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Thursday, May 31, 2012

my 17th

I pretended to be a tourist on the 17th of May. I was after all in Oslo which isn’t really home and  just visiting for the celebrations. I had my camera in my pocket at all times which isn’t really where it should be as in my hand makes more sense for pictures of the going ons.

I’ve celebrated national holidays before. Kenyan national holidays, and we have many. The first few months of the year are rather dry. January is broke month. February we begin to go out again but no holidays, no long weekends just normal Kenyan life. March moves on. April has only that day for fools and on May 1st we have our first stay at home holiday. June 1st has the day of internal self-governance which I remember meaning we took care of everything except defence and diplomacy. 10th of October used to be Moi day. This is the day when we got our second president. 20th October we celebrate the incarceration of our first president as Kenyatta day. October is probably the most loved month when you are in school,  a short 10 week school term with interruptions for both of these days as well as an agricultural show fitting snugly somewhere in the month. 12th December comes and we celebrate two things actual independence and the day we became a republic.

So we have 4 national days. The president will give a speech. Some people will go watch. Most people will stay at home because in truth even with four we don’t really have a national day. It’s strange but I never even used that expression before it didn’t mean much to me, we just call them holidays. That’s what they are, I can look back over my life and see them all follow the same pattern, sleep in, chill around the house and recently have a family lunch even more recently make sure that the family lunch is accompanied by alcohol and all manner of loud aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. We don’t really have national days in Kenya just holidays and the excuses to take them. Sometimes the president would declare a holiday pretty randomly. Well I guess there was always a reason behind it but it always felt like he woke up that morning and didn’t think he would want to wake up the next and didn’t want to appear lazy so he made all of us lazy.

In Norway 17th of May is a big deal. It’s huge. I walked into the laundry and as I was waiting for my clothes to dry I asked this lady whether it would be good since I was a “tourist.”

“17th of May is the only day Norwegian people live.”

That’s something else I realise living here. Maybe it’s the same everywhere in the world but I have never lived in a country with a lot of immigrants, here people stick to their original nationality no matter what it was. They may have been born in Norway or spent all their formative years here but they feel more defined by what came before in their blood, their earlier genetic memory always peeks through the curtain that experience draws over all that and reminds them to call their countrymen Norwegians. Perhaps it’s just their inner chameleon showing its skin, or trying not to actively mirroring my obvious foreignness and trying to make me more at ease. “You can bitch about Norwegians to me because am not really from here I just lived here for the last … years and though I haven’t been home for just as many years am as foreign here as you.”

But on the 17th of May everyone feels Norwegian. We got up early to make our way to a friend’s place and had to pass by the subway station. At 9 in the morning the city was already full of life and noise. You see Norway is a very quiet country. For months and months I couldn’t even put my finger on what was missing then I was told that drivers can only hoot their cars when they are in the midst of an emergency otherwise they get fined by the police.  The streets are quiet. The cars move  silently and the loudest thing you hear is the patter of feet. You get on the bus, train or tram and it’s even more silent. People burying their headphones in their ears, burrowed so deep that nothing escapes, not a squeak, not a head bob not a beat. On the 17th of May there was conversation in the bus, there was laughter in the air, there were little children singing in the subway. And there was hooting… well no there wasn’t and thank god for that, it’s not a sound you can find yourself missing.

We were having breakfast at a friend’s place and as soon as we entered a glass of champagne was put in my hands. I had just arrived from Poland so I had some vodka for the day’s festivities but it was not 10 am yet so I left it snug in my bag. We fit ourselves in this beautiful apartment and began talking the day away. It’s at times like this that you realise the common humanity of nearly everyone. The togetherness in celebration we experienced the laughter and the joy and mostly… well am trying to find a way to write this without appearing to be sexist. A disclaimer will do. Women are equal to men and should be given the same opportunities as men everywhere, your gender shouldn’t define your options just your personality, hard work, luck and tenacity are the things that determine your destiny. That said whenever there’s a party in Kenya a natural form of segregation takes place and in not time at all the men disappear from the kitchen. They go sit down in the lounge and entertain each other with stories stored up from last time. The women for some reason entertain each other as they cook. Well on 17th of May (at least where I was) it happened here too.

Everything is tuned into these celebrations. Stores are shut down and the television pays an endless homage to the day. Reports fly in from everywhere around Norway. Televised celebrations from Kristiansand and Kristiansund, Halden and Horten, Arendal, Alesund, Oslo and many many others with letters like æ, å andø marring their pronunciation. Chefs are interviewed about what they are cooking and families show off their traditional dress. The ties that had been hidden all year round are dusted off and noosed up. Ironed shirts, aired dresses, cuff linked sleeves, pretty necklaces all vie for attention on the TV screen. If you aren’t at one of these parades you should be.

10 am reached and the vodka was reached for. And it looks like water so we can walk around the streets with it right and if you see the police coming shout out “gratulerer midag.” We tried to get to the castle to watch the king and queen wave but it began raining and the streets were so crowded there was nothing to be done. In the end some friends and I went to this small café near Anker and had some beers. The sun had come up again and was teasing our skin with its kisses. This was one of my last days in Oslo I knew and I had gotten to know the people surrounding me. They were my friends, my brothers, my family. We passed off emotion with jokes, jokes about the early days when the end of the fk experience was not as pressing concern as what to do when your body is permanently in a deep freezer. But as happens with drink it soon passed to emotion, true emotion. Promises of forever and the blinking away of almost tears. Good days come along so rarely and when they do it’s hard to imagine that you ever needed anything more than a few friends and the sun on your skin.

I missed all the parades because am a horrible tourist but I saw the police mounted on horses and I desperately wanted a picture. My camera was far away my reflexes were fogged, but I could get them to stop.
“Hey, hey could you stop for a picture.”
“Ok just look my way as the camera flashes.”
“Ok all I want you to do is act like you can’t hear me.”
They did.

