Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cairo Claustrophobia

It's funny, isn't it, how travelling to a place always somehow makes something written that much more real and identifiable? I always find that once I've been to the place that a particular novel is set in, the stories that I may have read before become that much more magical for me when I read them again. Perhaps all I do is colour in the narratives in my own head with what I now know of the place, but in any case, I somehow find the second reading so much more intimate.

This is exactly what happened with a book I'd read some months back, but hadn't thought to write a review of. But after my whistlestop tour of Cairo, which only served to whet my appetite for going back, I picked up The Yacoubian Building again. The book itself was a gift from a friend who was passing through London from Cairo last year. When I'd read it originally, it had seemed a good read, but nothing exceptional. But after spending just over 36 hours in Egypt, with a hotel view that looked out over Garden City towards Mohandiseen & the Citadel, I was somehow drawn back to the novel, and picked it up again last week.

First published in 2004 in Arabic, The Yacoubian Building is the work of Egyptian author Alaa al Aswany, a dentist by profession. The story traces the lives of several characters, each from different walks of life and different social strata, with very little to connect them to each other other than the fact that they all live in The Yacoubian Building, a typical Egyptian residential block in the old city. While the more affluent & powerful residents live in the large apartments in the main building, the roof contains small rooms which are inhabited by the poorer characters in the tale.

The story reads like a mosaic, moving fluidly between multiple narratives and tracing the ordinary lives of its protagonists, each of whom is in a unique way a victim of their own circumstances. There is Zaki Bey, an affluent man from a landed family, who was destined for power and influence, but had that deprived by the 1952 revolution. Taha just wants to be a police officer, but his humble antecedents deprive him of a place in the academy. Busayna does her best to earn enough to feed her widowed mother and younger siblings, but ends up in all her jobs as the victim of sexual exploitation. And there are many, many others.

Through all of their troubles and worries, the Yacoubian Building is the recurring leit motif. The story takes place in many locations, but at several points the scene is set in one of its apartments or on the crowded rooftop. On the whole, the story is not particularly cataclysmic, and there the ending of the story is somehat abrupt, leaving you feeling as if you were being led along, but were not given any catharsis. The small joys and sorrows that are spread through the novel continue until the end, perhaps appropriately illustrating what the realities of its characters must be like to live through. But there are two things I found remarkable about this novel, and more so after my trip to Cairo.

The first is this incredible sense of claustrophobia that pervades the novel. The overwhelming sense of entrapment, of being stuck in a situation from which you cannot get away, is one that affects each and everyone of the characters. Whether due to a lack of money, or for other, more complex circumstances, each protagonist is a prisoner of their own reality, unable to break out of a cycle of corruption, fraud and exploitation, whether a perpetrator or victim. While this claustrophobia came across even the first time I read the novel, it was magnified after I went to Egypt, and could see the streets and city for myself. Like so many developing countries, people in Egypt are either extremely rich or extremely poor, with very few individuals qualifying as "middle-class". And associated with these extremes are the classic cycles of exploitation, whether economic or sexual.

The second point that, at least for me, was quite unusual, was the sexuality of the writing. The Yacoubian Building was originally written in Arabic, and was for some time a best seller across the Arab world. Perhaps this is symptomatic of my own ignorance of the region and its multiple realities and complex social mores, but there is a frankness in dealing with so many things that I would have thought would be taboo. Whether it is the detailed exposition of Busayna's exploitation at the hands of her many bosses, the extensive lovemaking between various couples (never graphic or titillating, nor even erotic, but suggestive) or in the extensive description of the gay scene in Cairo, I was suprised by the extent to which Aswany deals with what I would have thought taboo, especially in a country like Egypt.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for our present day realities, there is one subplot that is worth mentioning. Aswany describes in one of his subplots the evolution of an Islamist, one who is motivated by the desire for change in what is perceived to be a corrupt and decadent establishment to one that is fair, egalitarian and just. The sense of inevitability that surrounds the birth of the extremist is handled adeptly, but also sensitively, without going into any moralising or political grandstanding. Aswany reminds us that there are no black & whites - just one really confusing grey.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dreaming of Dublin

So these stupid exams are doing my head in. Not only because I have to study, but because my life seems to have stopped until they're over. Not much travelling, not too much socialising, no movies, no theatre, no partying...nothing. Just getting to work in the morning, trying to leave early, and coming home to study...

So today I was flipping through some old photos and found a few that I really liked. They're from a business trip that I made to Dublin, Ireland, back in January 2005. It was cold, dark and incredibly windy, but the city had a welcoming feel to it...

