Wednesday, May 30, 2018

House of Kindness

Bitola (Monastir), 1917 [Source: French Ministry of Culture]
Excerpt from chapter thirty-two of Life in the Tomb (Greek: Η ζωή εν τάφω) by Stratis Myrivilis, in which Sergeant Anthony Kostoulas takes a break from the trenches to nurse his bad leg, and is welcomed warmly into a Slavonic village.

The peasants who are my hosts welcomed me cordially, without any fuss. The moment I remained alone in their midst they began to talk to me all at once in a language which I don't understand but which I never tire of hearing. There are two old men, one youth, five or six women, and a whole army of babies. They all live in two contiguous houses sharing a roofed verandah which is extremely long and wide. There kept speaking to me energetically, all at once, and smiling, until they realized that their language was completely incomprehensible to me.

"Ne znaish... ne znaish?" (Don't you understand?)
"Ne znai?!" (Doesn't he understand?!)

Then, all together, they stopped talking to me and instead began to discuss me among themselves, struggling to divine what answers I would have given to the questions they had been asking for such a long time. While talking they kept turning and looking at me. I looked back at them, and smiled rather stupidly. Then they burst out laughing.

"Ne znaish." (You don't understand.)

But I did understand one thing extremely well: that these were simple, industrious, tormented people. I understood moreover that their words were benevolent, as pure and unadulterated as their bread, all fragrant with compassion and sympathy. That was why tears had welled into my eyes when they surrounded me and wrapped me in their kindhearted loquaciousness; why my hands had strained to enlarge themselves sufficiently to clasp the immense, rough palms as cragged as the bark of an oak.

I tremble in the very depths of my being when Anjo's two little daughters scramble onto my knees. I am bewildered and awkward in their presence; I have been away from children for so long that I don't know how to behave. They rummage endlessly in the bottomless pockets of my greatcoat. Just as they think they've come to the last one they suddenly discover still another (there are no end of pockets in these French coats). I understand their exclamation: "So many pockets!" and I see that the adults share their wonderment.

These two little girls are twins, so identical that they seem like two brightly colored gumdrops pressed out of the same mold. They have red cheeks, blue eyes and blond hair. In their corn-colored pigtails Anjo has braided strips of red and blue cloth with turquoise beads at the ends. The children are always full of mischief, their tiny roses and entire faces always filthy from the roasted corn which they never cease munching. As for their mother, she works away at her loom, her bare feet large and white as they move up and down on the treadles. She too is blond, tall. She speaks slowly, with measured words. Quite frequently she stops, shuttle in hand, and cheerfully scolds my tiny girlfriends who, serious and vociferous, hold veritable conferences about the insignia on my cap. Am I "Grrts" or "Srrp," Greek or Serb? Declare yourself! Their mother tells them that I am a "Grrts," a "dobar kristianin," and... to be careful of my aching leg.

But truly, at this point I am neither a Christian nor a Greek nor a Serb, but simply a human being filled with expectations, nostalgia and fatigue: an exhausted, content human being who admires these people -- envies them -- for being the lovely, openhearted creatures of a beneficent God. I marvel because every one of them (with the exception of the emaciated son) is strongly built and tall, with the simplicity possessed by mankind as a whole before it departed from the straight and narrow path. There are near God and near the earth, all of them. This you perceive from the very moment you set eyes on them. Their home, lamps, clothing, bread, plough, furniture: each is a piece of work which has passed through their industrious hands. Everything inside this house represents a victory in the never-ending battle which these hands have waged against raw material. That is why they are so gnarled, all calluses and knots, as though made of oak.

Their diet consists of cheese pies, peppers, lentils, flour-thickened soup strewn with red pepper, whole wheat bread, and large baked squashes which they cut into immense slices and eat the way we eat melon. They drink cold, refreshing water. They work the soil, which accords them a simple, monotonous happiness. Afterwards, when they grow old and infirm, their large tormented bodies spread over the ground like overripe fruit fallen from a tree, and they return to the earth. There they peacefully dissolve together with all their ancestors. Above them the golden wheat sprouts to its full height once more, the corn soughs throughout the night, and the reapers sing their ancient meandering songs. As for their souls (if we must assume that such things exist) these ascend towards heaven from the earthen thurible, like incense.

