A year ago in Srinagar – A moment of beauty

IMG_20140123_110450It started last night, around midnight, when we went out on a whim looking quite hopelessly for three cigarettes. We took the car and drove through the deserted city: the two of us, four cows and a bunch of scrawny stray dogs.

Rain mixed with snow started to fall – slowly, while the street dotted with potholes became a blurry mirror for the occasional lamp post.

Four men clad in their pheran drunk tea around the gas stove in the little kiosk by the hospital.

Without getting out of the car, we pulled the window down and asked: “Do you have cigarettes?”

One of the men shook his head without uttering a word.

We kept going, looking for another possible place.

“The snow will never stay”, I said almost thinking out loud. “The ground is too wet…”

“Let’s see”, he replied, concerned more with the lack of cigarettes than with the weather forecast.

When we woke up this morning, we were greeted by a city covered by more than twenty centimeters of soft snow.

“It is so peaceful”, I said with a smile.

Let’s hope it lasts”, he replied without adding anything else.

Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

Fat flakes, too heavy to swirl in the wind. Flakes that fall with determination and stay in the exact place where they landed. Purposeful flakes that have no intention to stop.

In the garden, there is a twitchy tree that seems to carry with extreme patience the burden of time and of the temporary white cloak that covers it. On the streets, the ancient chinar trees resemble dervishes with tired arms lifted to the sky, made heavy by the weight of the snow and by the little birds that rest in the cold, perked at their edges.

Sounds are muffled, shape smoothened; the snow-clad landscape offers an unexpected sense of tranquillity. A silent inner comfort. And awe for this perfect yet transitory beauty.

I had not been back in Srinagar for more than a year and had started to miss it. I could not have wished for a better welcome.

Here, as much as in Kabul, these moments of beauty surprise me.

It is, however, a beauty that is as profound as it is deceiving.

Snow offers the momentary gift of relief and lightness even if it does not make tanks, coils of concertina wire and check-point barriers less frightening.

Khaakbaad

L’autunno a Kabul è una stagione preziosa. Mentre scrivo, vedo nel giardino le ultime rose: quelle ancora fiorite sono rosa e rosse; i tre alberi di mele cotogne carichi di frutti che stanno pian piano maturando; la pergola con i pochi grappoli d’uva che hanno resistito alla grandinata dell’altro giorno; e le macchie rosso sangue dei frutti del melograno, piccoli quest’anno, ma pieni di succo.

La percezione del cambiamento è quotidiana, annunciata in modo teatrale da mezzora di grandine. Chissà perché solo una all’anno, la terza da quando sono qui, veloce e violenta segna il passaggio da una stagione all’altra.

La temperatura si abbassa, le giornate si accorciano, mi ostino a dormire ancora con la finestra aperta e ad uscire senza calzini – anche perché mi sono dimenticata le scarpe in Italia, ma questa è un’altra storia.

Con l’autunno arrivano anche le tempeste di sabbia, che qui hanno anche un nome tutto loro, khaakbaad, che letteralmente significa vento di polvere. Anche queste improvvise e passeggere – coprono tutto di una coltre marroncina, una tosse, uno starnuto e vanno via. Poi tornano, ma il passaggio è sempre breve e mai annunciato.

Mi domando perché finisco sempre per andare a vivere in paesi in cui le tempeste di sabbia sono una parte integrante del paesaggio e della conversazione.

Sono passati esattamente sei anni dal primo bollettino che ho spedito, era il 14 ottobre del 2008, e allora come adesso scrivo di tempeste di sabbia. Buffo.

Sei anni fa, raccontavo così le mie prime impressioni di Erbil:

Montagne e deserto… una combinazione incredibile e mozzafiato che non smette mai di sorprendere: le montagne si alzano all’improvviso sempre un po’ inafferrabili attraverso la foschia. L’aria infatti non è mai limpida; una sabbia del colore e della finezza della cipria copre ogni cosa e rende l’aria quasi palpabile (e i miei capelli della consistenza della paglia…)”

Montagne, deserto e tempeste di sabbia: strani elementi ricorrenti che danno forma e colore a tutti questi anni di viaggi, simboli inaspettati delle mie nomadi geografie dell’affetto.

Khaakbaad

Autumn in Kabul feels very special.

As I write I see in the garden the last blooming roses, the ones that are left are red and pink. The three quince trees are full of ripening fruits; the grapes that survived the hailstorm are waiting to be picked; and the blood-red pomegranates, which are smaller this year, are full of juice.

In this time of the year you can feel the changes day after day. The season begins quite theatrically announced by a hailstorm that lasts just about half an hour. I wonder why hailstorms only happen once a year – it is the third since I arrived, they are quick and violent and they visibly mark the passage between the seasons.

