A Flâneur in Paris (Part I): On My Street

A Flâneur in Paris (Part I): On My Street

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Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei

As I buzz myself out of my Parisian apartment and light a cigarette, I wave at my Algerian neighbor through the window of his Arabic bookstore‎ Librairie du Monde Arabe. Counting my steps to the tune of Edith Piaf’s Dans ma rue, “On My Street,” recently popularized by raspy-voiced Zaz, I swiftly stroll along my street. Russian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, a Greek fast food joint, a traditional French brasserie, a pub appropriately named after a saint — I consider how everything in this microcosm looks so well put-together and the mental snapshots sink in my memory as tableaux vivants I wish would never fade away.

Even outside the restaurants, I devour exquisite cuisine: the cuisine of the Parisian urban landscape. I think of my leisurely strolling as flânerie, a trope from French literary and cultural history that Honoré de Balzac, one of the founders of French realism, described as “gastronomy of the eye.” I dare to imagine myself in the worn-out shoes of the central flâneur, Charles Baudelaire, and venture to find myself in his words: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Worn-down though his shoes were, Baudelaire’s words remain forever spirited.

There is a word in Arabic that comes to mind: ghurba. My Arabic textbook Al-Kitaab translates the word as “longing for one’s native land, feeling of being a stranger” but its semantic field is much larger, ranging from detachment and homesickness to alienation and exile. Ever since I have first crammed my whole life into a standard checked-bag allowance and left my home of twenty years, I have felt ghurba in varying degrees. Drifting between my family house in Ljubljana, the NYUAD residence halls in Abu Dhabi, and my very first, very own apartment in the Parisian Latin Quarter, this uprootedness—albeit voluntary—only intensified as the idea of home started fading away. When the office of the administrative unit in my hometown handed me a document characterizing my legal status as “emigrant,” it foreshadowed my mental state of “homeless,” and the Slovenian words (zdomec and brezdomec, respectively) aptly indicate the blurred line between the two. But “home” only ever transforms: I have found mine in words, languages, poetry. Not unlike Baudelaire in his dialectic, I feel myself everywhere at least partly at home.

In fact, the “passionate spectator’s” sentiment gains in purity when I remind myself how many of the refurbished (read: gentrified) quaint dwellings throughout the Latin Quarter used to house this great French poet. Baudelaire lived his poetry and poetized his life in much the same way and I pass by many of his over forty accounted-for “homes” during my voracious strolls throughout the quartier. Few know that the small Île Saint-Louis, one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine—the other supports the lavish Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame—used to provide an abode for Baudelaire and his Club des Hachichins. In the 1840s, the “Club of the Hashish-eaters” included some of the great French literary figures, including Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.

Some paddle strokes further along the river, a plaque commemorates a former home to a couple of French intellectual giants, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I wonder if this address is where they seduced their students into ménages à trois. Decades before them, a band of fin de siècle Symbolists owned the quarter: the poètes maudits, cursed poets. In Paris, the times change, but the company does not. Before the tourist industry, the left bank of the Seine used to be The Left Bank, la Rive Gauche, the Paris of writers, philosophers, and artists. Beneath all the hustle and bustle of souvenir shops advertising “1 for 3€, 4 for 10€,” intellectual fireworks are inscribed on the historical memory. I can see the enchanting Luxembourg garden close by and almost feel the ambiance of Gertrude Stein’s salon, which hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound … On the other side of the jardin, young Jacques Prévert was growing up at the same time—perhaps my café crème used to be his Breakfast. I am mesmerized by the spaces marked with indelible intellectual history and a false sense of self-importance overcomes me.

As I approach my street, I reflect on my share in that history. I wonder what traces of ink I might leave on the palimpsest of the rue de l’école polytechnique, which harbors me so generously. The tiles I stride on overlay the fertile soil on which vineyards once stretched. There used to be an abbey here, frequented in the 5th century by Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who lent her name to the hill into which my little street was carved. Not much later, church schools sprung up, joined in the 11th century by one of the first universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Students and academics settled on this soil, echoed by generations that followed. This very soil then welcomed bookstores and printing houses and it cried when it was made to carry public gallows for the executions of sinners and unruly publishers …

Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei

Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei

And today? People from all walks of life pass their days on this little street that bears witness to layers upon layers of knowledge. The headquarters of L’Harmattan, one of the largest French publishers, stares back at me through my window and I bow down to everything the scraped green façade stands for. In my third-floor apartment, I live on top of a deep history of education.

