Issue #75 April 9th - 22th 2004
Note: this, too, is a diary of sorts. The author would like to thank Jef and her family. Eastercolours is a word taken from a Northern Picture Library song, my Jef's nickname on Soulseek this time last year and the title of a collection of photos I took around that time, too. It is also one of the greatest, most poignant and evocative words ever. And an incomplete list of the things that make me love Easter when most people hate it.
Picture this: an isolated road in the middle of the Yorkshire countryside, a seagull circling the dark purple sky, glowing with life in an almost deserted part of the country. I say almost because stood by the side if the road are three hitchhikers. Two men and one woman. The first man has his thumb stuck out; he is small and mousy wearing a denim jacket and a brightly patterned shirt. The second man is tall and broad shouldered. His face bears an ugly scar, which is the memento of a childhood accident. Looking at him though, you could well believe its origins were slightly more sinister. The woman stands aloof. She is wearing a cotton skirt, despite the cold weather, coupled with heavy boots and a leather jacket. She chews gum as though her life depends on it. Between them they have one small battered suitcase, a duffel bag, and handbag made of rags sown together in a haphazard fashion.
The trio have been waiting by the side of the road for some time now. The infrequent cars that passed them drove by hastily with their owners blinkered as if the travellers were invisible.
The reason that they are stood in the middle of nowhere is unapparent so let's rewind 60 minutes or 5 miles and we'll find the hitchhikers stood in almost identical positions next to an abandoned car with smoke coming out of its bonnet. The trio are not speaking and a dark cloud across the face of the woman indicates that cross words have been spoken.
A battered red car pulls up beside them and a small figure leans over to wind down the window in the passenger seat.
"You look like you are in trouble. Can I be of any assistance?"
Of all the people that had passed the hitchhikers Marge was the last person they would have expected to have stopped for them. She is small, white haired and 80 if she's a day. She is wearing a flowered nylon dress, which had surely seen better days, and her voice cracks as she speaks.
"That's really good of you. You're a real diamond love. My name's Dean and this is Ed and Sam," says the small rat faced man jerking his finger towards his two companions
"There's not many like you these days. Half of 'em would stab you in the back soon as look at you, the rest wouldn't even give you a second look. Treat you like a piece of dirt if you're not wearing a suit and a tie." Dean continues.
"Do yer know the amount of toss… err people who passed by sneering at us. We're just a bit different, but they look at us as though we've crawled out of the gutter."
"Wouldn't have thought you'd stop though" chips in Ed.
"Smart woman like yerself, wouldn't have thought you'd have been seen dead with the likes of us. To be quite honest though I wouldn't blame you. Pair of villains these two," He laughs to himself.
Sam smirks and chews her gum. Dean opens a window and lights up a cigarette and the car goes momentarily quiet.
"So where you headed love? Been doing some shopping, going to see the grandchildren, tell us what brings you out here?" asks Dean
Marge's face brakes into a smile and her eyes flick briefly from one face to the next.
"Shopping, grandchildren? That's all you think I am isn't it? Just because I'm old you assume I lead a boring life? Well I'll tell you shouldn't assume you know me just because of the colour of my hair or the year in which I was born. I'm here because I wanted to be here. I'm here because when I got up this morning I thought it would be a nice day for a drive."
Sam snorts from the back seat.
"But weren't you scared that we'd mug you and drive off with your car? What are you going around stopping for strangers at your time of life?"
Marge stops the car gracefully. Her voice remains quiet but authoritative.
"Not all old people are scared you know? Not all of us believe everything we see on the TV or read in the papers. I stopped the car because you were in trouble. Maybe I should have been afraid but I wasn't, there is too much fear in this world as it is and when you get to my age you start to realise that there isn't all that much to fear anyway. Most of us are more similar than we'd care to think. Even you three, you are no different to those people who sneered at you. You stereotyped me as soon as I stopped the car. 'Sweet little old lady, harmless old dear, uninteresting but useful' that's what you were thinking wasn't it?"
