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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

old movies


“A classic is a book everybody wants to have read but no one wants to read”-Mark Twain

There’s something about old movies. They have this mystic pull; we hear how awesome they are from those who have actually watched them. The critics love them, the audiences do too, and they stood the test of time. Exotic names people them Katherine Hepburn, Marylyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen. A golden age of Hollywood and movies when only people with the jeng like propensity to favour difficult names gave birth to great talents.

I watched a couple of old movies when I got back to Nairobi. I scoured the internet for them and then scrubbed my computer of the evidence and finally i sat down and watched three...

(THERE IS NOT MUCH SPOILERY IN THIS POST BUT FOR THE EXCESSIVELY SENSITIVE TO SUCH THINGS, ALERT)

CASABLANCA.

The name evokes exotica. I knew this name for most of my life though I had no idea from where. It’s a city in Morocco, a place in the Middle East (which I love.) apart from the assonated alliteration in the name it's other claim to fame was that it was one of the only places in the world where you could get transport to Lisbon (during WWII). Why you needed transport to Lisbon is that from there you could get to America, why you wanted to go to America was Europe during WWII was a place of misery and despair. A continent embroiled in a war that was about more than just good and evil. The faces of the axis and the allies represented more than just Nazis and the rest it represented economic concerns, political differences, religious ideologies, the stuff all wars are made of. But it did represent one of the last times human beings could assign a bad guy and a good guy and be honest about it. And this war was dirty and damned. Europe was a theatre of murder and misery and some people needed to get out. So they made their way across the ocean to Casablanca and looked for an exit visa.

What’s your nationality?”
Me, am a drunkard”
And that makes Rick a citizen of the world”

At the centre of the story is Rick a saloon owner in Casablanca, he has seen too much love, lived too much life and fought too many battles. As a result he is love-lost, life-lorn and battle exhausted. He is cynical and tired. His eyes are lowered and downcast, his voice speaks exhaustion. His every movement is measured. A man who believes he is in the twilight of his years though he may just be beginning them and then...

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she had to walk into mine

That’s where the story changes. An old love from a time in his life when he wasn’t what he is. A woman from a point before he lost his heart to a shattering conclusion. A lot of the movie before this sets up the characters, it makes us laugh, it sets the mood of the time and then the crisis comes. The oldest crisis in the world. A woman we should keep away from and a coincidence that leads to one of the greatest lines in movie literature ever heard.; from there the movie moves at a pace incredible to behold. The action as fast as the words, plots revolving around exit visas, charming frenhmen, favours for sex, dutiful nazis and amazing salon players are played out in an arena of smoke, humour and pain.

Smoke billows out of every mouth. Cigarettes finishing like it’s the ‘4os accompanied by pipes and pipes of shisha. And as the movie snakes into its conclusion I couldn’t tell what’s going to happen. There were so many possible endings for the movie even at ten minutes to time and I couldn’t figure out what was going to be pulled off. It was as if all the smoke being blown into the air was obscuring all possible endings leaving nothing but suspense, hope and despair in an endless cycle. As well as lessons in love and the places we can find it. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is spoken in the midst of all this uncertainty, at an end which like most ends in the world are just code for another beginning.

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


APOCALYPSE NOW

Another movie inspired by a war. This time the Vietnam War that Americans and the French settlers fought. This was another war that plumbed the depths of human horridity. The literature that survives from this war is all dark, dreary and dirty. You hear the stories of people protesting this war in America and it seems like they all became writers. People with firsthand experience make it out to be a hell masquerading as war. A fight to find the devil and even worse a journey where you would and find he was you.

The name the Americans had for their Vietcong enemy was Charlie. Why this is an excellent segue is because this movie starred Martin Sheen actor extraordinary known to me as president Jed Bartlet from the West Wing but to most people as the father of Charlie sheen. The man who we all watched take drugs, sleep with whores and engage in nearly anti-Semitic rhetoric(one of the last great American sins.) the thing about this movie is it’s so old that Martin is roughly the age Charlie is right now and he looks just like his son does, add to that the fact that he was fighting some of the same demons his son is right now and all through the movie I had to keep reminding myself it’s not that sheen.

The premise of the movie is that Sheen is a hotshot assassin who has been sent into the jungle to kill this one guy who has gone native(gone over to the side of the jungle letting madness and rabid insanity dictate how he will fight the war, fighting it not on any side but on the side of the forest and its lust for blood), an amazing colonel a career military man who could have been in the joint chiefs of staff but quit to go back into basic training. He got lost in the war, it killed his soul and now the Americans want to kill him.

You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory. Someday this war's gonna end.

The guy who says this about napalm is not even the bad guy. The thing about great movies is they have these set pieces that aren’t afraid to imitate the absurdity of real life. We all have one of those stories about one of those people that when we are telling people ask, "did that really happen? Did you really meet someone like that?" And this guy(Mr. Napalm) was like that. When the beach was being bombed and the explosion shook up the sand and whipped round the wind, he didn’t bow he walked with his head held high. Acting like he was in the middle of a vacation. Asking about surfing conditions at that time ordering his soldiers to go and check it out. A crazy mo’fo’ about who Sheen says:

If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder, there was enough of that to go around for everyone.