Ali, the owner of the Lebanese restaurant opposite my house, wraps me a shawarma for dinner while we reminisce about Beirut we both last saw a year ago. He complements my Modern Standard Arabic with phrases in shami (the Levantine dialect) and I teach him how to wish bon appétit in Slovenian. Zaz’s voice slowly stretches out into the night: Dans ma rue il y a des anges qui m’emmènent, pour toujours mon cauchemar est fini. There are angels on my street that take me away, my nightmare is over forever.

Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

hello-wordleIt’s January, in an obscure New York diner, where I’m meeting a close friend from high school, now a student at Yale. We haven’t seen each other for a year, and complaining about how difficult my Arabic class is seemed like a perfect icebreaker.

“I told you so. That’s why I stopped believing in studying foreign languages,” he says, nonchalantly, as if talking about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

“What do you mean by ‘I don’t believe in studying foreign languages’?”

“I just stopped. I realized that it took me ten years to become comfortable with my German and speak it as well as I speak Arabic or English. I did Italian for two years now, and I just don’t feel like I’m fluent. I can’t express myself in the way my thoughts actually flow. You understand what I mean?”

With only slightly better Italian than his, I was teaching it to beginners, so no, I didn’t understand.

“The time I’d invest in learning a foreign language I could use to learn a skill that is tangible, can make money and all of that,” he said.

The food came and we changed the topic. I left the restaurant wondering about the purpose of studying a foreign language. I started to question my decision to dedicate a huge portion of my college experience to studying a language that I might end up “not feeling comfortable with.” And then I wondered, in an era in which everyone speaks English, why bother with anything else?

Unfortunately, my friend’s opinion is shared among many other educated people, many of whom are not themselves monolingual. Michael Long, an expert at the University of Maryland, says that only a tiny minority of post-adolescent learners will attain near-native proficiency in another language. George Orwell, despite speaking seven languages said that he didn’t believe in foreign language instruction.[1]

So who does believe in language instruction? Europeans. In all the European countries except Wales and Italy, students must learn a foreign language throughout their compulsory education.[2] The literature on the benefits of bilingualism is vast: it improves your decision-making skills, increases brainpower, improves your employability, memory and interestingly, your English.

For me the debate is more personal. The language of my heart will always be my native Serbian, but I know that with every new language that I learn, I gain a new mind-set. With Italian, I picked up idioms that I can’t translate into English, precisely because they represent a reflection of Italian culture that is only comes with immersion, with the language itself. For example, Italians often say “Se devi fare una cosa, falla tutta” when they talk about their experiences. This idiom cannot be translated smoothly into English, but it roughly translates to “If you are to do something, do it completely.” Italians are such passionate people — the “all-or-nothing” type — and this idiom mirrors their mentality perfectly. The same applies to “I cavoli riscaldati,” which literally means “reheated cabbage,” but is used to describe a love affair revived. As this idiom reveals, Italians regard the “old-new” relationship as messy, stale and not worth getting into.

The differences between the languages are complicated, but make close reading in translation much more debatable and, to us literature geeks, more pleasurable. Close reading of my favorite Serbian poet, for example, is almost impossible in English as all of his work focuses on discussing the difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” concepts that are merged together and simplified to “feelings” in English. But there is a big difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” and you would be surprised how much knowing to differentiation between these two can influence your view on relationships. “Oсећај” is a feeling that derives either from satisfying an instinct or from anything related to physicality. If I were to touch you, for example, the result would be an “осећај:” you would feel my touch. If you were to sleep with a person you’re attracted to, you would still have an “осећај” because you do have “feelings” for him even though these feelings are inextricably linked to your sexual pleasure. “Oсећање,” however, is a feeling used strictly with the concept of love. You have feelings for your spouse, your relatives, close friends. “Oсећање” is always a spiritual connection, and preferably a lasting one.

