Saturday, February 26, 2011

the bolage story

Precious daughter sent me a link to a vampiric-looking guy who foreclosed on Wells Fargo. You may well have seen it. Her comment, however was that he reminded her of folks who used to stay at the house in the late '90s. Which reminded me of Bolage. But first, those vampiric folk who spent so much time in the house.

Actually, it was Vlad Tepes who'd come to stay. But I think I've already written about his visits. Ah, the good old days. But then the Hungarians started coming as well.

Gabor was the more outgoing one. The healer, the shape-shifter. Attila was the quiet introvert. The astrophysicist. He gave a marvelous paper for us at the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness at UC Berkeley that year. I think it was 1997. His paper outlined the parameters of sentience, and by those markers demonstrated how the sun met the requirements for sentience. It made quite a splash. Don't know if he ever published the paper. He didn't publish it in our AOC journal.

What I didn't know, until Jello came over, was that he was also a well known punk singer/musician and that his father was the head of the shamanic church in Hungary. Thus he was also a shamanic practitioner and used shamanic entrainment in his music, which was quite literally out of this world.

But this story isn't about Attila. Or Jello. Or Gabor, really. It's about Bolage.

Gabor and I arranged for my student S to go apprentice with him in Budapest — after he graduated. Although Gabor was anxious to get the help right away. Graduation was only a two months away, so when summer came, off S went promising to return every few months to be sure he didn't get caught by any weirdness. We weren't sure what the weirdness might be, but see — see how careful we were?

About a year or so after this arrangement (which seemed to work out quite well), S sent me a birthday present. He was always such a good boy, knowing exactly what I wanted. Knowing exactly what I needed.

He sent me Bolage.

A carpenter.

For my birthday.

My house was a wreck. Fixer-upper. A carpenter was such a wonderful gift!

Apparently the idea was that Bolage would live in our house with free room and board, and do carpentry around the house. He spoke only one word of English when he arrived.

"Why?" he would say.

Gargoyle cornices in the doorways?

"Why?" he would reply, but he'd put them up for me.

Crown molding?


He was the master of why. And with his limited English, I couldn't explain restoration to him. Restoration of a ruined Edwardian. Restoration of a house stripped of all its former yummy features.

Slowly, as he learned English, I discovered his motivation for coming to America. He was out to find himself a rich American woman, marry her and move to America. He also wanted to work on Porsches and race cars.

"Why?" I asked.

Eventually, he told me that he was already married and had two kids he left at home. He'd given his business partner the authority to give a subsistence amount to his wife and kids each month. He left his partner in charge of everything.

In San Francisco, he discovered Castro Street, gyms, and protein supplements. He spent a lot of time working out, and complaining about not finding the wife. Eventually, he asked me to find one for him — a nice Christian woman.

"I don't know any nice Christian women," I replied.

"Any woman is okay then," he said. "I make her a Christian."

Bolage began spending a lot of time in the basement. When the second month's phone bill came in I discovered he was on the phone to Hungary for hours at a time. And in those days, landlines, no cell phones. It was a bloody fortune.

My kids and I were impatiently waiting for Bolage to be on his way. He had stopped doing carpentry after about a week. He was still looking to make his fortune. He discovered that he really liked Castro Street, and the gyms. And he discovered too that he wasn't attracting that American wife. I had gotten him a job working on Porsches, but he managed to get fired after a week for demanding more pay than Mexicans because he was a European.

"Why?" his boss asked him. "They speak better English and do better work than you." Bolage didn't understand this at all.

There was something about America — especially San Francisco — that Bolage just didn't get. And when he finally figured out the Castro, he had a breakdown. His world was crumbling — aided by those phone calls from the basement apparently.

Back home, his wife had run off with his business partner and taken the kids with her.

"She's ruined!" he complained. "Dirty. Soiled!" He had learned a lot of English by then.

He cried a lot at that point. He felt terribly betrayed. How could she do this to him?

Suddenly Bolage had to get home, and fast. He bought up as many blue jeans and Goodwill clothes as he could to sell back home, and he flew off to salvage his old life. He confessed that he had failed in absolutely every aspiration he had had. And that he had discovered that America was filled with degenerates, Mexicans, Jews, and homosexuals — and no Christian women at all. His life was in ruins.

When the next phone bill came, it far outstripped my entire monthly salary. I borrowed some money to make sure our phone wouldn't be cut off. When S returned home again, he covered the entire enormous amount.