I liked that the movie wasn’t just another propaganda puppet. They meet some French settlers that question why the Americans are fighting that war. These frenchmen are passionate, france isn’t their home any more Vietnam is, they have the cultural and national memory that goes with losing war after war in continent after continent. They debate with them and let them know that they(the americans) are fighting for nothing. They have no stake in the war, they have no land, no history there and all they are doing is losing a little more of their identity with every passing battle. Battles they weren’t just losing with their troops but in their hearts.

They move down the river and it gets darker, it gets harder. The way the movie is scripted and shot the  further they go into the jungle the further into the heart of darkness they move. We can see them lose their humanity little by little episodes of sexual exploitation are portrayed and one of the most brutal and senseless killings I have seen in a while. At the same time just enough of their humanity is maintained. We see brutality as a cover for fear, bravado and rashness the effect of cowardice. And when they die the deaths are not just deaths. With every one of them we can see more of a loss. A loss of happiness and innocence. This is a movie that doesn’t lie about war and what it will do for you. It’s a manifesto for peace and if this is what was shown to all who ordered war or actually went to it they wouldn’t. They finally meet the guy they should kill and he says:

I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. It's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor … and surviving.

You are ready for that. Then the movie delivers a speech on war that could be true. It could. War is horrible is the message of the movie. There is no good and no bad. There is even no winning and no losing. What we need to give up so as not to give in is too much.

I've seen horrors, horrors that you've never seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me.
It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.
I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us. He was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget.
And then I realized, like I was shot! Like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love — but they had the strength, the strength to do that.
If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us.

NETWORK.

Another movie that starts with an extraordinary set piece. Things that don’t happen except in life. A news anchor is fired and he goes on air and instead of quitting announces that he will kill himself in one week. The ratings for the news show go up and they live in such a materialistic age that the fact of the high ratings is enough to keep him on air. The movie goes on to portray an age where all that matters is money, here it is represented by the ratings of this show on TV. The anchor gets on television and rants telling the public truths that they know if only they looked inside themselves.

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad - worse than bad, They're crazy!

And in that way that art is supposed to mirror society this movie does too. The above speech talks about things in a movie released into he 70’s except it talks about things right now. It talks about how bad things are in the world and even worse the fact that we are complacent with this. It goes on to talk about why people would accept this. And why they shouldn’t.

Materialism is explored in more ways there's another tv show that follows the actual exploits of terrorists, terrorists affiliated to the communist party of America that carry out bank robberies and kidnappings attempting to send a social message. The premise of this other show is that every week they will carry out a terrorist act and this will be the hook for the tv show, this act will be followed by a scripted episode. There is a negotiation between the terrorists and the network a ridiculous affair in which these communists, terrorists and tv execs exchange arguments centering around tv share and ratings, distribution rights and syndication possibilities, arguments punctuated by a gunshot in the air that cuts through an intractable contractual clause much faster than the most eloquent of eloquences.

As the movie goes on exploring one of the character’s deteriorating affair with corporate America it shows in counter point another affair. A love affair that goes from lust to worse to heartbreak. The movie explores what happens when only one person is willing to give themselves to a relationship. Not everyone is capable of love or maybe just not of commitment and even when someone knows what they are getting themselves into they can't save themselves. Talking about the relationship he’s in he says:

She does have one script in which I kill myself: An adapted for television version of "Anna Karenina", where she's Count Vronsky and I'm Anna.

He knows the train wreck he’s heading under but he can’t help himself. Until he’s prompted to ask

why is it women think the savagest thing they can say to a man is to impugn his cockmanship?”

The movie explores both our relationship with each other and with corporations perhaps making the argument that the more materially defined we become in relation to industry and commerce the more detached we are from the people in our lives. The conclusion is organic. It grows from the rest of the movie, letting us know that’s the only way a movie that took such a stark look at our life could end.


Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business.


There’s something about these movies, each of them. They tell stories that could be told over and over. Stories that move us in their honesty about human nature and the problems it causes itself.

William Faulkner accepting his Nobel speech said “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Maybe that’s why old movies live till today.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

religious symbolism


There's a beautiful Greek story found in the poem the Odyssey. Its the story of the sirens. In the story Odysseus is in the middle of his famous odyssey, captain of his ship or at least someone with enough pull to decide where the ship will go. they pass by the island of the sirens and they know ia disturbing story about those particular mythical creatures. They sing. That's not it, at least not all of it it comes down to the song they sing and the effect it has on those who hear it. No man who listens to this song can resist sailing towards their island to take a closer look. As they sail closer and closer they come upon not the song they wanted to hear but rocks and corals that tear the ship up from under itself. The contents of the ship, men and all are sent tumbling into the deep never to be heard from again. Odysseus knew that his ship was going to pass near these islands and he knew that the song would be sung out and that his ship would head there and soon all he would have was tinder and the company of the cold unforgiving ocean hugging him tight and close until his last breath was a whisper of ice. Possessing this self awareness he had himself tied to the mast of the ship with strict instructions that he not be allowed to leave or give any other contradictory order. The ship passed by the island and the sirens sung. Oddyseus had this beautiful, death bringing music and pleaded with his captors to let him free, he ordered them to take the ship towards the island, he prayed for release and begged for compassion but all he got was stony stares. Silence that saved his life.

