Then and Now

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For a few good book posts in the past, please scroll down and for new book posts, it all begins again here from now. Hope you like my subterranean photograph which I shot of summery tree-leaves being reflected in the water, while I was at St. Stephen Green’s park in Dublin. For a touch of celebration, I used an animated feature to show the moving ripples.  – Susan Abraham

animatedwater

To Fleece a Kiss

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by Susan Abraham

Dear Readers,

After almost 14 months, I am resurrecting this books blog. I open up with a forgotten Moorish custom. I look forward to writing once more,  about the kinds of world literature I love to read from specific international regions and also other things like art films and traditional coffee cultures, to be found in the Middle-East. morocco

Here is an ancient Moorish custom where if a man on wanting to avenge blood is able to trespass victoriously on the land of a different tribe and kiss one of their women on her breasts; with his lips – if he can succeed in doing this – then he becomes a brother to his new kinsmen who will defend him and offer protection from dangerous enemies. A valued & original antique print that I purchased from Charing Cross Road in  London, England on  April 29th of 2014.

Afsaneh: Short Stories by Iranian Women

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by Susan Abraham

Short stories by Iranian women edited by *Kaveh Basmenji

This book of 20 unusual short stories by Iranian women edited and translated by the 48-year old journalist, Kaveh Basmenji and spanning several decades, is deeply melancholic with its spartan prose.

A profound sadness with no respect for the etiquette of pretense, hovers like a funeral wake in calling out for each story’s theme, no matter the character’s nested joys or sorrows. A poetic atmosphere, designed to haunt and trigger lugubrious reflections and this; leading to a startling introspection, is what lends the reader, its lavish beauty.

No doubt, the English-Language collection has been translated as closely as possible from the Persian and so there is no boastful writerly approach or superficial sophisticated style one way or the other.

Drawn from a rigid faithfulness, expect plainly-written lines like “I went there seldom” or “He smiled at me also.” Yet, these are extraordinary and memorable. In Simin Daneshvar’s To Whom Shall I Say Hello, one may be feted to unusual phrases like “3 ripe daughters” and a “giant of a wife”. Or perhaps, “Someone is clawing at my entrails again.”

Stories thoughtfully sketched by reowned writers like Shahrnoosh Parsipour, Zohreh Hatami and Fereshtei Sari among others only serve to search a woman’s heart with a resignation of never-ending sincerity and pain.

In the collected tales, the Iranian woman is not as worried over physical circumstances or as what the excruciating demands of religion may prove itself to be. Rather, she is concerned with family ties, a parent’s approval or a man’s touch and this in a sadly idealistic way where no happy ending may be celebrated on the horizon.

The challenge is to wisely capture the valuable meaning of existence. As such, she may not question her chador but rather her carers in those frightening twilight years. Would her husband leave? Would the snow bury a village home? Would a nasty son in law ever let her see a daughter? Would she still find herself a bed to sleep in at 80 or would she be left to die somewhere unkind? And so forth.

The reader is able to seek out philosophical truths and a pained realism stemming from a simple woman’s heart. The message of the authors, having lived through different eras are all the same.

The gentle Iranian woman from days gone would have desired to love and live with equal eagerness and bountiful joy for the sole purpose of a full engagement with life; only to have found her struggles latched in remoteness, from the way destiny would ruthlessly weave its thick web around her.

*Kaveh Basmenji lives in Prague and is the author of the 272-page Tehran Blues: Youth Culture in Iran, published by Saqi Books (2005).

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi

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by Susan Abraham

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi is a no-holds barred war story. It offers an intriguing storyline and one laced with tragedy, from start to finish. The dense plot reflecting battlefronts with the same atmospheric aura as pitiful families, lies condensed within this 292-page paperback, that may remain as beautifully encased and yet as vulnerable, as I still remember another beloved war story. That was Fair Stood the Wind for France, written by the famous gentleman farmer and prolific novelist, H.E. Bates (1944, UK).

In The Age of Orphans, the reader is treated to shocking disclosures of barbaric violence attributed to torture of rebel fighters and the odd sexual encounter, through mismatched opportunity between hero and villian. In the same breath, Khadivi’s brilliant literary genius, is careful to caress ruffled feathers and brutal scenes, using an assortment of haunting reflections. Her refined and elegant vocabulary is beguiling, to say the least.