In his poem “An Honest Poem,” Milan Rakic tries to tell a woman that he has “осећај” for her, but not “oсећање.” At the time when the poem was written, extramarital sexual intercourse was a taboo, and talking about them made Rakic a controversial poet. You can’t discuss Rakic without discussing this problem. Let’s take a look at the excerpts from the original and the translation:

O, sklopi usne, ne govori, ćuti,

ostavi misli nek se bujno roje,

i reč nek tvoja ničim ne pomuti

bezmerno silne osećaje moje.

O, close your lips, don’t talk, be silent,

let your thoughts pollulate,

and may your word do nothing to obfuscate

my unmeasurably deep feelings.

In the first stanza, the poet says that he has “unmeasurably deep feelings” for a woman that woke up next to him. A bit later he says something that to an English speaker could seem contradictory:

Za taj trenutak života i milja,

kad zatreperi cela moja snaga,

neka te srce moje blagosilja.

Al’ ne volim te, ne volim te, draga!

For that moment of life and delight,

In which all my strength trembles,

may my heart bless you.

But I don’t love you, I don’t love you, my dear!

What happened to the “unmeasurably deep feelings” we just read about? Nothing. They are still there, but they are coming from spiritual love. The whole poem is about how “осећај” can be beautiful and grand, but is not an “oсећање.” The two should be recognized as different and that is the only way that we can have healthy relationships. I can’t even count all of my girlfriends who got into (now failed) relationships with someone for whom they had an “осећај,” but thought they had love for.

English speakers sometimes seem confused when you ask them if they have feelings for someone they are considering getting into a relationship with. I never met a Serbian with the same problem. Serbians can have feelings while waiting for an”oсећање” to form. You have more time to figure things out before making a decision about declaring your feelings.

I don’t have a single argument that will make you believe that learning another language in the future will be profitable, but I can assure you that the beauty that you will start seeing after being exposed to a new system of forming communication will enrich you forever. Imagine how impressed your Russian business partner would be if you spoke to him in Russian. He would feel that you understand them better, be more open to compromise and more trusting. Knowing a foreign language in this situation seems like such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. If anything, learn a foreign language to defy the notion that all you do has to have a tangible outcome, and you will be a step closer to what we all want to achieve in life: purpose and happiness.

(And of course, if you learn Serbian, you could finally figure out what you “feel” for that person you started seeing recently.)

 

[1] Simon Kuper, Learning another language? Don’t bother.  http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3da3335c-330d-11e4-93c6-00144feabdc0.html

[2] The Benefits of Second Language Study. http://www.ncssfl.org/papers/BenefitsSecondLanguageStudyNEA.pdf

Attempting the Food Festival

Attempting the Food Festival

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For a long time food has been my primary obsession. I’ve worked in professional kitchens, had my own small bakery, and have exhausted shelves of all food-related literature, but, above all, I have always been a spectacularly avid eater. Much more than a form of sustenance, for me food is the way I see the world.

Penetrating Abu Dhabi’s eclectic and growing food scene requires an extra effort while living at NYUAD’s Saadiyat Island campus, so to start my exploration of Abu Dhabi’s food scene, I thought a food festival would provide an ideal sampler of all the local available gastronomic options. So, on Friday, November 7, I went to the first-ever Taste of Abu Dhabi Food Festival. The experience, sadly, was anything but a gastronomic pleasure.

My search for a foodie experience was hindered by many distractions, all of which stole attention from the food. There was loud music, not enough places to sit, and so many kids running around that it was like eating in an obstacle course. There was a stage, there was music, even a row of out-of-place bean-bag cushions, but never an invitation to enjoy a proper meal. In the end it was hard for me to recall why I had gone there in the first place. Unfortunately, I think, Taste of Abu Dhabi focused more on the festival and not enough on the food.

But okay, I have to confess. Maybe food festivals aren’t the problem. Maybe I am the problem. Why anyone chooses to pay money in order to enter a venue crowded with people grubbing on versions of a restaurant’s less interesting dishes —  the size of which does not exceed the palm of the diner — I will never understand.

