Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cold Comfort

Sometimes life just wants to snatch your purse, but for some dumb reason you fight back and wind up in a stretcher in the cosmic ER. Other times it comes at you, execution style. Soul-wrenching agony when the universe explodes and you’re one step beyond the event horizon, being pulled into a dark eternity.

But there’s one thing I can rely on in a crisis: that someone will tell me: this is important for your writing. It’s happening for a reason. Put this in your next book. Make sure you speak from this pain….

Wait, you mean share THIS with the world? Why the hell would they want it?

Yes, characters have to go through conflict and suffering, otherwise they’re boring. But do you have to experience schizophrenia to comprehend how horrible and destructive it can be? No, you do not. You are a writer because you have imagination and empathy and insight. Because you’re paying attention to how things run. Because you’ve seen a lot of shit and you took notes. 

In fact, you like manipulating stories and making things happen to other people. (My sister always jokes that JK Rowling is a sadist. Who else would kill one of the Weasley twins?) The point is, those bad things aren’t happening to you, puppet master. For once, you get to pull the strings. And maybe your nightmares hide for a while. Huzzah. Then again, maybe they don't.

Let's say your husband dies in a tragic hunting accident. Is anyone going to say: think what this will do for your sex life! Yeah, they might think it, but let's hope they're not graceless.

Nobody cares what a writer’s motives are. People are readers. They feel an inner call, too, and it has something to do with whether they can get to the end of your book – and still want more. So folks, next time your writer crashes into their dark side, don’t tell them it’s going to authenticate their art. Tell them to make sure it doesn’t ruin their plans.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ibn Arabi, Pentecostals, and the lovely Mr. Khan

Oh no, you’re saying. Not another obsolete medieval Muslim poet!!!

Yes, I’m afraid. Yes. But afterwards we can have snack and recess. Ibn Arabi rocks for one big reason: he taught that even though God is “out there,” he is also IN YOU. Each person is a piece of God.

This makes me think of the earth as a big brain, and every person as a kind of neuron. If you put it all together, you get a big fat consciousness somewhere. Now being irreverent: what if that consciousness isn’t fully “conscious” yet? But trying to be?
I think this is what most mystics believe: that by giving up material concerns and meditating on the “oneness of being”, they will elevate the consciousness of the world. The preferred way of doing this is by getting into a trance state. Like meditation. Or Gnawa music. Or whirling in a circle for hours. In fact, one word: PENTECOSTALS!!!

Anyway, this morning’s way of doing it is by listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.


This song just BEGS you to jump up, clap your hands, and spin in circles in your living room!

So what's the point of trance? The Sufis say that, like sex, you have to experience it in order to understand it. NOT an answer! But both things can have something in common.

A garden among the flames!

My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'aba for the circling pilgrim,
Tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.

My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief, 
My faith.

- Ibn Arabi

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Saudi Flasher

People often ask if that flasher scene in FINDING NOUF could possibly be real. And yes, I've had a number of people tell me they were flashed by women in Saudi Arabia. These are people not inclined to exaggeration either. Think about it: it makes sense that even the most modest of women might someday start wanting to get out from under that big black abaaya. Everyone's got their own tolerance level. I know that when I left Saudi -- well let's just say it's what the CIA refers to as "blowback."

Recently I came across this crazy photo which seems to sum it all up for me.

Let's not share that

People are forever analyzing my failed marriage this way: you two had nothing in common. My ex was a Muslim, part-Saudi, part-Palestinian Bedouin who grew up in Jeddah. I was a white, all-American, Christian who grew up on an army base in San Francisco. But actually we had more in common than you’d think.

For example, we were both accustomed to “calls” ringing out a few times a day. For him, the Muslim call to prayer. For me, taps and reveille. In each case, you had to stop what you were doing and turn toward something – Mecca or the central flagpole. And in each case, neither one of us turned.

In Saudi, one of the concepts behind men wearing white and women wearing black is that the uniformity is a great social “leveler”. You’re all the same in front of Allah. The military, too, has a passion for leveling, sticking the heart surgeons in the same quarters as the accountants. And of course they love uniforms.

And aren’t army brats nomads of a sort?

Not to mention that we both came from cities where men liked to hold hands:

I will admit that there were a couple of things we didn’t have in common: a rejection of BLTs and miniskirts, and an abiding fondness for polygamy. But we did agree on one thing: anti-Semitism sucks.

In fact, my ex was so concerned about it, that he once came to a screeching halt on the NY Thruway to assist some stranded travelers who happened to be Hasidic Jews. (I believe to this day that this was his sole motivation because, despite being an auto mechanic, he never stopped for anyone.) After determining that their car was unfixable, he loaded them into the backseat of ours and sped off to deliver them safely to their uncle’s house in Albany, 20 miles out of our way.

The befuddled travelers had some difficulty with my ex’s enthusiasm. (“Brothers, we all come from the same God! We should learn to share the land he gave us!”) But when his words of comfort failed to stop them from squirming, my ex turned to me and whispered: “Maybe you should cover your hair.”

I reluctantly agreed. Sure enough, once I was covered, the men smiled at my ex and seemed to relax. Well, would you look at that? You guys do have something in common after all.

Mazel tov. And sayonara.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

NOT hilarious

From a Pizza Hut in Jeddah

Polygamy: the other white meat

Talking with all kinds of people in Kentucky, I notice a trend: they like the wealthy sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and Dubai who own horse farms here. They respect their abiding passion for horses. Arab hospitality is something to love. But then they’ll pull you aside and quietly admit: there’s just one thing they don’t like – all that polygamy.

I can’t disagree with that. And no need to whisper. Saudis have the same kind of “my, what a disgrace” attitude on the subject of Americans eating pork.

One of the few times I’ve written a scene taken directly from a real life event is in the upcoming City of Veils. A police officer, Osama, answers a call to a scene of domestic violence. Officially it’s off the record because women are fighting and male police officers aren’t allowed to intervene in female domestic disputes. But Osama is a hero. He arrives on the scene and discovers that some co-wives are trying to kill each other. Their husband is unable to intervene. He’s just one poor guy against three murderous women.

The personal stories I hear about polygamy are not very pretty. A friend of mine in Saudi married three women. (Technically, four, although one was living in a foreign country.) The wives hated each other and wound up divorcing him. He was a drug addict himself, which is remarkable in Saudi, where the punishment for possession is something like “three strikes and you’re dead.” But eventually he quit using only to reveal – ta-da! – an underlying disorder. Nymphomania.

No longer self-medicating with illegal substances, he went to a family doctor for help. The doctor said there was nothing he could do and he asked my friend: “But you’re a Muslim, right?” Yes, he was a Muslim. “Then marry four wives – problem solved!” My friend blew up. He leapt out of his chair, shouting: “I already DID that! You don’t know what it did to me! I can never do it AGAIN!”
His complaints? One of his wives wants sex for breakfast, the other for lunch, the third one for dinner. And according to the Quran, he is obliged to treat them all equally. It’s not really about love anymore, he said, it’s about who’s sexier. His wives were constantly trying to outdo each other. He always had to act impressed. The truth was they cared less about him than about their own structures of power. Not to mention the COST of it all....

Can’t say I feel sorry for the guy, but heck, just a view from the other side. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bodies: Whole or Broken?

Browsing through one of my favorite websites – the Jeddah Daily Photo Journal – I came across something weird: the horse sculptures.

My first thought was that this is taking the concept of "breaking a horse" a little too far.

These horses are disfigured, as the blog author, Susie of Arabia, notes, because Islam forbids the depiction of a living being, so the typical way around this is to depict a living being with a part missing.

Maybe the public art in Jeddah is “broken” for poetic reasons. But most Saudis will tell you: it doesn’t matter what the artist does, the authorities won’t let it fly if it’s “whole”. Witness: pedestrian crossing signs.

The subject of wholeness makes me think of Nizar Qabbani’s poem, “Your Body is My Map”.

…chant to me
since from the start of creation
I’ve been searching for a homeland to my forehead

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Limadha = Why

Khaled Abdelqader, "Limadha." This song never gets old.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Arab technology: what the hell happened?

I spent part of the summer in Salerno, Italy. In the medieval period, this place boasted Europe’s first medical school. They say it was founded by an Arab, a Jew, a Greek and an Italian. Think Harry Potter, and the Arabs were Gryffindor. The city was so cosmopolitan, its medical school so renowned, that people came from all over the world to be trained and treated there. They called it “opulent Salerno.”

When you go there today, you think: what, THIS little town? Its population hovers in the 60,000s. It’s on the shabby-chic side. Until very recently there was almost no way that you could learn about the city’s remarkable history – no signs or brochures, no significant museums.

But in the 12th Century, it was THE place to be. Thanks to the Arabs, they had the biggest pharmacopoeia and the best surgical procedures. So while the rest of Europe was creeping out of its civilization rot, Salerno was benefiting from its contact with the Arab world, which was flourishing in a golden age of enlightenment.

Wait a minute, Arabs? Enlightened? And Europeans backwards? Yep. So what the hell happened? Because, let’s be honest, is the world completely bowled over by the brilliant scientific, spiritual, and philosophical inspiration coming out of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo today? Not really.

But we don’t thank them enough for their contributions, do we? No, we prefer the Greeks and the Romans. All that architecture and the glory of social structure. But what about early cures for syphilis? The development of sutures? Hypnotherapy? The first understanding of capillaries – and oh, by the way, an understanding of the whole pulmonary system? Not to mention some of the first successful eye and brain surgeries? Thank you, Muslim enlightenment!

Ever notice that the earliest pictures of Christopher Columbus – who called himself “Almirate,” or “prince” in Arabic -- show him wearing a turban? While we’re at it, let’s thank the Arabs for navigation.

In case you’re interested in going to Salerno, there is still some dispute about the actual location of the medical school, but there is a Medical School Museum, which is currently closed for unfathomable reasons. (Actually, from personal experience, I can say that it’s been closed for 14 years. And somehow every time I go looking for it, people direct me to the police station. For something on that fiasco, click here.)

"We don't even have science fiction"

There’s a new Muslim comic book/TV series trying to sweep the world these days. It’s called The 99. The basic premise: there are 99 superheroes, each one named after one of the 99 Names of Allah. For example, the hero named “Sami the Listener” has the power to hear everything. In the interests of mass market appeal, the characters are all from different countries. (The American hero is in a wheelchair….) And they travel in groups of threes so as not to offend the strict sharia folks who don’t like girls and boys mingling alone.

I think it’s a neat idea, in a Pokemon kind of way. It’ll appeal to the obsessive collectors. But what blew me away was a comic-book buff’s offhand statement in an interview with the Atlantic: “This culture doesn’t understand the importance of comics,” he explained. “…Most writers write about social or political issues. We don’t even have science fiction.”

Um, there is no science fiction in the Middle East? Is this TRUE? I’ve never seen any, but that doesn't mean anything. At the very least, this guy is a “comic book enthusiast”. Am I completely American saying this: how can you not have science fiction? That’s like missing a head.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mecca, Keeneland, Obi-Wan

One of the most religious moments I ever had came when I was about to get married. We were standing in Sheikh Khaled’s Halal Meat Market waiting for the sheikh to finish cutting up a lamb. My ex was chatting with two guys that our hippie friends liked to call the FBI – the Freaky Brothers of Islam – because they wore dark suits and sunglasses when they went proselytizing. I, the lone woman in the room, stood off to the side, next to a glass case full of prayer beads.

I was looking at the wall. There was an extraordinary poster there, showing pilgrims at Mecca circling the Kaaba. I had heard about this part of the Hajj but never actually seen it. Hundreds of thousands of people walking around a great black box. Every pilgrim was wearing two sheets of white cloth. The uniformity of it, the singleness of purpose, and the sheer number of people filled me with a sudden sense of astonishment. What would it be like? What force gets generated by a crowd of that size – a crowd of people who believe in their actions? I could feel it as I stood there. The Halal Meat Market faded and I was swept into that immensely powerful, emotional current that gets generated when millions of people all turn their attention and energy to a single purpose. It was spectacular and beautiful. I actually started to cry.

Okay, it’s possible that Miss Walter Mitty was also crying about the wedding – the sheikh’s bloody smock, the FBI, the sound of a grinder? Hmmm. But that sense of awe was bigger than anything else around it. It got lodged in me as a shard of enlightenment. It said: here is something much greater than you, but strangely it makes you feel large and powerful, like you’ve encompassed the world.

In America, there are plenty of excuses to put yourself in a crowd. Ball games, concerts, parades. Sometimes it gets exciting, like the cheers that went up in Mann’s Chinese Theater when R2-D2 appeared in The Phantom Menace after a 20 year absence from the screen. But I have seldom felt swept into that singleness of purpose in a crowd, because mostly crowds are just loud and crazy.

Last fall, I went to Keeneland and saw my first race. When the horses came exploding out of the gate, there was a lot of raucous cheering, then a kind of quiet followed – some people holding their breath, others hooting for their favorite horses. When the horses got halfway around the track, they were so far away that you had to watch a big television screen to distinguish them. Around me, people were analyzing. “Look at number 5, he’s too far to the outside.” Some people were just yakking away about their kids and who spilled the beer.

