Lake Champlain and the Erotic Life

According to Audre Lorde, we’ve been mistaking the erotic for the pornographic, which is a plasticized, trivial, psychotic sensation. This is a rather deliberate confusion she tells us, created by men to be used against women, so that we wimmin become afraid of the power of the erotic in ourselves, and in so doing, learn to suppress our true feelings.

Yet, she reminds us- to ignore our own erotic power leads us to dismiss the “internal sense of satisfaction” which acknowledging, recognizing and embracing the erotic can bring us in our lives. As she puts it so powerfully:

“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” By giving in to a fear of feeling fully and passionately (because we’ve been taught to shun the erotic)–we become “unintentional” and in so doing we become the “Other” of Man- the “feminine” creatures lacking ontological existence as Simone de Beauvoir had philosophized in her 1949 tome, “The Second Sex.” Or as Lorde tells us, we become those “who do not wish to guide their own destinies.” Easier perhaps, to let another bear the burden of our being, to not have to make decisions about what to do and how to live– but in relinquishing such a burden of making our own choices, however tough the path may turn out to be, we also give up the “internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic” that sense of “satisfaction” and “completion” which only an embrace of the erotic can bring us, an embrace that “will bring us closest” to a fullness of being and living.

My friend Zeba who I’ve known for the past four decades- a bit longer if you count the year I joined Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore and she was a senior and part of a group of wimmin I found dashingly daring because even back then in that conventional space where they were so different from the norm–well, to me she epitomizes the power of the erotic that Lorde talks about.

She came to N America when very few single women from Pakistan went abroad to study, earning spending money by babysitting and later making her way to the top of her profession by working hard, staying curious and always alert and full of fun. In short: passionate about her work, her passion has been for life itself, bursting with interest in the world and in the people and in books and animals and objets d’art around her. She has been one of my favorite travel companions, through whom I have learnt to enjoy, appreciate and appropriate the funkiest of musical tastes from Spinal Tap to David Byrne, in whose company I allow the wind to mess up my hair, wake up to sunrise kissing my face in a lakeside cottage, drive madcap from Barcelona to Pamplona to indulge my fascination with Hemingway and bulls in Pamplona, walk through purple-covered moors in search of Heathcliff and Cathy, all the while marching up and down the dales of a female friendship punctuated by similarities that have helped us overcome our differences through respect, not by sm/othering or collapsing into a forced sameness.

And so, celebrating many decades of embracing the power of the erotic, as we enter the senior stage of our lives, marking my entry into grandparenthood and her own remarkable ongoing struggle with a chronic illness that she has pushed back most definitely through her passionate joie de vivre –a few days ago we got in to her black turbo-charged Beetle and drove several hundred miles to a charming sun-filled cottage on lake Champlain just south of Montreal. The hours of our journey flew by. Our personal and political selves entwined as we sang along to or danced in the car with the music of Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil, Junoon and Noor Jehan, and the “Bismillah, I will not let you go” of Queen.

At our lakeside retreat we have read and chatted, cooked together and soaked in the susurrus of the water amidst the silence, gazed admiringly at the majestic green mountains across from us on the other side of the lake’s lapping waves, gone for a hike on the paths around a chasm created 13,000 years ago, enjoyed an ice cream cone at a roadside creamery and chatted some more about our families, friends, the state of the world we live in and our deep engagement with it.

Through the process of this “becoming,” this life-long journey into each others intimate worlds where the personal and the political become one, I feel I have entered what Jane Lazarre calls “a heightened awareness which always seems to involve the entwining of my own life with something outside of myself.” The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called this state of feeling “imaginative identification,” an ever-strengthening link between “self-discovery and humane conscience.”

To me, this is the gift of feminist friendship: where we celebrate the erotic in the endeavor, the hard work that sustained and meaningful friendship requires of us. This “work” that is the hallmark of a life well-lived, is indeed a conscious decision; one that unleashes the power of the erotic, understood as commitment, to something bigger than some narrowly-defined self-interest. In Audre’ s hallowed words, when we celebrate the erotic in any endeavor, that means we are making a conscious decision to commit to it, because we want to, because we believe in it.