The very concept of a food festival offers a challenge in delivering good food. Freshness, one of the biggest markers of food quality, cannot be guaranteed in a food festival. The food in the stands is usually pre-prepared (with the exception of grill stations). Variety is also limited by the infrastructure available to each stand, and the dishes a restaurant chooses to serve have to be portable. Any sort of sandwich or slider, for example, is an ideal food festival item. It’s usually not messy, easily portioned, and requires no cutlery. Something like pasta, on the other hand, which is best eaten right away, is not practical for a food festival.

All this is to say that, from the start, it is difficult to find superb quality in the food served at food festivals. A great example of failing all these challenges was tuna tataki that I had from the stand of the St. Regis Hotel restaurant Turquoiz. It is safe to say the dish had probably been sitting in a fridge for over four hours. The fish was sadly overcooked by the rice vinegar in the miso dressing, so it seemed more like a ceviche than anything else. Plus the ratio of tuna to cucumber made me think I was eating a veggie tataki whose clumsy executor had accidentally dropped in a few pieces of tuna from another preparation. Silly me, I should have known better than to order “raw fresh fish” at a food festival.

On the other hand, in one of the smaller tents, I bought a twelve-pack of Camel Cookies, which, if you’re not familiar with them, are one of the most sensible conjunctions of industrial sweets and home baking available in Abu Dhabi. The people at Camel Cookies give cupcake tins a whole new purpose. They pillow the mold with a layer of very chewy and slightly cinnamony cookie dough, layer it with Nutella, Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Cream bars, or Kinder chocolate, and cover everything with more dough. I doubt anyone exists who is immune to the charms of these bite-size pieces of heaven. The cookies compensated for the escalating disappointment I felt as I wandered around trying other offerings.

Truth is, a food festival is supposed to celebrate food. Taste of Abu Dhabi felt like it was organized as a festival first, and a foodie event second. I understand that this was the inaugural event and the organizers probably didn’t calculate that more than 14,000 people would attend the festival during its three day run. Next year, I hope they will find a larger venue, with bigger stands, and more tables and chairs. Abu Dhabi is rapidly becoming a foodie town, and there is an increasing demand for variety, not only in terms of cuisine, but also in presentation. Taste of Abu Dhabi is not alone in responding to this demand and other venues, including the new Ripe Market at the St. Regis, will respond as well. This column will be offering you regular commentary on Abu Dhabi’s foodie happenings. Bon appetit!

[Image source: Turret Media]

The Problem of Point-of-View in Documentary Film

The Problem of Point-of-View in Documentary Film

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Five minutes into a film a friend described to me as “a documentary about the First Intifada,” I stared incredulously at the stop-motion animation of four cartoonish cows. The narrator introduced them as proud Ruth, pacifistic Rivka, overly dramatic Lola, and Goldie, the political activist. The graphics looked amazing, but I did not quite understand what animated cattle had in common with the power relations between Israel and Palestine. I soon found out the cows were a means of reducing Palestinian economic dependence on Israel — but they were also a lens for the representation of an important chapter in the Palestinian history. The Wanted 18, an inherently political film avoided politicization by narrating its story from the perspective of apolitical actors: cows.

A few days later, I found myself listening to a talk titled “Point of View: Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives in Documentary Filmmaking,” which brought together the director of The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali, and two other filmmakers, who were also members of the documentary film jury, Christina Voros and Amar Kanwar. The event was organized by the eighth Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which offered many feature and short films screenings, as well as special events ranging from various workshops to Q&As and discussions on contemporary issues in filmmaking, with a focus on the Arab world.

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ADFF Point-of-View Panel: from left to right: Amer Shomali (director of The Wanted 18), Amar Kanwar, Christina Voros.

The discussion about the place of documentary film in today’s world started with a discussion about truth. Voros pointed out that in contrast with reality television, the fundament of the documentary film is the element of truth. Kanwar probed the concept of truth and its usefulness: truth is fluid through time as well as through perspective. Therefore, he observed, we have to say “no” to static vocabulary and adopt an equally fluid, ever-changing form of documentary filmmaking to keep up; new genres keep appearing that escape the narrow label “documentary film.” The Wanted 18 plays with audience expectations and combines animated drawings with archival footage, interviews, and reenactments to produce a nuanced testimony of a historical moment.