"Calm down love, we didn't mean any harm" says dean
"Well if you want people to look through your clothes, and through your appearance maybe it is time you did the same. "
Marge reaches down to the side of her seat and turns to face the travellers.
"I have a gun in my hand. You can get out of my car now"
She holds their gaze calmly, blinking infrequently.
"I don't think you heard me. Are you loosing your hearing already? Perhaps you are older than you think you are."
Dean, Ed and Sam climb out of the car stunned.
As Marge drives off chuckling about "how much fun it is to mess with young people" eating mars bar that she has pulled from the side of the car we see the three of them stood on the roadside, only one battered suitcase between them with a seagull circling overhead.
My friend (I guess I should stop calling him "my friend" and give him a nom de web, so henceforward he shall be known as "Grumpy Scot" because he's grumpy and Scottish) and I have this QOTD -- Question of the Day -- thing that we do in our correspondence. Recently, he asked me, "What was the coolest thing you ever did?"
"Cool" could be the thing that you did that would be most calculated to impress your friends and family and complete strangers. Erm. Well, I once worked in the Los Angeles theatre community and I met a bunch of famous people back then -- actors, directors, playwrights -- and went to cool parties and cool nightclubs and cool restaurants and had access to house seats for every theatre in town, as well as for a lot of theatres in New York City and elsewhere around the country. That seems to impress people, although I didn't then, nor do I now, think it was any big deal. The majority of the "celebrities" I met were egomaniacal and/or neurotic jerks, and I never in all that time met a single one that I'd have chosen for a friend.
"Cool" could be the thing that you did that was most calculated to piss your mother off and demonstrate what a rebel you were. Okay, that would be the day I got tossed out of Disneyland for smoking pot inside the park. To this day I have no idea why I wasn't arrested, but I wasn't. My friends and I were just unceremoniously escorted from the premises by a park cop who wore spats and white gloves, who looked astonishingly like Mickey Mouse, and who was definitely Not Amused when, in fits of hysterical giggles, we pointed that out to him. (Okay. I pointed it out to him.)
"Cool" could be the accomplishment you're proudest of. Pride isn't one of the deadly sins I have a problem with, so I couldn't say what would qualify under this definition.
I could go on, but I think you get my drift. So, for today, I'm going to define "cool" as "something that brought me complete and unconditional and unexpected happiness."
I made a springtime trip to New York City a number of years ago. Not my only trip to NYC, but my most memorable. It was May, and the city was beautiful. I was staying with a friend who worked during the day, so for the week that I was there, I went out on my own during the day to visit museums and such, and then the two of us would meet up in the evening for dinner, theatre, pub crawling, or whatever.
The day I remember was a gorgeous, sunny day, and after a late breakfast I decided to go to Central Park. I took the subway to Columbus Circle and then walked up Central Park West to Strawberry Fields.
I started walking through Strawberry Fields, and I had only gone a short way when I was approached by a little old man. He had to have been well into his eighties. He was dressed from head to toe in green; green fedora, green suit, green tie. He was tiny; I towered over him. I would have fancied him to be an elderly leprechaun except that when he spoke to me, he had a thick German accent. He walked up to me and said, in a very courtly manner, "Excuse me, young lady, but would you mind taking a walk with me?"
I was so... well, surprised and intrigued by him, that I said yes, and so he put his arm through mine, and we took a walk together. We walked and talked for a while, and then we found a bench and sat and talked for a some time longer (or, rather, he mostly talked and I mostly listened.) His name was Maximilian, and he'd lived in New York since he was a young man, when he'd immigrated to the US from Austria. He had been a vaudevillian, and he entertained me for several hours with stories of his days in vaudeville. He was absolutely enchanting, and as I sat with him in that beautiful garden, I felt like I had been spirited away to some magical place by my fairy godfather.
Eventually his wife (a good-humored and very practical woman in sneakers, named Cordelia) showed up and apologized to me for her husband having monopolized my afternoon; apparently, going to the park and finding "young ladies" to chat with was something he did on a regular basis. I assured her that no apology was needed; Cordelia shook my hand, Maximilian kissed me on the cheek, and the two of them walked away together.