And so this long-term friendship–like my other life endeavors –has been a conscious decision, akin, in Audre’s words, again, to “a longed-for bed” which one “enters gratefully” and from which one rises up “empowered.”

It is empowering indeed, to live and bask in the light of the erotic in yourself: a feminist flowering into the world, where you become a better you in the company of a few good wimmin, with whose help the I becomes a you becomes an us.

Thank you Audre, thank you Jane, thank you Zeba.

2018 Travel Highlights

It’s been a while since I blogged but honestly–nonstop traveling takes its toll, even on an energetic feminista 😆!!!

I’m amazed looking back on 2018, at the extent and frequency of my physical travels, which are an extension of living a life informed and structured by feminist principles of autonomy and engagement.

Starting in January, I stopped off in Cairo en route to Lahore where I was headed to spend several months being with my mother as her dementia was worsening, and as a daughter, I had to take time off from my work life to just be with her; this too is a feminism of care. In Cairo, I wanted to spend a few day’s discussing our complicated family situation (my middle brother who lives with mom has Down syndrome), with my youngest brother Irfan, who has been living and working there for a few years. And while there, I wanted to spend some time visiting with my dear friend Nawal el Saadawi, who has been an important influence in my evolving feminist consciousness and being in the world. It really was great seeing how her feminist activist spirit keeps her going at an advanced age, still writing critical columns and op Ed’s for Al Ahram on the political situation in Egypt, still plotting and planning to get her Center for Creativity off the ground, so to encourage feminist art making in writing, filmaking, theatre and musical fields.

From Cairo I made my way to Lahore to enjoy the last few months of my mother’s company when she at least knew me; now, a year later, her condition has much worsened so that she doesn’t seem to know who I am when I call. Sad, but I’m glad for the strength she still exhibits . As a career woman from the 1950s in Pakistan, my mother has definitely inspired me in ways I’m not even fully conscious of.

In Lahore I connected with students at kinnaird college for women- my undergrad alma mater- and gave lectures on feminist theory which bonded me with some wonderful young women and with some of whom I’m still in touch via a WhatsApp group

From lahore I visited Sehwan Sharif near Karachi-the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalandar. Sufis like him blurred the binarism of gender to create androgynous personas and elevate the feminine principle whilst challenging hierarchies of all sorts as well as the divisions caused by religious dogma. At his shrine, men danced and women too did the dhamaal- dancing to reach ecstatic states where one becomes ego-less.

After Karachi visit (where I stayed with an old friend whose life has been a feminist parable of gritty evolution from male dependency and abuse to one of self sufficiency and independence)-I flew to Khatmandu, Nepal. My old friend and fierce feminist Barbara Nimri Aziz- Creator and host of WBAI’s Radio Tahrir program focusing on Arab American and Muslim American cultural, literary and political issues, who has and continues to do amazing work in Nepal in the field of education and whose early research into Marxist feminist resistance cultural politics (her book on the life and work of the Marxist “nun” Yogamaya is amazing)–was there on her annual months-long visit. So I wanted to visit and see her in the context of the work that made her who she is… and it was really edifying and encouraging and gave me the reassurance we all need that yes, our work and commitment matters. I also made a crazy bus ride on my own to and from Khatmandu to Pokhara (7 hours each way!), in the foothills of the Himalayas which was quite an experience!

From Nepal I stopped off in Abu Dhabi to see friends and colleagues at NYUAD and from thence back to lahore. After another month there I headed back to the US via Venice, Italy, where my hubby and I met at the little airport like long lost lovers… such fun and funny too! We enjoyed a wonderful week of sightseeing and delicious Italian food and wine–and gelato!–from Venice to Verona to Florence to the charming little town of San Gimignano in the Tuscan countryside, and from where we also drive to Siena and to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A much needed break and getaway for us both, and a nice way to reconnect after several months apart. This separating and reconnecting too, is a part of my feminist life.