I watch these people in the evening as they stretch out on the floor to relax. Propped on one elbow, and using coarsely-whittled holders, they silently smoke a kind of colossal cigarette which they roll ever so slowly and lick with infinite care. The smoke rises to the ceiling and disappears. They watch absentmindedly as its slender bluish-white ribbon leaves the end of the cigarette and, with gentle quavers, ascends either directly or with undulations into the peaceful air which smells of haystacks, threshed cord, and newly scythed grass. This is how their souls will ascend toward the Lord's feet when the proper moment arrives.

Reclining like this for hours, they smoke away in silence. Perhaps they are thinking. Now and then they utter a word or two in a conversation as brief as the exchange of passwords; then they relapse into silence. On the other hand, they may not be thinking at all, and this should be hardly surprising, for simple people have the habit of relaxing not only to the depths of their bodies but to the depths of their minds. Thought for them is not a sickness; it is work. Until recently, they never even realized how happy they were. Only now have they recognized this happiness, now that they have seen the foreign hordes pouring in from the four corners of the earth, rushing to the attack across their fields and cemeteries, trampling their unapprehended well-being underfoot. "They are trampling it," their philosophy must stammer; "ergo it exists." Crossing themselves energetically, they pray God to restore their peace. Months ago a shell came through the ceiling of the verandah and left this House of Peace gravely wounded. This happened one summer; a bit of swallow's nest is still attached to the splintered beam. If only all those responsible for war would come to this place where I am sitting and writing, could fall on their knees in the center of our large verandah and gaze upwards through the gash which the cannons have left in the ceiling of this beneficent home, murdering its swallows! Through this gash they would perceive the blue eyes of an austere, wrathful God -- and then (perhaps) they would stop making war.

I am filled with reverence for this wounded roof which covers so much kindness. Blessings upon this holy sanctuary which has received me so hospitably beneath its red tiles and has stretched its protection over my suffering body. May heaven repay it for everything, and restore its persecuted swallows. Amen.

(Translated from the Modern Greek by Peter Bien)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Sword of Allah in David's City Unsheathed

Source: Reuters / Ahmed Jadallah
The Sword of Allah has been brought down upon the Beast
The Hunter of Ages now has become the Hunted — Alleluia!

The Rabbouni, my guiding light, my walking companion, and my greatest love, has given me sweet succour and help in the past half year. He has healed this obstinate fool, unshackled him from the weight of his sins, by a critical series of confessions. Blessed sacrament, how have we taken you for granted? How have we poor sinners shunned you, made so fearful that our falls be brought to light and embarrass us? Fool that I am, I say with confidence that the greater my folly, the greater the pleasure there is to be called out for it! If Father Robertus had overreacted and yelled at me (who was in such a fragile state back then) in the confessional box, it was only to the effect of delivering me from the maws of the Devil. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. The world only sees the fanatic thumping of chests, but it was really joy  joy and liberation.

You have heard it said among people debating homosexuality: Love the sinner, hate the sin. We have understood it to be the fine line dividing the sin and the sinner, lest they be condemned in the same breath. Our detractors scoff at it as a meaningless platitude, and I am inclined to take their side. God's mercy on me has started a fire within me, that I have come to not just hate the sin, but hate it with a burning passion, burning with a fire that does not consume. Not just a fine line between sin and sinner may it become an unbridgeable gulf, that the torments and ensnarement of the evil ones will never again touch us! War! Yes, docility and obedience towards God who made us, redeemed us, and walk with us, but violence to sin, and viciousness towards all inclinations to sin. Through mortification we train our self-denial, and through self-denial our blows become quick, merciless, lethal. Indolence and Sensuality have fallen at the vanguard, now more hidden demons present themselves to be torn apart by our hounds. The Sword of Allah, in David's city unsheathed, has been brought down upon the head of the Beast; the Hunter of Ages now has become the Hunted! My hand, my right eye, I no longer want to keep them, but only the bleeding desire to walk in the way of Christ, to be one in will with him!