"How can you do that?" I asked, overwhelmed.

"When he got back, we put Bolage to work and garnered his wages," he said. "Until he earned enough to cover the bill."

I have no clue what happened to the buff little carpenter. But what I hope is that he went back to church.

"Why?" you ask?

I'm hoping that some good solid prayer and soul-searching made him rethink his world view, his bigotry and his sexuality. I'm hoping that he'll ask himself some really big whys?

I'm not sure any of this is my business at all — but it all played out in our little house, and I know, at least, what I learned from it.

My birthday's right around the corner.

Please, no carpenters.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

too bad you don't like opera, she said

It came out of the blue. People say that, right? It came out of the blue.

A phrase I never expected to hear, let alone to say. But — it came out of the blue, and now I have to examine it.

"Too bad you don't like opera," she said.


"You don't yell. You don't scream. You don't do opera!" she chided me.

It's always bothered her that I practice equanimity, or try to, especially in my interactions with her. I've learned that frequently her goal is to get me to cry. Yes, even now. But recently I learned, her goal is to get me to scream. I think she wants me to scream back.

My ex-husband called me after we split up and he had achieved shikse-goddess possession. Finally. Thank god. It was exactly what he needed at that point.

"She yells!" he told me.

"What?" I was horrified.

"She yells," he repeated. We both were stunned by it.

"She yells, and then she's done. And it's all gone."

It was shocking.

So that's what my mother meant when she said I don't do opera. Because of course, I do do opera. Ever since I was a kid I've done opera. I was obsessed with one particular opera. And when I really was feeling down and low, I would put it on the record player in the living room, open the libretto, and follow along in Italian on the left and English on the right, and just wail. It still moves me to tears.

Il Trovatore.

Io fremo. I tremble.

Il Trovatore entered my non-existent soul and pierced my barricaded heart in a way I can't explain. I liked other operas of course, how could I not? But this one is at this point in my sabbatical from all things music (save obligatory listening for our Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony project), this one still brings me to tears.

Maybe she's right. Maybe I don't like opera. D and I looked at each other and walked out of Carmen a couple years ago. We hadn't bonded like that in a long time. But the reviewers had agreed with us. It was crap.

So. What is it about Il Trovatore that gets to me. I mean apart from the gypsy camp that has me drooling to enter and yearning to — well, not to be the gypsies, but maybe to be there with my pen and notebook taking notes. An anthropological dream come true. But is that it? The aesthetic? Or the incredible driving music, rough and rhythmic and unsentimental. These days I use the remote to skip through all the mushy lyrical parts — no mush for me. But I could play the Anvil Chorus all day long without any problem. I mean, you know they're using real anvils when they play it, right? And then, and then...

La zingarelllllllla. She enters. The old gypsy hag. And she tells her terrible tale. And she calls for revenge. And the camp has enough solidarity, and she enough standing, that they support her. But of course, goddamn, she can take care of the job herself. By the end, she's taken her revenge — and she feels not a drop of remorse for her actions. Redemption! Vengeance! Right. It's opera. And I was raised with opera.

"Too bad you don't like opera," she accused.

And since she's always right, and since I'm always reasonable, I tried to examine her statement.

OK. There's a love story. The aristocratic Leonora (right — my precious daughter's middle name) has fallen in love with the gypsy troubador. Boring! And her betrothed, the equally aristocratic diLuna wants to keep her under control. Who cares? Just sappy operatic stuff, right?

But Azucena, the old gypsy woman wants revenge for her mother being burned as a witch. And her revenge starts by stealing the infant son of the Count and raising him as her own. And purporting to love him. And raising him up to seal her revenge so that when he is a man he is murdered by his own brother, his rival for the love of Leonora.

So what do we have? A mother who steals a child and raises him not out of love but to wreak her vengeance upon him. Twenty plus years of binding him in obligation to her. He loves her. She despises him. What kind of a mother would do that to a child? Even a child not her own? Raise him up to slaughter him at the right moment.

(hm. It's not unlike what God does to Abraham by giving him a son, and then asking him to sacrifice him on a fiery altar. But God then says, sorry, just kidding, you're a good guy, so keep him and use this ram instead...)

What gets me about Il Trovatore (apart from the force of the music) is the horror that parents can perpetrate on their children. And you listen, and you listen, and it never comes out any other way. And it never will.