From Italy we headed home to NY but within 10 days I was back on a plane with hubby and my son, daughter and son in law, to Ojai in California to attend a dear old friend’s daughters wedding. I have known Pradeep from the moment I arrived at Tufts university in 1979 to study for my PhD, where he was getting his masters in Engineering. I love that he and his family and mine have carried our friendship forward all these decades later.

All of this travel happened within the first four months of the year!!!! And then, in July, my feminista buddy Shoba and I, trotted off to my theatre conference in Belgrade, Serbia, where I presented my new work on Queer Performativities in Pakistan. From thence via overnite train to Montenegro and on to Dubrovnik in Croatia- all of which I’ve chronicles in this blogsite

Shortly after my return to NY I packed up to head out for the 2018-19 academic year at NYUAD in Abu Dhabi, end August. After starting teaching I left on a week long trip to Berlin and Amsterdam and a quick trip to Lahore. In Berlin, I was a talking head in a new doc film on women and Islam being made by another old friend, Ibrahim Quraishi, with whom I’ve shared a decade long involvement in an experimental theatre collective where we made cutting edge feminist and politically progressive work. After shooting my part in his film, Holy Mama, we hopped on a train to Amsterdam where we screened and then did a panel discussion on the film and I got to meet two other women who also appear in the film- Seyran Ates who is a lesbian female imam from Germany of Turkish-Kurdish background, and a Netherlands based Pakistani Dutch activist named Shireen Musa. I had my differences with both of these women’s approaches to women and gender rights in Islam in the European Context, and it felt good to be able to engage with our different viewpoints in front of an interested audience.

In October I traveled to Lahore again for my fall break, to work with a local camera team on shooting some new footage for my ongoing doc film project on women singers of Pakistan. I think the project might take a turn toward focusing on music as a tool for political and cultural resistance in general- I might want to include Taimur Rahman’s Laal Band as part of that story; alongside blind female singer Aliya Rasheed’s inspiring story of tenacity in pursuing her dream to become a singer of a difficult classical form: the Dhrupad style.

In November, I flew with a new friend I’ve made in Abu Dhabi, another Pakistani woman academic named Nadia Amin, to Morocco, to present a paper on the similar prejudices and challenges faced by Pakistani and Arab women performers at the Performing Tangiers conference. It’s a. Inference I’ve attended several times over the past many years, so it was great to see the local team of scholars and conference aides again in Tangiers. Khalid Amine is a great host! But Nadia and I had quite an adventure getting to Tangiers as we missed our connecting flight in Casablanca and had to end up taking a train that took 7 hours to get us to our destination! But we succeeded in taking a ferry across to Gibraltar which was an amazing side trip- the Rock of Gibraltar commands quite a view over the Mediterranean and the little British outpost has a quite interesting history… I had to go see my dear friend and colleague from Montclair, Norma Connolly, who is ill with a mysterious disease-possibly ALS- and had returned to her hometown, La Linea in Spain, just a few miles from Gibraltar to rest. Making the effort to spend time with old girl friends is an important mandate of feminist practice; one I take very seriously. So Nadia and I spent the evening with her and then enjoyed a very nice meal before sleeping off our exhaustion at a local hotel and then returning to Tangiers for one more day the following morning.

The year ended on a high note: I welcomed several leading feminist scholars and activists from India, Pakistan and Sweden- to a Transnational Feminist conclave at NYUAD that was structured on the model of Lois Weaver’s Long Table– allowing for an organic and non hierarchical (re: Feminist!)- method of engaging with our understanding of pressing issues around women’s and human rights in our respective locations. It was great to have Omnia Amin present a short video she made in Cairo of Nawal- it felt like my year had truly come full circle.

And then, after the fall semester ended, I headed home to NY to host my annual Xmas time get together of friends and family, and to plan the first feminist event of the new year: a surprise baby shower for my daughter Faryal, who is expecting a baby girl in April 2019, and who will inherit the strong feminist genes of her mother and grandmother 👵 even as she enjoys wearing the plethora of pink outfits she received as gifts while she was still inside her mother’s womb!!!!

