over floral print dresses
is this underground crowd
a smart suit who, seeing me lost in Cyrillic, offers
a guitar ascending an endless escalator,
a pearl necklace poised beneath the bas-relief of a long-dead dignitary,
a toss of pink hair lingering under a marble arch,
and, pacing the platform, a pair of ballerinas
just like mine
The Verse of Light, the 35th verse of the 24th sura of the Quran:
“Allah is the Light of the
heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a
niche wherein is a lamp –
the lamp is in a glass, the
glass as it were a glittering star-
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light
whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.”
I was staring at the ceiling of my hotel room one evening, when I noticed a black arrow above the desk in the corner by the window; “Qibla” was written on it in white letters. This is the direction in which the Kaaba lies (the black cubical building that is the “House of God” in the world’s most holy mosque in Mecca), and is the direction in which Muslims pray. Lying in the still darkness of the closet, I knew, was a neatly folded prayer rug and a Quran. And for the first time I realized that the holy books found in hotels around the world – whether Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist – may not only intended for believers, or to convert non-believers, but for the traveler in need of direction.
I bought two souvenirs while in Doha. One of them is a prayer rug. On it, a mosque is depicted in light blue against a dark red background. Its windows glow in golden thread – a reference to the Verse of Light – while the mosque’s turrets are intended to point towards the Qibla. For me, the rug represents the beauty of a culture that appreciates aesthetics in architecture and quiet dedication in art and prayer.
My other souvenir is a pair of salt and pepper shakers. The salt shaker is a bourka-clad woman and the pepper shaker is a man in traditional white Arabic robes wearing a turban and yellow sunglasses. I wish I could meet the person who designed them to congratulate him/her on their absurdity. I call them Fatima Al-Salty and Ali Pepper.
It’s difficult for me to enjoy my stays in Arabic countries, where I see women walking like shadows behind their husbands, lifting the face-mask part of their bourkas with their left hand while forking food under with their right, and jogging in long-sleeves and hijab (while I eyeball them, wondering how they manage to exercise without breaking a sweat). Here men will chat you up in the hotel lobby and then excuse themselves to bring their wife – who is standing over there – up to their room, but you wait here he’ll be right back (this actually happened to a friend of mine). I try to understand. I read books about Islam. I’ve read “Girls of Riyadh.” I buy salt and pepper shakers to make light because that is my way of coping with the world we live in. I try, in general, to be like Hugh and Pauline Massingham’s born traveler in “An Englishman Abroad”:
“the man [or woman] who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticize, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognizes that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance.”
Qatar is not the most conservative of countries; although it is more so than Dubai, it is less than Kuwait and much less than Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim country is, of course, different. Since alcohol is legal, at least you can get drunk at the hotel bar in Doha, if you are willing to pay the price. When I asked the concierge in Kuwait whether there was a beach I could go to in a bikini, he asked me not to say THAT word (while waving his hands emphatically). In Saudi Arabia you aren’t allowed leave your hotel without a bourka or a male escort, and it’s not guaranteed that you can exercise at the fitness center – you may be required to have the exercise bike brought to your hotel room. In Qatar at least I can move around as I please, even if I have to wear long-sleeves and pants in 30 degree Celsius weather when I leave the hotel. Even then I grind my teeth.
I was standing at the hotel’s beach bar in my bikini, waiting for the iced coffee I’d ordered, when this German guy (red swim trunks, gold chain, mid-30s, aviator sunglasses which he eventually took off) started talking to me. He had lived in Dubai for two years and was saying how much less conservative it is in comparison to Qatar. “True,” I replied, “but I still feel like I get a lot of weird looks when I’m in Dubai.” “That’s because all the women there are for sale,” he said. He went on to tell me how Asian, African and European women come to Dubai and Qatar to work. They send most of the money from their day jobs home to their families, and then earn a little extra on the side for themselves.
“But Arabs particularly like German women,” he said. “Why’s that?” I asked a little perplexed by the conversation’s topic but terribly curious. “Well, German women have a reputation for kinky, promiscuous sex” (of course, I should have known). Then he proceeded to tell me a story about an Arabic man he knew who was very pleased when his German lover unpacked not only a dildo for herself but another one for him.
“Well it’s no wonder that they have to look for interesting sex elsewhere when they suppress their own women’s sexuality,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“I know a Sheikh who is a Germanophile,” he continued, “Last summer he went to the Bodensee and rented half a hotel for fifty people.”