So tonight I'm thinking of Dublin...on a chilly spring night in London...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Nursery Rhymes

This is another slightly gratuitous post, but in light of our good बहन मायावती winning the UP elections, क्या करें, control नहीं होता!

I got this in an email from a relative in Lucknow, and thought it was worth sharing...

( Full disclosure - as a quarter Bihari, three-quarter UP wala, I have full authority to post Bihari jokes if you want to pick a fight, go find Sheila Dikshit, okay?!)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Dreaming of Istanbul...

Okay - this may be cheating, but given that between work and study (I have an exam coming up in June) I haven't really done much interesting stuff for the past month. So in order to spare you folks the agony of my currently boring life, I'm recycling something very cool that I did back in the winter of 2005 - it was my trip to Istanbul. I had sent a travelogue-esque email to friends with pics when I came back, so I'm reproducing excerpts for you to read below (especially since a reader asked for a detailed travelogue). I really want to go back - don't think I've gotten Turkey out of my system just yet!

Sulemaniye Jami in Old IstanbulJust got back after five fairly hectic days in Istanbul (and if you're Greek, that's Konstantinoupoli to you...) It's a fascinating city, and one that I was almost being haunted by. For those of you who haven't heard the stories, here's how it goes.

Basically, I've always been intrigued by Istanbul - it was such a historic place, with so many stories and myths and legends and events attached to it - truly one of the few great historic places in the world. I think somewhere deep inside I always wanted to go there, but over the past year, it felt as if I was being haunted by the city. Every book, movie, music, novel, you mention it, seemed to have a connection to Istanbul. I think I had the decision to visit made for me the weekend I rented three movies - a Bond film (The World is Not Enough), a German movie (Gegen Am Wand, or Head On) and a Jackie Chan movie (can't remember the name) and all three of them ended up in Istanbul. I was like, OK FINE I'LL GO!!!! I mean, seriously ... Jackie Chan??

So finally I went there in December 05 with a good friend who coincidentally is Greek. We got there on Sunday evening, after a rather turbulent flight (we were flying British Airways, and while passengers in the row next to us were clutching to their arm rests and praying with tears streaming down their face, the pilot said, "I'm sorry this isn't a very comfortable flight!" Ah, the British) Anyhow, the turbulence was caused by a ridiculous storm that had turned the streets (and runway) of Istanbul into rivulets of water and mud that cars threw up at pedestrians as they raced by. (By the way - if you go to Istanbul, be warned - the traffic is MANIC, so avoid driving)

The Hagia SophiaWe got to our hotel, reasonably dry thanks to the taxi, and after checking in, decided to be gung ho adventurous tourists and go out and walk along Istiklal Caddesi, which is a pedestrianised avenue in the Beyoglu/ Pera district (I don't have a Turkish keyboard, so you'll just have to pretend). However, given that we were slightly disoriented and that it was still POURING down with rain, we actually only ended up wandering around in almost zero degree monsoon style rain and got thoroughly soaked. Suitably chastised, we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel, warming up with hot showers, food, and really bad Turkish TV.

The next day was cloudy and damp, but adventurism was alive and well. We decided to take a ferry across the Halic (I probably need a quick geography sketch here. Istanbul is split into two parts by the Bosphoros into Europe and Asia. The European side is further split into a North & South by the Halic, and we were in the northern part, while the old Ottoman & Byzantine city was on the Southern side). Anyway, we decided to go to the covered Egyptian Bazaar (in that weather, we weren't too concerned about the shopping, but the word "covered" really appealed to us.) After walking through what felt like Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi with really tacky touristy goods, and swarthy Turkish shopkeepers trying to sell me Indian saffron, we got out and decided to follow that big dome we saw at the top of the hill to get to Sulemaniye Mosque. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the dome ended up being Hagia Sophia, which we had been trying to avoid since we knew it was closed on Mondays. Forty minutes later, outside the Hagia Sophia, we're like, right! And then we got accosted by a Turkish carpet seller. I decided to humour him, and got ten minutes in his shop and a hot cup of apple tea for my pains, but also really sore ears as he tried to sell us Turkish carpets & kilims. Best of all, he was talking in sterling!

Extricating ourselves from his oily grasp (okay that's a little cliched, but seriously - he looked greasy) we went to the Byzantine cisterns, which are a remnant of Roman Constantinople, and are actually quite nice, if a bit humid and really drippy (seriously - watch your head and where you put your camera). But they're quite beautiful, and as long as the drops of water don't fall on you, the sound of the water is quite therapeutic. There are also two Medusa's heads on two pillars, carved there to ward off the evil eye.

