ANTHROPOLOGY / HISTORY
Noxchi Eat Galnish
Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.
Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.
The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the … fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.
Rolling galnish on a Saturday morning.
Photo by Anita Shishani
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.
As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away – they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.
Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.
Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating potentially hostile environments, such as their university or Moscow in general.
Unfazed by outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles,
I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.
Dinner is ready – after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.
Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour – not a single speck is wasted.
Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can. Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.
When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.
I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnish and dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within – to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.
Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.
Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.
The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.
As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.
To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.
A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).
Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.
These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.
*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission
[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you missed our screenings of Ellis on the NYUAD campus or would like to see it again, you can download a copy for free from iTunes.]
The short film Ellis directed by the artist JR and starring Robert De Niro pays homage to all of the immigrants who entered the United States by passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island outside New York City.
Ellis Island is the stuff of American history and mythology. From 1892 to 1954, it was the threshold through which millions of would-be immigrants were required to pass in order to realize their American. Located in Upper New York Bay near the Statue of Liberty, it was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States, and in its peak years — between 1905 and 1914 — an average of 5,000 immigrants per day were processed by immigration officials on the island.
If you were lucky, you spent just a few hours at the island, before receiving permission to proceed to the mainland. You would have had to answer twenty-nine questions, including your name, your occupation, and how much money you were carrying. (You generally needed around $20 to gain approval — about $430 in today’s money — because the US government wanted new immigrants to have funds to support themselves as they tried to start their new lives.)
Some never made it past that threshold, turned away because they had contagious disease, or criminal records, or seemed to be insane. Some of those who seemed to be sick were sent to the island’s hospital facilities. Many stayed there for quite a while. Some died there.
Today Ellis Island is a museum, but the hospital facilities are still abandoned and in disrepair. The visual artist JR recently mounted an exhibition of contemporary photographies pasted onto the walls of the abandoned building. “Walking around the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, I could feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through, and of the countless ones who didn’t make it and got turned back.” The exhibition and the short film that it inspired are the artist’s attempt to “to ﬁnd the story behind each person who left his or her country. I want to know what made them leave everything and everyone behind, even when they knew they’d never be able to come back. It takes so much courage.”
This moving short film looks back to the American past but prompts us to think about todays refugee and migrant crises around the world. As JR puts it, “There were immigrants in Ellis a hundred years ago, there are migrants now, and there will be some in a hundred years, so we have to do what we can to try to relate to each individual story.”
[If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts about it, please share them in the comments section below.]
Bettina Hoerlin is the author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America (2011) and is currently a guest lecturer at NYUAD. While meeting in her apartment, we talk over cups of strong espresso, something I’ve come to miss while living in Abu Dhabi. She shows me copies of her book, published in both English and German, and points out black-and-white pictures of her parents taken in Germany and later in the United States. Hoerlin, who has taught courses in Public Health and health care disparities at Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania, started the project after uncovering a collection of over 500 letters written by her parents to one another from 1934 to 1938 while they lived in two different towns in Germany. (Click here for a link to the archive.) “Here was this unfolding of a great love story,” Hoerlin tells me about the letters, “but it was in the context of the rise of fascism. I had a personal history. And through this personal lens of my parents, they were being shaped by the history that was unfolding, this horrible history in Germany.”
Brigitta Schuchert: How much had you known about your parents before reading the letters? How much of this was new information?
Bettina Hoerlin: I knew outlines. Of course I knew my parents had met. I knew they had fallen in love. I knew they had immigrated to the United States in 1938. But there was so much I didn’t know. They didn’t want to talk about their past, even though my father was sort of this Aryan poster boy. He had climbed the highest mountains, and had been celebrated in Germany. This was a golden age of mountaineering. Nobody had ever conquered an 8,000-meter peak, you know. Everest hadn’t been conquered. None of these peaks had been conquered.
He went on one of the very early expeditions, and tried to climb what they thought at the time was the second highest mountain in the world. I turned out to be only the third highest mountain. They didn’t conquer it because of extensive avalanches, but successfully climbed another nearby mountain, the highest summited to date. He had held a world record, and he was very modest about that. I didn’t realize how revered he was. And there was a movie made out of this 1930 International Expedition to the Himalaya, which was widely shown.