World traveling and transnational feminism

So we are reading for my Transnational Feminisms class that I’m teaching this fall at Nyuad, an essay by Yuanfang Dai, a Chinese American feminist scholar who expands on Maria Lugones’ world-traveling theory:

“World”-traveling generates deep understanding and makes one feel at ease. Playfulness is the loving attitude toward others and an openness to uncertainty while traveling, because when we are playful, we are not self-important, nor stabilized in any particular “world,” but rather, being creative and open to further self-construction and new possibilities.

( from “Bridging the Divide in Feminism with Transcultural Feminist Solidarity” by Yuanfang Dai).

I really loved this passage as it elucidates two key ideas or affective states that define my own sense of feminist travel. At their best, these affective states marked by 1) playfulness and 2) an openness to uncertainty, lead to an expansion of ones understanding of the self via a paradoxical diminishment of the ego as it opens to an embrace of the other by refusing the comfort of righteous certainty and the serious policing of the borders and fences we construct to hang on to our sense of ourselves as exceptional, an exceptionalism we have to shed if solidarity is our goal. Exceptionalism is a dead-end, a one-way street to oblivion

I find my traveling feminista-style is indeed transforming the space of the unheimlich into one of expansive and joyous connections across differences that cease to be radically “other” — I’m aware of the many different contexts of my colleagues and students and all the “others” I’m meeting here in the UAE, but the affective nature of our interchange allows for the possibility of theorizing solidarities that are rooted in careful listening and the willingness to suspend certainties that being in a space where we are all “different” encourages.

I’m reminded of Annette Kolodny’s wonderful essay from 1970, “Dancing Through the Minefield” on feminist literary criticism- the insight esp that feminist ideology allowed us to “bridge the gap between how we found the world and what we wanted that world to be.” She calls for a “playful pluralism” in our approach to making sense of the world that might lead to forging connections across differences. She asks that we entertain “the possibility that different readings of the same text” –our shared world?–“might be differently useful, even illuminating , within different contexts of inquiry.”

To be playfully serious, or seriously playful. To dance, even through minefields. To honor pluralism, playfully. To commit to justice, seriously. To dream, to play, to dance on the floor of beauty’s detritus knowing, believing, reaching across our differences, keeping hope alive.

” I could have danced all night… and still have begged for more”

Let’s do those thousand things we still haven’t done… including imagining and bringing into being, a world of solidarity, playfulness, uncertainty– keeping the borders porous, open, full of promise.

Haptic Spectacularity in the Desert of the Real: Love and Revenge and a Tribe Called Red

Turning 60 a few days ago, here in Abu Dhabi, I am hyper aware of the unsettled and transient quality of life that heightens/intensifies the real into its dream other, in a space that is uncanny because it is unheimlich. Such awareness informed my experience of the haptic visuality of a music-saturated evening that blurred the lines between reality and dream, turning the Real into the Hyper-real, visuality into a haptic spectacle of what one might also call, the aural gaze of a Re-oriented impossible sexiness–which is also

the horizon of our political imaginary.

An ironic orientalism….

It began with a viewing and listening experience of a double bill of music at the NYUAD Arts Center that immersed the audience made up of students, faculty and outsiders into the synesthetic realm of sound and vision created onstage by the veejaying teams of Love and Revenge and A Tribe Called Red respectively.

The former is composed of Lebanese-Palestinian dj Waël Kodeih aka Rayess Bek who lives in France, and vj Randa Mirza aka La Mirza who is also of Lebanese background. Along with their wonderful Oudh player and keyboardist, they create a lushly sensuous experience for audiences that turns the gaze into an organ of touch, reaching into the world represented onscreen by the glamorously melodramatic scenes of 1950s Egyptian cinema, a vanished world of impossibly sexy actress-singers who jolt audiences awake into a past that makes us yearn in the present. A literal immersion into Baudrillard’s Desert of the Real!