Regardless of our consensus about truth — whether one thinks it is absolute or relative, subjective or objective — we cannot overlook that once we attempt to capture it on screen, we frame it. A square two-dimensional motion picture is but a limited re-presentation of reality, and even without a narrative persona guiding the viewer experience, a restricted selection of scenes from real life is but a filmmaker’s perspective. I could not help but notice parallels in discussions about literature and film: documentary film can to some extent be compared to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European literary realism and naturalism. The trope commonly used to describe the literary movement at that time was to record everyday reality in order to depict it as objectively as possible, as if observing it through a camera. The perception that a camera can objectively represent the whole of reality with all its contingencies, however, is a fallacy. A camera is equally liable as the literature that invokes it to fail at recreating reality because even recordings of reality are necessarily filtered and subjected to an editing process that may include multiple points of view. The same applies to any work of literature trading on cachet of truth: neither is pure and unadulterated truth. Instead of talking about “truth,” I think it might prove much more useful to think about point of view.

Point of view is one of the most important issues in writing but often remains unquestioned in film, especially in documentaries, which general audiences nowadays still perceive to be “objective.” In fact, point of view is the main and continuously dynamic tool of structuring the narrative: now a Palestinian activist is telling his story, now an Israeli commander, now the cows are mooing and wondering where they are and why. A self-reflective filmmaker will acknowledge his or her presence while addressing the limitations imposed on the art. He or she needs to navigate the waters of personal investment, avoid drifting into autobiography as well as propaganda, and open up space for the audience to come in with their interpretation. Similar to creative nonfiction in literature, documentary film uses reality and remakes it into an independent artwork. Voros explained that in documentaries, she values intimacy over sophistication, and emotion over beauty: a director employs what is true in order to give the audience access to a place they could not otherwise go.

Neither literature nor the film industry however, have managed to escape the impact of the profit-driven economy that remade social relations in the twenty-first century. A member of the audience, an independent documentary filmmaker himself, asked the panel how to reconcile all the demands of the market: cinematic qualities, length, format, festival requirements… and ultimately, to abide or not to abide by audience expectation. Kanwar warned against making films according to a misleading idea of what is supposed to be “appealing” — to the general public, the target audience, the critics, a non-monolithic “million-headed monster,” as Voros dubbed it. She agreed with Kanwar, saying she only keeps market demands in the back of her head and instead pitches her films differently for different audiences.

As a literature student, I look everywhere for crossroads between social phenomena and literature, and the two-way relation of one imprinting itself on the other. Even the arts are forced to conform nowadays to the consumerist mold in order to subsist; we hear they need to be more entertaining because entertainment sells. We live in the tyranny of entertainment. Something as seemingly neutral as the news media has been remade into “infotainment”: truthful news crucial to informing and raising awareness of global dynamics, but remade into hip, flashy, popular commodities, attractive to the consumer. The birth of a “docutainment” genre comes as no surprise when the market wants to sell us an entertaining truth: documentaries in which enjoyable and appealing elements supplant the connective tissue of unbiased representation of truth. The Wanted 18 walks a thin line and begs the question of when the stylish and funny animations start to hinder the “truth” the documentary is trying to present. Literature has long been experiencing an impulse to commodify as well: paperbacks of trivial literature and formula fiction occupy the lists of best-selling books and fill the bookshelves of airport shops in special promotions to “buy one and get one free.” Arts are perhaps losing their autonomy when they are preoccupied with an idea of audience perception and have to look for ways around it, as the panel expounded.

