Saturday, April 30, 2005

A Threat to the Social Order

A letter in today's Los Angeles Times raises, once again, the intriguing question of how your Jesus might expect to be received, were he to make a return visit to the USA today. What do you think, Bush? Do you think your folks would recognize and embrace him? A scruffy preacher from Nowheresville, defending the rights of the poor and the needy and lambasting the wealthy classes? Walking into a bank and literally trashing the place? Preaching outright sedition against your administration and the religious establishment? Speaking out against gun violence? Supporting the payment of taxes owed to the state ("render unto Caesar..."), and advocating tolerance for a sexual offender? I can't help but think that your evengelicals would be lining up to expose this man as a dangerous liberal leftist and to cast the first stone. Metaphorical, of course. And these are the same people who swoon at the mention of his name and claim him as their "personal savior"! Some small irony there, Bush. Wouldn't you agree?

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Word

I found it! The word my mind has been casting about for, these past several days. Not that I've even been conscious of looking for it. You know how that is, Bush, when your mind is busy searching for a word and won't ever be quite satisfied until it finds it. Kind of a tease. Well, it came to me this morning without my even looking for it, a gift, and I recognized it immediately when it arrived, with that little glint of satisfaction that you get when you car slips effortlessly into gear. And the word is… sanctimonious.

I realized at once not only that I'd found something I'd been looking for without knowing it, but also why I had been looking for it. I'd been searching for exactly the right word--the French have an expression for it, Bush, as they sometimes do, annoyingly: le mot juste--to describe your Frist. It's not just self-righteousness, it's not quite piety, nor quite self-satisfaction or complacency, though all of these come close.

No, sanctimony does it best. Its derivation is from the Latin sanctus, meaning holy, and monia, a suffix suggesting action or condition. As also in parsimony--a related condition, it would seem, in your Frist, when it comes to financial relief for the poor and the needy. Here at home, of course, as well as abroad. As with the majority of your top Republicans, largesse is reserved for the wealthy. (Pardon my French this morning! I don't know what's come over me!)

But back to sanctimony, Bush. Back to your sanctimonious Frist. You see it in his face, his posture, that aura of sanctity, that protest of innocence, that puritanical air of long-suffering disapproval. If you ask me, it all comes down to sex, and the deep inner terror its power inspires in those who fear it. Obsessed by their inner demons, they opt for sanctity. Unfortunately, that doesn't make the demons go away: their power comes out instead in the form of condemnation of other sexual beings. It's an old American tradition, of course. Think of Salem, Bush. Think of the witch-hunters. Put a black frock and a white collar on your Frisk, and you've got your man.

On a lighter note, I'm as excited as the rest of the world about the re-discovery of the Ivory-Billed woodpecker--sighted now in Eastern Arkansas after sixty years of presumed extinction! What a thrill! Has he come back to tell us something, Bush? I hope you're planning some kind of honor for this creature--at least an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker National Holiday, and of course a US postage stamp. Maybe a coin? It's certainly a rare and notable cause for celebration for old Mother Earth.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Good News, I Think

Did I hear this right, Bush? That you're thinking of offering a tax break for the owners of fuel efficient cars? Nice work! This would be the first of your many tax breaks that I actually approve--and not just because I'm the proud owner of a splendid Toyota Prius. I think we hybrid owners deserve some recognition for our pioneering efforts to save the planet Earth from the dire effects of fossil fuel emissions.

Actually, I bought my Prius--more than a year ago, now--not only for its spectacular fuel economy, but because I think it's an amazing piece of engineering. It's also a pleasure to drive. It's quiet--you barely hear the motor when it's on electric power, which is quite often in normal city driving. It's comfortable. It sacrifices nothing in speed or pick-up. And it's a great trade-down from the S-type Jaguar I used to drive, also with great pride and pleasure but, towards the end, with some sense of bad civic conscience because of the gas consumption.

The fact that I had to wait in line for five months before taking delivery suggests that the demand for cars like this far exceeds the manufacturers' expectations. I've no idea what the waiting lists are today, but I have heard whispered rumors about more car manufacturers making plans to switch at least some of their fleet to this technology, and trying to calculate what the future demand will look like. Meantime, Bush, let's hear it for the Prius. I can't speak for other hybrid makes and models, but this one is pure genius. Here's a chance to make a real dent in the pillage of our natural resources and the pollution of our environment.

As for the nuclear option--I'm speaking here of the energy resource, Bush, not your First's despicable attempt to end the filibuster--I'll confess I'm not the knee-jerk opponent that I used to be. I do believe that the plants themselves can be built to be safe and efficient alternative energy providers. And God knows, we're going to need those alternatives more and more. There's a big downside, though: to my knowledge, no one has yet devised a system of disposal that protects the planet from thousands of years of potentially deadly radiation release from nuclear waste. So it's all very well to talk up the benefits of nuclear power, as you did yesterday, but the talk won't wash with me--and I suspect numerous other thoughtful Americans--until that end of the consumption channel is safely and sensibly resolved.

Tell you what, though, Bush. I'll trade you a couple of brand new oil refineries in exchange for a Manhattan Project to address the challenge of energy conservation and pollutant reduction on an international scale. Put the world's best scientific and technological brains together for a crash course on how to save the planet from the human species, and you'll have done something truly worthy and memorable to spare your presidency from the risk of ending up on the trash heap of history!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Poem/Wednesday

I felt a change of pace coming on again this morning, Bush, something completely non-political. A poem called, "I Keep Coming Back."

I Keep Coming Back…

There he is, both hands
gripping the ropes that drop
down from the strong branch
of the pine tree.

There he is, swinging
back and forth, higher
and higher; the further
he tilts back on the seat,
the further he stretches
his feet out in front of him,
the higher he swings, the faster
he goes, so: whizz, forward,
past the tree trunk, feet out,
up, over the horizon, over
the distant valley, over
the tall chimney stacks
of the brick works, touching
sky; then fall, float, fly back
past the tree trunk, curled,
head forward, feet back,
way behind him, zoom.

There he is, before him
the deep rust sandstone
of the rough church walls,
pitched roof of the lychgate,
squat bell tower, parapeted,
gold hands of the clock.
(What time is it now, really?)
Behind, the dark, reflective
windows of the rectory,
stern, the big round hole
under the eaves, the one
where the owl flies in
and out. The stone steps.

There he is: short pants,
white shirt, v-neck open,
sandals; short brown hair,
round face, chubby,
freckles. Blue eyes.
Knuckles tight. Flying.


Don't know where that came from, once again, this morning, early. I must have written it a hundred times in different ways. It always seems important...

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The "Q" Word

Back then it was about halting the spread of communism. Now it's about furthering the spread of democracy. In both cases, we got ourselves into a royal, stinking mess from which it was a lot harder to extricate ourselves than to get involved in the first place. As a result of our interference--no matter how purportedly noble the motives--tens of thousands of people were subjected to horrific deaths and injuries, and the lives of millions more were permanently disrupted.

I'm talking, of course, about Vietnam, Bush. And Iraq. And how little we have learned--thoughts prompted by yesterday's public television program about the last days of the Vietnam conflict, and the eventual desertion of the field by Americans too tired, too lost, too dispirited, too bewildered to continue to fight on the losing side of what had always been a civil war. It was essentially a betrayal, Bush. It's not a nice word, but that's the truth of it. A betrayal of expectations that we had created, and of promises that we made--mistakenly, in confusion, and even with the best intentions. We can surely see that now. We had backed ourselves into a situation where betrayal was the only exit left.

I know you'll argue that Iraq is different, Bush. That it was not a civil war--though perhaps it's edging over towards exactly that at this point. That we marched in to free the Iraqi people--and the world--of an evil dictator. But it's still a case of America blundering into a situation which it has not bothered to fully appraise and a culture it fails to understand, underestimating the power of internal politics and passions until it is too late.

The U.S. military is confronted, yet again, with an implacable, highly motivated enemy that fights on its own terms, with tactics to which we are ill-equipped and ill-trained to respond. And a political resolution continues to elude us. What has become of that election, back in January, when thousands of brave Iraqis chose to risk their lives in exchange for an ink-stained finger? Today, months later, there's still no government to create the order and stability needed for the country to survive and its people to thrive. We're confronted with the spectacle of a U.S. army still unable to protect the people that we claimed to liberate, and a culture of such squabbling, irreconcilable diversity that peace remains a distant dream.

No matter how your people try to spin it, Bush, it's another quagmire. We have to stop playing "America knows best," and learn that leadership, in the world today, has more to do with listening, and stepping softly, than with wielding the big stick. It's sad, but at the same time healthily instructive, to observe how easily a canny opponent can foil even the biggest stick with ruthlessness and absolute dedication to a cause. We should have learned this lesson, Bush, back then, in Vietnam. We could have spared ourselves ths quagmire.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Eleventh Plague: At Passover

I have seen them in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
I have seen them in London, Paris, Rome.
I have seen them on the streets of New York City, in the parks, in the subways,
in the restaurants. I have seen them on the beaches
of Southern California and Hawaii. I have seen them
in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, around the Pyramids.
I have seen them in Red Square, outside the Kremlin.
I have seen them on the gondolas in Venice.
Our daily music has become the first few bars
of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or Wilhelm Tell,
or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik reduced to tinny jingles.
We hear it in the airports, in the supermarkets, in the hospitals.
We hear it in the deserts, on the beaches, on the mountaintops.
They are everywhere. We surrender our lives to them,
dividing our hours and days into the minutes
that we purchase for them, and seek desperately to fill.
Not one moment shall ever risk being empty,
not even in the vast, grand solitude of nature. Not even
on the freeways. Even in the thick of traffic, stalled,
isolated, encapsulated, we seek solace in what we call
communication. We punch in tiny numbers,
on our tiny keypads, listening for the magic
of the ring and knowing that our time will not be wasted,
no matter that we gladly waste the time of others
in our desperation. One single moment of boredom
is more than we can bear. One single moment
of silence or solitude oppresses us intolerably.
We are wired. We are wireless. We speed dial.
We connect. We talk. We speak, not in tongues,
but in a multitude of languages. We have so much
to be said, so many thoughts of such importance,
needing urgently to be passed on to others,
we have so many needs to fill… Busy?
No problem. I'll put my other call on hold
and take yours on call waiting. Or leave a message
on my voice mail and I'll get back to you.
And by the way, remember, you can always
catch me on my cell phone, any time.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Cherchez la Femme

Aha! Case solved, Bush. Oh, those clever army sleuths! Wouldn't you know it--though any good mystery reader would have known it from the start. It was the woman. A "high-level" army investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison abuses concludes tht of the five senior officers under investigation for responsibility in the affair, the four male officers were as innocent as lambs. Leaving only the woman, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, with sole responsibility.

