Friday, June 29, 2012

Once bitter, twice chai

I am a violator of tea custom. It’s interesting how something like the consumption of boiled leaf water has developed such particular and stringent nuances. A common saying in Kenya and Egypt (and, I might imagine, many former British colonies) is that any time is tea time, and they both certainly put it into practice. I love tea, it is surely my favorite beverage, and I like it black with ice and lemon if available. Our director is from the south, so his preferred iteration is sweet tea (hummingbird fodder, if I'm being kind). In Kenya, they take a splash of tea with copious milk and sugar. In Egypt, just sugar. If there’s anything I like less than tea with milk, it’s tea with sugar, and a combination of both is doubly undesirable. Forgive me, but there's nothing appetizing to me about watery milk and if I want sugar water, I'll take it carbonated from a can marked Cola. But try to articulate that you prefer your tea in any other way than the predominant preparation of the region, and you get a reaction like you asked for the blood of infant. When I attempted to get tea without milk in Kenya, I received only haunted and confused stares. Eventually I found out that they add tea bags to heated milk, rather than milk to the tea, so my request was essentially nonsense. On the site here everyday, although it is upwards of 48 degrees Celsius, we get hot tea when we arrive and at break. A tray of tea is brought out with a sugar bowl, and Ibrahim or whoever feels inclined will ask how many spoonfuls of sugar we want in our glass. If I say no sugar, I simply don’t get tea. I’m just ignored, even though the sugar has not yet been added, and all one would have to do is shrug and hand me a glass. After days I finally got frustrated with this and so on the next occasion when I was skeptically asked 'how many sugar' I wanted, I replied “Ten!” And it was granted. Because even a glass filled with more sugar than tea is more reasonable a request than chai with no sugar at all. 
I should amend that since I wrote this post two weeks ago Ibrahim became very familiar with my eccentricity and indulged my peculiar the morning. At break, I give up and just take a spoonful, the sweetness slightly mitigated by my bitterness over having to drink it with sugar.  

Genesis or The Last Engagement of the Liberal Artists

Genesis is far greater a legend than a reality. When you hear it described, the words take flight under the dashing feet of your imagination, like the stones of Notre Dame in Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, constructing a grand edifice of the ear and mind that overshadows the actuality of the brick and mortar building which resides unassuming on one of the many nameless avenues in Luxor, Egypt. It's a place better heard about than experienced, the most amazing sight I wish I had never seen. So allow me to spread the legend and describe for you now Genesis, the best bar in the world.

The tables are aquariums. There are ostriches, peacocks, a donkey and a camel (named either Gogol or Googoo, personally I hope the former), in addition to the two Great Danes who saunter casually around the tables when they're not sprawled over the floor or patrons' laps. The walls are decked with animal print fabric, the most prominent of which being a faux cowhide, although almost all the available wall space and rafters are bannered with flags of the world. The California flag is signed by none other than Don Ryan, a frequent patron and unparalleled character (well, maybe not unparalleled, the field is fairly saturated with oddballs and eccentrics) in the egyptological world. Have I mentioned the swimming pool yet? Because there is a swimming pool, right next to the private pagodas and assorted animals. And the cottage pie is absolutely delicious. It is owned by an eminently Russian-Ukranian woman, Julia, with her Egyptian husband who, it is rumored, has a second wife. An Englishwoman.

In the Genesis of reality, Julia is by far the bar's best and most endearing feature. An excellent and attentive hostess in her own harshly hospitable way, Julia sat with us the whole night on both occasions we visited the bar, ever unsmiling but never unpleasant, recounting woes with that singular dour serenity of an eastern European. Beheadings, car accidents, fixed ballots, ailing camels and all manner of messes she discussed with cogent monotone, not complaining, just relating. Stoicism with a shrug. In the meantime her adorable daughter (after downing an entire carton of juice) showed me innumerable photos on camera and phone of herself and her family while Elvis the Great Dane slept at my feet, despite all attempts of paw tickling and ear scratching to coax him awake. On our second night at Genesis we met up the enigmatic Liberal Artists and in the hour before they showed up, Elvis' sister and mate slept in my lap on our couch. She had just recently had puppies, all of which Julia, having more than enough animals in her posse already, gave away. When one member of our party pleasantly asked Julia if it was true that there was now a whole gaggle of Great Danes scattered throughout Luxor, she answered succinctly and true to form saying, "Yes...One iz dead." 

Friday, June 1, 2012

An Enormous Articulation

To me it feels like every post I publish hasn't finished gestating, they're pushed out early and raw, some should have been aborted from their inception. I know that this blog is a good exercise for me, someone who is ridden with anxiety over every word that dares leave the brain through hand or tongue. But oh it's grueling. If not for the strict but arbitrary deadlines of when I will and will not have internet access (and the nagging insistence of one certain maternal figure), I would stew for nine hours over a syllable that no other soul would ever see. I'm loathe to put something out there that I don't consider a finished thought, but the problem is that I never finish thinking...

This afternoon we visited Luxor Temple and shockingly, hauntingly, amazingly, my two team members and I were the only people there. The last time I visited the temple, several thousand tourists were milling through the high pylons every day, it was impossible to get a picture of anything without fifty red faces and bulky asses crowding in the way.

