Saturday, June 12, 2010

Desert God

Beautiful paragraph from Pauline Searle's 'Dawn Over Oman'...

Almost as dramatic in a quieter, less aggressive but more ominous way is the desert. From the Umm as Samiim, the Salt Flats, in the west of Oman, the silent wastes of the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, creep up upon one like the mists of time - nothing, nothing and yet more nothing as far as the eye can see. The silence is so deep here that ears ache from the very pressure of silence. One is alone with one's God now - this is what life is all about and there is nothing between Him and you. This is the type of country where Islam was born: simple enough for a man to find his God and where he can easily believe that God can find him.

Image from Martin Hartley Photography

Time Travelling on Empathy

When I came upon these paragraphs in Pauline Searle's 'Dawn Over Oman', I felt so sad for the monarch of Oman of the past 40 years. It took me back to America, my silent dead phase, when I'd longingly look at other people's families and friends who'd express emotional support and understanding every step of the way - for bad semesters, burnouts, and moments of madness.

First let us go back to 1962 and to Sandhurst in England, where the young Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the only son of Sultan Said, was passing out as a second lieutenant in the Cameronians. Watching the new officers on their big day were members of their families and close friends as well as military dignitaries, but for the young man from Arabia there was no family present, only a middle-aged British major and his wife who had been detailed by his father to keep an eye on him and who were to exert such a tremendous influence on both father and son in the years to come. Major F. C. L. Chauncey, who had originally come to Muscat as British Consul in 1949, had retired in 1958 from the Foreign Service but, owing to his close friendship with Sultan Said, had returned almost immediately to Oman as the Sultan's personal adviser. Cast in the old colonial mould, for better and for worse, Major Chauncey, ex-Indian Army, took his job very seriously. He and Sultan Said were very much akin in character - autocratic, obstinate, but with great integrity and even greater determination that Oman should progress only in their way and in their time.

With surprising forethought, Sultan Said decided to send his son round the world for three months to broaden his horizons. Accompanying the young man were the Chaunceys to guide the young Qaboos and to restrain any youthful enthusiasm which the Sultan himself so distrusted. But this broad-minded action towards his only son was to be the last.

...

The young Qaboos personified to the Sultan the dangers of the future. At all costs he was not to be contaminated by the modern world. There was only one way to prevent this: to keep him isolated. Qaboos, who by this time was living near the palace in Salalah, little realised that this would be his home for the next eight years.

Within

Nighttime once more
Thank God
For silence
For dark
For stillness
For deep blue and black
That drown the details of the world outside
That lull the ugly voices that shout over mine
At night I win
I hear
Memories that live
Filmroll
Some screams
Some smiles
Relive an admirer
Or a suprise
The memory is mine
The memory is alive
Revisit and heal
Woman and child
My own sister am I.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Light from a Supernova

I used to feel so stupid in America.

I was a super-confident well-adjusted 18-year-old when I moved to America by myself in 1999 for university. Until then, I had had the reputation of being very talkative, charming, pretty, extroverted, artistic, and a quick learner - I was a go-getter, my English was solid, and I was a star! That is what I had learned of myself, a delicate jigsaw puzzle that I had carefully put together piece by piece over the years with feedback from the people in my world - my family, my teachers, my friends, oh my darling friends. I was all over the place. I would win contests, I would get selected for special programs, I knew what I was good at, and I was so, so confident. I just knew I would conquer America - they would love me!

I continued on my super enthusiastic streak for about a year after having moved to the US. I didn't make many friends. A girl in my dorm told me that someone had told her that I was a phony. I didn't know what that meant, but it hurt a lot. Why would someone say that when I was nice to everyone?

I felt stupid having to ask people to repeat what they were saying because I'd miss words in their strong southern accent. I'd feel so stupid when they'd slow down and stress every word as if I was testing their patience.

The first part-time job I applied for (university catering), the interviewer/manager, an overweight white woman with short grey hair, grimaced and tossed my handwritten application aside and said she couldn't read my writing (but my teachers had always recruited me to work on special handwritten documents in school). She did hire me though, and I quit 2 weeks later. No one had told me that it was the worst job on campus.

I couldn't believe that I didn't get hired for the next job I applied for, one that I really, really wanted, the one that I would be so good at. Even after the interview. When I had been typing up the application on a computer at the computer lab, a Pakistani student had ridiculed my answers, saying that the manager didn't care if I was proud of the DNA model I had presented so well at my high school science exhibition (but the application had asked me to talk about something I was proud of).

I distinctly remember developing tunnel vision and having the bottom of my stomach fall out when I received a rejection letter for the first scholarship I applied for as a university student.

I felt so stupid around American students. They knew so much about computers and American pop culture. They didn't know any of the English songs I knew, and many said I was weird or exotic. Everytime I'd have to ask "what is (insert random American cultural reference here)?", I wouldn't know what to say when they responded with "you don't know??".