From this manipulation of image and sound of Arab songstresses like Warda and Asmahan ( the latter was a Syrian princess who became a singing star and screen idol of Egypt later accused of spying for the British)— we were plunged in the next part of the double bill, into the electronic techno pop and powwow drum n bass musical that was created by the veejay experience of A Tribe Called Red. This is a Canadian duo comprising 2oolman and Bear Witness and their two onstage dancers who dance in full native tribal regalia of First Nations against the incongruous background of looped images of scenes from old racist Cowboy and Indian movies of Hollywood’s yesteryear. We are reminded of how the spectacle of the reel mediates our perception of the real; through their haptic remix that turns the audience’s gaze into an instrument of touch and hearing, we listen and observe the reel of real.

And from this sensory overload to an unfolding of an Ethiopian musical feast at a local club downtown where a bunch of us headed after the show— our party were plunged into a netherworld; here, observing beautiful young women clothed in native Ethiopian dresses, wearing incredibly outrageous high heeled shoes 👠, perform as background chorus to live singers of hypnotic dance music that mixed melody and rhythm of Ethiopia with Maghrebian sounds—turned into a Dionysian frenzy of dance and trance for all of us, blurring the lines between performer and observer, between performance and the real.

The dancers onstage became the focus of our haptic frame, turning the objectifying gaze back onto ourselves, participants in a destabilising move and mood that made us the objects of our own gaze.

To what world, then, do we awake? That is the question that continues its march into the matrix of mymymy mind….

Here is the post that inspired the writing above which I forgot to upload earlier:

So I’m leaving on a jet plane yet , again, to teach this academic year at NYUAD ( New York University ) in Abu Dhabi.

Having spent a semester there before, it is a space that is definitely spectacular in the way Zizek theorises the postmodern “passion for the real” in his 2002 book called The Desert of the Real. This book, written after 9/11, the title based on a phrase in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulacrum, and one that most of us remember from the movie The Matrix–proposes that the terror attacks of 9/11 were the kind of spectacle that has come to occupy- simulate–the experience of the Real in a world saturated with the optics of reality television.

When Neo in The Matrix wakes up from his computer-generated virtual reality, he experiences the real world as a nightmarish, desert landscape that is desolate but beautiful. According to Zizek, that is what the terror attacks, the horrific images of crumbling towers and jumping bodies- became or were experienced by the American public craving/fed on, a diet of the Real as Spectacle– a reality that becomes the ultimate “effect”, leading us into a war torn but spectacular geography that is continuing its march through the historical Real/reel of today.

Abu Dhabi and the UAE itself is a space where one experiences such reality as a simulacrum, at a remove, a nether-state that spectacularizes the desert, in which dreamworlds merge to create virtual realities.

In traveling to and through this desert of the real, I will keep trying to map its effects, staying alert to the glitz that overlays material historical processes in order to feed our postmodern penchant for the spectacular.

Journeying to Mother

I found an old black and white photo of my mother so young and beautiful- holding me in her arms with a beatific smile on her face suffused with a new mother’s love. She is wearing a sari with an elbow-length-sleeved blouse and sitting in what seems to be the front lawn of my maternal grandpa’s house in FCC Colony, Lahore. I must be 8/9 months old I think. She must be on a day off from Islamia College for Women, where her career spanned 4 decades as professor of English and later the Principal of the college- a post she held till she retired.

The photo fell out of the photo album that I brought with me to keep me company in my year of introspective adventure away from a home far far away from my mother land, when a backward glance seems apposite to mark my entry into my 60s.

Picking up the photo, I found scribbled on the back of it, in her handwriting, some verses of Urdu poetry. Written in pencil, I’m surprised they are still legible after almost 60 years. What is even more surprising to me is that the very first lines, from a poem by our famous Marxist poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, are from a ghazal that has been a staple of my singing repertoire since I was in my twenties.

I don’t ever recall having been asked by mother to learn to sing this particular poem, nor, sadly, do I remember whether she ever heard me singing it.

Part of the reason for my year-long sojourn in Abu Dhabi is to be nearer to the motherland I had to travel away from to become a mother myself, to recognise the roots and sources of my feminist anger that acknowledges motherhood as complicated terrain; a land where she resides in a state of mental limbo now- occasionally remembering her own name and that she has a daughter who she often calls by my daughter’s name. My own halfway home here in NYUAD links my journey to hers in a state of empathy where belonging is suspended…. where one must find other ways to know oneself, perhaps to soar in some space of freedom difficult to imagine until one is in it, and in her case, impossible to articulate.