It's opera.

In which injustice reigns supreme. In which there are no happy endings. In which 'training' a woman who speaks her own mind to be an obedient and submissive wife is the best you can get to a happy ending.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. ...

Dylan Thomas expresses well my mother's philosophy of both opera and life. She wants me to rage, as she herself rages.

"It moves energy," she explains wisely.

But this is me, calm waters. When I say that my tears are falling I mean that my eyes just might be a little damp. Were I to rage, it means that I wonder at the tremble that my limbs have conjured up. I cling to my composure like a man thrown overboard clings to floating flotsam. Even-handed, and if not that — then run. Run fast, run far!

So maybe the wise old woman was right. Maybe she understated it, being kind. Maybe I despise opera.

But I don't agree that it's too bad.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

reasons for staying alive

We were signing papers. Getting them notarized. It was a jocular moment. I was trying hard to keep it that way. I was giving him complete authority to take over my affairs should my brain start to melt and/or body start to fry its circuits. For that time, in other words, when we cease to be able to make rational decisions that matter.

We finished all the paperwork and were leaving the little FedEx/Notary shop on Fillmore Street. Done. Good. Check that off the list. I get so proud of myself for taking care of stuff. Any stuff. And this was a big chunk of stuff. Since my dad's death I'd been fairly frantic to make sure everything-would-be-in-order when my own time starts playing itself out. OCD? Perhaps. Just being responsible? Somewhere inbetween? Dunno.

We were leaving the shop.

"Wait a minute," he said. "Does this mean that if you die, I'd have to take care of your mother?"

I could see the panic rising.

I looked at him. It hadn't even crossed my mind until he uttered those words. So I added this to my list of reasons for staying alive: keep that panic and horror out of other people's eyes. Poor reason, I hear you say, but it got added to the list nevertheless.

And I've been brooding about it ever since. That responsibility to stay alive and keep myself absolutely safe — so that she will be safe as well.

"It's raining," she'll say. "Don't go out. You will slip. You could fall."

"It's going to rain," she'll say. "don't go to work!" Real panic in her voice. It's more than maternal concern.

"You've got a cold..."

"You might get a cold..."

"Have Rh walk the dog for you. Don't go out on those cliffs!"

"Tell T to make you soup. Lots of lemon."

"You must take a spoon full of honey before you go to bed."

"You are not to go to work today."

I don't remember any of this stuff from when I was a kid. Maybe because she would just make the soup, or just stick a spoonful of honey in my mouth, or just order me to not go out. All very hard to do to a grownup who lives across the bridge and is known for having a mind of her own. A woman you can't trust will follow any of your orders. I mean, wow! What if I'd taken every day off from work that she insisted upon? I'd probably be out of a job right now, right? But safe? Healthier? I've never bought it.

The panic in her voice is only in the past year or so. The year of slow recovery from a massive brain injury. The year of suddenly slipping into ever increasing dependence after a lifetime of authoritative fatwas. But now there's pleading in her voice.

Even when I had babes in arms I didn't feel quite this essential to the functioning of another human being. Even nursing babies. It just felt like we were one organism — one organism in love with ourselves. Quite literally feeding off each other's essences. Babes in arms don't feel like separate entities requiring caregiving. No. There was no separation at all. We functioned as a single unit. Weirdly, even with my kids grown and living in Brooklyn, it still feels like that. They know what to do. They know what I would want for them. They are of the body. I know they know how to survive.

Why don't I feel that way about my mother?

I watch her slip away. I watch her try to reclaim herself. I watch her awe that I'm there for her.

The fact is, she'd probably be just fine without me, just as my kids are just fine a phone call away. Someone would step in. Someone would take charge.

Oh. And that would be him. And thus, his panic. He is by far one of the two most decent people I have ever known in my life. He would do it. Take over. Get her settled in a viable —sustainable, even— abode, where everything would be taken care of. Still. It's a lot of pressure. It's another reason for staying alive.

This isn't a personal statement. This is a generational one. As we ourselves begin to drop dead, those of us who live are charged with caring for our own aging and declining parents. My own concerns are echoed by almost every friend and colleague I have and know. Each tale is unique in its permutation, in its own particular form of suffering. Our elders are suffering. They don't know how to do this.

