I have spoken with my mother, about the fire in Rhode Island . She saw the live footage for the first time (I just saw it today) and didn't sleep a wink last night. The horror of those screams, those screams filling the air. My God. I can't stop from putting myself in the shoes of those who were there, trying desperately, frantically, to get the hell out, to save their damn lives, and there was nowhere to go, no escape. They all burned alive.
Mum said, "The feeling here is just so sad. Nobody is even talking to each other."
My heart is SO WITH the people of my home state right now!! It is such a damn tragedy. Just ...
I have no words.
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2/22/2003 05:10:00 PM
Saturday, February 22, 2003
A beautiful and moving site, put together by Solonor, called "What's Not to Like About America?" Each state has its own page, its own area, and you can go to it and add posts about your own state, if you like.
What an amazing project! Each state is listed by its flag, and then there are cool compiled links for each state. A great resource ... Go and post about your home state, or the state where you currently live ... spread the love!!
Thanks to Michele, at A Small Victory, for the heads up about this project.
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2/22/2003 01:21:00 PM
PHOTOS OF AFGHANISTAN
A series of tragic yet somehow beautiful photographs of the devastation in Afghanistan.
Photo #3 is haunting.
Via: Iranian Girl
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2/22/2003 01:13:00 PM
FOCUS ON: UZBEKISTAN
Bukhara 3, Tashkent
I found some descriptive quotes of Bukhara in Thubron's book that I wanted to share. It makes me feel as though I can see this famous city with my own eyes. Which is, after all, why I read all of these historical travelogues. I want to see the world. And not just Paris or Rome, although I'd love to go there, too. The places I really want to see are the so-called backwaters of Central Asia and the Middle East. Samarqand, Bukhara, Shiraz (in Iran), the Fergana Valley (in Kyrgyzstan), Herat (in Afghanstan)... all of Alexander the Great's old hangouts.
Thubron strolls through Bukhara:
...I entered a dust-filled wasteland fringed by a pale host of mosques and medresehs. The din and pall of restoration shook the air. The earth dazzled. The buildings glared in a blank, shadowless uniformity. Dressed in cement-colored brick, they had not the rich plenitude of the tiled mosques of Iran, but were patterned only sparsely with a glaze of indigo or green. For the rest, they were the color of the earth beneath them: a dead platinum. It was as if the dust had hardened into walls and turrets and latticed windows. Everything-- even the clay-colored sky -- shone with the same bleached stare.
But above, in radiant atonement, hovered a tumult of turquoise domes. Beyond the high gateways and iwans -- the great vaulted porches-- they swam up from their drums like unearthly fruit, and flooded the sky with the heaven-sent blue of Persia. From a distance they seemed to shine in unified aquamarine, but in fact the tiles which coated them were subtly different from one another, so that they spread a vibrant, changing patina over every cupola: eggshell, kingfisher, deep sapphire.
These mosques and medresehs were mostly raised by the successors of Tamerlane or by the 16th century Sheibanids, the first and most glorious Uzbek dynasty that succeeded them. Little that is older survives...
The blanched aridity all around oppressed me inexplicably, as though the city were dying instead of being restored. Even the dust seemed to have been leached by some ghostly peroxide. But in fact Bukhara was being resurrected indiscriminately: walls rebuilt shoddily en masse, tilework reproduced wholesale. Work had started in the Soviet period, but events had overtaken it, and the mosques which had been reconstituted cold in the service of art or tourism were stirring again with a half-life of their own.
The following descriptive passage is also very interesting because it captures what appears to be the inherent contradictions not only in Bukhara but in all of Uzbekistan. They don't really fit in with the rest of Central Asia ... they are not homogenous, they practice Islam but with elements of shamanism and Sufism, they don't subscribe to fundamentalism (at least not yet) ... They try to resist being sucked into the issues plaguing Afghanistan, the civil war next door in Tajikstan, the tyrannical dictatorship in Turkmenistan next door ... They are a milder people. But this struggle is difficult. Very difficult. Because, of course, there are many radical elements in the populations. There are millions of Uzbeks who do not live in Uzbekistan proper, who live in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China, Tajikstan ... and these people bring home radicalism, fanaticism.
Thubron discusses the glorious Renaissance that Bukhara experienced in the10th century, a great era of art and literature, and although it was back in the Middle Ages, the tensions he describes in the society still exist, and still simmer beneath the surface.
He visits "The Tomb of the Samanids", a 10th century mausoleum that stands on the outskirts of the city.
The tomb is all that survives of the precocious Samanid dynasty, the last Persians to rule in Central Asia, whose empire pushed south of the Caspian and deep into Afghanistan. The tomb escaped the Mongol sack because it lay buried under windblownsands, its builders half forgotten, and it perhaps finds its architectural origins in the palaces and fire-temples of pre-Islamic times. But its sophistication -- the lavish, almost playful deployment of its brick -- betrays an age more daring, more intellectual, than any which succeeded it.
For over a hundred years, until the end of the 10th century, a creative frenzy gripped the capital. Alongside the moral austerity of Islam, there bloomed an aesthetic Persian spirit which looked back to the magnificence and philosophic liberalism of the Sassanian age, extinguished by the Arabs more than two centuries before. As the Silk Road spilt into and out of Bukhara -- furs, amber and honey travelling east; silks, jewellry and jade going west -- the Samanids sent horses and glass to China, and received spices and ceramics in exchange.
An era of peace brought men of letters and science crowding to the court, and the Persian language flowered again in a galaxy of native poets. It was an ebullient age. Iranian music, painting and wine flourished heretically alongside Koranic learning, and the great library of Bukhara, stacked with 45,000 manuscripts,became the haunt of doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers.
The short era produced men of striking genius: the polymathic al-Biruni, who computed the earth's radius; the lyric poet Rudaki; and the great Ibn Sina, Avicenna, who wrote 242 scientific books of stupefying variety, and whose 'Canons of Medicine' became a vital textbook in the hospitals even of Christian Europe for 500 years.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is a similar story.
In the 1st century A.D. it was an oasis settlement. Throughout the following millennium, Tashkent was conquered and released and re-conquered over and over again. Persians, Mongol hordes, Turkic khans swept through, owned it, and passed it back and forth between them over the years.
And then, on June 15, 1865, the Russians arrived. And basically they never left. They are still there. In 1990, the population of Tashkent was 40% Russian. After the Soviet collapse, the Russians were a lost and sad community, abandoned by the motherland, adrift in a society wracked with upheaval, a Muslim revival ... they were the old oppressors, trying to live with the conquered people, who were now trying to take back their country. So Tashkent has a Russian overlay ... unlike Bukhara, which is a Muslim center. A very religious town, filled with fundamentalists. Tashkent is a Russian outpost.
Tashkent, in the years after 1865, became Russia's base of operations for further conquests in Turkestan. The Russians built a colonial city here which swallowed up the medieval Turkic city. Thubron says, "The Russians had captured Tashkent in 1865, not on orders from St. Petersburg but by the adventurism of local generals. Wiithin a few years it became the capital of Russian Turkestan, and there grew up beside the native town a pleasant, nondescript cantonment, where water channels trickled and great trees bloomed. Its first governor-general, the vain and chilly Kaufmann, ruled like a petty emperor. His army and administrations were filled with exiled bankrupts and adventurers. Far from home, local society became inward-looking and licentious, while beside it the Uzbek community continued almost unstudied, as if it would one day fade away."
Finally, with the advent of the Bolsheviks and their terrible architectural sense, the old Tashkent disappeared forever. Stalinist architecture (massive homely buildings, dauntingly wide concrete boulevards) stamped out the medieval nature of the desert town ... there isn't much left to be seen of the old Tashkent.
And then in 1966 there was a tremendous earthquake which gutted half of the city. Soviet builders rushed in to fill the vacuum and rebuild the city according to their own disgusting sensibilities. Tashkent, from the pictures, is one of the ugliest places on earth. Everything is grandiose, inflated, with massive gaunt spaces meant to make the citizens feel tiny and insignificant. The avenues are 6 lanes wide, the squares are massive vistas watched over by mammoth statues ... It looks oppressive. Like someone is always watching, or like the city is always waiting for something terrible to happen.
Stalin's legacy persists here, not just in the architecture, but in the population of Tashkent. Tashkent is filled, to this day, with Russians and Armenians. Taskent has very strong ties with Moscow ... much stronger than other areas in Uzbekistan. This adds to the regional divides in the country; very difficult for the nation to join together, unify, and agree on who they are as a people, as a place. Nobody agrees. Everybody battles for power.