At night I had a goodbye to say. Our project manager has moved away from Norway, on to different challenges, responsibilities and an adventure that will probably change her life forever. She lives, or used to live in Oslo and I knew that the next time I was there she would be gone. We went to a bar nearby and sat down in a large group of people talking and laughing and drinking. But it was that scene at the end of Oceans 11. They have successfully ripped off the bank and they are standing at a bridge watching the sun give way to the Vegas night. All you can see are silhouettes of the characters and between them there is the comfort of silence. The bond prepared by scaling a mountain together. The fear that goodbye could mean forever. The certainty that forever couldn't wipe away right now. This holds for a few minutes and then one of them tears away. Maybe he chucks a cigarrete into the sea maybe he doesn’t. Then he leaves and the spell begins to break. They begin to go and peel away from each other one by one till all that was left was the bridge, the beautiful memory. That’s what it felt like. One of us had left and it was a herald of the end. Saying goodbye to her was beginning to say goodbye to everyone else too and that goodbye reminded me what it was I don’t like about travelling, what it was I don’t like about meeting new people from all over the world, what it was I don’t like about hallos and beginnings. It reminded me that all that is just a mirror of what happens at the end. The end of the journey, a goodbye to people from so far away another meeting is a smile of the gods. Goodbyes and endings.

The whole of Norway was celebrating and we were too. We all had each other and the moment and the lesson from my childhood that in the end they are all family days.

Monday, May 28, 2012

my trip to warsaw

I have learned some things about early trains, planes and buses; don’t go to sleep before you have showered, shaved and dressed. Don’t go to sleep before you have shat, packed and checked your travel documents, don't go to sleep until you are ready, set and in position.

I had an early morning train to Warsaw, Monday at 9 and I had to go there only to leave on the late night train back to Gdansk to catch my mid-morning flight back to Oslo. And there  was no way in the world I was missing that train. I’ll sleep on the train I told myself as I tried to get directions from a polish populace that don’t all speak English, I’ll sleep on the train I said as I went around and around the station trying to find my way to Warsaw, I’ll sleep on the train I said as finally with ticket at hand I had to wait for an hour on the platform before it was time to leave. While waiting I sank my eyes into another book by a highly recommended polish author, this time the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I had watched the movie based on this book and absolutely loved it. Apocalypse Now directed by Francis Ford Copolla, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. A story about a man whose soul was claimed by the jungle, a man who lost it all to the shadows and the divine darkness inside them, lost his way, lost his purpose and found a new one in service to the strange gods who live in places we can’t find unless we can't find ourselves.

Then I got on the train and slept. Oh polish trains, so comfortable, I stretched myself out panther like, well like a foetal panther but in comparison to most of the trains I had been riding I was sleeping in the living room of luxury, the lap of laziness. The toilets may have been my favourite, clean, sparse with the requisite no smoking signs on the windows and a stream of ice-cold water whenever I pressed the button, water gushing out in a stream so long and delicious my thirst was quenched and my bladder filled before another few hours passed. And I slept and got up and slept again and got up again . 

And I remembered being at this AIESEC conference last year where I met the most charismatic man I have ever seen in action. At 50 years old he had this group of 20 somethings mum listening to his every word as he held  forth on the ingredients of the normal aiesec relationship, in the middle of a night party. First it has to   be this really great person. A person with all the ideals you grew up for, who wants to change the world or maybe just be happy in it. Someone who has had all these experiences that make them so different from whoever else is around, yet  familiar to whoever you held in your head as the person you thought about. Then it has to be geographically impossible. A continent’s distance isn’t enough? What? Stick an ocean in there and then it begins to count.

And so here I was taking a 6 hour train to take a 6 hour train back just for the pleasure of 3 hours of company, and not even in a relationship just something I felt was too deep a connection not to make the 12 hour trip to see, not to make the journey to Europe to be able to, not to keep going back in Poland even when I had gotten jailed there once.

Sometimes, and am sure everyone has this, I’ll meet a girl and it will be perfect. "I’ll say one thing and she’ll say anther and next thing I know I’ll want to spend the rest of my life in the middle of that conversation"*. Those times are fewer and further between. Maybe youth has a better way of letting connections happen. Maybe we get more guarded with age. More jaded with experience, more cynical with the cycles of hope and heartbreak, wonder and wounds.  But you always have that conversation. This piece of lyric from Good Charlotte stuck with me whenever I met my old primary school friends

“Some say that time changes/ best friends can become strangers
And I don’t want that/ no not for us.”

I always found it so haunting. This story of love lost, more like friendship deformed and reformed into something alien and the sounds that come out of your mouth are strangled, the speech that you try to build is swallowed in silences that feel so long, silences filled with memories of the time when all that existed was laughter.

And those are for some reason the stories its easy to write about. It’s easier to move with sorrow than with joy. Making people laugh may be the greatest gift given to man since it’s so hard to achieve. Comics and people who write feel good stories will always get my respect. It’s so hard to keep them memorable and it’s so hard to think that something you are doing has the shelf life of the last laugh it evoked. How to sustain joy in words is something i still want to learn. 

But this meeting was perfect. She took me around the city and showed me this statue, “that’s one of our famous poets, when everyone went to war he stayed back and wrote a few poems instead.”

“Yer but what would one more soldier with one more gun have done for the war.”
“I agree what we really needed then was one more poet writing one more poem.”

I got to eat this

That is a house of bread. Inside there is meat, cabbage and am not sure what else. The entire dish is edible and oh, so filling.
 “We polish people we say your food is your heart and you always welcome guests with your heart wide open so eat, eat. And do you want something to drink?”

All too soon it was time to go back home. We said goodbye at the train station and I hang around a little waiting for my train that turned up an hour late this time. And apparently I had come over on first class, now I got a second class ticket and really all I said about polish trains I take it back. The doors open and you rush into these tiny compartments. You and 6 or 7 others. The first thing you do is draw the curtain and hope noone knocks. The windows don't open, the space isn't enough and if you leave yourself exposed people will just pile on. You sit with your hands between your laps cursing the fact that you don’t have any vodka and then when you need to go to the toilet you rouse everyone around you.

Here the toilets are more Kenyan you can see the tracks right through the floor and they rush hypnotically past, passing, passing, passing. Then you let go and look at these no smoking signs lying right next to the smouldering ashes of the last cigarette that was put out there. You sleep like a statue. Your face in front and make sure you don’t nod into the shoulders of the guy next to you. Then you get home or what passes for home on these short trips, the tiny hostel you are living in. Just enough time to pick up a bag and leave again.