But when the horses came around the final bend, the crowd became focused. The horses seemed electrified. They picked up speed. No more distinct voices. The upswell of individual sounds – cheering, shouting and begging – merged into a giant reverberation. It gathered momentum, rose up and rushed forward with tsunami-like force. I stood riveted, caught up in the extraordinary energy of ten thousand people all focused on something unknowable.

Then it was over. The reverberation died. Some people whooped with joy, others looked stunned. Perhaps they lost their bets. Their disturbed expressions made me think of Obi-Wan: “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

A friend of mine says she has experienced a transcendent force in a meditation group. But Keeneland is all about sound and physical energy. By the third race, I was shouting. I don’t even know what came out of my mouth. I couldn’t tell you what my body was doing. I was beyond myself. I’ve been to ball games, but even then, the sudden explosion of excitement when someone scores a goal or crosses the finish line is not the same as that crescendo that happens in racing.

I don’t care where you find it, when a joyful crowd acts as one, some extraordinary energy gets unleashed into the universe and makes it a happier place.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How not to be a tortured artist, pt. 1

One of the things that surprises me about book events is how eager people are to hear about my personal life. Why did I marry a man from Saudi? Where did we meet? What was the marriage like? And, crucially, why did we divorce? That’s the question everyone wants answered – the climax to the mini soap opera.

I can’t tell them. It’s not allowed.

To be fair, I have spent most of my life giving out information on a strict Need to Know basis, except for certain times when I remember I’m with friends and that I do not work for the CIA.

I consider book signings a “Kind of Need to Know” situation. When people ask personal questions, I give straight answers. And everyone knows that straight answers subvert the completely confusing and complex truth.

The weird thing about book events is that you’re presenting your work and yourself. If you were to reveal, say, that you are a compulsive gambler who has a personality disorder, a penchant for grand theft auto, and three illegitimate children with a Haitian sorcerer, people might not buy your book. Unless it was an Oprah pick.

So what are you supposed to do?

Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes, that’s what. Besides, can YOU come up with a good two-minute explanation that conveys the story of your divorce? Including the fights about the cat and why the television ended up in a tree? What about the psych ward? And the FBI? And don’t leave out the childhood friend who came to stay for three months, who claimed he stole a finger from the wax Hitler at Madame Tussaud’s and who turned out to be a telepath and a murderer.

That makes it sound fun. I love writing, because it does that. But the real tortured artist is going the way of Hitler’s finger. Where is she? She’s on book tour, acting like she’s never had a psychotic break. Trying to summarize a personality in the space of a one night stand, when it needs a marriage. Wondering what would happen if she did reveal herself, and it wasn’t pretty or particularly amusing, just something the family puts in the pantry.

Let’s face it, madness just isn’t fashionable anymore. Sayonara, Miss Plath.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Arab 'Idol'

This photo just kills me. This woman, Ms. Hissa Hilal, is the only female contestant in the Middle East’s first Arab ‘Idol’ competition, held in Dubai. Now, technically Islam forbids music, so to keep folks happy, the producers of Arab Idol created a show for poetry instead. Very traditional, right?

Please picture this: a bunch of men take the stage. Like the bards of yore, they start reciting epic poems about the noble Bedouin and the great tragic romances of Bedouin lore. They pine for lost history. Then Ms. Hilal takes the stage and says:

Muslim leaders today are “vicious in voice, barbaric, angry, and blind.” She accuses them of being wolves who prey on good people. She calls their fatwas “evil” and said: “Killing a human being is so easy for them.”

This is a housewife from Saudi Arabia, mother of four, who leads a quiet existence. She then goes on to say that she’s worried that fame might interfere with her life. Um, how about the DEATH THREATS that immediately began springing up all over the internet? Hearing that she said: psssht, it’s not enough to send me into hiding.

I don’t want to defend the guys who issue those fatwas, but you said it yourself ma’am: killing a human being is easy for them. So either they’re scary or they’re not. Which is it? You might want to talk to Salman Rushdie before going home to Riyadh. And frankly, it’s a good thing that the burqa was covering your face. Bet Mr. Rushdie could use one of those.

It should be noted that the audience cheered her wildly and that she was voted on to the final round for her courage to speak to a provocative subject.