She is sorting through her drawers, remembering the way she had been. She strokes tenderly over soft lace and silky smooth secret things that have not felt any other fingers for too many years now. The memory of how those fingers felt was ghostly now, drifting in the wind with the skin that had been hers, skin that slowly over time had dried and flaked, and been replaced, but the fingers had finally stopped trickling back onto this desertifying expanse where once they had danced, ecstatic, an oasis, many nights of campfires burning into the night...
She puts them back, closes that drawer, pulls the next one out. Why had she not been here, in this room, for so many years now? When had she stopped coming? It had simply been like that - a slow migration, unplanned-for and unnoticed, of odd things ultimately unmissed. Each time, a door drawn shut behind her with a sigh: was there sometimes perhaps a tinge of relief mixed in with something else in those breaths expelled and lost? Something perceived at the time as a moving on and beyond, which in retrospect revealed itself as merely a leaving behind, an abandonment. A golden chain that grew too heavy for a while, but oh! How it glitters now, and fills her heart with longing for its chilled weight around a neck which has grown too thick for it through the years.
And so they come, one-by-one but in no particular order, trinkets and clothes, brooches, photo's and hairbands from the time when a blonde ponytail still beat a rhythm upon a back that was always bouncing somewhere fast, somewhere it wanted to be, not felt to obliged to go. Each draws behind it faded fragments of a history half-forgotten but engraved still in the moulded-over impulses that once gave it life.
But when she starts to cry, it is not the photo in her hand, the faces on it young and smiling and half-forgotten now - hers included; hers perhaps most of all - but it is the scene below, through the locked and darkened door and down the stairs which causes the hand to start trembling, the photo to be blackened by a single drop, then by two, then to drift down to the floor as the trembling moves up the arms until everything from the chin downwards is shaking uncontrollably.
Downstairs the men from the parlour is almost finished now, and everything will be looking oh so nice by now, ready for when all the friends will come, unsure - all of them, as she is too - whether to be insincerely sad, or insincerely cheerful as they eye the snacks and hit the whiskey "because that's how Dave would've wanted it to be". She's less sure than ever now that she is ready for all this. In fact, that's not true - for the first time she starts to think at all that she is not ready for this at all.
But at the same time, through the curtains that are not quite closed, a shaft of brightest sunlight hits the dust-strewn floor and effaces the years like that, when it hits the photograph lying there now. There's a magic in a well-lit smile shining from within that survives everything, survives being flattened onto the dull grey of photographic paper, survives the dark years in a bottom drawer, survives forgetting and forgets time, in short. There's a little flame there that will not go out... this smile is calling to her now.
She picks the photo up and it draws the tiniest flicker of a smile from her. All is not lost - it never was. In another drawer are, she remembers suddenly, the ear-rings she is wearing there, in black-and-white that had become shades of grey, the ear-rings he had bought, he who was not in the photograph because he was behind the camera, he who would be dead and still as she was now, if she forgot to remember him as she had forgotten to remember herself as she was there, standing in the sun, smiling at the man she had not really missed until this moment, yet.
She would not do this - she would not let herself die again. She would not. And she'd make sure that he did not either. Today was not yet the funeral, but it was a wake. Oh yes, it had just become one.
There was a knocking at the door. "We are ready, ma'am."
She did not answer immediately - it had been so long that it was hard to fit the studs into the shriveled holes on flaccid lobes. But when the second one slipped in and she screwed it into place, she tilted her head at the politely disinterested voice and smiled as she said: "Yes, thank you dear. I'll be back in a minute."
And as she said, she knew it was true. She'd been away, but she was coming back. She would be there again. She touched the handle of the door, and turned it.
Monday December 30th
I'm on my way to work and, deciding to change my usual route, I walk through Syntagma square and Ermou Street. Spring-like weather is making me feel wonderful for the first time in a long while. A child's crying draws my attention. The balloon he was happily holding a moment ago is now hovering above our heads and in a while it will be but a grey dot in the sky.