Briefly, the crux of the plot is that it starts off being set, in the early turn of the 20th century, before the Shah of Persia, came into power. It will eventually work its way down into modernity. Reza, a little Kurdish boy, living with his father’s rebel and misplaced tribe, high up in the Zagros (Persian) Mountains, idolises his Maman (mother), while all around him, brave men prepare to take on the army.

The Kurds want their own land and country. Unaware, Reza appears tender, gentle and sensitive…a kind, pensive little boy who takes delight in heaping affection upon his mother and by feeding at her breasts, every chance he gets. However, he is prepared for early manhood by his father and neighbouring men, who take him into the caves and through a painful ritual, announce his manhood.

Reza suffers the first injustice at being separated from his Maman. A man no longer suckles at his mother’s breasts he is told with fury by an irate, rude father…often callous to his son’s demands. To Reza’s red-faced candour and very much a misfit in his own society, he is laughed at by the others and teased by the girls. He and his mother meet in a secret place, so that Reza may still feed on her milk. This secret tryst is soon discovered by the menfolk who laugh out loud and make his maman go insane. Being unofficially mad, she takes to hovering about in an isolated garden. Reza is eventually taken into battle with his father, where ambitious plans fail dismally in an army massacre. Reza observes the series of brutal murders with horror and that of his own father, being stabbed and kicked to death.

The foundation of the novel, begins from here.

Reza is adopted by an insensitive but amused army, together with other orphaned little boys who all vye for favour with rivalry, and soon begin their training as soldiers. Eventually, Reza rises into a powerful rank and with a stern, po-faced conjecture but terribly guilty conscience at the same time, fights against his own people. The Kurds naturally see him as a traitor but are too afraid of his power. However, one cruel farmer, takes actions into his own hands that will change Reza’s destiny in a shocking, sudden way. By now, our protagonist has properly hardened his heart and turned appropriately cold and distant, towards everyone in general. He contains all the attributes of an actor, heroic, handsome, brooding and charismatic.

Reza marries a beautiful Persian woman, with a mind of her own. She hates the Kurds and brings their children up to reflect the same misgivings. Materialistic and selfish, she takes revenge on Reza, whom she feels has short-changed her with a failed promise of glitzy wealth and status, by sleeping with other men. She earns herself a scarlet reputation.

Not that Reza minds of course. As the years flee and we now see ourselves in modern-day Iran, we also observe an increasily brooding Reza, who feels an immsense sadness at having betrayed the Kurds. He has never got over missing and losing his mother and through a chained series of events, this is naturally reflected in Reza’s initial experience with women.

The novel grows with sharp strength as the plot progresses through Khadivi’s easy ability, that allows her to reveal the often hidden but affectionate heart of Reza. Slowly but surely, despite all his brutalities, the reader learns to love him. Khadivi avoids the usual sentiment associated with heartbreaking novels, that trace a deep sense of emotion.

She does this by seeming to write with a strong masculine hand and one suspects that she rides through her own played out brutal scenes, with nary the blink of an eyelid. Her story is devoid of emotion and sentiment is played out through narration. One expects a thick maze of skilled literary metaphors and complex wordplay, poetic in rhythm and structure, and all of which are managed beautifully by Khadivi herself.

I rarely do this, but I feel that unless one is at home with serious fiction, I become protective of the author’s genius in this case, to warn the lover of general fiction or lighter literary reads, so as to thread with caution. Perhaps because I am a writer myself, that it would pain me to hear someone complain of a novel being too complex or dry, or dull, solely because of a lack of capacity to understand the author’s cleverness.

I marvel at the workings of the human spirit that seek to expand the mind and heart to unfathomable possbilities. And so it currently is with me. From an intial love of Middle-Eastern literature, I fell in love with Iranian culture and the Arts and to think, that I am now deeply curious about Kurdish history and literature. This, however gothic and foreboding, it may appear to be. My only other experience with Kurdish history and society has been in the form of a famous Iranian film, called Blackboards, made by one of the nation’s youngest award-winning film directors, 28 year old Samira Makhmalbaf.