I still struggle with mercy. Mercy has been given me, but I have been slow to hand it on. I nursed a huge grudge to the ones who brought evil upon me the last summer. I fumed, I fantasized, I schemed to hurt them. But I trembled in fear at the same time, because I am aware that unless I have mercy, mercy shall be denied me, just as it was revoked for the servant in the parable who failed to forgive his fellow worker. The wound festered, dissonance took hold, and I have risked losing the friendship of a number of (other) people because of this. But, more and more, I am becoming aware of the place of those who wronged me on our side of the unbridgeable gulf. Even though my desire to meet them again is long gone, and is gone for good as far as I can tell, I have at least the pleasure to announce that their debts are cancelled. Yes, as He asks of me, and all of us! And let all these experiences set the scene for a new stage in my life.

References: Matthew 10:34 (Sword), Exodus 3:2 (Fire), Luke 16:26 (Gulf), Matthew 5:29-30 (Violence), Matthew 18:21-35 (Forgiveness).

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Hazme de Nieve, Señor

Make me snow, Lord, to human pleasures;
Make me clay to your hands,
fire to your love

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

La Vara de San José, Isaías 7:14

6 November 2017

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.' Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us'.

When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Extremely Short Stories from Tehran

People have voiced some doubts about me accepting a work trip here, but I told myself that if a country has given the rest of the world Laleh Pourkarim, Marjane Satrapi and Mehdi Sadaghdar, then it can't be that bad at all. So let's go for it

Laleh the Swede, Marjane the cartoon character, and Mehdi the madman who starts fires for giggles
"Why have you come to Iran for just four days?" wailed Fr. Paul Lawlor, when I went to see him at St. Abraham's Church, Tehran. "You only have time for Tehran; there's nothing to see here!" I must agree that the material and natural treasures of Persia is something that is immense and not even easily covered in two weeks, but a leave quota is a leave quota and, all things considered, Iran has given me more than I had hoped to handle in just four days. So here is a rough summary of the trip, given in my habitual format of extremely short stories.

16 September: The Visa Lady

After disembarking, the first person I met in Tehran was the Visa Lady. The people at Imam Khomeini Airport had thought it suitable to plant this petite lady in front of the visa office as the coordinator, because the said lady also happened to be a thunderous sasspot who threw thrice her weight and made her presence known constantly. Walling herself into a perimeter with tape barriers, the Visa Lady was able to deal with the tourists, one by one, without any hint of being ruffled whatsoever. "You! Go to the insurance counter. You! Go and line up at the bank terminal. You! Go sit in the corner and wait!". There must have been a hundred of us, with just one Visa Lady! Occasionally she gave visa inquiries a pause and let loose a strident announcement: "Where is my pen? Somebody has taken my pen -- Give me back my pen!" Her voice sliced through the air like a scimitar, jerking awake a few tourists who were beginning to doze off in their seats, and the pen was always returned sheepishly to its rightful owner. Just the one lady, and her one pen!

17 September: The Two Mareks

The two Mareks are father and son. The son is a hardened traveller who is addicteed to biking and has arrived at Tehran after a few months cycling on the road from the Czech Republic through Romania and Turkey into Iran, and the father tags along (after much persuasion from his son Marek) for good fatherly company. We had breakfast together. Breakfast was splendid because of koloocheh, flat buns infused with cardamom and fillings of brown sugar. The other highlight is feta, which, to the great surprise and confusion of Masoud, are made from cow's milk in this country.

17 September: Masoud, the Kurdish Guy who runs the Hostel

Masoud comes from Bookan, in far west of Iran, where he grew up speaking Kurdish. He learned Farsi only after he started his undergraduate studies. His Persian friends could never believe it whenever he told them that part of his history. What a shame -- If only we spent the morning singing Xoş e Hewreman together and left the other guests no peace to eat their breakfast! He wished me luck with the presentation as I checked out to visit the Chaldeans, and I left too soon.