*paraphrased from Hank Moody's letter to Karen in season 2 of carlifornication.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

the University of Gdansk

Then I landed in Poland again. I think I really do love this country, also the flights are cheap from Norway. This time I didn’t know anyone in the town I was going too(Gdansk), it was an adventure I had promised myself at least once on this euro trip, go somewhere where no one knows you and see what happens. My housemate and I had decided to go there for a 5 day holiday.

We landed and it felt like home. The sun was behind some clouds in the distance but for the first time in a long time this didn’t mean that we were back to freezing. At the airport some guy who was going to Russia came up to ask us how to get the train there and I looked around at all the white faces  and asked him “we’re the ones you chose to ask?”

We had done some groundwork and knew the name and street address of a really cheap hostel we would be living in and all we needed was directions. We came to a university lawn and there were these girls sitting there having a beer picnic at 3 in the afternoon and we asked for directions.

“Well we don’t know where the place is but why don’t you guys go get some beers and come join us."

I immediately I remembered why I like Poland so much. So off on a beer run, a few zloty later and we were back but they were nowhere to be seen, the promise of the day already being clouded over, so we went to another group of girls, this time they were going our way but they said they had to finish their beer first and asked us to sit down and keep them company as they did this.

Apparently polish universities in Gdansk have this long running tradition where the different faculties have week-long parties to prepare the students for exams and we had landed smack in the middle of one of these parties. So we sat and drank our beers and tried to remember their names. Then  they took us off to our hostel, all the time singing all the polish songs i know, one called kokoko that's the official Euro 2012 song. It is a joke song about the sound a chicken makes in Poland and i love how much they hate it. We bought some more beer on the way and we promised to look them up once we were checked in.

The hostel we were living in was a university hostel. A typical uni ofNairobi hostel, there were beds for each of us in a floor filled with a host of college people who had finished their tasks for the week or who just didn’t care enough to finish since the weekend was here and parties were all around. The dorms were all located quite close to each other and so there were gaggles of beer drinkers everywhere. Checking in we were informed that there was a guy from Mozambique who lived in the same dorm and I felt he would be happy to see someone from the home continent but the chances of us meeting him were nearly nil.


We had someone shout and turned to see him bearing down on us with a grin that would last for days. Hugo from Mozambique whose mother was polish and father Congolese. He would turn out to be our best friend for the time we were there making sure we went to all the party spots warning us about all the dangers that surrounded us and showing us how to get around. The first night was great; we went back to the party grounds at the university and sat down next to the first people we had met. There are a lot of Spanish people in Gdansk, students over there on an Erasmus exchange; it’s a European student exchange which provides thousands of students with the best years of their lives. You apply, you get accepted and dispatched to a foreign country, they provide your upkeep for that year and you get so few classes and so little exams that all it is an exercise in self-examination and how much partying a young body can really do, well at least in Gdansk.

The day dragged into the night, reluctant to leave and not really gone until 10 pm. The grounds were filled with students; everywhere you turn opportunities for opportunities. Spanish, Polish and English mingling in the night sky with beer burps and vodka yells. There was a wall in the university where those strong of hand and heavy with alcohol would take turns throwing beer bottles. I don’t know what the beer bottles were made of since they would never break on first impact, put your shoulder, your legs and your run into it and still they would just glance off the wall. Sometimes they would get sent back to the thrower as hard as before and only then would they crack showering the ground with wall cries of this-is-how-you-do-it. Once in a while a beer bottle would get stuck on the wall a signature, an autograph and for this cheers would resound.

look close enough and you see my signage

I had forgotten how easy it is to meet people when you are a foreigner, all you have to do is smile and say hello and sometimes, a lot of the time you get offered a seat and a conversation. You get to exchange curse words and compliments in tongues so removed you wonder if they are lying to you.

Next to our hostel, right beneath it there was a club, this is where we finished off the first night. The next night we got invited to a room party, by virtue of being strangers. Then off to Sopot. There are 3 cities in such close vicinity to each other people will take the train from one to the other just to party. Sopot, Gdansk and Gdynia. Before the weekend was over I would make sure to see all of them.

Saturday night we went to yet another room party, sitting with some Erasmus people and talking about life in different cities. This guy from Sardinia gave us alcohol his father had made, he repeatedly cautioned us not to drink too much just taste it, just wet your lips since it’s very strong. Then we made our way over to sopot, the club scene and it really was. It’s been a long time since I was in a club like that. The press of bodies, the sound of music, the heat of expectation and the funny polish smoking zones which are just a room inside one of the clubs. It’s not really for health reasons or anything since the smoke leaks out onto the floor. Maybe its so the club doesn’t get set on fire or just to provide a lounge area where you can go for a talk if you can hear each other past the haze of smoke drifting lazily and pluming out onto the floor. 

Our meals were kebabs. Huge, huge kebabs. We would wake up in the afternoon and make our way over to the shop and order one large. Take it in your arms and begin to much away at the salad, meat, mayonnaise, bread and ketchup. Halfway through your stomach would begin to groan under the heavy load you were shovelling in. Go on and soon it would complain but when you knew that it was the last meal you would have that day all you did was eat.

it looks much better.
On my last night another friend of ours took us to a lookout point. We climbed and climbed this mountain and got to the top of the city. The whole place was arrayed in front of us in all its colours and hues. The lights playing off the night, the sun hinting that it didn’t like to be away, the stars twinkling and shining and turning over and over and over. The height brought the air in gulps of scenery and we just stood there and watched it take us away.

For 4 days I was in university again. Doing all the things a student should do. Talking the night away, dancing the night away, drinking the night away with all pretensions to anything dropped off since everyone around us wore no armour at all. Those four days probably will stand for very long as my favourite university experience.

Monday, May 21, 2012

heels and a dress

I was having a beer with a friend of mine on the streets of Oslo, it was raining that day, I can’t say how much I hate European rain, it’s too cold, it’s too windy and the temperature gets under your skin. We were sitting outside this bar with an umbrella covering that kept away the water but not the wind or the spray or the life in the rain.

