Getting ready to return after fourteen unexpected months in the high jungles of Peru.
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Here I am writing from Los Huingos Lodge, on the outskirts of Tarapoto, in northeastern Peru, the part of Peru where the Andes overlap with the Amazon. I can hear the tumble of the Shilcayo rapids at the edge of the grounds, and I’m presently being devoured by morning mosquitos.
The full letter is here.
December 11, 2019
Now on this first morning where the city is dusted with snow, I opened my newsletter file and found something I wrote in the heat of the summer and for some reason never sent out. So in view of the cold months to come, and happy to remember the romantic scene at the end, I’m sending it now:
JULY, THE RIVER
It’s like I’ve completely forgotten how to write. I spent all last winter reading a hundred books for my oral exams. I read Plato and Pessoa and Natalie Legere and Ismail Hakki Bursevi and eventually I sat in a little room with my three professors and tried to make sense of it all. And then I edited a book for months on end. A seemingly endless process. All the minute decisions one can make about an article or a comma or the transliteration of an Arabic word or maybe just change everything.
Then I sat in the basement of the Bronx Zoo going through heaps of documents and photos and illustrations related to the bathysphere dives. And then the heatwave came. It was so hot we could hardly move. The air was still. The silver waterproofing on the roof of the building next door wavered in the heat. The tar on the road was soft and sticky and even the river was hot.
A week ago I worked as a kayaker on a long distance swim around Manhattan. I accompanied Alessandra Cima, a Brazilian woman living in Singapore, who had already crossed the English Channel and the Bosphorus. I biked through Harlem at 5am to arrive at Ward’s Island, jumped in a kayak and paddled over to a place called Mill Rock, near where the East River and the Harlem connect. Hell’s Gate, near where a bunch of researchers looked for sunken treasure in the 1920s. Finding nothing.
the whole letter is here:
Somewhere up there rocks jut and grasses hang. They look close but feel remote, the water’s surface an indifferent sky. Feet dangle from it, kicking. Hands thrash. A kid with a mask and snorkel dives down a couple of meters, his willowy body beats the water with explosive energy. Time is short—a single breath. While we hover far below, in an eternity limited by the air in our tanks. We are covered in moss and sink into the stone.
There’s a big show of Yugoslav modernist architecture up in MOMA through January. It moves me to see those drawings of Skopje and the old city of Sarajevo, the big photos of Kongresni Trg in Ljubljana, all the places I used to live being celebrated in the middle of Manhattan.
When I first got to the Balkans in the mid-1990s Yugoslavia was already burned and buried and Slovenes were accused of being Yugonostalgic, as if mourning a lost identity, without being bombed and besieged along the way, was a gross failure of intelligence.
To me, a foreigner who had never been anywhere but suffered some inarticulate homelessness, that lost homeland was medicine for my imaginary illness.
Perched at the edge of the Moroccan Atlantic in the village of Taghazout, currently overtaken by vacationers who crowd the beach during the day with footballs and paddleballs and camel rides and surfboards and stand-up paddleboards and fried sardines and donuts. The clackety-clack of castanets and psychedelic buzz of tambourines and the occasional blast of Despacito. At the end of an itinerant summer that began in Brick Lane in London, where I walked and talked with Yasmin and Tina and Jules and wandered into a production of Macbeth, then to Berlin sitting under the eaves in Neukolln trying to hash out a draft of a libretto about a case of wrongful imprisonment with Raluca, smoking bedtime joints with Antonnis and drinking deadpan Augustiners with Achille, and attending a two-day thing about Arab Futurism where Refqa talked about Habibi’s green man, and where I saw Maha and Heissam after many years, and got to see a film Maha made of one of Heissam’s stories, where a drug dealer was transformed into a goat, who turned out to be not so much a drug dealer turned into a goat, but just a goat.
Here’s the second half of Hamadhani’s “The Saimara Session.” The first half went out last winter. If you didn’t catch it, it’s there in the archive under “Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies.”
Our narrator known as Ibn al-‘Anbas showed up in Baghdad a rich man. He hung out with the local prominent citizens, invited them to his house and lavished them with food and wine and singing girls until he’d spent all his money. Then they left him and couldn’t care less about him. And he was stuck in his huge house lonely and full of regret, wandering room to room, until he was overcome by insomnia and set out wandering. He roamed all over the world gathering stories and strategies of cunning and trickery until no one could match him. And that’s where our story picks up:
The 2009 Istanbul biennial began with a storm. The night of September 10th a flash flood washed away almost two thousand houses out by the airport, as well as a couple of schools and hospitals. Factory floors were six feet deep in mud. Forty people died and many others went missing.
And like always, it wasn’t the rain that killed people, it was shoddy construction, bad working conditions.
While crews were dragging bodies from the debris, down by the Bosporus, in front of the Istanbul Modern, there was an inauguration ceremony to open the biennial. The main speaker was Mustafa Koç, representing Koç Holdings, the main corporate sponsor of the event.
I’ve been working on my Arabic again. God knows how long this will go on. I’ve been translating a chapter from a 10th-century story cycle called the Maqamat. The word means “assemblies” or “stations” or “the place where you stand to tell a story.” When Abdellatif Kilito writes about them in French, he calls them “séances.” I’ve called them “sessions,” as in the Savoy Sessions or the Basement Tapes. The one I’m working on one is by an Arabophone Persian named Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani. His maqamat were much imitated, to the point that the imitations became a genre unto themselves.
In each chapter the narrator tells a story of trickery, cunning, deceit, always about the same trickster. The narrator and the trickster meet over and over again, in one town and then another and another. Each situation is different but we always know what’s going to happen, so the point is not drama, it’s just a showcase for wit and style and absurd vocabulary. They’re written in an incantatory form of rhyming prose called saj’, which, I understand originated with fortune-tellers and seers. The rhymes, when they appear, are irregular, sometimes stressing the end of long lines, sometimes tumbling after each other rapidly. And there’s a rhythmic quality based not on regular meter but on the repetition of word forms and phrase structures that seem endemic to Arabic. I’ve been experimenting to see if there’s a way to suggest this in English that isn’t unbearable.
I’m about halfway through this first attempt. I’m sending it out to you all so you can make fun of it, correct it, ignore it, or drive someone crazy reading it out loud.
THE SAIMARA SESSION
Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani
‘Isa ibn Hisham said he heard this story from ibn Ishaq, aka Abu al-Anbas al-Saimara, and it goes like this:
Here’s what my brothers left me, who I picked out and groomed and tried to keep out of trouble. I told them stories, taught them lessons, if they’d only listen and learn and act like they heard me.
I came from Saimara to the City of Peace, with bags of dinars, goods and gear. I had nothing to fear, so I went around with business barons and real estate titans, high earners and heirs to fortunes. That’s who I chose to hang out with, to rescue from monotony, not stopping at dawn and not at night with a nightcap.
We ate roast suckling goats and baked Persian soufflés, charred platters of lamb and the best kebabs in town. We had honey-wine so renowned and singing-girls so famous, their names echoed off the distant battlements. I ordered peeled almonds and sugar cane candies, armloads of roses and sweet aloeswood incense. And I was smarter than Abdullah bin Abbas, wittier than Abu Nuwas, bigger hearted than Hatim and braver than Basim, more connected than Masrur, shrewder than Shaban, and more poetic than Jarir. I was fresh like the Euphrates and worth more than a body sublime.