The Telling of History and its Absences

Encountering the readings–Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality and David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs, and James A. Berlin’s “Writing Instruction in School and College English”–I was thinking about the role that history plays. As someone who is new to the discipline, the past few readings have been helpful at giving some definitions and names. And with a few of them under my belt, I can start making connections and noticing absences.

But more broadly, I was thinking of these histories along four different frameworks: as genealogy, progress story, hagiography, and catalog.

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“A nice cup of tea”

I’m trying to post more during the week–mostly shares and little reflections–and maintain the longer Sunday posts I generally had. I think I finally have a routine I can can sustain which lets me. For today, I’m thinking about tea.

[Image from olivenation.com]
[Image from olivenation.com]

It’s a rainy day where I live, a resilient patter like the crackles of a dozen small fires. Now and then, a cold breeze blows through my window. The sky is deep grey, like faded blacktop, thick with clouds and no prospect of sunlight, even as a dim, filmy outline. Just perpetual twilight without the colors.

Such a drippy day begs for a cup of tea. In particular, black tea with milk. Normally I’m a green tea person. I like the sweetness, nuttiness, refreshing astringency, and floral levity of it. The way a judicial steeping doesn’t infuse it with too many tannins. I also like how it doesn’t stain as much and contains less caffeine.

But on a day like today, I recall what Orwell said in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea“: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.” This needs some explaining.

Indian teas often used the Assamica variety of the original Camellia sinensis, the tea plant that supplies all the different types of tea, including black, green, white, yellow, or oolong. Herbal teas like rooibos or mint are actually “tisane,” not tea. To my knowledge, only the French, tea producers, and tea lovers (or snobs) respect this difference.

The British used the Assamica variety throughout India, particularly in the Assam region, because the original tea plant that China and Japan used suffered in the swampy, tropical heat. The same Assamica variety made its way to other tropical locales, as when Thomas Lipton started growing tea in Sri Lanka.

Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]
Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]

Thus, most “Indian tea,” and consequentially most of the tea drunk in Britain, came from this Assamica tea plant, which are generally more robust and malty. Moreover, transportation and tradition had most English drinking black tea, not green, which capitalize on Assamica‘s malty flavor and heartier mouthfeel.

So on a day like today, when I make a cup of tea “to feel wiser, braver or more optimistic,” to echo Orwell again, I pull out my Assamica black tea and add a dash of milk. Something about this combination–the rainy day, the black tea, the milk–wields comfort, like a warm fire on a winter day. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I’ve always felt it. For instance, a few years ago I made a list of “Things I can look forward too” and number one said, “black tea with milk.” I haven’t changed my mind.

In the end, it is a question of taste. But every taste has some interesting history behind it.

Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
Continue reading “Why be better?”

“Polis is This”: Charles Olson

Hey all,

Sorry for the absence, it’s been the final weeks here at school, so I have been grading, tutoring, and working on final papers like crazy. Expect a post this Sunday, but in the meantime here is a link to the first part of a documentary about a poet I wrote on this semester named Charles Olson. The rest of the documentary is online as well.

Olson, considered the foundational figure for the “projective verse” movement and a key figure for New American Poetry, was a well-read and fascinating character. Born Dec. 27, 1910 in Worcester, MA, to a postman, Olson spent most of his life in the small fishing town of Gloucester, MA, where he wrote his most famous work, The Maximus Poems.

He read voraciously, and through his own work as a postman in and around Gloucester, he developed an intimate eye for detail. This latent curiosity and a love of history spurred his studies at Wesleyan and Harvard, where he became a critical expert on Herman Melville, prompting his 1947 book Call me Ishmael.

Besides his poetry and 1950 critical essay “Projective Verse” Olson’s most well-known accomplishment was his time teaching  at and directing Black Mountain College, a small liberal arts school near Asheville, NC, that acted as a gathering point of avant-garde teachers and students from its founding in 1933 until it closed in ’57. Some of its faculty and students included Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, John Cage, Josef Albers, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, William de Kooning, and more.

One of his most original idea is the notion of “polis.” Drawn from the Greek word for city state, “polis” for Olson constituted the ability of a certain local area to connect to and mirror the world. Olson, a historian and observer by trade, studied the records, geography, and people of his local Gloucester, and by doing so, he laced his personal memories and existence into the geography and history. Synthesizing the personal connection and history, he was able to create an overlap, where the personal bled into the historical and geographical. This was polis: seeing the “totality of the system” by “inverting” it, the macrocosm through the microcosm.

Olson, however, was a controversial figure. He was opposed to the capitalism that now directs our everyday way of life, seeing it as a “mu-sick” that flooded out and leveled down polis. And his larger-than-life personality, at 6-foot-seven, was as well known as his womanizing and dismissive attitude toward most women poets. Some also think his writing and presence at Black Mountain and elsewhere assumed the role of a high prophet or Zen master, didactic and needlessly cryptic.

While some of these criticisms may be more accurate than others, one has a hard time doubting Olson’s influence or intelligence. And taking a leaf from his own book, I encourage anyone interested in him to do their own research, this documentary providing an engaging start. Enjoy.

-Brett

Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

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Egypt, week 3

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This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.

I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.

In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.

“You like books?” he asked.

Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.

“What kinds?”

“Many kinds,” I said.

Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.

“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.

“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.

I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.

“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”

In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.

“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.

We had more in common than I thought.

Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.

“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”

“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.

He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.

Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment.  If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.

A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?

Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.

Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.

After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.

Continue reading “Egypt, week 3”

Egypt, Week Two

The setting sun tints the Cairo train station like a sepia-toned photograph as we pull away. Through the smudged train window I watch an old man in a frayed linen jacket search through his old army bag as he leans against a smog-stained pillar. Friends take photographs in front of low concrete benches, and a woman hoists a bag of rice on her head, trailing her three children behind.

The train gains speed as Cairo’s unfinished block housing gradually gives way to broad fields, dotted with a few workers: the Egyptian countryside. Between the fields stand buildings like unfinished shelves, piled and cramped together, with the rebar poking out like lose whiskers.

Dea, Micheal, and I are on our way to Alexandria, Alexander the Great’s famous capital, where Cleopatra once saw Mark Antony and Eratosthenes invented modern geography over 2,000 years ago.

I’ve wanted to see Alexandria since I was a child. The Lighthouse and the Library represent one of the peaks of human civilization, and some of history’s greatest thinkers walked in their shadows. 

Mindful of Alexandria’s epic history, I also recall Egypt’s current issues. The unemployment rate remains over 13%, tourism declines, and the Egyptian pound continues to fall. Rebels block roads around Cairo, intercepting commuters to deliver political statements. Hard-line Salafis attack shrines for Sufi mystics. A recent hotel on the Red Sea celebrated its opening by smashing alcohol bottles on camera. Basic necessities, like bread, fuel, and electricity, remain threatened. Crime is at an all-time high…

Things do not look good for Egypt.

All this occurs as Morsi wrestles to assert Egypt’s water rights against the Renaissance Dam that the Ethiopian parliament voted unanimously to build last week. He cut ties with Syria’s Assad, spurring controversy, and he picked a man named Adel Mohammed Al-Khayat with alleged ties to a terrorist group responsible for an attack that killed 58 tourists last Nov. 1997. Egypt’s tourist minister resigned from the appointment.

Things do not look good for Morsi.

I think of what one student told me the night before. “Before the revolution, we did not have freedom, but we had safety. Now, we have freedom, but no safety. Soon, we won’t have freedom either.”

His words capture the sentiment of many Egyptians. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute puts Morsi supporters at 28 percent–and falling.

A group named Tamarad, “Rebel” in Arabic, hopes to capitalize on this discontent for Jun. 30 demonstrations. Each day, Tamarad gains support: politicians, like Mohamed El-Baradie; disillusioned youth; lawyers; writers; and everyday workers ousted from a job.

Tamarad has already gotten over 13 million signatures for a petition to cut short Morsi’s term and have a new election–almost 15 percent of Egypt’s population.

And things do not look good for tourism. As my time here continues, I consider that this may be my last time in Egypt, at least for a long time. Travel cannot flourish in a broken, unsafe region.

My thoughts swirl as I watch the sun–a bright orange bead on the horizon–set. The train rattles; food carts and hawkers come and go as they sell humus, tea, and sesame treats. Smokestacks silhouetted against the sky smolder like snuffed candles. The fields of sugarcane pass by until they’re too dark to see.

Sometimes at such moments, something opens up inside me: all my years collide into a single moment. One of my friend calls it “the abyss opening up.” I can’t explain it. I can only feel it.

I wonder how I got here. Looking back at my life, I remember when I tried learning hieroglyphics in ninth grade. Around the same time,  I made my own Rosetta stone from wet clay. I also collected papyrus scrolls from novelty shops, pouring over them with a magnifying glass.

Freshmen year in college, I took an Islamic art course and witnessed a new world of geometry and arabesque opening up, embedded with traditions recited hundreds of years ago: the alleged dictations of God. 

One by one, the moments gather, as Beckett’s characters say in Endgames: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” After years of disjointed hours you’re on a train bound for Alexandria and can’t explain why.

I suppose the same could be said for Egypt. One by one, the eons accrue, layered like scar tissue as time ticks forward. Some problems never leave. New ones arise. The people live on. Then, one day, you have an “impossible heap” of problems. Someone must take stock and unravel it, but it’s to big and convoluted to make any sense.

Writing in my notebook, thinking of Egypt, and trying to pin down how I feel, the train rolls on.

***

The next day, we begin our tour, wary after a taxi driver tried to overcharge us the night before. John, a quiet guide with a goatee and a Coptic cross on his wrist greets us in the hotel lobby. After a small stop at the august Opera House, we reach our first major site: the Kom al-Shoqafa, catacombs started in the second century AD. Lost for hundreds of years, a citizen found them in 1900 after his donkey broke through the ground.

We descend a spiral staircase where people once carried the dead bodies to be buried. At the bottom, we enter a low low space that smells of wet clay. Marks of picks and chisels etch the limestone walls, feathered and numerous, like snow disturbed by wind.

The guide points out the mingling of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman symbolism that fills the tomb. In one corner, Anubis wears a Roman centurion uniform. In another, Greek garlands surround scenes with Isis and Ra. The site began as a tomb for a rich family, but gradually expanded into a public cemetery that housed over 300 bodies.

I picture the workers carving the stone, the families hoisting the dead through tunnels, and the mourners grieving in thin beams of light.

Next, we visit to the National Museum. Built in 2003, the museum is an air-conditioned collection of history from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, over 6,000 years ago, to the present day. We pass mummies, statues, and mottled ruins hoisted from the harbor from the time of the Light House and the Library over 2,200 years ago.

Used to a country born in the late 1700s, a 6,000-year-old statue of a scribe is impossible to really comprehend.

We end our tour with the Library, a vast modern structure designed to incorporate ancient design elements–like the lotus flower–with modern materials and a modern aesthetic. A 32-meter-high glass-paneled roof rises from a broad reflecting pool. It’s meant to mimic the sun rising from the sea. The walls are of gray Aswan granite, etched with characters from 120 different human scripts.

Inside, the library hosts museums and a sprawling reading room with millions of books in multiple languages. The library also has millions of ebooks, always gathering more.

It’s a beautiful space, and the library guide–a well dressed women with the voice of a recording–rattles off stirring statistics. Still, I wonder what Egypt’s impoverished population can do with a $220 million dollar project that costs students alone 30 pounds for a year-long subscription.