The pundits are all wrong about our generation. They don't have as much to worry about our survival as they think. We'll be gone in the flash of a flash. But in the meantime, we are the ones taking care of our own aging parents. And we're a large enough cohort to learn from each others' experience. If we're good at anything, it's creative thinking. We'll probably do our own demise the way we did our own rise in the '60s — filled with shifts in consciousness, filled with new ways to make it work (without a lot of cost). Maybe we'll choose fewer interventions. Or more ways to serve. Fewer golf course mentalities. And more of us working until we can't.

Reasons for staying alive: we're pretty good at figuring stuff out... and we find it kind of fun. But hold on, I'll get back to you. The soup is almost done...

Monday, February 14, 2011

time-slipping through paradise

Woke up with a jolt — and finally knew what to call it.


It's happened now four or five times over the past couple decades. I don't remember it happening before then. I think it started after I got hit by the 18-wheeler. I know the visions started right then, 'cause that was the first time I started hearing voices.

My sensei, Jack Wada's voice, to be specific. His was the first to come through. I was covered with broken glass from the driver's side window where the 18-wheeler had slid itself into me, spraying me with shattered shatterproof glass. I looked like the ice queen covered in square little shards — some of which were imbedded into the left side of my face. They were kind enough to not hit my eye or the optic nerve as they shot into a crescent from above the eye across the zygomatic. Lucky me. I mean that. Lucky me. My Volvo — yes, my Volvo gave it's life for me — my Volvo crumpled itself completely around me like a metal cocoon. Everything was in slow motion. And then I heard his voice:

"When you are attacked," he said, "remember to get your breathing together."

Reasonable, I thought, as I shifted into circular breathing.

I was trapped in my cocoon. The truck driver was trying to get the right side of my car open. Cops were there. Fire truck. Safe little cocoon... quiet and peaceful and safe. Somebody used a crowbar, I think.

"And don't forget your keys," my ever-practical Sensei reminded me, "you're gonna need them."

That was the first time I heard voices.

After that it was voice and visions together. After that it was a lot more frequent. After that — time-slipping.

We were at Pasand's in Berkeley, when it was still okay to go to Pasand's. It was during the 1995 conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness at the UCB Faculty Club. We were taking a break. I was with four of my former students who were helping out at the conference. I hope I bought them lunch, but who remembers, given what happened...

Group visions! What could be more validating than that? External verification of such a non-ordinary event.

Howard left the table, so he wasn't there.

Sean says he could hear laughter from far away. He couldn't hear us speaking, couldn't tell what we were saying. Had no idea where we — the three women at the table — were. I always attributed the event to the Indian food. It was hotter than usual that day. Probably Howard's doing. When suddenly — we weren't at Pasand's at all.

The wind was blowing hard. The Acropolis was vibrant and whole. It was pretty crowded — but not with tourists. There were politicians in togas. We were in simple long white togas as well — like the maidens of Caryatids— but alive. Not supporting buildings, but standing around just chatting at the Erechtheion. Flesh and blood. Having a laugh.

"Are you really here?" I remember saying. "Are we really here?" Moron. Questioning a vision. But I was questioning. Anthropologist, remember? But I wasn't taking notes.

So, okay. That was 16 years ago.

This weekend we went to Tribal Arts and Textiles at Fort Mason, and I asked her.

"Remember that time in Pasand's?"

"Yes," she answered, hesitantly.

"What did you see?"

We'd been through this before. But it'd been years.

And, yah. External verification. Again. We were all at the Erechtheion together. We were all having a laugh over it. And the guys weren't there. So it couldn't have been the food, right?


And it can happen anywhere. Anytime. Office hours! Now that one was embarrassing. Well, I was embarrassed, anyway. This student used to come in every single day, and complain about his lot in life, student loans, working as a cashier, not graduating. Bla bla bla. Every single day I had office hours. And then—

He was Etruscan. And it's ancient Tuscany outside. Mostly orchards, where we were. During Office Hours.

How embarrassing.

And I said it. Out loud. By accident. Which made it worse.


"Well, yah," he answered. "So you can finally see me?"

He told me that he had also studied with Bruno. But that was later. Giordano Bruno, the astronomer. That's what he studied — astronomy — and his complaint was that he couldn't find a program in ancient astronomy. He was very very pleased, and not depressed that day.


Since then, I've gone all the way back, as far as you can go. To the birth of all things. And I've spent time with Samurai on the battlefield, and you know, this and that. Held long conversations with Vlad, and done his bidding. I've sat on the desert and watched the desert flowers bloom and fade and bloom again. Again, with friends surrounding me. We've been the gods... We've watched the gods... I guess that's what they're called.