That's it - if I could take all the balloons from the street balloon-sellers and set them free above the heads of the startled passers-by, I would do it with great pleasure. However there's nothing in my pockets. Feeling almost like a crazy poet I walk on to my mundane destination.
Stuck in my head is an old psychedelic song with violins, a trumpet and a children's choir that makes you think angels wanted to invite you to heaven and decided to do so with a song. It's Keith West's 'Excerpt from a Teenage Opera'.
Tuesday December 31st (New Year's Eve)
I find a chance to get away from work for a while and go shopping for last minute presents. Where to go but Ermou Street (the obvious choice - the heart of over-consuming society). But as I head uphill among the crowd of manic shoppers the song is all around me. "Excerpt from a teenage opera". There are colourful balloons everywhere, they come in every shape - Pikachu, Mickey Mouse, yellow smiley faces... Now is certainly the time. I make my way to Syntagma Square almost in a trance, occasionally glancing at the people hurriedly passing by, the Santas (and I used to think there was only one) and the poor ponies that have to be photographed with fat children on their back just because they can't shout out "enough!"
Sooner than I thought I find myself there in front of a balloon seller. Looking for a pretty balloon, my heart beating like crazy with eagerness..
"I want the strawberry."
"Shall I tie it to your hand?"
"Ah, I see. You want to let it loose too."
"Seven euros, six just for you."
I walk a little to the crossing and then I lift my hand, open my fingers and that's it. The little strawberry starts flying towards the blue (yes, blue) sky as if it had done so many times before. I look up. Another identical little strawberry waits there. They meet for a while and then they are lost. It is one of the very few magical moments that I feet so free, that I feet I can anything.
Yes, I would like it more than ever to be a child again. Not to be responsible for anything, not to be able to harm anyone, to cry only when I lose my balloon. To be naughty and people to say "it's okay, he's only a child". To come home only when it gets dark, covered up in mud. To stuff my face with chocolate bars, greedily eat ice cream bought with money my grandmother gives me. To secretly pick daisies for the girl that sits next to me in class even though I know she "loves" Kostakis who is tall and whom everyone is scared of. To imagine that I am a super hero and that I will save the world from villains, trying out my uniform on mum and dad's bed. To look at my plate in disgust when we have lentil soup for dinner. To sink into Sunday's melancholy as if it is the last day on earth.
To be in a hurry to grow up not knowing that one day I will wish I were a child again.
Note (from Dimitra): I know this is an Easter issue, not a Christmas issue, but waiting till next Christmas to use this seemed way too long. Also I think I should apologise for anything lost in translation - this is the best I could do!
The occupation of Iraq becomes more similar to the pointless and bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict every day. The horrific killing and mutilation of 4 American security personnel in the Iraqi Sunni Muslim city of Falluja last week was one of the triggers of the current fighting. While this was undoubtedly an atrocity it cannot justify atrocities by American forces before and since. The killings were part of a cycle of revenge attacks which began last April when US forces opened fire on a demonstration against the occupation in Falluja. This was followed by a further American attack on Falluja which killed dozens more civilians. Using tactics taught to them by the Israeli military American forces cut off Falluja and put it under siege.
Recent US air strikes on Falluja carried out in revenge for the killings of the 4 Americans killed at least 16 children. After Iraqi rebels killed over a dozen American soldiers in turn US forces mounted an all out attack on the entire city. Falluja’s main hospital reports at least 280 dead in Falluja alone so far – many are civilians. Across Iraq a cycle of revenge attacks has developed. US commanders have vowed to destroy the Shia and Sunni Muslim Iraqi rebel movements just as Ariel Sharon has vowed to destroy Hamas in Israel.