I certainly did not know about his protests when he was part of the executive committee of the Alpine Club. Protests about the Nazification of German mountaineering. He never told me that, so this all came out in the research.
I discovered when I was thirteen that my mother was Jewish by background. [She] had been born to a Jewish family, but fallen in love when she was nineteen with someone who was Catholic. She converted to Catholicism in 1922 and thought of herself as Catholic, as a result of that. They had three children, who were brought up Catholic. And then [her husband] was killed by the Nazis in 1934, during what was called the Night of Long Knives, which was basically the end of the rule of law in Germany, when Hitler rounded up 90-plus people who he saw as hindering him from absolute power. As it turns out, [my mother’s first husband] was killed by mistake. His name was Willi Schimd, and there were many Wili Schmids in Germany — and they confused it. So he was killed and my mother was visited by Rudolph Hess, who was a deputy to Hitler. And he apologized to her profusely for the mistake and he said, “Consider that his death was that of a martyr for a great cause.”
I was visiting my namesake in New York, a woman named Bettina Warburg. And she was talking about her own family, famous Jewish bankers, having problems getting out of Germany. I was very interested and she said, “Well your mother had problems, too.”
And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, because she was Jewish.” I came home, which at that point was Los Alamos, New Mexico, and I said, “Mutti, what’s this about your being Jewish?” And she totally dismissed it. She said, “Oh, that was in the past.”
I knew there were some Jewish roots there. I had no idea how difficult this made their relationship. And how difficult, if not impossible, it made it for them to get married. Racial laws forbid marriages between Jews and Aryans. They were the exception to the Nuremberg Laws, a rare exception. I’ve talked to historians and they say it couldn’t have happened. I show them the marriage certificate, which crosses out the part that says, “These are Aryans being married to one another,” and has written, “By special permission of the Fuehrer, she can marry.” I had no idea how much of a motivating factor this was in their leaving Germany.
The other thing I didn’t know was my parents as lovers. We all see our parents as the adults. They are the people approving or disapproving of us, or supporting us. My parents were a loving couple, but in these letters there was the passion. It was just wonderful to think of your parents that way, you know? Just clearly so in love, and breaking the rules, as it were. That was a revelation.
BS: How did your parents meet?
BH: It was total serendipity. It was the early ’30s, and Germany was very depressed. [My mother’s] first husband, was a music critic, and he was offered a job as press secretary to a major German expedition to the Himalayas. This was a big deal expedition, to a mountain called Nanga Parbat. This had huge publicity, because it became politicized by Hitler, in terms of him saying, “We are going to be the first country in the world to conquer an 8,000 meter peak.” So they were press secretaries for this expedition, and my father had been invited on the expedition.
My father didn’t go. He didn’t like the national tone of it, and his father had died and he felt that he needed to look after his mother, and sister, while he completed his doctoral studies in physics. This expedition, which was supposed to showcase Germany and Germans turned out to be greatest mountain climbing disaster to date. Ten people died over a week period. There were huge storms; people could hear their cries. It was grisly.
In the meantime back in Munich there’s my mother, and her husband has just been killed. She’s getting all these telegrams of Germans wandering the mountain, so-and-so’s killed, and we heard his voice yesterday, and she said, “I can’t do this,” and she said to The Alpine Club, “Please send me somebody who can help me sort out what is truth, and what is not, so we can do a press release on this.” And they sent my father, from Stuttgart to Munich. So that is how they met. And I think he fell in love with her immediately.
BS: And your mother was very involved after her first husband’s wrongful death with getting reparations.
BH: Exactly. She was insistent on reparations, and she was fierce. She went to Berlin, she met with top Nazi officials. The other part of this story is that she had a protector, who was the top aide to Hitler, Hitler’s adjutant. His name was Fritz Wiedemann.
BS: And Wiedemann ended up playing a pretty large role in the story, and helping your parents get to America. What was the process of researching him along your parents? Was there information in the letters?
