Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies


Hi everyone,

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.

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.

The full letter:

Havana Red Sulphur, part 2

Mirror havana

[read part 1 first, check below]

I headed out to the Melia Cohiba Hotel to investigate the 16th Annual International Conference on Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism.

I jumped out at a broad residential corner and saw a stone and glass tower from the 1990s rise from the end the block toward the sea. As I headed toward it I found myself behind a pale but tanned man with feathered gray hair and the measured stroll of wealth. I was not surprised when he strolled right up to the entrance to the hotel and into the lobby. I followed him inside, then stopped to look around. Any sign of the World Association of Science, Economics, and Technology? I saw a sign for a showing by an Italian designer, but the lobby was largely unoccupied. According to the conference schedule, the afternoon session opened with Aleksander Nawrat of the Silesian University. He was giving a talk about Multimedia Firearms Training Systems. Then Ramiro Camacho of the University of Itajubá would discuss the design of an axial-flow fan based on “lift wing theory and the potential vortex hypothesis.”

The full letter:

Havana Red Sulphur, part 1

One year later, a piece on Cuban Arabs, a phantom conference in Havana, and the death of Fidel:

Very early morning at JFK on Nov. 23, 2016. My eyes were burning and my mind was a toxic cloud of news and analysis of the recent US elections. CNN chatter penetrated from a distant television: Nazi salutes in a Washington hotel, rubber bullets at Standing Rock, Flynn and Giuliani and Bannon and Sessions.

I had answered a call for submissions from the 16th Annual International Conference on Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism, to be held at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana. Suggested topics included Islamic ethics, theology and kalam, Averroism and Sufi metaphysics. I had been writing about the Andalusian visionary Ibn Arabi, his ideas of primal matter. I was going to talk about dust struck by light, subtle fluctuations within divisibility by zero.

The full letter:

The Mast in Senegal


He shouted at them, trying to get them to scram, but one had a gun and fired at Serge as he came toward them. The bullet entered his right eye and lodged in the back of his brain. He ran to the hospital, but the doctors were unable to remove the bullet. He would have to hope the wound healed on its own.

He went back to the house and lay recuperating, hallucinating with pain. He had conversations with phantoms of his dead father, and repeatedly witnessed his own death. But over many months the wound healed and the hallucinations subsided. He at first thought to sell the house and return to France, but then decided no, this was his home and he would stay.

The full letter:

Confessions of a Coffee-Roaster

It was a staff member’s birthday and they were going to celebrate. Did I want cake?

I watched as the staff gathered in back to sing, and soon a grape custard tart and a square of brandy-filled chocolate appeared in front of me.

The owner returned with a bottle of liquor. He dropped three tiny coffee cups in front of us and nodded at me.

His daughter came back and translated again:

It’s not every day they open a twenty-year-old bottle of Armenian cognac, she said.

The owner poured out fingers of rust-colored booze and we raised our glasses. His daughter sat next to me and began to tell me the story of the shop, of her father, of the cognac we were drinking.

The story began in 1915, when an Armenian coffee roaster named Avedis Carabelaian fled the genocide in Anatolia and found his way to Bucharest, opening a roastery there in Hristo Botev. Word spread of his skill and soon it was known as the best roastery in the city.

Her father was born in an Orthodox Church during the allied bombing of 1944. He was named after the icons in the church: Gheorghe Ilia Florescu.

She stepped away for a second and returned with a hardback book, opening to a black and white image of a long-bearded priest holding an infant wrapped in blankets.

There he was—her baby father.

The full letter:

Chasing Morgan Powell


It wouldn’t be hard to crawl around the chest high fence at the end of the building that read NO ADMITTANCE. On the other side a rectangular concrete surface came to an abrupt stop yards from the water’s surface. From there, I thought, you could throw yourself off the lip. It’s the only place to do it. Otherwise you’d have to scramble down piles of boulders and plop into shallow water. And though a body dropping from the edge of the breakwater would remain close to shore, with determination you could still keep your head down. The current might easily sweep your corpse back into the basin, where officers from the 76thprecinct could oversee its removal.

If he killed himself, I thought, Morgan must have done it right there.