Good news, eh, Bush? After all, the second sex is notoriously unreliable and fickle. And bottom line, it was only a handful of rotten apples who spoiled that barrel, no? Have a good Sunday.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Darth Vader

I see your Cheney has now joined the filibuster fray, Bush. What a bloody farce this whole thing is getting to be. Says your Cheney, arrayed in that cloak of reason he puts on to hide his monomania, "There is no justification for the blocking of nominees who are well qualified and broadly supported." Well, there's a subjective judgment, if ever there was one. "Broad support" does not reflect what I have heard about these nominations: your people get in a huff about "activist" judges when they disagree with their decisions. The "activism" that accords with their views, however, is apparently just dandy. Then it gets "broad support."

What a load of bullshit, Bush. I'm sorry about the language, but I'm really losing patience with all this. The solution to the filibuster problem is for you to stop insisting on wildly inappropriate, in-your-face nominations--and not only the judicial ones: think, currently, of your Bolton--and to withdraw those that clearly do not have "broad support" in that large segment of the population that did not vote for you. That would end the filibuster in a minute. But the goal, it seems, is to fully and finally disempower the opposition. If I weren't so angry about it, I'd have to admire the gall. You take a relatively narrow election victory and turn it into an unprecedented grab for unrestricted power. Now, it seems, you're doing everything you can to consolidate it.

It may take years, Bush, or it may happen sooner than you fear, but all this will come back to haunt your people one of these days. Given the permission this country persists in giving you, it will come back, I fear, to haunt us all.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Spook & the Helmet

Just loved that picture on the front page of yesterday's New York Times, Bush. Russian President Vladimir Putin and your Rice. The Spook and the Helmet. The Spook head-on, across the desk from his visitor, one hand on the table, glowering. No doubt about his anger. His whole body speaks it, coiled, ready to spring. If he were still in the KGB he'd be saying: "Get rid of this woman. Down to the basement with her." But thankfully he's President, now. He knows he can no longer say such things and get away with it. Instead, his eyes shoot poison. They say, "Just keep your skinny ass out of my backyard, Missy." And the Helmet? You can't see her face, just the shoulders of her immaculate little red suit and the back of her head in the foreground, upright, righteous, unyielding. You don't need words for this picture, Bush. It's all right there, unspoken, in the image. As the ad says: priceless.

So I read in the paper today that it's all about Belarus. It's all about spreading your democracy there. It's time for a change, your Rice announces, from "Europe's last dictatorship." She has a friendly meeting with the Belarussian opposition at the NATO conference in Lithuania--a clear gesture of support. (Will the opposition soon morph into "freedom fighters"?) The Russian Foreign Minister counters, in a separate statement, that Russia is unambiguously "not in favor of regime change." And Nikolai Cherginets, chair of the Belurussian Commission on International Affairs and National Security (some title, that, Bush: quite a range of responsibilties!) chimes in dismissively: "A woman euphoric with power is a dangerous creature, but we should not overrate her." Ouch! Such outrageously old-fashioned male chauvinism, Bush! But I couldn't help but chuckle just a wee bit. I mean, there's a dreadful little part of me that tends to agree with him. Until I remember the proprieties, of course. Then I wipe the smile off my face.

Anyway, by one of those questionable coincidences that seem not quite like a coincidence, I read a very disturbing op-ed piece, also in today's NYT, about the "invasive species" that get transported from one part of the globe to another in the ballast water that unladen cargo ships take on board to increase stability at their point of origin, and empty out in the waters of their destination port. Another example of our stepping dangerously into the ecological unknown, and risking untold damage, even untold disaster at some point in the future. Another thing to scare the bejesus out of us on Earth Day. But it occurred to me also that this was a rather nice metaphor for your insistence on the exportation of democracy, Bush. It's not always a welcome guest on foreign soil, and may perhaps not always be a beneficial presence in cultures other than our own. It may have unintended consequences.

Just a thought, Bush. Something to chew on. Hope you're busy doing good things for our planet on this Earth Day Have a happy one….

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Art... and Politics

I'm guessing you get pretty bored with all the political stuff, Bush. So do I. Hearing the same old gripes and moans day after day. So I trust you'll have no objection if we change the subject once in a while. For me, at any rate, it's all one subject. It's all about learning to be conscious, learning to pay attention, learning to be alert to everything life has to offer. It's about learning to act rather than react; to determine the course of my life at every moment, rather than allowing myself to be swept along by the great wave of unconsciousness that seeks to engulf us all. It's about learning to become more fully human.

That's what is important to me about art, Bush. It's what is important to me about writing. It's why I insist on the two of us having this daily conversation: simply to stay conscious. To not let things slip by, out of habit, out of bias, or prejudice, or unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, surrendering to the seductions of unconsciousness. We have to keep asking questions. We have to keep pinching ourselves, to remind us to wake up.

So if we decide to talk about art today, we may be changing the subject, but we're still talking about the same thing. Here's Tara Donovan, artist. I saw her work yesterday at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles. Tara Donovan sees the same things we see every day--rather, things we no longer see because we have grown so used to seeing them that they've slipped below the level of consciousness--and asks them to behave in different ways, to reveal themselves to us in such a way that we can once more see them, and be awed by them.

I'm talking here about the simplest things, Bush. I'm talking about pins, and toothpicks. About styrofoam cups, and plastic drinking straws. About buttons. And pencils. And tar paper. Tara Donovan takes a hundred zillion pins or toothpicks and conjures them into big cubes, waist high, held together by nothing more than their own weight and gravity. We stand in utter amazement at what a pin can do and be. A toothpick. The sheer magic of their presence, as she has revealed it. Or she takes thousands of styrofoam cups and creates great sensuous, squishy, backlit clouds of them, suspended over our heads in a vast gallery space. We walk beneath them, tickled pink by what she has made of them. Their unsuspected capacity for beauty.

She makes a whole environment of stalagmites of glossy pink buttons. Or stalactites, I always forget which of them stick up and which drip down: these are the ones that stick up, like tall drip sand castles. In one huge gallery space, set apart, she heaps huge sheets of tar paper, layer upon layer of them, one atop the other, until they lose their thinness and their flatness and get bumpy, undulating in ever-growing black waves, until the whole mass, waist high and higher, feels and weighs and smells like a thirty-foot square section of peat bog, or black ocean.

This is what an artist does--at least as I see it, Bush. She--he--makes it impossible for us to let things slip into unconsciousness ever again. The joy of Tara Donovan's work is to turn the most humble and forgettable of objects that surround us in our daily lives into something beautiful and unforgettable. She transforms. She waves a wand (a wave that takes her hours, and days, and weeks, and months of labor!) to make sure that we wll never see these things in quite the same way again.

*

A footnote: Sorry, Bush, I can’t help it. You made me do it. Just when I thought I could get through a whole day without you thoroughly pissing me off, I cach a glimpse of you on the television, urging the Senate to "put aside politics" and approve the nomination of your Bolton. What is "political" about questioning the qualifications of a man who has expressed open contempt for the organization in which you're proposing he should represent this country? What is "political" about questioning your judgment in nominating as a diplomat a man whose understanding of diplomacy appears to be bully tactics? Whose record of personal relations appears to be willful abrasiveness and arrogant dismissal of the views of others? It's another of your in-you-face, bascially fuck-you nominations, Bush. Sorry about the language, but I can’t find a better way to say it. Politics, anyone?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Holy Smokes!

Well, first it appeared to be white smoke that turned out to be black, then it was black smoke that turned out to be whte. We were confused. CNN was confused. The world was confused, (Am I alone, Bush, in seeing something vaguely indecent in the sight of a puff of white stuff emerging from that stiff little chimney capped by its neat little helmet? A bit ethereal, of course, but that's appropriate, no?)

Anyway, the bells of St. Peter's rang out to confirm it: we have a new Pope. A new Papa. A new Daddy. A new pontiff--who is entitled, of course, to pontificate. Why else would he be pontiff? There is the slightest frisson, certainly, in having a Pope who was once, however reluctantly, a Hitler Youth. But then as we know, Bush, from the history of leadership in the past half-century or so, you can't expect perfection. And the former Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, is--I know this will please you--a hard-line conservative. He was in good part instrumental, as I understand it, in issuing that fatwa on your opponent in last year's election, John Kerry, banning him from receiving communion, because of his public-arena stand on the issues of contraception and abortion. That must have pleased you.

It's a male-dominated organ-ization, the Roman Catholic Church, that's one thing for sure. Though a spiritual one. Its earthly representatives--well, to be fair, just a few of them--are secret players of the organ, and not just the musical ones. Not even their own. Those angelic altar boys and choir boys have proven unfortunately irresistible to the weaker of those bretheren forbidden access to the more socially acceptable outlets for their natural urges. It's a case of nature versus dogma--a battle that nature, I fear, is always bound to win when push comes, as it were, to shove.

But if I twit the Catholic Church, it's only in good nature. I was myself a choir boy and an altar boy, with an angelic face and adorable little privates. Come to think of it, I could have been a Roman Catholic myself (though not with the same father!) had I arrived a few short centuries earlier on this planet, before the eighth in the line of Henry Tudors came along, with his insatiable appetite for wives and his desperate need to do the necessary kingly thing: to produce a male heir to the throne. Nothing wrong with the royal sperm, of course!

Ah, male succession! Male success! We are, of course, the physically stronger sex. And we do come equipped with that scepter of authority--like those that Michaelangelo had the, er... well, the balls to paint behind the altar on the Sistine Chapel wall, and which were cunningly concealed with added folds of drapery, at a later date, by order of the Council of Trent. Let's hold on to them, for God's sake, but only in the dark! Still, we have managed remarkably well thus far, Bush, have we not? At least in our Western civilization. We have held, as it were, the key. To the car. To the front door of our homes. To the Halls of Congress. To the White House. And, in some instances at least, to the female heart. Lucky us!