A woman passed by or tried to, she was shaking and freezing, she didn’t seem to feel the wet slicking off the sky onto the streets, onto her body, into her clothes. And she walked  slowly, so very slowly. She had a cigarette in her mouth and she looked for a lighter, she put her hands into her wet clothes and searched, a slow search since her strength seemed to have failed her. For every step forward she had to take a couple back, baby steps, little, tiny steps of pain and exhaustion. We stopped talking and just watched. It didn’t feel like we were making a spectacle of her grief just giving the moment the silence it deserved, the solemnity it required.

My friend asked her if she wanted a lighter and she nodded.

It looked like all she could do. Nod.

Then she lit her cigarette and sat down beside us. She looked in her forties or fifties, she was one of those people who seemed beaten by life, her age wasn’t written in her skin but in the way she stood and the way she walked. Even with the freshness of a 17 year old she would still have looked fifty. She had a purple patch on her left eye and a jacket that had seen better days. She didn’t look like she herself had seen any for a long time

She smoked but could derive no pleasure from it. It was a routine. An addict’s conviction that one smoke can make things feel better, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes all it is a routine, a matter of custom, something you have always done. Looking in the mirror and saying everything will be ok but without the conviction necessary to convince yourself of this fact.

She trembled then she began to speak to my friend. She spoke in Norwegian so I couldn’t understand but pain needs no translation, her voice was shaking, trembling, breaking under the strain of a million souls on a  million marches and she needed to talk.

Once in a while she would be overcome with what she was saying she would shake even more violently and begin to sob then stop herself. Am not really sure she could stop herself maybe she was just too tired with the effort it required. Maybe for this act she could see that unlike the cigarette a matter of routine, a set custom wouldn’t help anything. Tears don’t always unlock the pain we have and sorrow is not a liquid that we can squeeze out with eyes shut so we don’t have to see where it goes. Maybe she just thought the world was crying enough for her that day.

I had been happy for some time by that day. Filled with the conviction that there are times when your lot in life is to spread joy, to smile and bring happiness to places that don’t have enough. But a smile then would have been horrible. Empathy and compassion were needed. I couldn’t understand the specifics of what she said but I could understand what she said. Sorrow does not need a translation.

She needed to talk then and maybe she did have a lighter within easy reach but knew that the only way to talk to strangers in Norway is to be offered a light. The rain kept pattering. It kept falling down the streets, it kept up its cold as she told her story.

She would sigh.

Then she would continue. I looked at her and studied her face. The purple bruise over her eye, the coat she was wearing, the way she talked and I asked myself why life does this to people. Why it brings things to this desperate edge where the edge in a voice is all that’s needed to convey the deepest anguish.

I thought of a poem I had recently read, The Prophet by Khalil Ghabrain where he writes:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And what if my purpose in life then was to take in her sorrow. To give solace when it is needed. Not to bring joy but to mitigate pain. To make it feel felt, to feel it too and let her know that she was not alone. What if the turning down of my candle of joy, making it ten shades darker so that a vacuum of loneliness could be one iota more bearable was the true thing I was supposed to do? Some people do this all their lives. They put themselves on the back burner, they can be happy but choose not to in order to take away some of the world’s pain. Choosing a life they know will take them to dark places and leave them grey, blue and bruised. Not full anymore, not as happy as they could be. That’s true sacrifice and being confronted with it am not sure I could make it.

She jingled some coins in her hand and began counting them out. 20 kroner, 40 kroner, 60 kroner, shaking them into her hands, trembling them onto her fingers. She offered them to me and said something. My friend said that I could only speak English. So she asked if she could buy my beer. I offered her the rest of mine. As soon as I did I questioned myself. One more good intention, more firm planting on the road to hell. I wanted to be kind but is it right to give someone so sad, so obviously in need of something, anything else, more alcohol. She finished off the gulp remaining. And offered back a cigarette. I said no.

We sat a little longer in silence then she got up to go. I looked after her as she left and saw that beneath the jacket she had on a dinner dress. A black affair that you could wear to any state dinner in the world, she had heels on too. Take off the jacket, cover up the bruise and she would be instantly transformed. Take away the tremor cover up the pain and we would never know what was going on.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fisk's great war

For a couple of months I have been absorbed in a book, the great war for civilisation by Robert Fisk. It’s a book about war and the failure of the human spirit. It is vivid and fleshy, filled with details that make your skin crawl and remind you that what it contains is real. It’s a book about the Middle East and the wars fought there. Wars for the greatest of all resources or in the service of them, religion, holy lands, oil and more. There is a passage in the book that brings to life what war is really about.

Florence Nightingale never reached this part of the old Ottoman empire but her equivalent is Dr. Khaldoun al-Baeri, the director and chief surgeon, a gently spoken man who has slept an hour a day for six days and who is trying to save the lives of more than a hundred souls a day with one generator and half of his operating theatres out of use-you cannot carry patients in your arms to the sixteenth floor when they are coughing blood. Dr. al-Baeri speaks like a sleepwalker, trying to describe how difficult it is to stop a wounded man or woman from suffocating when they have been injured in the thorax, explaining that after four operations to extract metal from the brains of his patients he is too tired to think let alone in English.

As I leave him he tells me that he does not know where his family is. "Our house was hit and my neighbours sent me a message to tell me they sent them away somewhere. I do not know where. I have two little girls, they are twins and I told them that they must be brave because their father has to work night and day in the hospital and they mustn't cry because now I have to work for humanity. And now I have no idea where they are." then Dr. al-Baeri choked on his words and began to cry and could not say goodbye.

War is not pretty. It’s not the coming together of the brave and the true, it’s not about victory, honour and dignity is the hypothesis of the book. War is about suffering and death and horror. Over and over he repeats that war represents the total failure of the human spirit and turning page after page of the book it’s impossible to doubt this. The above passage comes from the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces in response to weapons of mass destruction which when proven a myth became a crusade against a tyrant. It became about liberation of the Iraqi people and the importing of concept of democracy into the land of Babylon, Persia and the Iraqis.  No one wants to be occupied, self-determination is actually recorded in a UN charter somewhere that my law knowledge can no longer access. The ability to control your own destiny and decide for yourself is ultimately what makes adulthood so much better than childhood. He quotes one of the Iraqis as saying that he would not fight the Americans till Saddam was deposed because he didn’t want Saddam back but once he was caught it would be bombs on. Another man says he would strap his one year old daughter in a bomb and send her off to kill troops.