"Do you talk to God?" A student once asked me in class. It was a team-taught class.

"I didn't put him up to it," my colleague chuckled, when I turned to him.

What do you say to that? Do you tell him the truth? Do you teach this stuff at school? Time-slipping. Time-slipping through paradise.

"We have a class on that," I said. "It's not this one."

Chicken shit. What a terrible teacher I am. I just left it at that.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

tabouna — Tunisian style (and that's the problem)

In the countryside of Tunisia women make خبز الطبونة (khubz tabouna) on a daily basis. Which I may well have spelled wrong, because my Lang Arabic Lexicon seems to have omitted it — and besides, it's in idiomatic fellahi dialect. Generally not written at all.

And that was the problem, of course.

So. For about five hours a day, country women are mixing and kneading, letting rise and slapping down, and forming nice flat, round loaves of durum wheat bread about the size of the American dinner plate. They make about 15 loaves a day — a major enterprise, as far as I'm concerned.

The tabouna is outside, usually just past the women's courtyard. It's about four feet tall and at its base, around three feet wide, narrowing toward the top. The oven is made of baked earth, what we would call adobe here. It's blackened rim and interior attest to the multitude of loaves these ovens have had slapped onto their sides for baking. Yeah, the bread does not lie flat in the oven. Instead, it is sprinkled with cold water and bakes vertically — turned periodically — on the sides of the interior. The tabouna has first been filled with stones and kindling, and when the fire simmers down, it is the heat of the stones that bake the bread. Fifteen loaves take a long time. Every day.

And that's one of my favorite things in the countryside — the taste of freshly baked khubz tabouna.

So. I was thinking about this with great nostalgia and longing, on a flight from Paris to Casablanca, and upon arrival. I was with a belly dancer friend, and some friends of hers (male) were picking us up at the airport.

We get in the car. Both of us sitting in the back seat, of course. The guys are in the front. And I say in Arabic, just to make conversation, and because it really was true,

"I can't wait to get into the countryside and eat some khubz tabouna."

The car screeches, narrowly missing a camionette on the road. There are no lanes, or at least any lanes that anyone pays attention to. I hate driving around Casa. I just don't get it. But Moroccans navigate really well through it all, so what just happened?

The driver pulls over, and the two guys turn around and they're glaring at me.

"What did you say?" the driver asks in French.

So I repeat myself in Arabic.

They look at each other. They look back at me. They really heard right.

"You can't say that here," his front seat passenger says. I didn't remember their names yet.

"Eh?" I say in French.

"C'est interdit!" the driver says — it's forbidden.

I'm very very confused. My belly dancer friend is not really paying attention to any of this. She doesn't speak French, and she doesn't speak Arabic. But well wow, can she dance. She's come with me to find the source of one of her favorite dances, and to see how North African women interpret it. Right here, right where the dance was born. She also wants to see if she should study anthropology. This trip is a big deal for her, and I'm blowing it.

We're barely past the airport, and already something's gone terribly wrong. Ominous for the whole trip we're embarking on. A land rover heading south into the Sahara, looking for a library that may (or may not) have texts still written in tifinagh, the primordial writing system of the Amazigh, or Berber people. So I can see if there's a correspondence between the old writing system and Tamazight women's tattoo patterns. That's the goal this time round.

Morocco. We're in Morocco — not Tunisia.

I catch my bearings, and explain.

"In Tunisia, the women in the countryside make this wonderful bread. The oven is called a ta—"

"Stop!" they both say in unison.

"That word," says the driver, "means something different here."

"Means something different everywhere — except Tunisia," chuckles his buddy. The tension has passed. I'm a moron, clearly, and hadn't intended to be so crude.

I think again of what that oven looks like. Earthen, with a blackened rim. So organic (in the old sense of the word). You look inside and you're looking straight into — oh, I get it.

Just as they, haltingly, explain it.


I had just said that I can't wait to get into the countryside and eat hot cunt.

So much for my Arabic proficiency.

As may now be obvious, Moroccan dialect differs significantly from the Tunisian. And both of them are distant from the mainstream Arabic further east. But worse than that, my Tunisian dialect is fellahi — peasant style. It's like an anthropology Ph.D. candidate from abroad coming to the U.S. to study Appalachian land disputes, and learning English for the first time at the hands of hillbillies of West Virginia, as depicted say, in the movie Deliverance. And that's the English you speak.