I always loved this story. Its short, pithy and full of magic. It was not until recently that I learned that it carries a very heavy lesson for life. The odyssey was not written as just a story my mind opener told me, it's a lesson for life and how to live it. The whole poem carries metaphors for what life is, the obstacles you encounter on your way and how to best overcome them. Its another Greek philosophical treatise that may be better for having a practical application. Take the example of the story above. A mythical story containing magical creatures, choppy waters, and having as its saving grace the foresight and weakness of a man at the centre of it. Its not a story about sirens at all, well metaphorically it is. Every man in his life and maybe every woman runs into this island and hears the song of the sirens. Everyone has met that woman they should have avoided and instead of avoiding listened to her siren song. A song too sweet to ignore and maybe for that very reason the very song we should. It could be her beauty, her wit, her personality but most times its a combination of all of those without being any of them. Its something that you can't quite put your finger on but something that nonetheless you find yourself drawn to. You find yourself taking sails away from the pre-charted course and instead heading for this island. You ignore the warnings of danger from all around you, from your family, your friends , yourself all you can hear is that song, that beautiful danger siren. Love isn't blind its deaf and before you know it the ship you are steering is tinder and the warm embrace you had hoped for is nothing but an icy whisper. In those moments what the odyssey asks us to do is tie ourselves to the mast. Do anything to keep away. Move house,change jobs, get too drunk too call, get too broke to go. Do anything to tie yourself to those masts because otherwise you re headed to a pain too deep to be worth bearing. That's the lesson in that story.

For more examples of the siren story(without the mast) all you have to do is flip the pages of that other great book of metaphors, the other guide to life that we are all more intimately familiar with, the bible. Look at Samson and Delilah. That's another siren song. This man knew from personal experience that his ship would crash yet he couldn't stop himself going back. David looked at Bathsheba having a bath(incidentally could that be where the name comes from?) and all he could think was that he wanted her. He had a man killed for his lust because he listened to the song of the siren and in the end God punished him.

Some may say that Adam and Eve is another siren story but(and this is the whole reason I’m writing this) I now believe it could be a metaphor for a completely different life experience. Today one of my aunts came to visit and we were sitting outside shooting the shit. She had carried along one of her children one of the most fiercely independent little girls I have ever met. She's 12 years old with her head set on independence and her heart on finding her way to it. She informed us in her loud voice that she wouldn't get married, not now ,not ever. She wouldn't have boyfriends or a husband
“what about children?” we asked cheekily expecting... I have no idea what we were expecting but it was not the answer we got.

Without a trace of embarrassment in her innocent face she proceeded to lecture us on the process of having children.

“the male has the sperm which when it meets the ovary in the female combine and become a child. Without the sperm how can I have a child, and if there’s no male then there's no sperm.”

there were inward cringes of embarrassment all around us. But her unabashed eloquence let the moment slide by. Then of course we discussed how she could say all these things in front of all these people so much older than her without feeling like it shouldn't be said. The consensus was that she knew the technicalities but since she hadn't “grown up” yet and become a woman there was no shame in talking about these things in the same tone of voice you would explain one by one equals two. She wasn't embarrassed to be naked((metaphorically) and she wouldn't be for a while.

This put me in mind of the story of the desertion of the garden of Eden In that story there are two people who are children in every sense of the word. they look at their world with such wonder, they name everything for its the first time they have seen it, they live in a paradise of curiosity and constant wonder. A place where there is no sin and no conflict, no conscience prickling them and causing them to deny the essence of who they are. Then they eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge and suddenly they know. They know right from wrong, they know about sin and its consequences, they know that suffering is a part of life and that they will die. They are embarrassed to be naked since they know they should be(embarrassed) and they can never find their way back to the paradise that they knew. They remember it but they can't have it.

That story could be the story of the garden of Eden and the fall of man or the story of growing up all you have to do is substitute the names for the word child. I have said a couple of times that the bible is a book of metaphors and it might be. It makes much more sense that we all lived in the garden of Eden and only left it when we thought that knowledge could make us better only to realise that it makes our lives worse. I prefer this interpretation to the one of an all-knowing all-loving God that set a trap for his creations that he knew they couldn't avoid. Since I can't find a proper way to conclude this I’ll leave you with this quote from nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson;

   "A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams. Now, the world would be insane and rabid, if these disorganizations should last for hundreds of years. It is kept in check by death and infancy. Infancy is the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men, and pleads with them to return to paradise."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rongai


Rongai.

Depending on who you ask and when you'll get three different answers to the question of which province in Kenya its is in. It has wide open spaces and trees. Acres and acres of wide open spaces and trees, people with more sensitive noses than møi can immediately tell that the air here is cleaner, the people friendlier, the monkeys more numerous. The predominant colour is brown. The sand sweeps the landscape, sandscape actually. Urbanity has been encroaching on this out-skirt for years now. Universities have found the space it provides an excellent spot for campuses. Its proximity to Karen has drawn the kind of developments that only 1% of Kenya ever sees. Nakummat put up another diamond in its crown there in the form of galleria, a beautiful structure of (not surprisingly) brown. It has pillars, round pillars that put you in the mind of a gallery. And the ultimate symbol of middle-class outposts in Kenya can be found there, a KFC.

The clubs followed the university students. Catholic university's main campus is there, JKUAT has a campus close by, the school of law can be walked to and Multimedia University is also a stone's throw away. These factors make for a very interesting Thursday night outing. And so we made our way there one Thursday months ago. I have a cousin with a room near the main club whose name escapes me right now (the club's not the cousin's)and we had decided to go and sleep at his place after the nights activities exhausted us. The location provided the ultimate mix for a night out. A place to get sufficiently tipsy beforehand, a club with no entrance fee and a gaggle of girls.