Even so, the threat looms large these days. The challenge to our natural (some might say, God-given) authority. It behooves us to be vigilant. So watch out, Bush. Keep an eye to the rear, where Hillary is waiting! There are women priests already in the Anglican Church--in some parts of it, anyway. So it won't be many centuries, perhaps, before the Roman Catholic Church admits them to the priesthood. And then, Bush, can a Pope Benedicta or a Pope Paula Jeanne be far behind?

Or will she be a Mama. Or a Mome?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Demons

I caught a few snatches of the speeches at the Oklahoma City memorial this morning Bush. And a few images. It was a moving ceremony. Watching the pictures of those who died just brought to mind the randomness and the pitilessness of death when it arrives, unannounced, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, striking down the innocent along with the sinners--though that's most of us, I guess. Except the children, little ones, and there were many of those.

I missed your Cheney's speech, Bush. Not out of any ill will, but simply because I arrived back home, after my morning walk, too late to catch him. But I did hear most of what Bill Clinton had to say--including his gracious acknowledgement of Cheney's good work in spearheading the raising of funds to help the victims. I admired Clinton's ability to speak in tones of appropriate grief for those who died and their survivors, but not without a saving note of humor and an ability to see beyond tragedy into a deep sense of the human potential for nobility and hope. Among other things, he said, we owe it to the victims "to honor those in public service, and never demonize them." Because the bombing was the desperate and brutal act of men who did demonize the people in that federal building--people who worked in public service--and the government they represented.

And Clinton's reminder was surely also intended as a timely and cautionary reminder of where we stand in politics today. He thanked your Cheney for having had the graciousness to telephone his personal concern at the time when he, Clinton, was experiencing his heart problems. I had to admire the generosity and easy humor with which he acknowledged this common ground he shared with the Vice President, and gently chided those who suspected, as he said, that neither one of them even had a heart. Reminding his listeners that demonization of the opponent is not limited to one side of the political spectrum; and that we on the left can be as guilty of this unhelpful habit as those on the right.

To which I say "Amen"--though in the belief, sadly, that at this moment in our history the extreme right is more guilty in this respect than the left. Oh, sure, we have our Michael Moores. And I'll admit, Bush, that I buy into his demonization when I see it because I share his views. But the strategy of his documentaries is to demonize. He did it with you in Fahrenheit 9/11; he did it with Charlton Heston and the NRA in Bowling for Columbine. He did it with the automobile industry in Roger and Me. With enormous success. And as I see it, demonization, or extreme satire, is a legitimate literary strategy.

But my belief is that the process is more endemic, runs deeper, and is served up more in the guise of maintream political argument on the right side of the spectrum. It's more subtle, more toxic in the veins of the body politic. Worse, in my view, it's practiced not only by critics and pundits, but by those in power: by your Frist, your Delay, who are now demonizing those in public service on the judicial bench. It's practiced even by those who preach supposedly Christian values, who demonize almost as an article of faith. You, Bush, have managed with remarkable success to stand in the shadows and let others do your demonizing for you (think Swift Boat veterans, think Max Cleland, think Ann Richards, and more, and more… think Terri Schiavo…) But you have notably failed to take a stand against the demonizers, and in this manner you have joined them.

Thanks to Bill Clinton for a timely reminder, then. I'll try to bear it in mind, if only for myself. I don't think I've demonized you in these diaries, Bush. Have I? Perhaps, but only in the gentlest of all possible ways. But maybe I'm wrong. I'm counting on you to let me know when I cross the line, okay?

And then, early this morning, after a 5AM meditation out in the back yard, these lines:

Tuesday

Birdsong.
Wind chime.
The scrabble
of dog's paws
on the wood
surface of the deck.
Far off,
the rough and rumble
of traffic on the freeway.
A chopper, chasing down
the latest crime
or accident.
Birdsong.
Wind chime.
Bark.

And in Rome,
black smoke
from the Sistine Chapel.
No Pope.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Harry & Peggy

Sorry to have skipped a day yesterday, Bush. It hasn’t happened more than two or three times since last November, and it was Sunday, after all, so I don’t feel too bad about the omission. I admit to having something of a superstition around the daily practice, though. As with meditation—which I also skipped yesterday—there’s a feeling of somehow breaking the chain of continuity, and with it something like a spell. It’s absurd, perhaps, but I get the feeling that there’s a breach of promise, a kind of infidelity that risks meaning that it will never be quite the same again. As in a marriage, Bush—that first infidelity. If you know what I mean. Perhaps you don’t.

Anyway, here I am, back again, to do what I can to mend the breach. And speaking of marriage, today would have been my parents’ anniversary, had they lived so long. They must have been married in the very early 1930s, by my calculation. After the great National Strike (in the late 20s—my father was a student, drove a bus to help keep the country going…) and before the worst years of the Great Depression. In the early days of their marriage, my father was a curate in the slum parish of St. Cuthbert’s, Newcastle-on-Tyne, then a coal-mining center in the very north of England. In the family album that my mother kept, there’s a picture of him sitting at the jigsaw in his carpentry workshop (his great hobby, Bush: he apprenticed as a pattern-maker before taking holy orders) with the caption: “Hungry, Desperate, for Want of Two Shillings and Sixpence a Week.” The reference was to the working families in his pastoral care, but my father is the one who looks hungry and desperate in the picture. He was always the champion of the poor and the defenseless.

My mother came from a clergy family, too. Her father, a Welshman and an Anglican minister like her husband (she always swore, as a young woman, that she’d never marry a clergyman!) also had a slum parish populated by the poorest of the poor. His, though, was in the East End of London, where my grandmother grew up. Before marrying, she was an Isaacson—one of the “non-Jewish Isaacsons,” she always insisted, even though the East End was at that time the Jewish quarter of the city, and among her family possessions was a beautiful little table inlaid with Hebrew lettering.

Anyway, had she been a Jew—as she surely wasn’t, right?—that would have made my mother Jewish, by matrilineal descent, and therefore myself, too. Quite a thought, in the week of Passover. My Anglican father reminded me, with every sign of good cheer, when I first announced my intention to marry Ellie—the daughter of a Los Angeles Jewish family—that our children would be Jewish. He knew about the tradition of matrilineal heritage.

Ah, all this family stuff. I tell you all this, Bush, so that you should understand a little more where my liberalism comes from. Being born in Newcastle makes me a Geordie, a heritage of which I’m inordinately proud, even though I spent only the first two years of my life there. In those days, in England, socialism was not a dirty word, and my father was always a proud socialist, a Labor voter, a defender of the interests of those less fortunate than himself. It was those values he passed on to me, and I guess they’re in the bloodstream, in the genes. It’s the way I live and breathe. I do try very hard to understand the values on your side of the fence, Bush, but I just don’t get it. I look at your folks, these days, and I see nothing but knee-jerk promotion of individual rights, support for the wealthiest and least needy, neglect of the health and education of the less privileged, and isolationist belligerence toward other nations. Worst of all, I see the faith to which my parents devoted their lives abused by the self-righteous, and turned into a weapon to flagellate all those who choose to disagree. My parents' Christ was the one who said the meek would inherit the earth. As I see it, your folks have reinvented a Christ to justify their arrogance.

Happy Anniversary, Harry and Peggy! And thank you for your gift of tolerance and your love of social justice. I just wish there were more of your kind around today.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

A Big Word

The time has come this morning for a big word, Bush. You’re not going to like it, but you’re going to have to hear it anyway. I woke with it early, and it has been playing ever since then in my mind. You know how that is. I’ll tell you what the word is in just a moment, but before I do I need to tell you where it comes from.

It comes from watching your Frist on the television news last night. He was talking to the media about the planned Republican attack on the filibuster. To tell the truth, I have never been particularly fond of that man. But talk about ingenuous, Bush! Talk about mendacity! There was your Frist, whining on about the (rather mild) Democratic efforts to block a handful of your more outrageous judicial nominations, and their possible use of the filibuster as a tactic of last resort. As though your Republicans hadn’t used the very same tactic to block twice as many Clinton nominations just a few short years ago. What’s good for the goose, you’d think, would be good for the gander, no?

Well, no. Your people are not satisfied with majority rule, Bush. They want to strip the opposition of the last vestige of power. They cannot tolerate the slightest opposition that might thwart their will or question their righteousness. They want nothing less than total power, for now and years into the future. Take a look at your Delay’s effort to insure Republican majorities for decades yet to come. They want total control.

And the word for this is not the “democracy” you talk about so glibly. The word for this is a different one altogether. It’s called “totalitarianism”, Bush. And that’s not only a long one and a big one, it’s a very nasty one, Bush. Take my word for it. It’s a very nasty one indeed.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Catching Up With the News

Just beginning to catch up with the news, Bush. The Bancruptcy bill. What a scam for the credit card business, no? Your Frist, blathering on about how this act promotes “personal responsibility.” Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s alleged victim’s mother, sobbing about everything. Enough said. Car bombs in Iraq, the worst attacks in weeks. More killed. U.S. contractor taken hostage. Popular revolts against the government in China. Your Delay, defiant. Dogs at his heels. But still pursuing “activist” judges in righteous rage over the “starving to death” of Terri Schiavo. White House thwarts Education Department investigation into Armstrong Williams paid shill scam. NRA convention in Houston this weekend: dealers pushing upgrades of killer weapons. The Atlanta Olympics bomber gloats about his achievements, killing innocent people in defense of the unborn. A certain Irony there? Steroids. Breast implants approved. Well, some of them. In some circumstances.

Let’s see, what else? Your Bolton, headed for nomination as UN Ambassador, despite clear evidence of his disdain for the U.N. and his arrogant abuse of employees. Another irony. And a thumb in the eye of the rest of the world's nations. Stocks headed south. Consumer confidence, the same. Israeli guards kill Palestinians. Turkish troops kill Kurds. Earthquakes followed by volcanic eruption in Indonesia: more to come? Oil-for-food arrests—-in Texas, Bush! Boy kills boy with baseball bat in Southern California. Another girl abducted. The French show signs of rejecting the EU constitution. Those Frenchies, Bush! Such chauvinists! Such xenophobes! Tut, tut. Your friend Blair going to the country for a new election. Five weeks! Did I hear that right, Bush? What I’d give for a five-week election cycle here in the U.S.!