The obvious solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – repeatedly suggested by successive American and British governments is to grant Palestinians self-government in their own state. Iraqi Kurds already have their own autonomous government in the North. True there has been some violence between Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs – but nothing on the scale of that in the areas occupied by the coalition. Why can’t the rest of Iraq be granted similar regional self-government and elections? Bush’s answer is that they’re not ready – there’s too much violence and there would be a bloodbath. Why is there so much violence? – Because of the occupation and Iraqi opposition to it. No-one could believe that air strikes and ground offensives against entire towns will have any other result than it has had over decades in the occupied territories – more resistance counter-attacks.
Even the US appointed Iraqi Governing Council – a “puppet government” as Robin Cook MP put it, recognise that, in the words of Council member Adnan Pachachi “More violence will cause more violence and this will be an endless spiral”. Shortly before her assassination council member Aquila al-Hashimi warned that the council would have ‘neither authority nor legitimacy’ as long as the US occupation continued. Polls show that less than half of Iraqis have confidence in it. The current plan – to transfer nominal power to the Council on June 30th without ending the occupation – will solve nothing.
The idea of the risk of civil war between Shia and Sunnis is one that the occupying powers are keen to promote. Yet Shias and Sunnis in Iraq are not as extreme as Al Qa’ida. The vast majority see each other as fellow Muslims or Iraqis rather than enemies. Sunnis and Shia have been demonstrating together for elections and an end to the occupation since it began. The Sunni rebels of Falluja and Ramadi have joined forces with the rebellion of the Moqtada Al Sadr’s Shia Army of the Madhi. Thousands of Iraqis – Shia and Sunni – have marched 60 kilometres from Baghdad to Falluja bringing food and medical supplies.
Paul Bremer, the US Governor of Iraq, is still keen to dissuade further demonstrations against the occupation by warning that large gatherings would be a target for further terrorist attacks – making many Iraqis suspicious of his motives and of who is behind these attacks. It was exactly this issue – accusations by the militant Shia newspaper ‘Al Hawza’ that American forces were behind some terrorist bombings – that led Bremer to close it down precipitating the Shia rebellion of the ‘Army of the Madhi’ led by the Moqtada Al Sadr which has now merged with the Sunni rebellion in Falluja and the ‘Sunni triangle’.
Any illusion that the real threat in Iraq is civil war is gone. The real threat is an ever-worsening Israel-Palestine style bloodbath on a vast scale due to the continuing occupation.
The only way to avoid it is to negotiate. Al Sadr is demanding power is transferred to Iraqis not appointed by the occupying powers. Some will argue that he is unelected and attempting, as Bremer puts it, to seek power through the barrel of a gun. Yet isn’t that exactly where the unelected Bremer and his Iraqi Governing Council get their power? The time will never be ‘right’ for elections as far as the occupiers are concerned because they are waiting for the Iraqi people to accept a government which will co-operate in robbing them through a process of privatisation and expropriation of profits which is enshrined in the new constitution.
The coalitions opponents gain support among the growing ranks of the poor, those who have lost relatives and friends to killings by coalition forces and members of the disbanded former Iraqi army who are now unemployed and without pensions or benefits. Even members of the new coalition-trained Iraqi army are defecting. The Moqtada Al Sadr’s ‘Army of the Madhi’ is named after the Shia equivalent of Jesus – another icon who was also meant to defend the poor and oppressed. While the occupying powers claim that the majority of Shia don’t support the Moqtada the most respected moderate Iraqi Shia cleric – the Ayatollah Al Sistani – now openly supports the rebels. It is debatable whether Al Sadr is fit to rule – whether he is a champion of the poor or a potential dictator(the coalition accuses him of having rival clerics assassinated) – but that is something for Iraqis to decide and free elections cannot take place under occupation.
The claim that withdrawing our troops would precipitate a bloodbath is increasingly hollow in the face of the bloodbath that is the occupation. Bush, like Sharon, claims occupation and military strikes will not end until there is peace – knowing well that the only way to achieve peace is to end those same strikes and the occupation.
Shia Muslim pilgrims are gathering in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf where the Moqtada is now heading for the Shia equivalent of Easter. If US forces go ahead with threats made by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to attack the Moqtada in Najaf it will only worsen an endless, pointless spiral of violence.