I will sing this ghazal that connects the poet, the mother and her daughter to the heart’s ineffable yearning that cannot speak its name, when I see her, soon, soon, just never soon enough.

My Year of Living Adventurously

Ordinarily at this time of year, I’d be getting ready to go back to a new academic year at the institution where this would be my 31st year of teaching. Instead, I’ve just finished watching a film that gave me hope for the future by reminding me of the past (The Post, about the Pentagon Papers published by the Washington Post in defiance of govt orders, that spelt the beginning of the end for Nixon’s presidency)–as I fly over the Atlantic to get to the Arabian Gulf, to spend a year teaching undergraduates at NYUAD

I wonder why some of us seek to leave the comforts of home, the reassurance of routine, the illusion of safety that the familiar facilitates; what inspires us to wilfully veer off into travel mode, and confront the illusions that lull us to sleep in the beds we claim as our security zones.

I think traveling away from the homestead is an important feminist act that proclaims a woman’s independence in a way few other actions can. It signifies the courage to face the world on her own, an acknowledgement that she can survive in spite of ( because of?)–having to rely on her own instincts and judgement-as Katherine Graham of the Washington Post does, leaving the comfort of her housewifely role. And it requires skill. The skill to figure things out, make new friends, conquer fear of strangers, smile at the world, be at peace in her own company; and learn to sleep in a strange bed; no easy task!

To embrace a traveling state of mind is to accept the truth that all states are temporary abodes, that the heart is not where home is, but rather, home is an uncanny place, the stranger within that the heart seeks to embrace. It is the abode of the Sufi whose wanderlust gives meaning to life’s journey.

I can’t fly. I must fly.


Death

No one I’m close to has died recently but because I think about death a lot-as my husband reminded me yesterday eve when I was recalling a dear departed colleague after dinner–I decided to pen a few random thoughts on this obsession. A low key pizza and wine dinner to kick off our 36th anniversary weekend was obviously a fun but sobering reminder of the passage of time– all those Friday nite campus pizza dates at MIT!!–of lessons learnt, of love’s ebb and flow, of the miracle of giving birth to new lives entwined with the knowledge that it’s all going, going, going…..

It’s true death is a constant presence in my thoughts- but isn’t that so for anyone who lives life in travel mode? It’s a truism that we’re all travelers and that life is a journey but some of us inhabit the cliche more literally than others I suppose; I know I do and always have and I wonder if that is tied to a childhood spent taking off from terra firma, landing in far corners of the earth from what counted as “home” -and which imparted a lifelong adventurous approach to being in the world, but also a constant awareness of change, of flux, of letting go, dying as it were, so as to enable entry at new ports of call, different destinations, a new life that I might enter only if I could let go of the old one.

Will the big D be like all these little deaths? The thing is, I’ve managed to keep all of those past places and psychic spaces knit together in an ever-expanding mosaic of emotional and physical travel that at its best, keeps the edges of the universe from fraying too jaggedly even as I gad about in seemingly random runnings; indeed, the travel metaphor helps keep up a necessary figment of coherence without which I think life would become meaningless and like most folk–I do crave some sense that all of this meandering has a point.

It is the finality of a departure without arrival that blows the lid off the fiction of travel as unending adventure and opportunity for growth. Death with a capital ‘D’ is a full stop. No more sentences one can revise to make life more interesting, bearable, sensible, fun.

But the human mind is irrepressibly optimistic. Maybe its the travel we can’t anticipate that will be the real deal….

The Levanat in Dubrovnik

This is a plug for a fabulous dining experience for those of you contemplating a visit to the jewel of the Dalmatian coast, Dubrovnik.

I just got lucky in my choice of an Airbnb apartment that I booked for myself and my travel mate Shoba for our 3 night stay in Dubrovnik a week ago. It turned out to be a lovely location ( the apartment itself also extremely charming, atop a lane overlooking the Adriatic with spectacular views from the balcony and windows)–and our driver/guide who’d brought us down from Podgorica introduced us to this restaurant belonging to his namesake and friend, Tomislav Levanat.

