Book of Marvels
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Waving Hello/Goodbye
I love all the store signs in Kabul-- all so colorful against the buff-colored streets and walls and clothes--but this one is my favorite. Most of the signs have their business stated in English as well as Farsi, but this palmreader-- I guess he only expects a local clientele.
I had hoped to use this post to say goodbye for ten days-- I was scheduled to go with a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society out to the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan's beautiful, ancient, historic route to China. Marco Polo went this way, and I don't think it's changed much since then. The Wildlife Conservation Society is doing some great work out there with village conservation committees. Alas, the part about my joining them (which had to do with passing through an area where there have been dozens of landslides) fell through. So, I'm cooling my heels in Kabul, looking for some other things to write about.
One idea-- hire a driver and just go around the city photographing signs.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Powerless (the electric kind) in Kabul

In a dark shop, two men stand behind their counters and turn out dainty little dresses and finely detailed jackets. No city power, no stinking gas generator outside; their work is powered by their own muscle and ingenuity. With a flick of this man's fingers, the wheels at the side of the sewing machines whir and the needle jabs down the seam for a pair of pants. He reaches for the iron heating on top of the gas (?) burner, which looks like something rusting in the corner of an old museum. I see it and wince at the thought of triangles scorched across the fabric. But when he slides it over a hem, all is silky smooth.

Oh, how I love humble machines lavished with so much gold leaf and red lacquer!

I finally figured out a way to appease the capricious Blogger gods, so I think this will go up easily.
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Consorting with Camels in Dubai

I don't usually post pictures of myself here, but I couldn't resist this one. During my two-day stop in Dubai, I went out for a three-hour tour on Friday Most things were closed and quiet. At one point my guide pulled over, led me down a path to the one open gate in a tourist complex and pointed to this clump of camels tied with the slimmest of tethers.

"Go pet the camels!" he said. "I'll take your picture."

I told him that there are many animals that I've longed to pet, but that camels weren't among them. And that I've always heard that camels spit, bite and kick.

"No," he said. "These are very tame camels. They won't hurt you."

So I stood at the edge of their square of dust and shit and leaned gingerly in their direction, giving myself enough room to bolt if one of them looked as if it was going to bite.

"No," he said. "Go inside and stand by them."

He was so insistent! I didn't know whether to walk around this one camel's front end and risk spit or bite, or around its back end and risk a kick. The camel didn't look pleased, one way or the other. But finally, I braved its wrath and stood there long enough for the guide to get his pictures. I did not pet the camel, which glared but didn't attempt violence.

Dubai If I had kept track, I probably could have counted 100 building cranes or more. Everywhere, there are more buildings going up, more faux islands being created for more buildings. I don't know who's moving into these buildings, but the guide told me that the space is all pre-sold. He also told me that when he moved to Dubai from India 23 years ago, the area was largely empty. This is before the massive wave of construction that's brought in all the skyscrapers (including the world's tallest building, as yet unfinished, the ultimate height of which is a state secret), the seven-star hotel, the indoor ski hill. You hear so much about glamorous Dubai, but I found it a boring vista. All the buildings look the same--hospitals, embassies, hotels, malls, banks, schools, even churches--all the same, because they were all built in the same period of time and are made of the same materials. I stayed in the old part of the city--busy, crowded, gritty, redolent of lamb being grilled right around the corner--and far preferred that to the glitz. I don't think I'm a Dubai kind of girl.

Now I'm back in Kabul, sitting at the Cabul Coffee House (free wireless!), enjoying a deliciously balmy noon. Pink roses and red geraniums are blooming outside. The fringe on the umbrella tables is fluttering like crayola-colored flags. Some women have just arrived with children who are trying to lure a skinny orange cat down from her perch on a stone wall. It's a lovely day.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
October 31, 1914-May 1, 2007

When my brothers and sisters moved my mother out of the Santa Rosa house where she and my father had lived for ten years to an apartment, shortly after he died, they found a large box of slides unopened since the move from our old house in Oroville. My mother probably would have favored dumping them; she was trying to shed possessions. But she was thrilled when my brother Dan found a slide projector and started dragging the show to family get-togethers.

It was often a difficult performance. The slide projector would stick, leaving us straining towards the screen, willing the next scratchy image to appear. Or sometimes we'd hit a tray or two of slides in which no one--not even my mother--recognized who was in them. People and places so far at the periphery of family memory that they had dropped off. Who were they to us once, that we slotted them in plastic trays and tucked them in a frayed cardboard box and moved them from house to house? No one knows.

Dan decided finally to pick through the thousands of slides and convert the best to digital images. After our mother died last week--no, it's already two weeks, exactly-- we sat for about an hour and looked at them.

There are many wonderful old photos--generally, from the late 1930s through the mid 1960s--and they give the flavor not only of our family's eras but of the country's. Slides from the fifties of a sweetly garish Las Vegas; of a Waikiki Beach that was mostly sand and waves, not hotels; of the Fun House (is that what it was called?) in San Francisco, many years gone, where my mother actually made my brothers wear little gray suits to have their fun.

I was stunned by this particular picture. I had never seen my mother in a bathing suit-- not once, even though our family spent many hours in and around the Feather River, Bucks Lake, and finally Lake Tahoe. I think she was too self-conscious of her skinniness, her freckles, and--by the time I was born, when she was nearly 38--her varicose veins. I can't help thinking that I would have known her differently had I seen this picture before. She looked so pretty, so soft and dreamy. I never thought of her this way.

I keep reaching for the phone to call her. "Who was taking that picture? Who were you looking at in that way?" I would ask. I keep feeling guilty that I didn't call her on Mother's Day, or after I got back to Cleveland last night.

She was fine up until a few days before she died-- fine, that is, for a 92-year-old with a weak heart and failing liver and kidneys. She enjoyed a dinner of fresh crab on the night before she fell and was found to be feverish and was taken to the hospital. At some point, she closed her eyes. My brothers and sister and their spouses and children gathered around her, in various combinations, and petted her head and talked to her and put flecks of ice on her tongue when she opened her mouth.

I called when they were all there and almost asked them to put the phone to her ear, even though she wasn't responding and seemed not to know anyone. I wanted to try out a call and response that we both enjoyed from my pre-verbal past. When I was a toddler, I repeatedly posed an obscure question to the gown-ups, then provided an equally obscure answer when no one knew what to say. They finally caught on, and my mother liked to open our phone calls with the first part of the routine. "Fa sa, sista witcha?" she'd ask as I'd pick up the phone. "Ah sonni winnow!" I'd reply.

I had an idea that she'd repond to this, even at her great dying distance, but didn't want to seem melodramatic and didn't press it. It was my brother Dave who managed to spark her last words the next day. He told her he had brought some tomato plants for her garden. "Black cherry tomatoes?" she asked with some of her old eagerness, and then lapsed back into silence. She had been planning to grow some this year, after I raved about the ones I had tasted at the Tahoe Farmers Market. So sweet, with dusky skins that looked more like chocolate than black cherry.

I'm always unnerved by the photographs on the newspaper obituary pages. People in housedresses or business suits or ballgowns or military uniforms, people who don't realize they're tilting their head and composing their features for a picture that will eventually attend the announcement of their death. I almost don't want to put this wonderful photo of my mother alongside this slight vocalizaton about her death. But there she is, sitting between the river and the trees, holding a red balloon, her face still and soft and so lovely--and I can't resist. Posted by Picasa

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