Well, that's my Arabic. That's why people would cringe when I'd open my mouth at the Archives Nationales, and tell me to switch to French. That's why the head of the Women's Union in Baghdad hugged me crying her eyes out at the 'authenticity' of my my backwoods language skills. That's why the women of Dubai had a good chuckle at my expense.

Okay, so I've probably made the worst linguistic gaffe possible in the Arabic language. Does that mean shut up and never speak again? No. I figure, after that one, I can say anything I want. Letting people correct you is in part what anthropological fieldwork is all about.

I just wish I was better at languages. Switching dialects is such a pain. And so much of my research has been in the mountains of Morocco in the past ten years. But my language skills just don't want to switch over.

They think I'm North African, but have been living in France way too long (they have no idea just how bad my French is, I guess). Or, they're just being polite.

"Are you from Egypt?" someone asks. "Where are you from?" another inquires. Finally, finally someone recognizes the Tunisianisms I just can't let go of and nails it down.

"Aahhh," they respond, at the identified exotic dialect. Tunisia does not come first to anyone's consciousness, even in North Africa.

There's that French expression:

petit pays, petit esprit

The French always used it in reference to Belgium, but I could see it in the look in their eyes. Small country, small spirit. Everyone underestimates Tunisia. Even now.

We're still in the car on the road to Casa. The ice has clearly been broken. What are you studying they ask, and I explain.

"We're Berber," the driver says.

"My grandmother has those tattoo patterns," the passenger says. His name is Aziz, I learn, finally. "She has those symbols on her hands and face," he says — having always taken them for granted before.

"We're going up to the mountains," his cousin the driver says.

"It's Eid. Come with us," says Aziz.

And so, we abandon the library at the edge of the Sahara (whose manuscripts it turns out, have long since disappeared) — and after picking up the tzaddik at the airport the next day, we all head up the winding dirt roads of the Middle Atlas mountains.

The women are baking bread when we arrive. It smells swooningly good.

I keep my mouth shut.

At least, about the bread.

Every moment goes swimmingly. A perfect fieldtrip, and perfectly unanticipated, given the rocky start. With lasting friendships made and kept, even now.

"So. What do you think?" I say to the bellydancer.

"You made it all look so easy," she says. "I could never do that."

Which is exactly how I feel about her dancing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

how tunisia works, she said

I'm so proud of Tunisia. Repeat 5x. I've been saying this to myself for a while now, and then I thought of Fatima. And her lesson on how Tunisia works.

We were in her so-called kitchen — a tiny room with a hotplate on a countertop. A very weird room, because nobody used countertops — they all squatted on the ground to cook. The French had designed this part of town, figuring the Tunisians would someday appreciate indoor running water and the as yet unappreciated white tiled countertops in houses built in the souri part of town. Countryfolk had long since turned off the indoor faucet in the so-called kitchens of Medjerda. Running (or dripping) water inside would just bring more mosquitos. Unsanitary, Fatima would tell me. The French, she maintained, knew nothing about good health.

It was 1979. Fatima felt me incredibly deficient in most aspects of being alive. In her provincial ethnocentrism, there was only one way that things were done, only one way that anything worked — and it was her job to teach me, since I was so obviously lacking in both knowledge and practice. She had good evidence of this. Obviously, I was incredibly unattractive to my husband since I had no children. She attempted to remedy this by pulling all the body hair off of me with a sticky mixture of sukr. (Problem solved: I was pregnant by the end of the year). My language skills sucked, and so she yelled at me louder until I got it, and my facility with fellahi Tunisian dialect was so dominant over my modern standard Arabic that city people cringed as soon as I opened my mouth. She smacked me gently if I didn't take enough photographs or ask enough questions of the fellahin. And — she taught me to cook.

Her lesson on how to cook chakchouka turned out be the most important of Fatima's lessons by far. Tunisian chakchouka is a stew that simmers for hours in a couscousière in such a way that it also cooks and flavors the couscous piled in the upper steamer part of the pot. Each region and tribal group has a distinct manner of making couscous and chakchouka. This was hers, but the principle remains the same — I paraphrase below:

The water, she said, we're all in the same water. If the water's okay, then we're all okay. If the water is sick, we will all be sick. The environment. Check. I got it. Where we were in the Medjerda Valley, the water was very very good. So, I didn't think about it.