The restaurant was located a short walking distance from our apartment and the morning after Croatia’s semi final win and wild carousing in the streets to which we were delighted witnesses- our friend Tomi came to pick us and take us to breakfast there.

The restaurant is breathtakingly appointed– multi-tiered seating along a long length of the rocky coastline, shimmering blue water of the Adriatic as far as the eye can see, tables and chairs protected from blazing sun by outgrown boughs where at night soft music plays through speakers hidden in the branches…. yes, we first had a delicious breakfast of fruit filled crepes covered in chantilly cream (well, I did and the calories be damned!)– accompanied by piping hot coffee also very good, as I found that Croatians really do like their coffee and it’s good, strong but not at all bitter. And then- we booked a table right next to the water for dinner later that evening.

Tomi our driver-guide-friend, introduced us to Tomi the son of the owner of the Levanat who charmed us by calling us “My ladies”– despite being feminists, we found such an appellation charmingly quaint and weren’t in the least bit offended; I guess Desi feminists don’t take offense at being called “ladies”!!!

The food at dinner was excellent though not inexpensive. Still- for 3 alcoholic beverages, a couple of appetizers and 3 entrees, 200$ was hardly outrageous esp given the surroundings. The home grown rocket salad sautéed to a crisp and served with shaved Parmesan was a delicious starter and the fresh branzino grilled simply with lemon and rock salt was super yummy too… with a side of baby potatoes and assorted veggies, it sealed the deal! Shoba and I had ordered the branzino for two- as a vegetarian, this was her once-a-year fish treat to herself; and Tomi ordered a steak which I tasted and it was also very good.

But the signature gin and tonics, prepared right at your table with a myriad choices of gin, some with hints of rosemary (what I chose)–were a fun treat to observe being mixed, with many flamboyant flourishes including the use of a long twirly golden sizzle stick… such fun to watch and then to enjoy drinking, with the most romantic backdrop of a pink sunset against an azure sea

I highly recommend the experience!

If you go- wish Tomislav Levanat a big hello from the “ladies”!!!

The persistence of orientalism

So in one of his early unguarded moments, our otherwise charming driver-guide Tomislav who picked me n Shoba up at Podgorica rail station and drove us on an all-day leisurely drive down the picturesque Adriatic riviera of Montenegro, described an Indian family he had driven around some time earlier, as “smelly.”

Shoba and I immediately exchanged glances which Tomi may have noticed, for he quickly changed his tune to “but ofcourse not all Indians are like that”– meaning, ofcourse, we were more like him ( read: European, modern, unsmelly!)- than those “others” bringing even their cook along with them and wanting to eat only Indian food on their travels!

While I have no patience for folks whose idea of travel is to bring “home” with them ( why travel then???)– I realized how deep the roots of orientalist ideology lie in the psyche of the very people-the Slavs- who themselves have been seen as dark, swarthy, “smelly” Orientals by those who regard themselves as the “true” Europeans. This is because of Slavic domination by the Turks during 300 years of Ottoman rule which rendered the Balkans “Oriental” in the eyes of Europe. A young Leon Trotsky, traveling by train from Budapest to Belgrade on the eve of World War 1 was thus enthused to say looking out the window:

“The East! The East!-what a mixture of faces, costumes, ethnic types and cultural levels!”

In such a view, Muslims (according to Prof Mark Mazower in his wonderful little book, The Balkans)–“were widely regarded as more prone to acts of barbarism than their Christian subjects.”

Thus, Greeks were seen to be one-sided victims of Turkish atrocities in the Great War in popular imagination leading Gladstone to denounce “Bulgarian horrors” without any acknowledgement that Christians too committed atrocities or even at times provoked them.