Ah, yes, and I saw you on the television last night just glowing with the success of your administration. You’ve never been happier in your job, you say. Well, I'm sure glad to hear that you are. There’s a growing number of us out here aren’t quite so enchanted.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Last Gasp in New York

It feels good to be back home, Bush, after a long trip! This morning we were up early—-still on NY time!—-and took a long walk down to the beach and along the shore to the village for a cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge (that’s oatmeal, Bush: some English words I just can’t give up. Or choose not to). So we’ll soon be back to business as usual, you and I. But first, I need to wrap up our trip with three cheers for Tim Hawkinson. His show at the Whitney was the highlight of our art experiences there.

I think I mentioned his “Ueberorgan” on our brief stopover in New York on the way to Egypt: a vast work, too big for the museum, installed in the atrium of a mid-town high-rise, and a pun on the word “organ”, since it looked like nothing so much as a collection of giant innards which doubled as a weird and wonderful musical instrument operated by a jerry-rigged computer. Tim Hawkinson is an artist who is unafraid to explore the human condition, specifically the vulnerable body—-in most cases, his own—-that strange, physical equipment we’re given to walk around in, in the equally odd world of contemporary technology. In some of his pieces, he takes apart what he can see of his own body, or what he can’t see, and puts it back together in improbable assemblages of photographic detail. In others, he takes the detritus of the body-—hairs, fingernails—-and assembles them into tiny sculptures: the skeleton of a bird, a spider’s web.

Hawkinson’s machines, including the complex electronics that operate them, are all pirated and put together from superannuated and discarded parts. The essence of the machine in the normal world is the purpose for which it was created, but Hawkinson’s mechanical and electronic constructions have purposes so disproportionate to their complex structure that you stand agog, lost somewhere in between awe and hilarity. Thus, the long series of improvised cogs, from the tiniest, spinning wildly, connecting through gradually increasingly sizes to the largest, which purportedly will take nearly a century to make a single revolution. Or the musical timpany machine, where suspended male figures are animated in various parts of their anatomy (eyes, nose, ears… yes, Bush, even penis!) to tap on long tubes at irregular intervals, producing, each one, a different click or clack in a bizarre symphony of sound.

The show is hugely entertaining, certainly, but it has a serious side. One of the more interesting insights I picked up from teachers, along the way to a doctoral degree in literature, was the notion that the tragic vision is viable only in a world where the gods are seen to play a significant role in human destiny. In a world abadoned by the gods, the closest we can come to tragedy is not the social realism of a Tennessee Williams or a Eugene O’Neill, but the farce of a Pinter or a Ionesco. Hawkinson’s work looks at the predicament of being trapped in this curious, all-too-physical, human body in the context of the seemingly rational, post-enlightenment world of science and technology, and exposes the disconnect between desire and experience, the loftiness of our aspiration and the comic lowliness of our actual performance.

That’s, anyway, as I see it, Bush. But there’s really no need for such heavy analysis. The best thing is, just go there and enjoy it. I trust the serious part to speak to you without words.

Aboard Jet Blue

(continued from yesterday on board Jet Blue from JFK to Long Beach…)

We saw a fair number of art exhibits in the course of our afternoon in New York, but I’ll spare you most of them. Not that they were terrible, Bush. I see lots of art that’s absolutely competent in every way—the product of the graduates of the hundreds of schools and universities turning out qualified artists into the world, all of them expecting to be heard, but relatively few of them ever actually making it to a gallery for consistent representation. And those that do… well, frankly, I fear that it has more to do with their commercial possibilities than with the quality of their work. Ellie remarked that the new gallery scene in Chelsea is far less appealing than the old one in SoHo—and I don’t think this is just nostalgia for the good old days. There is something pitilessly commercial about those beautifully designed new spaces that have been springing up in Chelsea in the past five years of so, and a stroll through gallery row is somehow less fun than it used to be.

I want to talk about Damien Hirst, one of the leading artists of the (now not so) new British shock merchants who stormed this country in the “Sensation” show a few years back. He’s moved on from that infamous shark suspended in formaldehyde and the farm animals sliced in half to a new series of photorealist paintings—a startling move in itself perhaps, but shocking mostly in its choice of subject matter: the coldly sterile equipment in an autopsy room, along with studies of autopsy procedures and the exposed viscera and entrails, open corpses, and so on. Not to mention subject matter that has attracted him in the past: pills, medical supplies, and rows of colored dots… All painted with surprising skill (we didn’t know he could paint, and wonder nastily if perhaps he got some help?) and in great size and quantity. A cheeky finger in the eye of those of us who had built certain expectations based on his past work with, I sense, a strong element of self-parody and a snide commentary on the gallery system—this at the uebergallery of uebergalleries, Gagosian—and its need for product to support its disproportionate overheads. It was, to say the least, provocative.

First prize for me went to Lucas Samaras. I’ve always been attracted to the unsparing self-examination in his work, and feel that this is something that I aspire, at least, to share with him. His work is a complex body-mind experience, and one which requires our presence and our interaction. Samaras has always been fascinated with the evolving possibilities of new media, too, and unafraid to investigate that potential. You walk in on his current show and find yourselef confronted with row upon row of simple desks with I-Mac computers—something of a colorful spectacle in itself. The artwork takes the form of thousands of manipulated still images and a good number of “Imovies”, all accessible by the viewer interested enough to explore the myriad layers of computer memory, and many of them featuring the artist himself, clothed or naked, in studio or out in nature, playfully imagining ever-changing virtual environments in form and color. It’s a wonderfully rich tapestry of visual experience, at once intimate and transpersonal, a blend of the imaginative and the real.

I’ll save Tim Hawkinson until tomorrow, Bush. We saw his show at the Whitney in the morning, before leaving, and I’m still chuckling at some of his inventions. Then, I guess, back to politics. But this trip has been a lot of fun. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. And, I have to say, it will be a pleasure to be home again, in just a few more hours.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Armageddon, Japan style

We met up in the morning with our nephew, Danny—an actor who keeps body and soul together by teaching and evening work as a waiter—and started out on another New York art day. A joy to see Danny, and have hom join us for a part of our tour. Our first stop was the Japan Society, and its extraordinary, deeply unsettling show on the otaku culture curated by one of its chief proponents, Takashi Murakami. I’ve never been a great fan of this phenomenon, which embraces everything from the cuteness of Hello Kitty to the monstrous charms of Godzilla and the high-speed slickness of anime film and television productions, and I guess I’m still not, but at least I’ve come to understand it a whole lot better as a result of seeing this show.

In case you haven’t read about it yet, Bush, you’ll find it not only at the Japan Society, but at locations all over New York. We encountered it first Sunday, on our return from Egypt, in the form of a big, green fiberglass elephant, its body patterned with images of cute little girls’ panties, installed at the south east corner of Central Park with a little baby green elephant at its side. It had attracted crowds of families with delighted small children, whose parents hoisted them to sit on the curve of its trunk for photos. The darker side of this presence—and of its evocation of the dark side of the child’s imagination—was subliminated in the general atmosphere of excitement and joy.

But the dark side is there, Bush. It’s there, most obviously, in the more military, violent manifestations of okatu—the heavily armored sci-fi vehicles and warriors, inheriting, as they surely do, from the samurai culture of Japan’s past, and their invincible, phallic, futuristic weaponry. And in the often quite overt sexuality of those cute little bishojo girl figures with their skimpy skirts and provocative postures and yuru chara stuffed animals. Even the culture’s insistence on its own “product” values strikes me as subliminally—and therefore intentionally—obscene.

It’s all about zappy, readily saleable items, from comic books to children’s toys, and what Murakami calls the “superflat” image—that is, as I understand it, an image without depth or substance. It’s all about surface appeal. It’s the context the curator establishes for this culture, though, that gives it the significance I myself had not fully realized until now. He calls the show “Little Boy”, a reference to that first American atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August, 1945 and by extension to the “Fat Man” that followed it. It’s also a reference to the infanitilism of the culture, not only its apparently innocent charm, but also its exploitation and perversion of the child’s imagination as a form of denial of the reality of that lasting nuclear trauma.

What makes this all of particular interest to me today, Bush, is its evocation, from a quite different perspective, of that same Armageddon much bandied about by your friends in the Christian evangelist movement--that vision of the violent destruction of the world. The difference, of course, is that the Japanese actually experienced a real version of it—-at our hands. The culture of otaku, as Murakami presents it to us, at once emerges from that event, and envisions its recurrence. One of its strategies is to imagine the monstrous, the mutant, the perverse. The other is to sublimate the fear into cuteness. Our homegrown end-of-the-world visionaries proceed not from real experience but from a moralistic base; the Armageddon they foretell is something they embrace as the fulfillment of God’s wrath against human depravity and his willful destruction of the whole rotten species-—with the exception of their good selves, who are destined to be saved.

For me-—and I consider myself a realist, Bush-—the Japanese vision, with all its superficiality and its deep inner despair, is far more compelling than the self-righteous and self-serving moralism of your evangelical friends. It has far more to tell us about our human predicament, our history, and our journey into the future.

I have more to tell you about our art day in New York, Bush. I think it will interest you. But we have a plane to catch, back to California. The rest will have to wait.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

MoMA: Two Art Works

We stopped by yesterday to see the newly renovated MOMA, Bush. That’s the Museum of Modern Art. I guess you must have been there. But have you been since the remodel job? It’s a fantastic improvement over the old one, well worth the long wait. It feels much more spacious, airy, and there’s a great deal more breathing space for the collection. Ellie spotted the architect during our visit there, deep in conversation with what seemed to be an interviewer. He certainly did a great job.

The collection has incredible depth, as I'm sure you know. It seems never-ending. We were there for six hours, and skimmed through a lot of it. Despite the grandeur of it all—the Van Goghs, the Gaugins, the Picassos, the Matisses!—I myself came away with two seemingly rather modest pieces in my mind. Both were in the current exhibit of the UBS corporate collection, on the top floor. The first was by the British artist, Richard Long, who’s known for working with the natural environment: the image was a circular trail of footprints, made on paper after stepping in the mud and silt of the River Avon. A very primitive instinct, to leave one’s mark; also a kind of drumbeat in its rhythmic pattern, evoking a kind of ritual dance; and the material, earth, clay, is the most primordial of all--and the earliest used by our species. A sense of the human being springing from the earth, and reconnecting with it in the most simple and basic of ways. Very personal, too—these would have been Long’s own feet—and an assertion of his presence at a particular place and a particular moment in time. It reached me in the most immediate and intimate kind of way.