The spices, she said, the spices all differ from family to family. So I could smell the spices of the Trabelsi, and know who they are. She furrowed her brow a tad. And the Djlass. She wagged her head, not quite in disapproval. The spices were clear markers of ethnic and tribal identity — and I wondered right then why I had ever sought to make them Schezuan lamb during Eid that year. What was I thinking? No, it spoke nothing of my own identity. And yes, they hated it. Spices and flavor are supposed to make you instantly transparent, ethnically speaking. And the spices in one's chakchouka flavor everything they encounter.

The vegetables, she said, each have their own level. There's no mixing. This she emphasized by holding me fiercely with her gaze. I love Fatima! I love her ferocity, protectiveness and pride. She wants me to get it right. The vegetables were the key component to make me realize that she wasn't talking about food at all. She repeated it:

Each have their own level.
There's no mixing.
Fierce gaze, to fix the lesson.

She elaborated on the theme. The carrots are heavy, they sink down to here. The potatoes, too, they go down to here. Turnips, here. And chickpeas rise to the highest point. If you add meat, a piece of meat, no matter how rich, sinks to the bottom.

There is no mixing, she repeated.

Okay. The lesson so far.

—The Andalusians and the Kirouani at the top. The holy families, the family of the Imam. The traditional political elite. Clearly chickpeas.

— The Hammami, Mejri and the Djlass and the Trabelsi and more are right there in the middle. They have their own level, and should not try to aspire to be anywhere else in the pot. Carrots, potatoes, and turnips — good fellahi fare.

— The Jews were at the bottom, no matter how rich they might be. The yummy chunk of meat. No mixing, she reminded me. The apartheid of the pot.

Review so far: We are all steeped in the same environment and colored by the same local spices, despite our prescriptive lack of miscegenation. And in that pot, we all have our own level and should not attempt to rise above our station. And we need them all, all levels, from top to bottom, to have a tasty stew. Ingredients who leave, we feel their absence. We ache for them. The next generation does not. They don't know what they're missing. And — they don't really care. Maybe they don't notice any of this, being just happy to get fed.


Every once in a while, the pot has to be stirred. And what happens then?

Everything changes position. The meat at the bottom can rise, the chickpeas at the top can fall. Most likely those vegetables in the middle don't go too far outside their rightful station. But — and here's the key point — she fixes you with her stern eye: When the stirring is done, everyone settles right down to the natural order of things. In the end, the meat will always fall. The chickpeas always rise.

And every once in a while, someone kicks the pot. The flames shoot up. The meat gets scorched. The chick peas spill out escaping the pot. The veggies in the middle end up stuck inside the ruined stew. When someone kicks the pot, it's bad for everyone.

Quaint, you might say. Typical anthropological overinterpretation, you might say. Much ado about not much at all, you might say. But the rules of Fatima's chakchouka are distinctively Tunisian. American stews don't work this way, nor do Egyptian stews.

And we've all had this Tunisian cooking lesson in the past two weeks, when someone kicked the pot.

Ben Ali and his family, the putative elite, spilled out and fled the pot. Mubarrak wants us all to know that he himself would never flee. It's not the Egyptian way. I will die right here in Egypt, he insists. And I believe him and agree. And Ben Ali's flight may have surprised pundits around the world, but it did not surprise the likes of Fatima.

And the synagogue in Gabes was burned, its Torah damaged. Just as in other years of strife in Tunisia. Infrequent, perhaps, but predictable. But no, no, no insists Roger Bismuth [Roger?!], the president of the Tunisian Jewish Community. This was no act of anti-semitism. Be clear on that. This was no more than vandalism.

I think Fatima would agree. It's just the result of being at the bottom of the hierarchical pot that we get scorched (or in this case, torched). Someone left the little synagogue unlocked, so of course it was put on fire. Nothing to do with anti-semitism. Just, someone's gotta be the bottom of the pot.

My colleague J, said the other day with a great big smile, "Come! Let's talk the revolution!"

And I — my usual oppositional self — said without thinking, "It's no revolution." But didn't have time to elaborate. I was thinking of Fatima.

Someone, she would say — and we know who he is — just kicked the pot. The Jews got scorched. The president escaped. This is the political system. This is how it works. And the pot is still being stirred.

