Friday, December 31, 2004


At “exactly 9:50 p.m.,” the Arabic text read (and thus she dutifully translated), someone did something and so forth.

But the feeling was lost. The feeling that she sensed but left unwritten.

The part that couldn’t be translated. The part that made all of translation a hollow and surface and silly affair. All wrapped up in the so-called definition of things. And all so lacking in the meaning behind mere words.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


“Please, please, please, at least have some burtuaan, some orange juice,” she begged, tugging Muhsin off the crowded sidewalk and into her favorite juice stall. The stalls, typically cramped, colorful spaces adorned with all manner of fruits and vegetables and sugarcane stalks, were anywhere and everywhere in Cairo. But this one, a block from Tess’s apartment, was notable for the public piety of its proprietors. For the devotion displayed not merely through prayer beads and longish beards, but also through funky, poster-sized photos tacked to the stall walls, each bearing the image of a vegetable or fruit that had strangely, miraculously, appeared in the shape of the Arabic word “Allah.” And, if finding “god” in these images took imagination, it certainly required no more so than discerning the likeness of Mother Teresa or Elvis a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Maleesh nisf. I have no appetite,” Muhsin answered, as Tess pulled him into the three-foot-wide space between the juice counter and the image of an Allah carrot. But Tess ordered two juices anyhow, and the youngest juicer, a middle-aged man with sparkly eyes and a white gallabia, sliced and squeezed the fruit, filling two glass mugs that he set before them. So Muhsin had no choice but to humor her. And to drink his burtuaan before they continued on their way.

An ardent atheist estranged from his Islamist parents and living, at age twenty-six, in the cramped apartment of a divorced aunt, Muhsin was probably justified in wanting to avoid overly pious juicers and images of Allah carrots. But even if Tess had suggested they head elsewhere, his answer would’ve been the same. Muhsin never wanted to eat or drink much of anything. Well, anything other than countless cups of thick Turkish coffee, sipped nervously in small, crowded cafés and accompanied by one cigarette after the next.

Tess suspected that Muhsin’s distaste for eating, for sustenance, was in part his way of clinging to a few precious pleasures. Of making meager, irregular wages stretch further, covering more caffeine, more smokes, and the occasional Stella.

But perhaps more than that, Muhsin was just too agitated, too restless, too haunted to eat. His mind and heart and pen were driven by visions of social struggle, by fears of persecution, by the powerful forces aligned so ominously against him—Islamists, the State, global imperialists. Surviving was a very visceral, very consuming concern. It left little space for appetite.

And yet, for all his restlessness, for all his passion and fear, Muhsin was impossibly gentle and thoughtful and shy. All long eyelashes and timid glances, his thin face filled Tess’s heart with such worry. With such desire to protect him, to ease his suffering, to make him see his own beauty and that of the world around him.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


There were months at a time when Tess woke on the hour every hour. Roused sometimes by those who had hurt her. But more often by those she had hurt.

By her middle sister Karin—now married and pregnant and beautiful—at age five, when Tess was eight and they’d slept side-by-side. When, most nights, Karin would ask Tess to cuddle, to hold her close.

And Tess said yes only some of the time.

And now, nearing the end of her twenties and still awoken by a five-year-old’s question, Tess wished she had said yes always.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Amidst the shuffling and shouting of De Gaulle Square at the Piassa, we squeeze onto a minibus headed toward the Addis Ababa train station. From there, we push our way into the throng of bodies crossing the raised platform traversing the tracks and descend into what I suppose could be called a “shantytown,” except that would suggest a distinction between this stretch of tin-roofed shacks and the rest of Addis. From what I have seen during my first days in the capital, this jumble of makeshift housing and piled rubbish and raw sewage is the norm here rather than the exception, and as people and livestock negotiate their way amongst heaps of rubble, I wonder at the capacity of humans to adapt because there is simply no other option.

Climbing through a narrow pathway piled with rocks, we emerge onto a dirt road lined with small kiosks and shops. Men and women selling small liturgy books, wooden crosses, and thin yellow candles used in Ethiopian Orthodox ceremonies have spread their wares on the ground and now compete for the attention of passers-by, who, like us, are headed toward the local church for a saint-blessing ceremony. Straining to see past the ubiquitous umbrellas—faded, drab normal ones used to hide from the sun as well as vibrantly embroidered ceremonial ones used in Orthodox services—I sight the church enclosure ahead and don my gauze head scarf in preparation for entrance.

For the next two hours, I stand with men, women, and children—perhaps a hundred or more—our bodies pressed against one another under the sun’s intense rays. Lightheaded from heat and wonder, I struggle to absorb all that surrounds me: women in their white scarves, clapping in time with the service chants; priests in turban-like headgear, clasping prayer sticks and sistrums; choir boys and girls dressed in blue and white; the purples and pinks and orange and gold of ceremonial umbrellas and headdresses; the bringing of the tabot and ensuing fervor; the beating of kabaro drums; the dancing and swaying and chanting and chanting and chanting—all a blur of ecstatic movement and celebration and joy and all set amidst such material poverty and physical hardship.

At some point, the movement temporarily subsides and I squat on the ground with those around me. A head priest visiting from Omo valley in the south launches into a sermon that Adana declares quite good—all about the need to remember spirituality as society rushes toward modernization and consumption (this for a crowd that has never witnessed anything resembling the modernization and consumption of the West).

The chanting and drumming and movement then resume, and the priest and choir perform a dance at the front of the crowd. A tiny old woman, permanently hunched from a lifetime of bearing heavy loads, dances and claps with such smiles and happiness. Overcome with fervor, she sways and shakes her way into the center of the performance. Undaunted by a gruff policeman’s brusque efforts to force her back into to the audience’s crowded ranks, she ducks into the center again and again—her smiles and tenacity unmatched and unyielding.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

In the stillness, the silence, the darkness of December at 4 a.m., she listened as a train rolled over distant tracks.

yes or no: a love note

“Will you go with me? Yes or No (circle one).” Elsie printed each letter carefully, positing her question at the center of a piece of lined loose leaf and framing it with alternating hearts and moons. She then set about folding and tucking the note into a palm-sized triangle, working discreetly behind the algebra textbook open on her desk and lifting her head from time to time to glance at the equation Ms. Hechmer was scratching onto the blackboard. The folding complete, she wrote “To Jeff” in small letters on one side and “From Elsie” on the other. Tipping her chair back slightly, she looked around her immediate neighbor to the left and motioned subtly to Amanda, seated two desks down. Thankfully, Amanda was quick to look up and catch on. A moment later she was reaching for the paper triangle tossed deftly, close the ground, arriving inches from her targeted turquoise Converse.

And then, a dreaded thing happened.

Ms. Hechmer’s pudgy hand seemed to swoop down out of nowhere, thwarting the handoff, devouring the note, and disappearing in the folds of a pink suit dress. Now, this might have been merely humiliating had it occurred with any of Elsie’s other teachers (particularly with Elsie being the grade-A, teacher’s pet kind of student she was). But Ms. Hechmer was a screamer. The terror of the sixth grade. And this unforeseen course of events was positively mortifying.

All angry huffs and frizzy curls and breasts that seemed impossibly bulbous, Ms. Hechmer stomped and stamped to the front of the classroom, yanked the intercepted document from her pocket, and gave it a two-second read. As her head lifted and her gaze trained in on Elsie, the eyes of Elsie’s classmates followed. Elsie, and Elsie alone, suddenly developed a keen fascination with what was happening on page 42 of the textbook. But even as her head bent lower in studious attention, burning heat rose from cheeks to crown, and the numbers before her blurred and merged.

“Well, I suppose,” the pink pillar of fury bellowed with barely concealed pleasure, “that some of you think this lesson is easy. That some of you can find other things to do while I stand here trying to teach.” Her normally loud voice growing more thunderous with each syllable—with each half-syllable even—the entire class cowered in fear, terrified of the wrath and homework load that were certain to follow.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Some evenings there were visitors. She would ascend the stairs still damp from her after dinner bath, small wet footprints trailing into the brightly lit kitchen, to find that a Luna moth had alighted on the outer pane of the sliding glass doors. He was big and soft and magical, larger than the span of her outstretched hand and seeming to glow pale green against the backdrop of night. Dark maroon edged its way around the tops of his fore wings, and hind-wing tails curled slightly outward from his velvety white body. Rory would tiptoe to the glass and gaze with wonder at her guest, entreating him to linger, coaxing him to respond. He stayed but was silent—his four eyespots staring back at her unblinking, gentle, knowing.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

coffee and moonlight

With nimble movements of narrow fingers, Zaynab prepares a coffee ceremony on the dirt floor outside our dollar-a-night rooms. The warm blackness of night envelops us, and the glow of a full moon caresses our skin with distant tenderness. Moving swiftly, silently through motions her hands have traced a thousand times, Zaynab scatters the pale, raw beans on a metal pan placed atop smoldering coals. She lights incense and sets it before us, its scent mingling with that of the roasting beans and soothing our bodies and minds. Once the beans have darkened to a rich brown, Zaynab grinds them by hand and stone, her fingers moving effortlessly, almost imperceptibly, between this task and others—heating water in a ceramic coffee pot, arranging six small cups on a tray, dispensing sugar from a cone of wrapped newspaper. Her movements suggest no more thought or effort than breathing or smiling or waking by sunrays after a restful slumber.