After dropping some liquor down our throat and having the kind of conversation at the end of which you can say with confidence, “if that's all that happens tonight I had a good time.” we left for the club. It was amazing. Like the rest of Rongai it was sufficiently spaced out and there were a lot of people there who were sufficiently spaced out too. It wasn't stuffy since there was an outdoor section you could walk to when you wanted air or a smoke. There was an event going on,a smirnoff experience meaning Smirnoff had hired miniskirts to push tots of the drink on unsuspecting men who would have bought much more for much less add to this the unexpected pleasure of bumping into long lost acquaintances. The club night drew to a close and the real night began.

One of my cousins having taken a lesson from the premature Roman withdrawal when they were within Rubicon distance of seizing Britain said we couldn't be this close to Rongai and not make it to the town itself. Life needs duality. Every reckless plan should be balanced out with a quick rebuttal by someone with a square head on their shoulders. The problem with our group was that this man was not there. The idea was patently ridiculous but we approved the invention and got in a matatu for a trip to Rongai town at 2 in the morning. We felt like God was on our shoulders that night. This was informed by the fact that we had run into a truck driver that looked suspiciously like Gaddafi(this was pre-funeral showing.)

well Rongai town was crap. We walked into a club there and ordered a beer each,the maximum amount of time you should give any club to surprise you by awakening is a beer and when we were done we were convinced that we had made a mistake. But that was just the first one.

We tried to get a matatu to take us back towards the hostels where beds were waiting for us but we couldn’t find one. Not having enough for a taxi we contemplated the long walk ahead of us unless an alternative was suggested. Then our host made a suggestion. one that sounded stupid at first glance and the more you studied it the more ridiculous it sounded.

“I know some people who live in a hostel near here we could go crash at their place until morning.”
“what are these guy's names?”
“its two girls.”

Usually that phrase fills me with anticipation and excitement. Its the kind of phrase every man would love to hear at least once every night. Those three words hold opportunities and combinations of opportunities but as soon as I heard them my heart sank. I knew this wouldn't work there was no way in the world two girls would open up their door for three guys at this time of the night and offer them space no matter how persuasive any of us was. So I said OK, call them.

They didn't pick up which is when stupidity went into overdrive. Lets just show up at the door. I wish I could say that the only reason I agreed to this was to mark time until the sun came shouldering its way into the earth but the truth is I wanted to see how this would turn out. I had nothing at risk,nothing at all and we were all a little drunk and a lot tired.

The hostel in question is a building converted into a student’s digs. It has corridors lining the floors of the three storey building, corridors that would soon become my best friend. We called again and were informed that they too had gone out and weren't home and wouldn't be for a little while. Well someone suggested that we could stretch out on the corridors and wait. We were supposed to sit up and wait but my eyes drooped and carried me off to dreamland until the activity of anticipation got me up.

A conversation was going on, a painful,embarrassing conversation with no hope of victory. When it was done there was no surprise on anyone's face when we were told we couldn't get in but we came away from it with a nugget of information. Downstairs there was another room. This one peopled by men. Men our host knew and it was suggested that we go ruin their night. Well as timing happens they were just coming in. We went and witnessed another painful conversation. The problem this time was that those guys had two girls in the correct sense of the word. They hadn't surprised them with requests that only craziness could let anyone agree to.

Well, we turned away again. But now we had mattresses. And blankets. They had been given us as if we were asylum seekers, since we were. We commandeered these supplies and applied them to a floor beneath one of the corridors. We kept at bay the embarrassment with exhaustion and quickly fell asleep. Then the sun was poking our eyelids letting us know that it was time to move on.

I haven't been to that part of Rongai since.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

cigarettes: one last stick


Digital traces haunt our every memory now. Pictures are snapped of the saddest of moments, photos taken of funerals, portraits of sadness splattered everywhere. She had avoided computers and the Internet for a long time after having the news of his death delivered to her by messages carried in long winding wires, wires that snaked their way through the earth burrowing deep and flying high contradicting themselves in their purpose of bringing humanity closer.

She could still remember that day, just another lazy workday, she had taken the opportunity to surf the Internet and look at news stories. She clicked on the link and a sense of foreboding came over her, don't look she had thought but had been unable to resist and had read the post about a man who had flung himself off a building falling to his death, falling faster than the fluttering stub of a cigarette that had followed him down. That more than anything had told her it was him. The small details. How was it possible to know someone so much that the manner of their suicide seems immediately familiar?

She couldn't help blaming herself. Who can? She suspected it already, his letter had read too sad but that wasn’t his note. That had been found later, well a fragment of it. a haunting digital trace. Another blow from the cyber age we all live in. there had been investigations into his act and a forensic cyber expert had been hired by his family(she had never been able to consider her in-laws part of her family, her ex-in-laws actually.) and trudging through troves of material, files hidden and deleted this gem had been found, a pearl somewhere in the memory of his computer which like an elephant never really forgets

i really haven't been able to sleep for a while. I get in bed and toss and turn. I get in bed and think too much. Too. Much. It's always already 3 am and there's always a cloud of smoke surrounding my room a symbol of the bad spirits and evil thoughts that come to me with every memory of you. then I blink and the sun is outside checking in on me. Making sure I still live. And that's when i get scared. Because I have no idea who put out the cigarette. That's not even really it, I get scared because I do the same thing over and over again. It's like my waking life is this dream I can't get out of, a hell that I have to relieve over and over again

She could imagine him lying in bed thinking and thinking. He had loved to think, maybe that’s why he smoked so much it gave him an excuse to pause. She could remember in the earlier days of their married life how he would keep himself awake when something bothered him and smoke it to little ashes. How the puffs he took would be representative of the thoughts he thought. So on the nights he was writing about she was sure he loosed heavy puffs. Clouds of smoke that moved ever so slowly. Carrying the weight of his thoughts on them  unable to fly away. Thoughts that were killing him just as surely as every puff was. In the end the thoughts won the battle for his body. Taking it away in a manner just as dramatic as cancer though swifter. A fall from the sky. He would never smoke again, he would never think again. And when she sat there and thought those two thoughts she held back sobs.