BH: There are numerous references to Wiedemann in the letters. I extrapolated that at one point. I think almost 100 references to him. He first of all helped my mother get reparations. Then there was the question of how she was going to classified. When the Nuremberg Laws were passed, people were classified as full Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, et cetera. And how was she going to be classified in terms of her life in Germany, and whether she was going to be able to vote, whether she was going to be able to own property, because the laws said if you’re Jewish you can’t do all of this. He was very helpful in that regard too.
Here’s another loop in the story, [my mother’s] birth certificate said that both her parents were Mosaish, which is of the tribe of Moses. But, it happened that her mother had a long-term affair with a Prussian count — who was not Jewish of course. There was this letter where this count said, “Yes, this my child,” and there was enough evidence that the Nazis did classify her as a mischlinge, which means of mixed race, which meant that she had a few more rights.
Wiedemann was also helpful to my father in getting him transferred to the United States. So Wiedemann became really kind of a savoir to them in that regard. The irony of this happening all under Hitler’s nose is enormous.
Wiedemann, then ends up as German Consul in San Francisco, for a couple of reasons. One, it became clear after Kristallnacht that he didn’t have a stomach for anti-Semitic terrorism. Furthermore, he was having an affair with a Jewish princess, a woman who was Jewish and had married into nobility. He had helped other Jews as well. It wasn’t just my mother. He was this fascinating character, neither black nor white, but sort of in this gray area.
BS: What was the process like of reading the letters between 1934 and 1938? There’s a point in the book where you mention the letters becoming more coded, and this increased awareness of how dangerous it was.
BH: Letters were being looked at all the time. My father was considered politically unreliable, because of his outspokenness, and then he hadn’t planted the German flag on the summits of his many first mountaineering ascents. So anyone politically unreliable at that point was under the purview of the Nazis. So, he was, and [my mother] was too. So both of them, I think, were under scrutiny. There are a few letters, “The clouds are forming in the sky here. How is the weather there?” Wiedemann in a lot of the letters is “W.”
BS: In the book you mention your first visit to Germany. I was wondering if you could talk about that experience.
BH: I’d grown up during the war, and it was not cool to be German. I didn’t really want anything to do with that. But I had never met my grandmother, so [in 1952] at the age of thirteen I went with my father to Germany. And it was like, opening up the world. You have your prejudice, you have your mindsets — and it was just a totally different kind of experience for me.
I could still see at that point the scars of war, in Germany. You had bombed-out sections, so there was always a little bit of that ghost there. I felt much more open to Germany after that.
BS: What are you working on now?
Well, when I wrote the book, it was such a huge emotional experience for me. It was totally absorbing. I was living these two lives. I had this life in Philadelphia, and then I had this life that I had just been writing about. So, when I started presenting about the book, people would say, “Oh, what’s your next book?” And I’m sort of looking at them cross-eyed.
I’ve really gotten very interested in Wiedemann, as a very checkered character. We are very quick to put people into corners, good, bad, and et cetera. But here was this man who was obviously swayed by the Nazi doctrine at some point, and yet ends up helping Jews and is ready to be part of a resistance against Hitler — then is regarded as a war criminal by the United States, although he had not been in Germany at all during the war.
The complexity of him as a character interests me. And to extrapolate that in terms of how we ourselves deal with the goods, the bads, the blacks, the whites — and boxes. That’s what I’ve been looking at.
BS: When was the point that you decided that you wanted to turn the story of your parents into a book, when did you decide that was the future for it?
BH: About eight years ago I said, “You know Bettina, you have to do something with these letters, and nobody else is going to do it. You’re going to have to do it.” It took me about a year to get through translating the letters, and I wrote them up in English and circulated them to my family. And then I said, “Wait a second. Here’s a story.” I said, “I have to write this, because this is a universal tale. It’s a universal tale of courage, it’s a universal tale of how people deal with a rising political movement that would affect their lives, and other peoples’ lives even more so, horrendously.” That’s when I knew I had to write a book, and that’s when I quit teaching. I had never written a book, but this was burning inside me.
Brigitta Schuchert graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2014, with a B.A in Religious Studies. She is currently a Writing Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.
[Photo courtesy of Bettina Hoerlin]
Next in Conversations with Authors: Joey Bui talks with “uncreative” writer Kenneth Goldsmith.