My fingers are soon warmed by a steaming cup to be followed by two others—three cups should be offered and accepted for good luck. Between swallows from her own cup, Sophie passes around a jar of honey for us to spoon into our mouths and savor as it melts, thick and sweet, upon our tongues. Zaynab, for all the beauty of her coffee roasting, does not take a cup for herself. With cheerful disbelief, Sophie explains that Zaynab prepares the ceremony daily for the family that employs and houses her yet does not like coffee and never drinks it. So she sits, cupless, fanning the aroma of the beans toward us that it might fill our lungs and bless our souls.

A few drops of rain touch upon our skin as we sit together in the moonlight, and I lose myself in the sounds of Sophie and Zaynab’s voices. The spirit, if not the meaning, of their words embraces and soothes and comforts.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


The town of Sligo is changing they say, heading too far upscale and toward the pampered progressive end of things. Yes, it remained the fabled land of the liberal left in the surrounding metropolitan area, and it was lined with “(Re)defeat Bush” yard signs a good month after the townspeople’s arch-nemesis was, with resounding wails of horror up and down Aspen Avenue, re-elected. But still. Things had gotten trendier. More faddish. The town seemed to be where idealistic up-and-comings were now heading after making a concession or two along the way. The organic cabbage soy-shakes were clearly not targeting the income-conscious commoner.

But, anyway, Eve thought, Sligo’s still the sort of place were I can sight an aging hippie who I saw prancing about in the nude several summers ago, at an annual Women’s Weekend in the Woods. Eve had never actually met her, of course—there were a lot of women prancing about that year—but her beautiful, crooked half-smile was hard to mistake.

Monday, December 06, 2004


Under the still-gray early morning sky, Tamene negotiates a space for me on the 5 a.m. bus back to Addis Ababa. Squeezing into yet another bus packed with bodies and chickens and goods of all kinds, I brace myself for the two-day journey. I share a seat made for two with a beautiful dark-skinned girl from Bahir Dar and a talkative boy from Awi. The latter, eager to practice his English and curious about other lands, fills the narrow space between us with questions that touch upon plane travel and pop culture and schooling. Reaching his home and final destination only an hour or so into our journey, he leaves me alone amidst melodic yet, to my ears, meaningless Amharic.

I soon come to miss the comfort of his presence, for as the bus breaks down for the second time of the day and our driver decides to drop us in a small town without continuing onward, I seek out English explanations and find them lacking. By some favor of fate, I discover Sophie—or rather, she discovers me. Although she knows scarcely any English, she learned Arabic during years spent as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia, and my own Arabic proves passable enough to render communication possible. I grasp her voice close, willing it to keep me afloat in this sea of words I do not understand and expanses of a world I do not know. A Muslim woman traveling home to Addis after a visit with family in the north, Sophie is poorer and more conservative than most Ethiopians I have connected with thus far. A thin veil covers her hair, framing a dark, round face lit up by a wide, gap-toothed smile. Any hint of hesitant distance suggested by her conservative dress is broached effortlessly by her warm, unrefined manner, and I soon realize that chance has graced me with far more than a common language. A genuinely kind-hearted soul, Sophie exudes an instinct to protect and an eagerness to share what little she has. She pulls me in by hand and heart, making sure that we both squeeze onto the next bus passing through the town where, mere minutes prior, I was certain I would be stranded.

After hours of what has become a familiar (if still painful) experience on a hot, crowded bus, we stop in Fut as-Salam for the night. Sweating and filthy and with no place to wash, I
’m unsure what to do with myself. With Sophies help, I find a dollar-a-night room, and we collapse onto her bed with another lost traveler who Sophie has graciously taken ina stick-thin girl named Zaynab. The harshness of Zaynab’s life is reflected in her gaze and echoed in her tentative steps, but she has a beautiful—if cautious—smile, and I sense unexpected strength hidden within her seemingly fragile frame. Sore from the ride and suffocating in the heat, the two of us would seem a daunting audience, but Sophie’s cheer never falters. She feeds us from a small mound of barley piled upon the bedspread and douses us with cheap, horribly pungent perfume. Making us laugh and smile simply by laughing and smiling herself, she radiates pure, unconditional joy. Sprawled out on Sophie’s bed, I feel that much is right and wonderful in the world.

Friday, December 03, 2004

girl and dog, grand palace, bangkok (d.leigh, '03)