She hated computers now. Sometimes she hated herself. It's partly my fault she couldn’t help thinking. She had been a contributor to the feelings that led a man to jump off a building. She loved this man and so she hated him. She hated him because he obviously hated her. They knew each other though they couldn’t live together and love, she had no illusions on that account. But they knew each other. As intimately and fully as humanly possible and so he had to know what this suicide would do to her. He had to know she would blame herself, he had to know she wouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks, in fact the only consequence he couldn’t have foreseen was that she would hate computers so much. Even the place he had chosen to jump off of was a slap to the face, designed to bring her to her knees in sorrow. This place was sacred she could imagine him thinking as sacred as the marriage bed you defiled. He had proposed here. They had laughed here and he came here to end his life. She couldn’t help finding the symbolism in this marrying her had killed him. She hated him sometimes.

The wise ones say life must go on. Only grief can bring wisdom. The wisest words are steeped in sorrow and born of loss. So she listened to the wise.

Moving on is a private affair, utterly atomistic and individual. Lose yourself in something first, drugs, work, sex. Let your soul put itself back together as you keep your mind too busy to dwell on the pain. Pain can kill as surely as a fall from a building or falling for the wrong woman she thought wryly. And she hated him all over again. She had printed out the letter and brought it to this place, where he had decided to hurt her in the worst way possible. She reached in her pocket and took out a cigarette.

It was cold today, the nerves in her face needed rubbing just so she wasn’t scared it would fall off. Her fingers shook and the tears were icy by the time they reached her cheeks. They fell on the letter she had printed out. She lit the cigarette in memoriam. And she took a deep drag. As with most non-smokers the head-rush was immediate and overwhelming. The cigarette packed a kick, a kick that reached down her back. In between puffs she thought.

She thought about their life together she remembered the night they discussed children. He had been so full of life and wanted them so much. He talked about teaching them to ride their bikes, he wanted to embarrass them, to love them in the most unconditional way possible. If only love was enough. By the time they had that conversation she already knew he wasn’t the type of man she wanted to raise children with. This had been a hard thing to admit to herself, it was still hard to admit it now. But something in her knew he was the type to throw himself off of sacred grounds. But it hurt and she wished she had children with him now. She wished there was a chance of hearing his smile in a young girl's voice or seeing his stride in a small boy’s walk. She wished she had spent time better with him. She wished that she could read the desperation in the letter he had sent, sensed it in the meeting they had had, felt it in the whispers of his soul. She wished she hadn’t met him, how she wished for that.

The wise say you must move on. She didn’t smoke the cigarette down to its last, that was too much like something he would have done, instead she took it and very carefully pressed it to the printed version of his letter. She watched it smolder and begin to smoke. She watched it catch fire and saw the fire spread. All paper burns and turns to ashes in the end just like all love turns to grief. The ashes were carried away by the wind and still she cried. Then she hugged herself and walked away.

No more.

Friday, December 16, 2011

year one


2 years ago I was mugged and wrote about it and it started a love affair with writing, one of my longest love affairs. I was endlessly entranced by her ability to let me lose myself and her power to help me find myself. She allowed me to think thoughts through for perhaps the first time in my life, to be presented with a philosophical dilemma and sit down and see it to the end without interruption or external input and arrive at a solution that was just mine.

Writing allowed me to put events in perspective, in terms of what they mean to my life and my future whether they have any bearing on the person I have become or whether it was just another funny episode in the comedy of errors that is life. It's got to be that its the best way for me to think, if something bothers me or if I want to reflect on journeys and people, on the overwhelming excitement that signifies the beginning of things or the mad melancholy that accompanies their end.

Well, its been a year since I put up the first post on this blog and to be honest it feels like a year. It feels like a year, a long, long year of writing and editing, of posting and reviewing. My very first piece was entitled why I started this blog, it was easy to write, just a list of the things that had happened to me during that year, things worthy of note and things not. Then I rethought it and realised it was actually because of things I want to remember forever, things that had changed me inside, and altered me outside making my relationship with the world and with people simultaneously more and less. One of those things was the song Hallelujah, even now it touches me, to me its an example of how art should be and the effect it should have on people. A mixture of hope and despair, happiness and misery, beauty and its effects. In short the truth about life that we can't admit to ourselves without a veneer of falsehood, expressed in a way that doesn't immediately include blood and bones, humans and hearts. One of my favourite quotes from V for Vendetta was artists use lies to tell the truth.