The full letter:

From the Island of Nonsuch


Raphael called the apartment The Legacy — it was one of the places in the world that cast light in all directions, past and future, on the real and unreal. It was never locked, and stuffed with a lifetime of detritus from Ira’s travels: writings, photographs, films, letters, books, toys, stickers, capes and masks, floor to ceiling, teetering on shelves, gathering dust, just received or about to be mailed off, rubber stamps and rubber ducks and God knows who you might find in there. Mostly Ira, skinny legs in boxers under his swollen belly, shouting at the Yankees on TV then bursting into old borscht belt tunes or telling stories about the time he bit the toe of a holy man in the Himalayas.

Ira’s son Raphael is one of my oldest friends, and whenever I was in New York I knew I was welcome to let myself into 8L, clear a strip of frayed carpet between the towers of boxes and books, and sleep there. The first time I stepped into this scene I found Ira in his spot on the sofa, Raphael rolling up one of his endless matchstick joints, his mom cross-legged on the floor counting out stacks of hundreds acquired through a deal involving the Everglades, a convertible, and a trip to the Upper East Side.

Raphael took a hit off his joint, looked at me and said: This is my family. We think we’re big time aristocrats.


The full letter:

Mirrors, Lullabies

darius 1

He showed up with henna-tinted dreads under a pork pie hat, in a batman sweatshirt with a bat skull pendant hanging off a chain on his neck. As we walked he pointed to storefronts: This used to be the punk bar. This used to be the biker bar. This is where Jodie Foster used to live. The Skull and Bones crypt is right down the street. This is where Bill and Hillary had their first date. And I used to hang out here with Kathleen Cleaver.

He led us into a basement gay bar where we ate pierogis and kielbasa. He wanted to know about Khaled, so I introduced him as an artist and architect from Damascus whose undergraduate thesis was about the architecture of heaven. Darius immediately asked him to create the set for a performance he’s working on: There should be mirrors everywhere.

And what? he asked. You came up to see New Haven?
No, I told him, we’re here with a bunch of Islamic occultists.

The full letter:



The night before my birthday in 2007, my old friend Nikola and I were standing on a beach along the coast of Oaxaca. Around midnight, I slapped him across the face with an open palm, he punched me in the head, and I collapsed in the sand. In the years that followed we both spent periods in Buddhist retreat centers (he’s on the list, by the way — zdravo Nikola). Just now before New Years we sat together in his bar in Budapest smoking cigarettes. He was telling Eszter about a technique to wash out the physiological detritus of traumatic experiences, developed by a guy who spent years in Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, other places overwhelmed with conflict.

When we got home to Harlem, Nikola sent us a video that shows a few simple moves to stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, causing the muscles around the abdomen to twitch and shake involuntarily. When that happens you lie on the ground and let the twitching and shaking continue on its own. Every morning this past week I’ve been lying on the floor and shaking for twenty minutes or so. Sometimes the shaking becomes so intense it’s like there’s an old clothes dryer inside me. My whole midsection begins to shake and shudder and convulse. It comes in waves and sometimes I can feel it all the way up to the top of my head. I lay there shaking and wonder if it’s the shocks and disappointments of the last year leaving me, if it’s the coup and the killings in Turkey or the latest pile of rejection letters, or if it’s older buried memories like the temporary paralysis I experienced when I was six, maybe something I absorbed in Bosnia or Serbia or in the Macedonian camps of 99, or maybe the heartbreaks and car wrecks and bad drug deals of my early twenties, or some stress and sadness with no nameable source, some impacted generational misery.

I lie on the floor shaking and afterward I feel slightly better, at least I imagine I do. I wonder if I’ll start to become a lighter person, more easygoing, less likely to sink into the inward spiral. I’ll step with a bounce, breathe the air, experience the vicissitudes of the day without buckling. I’ll say hello to my friends and write some pleasant lines about how despite all the signs that the shocks and disappointments don’t seem to be abating, still somehow it’s going to be okay. There might be wonderful things to come. Or not even that, no optimism at all, but still.

Hello everyone, welcome to the newsletter.

I don’t know what I’m going to fill this with, but I hope stories, discoveries, experiments, nonsense. I thought at first to call it Merak, which in the Balkans might mean curiosity or anxiety or it might describe the feeling of sliding into a warm bath. I thought to call it Error Machines, because what else could I produce? But like with the old bar and gallery on Reichenbergerstrasse, it’s probably best to keep changing the name. For now its named after a bulb I see across the way that sometimes at night shines on a couple dancing the kitchen Cumbia.

The whole letter: