Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The Great Decline

I last read this brilliant book in August 2001, and my main takeaway was that Afghanistan is a place where empires go to die. A few weeks later, the Twin Towers fell, and a few weeks after that, the empire of America got itself entangled there, an act that has yet to prove a definitive conclusion.  

Ironically enough I am revisiting this book as America goes to the polls. I have a number of opinions about what direction the country has taken between these two readings. I await the results to see what direction it will turn next.

On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "Dick's Picks Vol. 6"

Monday, November 05, 2018

Nanao Still Knows...

Nanao Sakaki, one of Japan's best known poets and counterculture figures passed away a decade ago after a storied and peripatetic life. A 10-year memorial service was held Saturday November 3rd on the Kyoto University campus, with music and poetry readings alternating throughout the day.  I attended his memorial service in 2008, and was happy to be asked to read today.  I chose my piece from Tokyo Poetry Journal's recent Japan and the Beats anthology, performed below.
What better way to honour Japan's Culture Day holiday than with a celebration of its counterculture?


 On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Dick's Picks Vol. 4"

Thursday, November 01, 2018

On the Karakorum: Lahore

Moving though the checkerboard farmland of the Punjab, counterbalanced by the near-desert of rutted arroyos and broad sandy riverbeds.  Above, the sky was the palest blue, feathered with the lightest of clouds.  The latter was spotted by raptors with great tails.  

One of the greatest of tales begins at our eventual destination, opening with a line immediately familiar to an older generation of schoolboys: 

"He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."

Much of this loot was behind the cannon in the museum itself, spreading outward in four stubby wings that created a cross-like shape, betrayed not at all by the proud Victorian facade, and accented atop with steep Moghul domes.  Overall, the interior and its exhibits looked neglected, forlorn, and one almost expected to come across a scabies-ridden taxidermied tiger, snarling before the faded carpets, and a few token chipped Buddhas.  The second floor seemed almost a rebuttal to the first, merely photos and documents that betrayed a definitive anti-British tone.  These are always the best parts of these kinds of museums, the things that foreign guests are not meant to see, a nation's political medicine cabinet.

As the museum didn't take much time to get through, I lingered awhile in Kim's Book Shop, named of course for Kipling's novel quoted in the passage above.  Here too was a treasure trove of old titles, run by a man nearly of their generation.  I always enjoy meeting the owners of second hand book shop;  one feels that you already know their character after scanning their shelves.   

I eventually left to find a few of our group in conversation with three young men of college age. One of them was pontificating about the charms of his hometown of Quetta.  He did this with the enthusiasm of a politician (despite specializing in economics), entreating us repeatedly to come for a visit.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that Quetta had the reputation as the most dangerous place for foreigners in Pakistan, as the majority of the killings and kidnappings during the last decade had taken place there.  

The past is always a troubling subject in Asia, as memories are long in this part of the world.  But the eye continues to gaze forward.  Pakistan's tourist industry completely collapsed in the decades after the fall of the Twin Towers, and has yet to reassert itself.  Economic growth since has been slow, but there is some momentum with the emerging middle-class, a parallel found throughout the rest of Asia.   The newly moneyed are rarely sentimental, and the first to go are the monuments to history.  Our bus drove beneath the hulks of former Victorian glories, either abandoned or with marble facades impaled by gaudy signs and bound by power lines that crawled across their faces like vines.  Progress, whatever that means, had been superimposed upon the past, as Lahore moved unapologetically toward its destiny.  

We finally escaped the clangoring bustle of traffic to the safety of our hotel.  We were originally supposed to go out again later to have dine in a local haveli but had been bumped to allow for a party of government ministers (in a neat parallel with the same occurrence back at the Chini Bagh in Kashgar, when we'd been forced to shift our dates).  We ate instead in the hotel dining room, the buffet again allowing for some variety, though the taste of cumin still impressed upon us its versatility.   Ours was the lone group until a large wedding party arrived, each and every member clad in the outer limits of exotic beauty.  Though we never engaged them, it was a wonderful end to our time in Pakistan, and the eye was drawn again and again to the dark-eyes of the bride, the slim and sequined dandy of the groom, the bejeweled nose of the grandmother, the geometrically perfect rising slope of the uncle's moustache.  

Often in travel you feel like the locals going on about their business around you are extras in the story that is your trip.  But here I felt the extra, that my presence here was mere background to the more important business playing out throughout the room.  