 Five years ago I would have given ten years of my life to be able to see the temple devoid of people. By what divine providence I received this gift, I'll never know, but it was certainly a capricious deity, for the experience didn't quite invoke the feelings I had expected. The columns rose skeletal like the lithified rib bones of an antediluvian whale, petrified in a scorched wasteland that once teemed with fecundity and violence as a prehistoric sea.

Seeing it bustling with tourists felt sacrilegious, seeing it empty and stark was certainly poignant, but didn't really bring me closer to the past, as I had expected. The enervate vestiges made me realize just how unreachable and unknowable the Egyptians really are. 

That said, it was still breathtaking...although here, just stepping out the door is in a sense 'breathtaking.'

Adjusting to Egypt is like learning how to breath underwater. The air is so thick that at first, you choke. I'm not embroidering some extended metaphor here, you quite literally choke! The miasma slumps over the city, torrid and almost viscous with odors and dust. It's nothing like the sterile heat of tucson, there's a pleasing purity to that heat. The heat here feels noxious and diseased. As I put words to this, I feel as though most will find this to be a negative description, but it's not. Somehow the repulsiveness is strongly alluring. It's horribly appealing. Perhaps you may be thinking sultry an apt descriptor, but it is not remotely so. There's no sensuality in the air here, just a seething clammy presence that clambers onto your shoulders and constricts its heavy arms around you neck in a savage embrace. It's a sensation that words can't really convey if you haven't experienced it in some place or capacity.

Now that I'm rereading this, I know one person who would understand exactly what I am trying to say, and has articulated it with far greater truth and visceral power than I could ever command. This is what Werner Herzog (some people who know me well may be rolling their eyes) had to say in his perverse encomium to the Amazonian jungle, which surely must have been latent in my mind when I was writing this post:

"I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain. It's an unfinished country. It's still prehistorical...It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this has his share of this curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if he exists has - has created in anger. It's the only land where - where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of a harmony...And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel. A cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the  stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment." 
-Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams

Welcome to Antarctica

Among the constant catcalls, badgering and general harassment, both playful and offensive, the occasional wit will see us westerners perspiring under the unblinking eye of Ra and crow, "Welcome to Antarctica!" (Yes, har har. As it happens, the temperature in Luxor is not a single degree higher than the summer climate in Tucson-in fact today it was actually hotter in Tucson, which I have tried to explain to more cheeky Egytpian faces than I wish to recall). But walking home from dinner one night (Perhaps last night? It is impossible to tell, time is odd here, it passes too slowly and indistinctly), the rocky bastion surrounding the Valley of the Kings was bathed with cool blue lights, making the outcrop look almost glacial.
(i've been playing with my camera for hours trying to capture an image that is representative of what I saw, and am seeing. Unfortunately my camera has perfect vision, while mine admittedly is faulty, so the ghostly specter looming on my hazy horizon is rendered with brilliant clarity and little emotional impact). 

While the east bank was hot and full of life and music, the west bank seemed cold and ethereal, the hard reality of the soft white rock made nebulous like a celestial cloud of cosmic dust and ionized gas. It drifted weightless against the empty black desert, where neither light nor life could penetrate. The lights shone out from and illuminated crevices and hollows, gently flooding the vacant immortal houses for the souls of the dead. The Egyptians believed that the winged Ba (the soul and essence of a person) departed from the deceased body each day to partake in a version of life after death, returning to the body shell each evening. It was thus imperative that the bodies of the deceased remained whole and recognizable to their Ba's, or else the souls would be lost eternally, unable to find their corporeal cradles. With the existing sarcophagi and bodies of the pharaohs and royals all removed, many destroyed, with the identifying names etched in stone defaced by time, malice and apathy, with their homes plundered and bare, are the Ba's of all those dead still flitting around the valley at night, untethered and endlessly searching in vain?

Later (earlier?) I imported the few photos that I had taken of the scant remnants of Amenhotep III's temple while we were ambling rather aimlessly down the road (the presence of the U.S. ambassador usurped our priority both in the ARCE office-forcing us to leave without the monument passes on which our plans for the day depended--and incidentally on the road, when the cavalcade of blue, white and silver Chevy suburbans plowed by us but a few feet from the Colossi). Because of my great fear of losing photos (on my first trip to Egypt, I lost over 600), I had still retained on this CF card the pictures I took at the Italian excavation last summer. Image after image from the various museums of serene white marble, the most famous and praised sculptures of those cultures in graceful repose among the baroque galleries and staid halls. Despite what I know about the zestful reality of ancient Greece and Rome (the garish colors, the bawdy humor), the sensation associated with those cultures will always for me be imbued with the contemporary stylings and reverence that pervade our modern nostalgia (and by modern I'm including such recent human periods as the Renaissance forwards). Austere and elegant they posses a certain glory and majesty. But Egypt, Egypt is magic. As a scientist, I know fully well never to romanticize the past in one's analysis and investigation, but frankly I think to completely devoid oneself of romance is a foolish and empty preoccupation. I do not ever want to enter a tomb and not feel a shudder of awe, I never want to weave through a hypostyle hall and not feel anything but clinical intrigue. There's just not enough magic in the world, not enough mysticism and wonder, at least not in my life. As someone inclined towards cynicism and detachment, I can't afford to smother the warm embers of fantasy and sentimental passion, I'm afraid it would leave me too cold.