After the library, we eat lunch at the Fish Market, a popular restaurant where you pick your meal from a display of fish on ice, eating it alongside Mezze and fresh-baked bread. The guide calls his mother and asks her how she makes pickled lemons.

After this, we split up. Dea continues on the tour, while Michael and I opt to walk along the shore. Away from the touristy Fish Market–with its clean tables and gentle piano music–a new world surfaces.

Children run into the water, liberated from thin beaches packed inch-by-inch with folding chairs. An old woman swaddled in black veils works at a public wire to steal electricity. Cabbies and buggies stop along the sidewalk, calling us.

“Welcome to Egypt! You want ride? Very, very cheap!” they say, as if on repeat.

The stench of garbage mingles with the smell of sea water, but farther out, the water is surprisingly crisp and blue, with fishing ships flashing in the sun as they bob. Bright flags ripple with the steady wind. Cars honk alongside us like a pack of dogs. On rocky shorelines beyond the beach, people try to catch fish with long, tapered poles.

On our way back to the hotel, we pass a boy trying to fly a piece of paper attached to a string. He isn’t having much luck, so Michael takes apart a nearby basket and fits two sticks in a cross-like pattern on the paper.

“Kite!” the boy says.

We exchange mutual smiles and continue.

Nearby, we pass through a kids’ carnival outside of a mosque. Two young boys race down a hill on ramshackle scooters, almost running over Michael and I.

“Habibii akbar!” one screams, “my great beloved!” He banks left to avoid a crash, knees tucked up to his sholdiers.

After about two hours, we reach the hotel. Dea meets us there. We go out to eat at the palatial Four Seasons–including a bottle of wine. After that, we visit some of the shops of cheap shoes and misspelled T-shirts with things like “Honeymoon Nightmare [incompresnsible word]” airbrushed on in distressed letters. The crowd of young people surges around us, scoping out bargains and enjoying the cool air.

The next day, we leave the hotel and  find our train in the maze of the Alexandria station. The station master tells us one platform, then a passenger yells out another as his train carries him away. The passenger is the right one.

On the bleached old train again, hearing the door clatter as people use the bathroom and vendors race along the aisle, I look out the window. I got what I came for: a taste of a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I also got to visit the ocean that Camus loved so much, walking among the packed beaches, drenched in noonday sun. I could almost see a young Camus among the other children, kicking the soccer ball or swimming through the water, his strong arms cutting through the pale blue.

Phrases of his writing circled in my head the whole trip.

Returning to Cairo, I understand better why he loved the sunlight and the sea–the “wealth of poverty” as he sometimes called it. I guess that was another grain that piled up, spurring my trip.

With all the echoes of past years following me through the city I felt like I was on some pilgrimage. It was just a feeling, but I couldn’t ignore it.

Perhaps, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we endure the road because we have something sacred at the end of it. Not something religious, but a dream we’ve always wanted to flourish or a place we’ve always wanted to see. The images of a photograph or the words of a particular writer in our younger years become myth-like, and we long to visit their source, like Dorothy longing for “someplace over the rainbow.” Such places feel like they can’t exist in real life. They’re too magical.

But they do.

Whenever I talk about Egypt, people always tell me that they can’t imagine seeing the Pyramids. One can’t. They feel like dragons plopped in the midst of everyday life, something remarkable transcending the mundane.

Alexandria was similar. The name itself evokes hundreds of fantasies and has for thousands of years, culling travelers from all over the world. I feel blessed that I was able to hear its siren song, endure the road, and reach it. I won’t forget what I saw or what I felt. And I hope that other travelers–kids who collected papyrus, read Camus, or pursued their own passions–set foot on their own pilgrimages and that their holy sites remain intact and beautiful.

Stoicism

By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.

Zeno of Citium (c. 334 B.C.-c. 262 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, depicted by Raphael. Picture from Wikipedia.

In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags,  and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.

In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”

There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.

So I converted.

Continue reading “Stoicism”