The second piece was a painting by the American artist, Vija Celmins. A deep, deep, deep blue background (it could even have been black) and, set against it, hundreds of tiny white dots, stars scattered on its surface. It’s a quite small painting, but it manages to evoke in one small area the vastness and the unimaginable depth of the universe. You could just stand there for hours in front of it and get lost in its totally imaginary spaces. The mind travels with the eye, making its long journey from dot to dot, from star to star, in an act of mesmerizing contemplation. A breathtaking visual experience.

So there you have it, Bush—the intimate and the infinite in two small works of art. Both spoke to that part of me that is devoted to the practice of meditation: the Richard Long suggests a grounding, meditative walk, the careful, inch by inch placement of the foot, heel to toe, heel to toe, with an accompanying sense of total presence. Very physical. The Vija Celmins takes me to the opposite pole, the furtherst point imaginable in the universe, the absolute, a kind of emptiness—but an emptiness filled, as it were, with infinite and infinitely silent presence. You have to be right there.

That, in itself, was enough for one day. Jet lag caught up with us by evening, and we headed back to the hotel for another early night.

Monday, April 11, 2005

New York, again

Well, here we are, Bush. Back in the USA, as the Beatles nearly said. They actually said USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are. An invidious implied comparison, perhaps—sorry about that. But yes, there are many things for which we must consider ourselves lucky, most notably on my mind this morning, the plumbing, and fresh, drinkable water from the taps. After two weeks of being warned against so much as cleaning my teeth with water in the bathrooms of the very respectable hotels we stayed at, or eating salad because it might not have been washed in bottloed water, this simple expectation seems like a privilege.

A propos of which, I was speaking just yesterday with one of our group about how important it is for Americans to travel outside their country, to get some kind of perspective on the world. We have it so good, Bush, and life is so easy for the vast majority of us (let’s not forget, though, those many for whom it’s not) that the hardship of lives in almost every other country throughout the world is unimaginable to those who have never had the opportunity to experience it at first hand—even if only through the windows of a bus and brief encounters outside the tourist bubble. It’s one of the things that worried me most about your original candidacy, Bush—the fact that you had traveled so little abroad. As a matter of fact, I believe you have traveled little outside the bubble of your own privilege in this country. But that's another story.

I wonder if you and your people are worried about the polls, Bush? The morning after our return, I hear that your approval rating is now a mere 44%, and your disapproval rating 54%. The weird thing about this is that you seem to be managing to implement your agenda anyway, despite the overwhelming disapproval of the electorate. You seem to have been able to make political capital out of the Terri Schiavo situation, despite the fact that almost every thinking person in America disagreed with you. It’s the whole “What’s the Matter with Kansas” syndrome. What’s happening to us in this country, that we allow you and your frankly extremist base to get away with those things with which we fundamentally disagree, and which serve only to harm our interests? A question that seems all the fresher and more urgent to one returning from the world out-there to our seemingly insular subcontinent.

Listen, Bush, I arrived back in New York in time to get a copy of the Sunday Times, and this morning I read the deeply disturbing Frank Rich column on death, and its co-option not only by the religious right for their peculiar agenda, but also by the media, with an eye to boosting ratings. We have become a nation mesmerized by death—perhaps as the last frontier from which no entitlement in the world can offer us the protection that we crave. I have just arrived back here from a country that, four thousand years ago, was already mesmerized by death. But I think there are very important and interesting distinctions there, and I do plan to explore them in this dialogue of ours, some time soon, when my brain is restored from its present state of jet-lagged befuddlement.

Remind me, will you, Bush? I learned a lot on this trip, on this and other matters, and I don’t want to let it all slip away unrecorded. For today, the Big Apple awaits, with all its glorious museums! I could revist Egypt at the Met! Have a good one. Hope you can work things out with Sharon (he’s not particularly popular in Egypt, Bush, as you might imagine: they worry a lot about the Palestinians there, and see the resolution of this problem as being the key to peace in the Middle East. I expect you know that.) But I won’t get started on this one. Not this morning.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Back in New York

Continuing from yesterday...

Aboard the bus, a three-hour freeway drive over territory previously covered. Time for farewell speeches. Fadel assured us we had been a wonderful group, and opened the bus microphone for thoughts and comments from his audience. Sitting in the front row, I came up first, and took my time thanking Fadel for his good work as a tour guide, for those special plums he’s always able to pull out, and for the access he seemed uniquely able to provide—and also made comment on the wonderfully friendly reception from the Egyptian people throughout the country. I confessed to my misgivings, before leaving home, about being in a country where I feared that people would dislike me for not better reason than that I’m an American—and how wrong I had been. Took the opportunity, too, to thank Islam for his excellent work as tour facilitator.

Others came to the mike gradually, making up for points I had missed—particularly thanking Craig for his great contribution to our understanding of the technical achievement of the pyramids. It was a good, warm moment, and one which allowed us all to reflect on how much we had learned from the trip, and how much we had enjoyed it.

Once on the outskirts of Cairo and within sight of the pyramids again, we made a short detour to one more of Fadel’s favorite spots, an outdoor lunch place offering an excellent selection of by now familiar Egyptian specialties to a huge crowd of customers—incuding large numbers of Egyptians as well as tourists. On the way in, Fadel grabbed a flute and joined the musicians at the entry gate in a great display of musical virtuosity. Is there no end to his remarkable skills?

Back through the usual Cairo traffic to the Semiramis, where we started out fifteen days ago—in time to catch the royal wedding on Windsor chapel on CNN. What a relief, finally, to get this whole royal mess sorted out into a happy ending. Hardly the stuff of fairy tales, but that’s about what we get these days. Then a walk, with Todd and Linda, along embassy row—sad to see the American Embassy so heavily protected, Bush, but that’s been our story, in a minor key, ever since our arrival here—and through what must have been the upscale neighborhood: huge, elegant mansions, now largely in varying states of disrepair. Tea in the lounge of the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, surrounded by exquisite flower arrangements everywhere. And back to our own moderately luxurious establishment to put the finishing touches on our packing, a TV movie, and a room service bowl of soup and cheese plate. Early to bed, and a good night’s sleep.

Up at 4:30 for a skimpy breakfast at the hotel, and a fond farewell to Fadel. Islam brought us out to the airport, efficient as ever, and left us in the hands of an “inside” man with airport credentials, who saw us past the various inspections and bureaucratic obstacles. Some shopping at the duty-free, and finally aboard our aircraft for the Atlantic crossing to New York. I’ll post this final entry from there, and probably jot down a few of our New York doings before getting back to the original purpose of The Bush Diaries. See you soon, Bush. Take good care.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Negotiating the Synagogue

A second try at the synagogue this morning. This time, I was convinced we were about to find the limits to Fadel’s access. But he knows the art of negotiation, and everything here is open to negotiation. The guard at the gate was the first stop. He called the plain clothes security chief, who said the rabbi had been there earlier for services, but that he’d left already and we couldn’t get in without his express permission. Fadel kept talking, gently, and with infinite patience. The caretaker arrived, a little old guy dressed all in brown, and a good talker, too. There followed a good ten minutes more of negotiation, this way and that, through the barred gate. This led to a gruding permissionto allow the goup inside the gate, but only outside the temple, so long as we agreed to surrender our passports to the security man. We did, and entered through the gate.

And Fadel kept talking. He found a bench in the courtyard and sat down with the caretaker, eventually persuade him to try getting the rabbi on the phone. We though this was unlikely, on a Saturday morning. Most orthodox rabbis would not answer the phone on the Sabbath. Still, it was worth a try. Ten minutes later, Fadel was on his cell phone to the rabbi’s wife: the rabbi was not home. But she had a number for him. Fadel dialed, and the caretaker spoke to the rabbi’s assistant. Fadeel spoke, too. He told the rabbi’s assistant (I think) that we were a group of American Jews who wanted to pray. Well, one of us was. The assistant said to call back in five minutes, he’d check with the rabbi.

Five minutes later, the rabbi himself was on the cell phone, speaking first to the caretaker, then to Fadel. Permission was granted—a half hour after the start of negotiations. Good for our guide. I’d have given up twennty-five minutes ago.

We improvised head coverings and went in (discovering a basket full of women’s scarves inside the door: no yarmules). A beautiful temple, probably a hundred years old, in elegant neoclassical style. Ellie played tour guide, explaining a little about the Torah and Saturday services as we made the rounds. Then we all signed in, and Fadel collected ten Egyptian pounds for each of us to thank the neogitation team, and we left. A great lesson in patience.

Back to the hotel to board the bus for our penultimate ride to Cairo. The next and last one will be tomorrow’s early ride to the airport.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Alexandria...

Woke early and took a look out from our balcony at early Alexandria: the great, long curve of the Mediterranean, grey this monring under a pale grey sky, the park below with its green lawns and palm trees, the Corniche almost empty of vehicles. Five-forty a.m.

Last night we took the bus to dinner at seven, following the Corniche west past a boardwalk filled with the familiar groups of men, walking together, talking, smoking… and the less familiar, more European sight of men and women togther, lovers, hand in hand, in at least one case a woman fully covered, head to toe and fingertip to fingertip, in her black burkha, strolling along casually with her boyfriend. An odd sight.

Alexandria does have a much more European feel than Cairo. You could have thought yourself in Marseilles—a bit more grungy than, say, Nice, but with that lighter, more open feel to it. The bus unloaded us eventually in a small back street, where we found our restaurant setting up a long, rough table on the sidewalk, with fish markets all around. Stalls amply stocked with all kinds of seafood, octopus, sole, red snapper. While we waited for our tables to be set, Fadel was busy in one of the markets negotiating the catch for our dinner, checking the gills for freshness, arguing quantity and price. Looking down the darkening street, we saw crumbling facades, a jumble of duty vehicles, laundry flapping in the evening breeze, and dozens of people going about their business.