But when that stirring stops, the chakchouka simmers down. And all return to their natural and rightful place. Elites will still be elites, and fellahin will still be fellahin. And the Jews will still on occasion feel the fire most of all.

An uprising, yes. Revolution, no. An uprising implies tremendous dissatisfaction. A just complaint. A revolution implies a call for structural change.

That would be like Fatima deciding to switch to cooking Schezuan lamb. But no. It's still going to be chakchouka when dinner time comes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

the kuf and the caff

I heard them speaking, and so I stopped them.

"Excuse me," I said, "could you please tell me whether the word 'kavod' starts with a kuf or a caff?"

"What do you need it for?" he said, looking suddenly like Mossad agents look when they ask questions.

"I need it," I said. "I just need it." But I thought the better of my dumb-ass paranoid answer, and decided to give some semblance of the truth. "I was writing 'kol ha-kavod' and I think I spelled it wrong."

Then the woman stepped in, looking nervously at the man. "It's caff," she said. I looked at her red hoodie. It spelled out Boston University with Hebrew letters — with one letter a mistake. It had a ם instead of a ס. Which made it fairly insane to try to read. But a pretty typical kind of problem as secular tranliterations go.

"It feels like it should be a kuf — ק —" I said, "and not a caff — כ —." The ק after all, is a sacred letter, making things holy. And so I had guessed wrong and written כל הקבוד when it should have been כל הכבוד. Do you have any idea how embarrassed I was? No. Well, they didn't either.

The man didn't let it go.

"They've ruined the language," he said. "There's more English in it than there is Hebrew. Nothing sounds the same anymore. Nobody knows how the letters should be pronounced. Kavod used to be spelled differently."

"Arabic held on to the pronunciation," I said, trying to be helpful.

He grunted.

"It used to be pure. Kavod was honor. Now it means power." He spat.

Ah, that explains it, I thought. I had associated honor with the sacred. But in Hebrew today, honor was a military term. I remember an old hobbled half blind man on the Eged bus in Jerusalem get up out of his seat and offer it to my friend David, thinking he was a soldier rather than a student. My friend had been wearing olive green. And he was the age that would have been a soldier — whether in Jerusalem or in Vietnam — had he not been a) an American and b) a conscientious objector. I wonder if the olive green was unconscious identification. He was, after all, a psych major.

"כל הכבוד לחילים" he said. Which I was sure, given his deference, meant he was honoring soldiers by offering up his seat. It was the day after the Six Day War. It was the Seventh Day. It was the day we all walked to the Wall for the first time since pre-1948. There had been houses all along the way. Houses with white flags waving from the windows, and terrified eyes peaking out. It was my last look at Jerusalem. On that day in June, 1967, I vowed not to come back until there was a permanent resolution to those petrified faces behind the white flags.

But the old man, according to the Israeli stickler I met today was honoring power, pure and simple. Thus the caff and not the kuf.

An interesting midrash for just walking the dog.

We were at Fort Funston, by the drinking fountain. The fountain where twenty to thirty dogs can congregate thirstily around the five or six stainless steel doggie bowls of slopping water.

Their dog's name was Melech — King — a funny enough name for an Israeli dog. Israelis being outrageously anti-authoritarian, and King being so pedestrian a doggie name here. Or maybe that was the point. Maybe the only King they would recognize would be their beloved dog.

We were breaking Fort Funston protocol talking the kuf and the caff when we could have been talking feces and foxtails. But I couldn't let it go.

"The language wasn't so pure," I said, "even in ancient times. Aramaic —"

"Don't give me Aramaic," he bellowed, as his wife tried to calm him down. And I got a 45 minute lecture on the impurities of Aramaic and the common people — as distinct from the Sacred Tongue.

The dogs were perfect angels. They sniffed each others' butts and genitals congenially, slurped in the collective water bowls, found their own balls, and curled up to wait patiently. The Mossad agent guy was still ranting about the impurities of language. Until at last he looked around, and the enemies of linguistic correctness did not seem to be in sight. The dogs perked up, and we went our separate ways.

"כל הקבוד" I called after him, as he left, hoping that he could hear the Arabized kuff instead of caff in my voice. He didn't turn around as he waved a disgusted wave. His wife smiled apologetically as she scurried off. Melech trotted obediently behind.

Rosh and I continued up the hill and into the sand trail on the cliff.

Spelling, I thought. It matters.