In the morning we left the mothership of the main group, or should I say they left us.  They'd be crossing into India where after a couple of days in Amristar, they'd be enjoying an extended stay on the houseboats of Kashmir.  We of course had also intended to go, but during the visa process, Indian bureaucracy did what it does best. Despite having all my papers in order, the new Indian consul in Osaka decided he wanted to sit down with me and hear a bit more about the trip.  I was not given a specific time when this would occur, and after a few days passed, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get my visas for Pakistan and China, which were allegedly much more difficult.  So I returned to the Indians and told them I'd no longer be needed their services.  They were a bit surprised and I decided to twist the dagger by fibbing in saying that the one or two thousand dollars  I would have spent in their country I'd now be spending in Pakistan.     

So LYL and I would be spending this last day exploring the sights of Lahore.  We began on the outskirts of town at Jehangir's tomb, with a design now familiar after previous visits to similar Moghul monuments across the border.  But this one charmed in being far more run down and refreshingly unrestored.  Ironically there was more life, in the boys playing cricket on the stone lanes, in the adult men wrestling in the grass, in the families out enjoying a sunny morning.  A caretaker had to be roused to let us into the main tomb, as sweepers brushed the night's leaves and debris from its porticos and walkways.  The other buildings were in greater disarray and as such were less visited, creating the perfect rendezvous point for covertly cuddling couples.  

The old fort was in better condition, a large rambling spot that had hosted the Moghuls, Sikhs, and British, as they made their own personal mark.  We wandered in and out of its rooms, across its courtyards, peered into hidden nooks.  Our progress was slow due to being asked to pose for photos with dozens of families, which seemed to annoy our guide.  From then on it was strictly, "No Paparazzi!"   

I'd hoped to walk from there to the Old City, but we instead began from a gate on the opposite side, closer to the baths and market.  Once inside I could understand why, with all the motorbikes zipping through the narrow lanes.  When quiet it was timeless, a bazaar going about yet another day, the ordinary piling up as it has for centuries.  In contrast to the labyrinthian passages of the Royal Baths was the open courtyard of the Wazir Khan Mosque, delightfully tree-shaded and devoid of people.  We sat awhile on a bench, and enjoyed the cool marble beneath our feet.  It felt a nice respite from all the movement of the previous weeks.

But as always, there is more.  We pushed across town for a brief stop at the Shalimar Gardens, whose named brought to mind an R&B group from the 1980s.  And like that group, the garden's heyday had been brief, though it appeared in the book The Golden Oriole that I'd read not long afterward.  The fountains were dry, as was most of the grass, though it did provide locals a nice spacious counterpoint to the encroaching neighborhood pushing in from all sides.  

It seemed most fitting that we'd finish our time in Pakistan with a visit to the border closing ceremonies at Wagah.  I'd seen it on a travel show from the '90s, and it was even greater in person.  After the expected intense security checks (a bombing here had killed 60 in 2014), we were able to get good seats in the arena that had been built to offer the locals a free show every evening. Across the way, we saw the friends we'd left that morning climbing the grandstand on the Indian side.  I tried to wave, but a man sitting beside me told me it was better I didn't.

It was early, but already the music was pumping, the crowd beginning to come alive, with all the adrenal build up of a rock show.  I was impressed with how the organizers created an air of tension, which rose and rose with the appearance of the drummers, with the perpetually-spinning one-legged man, and peaked just as the soldiers came out to perform their silly walks.  It was impossible not to notice their height, each individual standing close to two meters tall, obviously cherry-picked from the ranks for intimidation purposes.  The biggest and burliest one Cleese-stepped his way to the border, and with a sideways glare twirled his moustache across at the Indians, who were probably doing the exact same thing.  Then, another soldier stepped up to the border, gave a quick salute and handshake to his Indian counterpart (I imagine under his breath a "Nice to see you Sanjay, how's the family?"), followed by the flags being lowered in a sort of competition to see whose would be last to furl.  As a coup de gras, the border gate was slammed shut, just as the sun left the sky.     

Our guide rushed us through the crowd in a parody of the quick walking soldiers earlier, to our car which rushed us to the airport and our flight.  Having two hours until check-in we sat in the near empty lobby, which slowly began to fill with an array of fantastically clad figures from throughout the Middle East.  Most impressive were the Bedouin types in their flow of robes. One old man came and gestured to me to allow him my seat, which I gave up.  Having spent the day in the muggy heat, I walked off to the handicapped toilet to prepare for the red-eye flight, washing off in the sink, changing into clean clothes.  When I returned, LYL too had lost her seat, as a whole clan of nomads had pushed in to overtake our bench.  Thus, we too pushed onward, eyes looking across the horizon of check-in desks, moving on the wing to whatever place comes next.       

On the turntable: Grateful Dead,  "1977/05/09 Buffalo War Memorial"
On the nighttable:  Peter Hopkirk, "The Great Game"