I tried to steer the conversation in a different direction by asking what it’s like to work with Arabic royalty. “Is there some kind of etiquette you have to follow?”
“Oh no,” the German guy said, “he’s not like that at all. He’s very down to earth, not as conservative as some others. He doesn’t drink alcohol when he’s at home, but when he is in Germany he will drink his two bottles of wine when we are out for dinner if he feels like it.” He paused a moment and then boomeranged back to his favorite subject, prostitution.
“You know there are German women, in their mid-thirties, divorced, who fly to Dubai in the summer to earn some extra money. They were used to a higher standard of living when they were married and in Dubai they can work two nights a week, earning 8,000 Euro a night. They do this for two months and can live off of it the whole year. And you know – the Arabs, they don’t take long. These women don’t have to work hard for their money.”
As intriguing as this conversation was, I decided to excuse myself at this point. I returned to my beach chair to work on my tan while listening to the saddest music I could find and staring at the calm Persian Gulf, the dusty palm trees, and the impressive, unchanging skyline.
What surprised me the first time I was in the region was how much it looks like the US. People don’t walk, they drive SUV’s; there are strip malls and Starbucks and skyscrapers. There are golf clubs. It could be Texas.
Glass and steel towers rise out of the desert sand. From the hotel beach it looks like they rise straight out of the glittering sea. They were designed by some of the world’s best architects; there is a building with a ball suspended between two towers, a building that looks like a razor, and a cone-shaped building that lights-up at night in undulating blues and reds.
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) was designed by the same architect responsible for the Louvre’s glass pyramid, l.M. Pei. It looks like an abstract cubist rendering of adobe houses, glaringly white against the indigo blue sky. Inside, everything is symmetrical: the light fixtures, the stair cases. When you walk up the atrium’s three flights of stairs you can look down upon a star-shaped, black marble fountain in the middle of the museum’s cafe. When you look back up, you can look out of a floor to ceiling window and see the skyline steely sparkle on the other side of the bay.
I walked through an exhibition about the women of Qajar, an Iranian dynasty dating from 1785-1925. The exhibition rooms at the MIA are very dark, the floors and walls and ceilings are black, just the artwork is lit. Plump, mustachioed, uni-browed veiled women stared down at me from black-and-white photographs – they were considered the beauties of their time. Traditional, colorful, paintings portrayed courtesans and servants as they danced, or reclined on pillows playing sitar-like instruments. Reading a placard, I was confused by a reference to their “overly feminine clothing.” These ladies were wearing what looked to me like high-collared parsley print pant-suits.
The sun descended behind the hotel. I grew restless, tired of sad music, and a bit chilly in my bikini. Once again, I’d been mulling – about the decisions and mistakes that I’d made, about the future and what decisions and inevitable mistakes could possibly lay ahead. I thought I might try to lighten my mood by dancing at the hotel club that night, having a drink and maybe even a laugh or two. But when I walked into the darkness of the club, instead of a good time what I found were mostly expat western men with extension-wearing, short-skirted, stiletto-heeled African or Asian women on their arms. And I, a freshly separated and soon-to-be divorced German-American in her mid-thirties, suddenly felt vulnerable and not much like partying at all.
In “Girls of Riyadh,” Rajaa Alsanea writes of four young women, each conservative or liberal to varying degrees, each trying to somehow find love and happiness (the book has often been called the Sex and the City of Saudi Arabia). In Saudi, men and women don’t date, but if they do, as the most liberal of the Riyadh girls does, they must do so in secret; marriages are traditionally arranged.
I remember one scene in particular because it surprised me so much. Gamrah, the most religious and conformist of the four female characters, is walking down the aisle in her wedding dress, thinking about how much rather she’d be wearing her bourka. She can feel the others’ eyes on her – not only men’s but also women’s – and their judgement. This is what struck me: it had never dawned upon me that a woman might actually feel comfortable in and protected by a bourka. “For outsiders,” writes Ira M. Lapidus in A History of Islamic Societies, “it is difficult to separate their own values from the conceptions of dignity, security, and love that prevail in Muslim societies.”
“Girls of Riyadh” is just a work of fiction (and one that is compared to Sex and the City). But when I asked a modern young Saudi woman attending college in the US if the book is true-to-life, she said that it is. Since then, she has moved back to Saudi Arabia. She lives with her parents and has a chauffeur who drives her to work. The glass ceiling, she says, is not much different in Saudi compared to other western countries – she has a career and opportunity for growth as much as anywhere even if she wears a bourka.