The Russians, while they were the leaders of Tashkent, erected a state playhouse, a ballet, a circus. So Tchaikovsky is introduced to Uzbekistan, to a disgruntled Muslim populace (who, quite frankly, have no curiosity about other cultures ... in general ... they could not GIVE a shit about what Western culture might have to offer ... Meanwhile, we translate all of their top novels and poets into English or French or German or Italian, we watch their films, we give them Oscars ... but the exchange is almost completely one-sided).
And Tashkent today? Over a million people live in the city. There is much crime; it is not safe for anybody. It is verey polluted. There is no work. And the youth population has exploded, so the city is filled with drunken young men, filled with vague grievances, who have nothing to do. The suburbs continue to spread. Everything looks the same. There is no traditional Uzbek community here. Everyone yearns to be part of the West, and yet they live in a poverty-struck and dangerous society, where they basically have to leave in order to live productive lives. The mafia is ever-present, their influence in everything.
It's a bad situation, a powder keg. Islamic fundamentalism on the rise, reacting against the youthful population who want nothing more than to have access to Western music and Western movies.
These people have had their histories, their indigenous culture, amputated. There is no memory, no sense of who they are. The Russians who still live here live in fear, hiding out in their houses, dreaming about the good old days of Stalin.
Kind of a sick scenario, no?
Next: The Aral Sea
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2/22/2003 09:03:00 AM
A poem by May Sarton called "February Days".
Who could tire of the long shadows,
The long shadows of the trees on snow?
Sometimes I stand at the kitchen window
For a timeless time in a long daze
Before these reflected perpendiculars,
Noting how the light has changed,
How tender it is now in February
When the shadows are blue not black.
The crimson cyclamen has opened wide,
A bower of petals drunk on the light,
And in the snow-bright ordered house
I am drowsy as a turtle in winter,
Living on light and shadow
And their changes.
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2/22/2003 08:56:00 AM
A rainy early morning. There was something intensely exhausting about yesterday ... the fire in Rhode Island set the tone for the day. There are a couple of pictures of the actual blaze, and people trying to flee, on AOL News right now, and it's haunting. People in a state of panic. That must be one of the worst deaths imaginable. They were all completely trapped.
The number has now climbed to "at least 96" dead.
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2/22/2003 08:39:00 AM
FOCUS ON: UZBEKISTAN
First off, a quote, from Colin Thubron's The Lost Heart of Asia, having to do with the vague region where Uzbekistan now lies:
Across this region, for some two thousand years, the Silk Road has nourished caravan-towns -- Samarqand, Bukhara, Margilan -- whose populace had spoken an Iranian tongue. The Uzbeks were latecomers, migrating south at the end of the 15th century. They took their name froma khan of the Golden Horde, for their origins were Turkic, but already their blood was mixed with Iranians', and they added only the last layer to a palimpsest of peoples identifying themselves less by nation than by clan. On my map Uzbekistan made a multi-colored confusion. It was shaped like a dog barking at China. A country of 20 million -- more than 70% of them Uzbeks -- it butted against the Tienshan and the Pamir mountains in green-tinted lowlands and a sudden spaghetti of roads. But it remained an enigma: a land whose Communist rulers had persisted in power under another name, offering only lipservice to Islam, and loosening the economy without promise of democracy.
Thubron rhapsodizes about what the word "Bukhara" has always meant to him:
Bukhara! For centuries it had glimmered remote in the Western consciousness: the most secretive and fanatical of the great caravan-cities, shored up in its desert fastness against time and change. To either side of it the Silk Road had withered away, so that by the 19th century the town had folded its battlements around its people in self-immolated barbarism, and receded into fable.
So the Mongols sacked the joint in 1220, and trashed the entire town. But then along came Tamerlane the Terrible, and in the 16th century the mosques and madrassahs were rebuilt. They still stand today, but nothing older than that survives. Once the sea route to India and to China was discovered, Central Asia was done. In a matter of 100 years, the place closed shut like a trap, forgotten by the rest of the world. Bukhara (and Samarqand, and others) fell into wretched decay. Nobody passed through. For hundreds of years, Uzbeks never saw someone from the West. The cultural exchange stopped. Technological advances stopped passing through the area. They were forgotten by history.
In 2001, when Uzbekistan let us operate from their bases (Russian-built), during our attacks on Afghanistan, that was the first time that Western soldiers had operated in this area since Alexander the Great passed through in 329 B.C. Incredible, no?
Colin Thubron, who traveled through here during the first summer and spring of independence from Moscow, describes Bukhara's own journey (because, like I said, Uzbekistan is not a real country yet. At least not like we would define. People in Uzbekistan, for millennia, have identified themselves as citizens of Bukhara, Samarqand, etc. Now, they are starting to identify themselves ethnically ... "We are Uzbeks. Everything good comes from Uzbek culture!" So far, they do not have an identity as a coherent nation yet.) So Bukhara's own story definitely can stand in for the whole, to some degree.
It was the failure of water, as well as conservative ferocity, which hurried on the isolation of Bukhara. The Zerafshan river, flowing 500 miles out of the Pamirs, expends its last breath on the oasis, and is withering away. To north and west the sands have buried a multitude of towns and villages which the exhausted irrigation could not save.
Even in the 19th century, the accounts of travellers were filled with ambiguity. To Moslems Bukhara was "the Noble, the Sublime". It was wrapped round by eight miles of walls and fortified gates, and its mosques and medresehs were beyond counting. The Bukhariots, it was said, were the most polished and civilized inhabitants of Central Asia, and their manners and dress became a yardstick of oriental fashion ...
Even in decline, the bazaars were rumoured magnificent, and teemed with Hindus, Persians, Jews, and Tartars.
Yet this splendour barely concealed an inner wretchedness. Men who walked abroad like kings returned at night to hovels. The city gates and walls were a gimcrack theatre-set, and the famed medresehs in decay ... Ordinary people seemed inured to cruelty and subterfuge. Scarcely a Westerner dared enter before the 1870s.
The decline had begun in earnest during the end of the 18th century. And in the 19th century, there were two vicious and degenerate emirs who were brutal, and terrifying. Their behavior alienated them from their own people. The discontent and anger of the citizens of Bukhara made it relatively easy for the Russians to sweep in in the mid-1800s, and reduce Bukhara to a client state. This was part of the famous "Great Game", played by Russia and England in the middle of Central Asia.
Here's a passage about the czarist triumph here:
In all their Central Asian wars, between 1847-73, the Russians claimed to have lost only 400 dead, while the Moslem casualties mounted to tens of thousands.
The ensuing years brought the ambiguous peace of subservience. The czarist Russians, like the Bolsheviks after them, were contemptuous of the world which they had conquered. They stilled the Turcoman raids and abolished slavery, at least in name, but they entertained few visions of betterment for their subjects. As for the Moslems, who could stoically endure their own despots, the tyranny of the Great White Czar insulted them by its alien unbelief. "Better your own land's weeds," they murmured, "than other men's wheat."
Yet there would come a time when they would look back on the czarist indifference as a golden age.
In 1918, Mahomet Alim, the last emir of Bukhara, repulsed the (now) Red Invaders, booting out the Bolsheviks. This wasn't altogether a great thing for the people of Bukhara because the last emir was a tyrannical lunatic, with a massive harem, who sent tax collectors out to basically terrorize the populace. He wasn't a great guy. But he did defeat the Russians. However, 2 years later, in 1920, as General Frunze, in the Red Army, advanced again on the oasis, the last emir flipped out, and fled with his harem, leaving the populace to fend for themselves.
And then followed six decades of communism. Stalin closed down all the mosques. He criminalized private property, and entrepreneurship ... Uzbekistan was crushed beyond repair. They have still not recovered.
And wait till you hear about what the Russians did to the Aral Sea! It has been described as "the world's greatest environmental disaster". It makes me sick to my stomach. Too much to go into today, though.
Thubron again, on strolling through the ancient bazaars in the early 1990s:
A hesitant free enterprise was surfacing, but the inflation raging through the old Soviet empire had turned everyone poor. Sad traders peered from their kiosks like glove-puppets, or threaded the bazaars with a predatory vigilance. But they had almost nothing to sell. Once the name 'Bukhara' had been synonymous with lustrous dyed silks and the crimson rugs of the Turcomans who traded here, and carpets of Persian design were woven on domestic looms all over the city. But under Stalin, home industries became criminal. Mass production laid a dead hand on all the old crafts. I trudged through the market quarter until dark, but found no trace of handmade silk or rug.
Nobody alive today can know what the ancient Bukhara was like. It's lost. Lost for good.
