Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
I wanted to see Mar Mattai, the ancient monastery of St. Matthew. Now I asked my new friend and driver, as well as the hotel manager, as well as the small gaggle of curious Kurds who had by now gathered around me in the hotel lobby, whether it was safe to visit Mar Mattai at this juncture. After all, it lay only a short distance outside of Mosul.
No, the panel concluded, shaking their heads. It was now occupied by Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, a primarily Shiite group of militias, after the Peshmerga left the area recently following pressure from the U.S. and the Baghdad government.
I went down my list of things I wanted to see for them to vote on. One by one they rejected them as potentially unsafe. Then I got to Saddam Hussein’s palace in the Gara Mountains. “Qasr Saddam,” the manager nodded, using the Arabic word for “castle.” “Yes,” she said, “he can take you. It is near Duhok.”
“Kurdistan is one hundred percent safe,” said my driver, Lawin, as we sped down the smoothly paved road from the airport into Erbil. “The problem is,” he went on, “people see the stuff on TV, and they think that everywhere in Iraq is like that. But it’s not. This is Kurdistan, not Baghdad. Don’t go to Baghdad. Don’t go to Mosul, or Kirkuk. But here in Erbil, in Sulaymaniah, you are one hundred percent safe.”
Lawin was the driver that my hotel had sent to pick me up. It was 3:30 in the morning. Lawin looked to be forty-something. He told me that he had lived in Britain for ten years starting in 2000 and took British citizenship before returning to Iraqi Kurdistan only a few years ago.
And he undoubtedly had a point. Most people don’t know that Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds instead of Arabs are the majority, is semiautonomous. The Kurds, a people spread among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, have no country of their own. But they have a distinct culture and language, which is a close sibling of Farsi and unrelated to Arabic. Kurdistan has its own military, the highly effective Peshmerga, which has done much of the heavy-lifting in the war against ISIS, or DAESH, as it’s called around these parts. Indeed, the Kurds have managed to keep the conflagrations of recent years away from their portion of Iraq.
My childhood hero was Richard Feynman, Nobel physics laureate and trickster god for science students everywhere. Feynman read at some point about a distant country called Tuva and decided that he absolutely had to go there.
Tuva was a part of the Soviet Union, nestled between northwestern Mongolia and Russia. And during the Cold War, the difficulties for an American scientist of Feynman’s stature to travel there were all but insurmountable. The Soviets would hardly grant him a visa, and the Americans would hardly let him go.
But Feynman was determined. He spent a decade trying to obtain the necessary papers even as he grew ill with cancer. His friend Ralph Leighton, who was supposed to accompany him, later wrote a book, Tuva or Bust!, chronicling their quest.
You might say that Feynman felt fernweh for Tuva.
In 1947, a young Norwegian and five fellow Scandinavians whom he recruited went down to Peru. There they built a raft with balsa wood using traditional Native American techniques. Then they set sail on the raft for French Polynesia. One hundred and one days and eight thousand kilometers later, they reached their destination, demonstrating at least the plausibility of the young Norwegian’s theory that Polynesians originally came from the Americas.
His name was Thor Heyerdahl, and the name of the raft was the Kon-Tiki. The voyage made him a legendary adventurer, even if it didn’t quite prove his ethnological theory.
Decades later, Heyerdahl came up with another theory. This one had to do with his native Norway and the country of Azerbaijan.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."