Lights shimmered under the clear night sky as people strolled around Qasr Al Hosn, the fort that built a nation. Music traveled with the masses of people, who sang along or chatted with each other as they visited booths that offered cultural merchandise. I realized I made the wrong choice of shoes when I stepped on the sand and saw that right in the middle of the festival area, a boat rested in a man-made oasis. Small waves swayed as the speakers produced the familiar sound of the sea that nurtured Abu Dhabi as it grew. The fort watched over the crowd, who came to celebrate the past.
Having been immersed in Arab culture for my entire life, I did not think that a visit to the Qasr Al Hosn Festival would teach me anything new. I was wrong. I walked from one booth to another, taking a look at the variety of abayas and kanduras displayed there, mixed in with the bright colors of Indian saris, accessories, and lanterns. Local women were selling herbs, drinks, and foods, and explained that their grandparents used these products for medical purposes long before they became available in pharmacies. I was embarrassed when one of my friends asked me about the meaning of an Arabic word on one of the products and I couldn’t answer, but my confusion showed me how language changes as it travels distances — or, more accurately — cultures.
At the “shore,” I saw how the locals made their living before the discovery of oil. An aged man, with a forehead lined with wisdom, sat on Persian rugs as he knitted fishing nets. His hands made each perfect knot mechanically; it seemed so effortless but the sight of his thin, scarred fingers showed the opposite. Sailors and fishermen sat in the boat, and showed us how they used the fishnets to capture the fish, which they sold at the fish market. In another tent, we learned about pearl hunting. Divers used to explore the depths of the sea to capture oysters in the hopes of finding valuable pearls inside. While it brought wealth for many people and enhanced the country’s economy, this life-risking occupation marked a lot of people’s lives with tragedy. It wasn’t the life of risk compensation or workers’ rights; you had to summon the courage to dive in or watch your children starve. The accounts of history we learned in these tents challenged the common idea that this country started from the discovery of oil. Staring at the miserable face of a pearl diver in old photographs made people forget the stereotype of the Arab who is born with a gold spoon in his mouth.
My next stop was the “Lest We Forget” exhibit, the name of which comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional,” written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The phrase has been linked to memory ever since, as a plea to remember the sacrifices of the past. The “Lest We Forget” initiative follows the path of its name as it was born out of a vision of preserving and sharing the Emirati heritage.
The exhibit, which was originally created for the Venice Biennale, started with a hallway of black drawers topped by a timeline of pictures. Viewers see the pre-oil era, and learn when the important landmarks of the UAE were built. The guide pointed our attention to a creative addition to the timeline: each landmark on the timeline in the UAE was drawn in white, while landmarks built in other parts of the world in the same year were drawn in grey. This feature allowed visitors to see how the UAE was developing in comparison with the rest of the world. It also reveals the jump this country made from its founding in 1971 to the present. I opened drawer after drawer and looked through a collection of memories that showed the birth of a country, from the yellowing pages of an old notebook used by pearl merchants to determine prices to the bottle that held the very first drops of oil that transformed the desert to a city.
NYUAD students took part in the festival by having their own exhibition of the work they did with Professor Pascal Menoret in a course called “Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi.” The students displayed an outline of Hamdan Street, one of the most important streets in Abu Dhabi, and showed off the street’s most important landmarks.
My evening ended with a little food-tasting tour with my friends. The volunteers offered us a taste of the yogurt their ancestors used to make while another woman showed us the process of turning the milk into butter and yogurt by wrapping it tightly with a cloth and leaving it hanging from a stick for a while. Families sat on tables surrounding the little café, shaped like a cottage, which offered several Emirati beverages and snacks. At the far end of the festival, we waited in line to have a taste of the delicious luqaimat, everyone’s favorite Emirati dessert, from a food truck. The food truck presented a nice combination of the food of the past in the structure of the present.
The Qasr Al Hosn festival offered everyone a distinct experience. Locals got a chance to remember and appreciate the history of their country, while expats got a glimpse of a culture and a past they rarely get to see. Just as the fort stands with all its antique glory between skyscrapers, so is the Qasr Al Hosn festival an image of a living history that guides us in our present.
[Photo Credits: Cyrus R. K. Patell (top); Dana Abu Ali (all others)]
BY TESSA AYSON
The Museum of Innocence is located in the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, conceived of in tandem with its eponymous novel by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. It is set up across three floors, each no larger than a few small feet wide and a few tall people long. The objects are organized into exactly eighty-three boxes, which correspond to the eighty-three chapters of the novel. This novel spans eight years of obsessive love, charting protagonist Kemal’s ruminations on the nature of life and love. He falls in love with his cousin, Füsun, but their relationship is doomed before it even begins; Kemal is engaged to another woman. He breaks off the wedding, loses Füsun as well, and spends the next eight years pilfering items from Füsun’s family household where he eats dinner every night with her family.
The objects that Kemal collects ward off the profound melancholy that threatens to overwhelm him, and he is able to take solace in their comforting aroma and touch, knowing that Füsun has touched the very same surfaces. “Sometimes I would see [the objects] not as mementos of the blissful hours but as the tangible precious debris of the storm raging in my soul,” Kemal tells the reader, whom he addresses personally throughout the novel. Eventually he wins Füsun back, only to watch her die in a fatal car crash a few short weeks later. The novel culminates in Kemal’s hiring of Orhan Pamuk to carry out the museum project that is to commemorate Füsun.
The Museum’s collection could well have been curated by a nighttime spirit ransacking the pages of the novel, making away with the objects described within its pages and depositing them in the tiny, tottering, nondescript family apartment that is the home of the collection. There is something unearthly in the still air of the Museum; excessive noise is discouraged, and the objects hang in their boxes, dangling from invisible string, suspended in time and space. The Museum itself seems similarly suspended, tucked away mere minutes from the sensory-pummeling madness that is Istaklal Caddesi. Lilting Turkish and stilted English, wafting smells of roasted chestnuts, the clicking of shutters and noisy people doing noisy things in noisy excitement – all of this explosive, living energy subsides as you step off the street and into the Museum.
Through the novel’s expansion into the spatial realm, these eight years of longing are marked not through days but through objects, and by endowing the objects with the ability to track the movement of time itself, Pamuk gives them a unique power. Through the displays we learn that time is nothing more than a way of charting change in form – form of objects as well as living things. The constancy and stillness of the collection is therefore all the more haunting, a beautiful illustration of the suspension of time that Kemal endures throughout his separation from Füsun, his lost love.
The absolute ordinariness of the objects, the cigarette butts, tickets, and jewelry that comprise the exhibits, is the focal point of their magic. The objects expand beyond the realm of the novel into real life, disrupting our awareness of real versus fantasy. Imagine your favourite book being made into a film. Seeing the words lifted off their page, entering a three-dimensional space, becoming concrete, solid visual images, is always a disconcerting feeling. Now imagine that same feeling, but with the objects there—right in front of you, not separated by the mediation of cinema.
In his accompanying museum catalogue, Pamuk discusses the “massacre of objects” in Turkey that occurred as society’s focus in the mid twentieth century shifted towards Western ideals and the remnants of its Ottoman past were destroyed, leaving behind an “eerie emptiness”. For Pamuk this massacre is a societal and cultural threat; because of his belief in objects’ spiritual importance, the massacre effectively destroyed a large portion of Turkish history. Istanbul was once the centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire, the East and West combining to augment its might. But the same east-west fusion that previously made Istanbul so powerful now seems to be working against it. Istanbul is balanced on the geographical divide between Europe and Asia, teetering like a tightrope walker on dotted map lines.
The sense of melancholy that resulted from the dissolve of this empire encompasses all of Turkish society, Pamuk argues, and is manifest in the resolute solitude of the objects. They are neither Eastern nor Western, but very specifically Turkish. Raki, the national alcohol, is displayed, as well as çay, the ubiquitous national tea. There are Turkish newspaper articles and photos; one particularly powerful box shows a collage of images, seventy or eighty newspaper pictures of women with black bands over their eyes to conceal their identity. If a man tried to escape marrying a girl he slept with, her furious father would take the unfortunate male to court and the press would publish the poor girl’s photo with the concealing band so as not to besmirch her honor. The same band was used for prostitutes, adulteresses, and rape victims. Pamuk uses this piece to illustrate the terrifying complexities of dating in 1970’s Turkey – put a foot wrong, and end up as another lost identity in the masquerade of hidden faces.
The Museum’s displays elucidate the subtle beauty that exists within the ordinariness of everyday life, the banality of newspapers and food and drink and odd family photos that do not belong to Pamuk. In a curious parallel to the novel, where Kemal pilfered objects that belonged to others, Pamuk acquired many of the objects that form the collection from the tiny antique stores around the Çukurçuma neighborhood. These oases are magical in themselves; they are crammed to bursting with tottering remnants of the past, curated by tiny old men drinking sweet tea. Dust forms a thick barrier between the past and the present, coating every surface and permeating the air itself with the thick smell of ageing. These stores are a treasure trove of Turkish identities hoarded by quiet shop owners. You can buy someone’s jewellery, cutlery; even their personal family album, peeling black-and white photos stuck onto thick, cracked pages. Pamuk has made full use of this eerie transplanting of identity, appropriating the possessions of unknown people to tell a story that necessarily becomes the story of a much larger social context.
The objects perfectly encapsulate the city’s split soul. They are quintessentially Turkish, and therefore draw upon the influence of the East and the West as well as something else that is defined by Istanbul alone. Wandering the neighboring districts of Istanbul is an utterly bewildering experience. In less than a minute of traversing cracked pavements, all the sights, sounds and smells accosting your senses change radically. One moment, the streets are cobbled, a charming, eclectic tapestry of mismatched bricks that catch your ankle because your face is upturned hungrily, soaking in the beauty of the piled-up apartments and the little old ladies traversing dizzying flights of stairs with pounds and pounds of fresh groceries. The next moment, you emerge into a bustling hub of high-powered businesswomen, barking into iPhones, toting Gucci hold-alls and tottering in stilettos that would certainly not hold up to the patchwork cobblestones of a street that lies thirty seconds’ walk away.
The museum’s exhibits capture this interplay between the scarves and the stilettos. There is a serendipitous beauty in the mundane, the teaspoons and saltshakers and used cigarettes that form the essence of the collection. However, there is nothing serendipitous in their organization; the objects are painstakingly arranged, each telling their own specific tale, both consolidating and extending the novel’s detailed commentary on Turkish society and the ‘[two] souls [of Istanbul that] are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other.’ (Orhan Pamuk, 2005 interview). These dual souls seem to have taken up residence in the still coolness of the Museum, showing themselves as transient reflections that shimmer across the polished glass exteriors of the exhibits. There is a quiet certitude in the precision of the collection, a knowledge that mourns the loss of everything that has been and will be.
I cannot think of a more literal and powerful example of the phrase ‘bringing an object to life.’ This museum is no small artistic endeavor; it represents the melding of two genres, two times and two genres of artistic expression. It is this last melding that I find to be most interesting, that of the transition between two very different art forms. The novel has been translated into tens of languages, but this particular translation, from the flat off-white pages crammed with words to the evocative three-dimensional representations of the complicated process of love, is certainly its most powerful.
How, you may ask, does one craft a representation of love from teaspoons and cigarette butts?
A valid question indeed. The answer lies in Pamuk’s extraordinary attention to detail; he takes into account the minutest descriptions, down to the colour of Füsun’s lipstick, changing each day she smokes her favourite Samsun cigarettes. 4,213 of these cigarettes are mounted in an installation on the ground floor. Each is pinned to the display, encased in glass; next to it is a number and a date in spidery, scrawling black ink. Many of the cigarettes are stained with lipstick, all of varying shades of pink and red. Taking in details like these feels like the times when you wake up from an afternoon nap and completely forget where you are and what your name is. Everything is blurred; details are slippery and hard to grab a hold of. Perhaps, as you are examining the spectrum of lipstick colours, a shout from the fruit vendors that clatter up and down the cobblestoned streets outside the museum will catapult you back into reality, and you will ‘wake up,’ confused as to whether you live inside the pages of a novel and whether, just perhaps, Fusün is a real person with a real addiction and a lot of different lipsticks.
Photo courtesy of author