Here are some pictures of modern-day Bukhara. I can see why everyone refers to the oasis as "monochromatic". Everything is the color of chalk.
If you take a look at the lower left picture, you will see the old city gate, which still stands. Part of the remaining wall that has always surrounded the oasis. And the top left, the emir's summer palace, is the residence of the last emir who flew the coop when he was threatened by Frunze. He and all his many many many lovely ladies. Additionally, yesterday I talked about the Kalyan minaret, erected in 1127 ... the only surviving structure from Genghis Khan's attack in 1220. It is 148 feet high, and actually kind of homely, in my opinion, but there was a time on this planet, when that minaret (pictured in the right hand column, second photo down) was as famous a sight as the Eiffel Tower. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower but I know exactly what it looks like. The camel caravans on the Silk Road kept their eyes open for that minaret, knowing exactly what it would look like, counting on it to be there.
Oh, and also notice the bottom right hand picture: the Ulugh Beg madrassah. He was the grandson of Tamerlane, who took over the empire after his grandfather's death. But Ulugh Beg was a scientist, an astronomer ... and actually, quite brilliant. He built observatories and sponsored scientists visiting Bukhara. He wanted the place to be a cultural center, not just a hotbed of fanaticism, and a place to rest in between military ventures and wars. The madrassah you see in the picture was completed in 1420. It was one of the places shut down by Stalin, but now it is open again, and filled with students.
I am a little afraid of what they may be learning in there these days ("And today's lesson ... Americans are Satan." "Don't forget to do your homework ... write an essay on why you think the Zionists are taking over the world."), but still: the Ulugh Beg madrassah is an amazing structure, and actually was built by quite an enlightened and educated man. A curious man. So perhaps that legacy will rub off. I can only hope.
Next: Bukhara, Part III, and Tashkent
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2/21/2003 05:39:00 PM
Friday, February 21, 2003
REMEMBER DANNY PEARL
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of our learning about Danny Pearl's murder. Read this column, written by his father. Take a moment to say a prayer, to remember him.
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2/21/2003 05:07:00 PM
There is a long (and rather pretentiously written) article in The New Yorker about Joseph Cornell, which has sparked up a bunch of associations for me. A couple of years ago I was involved in a theatre project, developing a play about Joseph Cornell. We workshopped it around. I was immersed in Joseph Cornell, to the exclusion of all else, during the time of our workshops. We all were. We lived, ate, breathed Joseph Cornell. A phenomenal experience. Joseph Cornell appears to be more "in" than ever these days, some sort of zeitgeist, some kind of thematic resonance or something ... It would take a more pretentious writer than I to figure out why that might be the case!
But in case you are unfamiliar with Joseph Cornell's boxes, I highly recommend you check them out. I can't really explain them (at least not like Gopnik does in the article) ... all I can say is that they are like a dream. The boxes are like the subconscious made visible. They also act, for me, as catalysts ... synapses firing, memories rising up. When me and my siblings were little, we loved to play with "little things". Little mini tea-sets, little people, teeny miniature houses ... The smallness of things, the perfection of those small things, entranced us. His boxes, to me, capture that. He pays homage to the things he loves (Emily Dickinson, toys, birds) ... but at the same time, he keeps them trapped inside a box. He covets. The boxes make me sad. They seem to contain loneliness within their walls, or at least to be all about loneliness and need. The kind of urgent need I felt (and still feel on occasion) when I had my intense movie-star crushes as a teenager. My heart HURT. My crushes made life UNBEARABLE and yet also so SWEET. Harrison Ford as Han Solo made me WRITHE in pain and desire. That's what Cornell's boxes remind me of.
Some excerpts from The New Yorker article:
-- He is an artist of longings, but his longings are for things known and seen and hard to keep. He didn't long to go to France; he longed to build memorials to the feeling of wanting to go to France while riding the Third Avenue El. He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place, the fragment to the whole. Cornell's boxes look like dreams to us, but the mind that made them was always wide awake.
-- Cornell's small art looms so large, in fact, that one is occasionally inclined to take the side of the big boys against the recluse, just as there must still be a Longfellow fan out there who has heard quite enough about Emily Dickinson, thank you. It does look twee, or at least awfully easy. Cornell, like his beloved Saint-Exupéry, gets the mushy-stuff pass that only one or two artists per generation are permitted. Art critics and historians try to solve this problem by searching for the conventional signs of avant-garde reassurance—you see, his boxes are really boxes, you know, primary structures, with, like, appropriated ironies inside—and by making his art into yet another mock-in-the-box. Yet no one has ever really looked at it as anything but desperately sincere. The mushy bits, the parrots and constellations, are, beyond all argument, the potent bits.
I agree. If you look at the boxes as absolutely and completely sincere, then you will get them. They are not kitsch, they are not ironic or post-modern. They are not comments on our pop-culture society, or comments on easily-disposable objects, blah blah blah... they actually are what they appear to be: tributes to the movie stars and ballerinas and poetesses he loved. They mean nothing other than themselves. Joseph Cornell is a fan, plain and simple, and his boxes were a way to show the people who inspired him how much he loved them.
-- Cornell's art occupies a special place between the spooky and the sappy, and it is the spookiness that gives the sappiness its power.
-- He called his best New York moments—when the cafeteria pie and the light in the window and the knowledge of having found the right old print on Fourth Avenue all came together—"sparkings," a "conspiracy of events to produce this miracle of grace." Often, the "sparkings" center on a beautiful young girl he sees briefly on his travels. He called these girls his "fées," his filles, his faeries ... There is something rapt and winsome in his appreciation of his fées; and something just a little creepy about his following them into Woolworth's.
Ah yes, and this quote is extremely important in understanding Cornell. I think it is perfectly said:
-- The boxes he made for his favorite actresses are, in their way, better Pop art than any Pop art properly so called—more connected to the real spell that popular culture casts on an American mind, which is not detached (an emotion that the Pop artists had to work for) but overly invested, finding more in Shirley MacLaine than Shirley MacLaine can quite supply.
Here is a discussion of the role nostalgia plays in Cornell's psyche, and in his boxes:
-- For Cornell's great subject—announced and taboo—in all his boxes was nostalgia, and his desire was to vindicate it as an emotion ... What's nostalgic in Cornell's art is not that it's made of old things; a lot of the things are so new that no one would have yet thought of them as potential art—Hollywood stills and penny-arcade chutes. What's nostalgic is that, behind glass, fixed in place, the new things become old even as we look at them: it is the fate of everything, each box proposes, to become part of a vivid and longed-for past, as real and yet as remote from us as the Paris hotel we never got to ... The false kind of nostalgia promotes the superiority of life past; the true kind captures the sadness of life passing.
Here are some of his boxes, for your perusing pleasure: (And remember: if you see these in real life, they are 3-dimensional. You can reach in and touch the little pinballs, the feathers, open the drawers ... he made the actual boxes, in his mother's basement in Utopia Parkway, Queens ... Cornell meant for the boxes to be handled. He loved to lend them out to the children in the neighborhood. Now, of course, they are thousands upon thousands of dollars). But anyway:
Penny Arcade with Lauren Bacall (perhaps his most well-known box)
Untitled (Medici Princess)
Toward the Blue Peninsula (one of my favorites ... I love the box because he suggests that something has just left the box ... the open window, the perch. Nothing moves here ... but there is a memory of movement. Something has escaped.)
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)
Bebe Marie (this one has the potential to give me nightmares)
Pharmacy (this one perfectly captures how entrancing "little things" can be)
Untitled (The Hotel Eden)
Untitled (Paul and Virginia)
Cassiopia -- Verso
Les Constellations Voisines de Pôle
Untitled (Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire) (I adore this one. I love his constellation boxes.)
Hotel de L'Etoile (More constellations.)
Eclipsing Binary, Algol with Magnitude Changes
Sandbox (I can see why neighborhood kids loved to play with his boxes. They are entire worlds.)
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2/21/2003 03:19:00 PM
BEN BRANTLEY GETS IT
So, judging from his review of Dublin Carol, it looks like Ben Brantley gets it. He didn't have the horrified or pissed-off response of the woman I spoke with in the bathroom after the show, who saw no redemption, and no humor in a man with a perpetual hangover. It's a lovely review, and pitch-perfect.
Some beautiful observations (which deepened my own understanding of what I had seen ... always the job of a good reviewer):
-- Mr. McPherson doesn't regard a hangover as a temporary physical affliction to be banished with aspirin, Coca-Cola and a day in bed. Make no mistake, the state of coming off a bender is as much existential as physical in "Dublin Carol."