A passage from Mazower’s book sums up the European attitude of yesteryear that helps explain the prejudices of today we encountered in both our young driver and the older Serbian guide in Belgrade who corrected me when I referred to cevabci-kebabs-as Turkish cuisine as ” No, no, the Turks were nomads, cuisine comes from settled civilizations- this food we have here is Byzantine cuisine!”. Here is what Mazower writes:

“Christian Europe’s blindness to Muslim victims overlooked the huge movements of populations triggered off by Ottoman decline.” It is this blindness that has led people in the West- which now includes the Serbs and Croatians- to identify with those, who, according to Ami Bose writing in 1854, talked “in the West, about transporting all the Turks, in other words Muslims, to Asia in order to turn Turkey in Europe into a uniquely Christian Empire.”

Boue ( qtd in Mazower) tells us how inhuman and genocidal such an impulse is:

“This would be a decree as inhumane as the expulsion of Jews from Spain, or of Protestants from France, and indeed, scarcely feasible since the Europeans always forget that in Turkey in Europe the Muslims are mostly Slavs or Albanians, whose right to the land is as ancient as that of their Christian compatriots.”

Sadly- historians utterances are rarely heeded. The Balkan wars of the 1990s whose aftermath was very much palpable in the off-the-cuff remarks made by people like the Serbian guide or even, in the more “innocent” prejudice of our Croatian driver who, when we met a Hijabi Arab woman speaking Croatian at a sightseeing stop, wondered aloud to us how come she was Croatian– well, it just goes to show the persistence of stereotypes that feed orientalism and encourage the Othering that leads to dehumanization, war and ultimately, genocide.

Art and travel are crucial antidotes to challenging such ideologies of irreducible differences between peoples. That is why the play we saw (In the Name of the Lord) was so important; and our spending two days in the company of young Tomislav, we hope, helped qualify his own thus-far limited (and biased) experience of the Other in his midst.

Perhaps our intervention as adventurous, Middle Aged brown women, one of us of Muslim background from Pakistan who could be friends with a Hindu woman from India- is part of the progressive counter-ideology I am calling ” traveling feminista”!

In the Name of the Lord

This was the title of a play performed on the second night of the IFTR Congress in Belgrade and I wanted to simply note here how important it felt as an intervention into the current debates around immigration and xenophobia swirling around us everywhere

The play-stylistically more of an Avante Garde “happening” than a play–unfolded with 3 male actors and one female all reciting the liturgy dresses in costumes of the Orthodox Church. The prayer recitation went on long and seriously enough to make the audience wonder whether we were in church or in the theatre (is there a difference?)– and then, abruptly, the tone and the pace changed and the “play” became a collage of scenes one more bizarre and unsettling than the other.

Suddenly, for instance, the nice, kind preaching of tolerance and acceptance in the house of God turned into a rant by the same voices who morphed into ugly characters screaming that Muslims were overrunning their lands bringing filth and violence into their “pure” communities

There was even a surreal scene in which the characters on stage- reminding me very much of the hoodlums in A Clockwork Orange–bring a pig onstage and proceed to slaughter and screw it…. gross, yes, but very evocative too

And then the characters donned Muslim clothing including the hijab (the sole female performer puts it in and completely transforms from a half naked punk to a modest Muslim woman)–to recite long passages of Islamic prayer in perfect Arabic accents. The woman proceeded to lecture everyone in the superiority of Islam in giving respect and protection to its womenfolk compared to the objectified way in which European Christian women are treated in society.

No one escapes the incisive, biting satirical eye of the playwright/director – Andras Urban- who is a leading figure of the Serbo-Hungarian theatre world and with whom I had the chance to briefly exchange a few words after the play was over. He told me that much of it had developed in conjunction with the actors over a period of rehearsals and improvs–like devised theatre.

I found the work to be quite brilliant and enlightening in terms of exposing the truth of what even the most “tolerant” and “liberal” people think/feel deep down when they think their comfy way of life is under threat by an alien other. The Other too is never an innocent cipher either- no entity is a complete “pure” victim. We are all enmeshed in these struggles for power and recognition and must struggle always to retain some modicum of humanity. Not easy when centuries of mistrust and enmity are the backdrop of what appears on the surface to be a new, contemporary problem

Sigh.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose