Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lessons Of Love

Standing with Hagag and his family.
Front of Hagag's house
My Egyptian brother Hagag and I sat at the simple wood table in front of his humble home. The front door is always open to the flow of family life. Tea is served every time we sit together—either chai or hibiscus. I looked past the dirt road in front of his courtyard, past his tiny green crop of alfalfa, watching sailboats on the Nile River in the distance. After a while he studied my features as if to memorize them, and began crying. I was leaving. Seeing his tears, my eyes welled up.

The three weeks I spent in Luxor taught me lessons of love. Hagag and Abu'l Ezz and their families showed me such kindness and affection that I felt special. By American standards they are very poor—without goods or means. One a marginal farmer and the other with a motorboat taking people between the banks of the Nile River. Their homes are of earth, they live with animals, have the barest conveniences and share one toilet for the entire household. They do not have closets full of clothes or new gadgets. What they have is sincerity and goodness that reached deep into my soul. They know I am comfortable in their surroundings. I need nothing more than the love that lives within them and their families.
Drawing made by Iyah, 12, Hagag's 2nd daughter. It is me, and she included my camera bag
over my shoulder and cell phone in my pocket.

Hagag’s oldest son Mohammad is serving in the army because the family could not afford college. Now Amira, the oldest daughter is on the verge of graduating secondary school. I photographed his home to begin a funding campaign. When I asked Hagag about sleeping arrangements he pointed to the tiny room in front that held two divans with cushions. All four of his children sleep in a room about the size of an American walk-in closet. It has one window facing the front courtyard. The floor is earth. I thought of Amira, 17, sleeping with her sister and two brothers so close. “Amira sleeps on the earth, here,” he said, pulling out a straw mat and showing how it went over the ground.

I have watched Amira many times studying with her face in books, or helping prepare meals, or speaking a little English with me. She is thoughtful and with hope—not scarred from never knowing the comfort of a bed and room of her own. Rather, she is strong and can meet life’s tests. What will hurt her is diminished opportunities as she becomes an adult. Her talents must flourish.

My friends know I will be by their side as they have been by mine.
Nile River at dawn.

“So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole world.”  -Baha’u’llah

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Brotherly Love

Abu'l Ezz, myself and Hagag

The homes of my Egyptian brothers are made of humble materials: mostly earth and some wood. Even the floors are dirt, so when one of the family sweep, they are sweeping clean the bare earth. Doors and windows almost always are open. Animals come in and out—pigeons that peck crumbs and are cared for, and cats. Cows, rabbits, ducks, turkeys and chickens—all part of the household. Flies too. One was on Abu’l Ezz’s nose when I took a family portrait. I noticed a dark spot on his face. He was stoically bearing a fly on the bridge of his nose between his eyes while keeping still for the picture. It was easy to remove in photoshop.

I enjoy being, “part of the family.” At times I have thought while sitting with my friends, that I have never been more comfortable. Nothing is elegant or fancy. No cars, and the barest of furnishngs. Children come and go, pigeons flutter around and walk at my feet, I hear the cow and eat delicious cheese from it's milk. I am always offered tea. My refrigerator stays well stocked because I am asked to eat with the families so often and they send food home with me.

Abu'l Ezz and Family

One evening I arrived at Ezz’s place for dinner and he insisted I take off my shoes to rest myself on the divan and stretch out. Then he noticed how dusty they had become so he called his youngest daughter Amira to come and clean them. She did so with good nature.

When I go shopping with Hagag he never accepts commission for food or cloth. That would raise the price. I pay Egyptian prices and have saved a lot letting him go ahead of me. How could I make money off of you, he asks, you are my brother! 

Hagag and his Family

When I go somewhere, one of my brothers is with me as guardian and helpmate. Hagag even walks me home, to be sure there are no hassles. When I am with Ezz, he sends his son to fetch the Mercedes to give me a ride home. It is an inside joke . . . but I am just fine with laying back in the cool night air and letting the boy drive the donkey ahead.

With the coming of winter, air goes from hot to cool more rapidly and many people are sick with a cold or cough. It happened to me. Hagag insisted I go to a doctor. So I went. Both Ezz and Hagag went with me at night and stayed by my side.

They are taking me on a boating for Christmas. It is not their holiday. Both are Muslim, but care so much for me that they want me to celebrate the big American holiday. The true gift they bring me is brotherly love.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Three-In-One Day

There are days that I call three-in-one days. They usually occur while I am traveling. Events are so fantastic and magical that they embed in my psyche indelibly and deeply, filling my being in such a satisfying way that I swear I have lived three days in the span of one. Yesterday was like that.