-- ... this is a play that, like much of Mr. McPherson's work, capitalizes on that long, lovely and painful tradition in Irish literature of tales told by drinkers, squinting through the murk of the morning after. Whether dealing with restless young fathers on a rampage ("Rum and Vodka") or those nasty old vampires known as drama critics ("St. Nicholas"), Mr. McPherson knows how to exact every ounce of angst and rueful humor from that garden-variety ailment called a hangover. Still in his early 30's, he has already established himself as a sentimentality-free descendant of the likes of Joyce Cary, Brendan Behan and J. P. Donleavy, specialists in the bleared perspectives of men crawling out of their cups.
Congratulations Kerry ... and to the rest of the cast, for such a sensitive and heartfelt review. You all deserve it. The play has stayed with me since I saw it. I have thought of each one of the characters, wondering how life turned out for each one of them.
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2/21/2003 02:45:00 PM
THE FIRE IN RI
Carnage. The number of dead keeps rising, every time I check the headlines. Now it is up to 65. At 10:30 a.m. it was 39. It is terrible, incomprehensible. From this picture, it is obvious that nothing is left of the club. It has burned completely to the ground. So far, no one I know was there. But Rhode Island is so small ... I had been terrified that my sister was there, but I heard from her earlier this morning, assuring me she was not.
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2/21/2003 02:26:00 PM
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR OF THE WORST BOOK EVER WRITTEN
Okay, so this is one of the funniest damn things I have read in a long time.
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2/21/2003 02:23:00 PM
Jesus. What a disaster.
Officials are too quick to say "there is no link to terrorism". How can they KNOW that? Don't say anything if you aren't sure. It's an oil refinery. Don't discount the possibility too quickly.
It looks tremendously terrible.
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2/21/2003 12:43:00 PM
Everything appears to be bursting into flames at the same moment across the globe. I knew that an oil refinery had exploded in Staten Island, but from where I sit, in the middle of Times Square, I can't see it. This picture is shocking. Terrible.
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2/21/2003 11:58:00 AM
THE RI FIRE
This is horrific. I am from Rhode Island. I know the club well. The panic must have been overwhelming. It is just awful. My thoughts and prayers are with all of the people, the people who survived, and all of the many people who have lost loved ones. What a terrible way to die.
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2/21/2003 10:57:00 AM
We call it "the Middle East". But ... middle compared to where? On the earth, moving around the latitudes, there is no east or west. It all depends on your perspective. North and south remain true and constant, but "middle" and "east" are flexible, depending on where you are standing, which way you are looking. To Pakistan, the countries of the "Middle East" are not "east" at all, but directly "west". We refer to the Middle East as such because it is in the East, sort of ... it is on the way to China ... if you head East from the countries of Europe ... but in actuality, it's NOT middle and it's not east.
Even the name of the region reflects colonialism.
For that matter, you could say the same thing about the "west", and using "the West" as a blanket term. Basically, what you mean when you say "the West" is: the countries of Europe, the United States, areas of the world that experienced the Enlightenment, and started introducing democratic societies into the dialogue. But to China, if they look across the Pacific, towards our country, then they are looking "east".
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2/21/2003 10:46:00 AM
FOCUS ON: UZBEKISTAN
On from Samarqand to Bukhara.
Bukhara was a medieval city-state, a very important commercial center. By the time Genghis Khan sacked the joint in 1220, Bukhara had already been around for over a thousand years. Genghis Khan laid waste to Bukhara, sparing nothing. Only minaret remained, and it still stands today. That minaret, called the Kalan minaret, was a marvel when it was constructed and it is still a marvel today. It is 148 feet high, and once was a beacon to the Silk Road caravans, letting them know that Bukhara was near.
There are bazaars in Bukhara which have been operating, nonstop, for a thousand years. There are madrassahs in Bukhara, built in the 1500s, which still have students today.
Bukhara was once seen as one of the centers of the world. There was a Sufi religious center here, built in the 1300s ... a major mecca for Sufi scholars and pilgrims. Everyone passed through Bukhara, and the Silk Road helped establish Bukhara's position as one of the premier city-states in the known world.
I don't know much about the Samanids, but they were a dynasty in the 10th century, and under their reign, Bukhara blossomed. They built a great library here that had 45,000 manuscripts in it. The Samanids were eventually destroyed by the Mongols, everything destroyed, nothing survived of that brief great era. An interesting fact: The Samanids had built a wall around their oasis. But during the time of prosperity, the Samanids let down their guard ... they relaxed ... they let the wall fall to bits, they did not maintain their wall ... so when the Turkic invaders came along in 999 A.D., they easily captured the town.
Next: Bukhara, Part II
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2/20/2003 05:36:00 PM
Thursday, February 20, 2003
A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION
As I mentioned yesterday, I went out for drinks and conversation (a marathon-long conversation) this week with an old flame. We met up at an Irish pub in Manhattan, near where he was teaching a class. I haven't seen him in a year, and it has been a very busy year for both of us, so we had much to discuss.
He and I were never an introspective couple. By that I mean, we never sat around with one another saying, "So ... remember when we first met?" or "Here's what I remember from that night we had at blah-blah-blah..." "Oh really? Well, how I remember it all happening was like this ... "
My friend Ann Marie calls it "the re-hashing gene". The need to re-live things, to share memories ... even a mere five minutes after an event. He and I, as a pair, did not have the re-hashing gene. We had a very in-the-moment kind of pairing.
But anyway, my point is: the "re-hashing gene" suddenly reared its beautiful head between us this week.
The inception of he and I together was so long ago, 12 years ago or something like that, but we began to talk about it, sharing memories, funny stories ... "Oh, so what I remember from that time is ..." It was fascinating, to re-hash events that happened so long ago, to pull them back up to the forefront and see them in front of us, with vividness ... We realized how out-of-sync we actually were back then, in our perceptions of what was going on, and we also realized what a miracle it is that we actually are still friends today, judging from our radically different interpretations. We were so young when we first met. Well, mid-20s. That seems very very young to me now!
We discussed the "first summer". An insane and chaotic time when he and I met, and got to know each other, and began hanging out. The stories are incredibly amusing, and fascinate me to this day. We were clearly lunatics. Making up our own rules.
Here's something I remember, and one of the things I shared with him (he had no memory of this whatsoever):
He and I met one summer. We liked each other. We exchanged phone numbers. We went out one night and played pool or something like that. I can't even remember. But I do remember that it was riotously fun. We laughed a lot. And then ... tragically ... he did not call me the next day. Or the following day. Or the following day. Whatever. I can't remember how long it was ... but it felt like half a millennium to me. It was awful. I was rehearsing a show, and this was pre-cell phone days, so on my breaks I would walk down the street to the nearest pay phone and call home to check my messages. A terrible ritual. As the days wore on (even if it was only five days!), it slowly began to dawn on me, horribly: Oh no. Oh no. He's not calling!
It sucked. So eventually I called him and left a message, trying to make a joke out of it, but feeling like the ultimate loser: "Uh ... hi ... I wonder if I did something wrong ... or if something has happened ... because you're not calling me, and I thought we had fun." Oh, it was a low moment. I would never behave that way now! It makes me cringe to even think of it. LOSER!
So he receives this message, and calls me back, leaving a message on my answering machine. A message that caused ice water to flood my veins.
Here is all that was said:
"Sheila ... it's so-and-so." Long long terrible pause. Then came: "Tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk." --Click!--
He TSK-ed me. HE TSK-ED ME.
Oh my God, I told him that he had done this, and he was absolutely horrified. He had no memory of it. The two of us were crying with laughter, but he also was mortified. "What a JACKASS. I CAN'T BELIEVE I did that! I tsk-ed you???"
"Yes. You did. And my veins filled up with ice water."
"I can't believe you weren't like, 'Y'know what? Fuck off, asswipe!' "
We were roaring with laughter ... I said, "No no no, here's how I interpreted that ... I interpreted that as you saying to me ... 'No, this will never work if we start to obsess about who calls who when ... we have to stay in the moment' ... so I felt like you were trying to say to me, 'Woah ... just chill out ... everything will be fine ... everything IS fine ... just don't start obsessing.' "
This stunned my ex-flame. He said, "Meanwhile, it probably, on my part, was just a cocky stupid hungover thing to do ... It meant NOTHING."
We laughed so hard at how my interpretation of that terrible "tsk-ing" moment actually ended up being the reason that we have ended up being friends to this day. Meaning: Because I DIDN'T say to him, "Screw you, ass wipe", and instead read all kinds of benevolent meanings into his terrible message, we made it through ... I actually did chill out, and we had a great time together.
He could not get over his own behavior. "I canNOT believe I did that to you. I also canNOT believe you didn't read me the riot act. What a JERK. I would never do that now. I tsk-ed you?? I have no memory of that. What an ASS. And there you are on the other end, thinking .. 'Okay, so what that means is ... that I need to stop reading Kierkegaard and start reading The Tractatus."
(This comment is so damn funny to me.)
He said, "That is such a GIVING interpretation, Sheila. I am the biggest jerkoff on the planet."
For the rest of the night, whenever he would say anything even mildly vulnerable, I would give him a look and say, "Tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk." And he would fall off his stool laughing.
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2/20/2003 03:57:00 PM
LETTER FROM BRITAIN
Everybody is linking to this piece at the moment, so I figured I would as well. A letter to America, from an English journalist with the Daily Mail.
It kind of can't be excerpted, so just read the whole thing.
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2/20/2003 03:11:00 PM
EUROPE REACTS TO CHIRAC
So Chirac thinks that all of Europe was "badly brought up", because of the support for US policy. What the hell is he talking about?? People all over Europe react to his comments in the piece linked to above.
Quote from Poland:
Chirac allowed himself to say things which should not have been said... Poland can make its own sovereign decisions about its views. EU membership must not deprive us of this right. Loyalty towards Paris should not mean subordination. Loyalty brings obligations on both sides.
Another discussion of France electing itself leader of the EU here. Is some sort of tide turning? Chirac's diplomacy leaves much to be desired. Nobody likes to be scolded. And nobody likes to have their upbringing doubted ... especially if you are implying that half of an entire continent is filled with badly brought-up ill-mannered citizens. "Badly brought up" means your parents messed up the job of raising you. That is pretty damn personal, Chirac-dude! Stick to the facts, please. The facts.
For those of you who do not know what Chirac said in Brussels, this week, read. He said that the people in Europe, by backing US policy, "missed an opportunity to keep quiet". Wow. He is telling everybody to shut up. Alexandr Vondra, deputy foreign minister of the Czech republic said that his country and his country's neighbors "definitely cannot remain silent".
Things getting very interesting over there! I just watch it all unfold.
Oh, and one last thing: This photo has to be seen to be believed.
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2/20/2003 01:30:00 PM
IRAQ FOR IRAQIS
A fantastic op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal by Ahmad Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress. He describes the problems with the Bush administration's future plans for Iraq. He speaks from the inside. A great piece.
-- ...the idea of democracy in Iraq and liberty for the Iraqi people have been in the conscience of Iraqis for three generations. We have sought it, dreamed of it, and fought for it--always paying a high price in lives lost. As deliverance approaches, we therefore intend to be full participants in shaping the future Iraq. American help is essential--and is welcomed--in winning the fight against Saddam. But the liberation of our country and its reintegration into the world community is ultimately a task that we Iraqis must shoulder.
-- For Iraq to rejoin the international community under a democratic system, it is essential to end the Baathist control over all aspects of politics and civil society. Iraq needs a comprehensive program of de-Baathification even more extensive than the de-Nazification effort in Germany after World War II. You cannot cut off the viper's head and leave the body festering. Unfortunately, the proposed U.S. plan will do just that if it does not dismantle the Baathist structures.
I have read many articles about how over-rated the concept of "stability" is (or can be). Fear of instability sometimes means that terroristic regimes are propped up, or tolerated ... due to the anxiety of what would happen if those regimes disappeared. But periods of great instability sometimes are necessary in order to cleanse the system of despots, or ideological fanaticism.
-- The truth is, there is more to the liberation of Iraq than battlefield victory or the removal of Saddam and his top-tier cadre of torturers. The transition to democracy--the task of exorcising Saddam's ghosts from the Iraqi psyche and society--can only be achieved through self-empowerment and a full return of sovereignty to the people. This is our job, not that of a foreign officer. We are a proud nation, not a vanquished one. We are allies of the U.S. and we welcome Americans as liberators. But we must be full participants in the process of administering our country and shaping its future.
Read it, read it, read it.
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2/20/2003 01:16:00 PM
ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
My father just sent me an email, in response to me saying I want to know more about Winston Churchill. The email needs no preface.
Winston Churchill was a bully, a snob, an imperialist of the worst sort. Indeed, he had a way with words, inherited by his even more despicable father, Sir Randolph [Winston was Shane Leslie's first cousin]. His father would belong to any party that would give him preference, and he turned back the cause of Ireland by many decades [perhaps permanently] by coining the phrase "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right"--this backing of the minority rule brigades in Ireland was furthered by his son--while making outward overtures for home-rule he threatened the republicans with overwhelming force, and eventually at the beginning of WWII he conspired to take over the port cities of Ireland. The man was reprehensible. your loving dad.
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2/20/2003 12:49:00 PM
To all you New Yorkers out there, I highly recommend going to see Dublin Carol at the Atlantic Theater, Conor McPherson's latest play. In my humble opinion, the Irish playwrights these days are putting all other playwrights to shame! They continue to be committed to story, to character development, to themes. Beauty Queen came along, and everyone seemed to realize that American playwrights are not writing material like that, at the moment. That torch has been taken up elsewhere.
I went to see Dublin Carol last night. My cousin Kerry plays one of the characters, the daughter of the lead.
John, the lead character, broke my heart. He has made terrible choices, he has lost everything, he is running as fast as he can from the past, he refuses sympathy because he knows that, for the most part, he has been a bastard ... but the strength of the piece is that, by the end, compassion and grief rose up in my heart towards this selfish guy. The lonely old man, in a dusty office in Dublin, alone on Christmas Eve, with the snow falling outside the window. I had tears in my eyes. I cannot condone the man's behavior, but that does not mean I cannot feel for him, one human being to another. It is an awful thing. It reminded me of Eleanor Rigby, the portraits of aloneness and loneliness in that song ... "all the lonely people". And where is the redemption? Where is the hope? Father McKenzie buries Eleanor Rigby, brushes the dirt off his hands ... "nobody came" ... In Dublin Carol, John is an undertaker. He is not a churchgoer, yet he spends most of his time in churches, confronting death. Grief. Thoughts of his own mortality. Thoughts of the life he has led, and how he will basically die unmourned. He knows this.
Kerry, after the show, told us that the play had been done twice, in London, and in Dublin. To Conor McPherson, the play is about redemption. As bleak as it all is. That there is a tiny bit of hope remaining at the end ... but it is a terrible thing as well. A lost life. A lonely lost life. But McPherson doesn't see it as a tragedy. He did not direct it in a judgmental way towards the lead character. John is a charmer, kind of an interesting man ... but slowly, it unfolds, and we see, through Kerry's character, who this man was in his past. How do we forgive him? How can we forgive him?
And yet McPherson seems to be saying that loving somebody, especially a parent, is not a simple or a black-and-white thing. Memories may be terrible, you may be haunted by them ... but if they are the only memories you have of your past, then that must be acknowledged. Just because someone was a bastard as a father does not mean that his children automatically will write him off, and say, "My father was a bastard ... therefore he was a bad man, and I do not love him anymore." Of course not! The redemption, for McPherson, seems to lie in the persistence of love. Even after ten years of never seeing her father, the daughter still... still ... loves him. And wants him in her life.
McPherson says it all better:
"I don't think anybody's beyond the beyond, no matter what they've done ... I can't condemn characters. I've got to look for the hope ... If there's any redemption, or any hope, it's so slight ... It's just a chink of light. We know that John is probably incapable of living his life in any meaningful way, but at the same time he is willing to give it a try. That's the hope. But I suppose that even a chink of light is huge if you're in the dark."
I have tears in my eyes. It is tremendously moving.
I had a moment with a woman in the bathroom, after the play. I was waiting for the stall, and she emerged. She had a blunt blonde pageboy, she was probably in her late 40s, very well-put-together, conservatively dressed, perfectly applied dark lipstick. She said to me, "What did you think of the play?"
In looking back on it, I can see that the play had disturbed her deeply on some level. Some button had been pushed.
I said, still very moved by the ending of the play, said, "I loved it. I thought it was very sad."
She had little crinkles of concern in her forehead. She said, "I just wonder how anybody could ever play a character like that lead character!"
Okay ... hm. So clearly she's having some sort of response to John, something that I had not experienced ... My experience at the end of the play was grief for John, grief for his lost and lonely life, and hoping ... hoping ... that maybe he could find a little bit of comfort after all. She, on the other hand, found him disgusting.
"Wasn't he a sad man?" I said, rhetorically.
She said, "Well ... no! I mean, how could anybody play someone who was so immoral? Such a jerk! I mean, yes, it was all jokey and funny at times ... but when you come right down to it ... he was a terrible man!"
WOW. I SO did not get that.
She was upset.
I said, treading carefully, "Well ... I saw him as ... a very sad person. Very sad."
She retorted, "Well, I feel sad for the people who had to deal with him! I was sad for the other 2 characters who had to listen to him!"
She went on, "And ... God, the play was so funny at times, and then so sad in the same moment!" (She said that by way of criticizing it ... To her, the alcoholism and selfishness of the lead character was completely a black-and-white issue ... and there was nothing funny about anything in his life.)
When she said the funny/sad comment, I said, bluntly, "Well, y'know, it IS an Irish play. Irish people are always funny and sad in the same moment."
She couldn't really hear what I was saying, upset as she was by whatever it was in her life that made her see the play through her own particular eyes. "I didn't find anything funny about that lead character."
I wonder if she saw her own father in John. I am sure her response came out of her own life. An audience brings their entire world to any play they see. That's the beauty of it.
The beauty of Dublin Carol for me was that we all went out afterwards and talked, passionately, about families, and alcoholism, and redemption and love. Only a wonderful play will make you talk about your own lives afterwards!
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2/20/2003 11:33:00 AM
I have been thinking about Winston Churchill alot these days. He always has stuff to teach us, in any age, but he seems particularly relevant now. I think I need to learn more about him. I will add him to my ever-lengthening list of things I don't know enough about that I must look into one day, when I have the time.
There is a chapter on what Churchill can teach us about foreign policy (and other things) in Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics, which I am reading now. Churchill has been on my mind anyway ... so picking up this book at this particular time has been perfect. Here is an excerpt which focuses on why Churchill was able to foresee the threat that Hitler was long before anybody else could see it, and also what differentiated Churchill from Neville Chamberlain, the original appeaser:
There are many ways to explain Churchill's power and greatness, but [Isaiah] Berlin may have come closest when he wrote: "Churchill's dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is a historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multicolored past." And because Churchill's "strongest sense is the sense of the past," particularly ancient history, he is also, Berlin explains, "acquainted with the darkness..."
Churchill saw through Hitler early on, because Churchill was familiar with monsteres to a degree that [Neville] Chamberlain was not. Chamberlain's was a shallow realism. He knew that people wanted peace, and their money spent on domestic needs rather than on armaments, so he gave them those things. (When Chamberelain returned from Munich after appeasing Hitler, he was proclaimed a hero.) But Churchill knew more. He was a man with fewer illusions, partly because he had spent much of his life -- beyond his school years -- reading and writing about history and experiencing Britain's colonial wars firsthand as a soldier and journalist. Thus, he knew how intractable and irrational human beings were. Like all wise men, he thought tragically; for we create moral standards in order to maesure our own inadequacies.
Of course, Churchill was far from perfect, especially in regard to his policy toward Hitler. Nor may Chamberlain have been as much of a dupe as many suppose. Had events worked out even slightly differently, Chamberlain might be held in higher esteem now. Chamberlain may have been more unlucky than unwise. Building up Britain's defenses while testing Hitler's intentions, as Chamberlain did, had the virtue of gaining Britain time while uniting public opinion behind the government for the eventual fight against Hitler. Still, there is something that we can label Churchillian that is worth exploring as an ideal.
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2/20/2003 08:10:00 AM
OUT, DAMNED BLOGSPOT
Blogspot has been down all the livelong day. I've never seen anything like it ... I was dying to write about Uzbekistan again ... but alas. It was not meant to be today.
My life has sped up to an alarming degree. I have two plays I am about to start work on, I have classes (acting and writing), I have a social life ... I have my couple of hours of writing a day. Shelagh and Brad are here for a week, so my schedule is jam-packed ... I was out until 4 in the morning last night with one of those ex-flames I mentioned earlier. We sat around and talked and reminisced and laughed like crazy before going our separate ways. Like a Dan Fogleberg song. Staggering away from one another through the drifts, calling Farewell.
I am EXHAUSTED.
Tonight? I go see my wonderful cousin Kerry in Dublin Carol! Can't wait!
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2/19/2003 04:58:00 PM
Wednesday, February 19, 2003
FOCUS ON: UZBEKISTAN
So back to Uzbekistan. Last time, I talked about who the people there are, where they come from. It's interesting because ... the history of Uzbekistan in the 20th century is, admittedly, quite interesting. A Muslim state, a mish-mash of people, under the thumb of Stalin, holding out, holding on, and then ... in one shot ... before they are at all ready, they become independent. They were one of the few republics in the Soviet Union which had to be forced into independence. They knew they were not ready, they didn't know what to do.
But, for me, the really gripping history in the area goes way way back, to medieval times, when this section of the planet was one of the centers of the world, if not the center. An amazing thing, to have that in your cultural memory.
Uzbekistan was part of the old Persian empire, and things did not change much here from the 6th century BC to the 19th century. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great passed through (that boy certainly got around), and married the daughter of a local chieftain near Samarqand. This connected the region to the outside world. The Silk Road propelled the region to the center of the world. The Silk Road was a peaceful connector, a trade-driven connector. Regions did not have to be conquered by outsiders anymore in order to learn about innovations in other cultures. Camel caravans brought news and technology and inventions to these remote areas, and the world got a bit smaller.
In the 6th century AD, Western Turks galloped into the region from the vast steppes and brought Islam with them. They also brought a written alphabet. This changed everything.
Uzbekistan is one of the crossroads of the world. Everybody passed through here in those days, avoiding the Himalayas, avoiding the deserts, following the great rivers. Oases and towns sprung up, people became rich, civilization flourished. The Turks moved on, and the Persians took over again.
City-states were passed from leader to leader over the centuries. For example: Tashkent: in the 1st century AD, it was y our basic oasis settlement. And then Persian armies, Mongol hordes, and Turkic khans swapped it back and forth through the medieval centuries. One despot would subside, leaving room for another. By the middle ages, Tashkent, Samarqand and Bukhara were not just desert oases. They were centers of learning and culture. They were the Prague of the 12th century. This was valuable real estate.
Genghis Khan comes along in the 13th century and sacks the entire region. Every oasis was destroyed. I'm not sure what exactly his point was ... I'd have to look into it further. Genghis didn't seem to be a typical conqueror as in: I will come in, kick you all out or enslave you, and take over all your buildings. He was more like: I will come in, kill everybody, and burn all of your cities to the ground. Then I will decapitate the intelligentsia and I will put their heads on stakes outside of your libraries, and I will smash all of your mirrors. And then he would ride on to the next oasis. Not sure what that accomplished. But that was his deal. Ha ha ... such an oversimplification! I don't even really know what I'm talking about, but all I DO know is that the history books describing the 13th century in this area are peppered with the following sentences: "And they flourished until Genghis Khan." "And then Genghis Khan sacked the city." "All was well until the terror of Genghis Khan came from the north." Who knows. He was a destroyer, not a builder. The same is true, and more so, for Tamerlane.
An explanatory quote about Mr. Khan: (It's very interesting, I think. Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes)
The Mongols were illiterate, religiously shamanistic and sparsely populated, perhaps no more than around 700,000 in number, living in good-sized felt tents. They were herdsmen around an area called Karakorum. They had been moving across great distances on the grassy plains -- steppe lands -- north and east of China, frequently fighting wars over turf. Before 1200 they had been fragmented ... In the late 1100s and early 1200s a Mongol military leader named Temüjin was creating a confederation of tribes, Mongol and non-Mongol but which would be called Mongol. He was a good manager, collecting under him people of talent. And, when necessary, he warred ... In 1206, at the age of 42, Temüjin took the title Universal Ruler, which translates to Genghis Khan.
Like others, Genghis Khan's subjects saw themselves at the center of the universe and the greatest of people -- favored, of course, by the gods. And they justified Genghis Khan's conquests in previous years by claiming that he was the rightful master not only over the "peoples of the felt tent" but the entire world.
More on Genghis Khan right here. It's mind-boggling, how much territory he conquered, on horseback. Genghis Khan described himself as "the punishment of God".
And then there was Tamerlane (or Timur). Tamerlane was a Muslim and has routinely been chosen as one of the most ruthless warriors of the millennium. (At least, Time Magazine voted him so in 2000.)
Tamerlane was a brutal warrior, the terror of the land, but he also loved and appreciated art and architecture ... So when he would capture a town, he would enslave the best artists in that town, capture them, spare them from execution, and drag them to Samarqand (the oasis he chose as his capital). He then made these prisoners of war build him the perfect city. A very contradictory mix, that Tamerlane. Samarqand became one of the most famous Islamic cities in the world while Tamerlane was around.
Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) was Tamerlane's grandson, and he took over when his grandfather died. He wasn't a ruthless murderer like his grandfather. Ulugh Beg was an astronomer, and also a great patron of scientists and astronomers. He built observatories. He was certainly the most important observational astronomer of the 15th century. He was one of the first to advocate and build permanently mounted astronomical instruments. His catalogue of 1018 stars (some sources count 1022) was the only such undertaking carried out between the times of Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 170 A.D.) and Tycho Brahe (ca. 1600). Blows the mind. Ulugh Beg only ruled for two years, because he was assassinated, but in that time, he was able to supervise the building of astronomical observatories, the ruins of which still stand. Fascinating man. There are madrassahs in Uzbekistan named after him today. He is one of their cultural heroes.
The history of the oases of Uzbekistan tells the story of the whole area. Here's Samarqand. I'll do Bukhara tomorrow.
Samarqand is one of those cities which has never NOT been inhabited, since its inception, two thousand years ago.
In the 6th century B.C., ancient Samarqand was called Maraconda. It was the capital of the Sogdians (who were, basically, Iranians ... the forefathers of Iranians, anyway.)
In the 4th century (329 B.C.), Samarqand was captured by Alexander the Great, during his push east. The Sogdians outlasted Alexander's rule, however. (Those resourceful Iranians ... they just cannot be completely conquered!)
In the 2nd century B.C., Samarqand was made into an essential junction point of the Silk Road by China. Chinese merchants chose it because of its location, and its nearness to a river, a perfect combination. Samarqand flourished. Became a very wealthy and cosmopolitan medieval city throughout the centuries that followed.
In 712 A.D., Samarqand (Maraconda) was conquered by the Arabs.
In the 13th century A.D., Samarqand was, you guessed it, sacked by Genghis Khan. The entire city was wrecked. And then built back up.
In the 14th century A.D., Samarqand was chosen as Tamerlane's capital, which made it famous. Samarqand became Tamerlane's showpiece, his pride and joy. It was a mud city, but underneath Tamerlane, the place bloomed. Artists and architects from Persia were captured and brought here to build it up, silk weavers from Syria brought here, jewellers from India. It once was a mud city, but under Tamerlane the place exploded: tiled mosques, minarets, towers.
From 1407 - 1449, Samarqand was ruled by Ulugh Beg (Tamerlane's grandson).
In the 14th century, the Mongol tribes who called themselves "Uzbek" began moving south, and they eventually conquered all of Tamerlane's empire. By 1510, they controlled everything in the area (and the descendents still control that very same area today, the area known as modern-day Uzbekistan).
I'll close today with Ryzsard Kapuscinski's discussion of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Tamerlane:
Bukhara is brownish; it is the color of clay baked in the sun. Samarqand is intensely blue; it is the color of sky and water.
Bukhara is commercial, noisy, concrete, and material: it is a city of merchandise and marketplaces; it is an enormous warehouse, a desert port, Asia's belly. Samarqand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned toward the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarqand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern.
H. Papworth, in his book The Legend of Timur, questions whether the miracle that is Samarqand is in fact the work of Timur, also known as Tamerlane. There is something incomprehensible -- he writes -- in the notion that this city, which with all its beauty and composition directs man's thoughts toward mysticism and contemplation, was created by such a cruel demon, marauder, and despot as was Timur,
But there is no denying the fact that the basis of Samarqand's fame was born at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries and hence during Timur's reign. Timur is an astonishing historical phenomenon. His name aroused terror for decades. He was a great ruler who kept Asia under his heel, but his might did not stop him from concerning himself with details. His armies were famed for their cruelty. Wherever Timur appeared, writes the Arab historian Zaid Vosifi, "blood poured from people as from vessels," and "the sky was the color of a field of tulips". Timur himself would stand at the head of each and every expedition, overseeing everything himself. Those whom he conquered he ordered beheaded. He ordered towers built from their skulls, and walls and roads. He supervised the progress of the work himself. He ordered the stomachs of merchants ripped open and searched for gold. He himself supervised the process to ensure they were being searched diligently. He ordered his adversaries and opponents poisoned. He prepared the potions himself.
He carried the standard of death, and this mission absorbed him for half the day.
During the second half of the day, art absorbed him. Timur devoted himself to the dissemination of art with the same zeal he sustained for the spread of death. In Timur's consciousness, an extremely narrow line separated art and death, and it is precisely this fact that Papworth cannot comprehend. It is true that Timur killed. But it is also true that he did not kill all. He spared people with creative qualifications. In Timur's Imperium, the best sanctuary was talent.
Timur drew talent to Samarqand; he courted every artist. He did not allow anyone who carried within him the divine spark to be touched. Artists bloomed and Samarqand bloomed. The city was his pride. On one of its gates Timur ordered inscribed the sentence: IF YOU DOUBT OUR MIGHT -- LOOK AT OUR BUILDINGS! and that sentence has outlived Timur by many centuries. Today Samarqand still stuns us with its peerless beauty, its excellence of form, its artistic genius. Timur supervised each construction himself. That which was unsuccessful he ordered removed, and his taste was excellent. He deliberated about the various alternatives in ornamentation; he judged the delicacy of design, the purity of line. And then he threw himself again into the whirl of a new military expedition, into carnage, into blood, into flames, into cries.
Papworth does not understand that Timur was playing a game that few people have the means to play. Timur was sounding the limits of man's possibilities. Timur demonstrated that which Dostoyevsky later described -- that man is capable of everything. One can define Timur's creation through a sentence of Saint-Exupery's: "That which I have done no animal would ever do." Both the good and the bad. Timur's scissors had two blades -- the blade of creation and the blade of destruction. These two blades define the limits of every man's activity. Ordinarily, though, the scissors are barely open. Sometimes they are open a little more. In Timur's case they were open as far as they could go.
Erkin showed me Timur's grave in Samarqand, made of green nephrite. Before the entrance to the mausoleum there is an inscription, whose author is Timur: HAPPY IS HE WHO RENOUNCED THE WORLD BEFORE THE WORLD RENOUNCED HIM.
He died at the age of 69, in 1405, during an expedition to China.
I must go and see Samarqand one day. I really must.
Next: Bukhara, Part I
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2/18/2003 03:42:00 PM
Tuesday, February 18, 2003
This poem has always haunted me. Now more than ever.
September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
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2/18/2003 12:26:00 PM
Today is my parents 36th wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary!! And of course, they dated for something like 8 years before they actually tied the knot.
Who are my parents to me? They are my dear friends, my greatest supporters ... they are my spirit warriors. They make me laugh. They are interesting people to talk to. They are funny. They would do anything for me, or any of my other siblings.
I am truly blessed.
So happy anniversary, Mum and Dad. You guys rock.
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2/18/2003 11:52:00 AM
CLASH OF THE TITANS
I pulled this essay off of the indispensable Arts & Letters website, one of my daily pitstops. Michael Billington discusses the importance of Ibsen and Strindberg, breaking down how revolutionary these two playwrights actually were (sometimes we forget!), and how relevant they continue to be. I love what he has to say, and how he says it:
Although by taste and temperament I prefer Ibsen, he seems the harder figure to grasp. That may be partly because of a fatal 1891 photograph that shows a quasi-biblical patriarch glaring out at us from behind mutton-chop whiskers. But it is also partly because of a caricature idea of the plays all too accurately summed up by Tyrone Guthrie in A Life in the Theatre: "High thinking takes place in a world of dark-crimson serge tablecloths with chenille hobbles, black horsehair sofas, wall brackets and huge intellectual women in raincoats and rubbers."
But that image reflects bad, old Ibsen stagings; today a whole host of directors have freed us from the tyranny of furniture and shown us that Ibsen can be spare, ironic, witty and sexy. What also perennially strikes me about Ibsen is his raging modernity. As long as human beings - and not just women - are trapped by an imprisoning domesticity, A Doll's House will arouse shivers of recognition. His rarely seen play Pillars of Society demonstrates the dangers of sacrificing public safety to private profit. And watching Tony Blair dismissing his critics on Newsnight recently, I was reminded of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and his unshakable belief that "the minority is always right".
Ibsen is still our contemporary.
Oh yes. I completely agree.
My parents took us to see Doll's House at The Abbey Theater in Dublin when we were kids. I was 14 years old at the time, and it made such an impression on me that I still remember elements of the staging, I remember the blocking ... I remember Nora's desperate tarantella (oh, what a scene!), and where everybody was standing as she danced about like a mad woman. It was phenomenal. It lived, and it breathed.