But that's not all, art should be easy too, it should make us smile and make us laugh. It should remind us of the simplicity of beauty, the act and fact of finding it in the smallest of things, in the things we take for granted because we are in too much of a hurry to stop. Small things like what we hear in the silent whispers of the world or see in the face of a child running like nothing matters except the run, not safety, not the consequences, not the bone-tiredeness or bone-brokenness that may be a result of it, nothing except the fact that its fun to run. That’s something writing also gave me an appreciation for, it allowed me to stop and attempt a drawing of the world as I saw it. The hues of experience forever change the quality of the colours, the pictures aren't as clear as they could be, the lines not as defined as they should, the paints run into each other in places and obscure the whole landscape making it more often than not an attempt at art rather than art itself. But I have also learned that attempting is better than not. Sitting back with the experience of having failed is sitting back with an experience, not the one we hoped for but a sack filled with broken bottles, shards of dreams and the shattered remains of hope is more meaningful than one filled with nothing but excuses.

A lot happened this year. It was the year I cleared university and finally prepare to come head to head with what people call the real world. I don't agree with the use of this phrase because life at any stage is too real, too immediate to be called anything other than that. Its not oblivion and lack of awareness until we leave school. As soon as we are born we are in a real world, we enter the real world when we begin to define the world dependent on ourselves, when our experiences, our wants and our needs begin to dictate what we see when a table is put in front of us we are already in a real world. Noone lives in the real world , not the president, not the student, not the criminal, not the parent. The only real world exists in ourselves. But leaving university provides an entry into the world of maybes. Until high school no real decisions are required to steer the ship of life, the rudder is set and the radar only registers things like exams, glitches we find insignificant when we pass them by. Even university with its endless choice of degree and unit, its unbound freedom and unfettered permission is still a holding spot when it comes to real decision making. Once you are done life isn't sure any more and whichever path you take from hereon leaves the road not taken that could have led you to a better place. This nagging doubt is a fact of adult life. Maybe its the real difference between us and children, the fact that doubt and insecurity and constant second guessing become a part of life. This may be what people mean by entering the real world.

I have enjoyed having a blog. I have enjoyed the feeling of commitment. Feeling like I should write something even when I just couldn't pull it off and sitting down and getting it done sometimes chorefully and even joylessly but that’s made up for by the instances of effortless stringing together of words. Those posts that seem to have been created in my mind before I sat down. That led me on an adventure since I had no idea where they were going but they seemed to. They grabbed me by the inspiration and took me on a tour just keep typing we'll do the rest and we promise you'll enjoy. Those made me feel light I would be tired as I sat down in front of the computer and as I wrote and wrote and wrote the exhaustion was put at bay. Forgotten like a middle child, placed out of reach in a place where it could be found later when I was done.

Sometimes I believe I have been blessed with a very interesting life, I saw a man bleeding to death, I spent a day in Ethiopia and a part of my life in Egypt. A life that has had a parade of interesting people, a rich tableau of experiences from which to write. The way I write those stories talks about how I perceive the world, maybe fiction says more about how the world perceives me. Says more about how I feel about the world and the direction that life leads us to. I hope not. I wouldn't want my fictional stories to be symbolic of the kind of person I am inside. However I saw a cartoon the other day about these two twins who could both see the future, one could see only happy things and was forever sad since the horrible in life constantly caught her off guard, the other could only predict the bad and was forever smiling since the good in life was a well of pleasure. So I’ll take comfort from animated children’s programmes because I really enjoyed writing the cigarette series of stories. That was probably my favourite run of posts especially the one with the letter. It was another of those stories that kept surprising me and kept me forever interested in what was going to happen next. I spent a lot of time thinking about them between stories, thinking of phrases that conveyed misery or showed love, writing them down hoping to fit them in to the next story and then letting it flow. Reading them made me sadder than writing them did but at the end of them I learned something else about writing. The importance of clarity, the fact that something can seem so clear to the person who wrote it but still present an incomprehensible jumble to someone who was reading it. Convey a different ending than the one intended. This is true about life as well, the road to hell isn't after all paved with clear intentions.

It has been a year and the most important thing of the year is that someone actually bothered to read what I put down. Its amazingly gratifying to see that the blog is visited by people and not just by people I know but by people all over the world. in some places I have a feeling it was suggested by someone I know there, places like Russia, UK, Pakistan, Belgium, Germany, Egypt, Australia and of course Kenya where my friends have lived in but there are the other places like Romania, Ukraine, China, Spain, Ethiopia where noone i know of lives but still found a way to this blog am entirely grateful for the visits therefrom. For vanity lives in all of us and we need to feel listened to, to be sure that what we said had a point in someone else's life. So thank you all for reading so much. It would not have made a year without you. And thank you crystal, nyambura, jere, anonymous, pitzevans, cocktail, spinster and the pharmacy visitors for taking your time to leave a comment. It meant a lot. It made a year seem less.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

graduation


There’s a room in parklands campus. The room is on your right as you go down the steps that take you to the lecture theatres. It’s opposite the other computer room but on this day it was where you go to pick up your graduation gown.

Clearing from the university of Nairobi is a bitch, it’s a rabid bitch that’s suckling its young and you don’t want to get anywhere near it on a good day. You don’t want to be encircled by red tape that sends you here and takes you there that pulls you back and pushes you forward making you dizzy and dazed, angry and annoyed. But I didn’t have to do it, I was in Egypt and I asked my lovely sister to help me out and she did, wonderfully.