A fish dinner in the street, then. Not my favorite, but the calamari was excellent, and the environment full of life and interest. Ellie and I rode the bus part-way back, then joined a small group of a half dozen of us who decided to walk the remainder of the way back to the hotel. A hazardous enterprise, given the habits of Egyptian drivers. No right of way for pedestrians, even at crosswalks. You take a deep breath, take your life in your hands, and plunge into the traffic hoping that someone will see you and brake for long enough for you to cross.

Even along the Corniche—which you’d expect to be the most renovated and spruced-up of streets—the buldings, once you glimpse inside, are for the most part in a dreadful state of disrepair: once elegant courtyards and marbled stairways now blackened with age and pollution, ill-lit, deserted. The cafes are crowded with men smoking their evening hookah, but their furnishings are dilapidated, their paint peeling, and the lighting only the most primitive and bare. A bleak glimpse behind the scenes.

Back at the hotel, we were attracted by the street activity just a block inland, and decided to take a walk around the area in search of ice cream. Amazing. First, a canyon of shoes—a whole back street lined with shoe stalls as far as you could see, shoes of all kinds, sneakers, pumps, slippers, oxfords… stacked house-high on the stalls. Further down the street, women’s underwear everywhere—another eye-opener: this stuff was worthy of Fredericks on Hollywood Boulevard, skimpy, lacy, see-through bra and panty sets, not what you would imagine beneath the modest, long robes of almost all the women here.

The sense of life is intense. Thousands of people jam the narrow streets, competing with a sea opf honking vehicles for pavement space. And everything imaginable for sale, in stores, or stalls, or draped on the arms of street vendors. An unbelievable surfiet of goods of all kinds, from “Rolexes” to pistachio nuts, from strings of beads to gold and diamonds. And noise everywhere, excited talk, cars, scraps of music and chant. A blind couple of old people, begging, chanting from the Koran. Voices, Voices of shoppers, voices of vendors, always importunate, never satisfied with “no”.

Quieter, darkened back streets on the way back to the hotel. Men sitting quiety in cafes, playing dominos, chattering, smoking, staring at the foreginers passing by. But all friendly, all of them ready with a “welcome” or a smile. No sense of danger in these streets. No sense of threat. Just an overwhelming sense of teeming, irrepressible life. A great experience. We never found our ice cream.

Left the hotel with a small group at 8:45 AM with the intention of visiting the local synagogue—apparently the only one still in use in Egypt. Arrived there to encounter heavy police guard at the entrance to the alley and, when we got to the gate, to find it chained and padlocked. An altercation between Fadel and the man who came to greet us revealed that the synagogue would remain closed all day, the staff on vacation. We could come back, if we wished, tomorrow, and hope for better luck.

At a loose end before the bus was due to leave at ten, we wandered the same streets as last night, now nearly deserted. Those out and about, however, all greeted us with a warm, “Good morning, welcome!” and we were struck once again with the friendliness of the Egyptians. These, too, had nothing to sell us. They were just being friendly. A gaggle of kids on a fourth floor balcony waved down to us and shouted, wanting to know our names. It was Keith who offered his, and their delighted voices followed us down the street: “Keith! Keith! Keith!”

One mishap to note. Passing an ATM machine on a narrow street, I remembered that we were short of cash and went to make a withdrawal. Dismissing Ellie’s warnings that this was not a good location, I slid the card into the slot—and never got it out again. Instead, a small receipt slip that said, Sorry, your card has been retained. Hurried back to the hotel and were happy to find that Ellie had brought her identical card, and called the toll free international number on the back to alert our bank to the loss. No harm done, then. Just an irritation. A double irritation for me, to have Ellie proven right!

Out at ten on board the bus for a ride through the very hazy streets to our first stop, at the Kom El-Shukafa Mounments, which seemed, at first sight, quite unpromising: just a few desultory sarcophagi and bits ot statuary around a dust courtyard. Soon, however, Fadel led us down a circular stairway, following a great limestone shaft, and we found ourselves deep in a 3rd century AD Roman-era catacomb. Hundreds of burial alcoves carved into the rock, and interesting carvings (and poorly preserved wall paintings) revealing the merger of Roman and ancient Egyptian cultures. Interesting to observe the far less skilled quality of the crafstmanship in the later age. The Roman stylization of images and portraits seemed far less imaginative than their forbears, and far less precise in execution.

Onward, through now much busier streets, with markets and stalls beginning to open everywhere, to our next stop: the famous Pompey’s Pillar, a huge column surrounded by a few sphinxes, imported from other sites, and a number of Roman remains, including baths and residences. A photo op here, since this is the familiar picture that Alexandria exports: the column and one of the adjacent sphinxes. And a pleasant walk back through the gardens to the bus, and on to another more recent site, the Roman Theater and the ruins of the earlier Greek city. A grand amphitheater, now used by the local opera company. And a splendid villa, whose hightlights included some beautiful, colorful mosaics, in particular a group of six with images of birds. Hence the name of the site, the Villa of the Birds.

The last stop before lunch was the spot where the original lighthouse once stood—a site since occupied by a well-preserved medieval fortress. Located at the end of the pier, the area was crowded with a lively scene of locals celebrating their Friday “Sunday”, fishing from the pier, swimming off the narrow beach, or simply strolling comfortably along the boardwalk. A good moment for pictures, too, especially of women in their long robes and hearwear, since one could easily pretend to be taking pictures of the ocean or of the fortress behind them.

Fadel came up with another great lunch spot, this time at Muhammed Ahmed’s restaurant, on the back streets not far from our hotel. A feast of felafal, fava beans, lentil soup, and several of the familiar Middle Eastern appetizers. Then off to a local coffee shop for Turkish coffee on the sidewalk and biscotti generously contributed by our friend and fellow-traveler Gary. And, for Ellie and myself, a stop in the patisserie to sample and buy some chocolates, and a longer meander through the streets before returning to the hotel for a quick rest.

On the bus again at five, for a drive up the long Corniche to King Farouk’s old palace. The grounds are now an evidently popular park, given the number of people strolling there. A photo stop at a pier leading out into the Mediterranean, crowded with families and groups of friends. Windy and quite cold, getting on toward sunset. Back on the bus, Linda (by the Winda) was dragged off by a girl who had somehow taken a fancy to her, insisting on a photograph. The girl’s group of friends materialized from nowhere, and suddenly they were beckoning us off the bus with smiles and giggles, wanting more pictures with the Americans. A few of us happily obliged, and we all parted in jovial good spirits.

A drive past the old palace, now under extensive renovation, to another of Fadel’s wonderful surprises—this time for a sunset photograph at the seashore house that once belonged to Sadat, and where he had visited the late president, as I understood it, during his lifetime. A great piece of architecture, clinging to the side of a low cliff, with warm sandstone walls and pillars, and what remained of an elegant swimming pool. Sadly, the whole place was now already in ruins, leaving us to wonder why no one had bothered to protect or restore it.

Back down the Corniche for a brief stop at our hotel, then on to the Tikki restaurant for a fine dinner at tables overlooking the ocean, Fadel in fine fettle for what he had billed as our farewell meal (tomorrow night, back in Cairo, we’ll be left to our own devices because of the ultra early start for the airport Sunday. Fadel was properly toasted and thanked, as was Islam, when he joined us from his logistical activities. Then a drive back to the hotel, with Ellie opting for another walk with Todd and Linda, and myself opting for a few quiet minutes in our room to put the finishing touches on the entry for today.

We're Safe

I know some friends and family are following us along the way. This note is just to let them know, in case they have been watching the news and might be worried, that our party is all safe in Alexandria (see below)--a long way from the Cairo bomb blast. See you all soon!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

From Alexandria

A blessed respite this morning. By dispensation from above, we were scheduled to leave only at nine-thirty, bags packed and outside the door by eight-thirty—which meant an extra couple of hours to relax over getting up and going down to breakfast. Now on the bus and starting off along the old Alexandria Desert Road—now no longer mostly desert—and passing the site of a new Museum of Civilization.

We made a lunch stop along the highway at what was perhaps the Egyptian version of a truck stop—though the food was somewhat different from what you’d find at its American counterpart. Here they served pastry, baked in thick rounds, with toppings of molasses, honey, and goat’s cheese. Sounds weird, I know, but it was actually a pleasant enough change from the usual lunch fare. Distressing, though, to find ourselves surrounded by a small zoo, with some quite large animals in some quite small cages. Before lunch was served, on our way back from the toilets, we passed a spherical cage with tight, thick green bars containing a desperately sad looking baboon…

Sitting down at our table, we were approached by a rather sulky man with a lion cub in his arms. The cub was cute beyond words, and a few of us got up to get a closer look, well aware that the man was angling for the photo op, and the change he could pocket. Still, I couldn’t resist when he held the cub out for me to hold. I’ve never held a lion cub in my life before, and the creature was as cuddly as our George (not you, Bush: I’m talking about our three year old King Charles spaniel). So I took it in my arms and held it for a few minutes, while people grabbed their cameras and took pictures. It was, honestly, quite a thrill to be holding a lion in my arms—but not unalloyed: it pained me also to realize that I was contributing to the delinquency of this awful little zoo, and treating a wild animal like a teddy bear. Apologies, herewith, to my consicence.

A good talk with Fadel in the bus as we drove on toward Alexandria, comparing our twenty-first century concept of “civilization”, somewhat unfavorably, with the civilization of the ancient Egyptians. From what we know about them, they seem in many ways so cultured, so advanced in their sense of aesthetics and social structures. Nice for the privileged, I guess. Perhaps not so nice for the workers.

Another half hour’s drive—with commentary from Fadel about the history of Alexandria: I won’t attempt to rehash—brought us to the outskirts of the city, and a good view, as we passed, of the marshes that surround it, including some glimpses of those “bundled papyrus”—the bullrushes—we saw at Imhotep’s temple yesterday. On into the city itself, and a good chuckle as our driver painstakingly, and with our police escorts’ connivance, backed us across a busy one-way street and into a tiny lane to drop us off at the adjacent museum. I could imagine a good number of local folk, stuck in the resultant traffic jam, fuming about these idiot American tourists.