The Waqif souk is a bazaar that has been rebuilt in traditional Arabic fashion. It’s the only place (aside from the MIA) that I really like in Doha. One afternoon, I followed my nose down winding alleyways between adobe houses and under shade-providing thatch to a small bread shop. I ate warm, naan-like bread filled with spinach that had been slapped to the inside wall of a stone oven and then removed by a long metal rod, and it was delicious.
While I ate, I watched two boys try out bikes from a corner shop while their little brother, white-robed Dad, and bourka-clad Mom stood nearby in the shade. The boys were so happy, except for the little one who got upset at one point and had to be comforted by Dad. I listened to the chirping chatter of the birds: they not only sell bikes in this part of the souk, but also parakeets, parrots, and finches in addition to turtles in plastic cases, goldfish in bowls, and puppies and cats in cages (rather disturbingly). A pair of siblings walked past me down the alley, each carrying a rabbit in a case; the girl’s bunny was wearing a tutu.
Many shops at the souk are closed in the evenings: the hardware shops, the spice shops, the Qatar-themed clothing stores. But the winding alleyways are always lit. Groups of men spend their evenings smoking shisha at cafes and restaurants, people watching, while families share mezzeh, drinking tea and lemon mint juice as their kids run riot, shrieking in delight. If you sit for a while, you will notice that women wear different kinds of bourka: some cover their eyes completely, others partially, some not at all, and some have flowers or geometric designs stitched upon them; all of them are black. And the women are no less beautiful.
Spinning down the street to
the rhythm of my pedaled beat,
surprised with what ease I weave
my way through the crowds,
gaps materialize and opportunities
are seized without
a crash. No bleeding pedestrians with head wounds.
Just me and my bike
and the bridges and canals and
used book stands along the way.
Usually I go more
cautiously about my business,
spinning around my own axis,
oblivious to how
the staccato flutter
of a poplar’s leaves,
water of a canal,
the sky-wide swirl
of stark white clouds
set tempo, pause, and pace.
The tin foil gleams in the artificial light. If I didn’t know aluminum’s worth and that it’s wrapped around detritus of all kinds – light bulbs, used furniture, old mirrors – I would be in complete awe of this thing of beauty. Actually, I am in awe.
James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, pictured above, was intended for Christ’s second coming. It is a complex piece with references to various saints, prophets, and biblical characters from the Old and New Testaments (according to the plaque on the wall – I can’t decipher any of this). Although he worked as a janitor for most of his life, Hampton also appointed himself “Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity.” Clearly, he was a man with great imagination. And drive.
Thornton Dial Sr., a folk artist from Alabama (whose work is unfortunately not on display at the moment), can’t read but he can do. In a New Yorker article he was quoted saying, “It seem like some people believe that, just because I ain’t got no education, say I must be too ignorant for art. Seem like some people always going to value the Negro that way. I believe I have proved that my art is about ideas, and about life, and the experience of the world… I ain’t never been much good at talking about stuff. I always just done the stuff I had a mind to do. My art is my talking.”
I marvel at these self-taught men (the only woman in the room I remember coming across is Grandma Moses, who began painting cheerful country scenes when she was 77). I marvel at their unquestioning compulsion to create something meaningful and beautiful out of nothing.
There’s all this chaos in the world, all this trash, and what did Mr. Imagination (as Greg Warmack called himself) make out of it? Did he just leave those bottle caps lying around in the gutter in the grass on the street? Or discard them? No, he collected them and made a giraffe. He collected more and made a statue of a man with his hands on hips and a funny smirk on his face and a mirror on his belly. I took a picture of myself taking a picture of myself in that belly mirror, the statue looking at me like “Well, now ain’t that funny.”
It’s my third time at the American Art Museum in Washington DC. Curators and collectors such as William Arnett (who ‘discovered’ Thornton Dial Sr. – their relationship is the topic of the New Yorker article entitled “Composition in Black and White” mentioned above) have brought these pieces into museums to share with the public, and I am thankful. It’s inspiring to see works of art that come from the heart and not the head. This makes them no less intelligent and insightful or compelling, and of course I don’t mean to suggest that someone who has studied art isn’t emotionally invested in what they do. But it is the creation of art for its own sake that really fascinates me, human activity that makes no rational sense and has no practical purpose whatsoever, that neither strives for money and acclaim and success nor questions its own validity.
Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, spent 33 years working away at The Watts Towers in his South Central Los Angeles backyard. He created 17 steel and mortar sculptures that he decorated with mosaic tiles, glass, clay, shells and rock. The tallest tower stands 99 ½ feet. “I had it in mind to do something big,” Rodia said, “and I did it.” At the age of 75, Rodia left his towers behind to move closer to his family. He never returned. Just like that.