Most American students did not return my friendliness, many did not even know I was there. Some did. Most of my friends ended up being international students. One overweight grumpy white American girl in my dorm hardly ever responded to my greetings, and I felt distressed at the stoic glances she would give me in return. Eight years later when I ran into her in another city in America at a pet store she was working in, I greeted her once again, and she was startled but still didn't look happy to see me. She didn't look anything to see me. Another white boy in my dorm, who was friends with this girl, looked a lot like one of the members of the Irish boy-band Westlife, and I'd happily tell him so, but he'd only reply in monosyllables and never talk to me himself.

I wasn't in on a lot of the lingo in America. I felt so stupid being misunderstood and having someone think it was humourous to make fun of Indian accents in front of me.

I felt so stupid misunderstanding social cues in America. I didn't know what dating entailed, how to respond to boys here, what being gay was, what a condom looked like, and why dancing always had to be dirty. I felt so lost.

I felt so stupid when I didn't know as much about computers as the American students, even though I was a Computer Science major. I didn't know what ethernet was (we'd only got dial-up in Oman in 1998), and in 2000, I felt so stupid when someone introduced me to copy/cut-and-paste. Before that, I used to manually type information that I wanted to extract from websites. Most people didn't even have computers, forget the internet (or ethernet?), in Oman at that time. I was the only person in my class in Oman that knew advanced MS Word features, but here, I didn't know what most people were talking about. Everyone was so tech-savvy, I felt so stupid. If I ever asked a question, they'd say, "you don't know??".

I felt really angry when a white American student tried to argue with me about an English word he said didn't exist. Of course it did, but he didn't accept it.

I felt really hurt by comments about how ugly, fat, mis-shapen, and probably retarded I was following me from college and after to my workplace. Someone once sent me hate-mail saying I was ugly and had chink-eyes like a Mongol. I heard at work once that I had a huge head and that I was so fat that I looked pregnant.

I felt really stupid in America, but one day I stopped trying to play catch-up. Maybe one day I will once again begin to feel like the superstar I used to be.

Star light,
Star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may,
I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

Restoration

Something that has been bothering me for 15 years has finally been resolved today.

In 8th or 9th grade, I had come across a poem a girl in my batch had written. This poem, along with creative work by other students, had been displayed for a while on a public chartboard for all to see. The chartboard would be updated regularly, like once a month or once a week, I can't remember exactly how often. I do remember when I was asked to update this chartboard by the teachers who were in charge of it, to take down its old collection and put up newer student submissions in its place. Regarding the work that had just been taken down, not every student had come back to claim their work, and the teachers certainly didn't want to keep unnecessary papers, so the leftover stuff remained with me. The poem in question was part of the leftovers.

The poem was wonderful, and I was stunned that that girl had come up with something like that. Everytime I came across that bunch of papers over the years, the same thought would occur to me. I felt terrible for feeling that way - was I jealous? No, I know what jealousy feels like, this wasn't it. Maybe I was resentful that it wasn't something I could come up with? I felt so guilty for thinking this way, I hated myself. I went over the poem so many times that day in that sweaty corridor - I could not keep my eyes off that page - that I'd committed it to memory. How could anyone not? It was so fluid, so run-a-long, so perfect, how could that girl have written that poem? How could I have not?? I was the lauded writer of my class, my batch, of the world!

These feelings bothered me for many years. They would crop up at odd moments in those spaces between my thoughts, the spaces where your real self lurks in the shadows of the daytime sun, the nighttime spaces that yawn into wakefulness and swallow the pretenses of civilised, safe, monitored thoughts. I hated myself for feeling this way, and I hated myself for not having written that poem first.

Until today, when Amitabh Bachchan, whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted a line from that poem. I balked. I googled. Turns out the poem is a famous one of anonymous origins.

The Cautious Man

There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played.
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.

And when he one day passed away,
His insurance was denied.
For since he never really lived,
They claimed he never died.


The disembodied whispers that had tormented me in moments unlived by all but myself have found their peace. The sun and the moon are divorced no more, the sky is one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Echo

When mommy stays in bed
When daddy stays at work
When children want to play
When children want to please
Their parents
Unhappy parents
People unhappy
With themselves
With the world
Who can't see their children
Blurry phantoms on the edge of their rage
Asking for permission
To get in
Dying
Just dy-ing
For a smile
Little pups
Wag wag wag
Thump my restless tail
Stand on my head
So you can think I'm smart
"That's my kid!"
Crush me not

Who tells these children
That their parents
Are too wounded
To notice
To nurture
Anything
Outside
Chasms with so much noise inside
That the voice outside
The plea outside
Could never
Cannot
Get in
Be heard

?

.

Thursday, June 3, 2010