The Alexandria National Museum turned out to be a gem. We met with the Director in the entry way, who explained that the museum is only a couple of years old, and contains many of his own underwater discoveries, about which we had learned a while ago on TV. Some of these artifacts were beautifully displayed on the ground floor, nicely lit and in museum-quality cases (Cairo, take heed), accompanied by a few large-scale underwater color photos of the location where they were found. Great job. Ellie and I especially appreciated some very tall, elegant ampphorae. The floor above was devoted to objects from the later Muslim and Coptic periods, and the below-ground level to some very choice artifacts from pharaonic days. The whole museum beautifully installed and lit, and small enough to enjoy in a single brief visit—though return visits would surely be equally rewarding.

Last stop for the afternoon was the Alexandria Library—also brand new. Conceived as following in the tradition of the great historical library that burned (twice, we heard, from our charming guide, who had difficulty only in working Fadel’s head set for our radios.) A wonderful structure, designed by a team of five international architects, including one Egyptian, it’s a highly contemporary building—and, inside, state-of-the-art in its furnishings and equipment—whose fa├žade is a long, almost circular arc dressed in grey granite, inscribed with large letters from the alphabets of lamguages from throughout the world. But it also pays homage in many of its details to the ancient heritage of the country: the roof lights, for example, designed in the shape of the familiar Egyptian eye, with louvered shades outside the building to evoke eyelashes—beautifully conceived and executed. Aside from that, the whole building had a warmth and a quality of usability that made it one of the finest we’ve seen in recent years.

Driving on to our hotel on the Alexandria Corniche, we passed the library from the other side, where its huge, white, sloping roof takes the shape of the ancient sun disk—or, as Fadel suggests, a contemporary CD. Enjoyed the spectacular view of the port, the new lighthouse, and the Mediterranean Sea as we followed the waterfront, and reached our hotel in time for a nice glass of “hibiscus.” Found our room to be pleasant, our bathroom small, and the street directly outside our window incredibly noisy with the constant hooting of horns. Do they have a curfew?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

More from the Pyramids

Breakfast at the hotel, then by bus up the hill to the pyramid parking lot. Fadel goes back over the Egyptian creation myth, with the ben-ben at the origin, the tip of the pyramid arising from the abyss and giving Ra a place to stand, from which to create the earth and the sky. The pyramid, then, is the representation and symbol of that place of origin. And here we stand, at the foot of one of the great ancient wonders of the world, a vast mass of stone whose absolute stability and whose long reach into the sky become reality before our eyes. Interesting, to watch the mind grasp something that had been no more than concept based on two-dimensional images until now. The thrill and the surprise of it, to be able to reach out and touch the great, craggy, sloping wall, and to stand amazed at the sheer expanse of it. Craif reminds us that the base is thirteen acres, and that the approximate count of individual stones is two million!

We begin our tour at the site of the funerary temple to the north, and the huge boat pits in which the pharaoh was to make his journey to the afterlife. A pause for lecture number 4 from Craig, outlining his research into the construction process, this time focusing on the “task list”—the practical analysis of the number of workerst needed, the length of time needed for the work, and the “logic diagram” determining the order of tasks to be completed. His reckoning suggested a ten-year construction period: one year for the planning, two for the site development, five years for the actual building, and two years to place the casing stones (now mostly gone, pirated to make new buildings, walls and temples in the city) and tear down the ramps. All fascinating stuff.

Fadel took over from Craig for a visit to the tomb of the site supervisor, and on around to the west, the current site of one of the excavated boats (we chose not to enter the enclosure) and south, before climbing the lower courses to the entry to the interior of the pyramid. A long, fairly level corridor toward the center, then a turn, and a steep slope upwards towards the King’s chamber. Here the passage gets narrow and low, requiring a duck-walk up a long, stepped ramp, crouching and stepping sideways for what seemed like a good couple of hundred yards. Then, relief, out into the high-walled granite chamber, empty but for a large, open sarcophagus. Not much to see here, except to admire the proportions of the space, sense its depth inside the massive volume of stone enclosing us, and wonder at the marvelous construction process that created it.

Then backwards down the long shaft to the mid-point, with a turn off to the Queen’s chamber—located at some depth below the king’s—with an entry corridor so low I had to crawl for the last thirty feet or so into the chamber, also walled in granite, but smaller, and with a high, sloping roof and a geometrically-designed alcove. Ellie and I were ahead of the others, and got back down first to the intersection where the corridor led steeply down to the unfinished third, underground chamber. We started backward down the stepped ramp, and had managed perhaps two-thirds of the descent when I looked down and saw what seemed to be a locked door down below us. A sudden attack of claustrophobia, along with the thought that others would soon be following us down and effectively blocking off our exit until everyone was out. We decided to abandon the effort—not expecting very much in the way of anything to see—and climbed back up, and headed for the exit. It felt good to see the light again, and breathe the air.

All in all, an incredibe experience. Thanks once again to Fadel, and the access that he gets for us. They allow only 150 people to get inside the pyramid these days, and most of those are permitted to visit only the King’s Chamber. Another instance of Fadel’s magic with the authorities: a very privileged visit to the Sphinx. After a brief stopover at a photo viewpoint, the bus took us back down past the pyramids to the spot below them where we came upon the fabled monument. Another breathtaking experience, coming upon this great stone creature carved from a vast mass of solid rock. Most tourists are not allowed to approach the monument itself, but our group was escorted past the barriers and right down to the outstretched paws, where Fadel once again held forth about the myth and the history of this unique work of man’s imagination. Our little at its feet seemed tiny, insginifcant, in the face of its towering presence. Once again, that sudden insight into the mystery of time, the paradox between its endless reach—both backward into history and forward into the future—and the intensity of the singular present moment where it all meets in a sense of absolute awe.

Another moving visit, this time to the site of the workers’ tombs, still under excavation. No photos here, because the lead anthropologist has objections to photography before publication. But a powerfully moving sense of the reality experienced by those who lived and died working on these pharaonic projects, the vast difference in social standing between the privileged and those who worked at their bidding and served their needs. The humble quality of their tombs was a poignant reminder that not all lived like kings.

Lunch at a sea food restaurant on the way back in to Cairo for a visit to the Egyptian musem, a house of treasures that proved at once amazing and a little depressing. To one who has frequented the great museums in the Western capitals—in New York, London, Paris—this one remains a giant mess, a storehouse, basically, with objects scattered about with scant identification or protection—either from the crowds of visitors or from the ravages of enviromental change. It looked like something out of the end of “Citizen Kane”, a mass of objects warehoused, presumably for eventual organization.

But the objects themselves… incredible! A whole floor dedicated to the Howard Carter discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Five thousand objects found in this one cache! What we saw at the LA County Museum a few years ago barely scratched the surface of this treasure trove. More than the individual objects, though, was the insight into what the ancients evidently thought their king would need in the afterlife: everything imaginable, from the boats to and chariots to provide him transportation, to the endless, exquisite articles of personal jewery, to stashes of food and supplies of perfume, articles of toiletry, along with furnishings—chairs, beds, tables, thrones…

The other observation that struck me was the amount of time that must have been devoted to the preparation for his death. Nineteen at the time of his death, King Tut already had everything ready for his burial: the famous mask, the nested coffins, sumptuously decorated in gold, turquoise, paintwork, as were the three sarcophagi, also nested to fit each inside the other, larger one. This was the work of years of superbly skilled craftsmanship and labor.

And, too, an overwhelming appreciation for the aesthetic of these ancient people, their dedication to absolute perfection in design and execution. Today we have grown so accustomed to the shoddily mass-produced objects that surround and serve us in our lives, that the sheer quality of design and workmanship for even lowly items seems beyond belief. I was struck by the incredible care and respect for how we choose to live our lives, the sense of the importance of every tiny detail that surrounds us. More later.


Wednesday

Up in decent time (5 AM) to get to work on the log, to catch up with a big day yesterday. Breakfast at 7, and an 8AM start, on board our bus, for more sites in the desert close to Cairo. Drove alongside the desperately polluted canal (Fadel tells us that aside from the city pollution, it serves as run-off for the farms along the way, then runs directly down to the Mediterranean. No wonder that poor sea is sickly) about twenty miles to the village of Dahshur where Fadel grew up on a small farm. We heard about the local dates—out of season now, unfortunately—and of Fadels’ boyhood feats of palm-tree climbing. Not least, about the bread his mother used to bake—a skill now taken over by the local bakery, where a long line was awaiting the latest batch from the ovens.

First stop was the Bent Pyramid, one of a group known as Senefru’s pyramids. A camera stop revealed the vista of a landscape with a number of pyramids, in various states of collaspe and, in the distance, the outline of an oil refinery pale against the smog—our civilization’s pathetic contribution to the planet Earth.

A good deal of the facing remains on the Bent Pyramid, making it especially worth the visit. Also—no small advantage—the absence of other tourists: the parking lot was empty when we arrived, except for a tourist police car and a pair of mounted camel police, who dogged our footsteps waiting for the opportunity to importune us for photographs. We were soon suckered in, especially when one of the camels took a fancy to Ellie and started kissing her—though probably at the prompting of the rider. Picture time, sadly marred by the misfiring of our digital and its refusal to behave. Ah, well.

Made the round of the Bent Pyramid, passing the remains of the funerary temple and the smaller pyramid of the Ka on the far side, then back to the bus and onward to the Red Pyramid. Here we had permission to go inside, and a number of us climbed the long exterior flight of steps to the entry, then down the equally long descent to view the two chambers at ground level. A hard climb down, particularly—at a stoop to pass under the low ceiling—on the hips and thighs. Interesting chambers, though, with high, stepped ceilings and granite walls. Then the long climb back up, rather easier, for me, than the descent. The hardest part of all was the steep climb down outside, blinded by the sun after the inner darkness, and dizzy with my familiar acrophobia.

Next stop was the Tomb of Ti, a vizier to the Pharaoh, dating from 2400 BC, with exquisitely detailed low relief work and two burial chambers, the lower one with a massive sarcophagus. (I pause to note that this writing has become peculiarly difficult: I long since ran out of superlatives—how often can you say colossal, vast, massive, and so on? Or even beautiful, exquisite, superb, sumptuous, stunning…? It gets to be harder and harder to find words I haven’t used a hundred times before.) Then on to the Step Pyramid, dating from 3000BC and a part of the oldest complex in Egypt, designed by the first great architect, Imhotep. A beautiful (there you go!) columnar entry in which the archtitect designed the serried ranks of pillars to evoke bundled papyrus stalks—a method still used by the local farmers and fishermen to creat a path through the marshes. Again, Fadel reminds us of the original concept of the temple as an evocation of the earthly abyss.