The book then does amazing things, it asks why? Why did they strike against everyone and it delves into historical analysis of the region of a type that I have never seen before. He doesn’t flinch away from laying blame and laying it all around. He shows step by step the harassment of the Muslim people in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our fathers. Endless was of oppression, the foisting of dictatorships that served the interest of other countries, the endless bloodshed that war by remote brings about.

Planes take you away from the actual pain of killing. It could be a video game when you are so far up and you spray fire on what could be ants. You don’t see the life being extinguished, you don’t see the children. It’s always the children who suffer the most. Sanctions imposed after the first time Iraq and America were at war resulted in the death of about 500,000 children he says when you do the math that's 166 times the number of people who died in 9/11 . This is a huge figure; this is a figure that makes sense only when you speak in such terms. When you don’t really know that it’s one child who died after another and another and another and another till the anothers would fill more words than I could write. But in this book you don’t forget that. You never do, he was a reporter and he dutifully notes names and ages of the dead. You read of 3 year old girls with brains leaking out of their ears and missing limbs. Bombs placed by both sides and the sides become so entangled that it’s really all sides doing this.

Death follows death. And then more die and then the lens of the book goes back and looks at the partition of the middle east, the death of the ottoman empire the slicing of Lebanon from Syria, the creation of Jordan, and that question that may confound all of us for years to come the creation of the state of Israel and what it mean for the state of Palestine.

It seems everything revolves around this or tries to. The integrity of Israel and the protection of Palestine are used over and over to justify, to unite, to enmify people from everywhere. Here too a historical analysis is given. He looks at the sides and he condemns acts everywhere. He condemns the suicide bombers of Palestine but asks the question why. Why did Israeli soldiers answer stones with bullets and slingshots with real shots? How can a people react when their home they are kicked out of and the given into a refugee camp?

Every chapter begins with a poem or a quote. In one he quotes Tolstoy on war a passage that I always remember:

War began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes

Lest we forget that’s what war is. It is the forgetting of decency. Its object is murder. Murder and theft. Kill the soldiers and take their land. It results in looting and rape. It is accompanied by fire and blood, by screams of anguish and whispers of loss. And the Middle East seems embroiled in wars that have no end in sight.

He chronicles the 8 year war between Iran and Iraq. 8 years is a long time to be at war. 8 years ago it was 2004. I was a high school student. My biggest concern was passing exams.my stress was at a minimum, I had never even made a CV all I did was live. So much has happened in those 8 years in all our lives. To live them in subservience to war, death and suffering is unimaginable for me. And when these two nations went at it they went at it. There was no pause in the war, no  quarter, they tore each other apart in a war whose stories could give the devil nightmares.

He looks at Afghanistan, forever occupied by empires on their decline. Alexander the Great tried for it. The British were driven out, the Russian were driven out and the American came barging in. I can’t remember the exact quote right now but it was he quoted something about about them coming over the hill of destiny and meeting those who had gone before and that we learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history.

And the history recounted tells us this over and over. We see so many parallels between the ways empires have carved out portions of the Middle East for themselves. It’s the rewind button of fate, the way the world reminds itself of what’s happened. A failing of human beings is our amnesia. We forget in lifetimes their lessons and generations never keep within them the history the tattooed stories of loss and destruction that war brings.

He brings us to Algeria and the sadness of the wars fought there. The French leaving and the government that took over from them leaving. The parallels again are astounding. We are doomed to repeat its mistakes and we do.

Then there’s a list of names. There’s a visit to a hospital and you see the horror of war laid out in front for all to see. And its face is that of a five year old girl or a 12 year old boy. Its voice is that of a mother weeping for her children. A father pretending pride and suffering sorrow as he hears of a son who died.

The writing is so vivid I would fall between two worlds. In no time at all I would get a visa to another place and look out of a balcony in Lebanon, confront arms manufactures with the stories and evidence of their trade. I would meet Osama bin laden and hear his justifications for what he did. Look at foreign policy through Fisk's eyes and have mine cloud over by the short-sightedness and blindness of some of the decisions therein

I have never understood the middle east better than I do now. I have never been such an authority on why things are the way they are. But then remember the old maxim, the more you know the more you know that you don’t know. 1,300 pages is a ghost, it’s a skeleton. Their production required a body of work and sacrifice and he did. The life of covering the Middle East is not easy. He shuttled from war to war surrounded by corpses and limb and the ghosts of the gone, the misery of the survivors and the pain of the nations. But all i did was read and though i know more now than i did before, "i know nothing"

And then there were more names. The details, the lives and in some cases the letters they wrote each other. These things happened they were horrible and they ruined the world. and if we are not careful they will happen again.

Friday, May 11, 2012

you didn't have to be so cold

make it like it never happened and that we were nothing

I love reading about Mark Zuckerberg. The founder of Facebook, I am CEO bitch his cards used to say . No matter what people say about him he changed the world completely. I still remember the first article I ever read about him, a lengthy profile in the New Yorker. How I found it goes back to one of my older loves, the West Wing. That was a television show, that was a great television show. The dialogue in the writing, the beauty in the words the power in the drama and the comedy in the slip-ups all combined to produce magic every week. The first episode I ever watched was on a Sunday evening, sitting at home at  5 p.m. tuned into nation TV.  When it came on I was blown away. In my mind the first episode I ever watched was my favourite, it was called the two cathedrals, and since I don’t think it makes sense to offer spoiler alerts for things that were shown in 2001 (10 years should be the expiry date, except I still get pissed off when I read the essays in front  of Tolstoy’s books and get this lengthy exposition about what to watch out for and the trainy endings of Anna Karenina so…) SPOILER.