I was held captivated by the vast isolated landscapes that made for the border of Iran and Iraq, and the lifelike performance of Kurdish refugees on their way to escaping an enemy life. The refugees all nurtured a sole dream…to reach a promised land and despite its serious connotations; the film proved highly comical and witty, with its never-ending satire. It all involved a small group of men who carried blackboards like bird wings, on their backs, so as to bring education to remote regions. However through a certain circumstance, a teacher end up trailing the refugees instead and reluctantly enters her own chapter of high comedy.

Some Poetry and a Film Clip (Iranian Cinema)

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by Susan Abraham

Captions: 1st b/w pic above is of Tehran professor, novelist & playwright, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, while below are a film clip from It’s Winter, directed by one of Iran’s new wave of contemporary film-makers, Rafi Pitts and final picture sketch of the late Persian poet, Mehdi Akhvan Sales or otherwise, popularly known as M. Omid

The poem Winter of 1955 (Tehran) written by the late Iranian poet, Mehdi Akhvan Sales or otherwise, popularly known as M. Omid was a true scholar and romantic, lauded for his quiet passions and judged as a fine contemporary Persian poet in his time.

M. Omid was enthusiastic in exploring different methods of picturing poetry and in composing new style epics and social poems.

As a matter of interest, in Iran, the winter solstice celebrated for centuries on December 21st, is called after a Syric word, Shab-e-yalda, which refers to the birthday of the sun or the renewal of its power and its rituals which once followed ancient Egyptian traditions.

This contemporary narrative piece translated by Mahvash Shahegh Hariri ,describes the winter of 1955 in Tehran. Winter of 1955 (Tehran) or called Zemestan.

“They are not going to answer your greeting, their heads are in their jackets.
Nobody is going to raise his head, to answer a question or to see a friend.
The eyes cannot see beyond the feet,
the road is dark and slick.
If you stretch a friendly hand towards anybody,
he hardly brings his hand out of his pocket,
because the cold is so bitter.
The breath which comes out of his lungs,
becomes a dark cloud, and stands like a wall in front of your eyes.
While your own breath is like this,
what do you expect from your distant or close friends?
MY gentle Messiah, O, dirty dressed monk,
the weather is so ungently cold.
You be warm and happy!
You answer my greeting and open the door!
This is me, your nightly guest, an unhappy gypsy;
this is me, a kicked up, afflicted stone,
this is me, a low insult of creation,
an untuned melody.
I am neither white nor black. I am colorless.
Come and open the door, see how cheerless I am.
O, my dear host, your nightly guest is shivering outside.
There is no hail outside, no death;
if you hear any sound, it is the sound of cold and teeth.
I have come tonight to pay up my loan.
I have come tonight to leave my debt beside my mug.
What are you saying, that, it is too late, it is dawn, it is day?
What you see on the sky, is not the redness after dawn,
it is the result of the winter’s slap,
On the sky’s cheeks.
And your universal sun, dead or alive, is hidden by the long coffin of the dark.
O, partner go and get the wine ready, the days are same as nights
They are not going to answer your greeting,
the air is gloomy, doors are closed,
the heads are in jackets, the hands are hidden,
the breaths are clouds, the people are tired and sad,
the trees are crystallized skeletons,
the earth is low-spirited the roof of the sky is low,
the sun and moon are hazy, It is winter.”

I had read that poem through several times. A sophisticated narration indeed by M. Omid. In spite of his wretched complaints of the cold, I found in reading the poem, that I may have just been studying a film reel with an engaging storytelling clip. The poem produced a strange but convincing surreal effect on me. (Caption: fr It’s Winter)

This reminds me of several Iranian films in the vein of Niki Karimi’s One Night, set in similar formats with bold plots destined to create an etheral effect. Filmmakers take advantage of the rugged landscapes by producing stunning cinematography. The script is often spartan, the plot is likely to end with an unsolved riddle and when anyone does utter lines, the renditions or supposed conversations are almost taciturn in speech.