It began before dawn when I am typically asleep. I woke, made breakfast and coffee, then walked in the dark along the dirt road on the west bank of the Nile River in Luxor. In a few minutes I arrived at my Egyptian brother Hegag’s home. It was quiet and a light shone from within. The doors are never closed so I stepped to the passage. Edleah, Hegag’s wife came forward from the back and motioned me to sit inside. Hegag soon appeared and we sat drinking hibiscus tea. Edleah’s brother, Adil, came with a car. We set out driving in twilight.

I was in the back seat, noticing the earthen homes, sugar cane fields, and morning haze—vapors from the canals by the fields. We reached a rundown paved road and took off as the sun rose behind us. It came up glowing orange behind distant blue mountains.

People appeared along the way, beginning their daily tasks . . . turbaned men in Jellabiya, the loose gown that flows down to the feet, and women in hijab’s and scarves covering their head.

We were going to Isna, where a big Saturday souk for trading animals occurs. The ride would have taken less than an hour, but speed humps to slow down traffic caused Adil to brake often. It took about an hour and half. At Isna we had to ask directions. Hegag said the location changes week to week. We knew we arrived when we could go no further because of the crowd.

Hegag and I set out walking with Adil staying behind. Within a minute we were in a crush of men and animals. I had my camera in hand and was so dazzled by the scene I began snapping photos left and right. Hegag kept close watch over me, keeping me from being trampled by buffalo, camel or cow, and making sure I was free, but tethered to him.

Big masculine energy abounded with carousing, exclamations, excitement, joking, shouting, and fraternity. I knew I was the only “different” one, and thought a couple times this was no place for wimps. But SPIRIT was holding sway and I pointed my camera and shot. Sometimes, a man or boy wanted his picture taken next to a friend or holding a beast. Occasionally I would hear “hello”, or “welcome”. I gave a lot of thumbs up and pressed flesh with the guys.

We took a break for tea and falafel lunch with pita bread, then we dove in one more time. I wondered about the complete absence of women. Hegag said it was not their job to buy and sell animals. “If a woman’s husband dies, and she needs to sell an animal, she gets a neighbor, or relative to help.”
He showed me where animals were being butchered and I walked in bloody mud while the butcher posed with his long blades in front of hanging carcasses.

As we began the drive back, I told Hegag, OK, the long drive was worth it.

I joked with Adil about all the humps home.

Late afternoon my other Egyptian brother, Abu’l Ezz met me by the Nile and off we went in his motorboat to cruise at sunset. “This is your boat! Any time!” he said, grinning. “Are you happy?’ I said yes, and he replied, “Then I am very very, very, happy!” Indeed I felt happy—languidly floating on my favorite river in the world, chasing after felluca, the traditional Nile River sailboats. Ezz would align us for just the right pictures. I especially enjoyed seeing the felluca with the sun going down behind them.

When the sun set and Ezz took me back to the river bank outside my flat, he asked me to come to dinner the next day, after another boating at sunset. I look forward to being in his earth home with his children and served a tasty Egyptian supper prepared by Saida, the best cook in Luxor.

When I reached my flat, I made dinner. Walking back to Hegag’s home for tea I thought . . . OK this has been one of those three days in one.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ciao Venezia

The fog I hoped for never arrived during my month in Venice. I kissed the city goodbye—with light so brilliant it seemed the canals were alive, covered with glistening jewels.

Cristiana stopped by to bid farewell. We embraced, took a last deep look into each others eyes and she went off to work while I headed through the passageways with my luggage.

I walked slowly. Passageways are intimate, only three people wide. An excited, bubbling boy brushed by with his mother. He seemed about nine years old and brimming with enthusiasm. It’s good, I thought.

Suddenly I wanted to hold the last moments and looked intensely around. Campo stones, crumbling brick walls, windows with green shutters, the trembling canal waters underneath foot bridges in all directions—pressed to my soul for safe keeping.

For some reason I felt healthier, stronger than when I arrived. The luggage was not so burdensome and my spirit felt light.

At the Grand Canal I waited to catch the boat to the airport. Everything was at peak brilliance in early afternoon light. I felt remorse having to leave. My camera was packed and I wanted it. Wow, I thought, look at the sun glowing from the buildings. Reflections on water danced and leapt like light from iridescent scales of fish.