In 1939, 85-year-old Bill Traylor was sitting on a box in downtown Montgomery, drawing people and animals and scenes from his life as a sharecropper when Charles Shannon, a young white painter, ran into him. Shannon was so fascinated by Traylor that he not only painted an eight-foot fresco of him, but also did everything he could to gain national recognition for Traylor’s art. Traylor himself wasn’t even very interested in earning money with his paintings. An article in The Atlantic quoted Shannon saying, “He never agonized over his work… He was very serene. He rarely erased.”
How jealous I am as I agonize over the validity of what I write, over the things that I’ve said and done, the things that I’ve neglected to say or do.
James Hampton’s The Throne wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1964, in a rented garage somewhere in Washington DC. Fourteen years he spent there, covering the used objects he'd collected with aluminum foil. Above the cushioned throne he fashioned to await Christ’s return to earth, the words FEAR NOT glisten. And it is inspiring.
Walking down 17th street towards Adams Morgan perfectly showcases Washington DC at its best. The street is lined with beautiful brownstones and trees, occasionally interrupted by modern buildings housing institutions like the Campaign for Human Rights or the National Geographic museum. There are enough embassies to inspire a game of Guess The Flag, and during LGBT week restaurants drape rainbow banners and ribbons along their street-side terraces.
Once, on the way to Whole Foods, I saw a little boy wearing a sequined green dress, skipping along holding his Mommy’s hand. “Nice dress!” a woman passing by said, smiling. “Thank you,” he replied.
Usually I walk these streets in the early morning, hungry and sleepless with jet lag. My final destination is Tryst in Adams Morgan, where I have eggs with fresh spinach and gruyere cheese or a homemade morning bun or both for breakfast. It reminds me of Central Perk from Friends, with sofas, comfy armchairs, and a rich amalgamation of all different kinds of people.
Last time, an interview was conducted at the table next to mine; he was a film man who had been reading a French book until his young, curly-haired interviewee came. At another table, an Asian woman was reading a surgical text book and ordered herself a bowl of bacon. (I’d never thought of bacon as a snack food before – my mind was blown.) A young family was eating breakfast on a sofa nearby: “Did you see the sign?” the Mom asked. “It says unattended kids will be given espresso and animal crackers.” While she went to the restroom, her husband spoke a language I couldn’t quite recognize (was it Japanese?) with their two kids.
I love spending whole mornings here eating and writing and reading and people watching. I love how diverse it is, how tolerant.
Last year I was in DC during the World Cup. A surprising number of Americans poured into bars after work to watch the US team play (and even win some games). Several times I heard the “USA, USA, USA!” chant that, all at once, makes my heart swell, amuses, and shames me.
The other day I was speaking with a Swiss/Brit, and of course there was a lot of joking about the usual American stereotypes. This included our patriotism and how great we think we are in spite of our shortcomings in such areas as health care or foreign policy, for example. “But,” he said, “just because it’s the greatest country in the world, doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Greatness is not perfection.”
As proud as I am of the greatness I see when I walk down 17th street towards Adams Morgan, I am equally saddened and frustrated by what I encounter when I walk in the opposite direction, towards the White House.
Eventually, you come upon Lafayette Park. You can see the White House Rose Garden from here, tourists taking pictures through the tall iron fence, police with their bullet proof vests. You can also see that practically every park bench occupied by a homeless person. And the predominant skin color is black.
When the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation unconstitutional in 1954, two schools were joined together and the neighborhood Adams Morgan was formed. Nonetheless, to this day, the nation’s capital remains one of the most segregated cities in the US.
Adams Morgan is a nightlife hotspot now. You can go salsa dancing or sing Karaoke in the Irish Pub. There are Asian and African grocery stores, clothing shops, and restaurants serving global cuisine – remnants of the immigrant neighborhood it had turned into before gentrification began creeping in.
I really wish that the gentry, myself included, wouldn't tolerate poverty and racial segregation. Not that I have the perfect solution to a complex problem, but there is one thing I could do:
One morning a few weeks ago, I spoke with a homeless man named Reggie, who was sitting on a bench in the summer sun on Connecticut Ave. He talked for twenty minutes or so about his life and how he messed-up, going in and out of jail. He wished he could find a job, but it’s tough with his record. Someone had bought him breakfast and Reggie was just so happy to have that one meal taken care of.