Unfortunately, my father (or was it my mother?) mixed up Doll's House with Hedda Gabler, and had warned us before going into the play that the heroine shoots herself at the end ... just to prepare us for the shock. We were, after all, just kids. But of course, Nora does NOT shoot herself at the end of Doll's House. She says goodbye to her husband and walks out the door, leaving her life and her children behind. And that is the end of the play. But until the damn curtain fell, we all sat there, terrified, wincing, waiting for the sound of shots. A rather baffling experience.
As we applauded their curtain calls, we all murmured to one another:
"So ... did she kill herself?"
"Where were the shots?"
"Wait a minute ... she lived?"
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2/18/2003 11:44:00 AM
Getting to work today was an Outward Bound project. Staggering through the drifts, grasping onto sign posts to heave myself up and over, following in the footprints of those who went before me ...
It is insane. I LOVE IT.
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2/18/2003 11:31:00 AM
WHO'S NOT FOR PEACE?
I found the following column on The Daily Dish and thought I'd post it here. It is tough stuff, and the attitudes expressed certainly don't make you any friends right now, but it is how I feel too, and I am not backing down. I got an exhilarated phone message from a friend of mine telling me he was at the "march", and he wished I had been there. You would have had to pay me to be at that march. And I find, in some people, that there is an assumption that I will agree with them, just because I am an actress, a writer, a single woman, whatever. I am all of those things, but I also will not "march for peace". Not because I am not for peace, Jesus Christ, of course I am! But just screaming "No to War" without understanding that human beings are always on the brink of crisis, that peace has to be managed and guarded ... is stupid and ahistorical ... Sometimes peace must be fought for.
Pollard says it better than me, and he's British, so he has more authority. The column is called "My Address Book is the first Casualty of War".
Almost alone among my friends, I did not go on The March. My absence was not due to ambivalence, but because I considered the march to be contemptible. I think the marchers are not only wrong but dangerously, wilfully, shamefully wrong ...
I have tried to point out that saying you are in favour of “peace” is meaningless. Which sane person is not? The question is: peace on whose, and what, terms? If it is peace on the terms of brutal dictators, secured by allowing them to build up whatever weapons arsenals they wish, then that is not peace. It is suicide.
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2/18/2003 11:22:00 AM
The book I am reading now is Robert Kaplan's latest, Warrior Politics. I just started it yesterday, so I can't really speak to it yet, but the following paragraphs are in the preface and they are definitely worth thinking about. Especially with the world crisis being what it is right now, and with IDIOTS (I saw them on the subway) holding anti-war signs ... and what do the anti-war signs say? What is their way of expressing their anger at what is happening? By making signs that say "DRAFT THE BUSH TWINS". THAT is the best they can come up with. Every other person on the train had a Draft the Bush Twins sign. This is the level of dialogue. These are the same people who keep screaming about how dissent and dialogue are not being allowed in this country. Well, if THAT'S what you want to debate about, then, no, I am not interested in opening up any kind of dialogue with you. I would rather talk with someone who disagrees with me, but who actually has a POINT.
Okay, so here is the paragraph I want to share. Very interesting....
Americans can afford optimism partly because their institutions, including the Constitution, were conceived by men who thought tragically. Before the first president was sworn in, the rules of impeachment were established. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that men are so far beyond redemption that the only solution is to set ambition against ambition, and interest against interest: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." Our separation of powers is based on that grim view of human behavior. The French Revolution, conversely, began with boundless faith in the good sense of the masses -- and in the capacity of intellectuals to engineer good results -- and ended with the guillotine.
Our Founders were constructive pessimists to the degree that they worried constantly about what might go wrong in human relations. Just as it is the writer's job to inspire, it can also be his job to disturb -- to say what his intended audience would rather not hear. Foreign policy, too, is often conceived in the light of worst-case scenarios. Thus, my pessimism and my skepticism may be germane. For the trials of statesmen in the new century will arise not from the many things that will go right in international relations, and which humanists will duly celebrate, but from the darker issues of this time.
Sirens have been wailing all morning. I cannot see out my windows because of the snow packed up against us. I will venture into the city. Join the planet again.
I wept for my city yesterday ... I wept for what has occurred, but I also stood by that iron cross and thanked God that I lived here and, in a very weird way, thanked God that I was actually here on that dreadful day. I live here. My friends who were out of town on that day were crushed ... that this THING would occur in their home, and that they would not be there.
So. It was terrible. But it certainly was important for me to go. To look at those empty acres, and to let go of what once was. Let it go. They're gone. Those buildings are gone.
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2/17/2003 01:35:00 PM
Monday, February 17, 2003
A blizzard screams at my window. People are walking down the center of the street. I have two dear friends,Shelagh and Brad, in from out of town. It has been so wonderful seeing them. It has been too long.
Yesterday was very intense. Shelagh, Brad and I went down to Ground Zero. I have never been. Why would I want to go see a big devastating hole in the ground? I watched those towers fall with my own eyes. It's awful. It's a morgue. But now I am so glad I went.
We got out at the Chambers Street station; as we approached, I could feel the difference in the air. We were moving towards something important, something awful. As we climbed the steps up to the street, we could see, at the top, the black wrought-iron gates outside St. Paul's, the church where George Washington used to pray, the church that miraculously survived intact. The gates are covered with notes, Tshirts, flags, flowers. We stood in front of the gate, there were crowds all around,and we read the notes. From all over the world.
Shelagh, who had lived in New York for many years, started to weep. And suddenly I felt the event on a whole other level. IIt was out of my head, and in my senses. I have numbed myself. New Yorkers move on. Every single day we deal with that hole in the skyline. But ... to see it ... to see it again ... It was terrible. I was feeling what had happened in my heart, in my gut, my eyes filling up with tears. I took Shelagh's arm, and held on. She cried.
We crossed the street, to where the huge hole is. The 16 acre hole. People were there taking pictures, staring through the gate. It is shocking. Shocking. To see it. There was a man there, yelling out facts about the WTC. "This isn't a tourist site, folks ... this is history! Know your facts, know your facts."
There was the iron cross, the famous iron cross, which was discovered intact, in the middle of the rubble.
It was a jitteringly cold day. I don't even know how to talk about yet what I felt, staring in there. I felt pride. Pride at how quickly that pile of rubble was taken care of. Unbelievable. The teamwork, the relentless attention ... those men and women got the job done. All of the naysayers said right after it happened, "It is going to take years to clean up the mess..." And look. It was done in less than a year. I am very very proud of that. Proud that America is so filled with people who get the damn job done, who do what needs to be done. But still. The entire thing was so awful. I was just remembering the horror of that day.
Also remembering: I took a class every Monday night in 1 World Trade Center. Those buildings were not abstract to me. They were not "a symbol of American wealth and power", they were not "a symbol of US capitalism". They were buildings, where I went for a class, they were buildings with a shopping mall, there was a PATH station in the belly of the building where I would commute ... they weren't symbols of anything. I was there every single week, I knew the security guards by name, I had drinks at the Marriott after class ... I hung out in the courtyards, I walked through the atrium (which has survived ... halleluia) to catch the ferry back to Jersey. I knew my way around.
So ... I was trying to picture where everything used to be. And it was terrible, but it was so hard ... I couldn't get my bearings. I couldn't remember where things used to be, where things were placed in that giant void.
There is grief in my heart. Grief. And also RAGE. I look at that big empty hole in lower Manhattan and here is what I feel: Think of how we COULD have retaliated. Think of what we are actually capable of. I feel that America was incredibly MILD in its response, compared to what we could have done. We could have dropped a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan. It is in our capability to do so. And we did NOT. We collaborated with the Northern Alliance, we fought a war there at the same time we were dropping down food onto them … And for me, being confronted, once again, with what the hell was done to us, I am amazed. I am amazed. I am amazed at what we did NOT do. Especially when confronted with Ground Zero.
We have held back, actually. And anyone who doubts me, go the hell down to Ground Zero and look at that site with your own damn eyes, and remember the 3,000 plus people who died that day. Innocent civilians.
I'm still in a screw the world mood ... and it was only reinforced by looking at the giant morgue in lower Manhattan. You think we're a big imperialist giant? We were savagely attacked, and we have BARELY fought back yet. We are not going for revenge ... if we were going for revenge we would have turned Afghanistan into a parking lot, and buried everybody there.
It was a terrible thing. A beautiful thing to see it, actually, but terrible. Terrible. We all shed many tears.
Then we went to go see "Chicago", and tried to forget it all.
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2/17/2003 01:15:00 PM