I finished four paintings and shipped them back the United States. The last five days found me with my camera walking endlessly through the sestieri, hunting for reflections, for gondolas in canals passing beneath bridges or bobbing alongside the lagoon. I went numerous times to Piazza San Marco and reveled in its dimension and supreme workmanship, photographing with throngs of people becoming a blur of motion.

Up until the last day I added to a series of pictures of tourists taking “selfie” photographs. Just on Rialto Bridge I figure about 3000 a day are made.

Ciao Venezia.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Incredible Uniqueness

Van Gogh, Garden at the Asylum at Sant-Remy_
Each day has its own incredible uniqueness. I find it best to live in THE DREAM consciousness. That way, when I have weird experiences that are bewildering and a bit dark, I am easy about it and say Oh wow, look what THE DREAM is doing now!

Last Thursday morning Cristiana and I arranged to go on the train to Vicenza to see a special Vincent VanGogh exhibition. She had to push back our departure to noon because of some urgent business. A text had arrived and a business paper had to be finished that day and mailed at the post office.

As I headed out walking under a cloudy sky on a cold day, she called and said she could not meet me at the station. “Unbelievable” she said, “the post office is not there anymore. I have to go to another one. I am sorry I cannot go with you.” OK, so now I am going by myself.

I felt happy anyway. At the train station I bought my ticket to Vicenza and the return ticket as well. The trip took about an hour. In Vicenza, I asked a cab driver about getting to the Basilica Palladiana. He told me I could walk, it was not far. In ten minutes I was there. The building is grand and famous—a Renaissance structure designed by a young architect Andrea Palladio (Italian, 30 November 1508 – 19 August 1580), whose work had a significant effect on the field during the Renaissance and later periods.

Basilica Palladiana, Vicenze, Italy

Van Gogh, Drawing of a Peasant
The exhibit, VAN GOGH, Between the Wheat and Sky, is an important reconstruction of Van Gogh’s art work. From hopeful beginnings, with drawings of peasants and nature, to life in France with loosening of strictures and embracing of vibrant strokes full of color and life, to the painful end, where his paintings become dense and jagged, yet always with the ray of hope somewhere. I paid extra for an audio guide that helped fill out the story the masterpieces were telling. At one time I felt Vincent’s spirit come visit me, a fellow artist. I believe in such occurrences so said hello and made a bow and prayer.

For some reason I was having to use the toilet frequently. After a few visits I was annoyed and thought, what is this, a joke?

After the exhibit I went out in the cold and drizzle and walked around Vicenza, taking pictures. Arriving back at the station, I checked the departure board and saw that a train was scheduled to leave for Venice in about fifteen minutes. I noted the track and on the way there, checked again to be sure.
Van Gogh, Portrait of a Young Woman
On the train I passed my time reviewing my photos and lounging. Mid-way I had a strange feeling about my locale but tossed it off.  I was having to use the toilet and thought, but I am not drinking water! Where is it coming from? The train stopped a few times, as it had on the way. I sat in my seat looking up causes for frequent urination. One was anxiety. Yes, the weather was shifting, Cristiana had a weird occurrence, VanGogh visited me after he cut off his ear and committed suicide, I am a bit lost in a foreign land, and in flux without a ticket home . . .  so? About this time, the train stopped. Everybody got off and I looked out the window to see that we were in Verona. Wait, Verona? My phone showed Verona to be in the opposite direction from Venice. Maintenance people starting coming through, cleaning up. I asked one if we were going to Venice. “Si, Venezia.”

After a long stop in Verona, the train headed back to Vicenza, an hour away. I felt trapped in my body on the phantom train ride. The thought came that I could not get out of the scene I was in. Then I thought of my dear Naomi, who was thrown into a much more morbid drama as she had to live with cancer. I remembered her struggle fighting a sadistic monster and how she managed to stay in the light and win the battle though lose her life. In the end, some of her last words were, "I love my body, it has been so good to me!"

OK, the train would take me four hours instead of one to arrive in Venice. Along the way a conductor asked to see my ticket, which never happens. I was standing near the doors, outside the toilet when he came up. He spoke in Italian and said I had to pay a fine. I tried to explain I had not left the train and had a ticket to Venice. No matter, I did not pay from Verona. He took my money and put it in his wallet.

THE DREAM is comical too.

At last we came to Venice. I felt as though I was in a fantastic Van Gogh painting.