The temple itself led out on to an extensive, sun-drenched courtyard—where a mother dog and her two puppies roamed—the site of an ancient pharaonic test of strength and stamina, the hepsed. At the far end of the courtyard lay the stepped pyramid, a construction of six mastabas (bench tomb structures) one atop the other, in diminshing sizes. By special permission, the site director led us down below the pyramid and along a low, pillared corridor (a restoration made as early as the 26th dynasty) to a deep inner shaft, reaching down below where the eye could see and up to a high uneven roof, the access to the chamber booby-trapped, Indiana Jones-style, by a massive suspended boulder. The original chamber, now buried beneath the interior shaft, apparently contained a mosaic of the hepsed race.

A tour of the remainder of the site, including two “adminsitration” buildings, one whose details were designed to evoke the nomadic life of the lower, southern kingdom, the other the residential stability of the north.

Back on the bus, we made one further stop at Titi’s Tomb, then on to a well-deserved poolside lunch beneath the awnings of at a local country club, surrounded by green lawns, palm trees, and flower beds. A visit, after lunch, to an adjacent “carpet school”, where we watched young children working at the looms (the owner insisted only two hours, two days a week.) They worked with wonderful speed and skill with their small hands, making the thousands of tiny knots needed to complete a patterned wool or silk carpet. Their smiles, though warm, were inevitably accompanied by the rubbing together of finger and thumb, requesting hard cash for a photograph.

Upstairs, the sales room. Hundreds of carpets on display, and smooth, expert salesmen to help you out with your purchase. Ellie and I were not alone in succumbing: we bought a nice carpet for our Los Angeles home, Then back to Cairo, with another opportunity to buy at a big tourist outlet for all kinds of materials and articles of clothing.

Back at the hotel in time to lounge at the pool in the last warmth of the sun, and bring the log up to date in preparation for our last couple of days in Alexandria, before returning to complete our tour in Cairo.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

With a View of the Pyramids

Again, unedited...

Our stopover last night was the Moevenpick (Swiss multinational) “Jolie Ville” hotel. You’d have thought they could have come up with a better name than that, in Luxor, but…. No matter. A very pleasant, semi-luxury establishment with green lawns, trellised walkways, expansive pools, all overlooking the Nile River. Ellie and I opted out of the drive into Luxor from our hotel just outside the city, on the Nile, and chose instead to stay here for a restful late afternoon—with PAL catching up with the blog—and a walk along the riverbank at sunset. A small zoo along the path, with donkeys, pelicans, a camel, and—the highlight—a crocodile who refused to put in an appearance. Then onto the pier, with fellucas and motorboats parked alongside, with a lovely glimpse of a kingfisher, and an incredible treeful of egrets. So many of them, they literally looked like strange, white fruit.

A quiet dinner on the terrace, then back to our room for an early night and a good, long rest. This morning, up early for breakfast (bags outside the room by 6:30, was the marching order from Fadel) and time to get ready for the bus, which leaves for the airport in fifteen minutes. Then back to Cairo. More to follow…

Tuesday, I guess…

… sitting here at six a.m. on the balcony soaking in the energy of one of the greats pyramid (before my very eyes, Bush! Amazing!) and, above it, the pale sliver of a new moon. Just sketched out the idea for a poem, and open up my computer to join you once again.

Another amazing day yesterday. First, the news of the Pope’s death, in Rome. Sad news, but welcome, after his long struggle between life and death. I admired him for his stand on social issue, his rapprochement with the Jews, his recognition of the inevitable process of globalization, his calls for social justice for third world countres. And yet I hope for a successor who will be more open when it comes to questions of world population and the growing necessity for birth control; and, of course, the liberation of women from the stubborn clutches of male domination throughout the world.

The reality of the efffects of population growth are dramatized by travel, Bush. It would be hard not to notice that there are whole populations still living in abject poverty, and the results of overcrowding the planet are too obvious to ignore. The smoke-filled air around Luxor—the result, surely, of hundreds of fires set by local farmers to burn the stubble from the sugar-cane fields, is stifling. Eyes and throats burn. So many on our bus alone coming down with hacking coughs. The billions of us humans are endangering not only our own health, but the heritage the ancients left for us to learn from. The monuments here in Egypt are suffering terribly from overvisitation, the oil of hands that can’t resist the urge to touch, the tramp of feet, the overheating, down in the tombs, caused by the sheer mass of human bodies.

There is a special place in hell, I have to think, reserved for the man who invented plastic—by now an indispensible material that caters to the daily needs of humans everywhere. But one that makes inordinate demands on our depleting natural resources, and one whose indestrucible products clutter our delicate environment. Those damn water bottles, Bush. Please do what you can to see they’re banned. They’re everywhere. Abandoned, dropped, left lying along the roadside, floating in canals, accumulating in wind-swept piles in sacred sites. What future archeologists will unearth this dreadful detritus, and what conclusions will they draw about our so-called civilization? I dread to think. But we have to find ways to halt the destruction of our delicate habitat, Bush. We can’t go on like this.

Onward. Air to Cairo, and another interesting lecture from Fadel in the bus, once on the ground again, about Islamic Cairo. We stop at the old city wall, with its tenth century fortifications (crusader style) and enter under the great medieval gate into the old city itself. A massive and hugely noisy construction project impedes our way past dozens of garlic and onion stands (their aroma joins with the fumes of roaring heavy construction equipment to create a glorious, somewhat poisonous stench!) but we make it through the danger zone to the 10th century mosque of Alhakim Bi Amr Allah, whose central courtyard opens before us as a sudden sanctuary of peace and light. The mosque, Fadel explains, is not considered a particularly sacred place in the world of Islam, but rather an ordinary place where people comne to pray. A central fountain offers a place to make the ritual ablutions, the washing of hands, and feet, and face to prepare for prayer.

Then back to the narrow ancient city streets, past dozens of shops selling, in this area, mostly pipes and copperwear—no tourist stuff yet, all for local consumption one suspects—and burrowing deep into the labyrinth of alleys that leads into the heart of old Cairo. We stop for a tour of the splendid 15-17th century mansion of Bayt El Suhaymi, a wealthy merchant, with its cool inner coutryard surrounded by rooms whose windows are shuttered with intricately patterned wooden lattice work. A tour of the house takes us to spacious gathering rooms with low coffee tables, carpets everywhere for family and guests to sit and, in one instance, beautifully elaborate tile and mosaik work on every wall. The craftsmanship is impeccable, the living quarters both inviting and intimate, with friezes everywhere inscribed with ancient verses. Fadel was persuaded to read some of the text to us, and we loved the sound of the language. The bathroom area was a special treat, with a massage room, a Turkish bath, and stained glass skylights in the shape of stars. A truly wonderful, and to us wholly exotic living space.

On into the bazaar, a tangle of streets with shops selling jewelry, stoneware, ceramics, materials in silk, linen, and cotton, slippers… a mass of color, sound, and texture that is at once gaudy, noisy, and irresistably attractive. We took time out from shopping for lunch at the famous Nagrib Mahfouz restaurant, eating at tables laden with the Middle Eastern foods we have now come to expect—another sumptuously decorated space, with waiters hovering close by in their tunics and fez.

Our next stop after lunch was the El Alazahar mosque, site of a great university as well as a religious center. We sat together on the carpet in the far arcade and listened to Fadel’s lecture on the religious history, traditions, and practices of Islam whilst the faithful prayed around us. Fadel was anxious to distinguish between the “fundamentalist” Muslims who are the conservative pracitioners of the faith, and the “fanatics” who have given Islam a bad name, with the aid of the Western media. Fanaticism, as he points out, is not restricted to Islam. This is an issue worthy of much further
discussion.

Some interesting discussion about circumcision on the bus—a pratice of the ancient Egyptians long before it became a trademark of Judaism—as we drove past the magnificent Saladin Citadel, another medieval fortress. Then a brief stop at the Qasr El-Shama area, home to many churches and a synagogue, where we visited only the chapel of the Crypt of the Holy Family, where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are supposed to have stopped on their flight into Egypt. And finally on to our hotel, at the foot of the pyramids. Notable, along the way, was the sight of a camel pissing at a busy intersection. About forty days’s worth, we thought.

The Mena House hotel was once the residence of King Farouk, and the original building reflects that age of wealth and grandeur—something along the lines of the great Victorian hotels, with sumptuously decorated interior spaces and beautiful, expansive gardens. Here, tons of marble—floors, walls, vaulted ceilings dripping with massive glass chandeliers… and uniformed footmen everywhere. We were greeted by the manager with much ceremony (thanks to the ubiquitously famous Fadel) and glasses of “hibiscus”, which tasted more like pomegranate juice, but was nonetheless a welcome refreshment.

We’re in the extension wing—not so grand, but our balcony offers the magnificent view of the pyramids mentioned earlier in this entry. A pleasant room, hardly luxurious, but certainly comfortable. Hardly time to get our bags unpacked, however, before it was time to meet with our group in the lobby to be escorted through a labyrinth of marbled, mirrored halls and corridors to the reception room where we were to meet with the Deputy Minister of Culture, Zahi Hawass—another bosom friend or our trusty guide—for a lecture on his recent archeological activities.

A fascinating hour. Hawass is in point position on all recent discoveries, and is possessed of a wonderful excitement and energy. Recent work included the discovery of a desert site with an estimated 10,000 tombs of workers and their supervisors, the CT scanning of King Tut, and a host of other digs and reappraisals. Good slides, good timing, and endlessly fascinating material. After the lecture, we were treated to a formal dinner with Hawass at a long, elaborately set table in one of the hotel’s banquet rooms. Betsy and I shortchanged on our glass of wine (we got a half glass each, since our waiter was nearing the end of his bottle) but managed to get a top-up after a mild complaint.

Hawass swept out before the end of the dinner, presumably to some other official function; I managed to stop him on the way for long enough to remind him about Lita Albuquerque’s work by the pyramids, and he nodded sagely while he continued working with his toothpick: “Ah yes,” he said: “a very good friend of mine. A very good friend.” And swept away.