Thursday, January 25, 2007

Travelogue 170 – January 25
Artists in Paradise

I dreamed that I settled in a small town in Wisconsin. Sounds like a nightmare, but actually it was a nice dream. I woke up sad, already missing my white clapboard house. I remember that the flowers in the road meridians were healthy and pretty. Everything was clean and ordered and quiet. Things worked. Nearby was a large park with grassy paths and a river. Nobody stared.

Wake up and I’m back in Ethiopia. That old dog is moaning in the neighbor’s yard. He’s been taken in but seems no happier. The lights still don’t work; neither does the water. Last night we had a tremendous storm. Within minutes of the first downpour, the lights went. I ate dinner by candlelight. I watched Jackie cower inside her little house. I listened to the pounding against the iron roof. I watched the waters overflow their drainage channels and gather dangerously at the bottom of my front porch.

My back is still out of whack this morning. I leaned for two and a half hours against the cold concrete wall at Laura’s place the other night, laptop in my lap, watching a VCD we rented: Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’. It’s fun to see all the somebodies together on the screen, but I’m left afterward with a familiar question: what is the joy for American artists in annihilating their characters? Fiat homo, and bam-splat – no matter how tenderly drawn the portait. It feels like self-loathing, the artist’s and the culture’s. I imagine that Ethiopes must just shake their heads and say, ‘Strange place.”

I’m in hiding at Laura’s. My house has been swallowed whole by the Pente neighbors’ party. It’s a celebration of the daughter’s wedding, an event that aspires to epic status. It’s been in the air for six weeks. I thought it was done and past. Laura and I were invited to dinner, and I assumed it was just a family meal and a chance to get acquainted. But on the dreaded day, the neighbors are raising a tent in the street over banks of benches. The pavilion includes my entire wall and gate. The sound system is set against my wall. The wedding has arisen again. I have to stay away.

I survey my courtyard and its layer of silt from the storm. The ghost-dog moans. Confetti piles against my gate. I’m still in Ethiopia. It’s got to be a good day.

And it is. We all gather at the school. Graham and Helen are there to lead their weekly art activity. Graham, the charismatic Brit, pumps up the kids. ‘It’s just art! Don’t worry about meaning,’ shouts this graduate of Goldsmiths. Helen, the laconic art student, does the work, side by side with my staff. It’s collage today: shapes and flowers and lots of glue.

Adam is there, Argentinian-French film translator, screenwriter, and PhD student following in the ambitious footsteps of the poet Rimbaud. He has spent a few months in Harar and Djibouti. He heads back to Paris Sunday.

Laura is there. She’s the real professional in the room and a real joy. I haven’t seen the crowd she couldn’t charm and delight, particularly of children. After the semester break next week, she’ll be tutoring the older kids in English language. They are very lucky. She’s a natural teacher and loves nothing better than teaching, nor anyone more than students.

So the children are having fun, with no less than nine adults fussing over them and marvelling over their work. God knows what they think about the exercise itself, but their smiles are radiant.

Adam and I have coffee. He sets me straight on a number of biographical points about France’s great boy-poet. He’s classified as one of the ‘doomed poets’. Adam clucks his tongue. ‘I don’t think so.’ Was he stuck in Africa by ruthless circumstance? Why? Was there a single other instance of Rimbaud doing other than exactly what he willed? Were his notoriously whining letters home a ruse to distract colonial spies and administrators from his business ventures? What was behind his famous silence as an adult – or inside it? What sort of silences or songs did he discover in the wastes of the Horn of Africa? People who knew him said he wrote constantly.

Well, answers will have to await Adam’s thesis and screenplay and film. (Enter boy-genius, desert love scene, bam-splat. Didn’t DiCapprio already portray Rimbaud?)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Travelogue 169 – January 16
Unwelcome Guests


It’s dawn. There’s a ghost in my courtyard. It groans in a sickly way, long groans punctuated by a shrill yap. It’s dark and shadowy, and it lopes in a curiously languid manner, head held low. Jackie in her little dog house stares at it the way I do, with mystified and wary interest. I have to go out and do something about it. I pick up a stick on the way. When I approach, it collapses, as though into ash, rolling onto its back.

When the owners of the house moved to America, they apparently turned their old dog out to wander the streets among the many strays. Of course, the strays are much better equipped to survive than this lame, old beast. He submits to his fate, allowing me to guide him out by his crackling ancient collar. I check to see how he got in. Sad to have to shore up walls against bereaved and starving pets. Above, the sky is striking, a crystalline blue-violet holding a brilliant crescent moon.

This visitor has awakened my legitimate guest, I’m sure. And the real visitor needs her sleep, having traveled from America only a few days ago. She’s been busy since then, getting the tour, looking for a house of her own. She’s held up remarkably well, and yet I know how this place can wear you down.

Tonight will be Laura’s first night at her new house. We found her a place up the hill from mine, at the northern edge of town. Beyond her house, there are only hills. The building itself is wonderfully 70s LA, tile and Flintstones rock in the fa├žade. The backdrop is Hollywood Hills. She’s downstairs in a very nice and clean and concrete-cool apartment.

She’s a hundred yards from the Tsion Hotel, landmark on this side of town. Saba and I join her there in the evening to celebrate with fries and beer. There’s a patio in back, green and pleasant. It pulses with the ever-present and unvarying set of Ethio-pop hits. There’s an ebullient group in the corner, dancing, clapping, and swiveling with video cameras. Saba informs us that it’s a wedding, and one of the guests of honor is a well-known pop singer and film director. The camera flashes mount in intensity.

It’s been a rough week. Projects and their attendant details are multiplying almost daily, with a kind of insistence very like the camera flashes. 2007 has announced itself as a year to be busy. God knows what will come of it. In the sponge-like blue-sky fog of Ethiopia, it’s hard to predict results. The waves generated by effort seem to die almost immediately.

We get onto politics somehow. It’s a tired topic: how dark a shadow Bush throws over all the world. Does it need saying in 2007? I’d rather check out of this one, but I find myself in the unusual position of translator – only possible because Saba has cultivated an effective patois of baby-talk that I can follow.

Saba is on a roll. ‘Bush is bad.’ Soldiers are dying. He’s sending more. These discussions make my eyes burn. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ is all I can say. ‘Why are they there? They should leave.’ I don’t know. I don’t know.

Most of Bush’s first term I spent in great rages. Now I feel like I’ve been through the classic stages of grief and dying. There’s little in the world of humanity that doesn’t inspire a greater part weariness than hope or outrage.

Saba starts up about journalists, journalists who were killed. I’m struggling to keep up with her excited words. She has pulled out her fancy little mobile that can play video, and suddenly I realize I’m watching a beheading.

Let me tell you about it. A man is on his knees. Behind him stands another man with a large knife. The executioner shoves his prey to the ground and straddles him. Little time is wasted as he pulls back the head by the hair and begins sawing. There is a great spray of blood and the head swings with the motion of the knife in an unnatural way. The head is quickly free and the executioner holds it high, stepping away in brash triumph. The video cuts out. One second of a severed head: it is an utterly unique and strange and terrible object. So elementary an act, but so unlike life and living, so unlike any human movement, even in the weirdest dance or circus. It’s something like the first time you hear a familiar musical instrument played backward.

I’m deaf to the conversation now. The bottom to my weary day dissolves from under me. The moment is wrong is so many ways. The way I can’t tear my eyes away. The ecstasy in the violence on the part of the ‘man of God’. The fact that Saba would have this video on her phone.

The floor to the day dissolves, and I know the blackness of this well. I’m helpless. I flash back to the police reports about the disposition of Leeza’s body in her overturned car. Terrible winds howl in this well, trapped by the shape of evil.

I recall a relative’s words of consolation, his dry and smug tone: ‘it’s one more sacrifice to the power structure,’ or some such Berkeley fortune-cookie pap. Yes, yes. And yet, and even so, even you, the ciphers of the world, the bland and the ignorant, ever-ready with the most rank of pre-digested rage, even the paragons of everything fleeting and empty have hearts that beat. If I puncture one, the world wails for it – or some world close to ours, anyway. Best to still your noise and listen.