Much of a plot is left to silent movements and facial expressions Besides, the winters in Iran are bitterly cold. Such mannerisms in comparison with the descriptions of cinema and poetry, would be familiar.

In this case, 47 year old Rafi Pitt‘s highly-applauded film, It’s Winter, – see video/trailer – spotted an isolated village setting in the outer hills and bore a striking resemblance to Winifred Holby‘s The Land of Green Ginger where the husband leaves and the outsider comes and the wife discovers, a love she has never known but faces the battle of tradition and convention.

It is shrouded by the theme signature tune, a haunting classical number, sung in Farsi. Rafi Pitts had based his script directly on a story called Safar (The Trip) written by the Iranian novelist and playright, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi currently a professor in Tehran University and who was one of the first of new wave writers in Iran to support himself primarily through writing.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi in his younger years.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi in his younger years.

He was self-educated, worked as a shepherd boy and later as an actor for the stage and film. He was once famously imprisoned while performing on stage.

Dowlatabadi is famed for his tales on village life. Here is another old winter poem by M. Omid, although somewhat darker, more subdued and sadder.

“Although the night has for long overwhelmed the city,
And through his dark breath has turned it into a cold, misty, and gloomy site,
And has taken away and destroyed the shadows,
I through the magic I learned from the sorcerer of my own self
Was able to hide my shadow from him.
I walked around the misty city with my shadow.
We moved here and there, In the coldest days of winter
And I could see and so could he
The raggedly-dressed youth who suddenly
Fell on the ground due to his pretentious epilepsy
For some time or so and then
Through his pretentious move fell into a gutter
Whose slime and ooze was but true.” – M. Omid

For a further engagement with this post, do watch this 2010 interview with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, uploaded on Vimeo and courtesy of Kamran Rastegar.

The Bride by Austin Bukenya

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thebrideby Susan Abraham

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This afternoon, I read an East African play, The Bride sketched to meticulous poetic detail and hoarded by serious social innuendoes, befitting an  era that spelt complexities for a nation’s sharp pursuit of a Woodstock freedom in the 60s and 70s.

It was a time, stresses Austin Bukenya (Mwalimu) in his introduction, that African plays were viewed an an entertaining form of  exotica for the West. He doesn’t say so in as many words – one is immediately aware of Bukenya’s carefully measured tact in all he writes – but I rather got the picture.

The Bride was first presented as a public performance by the Ngoma Players, under the direction of Nuwa Sentongo, at the Nile Hotel, Kampala in January 1973.

 The Uganda-born playwright, Austin Bukenya, a longtime novelist, poet, critic, accomplished stage actor and sportsman and  who has in the past also taught Literature and Languages at universities in Nairobi and Kenya, is fastidious about the creative performances of The Bride, should anyone decide to stage the play.

I first picked up this small book at an old Tanzanian bookshop  in Dar-es-Salaam, two years ago.

The Bride was originally based on a short story, Two Husbands One Night by L.M. Kimaro, vol.1 of Darlite, a literary journal published in Kenya in 1966. Bukenya would reclaim his own version  of a play sketched to 4 movements, as a ‘broad experiment in creativity’ and serving as a yardstick for an East African society, determined to find itself.

In the first movement, the story opens up to drums, music and a fervent dance by Lekindo and his merry band of friends. They  skip around for the moon and attempt to conduct an initiation ceremony. Lekindo who’s projected as sensible and clever, is in love with the virginal Namvua.  She is late and he is anxious. His tension reveberates through the scene. Namvua possesses a tidy role as principal dancer, in the initiation ceremony, under the big bright moon.

The tragedy here is that the young maiden is held in prejudice as a ‘foreigner.’ Her father  Merio, was one; a man who sprouting up from a different tribe and region, had longed for acceptance, but been appropriately shunned by the village folk.

Namvua found herself treated in equal terms as a pariah. She was not allowed circumcision  with the other girls.  Later, the rest of the  womenfolk would declare her to be not yet reborn into womanhood. They would turn toffee-nosed, considering themselves higher mortals. In fact, it is her long delay now, that causes a group of girls to spit insults  in the meantime and demand the spotlight as principal dancer. The girls, refer to Namvua as a she-goat or cow.

Lekindo and his loyal friends will have none of this.  Arguments break out between the young men and women. Through his defence of Namvua in poetic if not heroic speeches, Lekindo  stoutly holds his ground. When Namvua arrives, it is clear from her excuse, that she has had to sneak her way, through another route, dodging two elders – elderly men considered wise men & decision-makers –  chatting and blocking the foothpath.

 The girls continue to fight as Namvua dances. Later, the group disperses and there is a moment of tender conversation between Namvua and Lekindo, before he takes her home. The conversations highlight Namvua’s difficulties with regards to  social status in her rural African community and Lekindo’s struggle to command his village’s as yet, impalpable compassion.  This is not helped by Lekindo’s father, Shundu, who marches in angrily and thunders a lecture. Lekindo stays a true friend to Namvua, even at the risk of greatly angering his father.

 The second movement is terribly comical. This scene highlights a temple and a shrine of the idol, Wanga whom the local folk worship.  In Movement Two,  the priest, a  colourful character and longsuffering husband to his sly wife, Mkumbu, is busy buttering a rich villager, Lesijore. He offers blessings in the hope of receiving a fat donation.

Later Mkumbu turns up and Lemera plunges into what a reader suspects; a habitual groan of moaning for an heir.   The temple’s wealth has to be passed down. Mkumbu insists they already have a son.  The son turns out be an old skull  –  the relic of Mkumbu’s dead son – whom Mkumbu still calls Lettie and carries with her everywhere. She cares for the skull with the same tenacity and tenderness as any mother would employ for a living child.  She appears as a woman seemingly either cast by a spell or locked in terrible denial.  It is clear to the reader that Lemera holds no sentiment for the  old skull but is eager to pacify Mkumbu. The couple hatch a plan together.  Why not marry Namvua to the decaying object called Lettie, where  the old Lemera would then  conspire to sleep with her to get his heir.  The promise made to Namvua’s father, Merio is an effective one. The village would accept him and his family as one of theirs, thereafter. I found great humour in the dialogue, that despite tradition, ancestry or belief, a marriage would hold similar problems.

Movement Three highlights a thrilled Merio, so pleased with the proposal that his family is to be accepted at long last, by the village folk. He indulges in Lemera’s earlier gift of beer heartily and proceeeds to tell his wife, Tutu, a thing or two. Tutu is shocked beyond words that her daughter is to marry a skull  and laments the fact that she will have no happy extended family, with a bunch of grandchildren milling around her.

Much earlier, also in Movement Three, Lekindo had chanced  upon Namvua in the outdoors, while the latter was busy collecting firewood.  There ensured  a bit of a tease and banter.  Their gentle romance is affirmed, nary a bit of wistfulness on her part. However, Lekindo was bent with curiosity as to what sudden affliations, Namvua’s parents had conjured up with Lemera and Mkumbu. Why, he had witnessed just the day before, jolly scenes of the two couples, appearing in jovial episodes together, suggesting an astonishing goodwill and friendship. Namvua swears she knows nothing. Lekindo believes her but is determined to find out more.

The fourth Movement opens with Namvua waiting with apprehension, to marry her husband in the bridal chambers. There is the sound of drums that signal his impending arrival. Crowds start to gather. In conspiratorial whispers, Namvua’s aunt, Sikitu, opts to give Namvua, some lengthy maternal advice about marriage and encourages the nervous girl, to go ahead with the wedding. Namvua is already lonely and can’t believe that she would find herself surrounded by strangers, she’s not quite sure she’ll like. Sikutu laughs it off, remembering her own lusty moments on her first wedding night, where she screamed and wailed for her parents and fought, clawed and scratched everybody with furious intent, until she had to be tied to her bed, to await her husband.

Suddenly Lekindo dashes into the room with his friends and attempts to rescue Namvua. Namvua had no idea that she would in a matter of minutes be betrothed to a skull, awaiting its lively fate in a bowl. She had been given the vague impression of inheriting the wrinkly Lemera for her husband. In the event that Lekindo and his friends would soon confront the surprised audience, they agree to use not spears, sticks or force but words of peace and tolerance to achieve their means.