17 September: The Chaldeans

Click for slideshow
St. Joseph's Cathedral lies halfway between the metro stations Ferdowsi and Taleghani, and I walked there on foot after a ridiculously sumptious breakfast. Half an hour before mass, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou and five other people were chanting the rosary at the foremost pews. This went on for a while and I was scared that these were all the people that could be had in mass. Thankfully, more people joined over the hour to fill the pews, so that by communion time there were about fifty of us in the church, including the two bishops and deacons at the sanctuary. It was a Chaldean liturgy, all in Aramaic (their native as well as liturgical language), and very traditional. The women wore veils, I mean headscarves, well alright -- that was what they had to wear in the streets anyway. Communion was given in both species. The half-English liturgy sheet I had procured from the Detroit Chaldeans was helpful, even though not followed to the letter. I did not understand the homily in Aramaic, so I used the time to doodle the Archbishop of Tehran in my notebook, and then the High Altar.

Archbishop Ramzi of Tehran, Bishop Jean-Paul of Calatia, and whoever it is who is on their right; has anyone seen that dude before? No one?
Later, during lunchtime, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou said to me that the Chaldean community was native to Iraq, himself being born in Zakho, in the far north of the country. The young Youssef, seated across me, is a seminarian and was at Tel Keppe five months ago where he went to the liberated churches that had been torn up by Daesh. Bishop Jean-Paul Gobel is visiting and is seated at the head of the table as the guest of honour. A local priest who spoke only Aramaic was seated to my right, and to my left two religious sisters (whose names I struggle to recall) who spoke Italian with one another and a mix of French and English with me, using a whichever works approach. The multilingual conversation in that fine and wild lunch spanned topics from Madam Halimah Yaacob to Patriarch Louis Sako, from the Kurdish Independence Referendum to Imam Khomeini Getting A Primary School Named After Himself Again, and from Food Safety Standards in China and to Who's Winning the World Cup. In addition they seemed very interested in Singapore, and loved the picture of my Archbishop incensing Our Lady of Fatima.

The Chaldeans had icons for sale on the shelf. I had been tasked my my mother to buy them home. However, the uncle here said to me that the only guy who has the keys to the cupboard was away at Hamedan for a few days. Drat! It seems I will have to come back to Iran another day to get them.

Gift for the Chaldean community from my parish (need more gifts ugh)

17 September: Mahdi, the Carpet Guy of Tajrish

Mahdi studies Chemistry at the University of Tehran. At night he helps out at his father's carpet store, where one day he came and said "ni-hao" to me and made friends and sold me a carpet so I have something to bring back to my mother. His carpets are made of sheep wool or silk, with different weaving techniques involved. The shop has inexplicable received name-cards from diplomats and other dignitaries for some reason (did these people all have an urgent need for a carpet whenever they stop by Tajrish?). Mahdi wanted to sell two, but I bought one and left and got lost in the market and wound up at the mosque that he liked to pray in. How splendid to have your workplace and your worshipping place right next to each other! I shall enjoy Holy Cross as long as I still can.

18 September: The Watering Holes

Nobonyad Metro Station
Guy who sold me tickets to the metro was hard of thinking. Guy who sold me insurance at the airport lacked his left hand. No, that did not stop them coming out and working and greeting customers like any old fellow. I had trouble with the currency, and just let whoever was there do the math for me. 15,200 Rials... or was it Tomans? I couldn't hear the prices clearly, and the lady at the roadside restaurant laughed at me, took some of the notes from my hand, then handed me the change. Sometimes the change came in coins. Coins are so rare in this country! Termeh from Yazd sewed intricate doilies; a lady and her mother brings them to the metro at Azadi square and sells them. People sold things even on the trains and no one was there to stop them. My instincts were to ignore them, as if they were fraudulent operations, but the couple next to me took a sample insole and bought a few pairs after discussing it intently between themselves. I bought a toothbrush this way! Toys, stationery, lemon juicers, sports bags came to you in rush hour and you bought them all if you were just about to fall asleep and didn't pay attention. Even little toy guns that rattled; you could buy them in case you got bored on the plane and wanted to amuse yourself. Some bored punk came and shot my face twice with one of these annoying trinkets. The day was hot and the metro stations came equipped with what I thought of as Watering Holes, each one a big sink with water fountain taps, and us strangers huddled around for a sip. Tehran water was drinkable everywhere, and it was sweet, like how Singapore water used to be.

18 September: Walking on Streets

Walking the length of Andrazgoo Boulevard was not the most pleasant thing to do on a Sunday evening. The next day I walked to Nobonyad Square, where the roads were narrower, houses were castles and the vegetation lush and manicured. The Ambassador of Venezuela has a place to hide here, where the angry mob has not yet been able to reach. I learned that crossing the road anywhere takes you a roughly 50-50 mix of false confidence and total trust in the goodwill of strangers.

