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.
Being in UAE and Qatar tends to put things in perspective for me, uncomfortable perspective though it is.
I was barely able to find an actual Emirati in the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, now as I look around Doha, I see only one young boy in Arab clothes who is plausibly Qatari. In fact, foreigners account for almost 90 percent of the population of Qatar. And obvious racial hierarchies obtain.
South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) besides Filipinos dominate in numbers. On the humbler streets of Doha, it’s easy to wonder whether one has mistakenly landed in Manila or Dhaka. They power Qatar’s service industries, working in the jobs that, one assumes, the Qataris consider beneath them. Without the Filipinos, most of the shops in the malls would have no attendants, restaurants would have no waiters, and hotels would have no maids. Without South Asians, most of the city’s taxis would have to stand idle for lack of drivers.
I have long held a somewhat morbid fascination with plague narratives. Now, with the new coronavirus, it seems that the whole world is collectively living through one.
As a genre, stories of epidemics or pandemics cut across the categories that we normally impose on texts: fiction and nonfiction, highbrow and lowbrow, literature and film and even video games. And they span history from some of the earliest human efforts at storytelling to recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Here’s a distinctly incomplete list: the biblical plague that God sent against Egypt in Exodus; the plague of Athens in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides; the plague of Justinian as described by Procopius; the Black Death in Italy as told in the framing chapter of Boccaccio’s Decameron; Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; Samuel Pepys’s diary describing the same plague in 17th century London; Camus’s philosophical novel Le Peste; Blindness by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago; sleek Hollywood productions like Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and entries in the sub-genre of zombie stories like “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” and many others. I’m sure that a book or film with a title like “The Year of the Coronavirus” will be out before we know it.
“The world is what it is,” V. S. Naipaul famously wrote. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
I wonder whether I have allowed myself to become nothing.
Despite being a lawyer, I have never been a good liar. I never lied for my clients. Technical truths? Sure. Outright lies? Never. For a while I tried to practice lying, because mendacity is such a useful life skill. I got as far as telling obviously ridiculous fibs about my job at cocktail parties: “I am a hamster farmer,” I might say. “I work at the circus as a lion-tamer.” But these were only jokes.
But the emblematic figure of our age, the dominant mode of existence, the era-defining vocation, is the confidence man, the scam artist, the fraud.
I think it was Professor Elaine Scarry who defined beauty as the quality that inspires the desire both to possess and to replicate.
It’s always struck me as a very good definition. And, living the way I do, I constantly see the idea in action. At every scenic spot, every brilliant sunset, every famous castle or palace, hordes of tourists snap photos of the same things. In the age of the smartphone, one marvels at the thought of how much of humanity’s collective data storage capacity is taken up with endlessly repeated (and mostly bad) photos of the same sights and things and places. But unlike many other seasoned travelers, I do not judge too harshly the amateur photographers. First of all, I’m not sure I’m in any position to throw stones. Secondly, they do no more than what beauty requires of them: taking a photo of something is at once an act of possession and of replication.
But a recent piece in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino on the “Instagram face” has me revisiting this concept of beauty. Scarry’s definition applies to human appearance as much as it does to sunsets and paintings and vistas. Beautiful people inspire eros, and sex is at once an act of possession and of replication in its possibility of multiplying the species — which was why Freud equated it with the will to life itself.
I was recently in Venice for the third time in my life: it seems that, without so planning, I go to that most splendid city once every decade.
When we miss a destination or decide to skip it, we always say “next time” or “it’ll still be there.” But Venice actually may not still be there by the end of this century. A city of marble built on a lagoon, there is a very good chance that by then it will be underwater, a modern day Atlantis. Mere days before I arrived, the city had suffered terrible flooding. The interior of the iconic Basilica di San Marco was knee-deep in water.
And that’s only as far as our climate projections go. Projections never say what happens after 2100, as though climate change will magically stop the moment the clock ticks over, because we neither can nor want to contemplate the possibilities. Look around Venice and you see the celebrations of the achievements of past centuries: wings in the magnificent galleries are devoted to the trecento then the quattrocento then the cinquecento — the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s — down to modern times. But there will probably never be a Venetian art of the 2100s. Not only is the time horizon of our climate projections pathetic when compared to the reckoning of the earth, but it is pitiable even when measured against our own humanistic achievements.
Several factors have conspired to put my mind on the things that we own, that I own, and our relationship to them.
Last weekend’s episode of “Patriot Act” on Netflix taught me that, in the 1980s, the average American bought 12 new items of clothing every year. Now that number is 68. And much of the increase is due to the rise of “fast fashion,” the production and purchasing of cheaply and quickly made clothes followed by their equally rapid transformation into trash.
And it is now the holiday season on the Western calendar. This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the US, that celebration of the seemingly unbounded plenty that the New World was supposed to provide. Thanksgiving was of course followed by Black Friday, that annual ritual of Americans lining up outside and then pushing into stores like a stampede out of “The Lion King.” In fact, one of my curmudgeonly pet peeves about the world is that many other countries, even without Thanksgiving, have adopted Black Friday in an effort to encourage consumerism.
I made the decision to come to Italy on the fly, the same way that I generally decide where to go nowadays. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Only after arriving in Rome did I remember that it was twenty years ago, almost exactly, that I first came to Italy. Not only that, but it was the first time that traveled without my family and hence, in that sense, actually traveled.
Italy bowled me over then. I was a high school student then, and I had come to Italy to represent New Zealand at that year’s International Physics Olympiad. The competition itself was held in Padua, but we made our obligatory stops in Rome and Venice and played tourists. How could we resist, five teenagers from New Zealand, the land of majestic landscapes but rather less culture?
Long before I visited Brest last week, I had heard about the fortress in that town and what happened there on the early morning of June 22, 1941.
Brest (not to be confused with the coastal French town of the same name) is in the far western extremity of today’s Belarus. In 1941, it was on the western frontier of the USSR. On that fateful morning, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets. And Brest Fortress was one of the first targets of the assault. The Soviet soldiers garrisoned in the fortress put up a stubborn defense against the much superior German force. Soon they became a symbol of Soviet resistance.
That much everyone can agree. But the full story of Brest Fortress is much more complicated and disputed than official Soviet and Belarusian accounts would have it. That in turn made me think about another war story that I grew up hearing about.
There is nothing new under the sun. Even so, one reels with the shock of recognition when finding clear shadows of today in the pages of ancient history.
I’ve been fairly immersed lately in the Warring States period (475—221 BC) of Chinese history lately. That period and the Spring and Autumn era immediately preceding it (771—476 BC) were times of division for China. First there were five kingdoms vying for supremacy, and then one of the five split into three, leaving seven powers to fight as “Warring States.”
According to many historians, precisely because of division, these were also times of great intellectual ferment, so that these should really be considered China’s golden age. (This is a serious if surprising theory in Chinese historiography, that essentially this civilization has been in inexorable decline since 221 BC in a kind of long twilight.)
If you were waiting on the edge of your seat for my next blog post (ha!) but found none the last couple of weeks, here is why: I have been in Kazakhstan, where my blogging platform is blocked.
Yes, really. Turkey blocks Wikipedia. China blocks Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube and Google. Kazakhstan blocks personal blogs.
Since 1990, when the USSR was coming apart, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the man in charge in Kazakhstan. In 1997, he moved the seat of government from the traditional center of Kazakh life, Almaty, to the former lonely outpost in the steppes, Astana. Upon his nominal resignation from the presidency in March of this year, the Kazakh government renamed Astana after him: Nursultan. I was hard-pressed, however, to find any Kazakh outside of the airport who referred to the city by that new name.
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."