This stuff is familiar. I wrestle the pain back into a corner for later, for nighttime, the time for ghosts. I’ll have to give in some time. The world has its way with us, and the most fun for absolute power is in caprice and injustice. This is the God behind the dance of the executioner.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Travelogue 168 – January 7
Crazy Christmas

‘Inquan adarasachu’ – so you made it. It’s Ethiopian Christmas. On Friday, we have our school party. The kids are delighted. We have a full house: sixty children around the tables in the courtyard, most of them dressed in adorable miniature versions of the traditional garb. We have all the first-graders and kindergarteners together.

They’ve sung carols. They’ve lit their candles. Now comes the part where they stare. We’ve brought in Santa. Last year, it was Francois, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ in his heavy accent from behind a heavy mat of cotton. This year, it’s Lydia, blonde and Irish and female. She does nothing to disguise her female voice or brogue. But Saba has come up with a ghastly plastic Santa mask, which we augment with Francois’ old cotton. We’ve neglected to pad her belly. The cotton is long and insecurely fastened. The mask is hot and Lydia can’t see well. Our Santa stumbles uncertainly and holds her beard when she bends to shake children’s hands, making her seem vaguely like an old Chinese man. The overall effect is utterly perplexing to the kids and intensely comic to the adults. Yohannes arrives late, and can’t help staring in distress at this strange figure.

A few minutes after Santa staggers out the gate, Lydia arrives and the kids jump all over her. She comes once a week to do art with them. After which, it’s time for dancing. The music is turned up and everyone starts in. Probably because government television broadcasts ethnic dance nearly twenty-four hours a day, everyone is an aficionado. These five and six year-olds know all the moves. The adult Ethiopes laugh. For us faranjis, it’s a nearly toxic dose of cuteness. It makes my holiday.

I’m lucky to have made it at all. The day before, there’s an attempt on my life. Unsuccessful as far as I can tell, but I’m flattered someone would think me worthy of assassination. Okay, so it’s someone with an addled mind, but still ….

It probably goes without saying that Addis Ababa has an impressive stock and variety of crazy people walking the streets. (Does it go without saying?) I cringe when I see one, though I usually like crazy people, just because I’m such a natural target.

I’m in Piassa. A friend of Saba’s calls me over. I cross the street, and I’m talking to him. He has a brother in Minnesota, who is now visiting in Ethiopia. Suddenly, I receive a tremendous shove in the back, and I’m flung into traffic. Okay, so the oncoming car is twenty yards off and creeping along, as they always do along that street. I look back. It’s a crazy woman, a regular in the neighborhood, muttering something about Americans. Next, I find myself ducking from several well-aimed and sizeable stones.

The most disturbing thing about this episode is my own reaction. I’m actually more interested in the conversation. This guy’s brother owns a restaurant in Minneapolis, and I’m eager to find out which one. I wave off the crazy and pursue the topic at hand. The guy’s face is a mask of concern, and he can’t concentrate on the subject. He tries to steer me away. By-standers are gesturing for me to go, and finally I give up in frustration. What has happened to my sense of what’s normal?

Saba, of course, thinks it’s funny. She says she’s had to dodge a few missiles herself. Charming is a society that accepts its crazies so graciously. And yet, there’s the issue of perspective. If I come down with a sniffle, Saba wrings her hands and pushes a visit to the doctor. But the crazy who would like to see us under the wheels of a car is local color.

Anyway, it’s Christmas. If I didn’t know, my neighbors would be sure to alert me. The Pentes are quiet. Traditional holidays are no occasions for excess. It’s the neighbors on the other side of me that start up. They have sessions of drumming and hymns in their courtyard. By and large, I don’t mind. I kind of like it. It’s more comforting than exorcisms behind my salon walls.

That’s no hyperbole. A few weeks ago, I was aural witness to the driving out of demons. The neighbor, head witch doctor, admitted as much to me the next day when I protested. Okay, no more banishing demons, he concedes with great disappointment. We’ll have to handle it in church.

I don’t think the freed demons found my place very attractive, unless I’m missing something. Maybe we’re just very compatible. I know a few women who would say that possession would be an improvement in my character. In any case, I’m pretty sure the demons would be better company than their persecutors next door. Less frightening, surely.