18 September: Saint Abraham's Church

PSA: In case some of you are Jesus freak like me and also happen to want to go to Iran at some point in spring or summer, I have on hand the full mass schedule covering the city; yell for it in the comments! You can choose from mass timings for liturgy in the English, French, Italian, Korean, Assyrian, or Armenian languages. Said schedule has been passed to me by the kind Fr. Paul Lawlor despite his hellishly packed schedule as the only priest of St. Abraham's Church.

St. Abraham's Church sits delightfully close to the metro station at Enghelab Square, and strangely attracts a sizeable following of Persians. Christians, or Muslims who are just visiting? It was hard to tell. The website boast many fruits borne in the community: translations of hymns and prayers to Persian, ecumenical dialogue with Shi'a leaders, artwork, masses, and receiving visiting Dominican fathers from all over the world. That and the Instagram location-based post aggregator of St. Abraham's Church would tell the story much more eloquently than I could ever do, so I leave you with them.

18 September: The Selfie Man of Azadi Square

Gilsie has introduced to me the existence of this hilarious monument. For all the hype surrounding its famed firewall, Iran has not be able to halt the scourge of the selfie.

A similar statue was unveiled the other day at Amasya in Turkey. Vandals stole his phone, so he needs a bodyguard now.

18 September: Niavaran

Niavaran was the Shah's old stomping grounds. Nicolae Ceaucescu was his buddy. His children loved looney tunes, and his wife hoarded modern artwork and pagan idols. Such used to be life in Niavaran.

The Polish scientists said that Niavaran reminded them of the palaces of Communist Poland, the sort one could still find standing in Warsaw.

19 and 20 September: Conference

Yikes! Someone caught me doing my first oral presentation ever
During lunch at the IPM Campus, Majid, Mohsen and gang pressed me into their lunchtime clique and fed me "doogh" just to see what my face looked like afterwards. They were a boisterous group whose impeccable manners and generosity sometimes betrays a primordial mischieviousness. Majid Esmaelzadeh is a Turkish guy (my guess is that it means "Azerbaijani") from Urmia who likes watching Korean drama and making jabs at Farsi speakers. Mohsen Farokhnezhad is from Mashhad and always says "excuse me" if he goes through a narrow doorway first. Salar Abbasi comes from Yazd and laughs a lot, no matter what the joke is. Majid led the group to his hideout in the back garden, where a wooden shack has been built for PhD students seeking refuge from the stresses of work. Curiously, a whiteboard has been installed inside the shack, adorned perennially with equations and diagrams.

"Doogh" turned out to be yoghurt mixed with salty water. The particular version served at lunch came with a touch of mint. Still, it's not everyone's kind of stuff, even if you were from Iran. Majid laughed at me as I chugged the drink and said that it would make me sleep like a log all afternoon. So I nodded back in agreement, and nodded off to sleep for the next two lectures.

16 to 20 September: Tiger Balm

Coming to a place where gift-giving is so much a part of the social fabric, I figured that I might as well participate.

This habit actually started with Chinese tourists in the middle east, particularly Egypt. Despite being made infamous for all kinds of bombastic shenanigans, they have also been welcomed in Egypt for bringing along handy and fun-sized capsules of ointment to give away.
Hey! We make Tiger Balm Oil here in Singapore. We're famous for that stuff!

In a fit of patriotic fervour, I bought a trove of the ointment to give away to taxi drivers and shopkeepers, etc., just anyone I could ever come across. My opinion is that it is a pretty good fit for them: Just as Tiger Balm is used by workers who can surströmming in the smelliest factories of the world, so can it soothe the senses of many a smog-choked Tehrani, or allay the anxieties of the taxi drivers who must make a living in the city's terrifying traffic conditions. I think it's worth trying if you're going there! Giving is its own reward.

The ride back to the airport took two hours. Who would have thought the airport could be located so far away from town? The uncle who drove me looked like he could use Tiger Balm very much. He got to have my remaining two jars, and my short trip to Tehran concludes here. Good bye for now.