(Creative) writing and filmmaking have become accessible to the masses: anyone with a smartphone can make a mini-documentary and post it online; anyone can write stories and many more get published than in the past.  Constantly, professors tell their students to “show, not tell” a story. In his book on writing, subtitled A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, Sol Stein explains this direction: “The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.” As an editor, he knows the books that sell most are the ones that show, unfold the story before the reader. I enjoy literature that consumes me, not just my sight, but my hearing, smell, taste, my body temperature, my balance, the sensory cells on my skin. Despite the contemporary impetus to push the narrator in the backstage in the name of objectivity, we should pay attention to and reevaluate the narrator’s place in literature, the same way we should always keep in mind the director of the documentary film and his or her point of view. The Wanted 18, for example, counts on the viewer to extrapolate and evaluate the narrator and point of view from parallel accounts: interviews, reenactments, and archival footage.

The question “Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives” in the title of the discussion at Abu Dhabi Film Festival is therefore a false dilemma: whatever the truth is, it is fluid and can never be captured as a whole in an artistic work, but that still does not make it a subjective personal opinion. It is a dialectical synthesis of both, a representation of truth that is neither universal nor a mere private insight: it is an author’s prism through which audience should constantly reassess the truth and its place in the world.

[Photo Credits: top, Still from The Wanted 18; bottom, screenshot from ADFF website. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Film Festival.]

Nobel Prize Announcement

Nobel Prize Announcement

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I arrived where I wanted to be: Gamla Stan, a fairytale condensed into a tiny island marking the center of Stockholm. Cobbled streets and alluring alleyways dating back to the thirteenth century host a multitude of museums and trinket shops that, when I arrived, had not yet opened to another day of tending the last waves of summertime tourists. I was almost a week into my holiday, and I was tired, brought low by the clouds that threatened to break down at a moment’s notice. I had resolved to walk along the musky October streets of Stockholm’s Old Town without any plan in mind. The looping alleys guided me past the castle, churches, and the cathedral; Gamla Stan introduced itself to me as I meandered. Serendipity took the reins, and my meandering lead me straight to the plaza of the Nobel Museum.

I was surprised to see a crowd of people and a line of news vans loitering just outside the entrance of the museum.  Whatever event was drawing the crowd,  I was determined to find out.  I wiggled my way through the gathering of people, anticipating the extraordinary, only to find out they were a group of tourists waiting for the museum gates to open. There were  only a couple of minutes left, so I figured I would join the masses. I mean, as a good tourist, I would have to go to the Nobel Museum at some point during my time in Stockholm, so I figured I might as well seize the moment.

At this point of my holiday, I had gotten into the naughty habit of blending into student tour groups, mainly because I was too cheap to purchase a tour for myself.  And my time at the Nobel Museum was no exception – as soon as I paid my entrance fee, I squirreled my way into a school tour of the museum. The main exhibition explored the ways in which the Nobel Prize developed over time and what this development showed about the future of the prize and its recipients. The tour guide at the Nobel Museum was talking about the process of the awards and how the winners are nominated and ultimately selected. Suddenly, he paused, smiled, and casually mentioned that at one o’clock that day, the Swedish Academy, housed just upstairs from the museum, would be announcing the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was caught by surprise, and the weight of the tour guide’s statement didn’t pull on my mind until I reasoned through the unbelievable reality of the situation and noticed that in under an hour, I could be present at the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I2014-11-es-lear-02 wasn’t sure what the optimum viewing quarters would be. I couldn’t figure out where precisely the announcement would be given as there were various concentrations of people across the area of the museum, all eager for the news. Ultimately I settled on the Nobel Café, where I could watch the announcement without imposing myself where I should not be. I ordered some lunch, happy to watch the announcement on a screen at the Café. Luck works magic sometimes, and instead of the event unfolding on a video screen, the actual announcement took place just a few metres from where I was sitting.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, a French writer from Paris “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. Modiano is relatively well known in France, yet his work had not circulated outside his home country before the announcement of the prize. I have yet to read his novels, and actually don’t know anyone who has recognized Modiano’s name outside the Nobel Prize context. Modiano’s work, however, is appealing to me because his books are short and accessible yet filled with thought-provoking plot lines that focus on reflections and memory. The announcer claimed that one could easily read one of Modiano’s novels in the morning, eat lunch and then read another in the evening. He particularly recommended Modiano’s Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures), a novel about an amnesiac detective searching for his own identity.