I got back home on the 28th of November, a Monday when the rain poured hard enough to soak underwear, graduation was that Friday and I went to get my gown on Thursday. The way the gown market works is all the gowns promised to law graduates are bundled up and dropped at the feet of the computers. These gowns are musty and murky. They have been kept in the dark for a year since the last time anyone graduated. They smell of neglect and reek of loneliness, they have wrinkles and tears, dirt and grime; they barely fit and are barely fit for wear. If you get to the room early you can pick out a nice new-looking one, if you go late and you have a nice smile it’s possible the attendant will show you to where the best of the rest are hidden. If however you are like me you get a shitty worn out gown. One that doesn’t speak of  grandeur and pomposity but one more shitty thing  from the university of Nairobi, wearing it it felt uneasy it tried to leave my shoulders unwilling to be carried slipping away like every law lesson I ever learned.

But it meant I was done, it meant I was finished with that school, finished with all the reading for their exams and information about lost papers, grades coming out so late I wasn’t sure I had done those exams at all, all the letters I had written were finished and done with and it was time to leave.

On the actual graduation day I wore a white trouser. The sky threatened rain, the sand had soaked up what came before and was slick with brown and wet. The grass was stained and sorry but I couldn’t allow myself to be dictated to by something as fickle as the weather so I wore white pants. In the end I had to take a matatu to the campus where they were holding the graduation and then walk down the long, long road to the square. I had on my gown and hat; I held up my arms and walked ever so slowly like a messiah come home. Around me everyone was being escorted by family. There were doubles, triples and quartets walking down the road with me but no singles just me and my gown and my white trousers. There were cars not moving and people sitting obstinately in them determined not to leave although the traffic had come to a complete crawl. there were policemen dotting the landscape ever ready to help but more comfortable with menacing resulting in the flashing of a lot of snarling smiles.

Soon I got to the place where the graduation was taking place. All this time I had kept myself firmly on tarmacked road but at this point it turns out that since I was late I would have to use a different path than the one other people were using. This path was all mud and grass, it was what happens when it really rains and doesn’t quit: mud so brown and thick it looks like chocolate, so ubiquitous and omnipresent it felt like the earth was mad at us for walking all over it. A slippage was never too far away but somehow I made it.

It’s hard to find where you’re supposed to sit. There’s no signage telling you where to sit all you have are people sitting in rows according to the degrees, Bachelor of Arts and medicine, Bachelor of Commerce and pharmacy, the master’s graduates, the future PhD holders and finally the lawyers. All bunched together in one place waiting.

It was hard to find my seat, they were arranged alphabetically but it was still very confusing, the rows started and stopped all over the place and everywhere I could see my former classmates, rows upon rows of people I had sat down and slaved next to. All smiles and hope for the future all sure that no matter what came next the world had given us this one day. We had battled through the muck and mud and made it through and here we all sat at the other side. The vast majority of the gowns looked like mine but when seated here like this, the hint of a sun poking through the clouds, the silent whisper of a rain that had passed by the night before, the radiant looks of joy and optimism everywhere, when seated here like this they looked resplendent.

The speeches droned on and on but the only purpose of speeches on graduation day is to allow people time to walk around and talk to classmates they may never see again. A chance to joke with the sun at our backs and our lives at our fronts.

A graduation square is a place filled with conversations, full of people walking and talking. A living organism that moves and breathes. I was up and down sitting in any empty chair that could lead me to a good conversation. I ate and drank savouring the last drops of liquor I could have as a university student.

And the time passed, heavy with nostalgia, inundated with hope. The minutes turned into hours filled with speeches, made full by conversations. The long words turned into short names. And the courses were run down. Each of us standing up, the commerce graduates, the actuarial science degree holders, waiting to hear those syllables and then sit down.

When they started calling out the lawyers I stood with pride when I heard my name. I waited with patience as they went down all the other names in my class. Then I grabbed holdf o my cap and in a graduation ceremony as old as the first exported American college film I flung it in the air screaming my lungs out and letting go of school.

The hat flew up and came back down falling into my arms and promptly I threw it back up and waited for another deposit. That was it. The nostalgia will come, it always does and with it will come the pain of missed opportunities and maybe even more painful the memories of happiness at a time when all I have of it is the memory but that is not today and not for a long time. For now my thoughts are as carefree and freefalling as my cap on that day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Way of saying goodbye



And now the end is here and so I face the final curtain

The sky was overcast, white clouds let a hint of the rays of the sun shine through but not enough. It threatened of rain but it never rains in Egypt and I was tired of empty threats. Right now there was only one real threat that I could pay attention to, a deadline loomed over me, huge and inescapable waiting and wanting. It was time to go home and the truth was  I wasn’t ready.

Monday 28th November the day I was slated to go back to Kenya. Its strange how one date can mean such different things depending on who its applied to. Egypt was having her first democratic elections begin on the same day, an important part of her ever changing identity as a country, as a dream,an adventure and an idea. To me this was also the day I was leaving, for 6 weeks I had known exactly how many days it would take to get me here, I knew it in weeks, I knew it in days and eventually I knew it in hours.

I travelled each and every highway and more much more than this I did it my way

6 weeks is not a long time. Its the blink of an eye, its a turn and a half of a calender its barely 2 days longer than that famous fast. But in that time you can adjust to something, your body, your mind, your spirit can change the way they are. Its enough time to fall in love and falling in love changes all of us fundamentally. I fell in love with Egypt unequivocally and unabashedly. I was entranced by nearly every facet of life there. I loved the metro subway system, in the beginning I would close my eyes as we went into a tunnel and just feel the train move thinking this must be how a bullet feels. The shaking as we sped, the crowdedness of the cars, the turbulence over the rails. The people standing up to let their elders have a seat.