In that episode the president’s secretary dies in a car crash, she had just bought her first new car and on her virgin ride she gets hit by a drunk driver. There’s a lot of emotion swirling around at this time, the president had concealed the fact of a disease that he had. His re-election is in the toilet because the truth always comes out and bites you in the ass in the worst way. His wife is angry that he still wants to be president again despite promises made and paid for but  power is the most seductive siren that ever sang. A storm is brewing on one of the coasts and it reminds the old man of another tragedy. He is angry, he is angry at God and after the service he asks for some time to talk to his creator (he is a deeply religious man.) he stands there and looks up at God and lets his anger flow. “You can’t conceive neither can I the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God said Graham Greene, I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there because I think you’re just vindictive.” He says in a speech laden with examples of acts of God, like in the Brothers Karamazov when after listing the cruelties of the world one brother says to the other "it's not God that i don't accept Alyosha only i must respectfully return him the ticket" he talks in Latin and English, he expresses his anger in a way that I have never heard spoken to a deity before. We weren’t allowed to be angry at God you see. After I watched and found myself in my-angry-at-God periods I wanted to write a character like this, I had things I wanted to say to God in ways that I couldn’t without calling blasphemy and lightning down on my head and I wanted to say them, or write about someone who could, hide behind the cloak of artistic license and this is what good writing does, it inspires you. A writer is a reader moved to emulation said Saul Bellow and that scene moved me to emulation. I’ll just paste it below after doing what I hate all those Tolstoy prefacers for doing.

After watching the West Wing I loved Aaron sorkin’s writing he’s probably my favourite screenwriter, there’s nothing he would do that I wouldn’t watch twice. Then I read that he was going to do a movie about Facebook, the social network and I began to read about it. I read the New Yorker profile that talked about Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to the movie and his portrayal in it. The writer had said he would be more faithful to a good story than he would be to the truth, so I watched it as entertainment. But in the profile they interview Aaron Sorkin, they tell him that Mark Zuckerberg had listed the west wing as one of his favourite series and that Mark’s favourite episode was the same as mine(not in those words exactly.) but after the movie he had taken it down, "I wish  you hadn't told me that" responded Aaron Sorkin.

i don't even need your love

Well Facebook, I can’t keep up with it. The timeline came out and I didn’t want to move but I knew I would and I knew that with time I would like it more than anything that came before, I knew that their innovation knows user friendliness more than my human inertia can. So I moved. When they mixed chat with messages and made all the threads into a long spool of sooner forgotten, half tipsy flirtations I was angry but now it’s what life is. Still I find new things about Facebook all the time.

A few years ago I had no idea how to remove a friend, I just let people wallow into obscurity till their posts no longer come up and it works for me. And I never felt that anyone would treat me different but I was removed as a friend. It happened a lot. It keeps happening and I can never know when it did or does exactly since those are people whose profiles aren’t touched on enough for me to notice that they don’t want me to. And it’s always my friend’s exes. I don’t get it. Am always so nice to these girls, I get to know them and find a place where conversation is easy, I try to turn them into wing women and give them alone time with their boyfriends, I keep a professional distance but soon think of them as acquaintances then they break up and they remove the whole cancer. They poison themselves with the treatment of burned bridges but maybe its what they need to heal.

Once I was removed as a friend, personally. I couldn’t believe it, I thought  it was a glitch, she wasn’t the girlfriend of any of my friends and while things weren’t a rose bed they also weren’t a rose bed since they weren’t that thorny or muddy . It’s like only I can’t see the stains of red and mud that relationships leave behind.

Then recently Facebook sent me another lesson in usability. I had come home tired and tried, it was 5 in the morning and since we are in that kind of season the sun had already stretched its fingers over the horizon grasping the earth in tendrils of light and making the sky that azure blue it becomes at dawn. I got home and turned on my computer, I had a girl on my mind and I wanted to write her a message, I had been putting it off since… I don’t know why. I know she meant something and the worst thing is that maybe I made her feel like she didn’t and the end was sad, it was mournful and mourned. But distance gave us some time and we were going to find a way to be friends. This can’t happen with everyone we should realise, sometimes  even when it’s no one’s fault  the smiles stretched taut still break our skin from the falseness and eggshells carpets. But it was time to write the message and I put on my internet, I go on my Facebook, search the name and get nothing, search my messages and try to write then I see this

you cannot message... learn more

I never knew that was even possible, unable to send messages, and Facebook asks me to click on something to learn more. So I click on it, I want to learn more. A stupid part of me seems to think that there will be an explanation posted there, a “dear….. I don’t want to get messages from you any more since I can’t…” but that’s never going to be what you get. When you go into surgery you need warmth and love, you need your family and words of encouragement, instead you get a cold slice of steel, it cuts through your skin and blood gets pumped out and sucked, it’s ugly and professional. It’s technical and that’s what I get a technical message “if you would also like to do this to someone we can show you how…”

Sometimes am completely vulnerable and so easily bruised. Maybe I had done something that deserved such a complete shutout and I looked through he messages seeing eggshells cracked everywhere, seeing explanations that still make me yearn for the time they weren’t needed and so much hostility that I can’t believe I never saw it before. I get more heartache than I do headaches and as this happened it touched me. Anger was unavailable. I didn’t know when this happened, a year, a few months? The closer messages spoke of reconciliation in a tone of wistfulness. We may want it to happen but the world doesn’t give people that many chances and we blew that one out of the water. There’s no timeline for broken friendships and like stars we can keep seeing their light long, long after their heat has died and soon we realise how cold the night really is. But still I ached. 

but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough

Monday, May 7, 2012

on days like this

I should probably research the provenance of Labour Day, it probably lies in Karl Marx and his theories of a just society and proper economy. Things that broke down in practice, but everything breaks down in practice. I remember reading once that  communism is the equal sharing of misery and capitalism would then be the equal sharing of opportunity but it’s not really. So every labour day we celebrate the worker. On a day that’s named for what most workers really are the labourers, the ones who push and push for hours in a dark, deserted ward. Surrounded by doctors and an expectant family outside  but in truth alone in a sea of pain and hope. The worst thing about this labour is that it’s usually for someone else. A child put up for adoption without consent. So every Labour Day governments around the world raise the minimum wage, the minimum taxable wage actually.

This labour day I was woken up by a phone call a friend asking if we wanted to go on a boat. The answer is always yes to this question. The sun was shining and the sea that had previously looked so foreboding angry with a dark shade of grey was now blue with possibility. We met her at the pier and got on the boat.