The Swedish Academy’s choice of Modiano was astonishing to most, as this is an author whose work hasn’t travelled far past its home borders. Modiano’s work – usually thought of as a body of work, rather than characterized by any piece in particular  – has hardly been translated into English and in reality has only been partially translated to Spanish, German and Swedish. In France, his work is usually in best-seller lists, and there even has been talk of a “phenomene Modiano.” I appreciate the Nobel Academy’s ability to look beyond popular works to find quality.

Though on drastically different scales, the announcement was a surprise for me as much as it was a surprise for Modiano and the wider public. Fittingly, perhaps we could say that Modiano’s win was guided by serendipity.

[Photo Credit: Dominique Lear]

Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

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Finally! The torch works again. The others seem to gain confidence despite the rain beating down on their faces and keep climbing ahead. Me? I’m falling behind. Like always. This is what you get while trying to climb a mountain during a storm. Who thought this was a good idea again? Watch out! The steps are going down now. Good. This should not be too difficult, but careful there, you might slide …

… and I’ve twisted my ankle. Fantastic.

Now that I take the time to think about things more clearly as I sit here in agony … did I really want to climb? I want the pictures, sure, but I can do without the torture. Well, all the others will get there eventually and take pictures for me. At least now I won’t be the one keeping people back.

But why should that matter? You know what?! I can walk it off. Wipe off those tears! — I’m good, I’m good. Yes, I know it’s basically 6 hours up and down stairs. No, I am not going back to the hotel. I’m already 30 minutes away, soaking wet and wide awake at 2:30 in the morning. I might as well just keep going. It’s cold enough to keep my ankle cool. Yes, I know I will regret it in the morning. At this point, I don’t really care. Who knows? Maybe it will stop raining, and the climb to this temple will turn into something other than torture.

One of the most remarkable things I experienced in my short visit to Sri Lanka — well, at least remarkable for me, coming from the dominantly Catholic Peru, and having moved to the predominantly Muslim UAE — is the apparent harmony in which so many major religions coexist. Although 70% of the population is Buddhist, there are also visible Hindu, Muslim, and Christian presences in the region. While there are particular regions dominated by each religion, it is not atypical to see in a single block a Hindu temple, a Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, and a Church, which have sat beside each other for decades or even hundreds of years. Outside, you will find vendors catering to the devotees with offerings for diverse rituals, and pilgrims greeting each other as they exit and enter different temples. Of course, this has not always been the case, as the civil war that ended in 2003 demonstrates. Harmony is an ongoing commitment, and people need to work, revise and edit, like in any great work.

As an international NYUAD student, I am not really surprised by this harmony. We are after all one of the most diverse and functional petri-dishes in the world. However, as an agnostic-raised individual, trying to discover my own faith and spirituality, the small occurrences that other people may see as normal or even quaint fill me with wonder, and hope. Back home in Lima, I never met anyone who wasn’t either Christian or, like me, trying to find sense in between agnosticism and atheism. There are no other alternatives. Yet throughout our visit in the “Shining Island” we visited countless temples, met pilgrims from diverse faiths and got acquainted with their different philosophies, and how their different communities compromise in order to keep the harmony amongst them.

Not only do these various religions exist peacefully alongside one another in Sri Lanka, but, incredibly, many of them share sites of devotion and inspiration. Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”), also known as Adam’s Peak, is one such site. According to Buddhists, the footprint-shaped indentation found at the top of this mountain corresponds to Buddha’s foot, left after he visited Sri Lanka. For Hindus, the footprint is from Lord Shiva, and the mountain itself stands in representation of Ravana’s lair from the Ramayana stories. For Muslims and Christians, the footstep is of Adam, left behind when he was evicted from Eden. All of this spirituality is guarded inside a small Buddhist monastery, erected to protect this sacred footprint. Thousands of pilgrims climb to the top of the conical mountain every year, from where, supposedly, on a clear day you can see not only the most spectacular sunrise, but also cities hours away.

Sadly, I wouldn’t really know from experience. Because of the Eid holiday timing, our trip took place off-season. Specifically, during monsoon season. During regular pilgrimage months, December to May, the pathway up the mountain, with over 6000 stone steps, is supposedly lit with colorful lanterns to enable pilgrims to climb the mountain to admire dawn. There are also regular stops where climbers can rest and have refreshments. For us off-season tourists on the other hand, 2:30am had us out in our raincoats leaving the warmth of our hotel for the dark jungle, stepping into a storm that had lasted for hours, and would last for several more. In the light of the lanterns maybe I would not have minded the climb. I might have even grown to enjoy the burn in my legs as I climbed up those endless stairs that stretched into the heavens. It would have been quite a pleasant adventure. Instead, it was more of a terrifying blind scramble up and down a weathered staircase that seemed to resemble a potentially fatal waterfall more often than not. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.

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But an unforgettable experience? That it was. And, without meaning it to be, quite a spiritual one at that. Of course, on my way up, wet and heavy as a drenched alley cat and desperately holding an old torch possessed by dark sense of humor, my experience was far from spiritual. Well, in any aspect other than comparing myself to Dante coming up Purgatory Mountain that is. Throughout the climb my only positive thoughts were about the fact that I was not particularly thirsty in the rain.

Finally getting to the top and finding the temple closed for another hour until dawn was also not fun, particularly when we realized we were not going to have a very spectacular sunrise, since the storm was still raging on in all its glory. By that point in my journey the weather started to get less chilly, meaning my ankle was beginning to realize it had been tricked. Having lost the cover of the jungle, unprotected now from the storm and the winds (not exactly the deep connection with nature I was expecting) I might have looked up at the sky and thought, “Well that was almost worth it. Although I imagine this would be a really cool place in different weather. Pity I’m not staying to find out.” To my regret, the consensus of the group at the time was that the storm made everything not quite worth the wait. Breakfast, baths and beds just sounded so much more appealing. So no, I did not stay to see the gates open, and no, I did not get to see the sacred footprint. I guess I’ll have to go back (this time under better conditions and hopefully wearing appropriate hiking trousers), and say hi to Buddha, Shiva and Adam another time.

Surfing my way back down waterfall stairs while simultaneously cursing and praying to several deities probably did not get me many spiritual points or clean my karma account. However, once the rain stopped mid-way on my climb down, so did my curses.

It is amazing how being able to finally see your own tumbling feet and to know, rather than guess, where you need to put them can have a calming effect on one. My eternal gratitude to that ancient, faulty torch which waited until I could actually see the steps to give up. Once the fear and the adrenaline were gone, I could begin to think about the last five blurry hours. I, with the physical resistance of someone who doesn’t feel very guilty about not going to the gym had climbed that mountain. In the dark. During a storm. On a twisted ankle, which by now resembled a very nicely colored round plum. I had done it by myself, since I walked alone through most of it, but most importantly, I had done it for myself. Not to prove to my friends that I could do it, but to prove to myself that I could. I mean, what kind of excuses can I make now? If you could climb that, you have no excuses left for not doing anything else. When you are searching for spirituality, faith begins by believing in yourself.

As I admired the now visible valley, limping my way down the mountain through endless fields of tea leaves and mesmerizing waterfalls that had before been masked by the storm, I had a curious feeling that others might call “inner peace.” Yes, I was in acute pain, yes, I was soaked to the bone, and yes, I had entered into most inappropriate relationship with some leeches in my trousers (that is a story for next time). But I was at peace with myself and my efforts. Since I had the time and the freedom, I had a very nice chat with parts of me normally dormant, the kind that makes you question your entire existence and such. We agreed that I would talk to them more often and try to address their complaints, and in return they would stop keeping me awake at night, specifically before exams and important presentations. After months and months of struggle, I had won. And, it felt good.

Reaching the bottom of the mountain was not very difficult after that. I mean, I only got lost twice and had to ask 4 different people for directions trying to get to the hotel. All was good. What was stopping me from going back to Abu Dhabi and facing the mountain of pending work on my desk? Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t be able to walk properly for the next week … absolutely nothing.

[Photo Credits: Top: Sri Pada by Harshini Karunaratne; Bottom: 6000 Steps by Paloma Saco-Vértiz.]

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