In 6 weeks my Arabic underwent a dramatic improvement, I could ask directions to anywhere and actually understand what they were saying without having to rely solely on hand directions. I could bargain for minutes on the price of purchases, I could say hello and goodbye. I would walk into all those shisha bars my head already expectant of the head-rush and sit down and work determinedly towards the head-rush. Eyes fixed on a spot right in front of me lungs expanding-contracting, nose and mouth furiously working until the feeling hit. surrounded by the laughs, the jests and life told in Arabic This was my stop whenever I got lost and get lost I did numerous times, its a part of life in Cairo. You get lost in the streets, you get lost in the smells, the sights, the people and lose yourself in the city.

Regrets, I've had a few But then again, too few to mention.

In 6 weeks I worked. My intern-ship was with the Alliance for Arab Women an organisation fighting the slow but eternally meaningful battle for women's rights. The people I met at work were amazing , revolutionaries who had camped outside Tahrir for days and weeks while at the same time fielding practical obligations like who will take care of the baby? How will I complete this university essay? How do I wash this tear-gas out of my face?

And the people at the protests articulate, brave, confident, daring, energetic, furious, gracious, heroic, just, killed, learned, men, nuanced, optimistic, purposeful, quixotic, raging, strong, tall, unbowed, victorious, women, xenophillic, yelling, zealous.

The guilt I felt over my lack of political participation was never awakened anywhere as much as in Egypt where issues of abstinence from elections are moral questions deserving serious thought and searching of the soul. A young woman told me she didn't want to vote in the ongoing elections since they seemed to betray the spirit of the revolution and a vote here felt like a betrayal of all who died for the toppling of Mubarak. However if her and people like her didn't vote the extremists would have a firmer grasp on power. A lot of people don't vote because its choosing the lesser of two evils but usually its corruption and corruption, this was an issue of betrayal and extremism. The lesser of two evils is still lesser is what I learned from them. And that you don't have to wait for elections to make your voice heard.

For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels; And not the words of one who kneels.

In 6 weeks I travelled, I took a long standing train ride and saw the temples in Luxor and Aswan, I went to Alexandria and dipped my feet in the Medditerenean, I did the same in the Red Sea(I can't swim), I saw lake Nasser. And I travelled in other ways too. Inside of myself and in the conversations I had. Conversations about life, politics, economics, history, women all the things that matter most. Maybe this was just my impression but I felt that people who go to Egypt are in search of a quest for self. Its a country that's far away from anything you ever experienced, its the Middle East, its Africa, its westernised, its not. Its filled with history and myths and stories we grew up with, its exotic, its familiar. Its different. It allows you to be different, it lets your mind wander. So I travelled inside conversations with these people about the state of the world (its the same everywhere, everyone is scared they will not find a job, everyone feels they will have to do a masters degree.) many a night spent seeking the morning in quiet or rowdy conversation were my best trips.

I planned each charted course; Each careful step along the byway, But more, much more than this, I did it my way.

In the end a place is just a place. Its a collection of buildings, some old some new. Its a shock of culture, culture dripping from every building like clothes hang out of the windows to dry. Its a collection of air conditioning units and satellite dishes. Its a mishmash of modern architecture screaming efficiency in every straight line and memories of the past, a past filled with grandeur and statues so big you feel you have to bow to them. Even a place this beautiful, a place where you can see the sun sinking into the sand behind the pyramids and watch this take place in 5 minutes is just a place. A place is dead. Balzac once said about the desert that it is “God without mankind.” it is beautiful, sensual even but in the end a desert is dead.

The record shows I took the blows - And did it my way

The people matter most in any place, in any journey. The people I met in Egypt were amazing, I had friends I felt I had known for decades, we drank and partied together, we talked and walked and walked and walked. On my last day I tried to see them all but it wasn't possible instead I saw my flatmates, my amazing flatmates, they made life so much better for me in Cairo. My impromptu family. They listened to my singing with no complaints(they complained), we had dinners together as we watched the drama in Tahrir, we went to the square and got chased down by the military police and came back home to be chided and chastised by the ones who were too smart to go around doing anything so stupid. I walked over to the apartment in Mohandaseen, my other family and sat down for hours near a table that had held numerous bottles of tequila and the weight of some of the heaviest conversations of my life.

I've loved, I've laughed and cried. I've had my fill; my share of losing. And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing.

We talked about the future and made all these plans to meet each other again but... the saddest thing about goodbyes may be the lie we tell at them. Most real goodbyes are forever. Their apartment had a window with a view of Cairo, a city beset with dust and smoke, neglected by the rains and always parched. A city filled by  buildings jockeying with billboards for prominence, a city that when the sun goes down(between 5:30 and 5:40 that process is complete) comes to life in a clash of darks and yellows and on this day little pools of water. The biggest lie about most real goodbyes is that they are not forever, but its a lie we need to hear right then. Life will drag all of us in a thousand different directions to a thousand different places and deposit us there without a map. Its nearly impossible to find ourselves in this world let alone other people. But the beauty of life is that it allows us to  hope. It lets us say this lie and mean it, for though its a lie for once in a while maybe just once in a life it becomes the truth.

To think I did all that; And may I say - not in a shy way, "No, oh no not me, I did it my way".