The Guardhouse outside Topkapi Palace at the Gate of the JanissariesPost-cistern, we decided that we might as well go to Topkapi Palace, the old Ottoman palace, and ended up spending a fair bit of time (almost four hours) inside, because its so big and also because you need to take a tour to see the harem section. I think the best part of the Topkapi tour for me was seeing the Peacock Throne. For those not in the know, this was the old Mughal throne from India which was looted and taken away by Persian marauder Nadir Shah, and then gifted (!) to the Ottoman sultans as a present. Not having realised that it had ever left Persia, I was not prepared to see it in the Treasury at Topkapi Palace, but there it was in all its glory.

After finishing up at Topkapi, we went to the Sultan Ahmet mosque, which I think was the first mosque that I've ever been inside. And its going to be a hard act to follow, I'm afraid. Built to rival the Hagia Sophia (like most big Ottoman mosques in the city) its quite spectacular.

We also managed to squeeze in a trip to Kapali Carsi, the covered "Grand Bazaar", which was again like being in Chandni Chowk. My haggling skills from Delhi came in quite handy though. Funnily, most people thought we were Turkish, and when they realised we didn't speak much Turkish, they guessed that my friend was Greek, but their next judgement for me was that I was Iranian. Only when that was knocked out did they think "Indian"?

The next day was sunnier (and warmer) and we spent this going to Dolmabahce Palace, which was built in the 1850s to demonstrate Ottoman glory to the Europeans. It is consequently decorated alternately in Baroque, rococo & Ottoman styles, and the results are spectacularly HIDEOUS! Complete sensory overload, and very over the top - definitely worth a see, but don't blame me if you come out an advocate of minimalism....

After that, and a quick trip on the Istanbul tram, we were back at Hagia Sophia, which I must admit is not as spectacular on the outside, except for its size. The only thing I could think of outside it was how large it is. But on the inside, its a lot more serene and quite tranquil really. The mixture of Roman brickwork, Byzantine mosaic and Ottoman calligraphy is eclectic, and quite sweet really. That building really feels like an old, old person, someone who's weathered a lot of things, and is really tired and almost spent. A large part of the central dome was taken up by scaffolding as they renovated it, but it was still quite impressive.Above the main altar at Hagia Sophia

A quick coffee and snacks later, we ended up in Sirkeci railway station, in the Grand Exhibition Hall next to the historic Orient Express bar for a Sufi music concert and sema, or ceremony. Even if it was a bit touristy, the mixture of the music and the whirling did make it fairly mystical. I was intrigued to see that of the seven dervishes, four were women, since I had always assumed them to be male...but definitely a good experience.

After that rather whirlwind tour (no puns intended) we ended up in Kurucesme for dinner. We were meeting someone who is a friend of a friend of mine and while she was quite busy with work, she really wanted to catch up so we were chez hers for dinner. Her mother had cooked a really fantastic meal, and it was a really pleasant evening to sit down with a Turkish family and see what life is really like in Turkey. Also, their living room looks right onto the Bosphoros, and the view is fantastic. I mean, how many people can say they live in Europe and their view is of Asia? Our hostess was also really friendly and warm, and gave us some good tips on clubs and bars to go to - something that I don't trust the Lonely Planet on, because the last thing I want to do when on vacation is end up at a bar with tons of grubby backpackers.

We spent two more days walking around different parts of the city (we went and visited the Greek Patriarchy and the Bulgarian church as well - I'd like to think that I'm probably the first Indian to go to either; the caretaker of the Bulgarian church definitely thought) and we also got lost walking around in the old Fenar & Balat districts, which are amazingly like Dariba Kalan and Karol Bagh in Delhi.

But the best experience of the last two days had to be the Galata House restaurant. After trekking around on the Asian side and seeing yet more mosques, we headed back to Galata, and decided we needed lunch. Our trusty Lonely Planet assured us that the Galata House restaurant had to be visited, and so we did. It was definitely worth it. Housed in the old British civil prison, the building was restored by a husband & wife architect couple in the last decade, and they've also opened a Georgian restaurant in it. They both are quite the traditional hosts, and Mr Goktug, the owner & restorer, spent a long time chatting to us and telling us stories. His wife was equally charming - they were like a picture out of the old world, with the restored building and the furnishings. Most interestingly, they have left pieces of plaster untouched from the prison cells to show off the graffiti that prisoners drew on it. My favourite one was a quote "A terrific wind has caught the ship of my destiny and brought it to this strange shore"....

Till next time....