“Do you want to go fast?”
not the actual boat just a pic from the internet, but how it felt

And off we set. Boats are amazing things, riding them is an amazing thing. It’s not a passive experience to be on a boat, if you go fast it’s an active process. There are speed bumps everywhere, wavelet after wavelet crashing into the brow. The speeds we were going at meant that every time this happened we would have a little jump, then another, then another. And it’s not like being on a road. On a road the jumps aren’t smooth, and they are too far away from each other to develop any sense of rhythm. If you drive too fast you risk ruining the chassis of your car, or its undercarriage or carburettor or whatever’s under there. On a boat you let loose. You go faster as you come to a wave, you crest it with pride and soon you become part of the motion of the ocean. You learn to let yourself go as the boat goes up and fly with it, then come sailing back down to your seat so that it doesn’t hurt too much. Then the boat starts talking to you and you know when to do this. When I rode a horse for the first time the instructor told me, “just relax it’s like riding a woman.” Well about a boat, it’s like riding a horse, you let yourself go and listen to its needs and soon you can respond instinctively, you don’t have to think or do after some time just be.

But there’s the spray. The temperature was maybe 18 degrees but the sea did not know this; instead we got a constant spray of ice-cold water. It splashed in my face till I had a headache and I was shivering and chattering from it. It splashed all over my trousers and I had a wet stain in the place you don’t want to have a wet stain because people will look at you as you go home and think you either have very bad bladder control or had a very good lap dance, neither of which are very endearing. I looked back at my friend at the helm of the boat. It was the kind of boat where the captain stands and has her hair pulled out rolling a strawberry blond carpet all over the air. The splash didn’t bother her and the hair just made a better picture. There was something refreshing about this vision it was as though the world was hers and just as we bowed in submission to the sea  I did too to this. My mind told me that I had to get married to a woman who could ride a boat, and then I said the next thing that followed that thought.
“Oh you make me so wet.”
The cold reality of the present winning out over the ideal fiction of the moment yet again

When you ride slowly it’s an immersive experience. At sea everything succumbs to the seduction of the water. Everything bows down and quiets out. A bird caw is the only call you can hear somewhere far out in the distance. There is no splashing of the water on the waves,just the water and it looks solid. It looks like the ground except its moving and shifting, probably the only thing that Jesus and pins have in common is that neither of them break the surface tension. Right then I felt like I could do it too. Like if I just listened enough to the sound and caught the waves at the right crest, if I just let me follow them down it would be ok and i could walk off into the mist.

We came to the boat house soon enough and her father asked me that most famous of questions
“Do you like Norway?”
“Sometimes, on days like today with the sun out like this it’s nearly perfect.”

We got back to town around 2 pm and I couldn’t see myself going home luckily everyone agreed and we decided to rendezvous at the beach. (Various purchases tore apart our group.) Later I went to the beach. Now in truth this is not a beach, it’s a tiny little replica. Its 200 metres long and maybe 80 wide. But it has sand and a volleyball tent and there are people here when the sun shows its beautiful rays. All my housemates had ditched and I didn’t feel like giving up a beach day or a few kroner of credit to call them up so I took off my shoes and walked on it. It feels good to have sand between your toes. The grains caress them ever so lovingly, thousands and thousands with every step. Maybe that’s why it feels so good. As you walk on a beach your titan likestep encompasses all these little globes. Then I sat down and sun basked.
It’s not till you leave Kenya for a while that you understand it. It’s not till then that you realise why every tourist takes themselves to coast and even visiting relatives break off a little of the short time they have to visit Mombasa before they have to come back to cold, cold Europe. When you don’t see her for a while the sun is the best girl you ever knew. She’s warm and welcoming, she makes you feel good without even trying, she fills you with energy, the light of your life and all you want is to close your eyes as she kisses you. Because when she kisses you it all goes red. And I sat like that for a while with my eyes closed and my skin to the sun.

Then I continued walking. Stopping to say hallo to these girls who were also enjoying the day out. I had decided that the flashes of daredevilry need to be more common and that a hallo is such a small thing to lose for all the possibility that comes behind it.
“Please sit down” one of them said.

When the sun began to leave I decided to too. It’s always better to walk away anyway. On the way I had the patter patter of a basketball. And saw a group of people I know. The thing about living in a small town is you meet the same people over and over again. The streets are not crowded enough that anonymity is given. There is no cloak of invisibility just a coat of familiarity after a while. And when you know someone for some reason you begin to really see them. If I haven’t talked to someone i can pass by them in the street 100s of times and still not see them but conversation and shared experience has this bond it creates. Your mind now begins to look for the familiar and find it. Patterns are established ad the pattern of a small town is easy enough to predict, expect to see everyone. My housemate was there too having chosen the game over the beach but I couldn’t blame him basketball can be a beautiful game.

It took no time to convince me to play. We formed a team and began the game. It took very little time for the feel of the ball to come back to me. Soon I was passing and stealing and missing baskets just like the old days. Sports when played properly is almost like a dance. A properly gelled team is a symphony of talent and harmony. The sounds people make are irrelevant instead there are things like hand gestures and false starts. There is instinct and forgiveness given to those who dare. The ball can be whipped around going this way and that and back again, the whole time the people playing are moving, looking for an advantage, a little extra space, a spare moment. The other guys are moving too, pressing in and inching closer. The ball finds hands and the backs of baskets, there are moments of silence. Moments where the only thing interrupting the patter patter of the ball is the breath of the players, released in a measured manner and the sound of their footsteps and soon the hand gestures are replaced by looks and telling glances. Instinct seems to take over and when you watch a team playing well against another team it’s not all those people it’s just two entities locked in a dance to the win. This game was not nearly at this level. At moments we approached it but my lack of fitness caught up with me much faster than my lost talent could, we won a few and lost one but it felt great to play sports again.

Getting home at nine and the beginning of twilight was still in its infancy.

And do I like Norway? On days like this it’s perfect.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

isn't it

The other day I walked to the river or I tried to. I live in a really small town, well the centre is small but it’s the kind of town that outlies and lies about its size. In Kenya a place this size would hold maybe 5 times the number of people this holds  but the residential areas are spread all over the map. The centre is tiny though and its geometrical, it’s a square with lines cutting in through the middle and it’s easy to get around but I still get lost. My directional compass has been messed up so  by the magnetism of my curiosity that i always walk down routes I have never taken before thinking I can find my way there but I never can and I never learn.

I wanted to end up on the bridge but I found myself under it and I thought good enough. There was this guy there fishing. He had set himself up professionally, his beers were close by and his cigarettes near his light, his light in his pocket and his determination in the water. He took the fishing line and whipped it back once, not too far, not too hard then he let it go. The line sailed into the water and dangled impotently over the edge before a fish began to nibble on it and it responded to this stimulus for which it was made  immediately stiffening up. He rolled back the line and put the fish on the shore. He stopped for a couple of puffs and sips, a small victory and celebration. Then he began again. I thought he would send it the same distance but instead now he whipped it back and sent it flying and fly it did. I tried to keep up with its trajectory as it flew arrow straight into the air becoming a silver particle then began its downward trajectory. I tried to see where it would land but I couldn’t. It took him a while to bring it back.

This episode put me in mind of J. Cole. He’s a rapper, new but good, there’s a lot of intelligence in the lines I hear from him, things I hadn’t thought of before or hadn’t thought of in that way isn’t it ironic?/ when I hit someone else you the one that bruise he says in one song. Same song(maybe not i listen to a lot music while i cook now and it all gets blurred together one album being a really long song set to different beats) there’s the line that the whipping motion brought to mind isn’t it ironic? /now whips are the ones that set us free.  This doesn’t really need exposition but sometimes things get more than what they need and who knows maybe there still is someone who doesn’t know that whips is slang for cars. Life is irony a lot of the times. 

I remember in Egypt chilling with some other interns and smoking shisha that I had to decide had an effect. So invoked the placebo, I was called on this and I said “life is a placebo effect.” Maybe it’s not though maybe it’s an ironic existence that we all slog through and just smile at. More money more problems said a wise man once, and  someone else said that money won’t solve all our problems but at least it will solve our money problems. Sometimes thought it seems like money is its own curse and prison. A sea of green that we can’t see out of, most money in the world isn’t green granted but the tendency to think in dollars is something that the overwhelming cultural exports of America leave us in. The more money you have the more you need. The less free you are to go out in whatever you want, to wherever you want with whoever you want. And the longer you spend awake counting, recounting and trying to account for it. Even those born to privilege for whom money is a plaything seem so wrapped up in escaping their reality that they turn to a different addiction, drugs, sex, fame power. Money defines so much more than the wear and tear of your wallet. It means you can’t just go on holiday somewhere and live anonymously, living cheaply is one way to see the more interesting places we have in the world the only way to be really free but nothing is free and poverty is just another prison one with worse food. And the absolute worst thing about money is that quote from Rockefeller, how much is enough? The rich man was asked and he gave the most honest answer that question ever got. “One more dollar.”

Last week I got a compliment about my writing from someone whose writing I really like, and even though it was a compliment it was still couched in apology. This is probably since the truth about compliments is that they are also comparisons. You look good today can also mean you didn’t yesterday. Something meant to make us feel good can make us feel otherwise. So how do you combat this, how do you make someone feel like they look good every day? Well tell them every day. But a thing oft repeated is soon neglected. Compliments need to be special in order for them to have that effect that they should. They should move us, especially a heartfelt compliment and the first time you hear a heartfelt compliment it does. You feel this glow inside of you and you become happier, that’s why I love to tell girls how beautiful their smile is, and when I mean this I reward everyone. I get to see the smile again too. So it seems compliment  need to be comparisons otherwise they ring hollow but say them too much and they don’t ring at all.

There’s a lady from the orient I meet a lot on the way to work, not really meet just see. She has a stern face, it seems lined with worry or discipline more like. The wrinkles didn’t settle where they wanted she willed them into place, an inscrutable face mask of determination. As she walks she smokes and she smokes like I have never seen anyone do it before. Every time I see her there is a cigarette in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth. The great thing about this is that they are all the same cigarette. She puts it in her mouth and takes a puff, a quick puff just a pull, and then she pulls it away. Not too far though, the angle between her elbow is barely 30 degrees before the fist is snapped back, the time is enough for one breath and she lets that go and meets the cigarette again on inhalation. Then again, then again, then again. Over and over and over. They say a cigarette takes away 7 minutes of your life, but what beyond all doubt of studies takes away 7 minutes of your life is 7 minutes of living.

Someone else I meet all the time, well not so much now. In the deep of winter I saw him all the time. When snow invaded my boots and ice crunched under them with every step I took. It was a cold time in Kristiansand, a dark time and one day as we walk home in front of us is this Arab. He’s short and has a face that seems ready to smile at any provocation. All he has on his head is a tiny hat. He risks it and says to us “a salaam aleikum.” The Swahili part of my head kicks into gear immediately and it brings about the response “aleikum salaam.” He’s so happy he stops to talk to us (I was with my housemate.) the Africa cup of nations or its qualifiers was going on (football passes me by without a whiff of interest, it’s like a drug dog with a cold.) and he begins to ask which team we support. Supporting Kenya is hard for football fans. It’s a difficult thing, its emotional battering time and time again. Kenya will lose. It’s all they seem to do. All the matches I go to watch or hear about are losses. We win some but we are a woefully bad team in. We support them out of patriotic fervour a pathetic fever that a thousand losses can’t cure. But we don’t make it to the Africa cup of nations, we never do and so I support Egypt. It’s nice to back someone who has a chance of winning. There are only ever two players in my book. The underdog and the one destined to take it. The guy with the perfect record or the guy with the perfect story. Kenya is definitely the underdog but the perfect story needs time to develop. More time than we can ever seem to give it, so I support Egypt. 

Communication grinds to a halt after that. My Arabic is so rudimentary its non-existent right now and his English is if anything worse than my Arabic so communication stops flowing. And in the end of  isn’t it ironic that I had no observation to tie to this third meeting of mine? Well at least as ironic as rain on your wedding day.