However, Lekindo cannot resist smashing the doomed ‘Lettie’ to the ground once and for all, and turning the skull to smithereens. The mournful Mkumbu starts wailing as she gathers the pieces together, and Lemera gives way at the end of it all, to allow Lekindo to marry Namvua instead.

Bukenya sketches The Bride with a deft hand, almost showcasing his play as a lengthy narrative poem. In this aspect, he has advised actors to recite conversation in its most ordinary manner, where if recited with poetic imaginings, the play may go a -wandering.  Imagery is spoken in everyday encounters as if it may have been pronounced as the most normal thing to do.

In the First Movement, to warn against waiting for Namvua, one of the jealous girls, Kajiru says to Lekindo, ‘The dance is cooling upon our breasts.’   When Tutu tries to advice Namvua about the birds and bees in the Third Movement, fearing her  bewildered daughter knows nothing, she later discovers to her horror that Namvua has learnt all she needs to know from her best friend, Lekindo.

Tutu mutters with disdain, “Oh, you gods and spirits that bore me, Come here, Namvua, let me look at your eyes and your breasts. Open your breast. Has this Lekindo? Has he…touched you? Tell me Namvua… I have never known a dog that protects meat between its teeth. Tell me and I will tell you all the secrets of the plains.”

And back to the First Movement, which I find most enchanting, Lekindo questions unease and anger, “Is this the age-group of fire, that is going to burn away the dead leaves of stupidity which have accumulated upon the plains since Wanga (deity) fired the sun in the sky…”

I was held riveted to the play. I forgot I was reading dialogue and with the right amount of dramatics amounting to tension, joy, music, excitement, nervousness, shock, fear and a wry humour encased in all the right parts, I could well have been watching a film and never once felt bored.

Further Reading: The Future for Young Writers is Online by Austin Bukenya.

Hawa the Bus Driver by Richard S. Mabala

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hawa1by Susan Abraham

A Dar es Salaam bookshop, one that is owned by local folk and not the expatriate community along noisy streets, may often be viewed as a gloomy scene. Dusty shelves, tall foreboding doors, dour staff and poor lighting for a deliberate storeroom effect may even create that tiresome Halloween mood when you least desire it.

Naturally, in the vein of such despondency, sunny book covers and comic tales often threaten to leap out at you with delightful contrast. Picture a Jack-in-the-box imagery or a trampoline jump in mid-air, if you like.

Here then is another little book I once stumbled on by accident in an ancient bookshop. Hawa the Bus Driver is one of a series of 3 ticklish tales written by the engaging Richard S. Mabala who also sketches out stories bearing unsettling social issues for young adults; one on an exploited servant-girl and another, a misunderstood farmer.

In Hawa, the Bus Ddriver, the author presents an animated childlike story with serious adult themes. Hawa is a forward-thinking Tanzanian woman who lives in a rural slum but works as a bus-driver. Here then is the  unthinkable in a male chauvanistic society. Her hard work combined with an unexpected physical strength and stern moral responsibility, slowly turns male snobbery into devotion and respect.  In solitary fashion, Hawa  battles drunkards and thieves on the night shift and thinks nothing of it.

She becomes fairly famous in the village for her tasty cakes sold with diligent duty each dawn. But often just before climbing up a bus and also for her bravery – she once saved a runaway bus from a crash – her husband turns terribly jealous.

Mabala through humorous dialogue, portrays the beleagured husband’s insecurities. Eventually, Hawa and her friends with careful cunning, help her wriggle out of this problem. Mabala deals with real-life issues in jest but does not hide danger in his plots. He clearly believes in happy-ever-after endings but only after tackling everyday problems that any reader could identify with. Through his comedy, he cleverly shrugs off idealism.

There is a touch of the quaint folklore with songs and poems… “Oh Hawa, Hawa the heroine, Don’t play with her, She has arms like baobab trees, she will squeeze you to death… Oh Hawa’s husband, Beware of your wife, Don’t play with her, She might eat you for breakfast… She might squeeze you to death…”

Richard S.Mabala, P.O. Box 15044, Arusha, Tanzania. ISBN: 9976-920-26-1