After the storm, in fact, temperature drops, days become shorter, yet I still insist in sleeping with an open window and wear no socks – well, also because I forgot my shoes in Italy, but that’s a different story…

Autumn brings with dust storms, which here have their own name: khaakbaad that literally means wind of dust. Even these storms are sudden and transient – they cover everything in a brownish coat, trigger a cough, a sneeze and then go. But they come back, once again sudden, and always unannounced.

I wonder why I always end up living in places where dust storms are an integral part of the landscape and the conversation.

It is exactly six years since I sent out my first bulletin, it was the 14th of October 2008, then like now I wrote about sand storms. Funny.

Six years ago, in that first bulletin, I wrote about my first impressions of Erbil:

Here is all mountains and desert: an incredible and breathtaking combination that keeps surprising me. Mountains rise all of a sudden, a bit blurred in the murky air. The sky is never clear: there is always a fine and powdery sand that covers everything, making air almost palpable – and my hair feeling like straw.”

Mountains, deserts and dust storms: strange recurring elements that give shape and colour to all these years of travels, unexpected symbols of my nomadic geographies of affection.

Seasons in the Garden of Fidelity

This piece was first published in Chapati Mystery

AUTUMN

Anar

Anar is the Persian for pomegranate. It is one of those fascinating words that travel in space and time: from the Middle East to India through Afghanistan, anar is a word used in Farsi, Kurdish, Dari, Urdu and Hindi.

There is something magic and poetic to the pomegranate: it is a fruit full of symbolic meanings and is present in mythological accounts all across the world. For ancient Romans and Greeks it is the fruit of the underworld; for Christianity it represents resurrection after suffering; in Judaism it is a symbol of fertility and of the Promised Land; in the Quran it is mentioned as one of the examples of the beautiful things that God created.

In the last few years, pomegranate has been a constant presence in my life: it strangely became associated to life in a country in conflict as well as to the positive sensations of the small pleasures that make life special.

The taste of pomegranate is connected to vivid and precise memories of places and moments in time.

After her first trip to Palestine, my mother came home fascinated by the discovery of the freshly pressed pomegranate juice. Its unforgettable colour, its rich and thirst-quenching flavour. While talking, we realised that in different points in time, both my mum and I had pomegranate juice at the same stall: in East Jerusalem, in the Old City, just to the right of the Damascus Gate.

In Kurdistan pomegranate is the pride of Halabja – the city that has become the symbol of the Kurdish genocide and claims to have the best anar in the world. The flavour of the pomegranate I had there is, in fact, hard to forget. On top of a hill, in the golden light of sunset, after a visit to the cemetery where the victims of Saddam Hussain’s gas attack are buried, with Ayub who worked for the New York Times and told us about the bombs over Baghdad during the Second Gulf War.

And now in Afghanistan, where pomegranate help remember the passing of time, as one of the signs of the changing seasons. When Radio Capital journalist asked me a few days ago what will be the flavour I will miss the most once I will leave Afghanistan I answered: “Pomegranate” without even thinking. I had the first of the season – the special one from Kandahar – talking about the future with Andrea, in the garden of his house in Herat. And again under a pergola in Istalef, a little village nested on the mountains: we picked the fruit from the tree and ate it while looking over the valley suspended in time.

WINTER

Paraphrasing Marquez. Snow in the time of war.

It started to snow yesterday evening. My first snowfall in Kabul. It started slowly with small flakes that grew bigger through the night until dawn, when the city was entirely covered in white.

This morning I go out early, on my own.

There are very few people on the street. The fresh snow allows me to negotiate my path between the frozen road and the non existing footpaths. The uncertainty of my steps forces me to look down, towards the dirty mix of snow, smog and ice, in search for stability and safety.

It takes me a deep breath and a bit of self control to realise that I am missing out and to lift my eyes off the ground.

And once again the city surprises me with the poetry of its unexpected beauty. What surrounds me pays me back for these efforts.

With my nose upwards and snowflakes on the lenses of my specs: it’s all right – I tell myself – even if it takes fifteen minutes to walk five hundred meters and a bit of breathing to fight the fear of slipping and falling: it’s all right.

A boy with a green woollen hat smiles and says hello. Salaam, I reply.

It is all so beautiful.

The softened sounds: the magic of silence in a place where the noise of traffic and helicopters dominates the soundscape. The icy embroidery on the naked branches of the trees: a delicate parenthesis in a city scarred by bombs first and by the bad taste of the post war reconstruction later.

A car runs past me sloshing brown snow all over and pulls me out of my reverie. I wonder what army tanks covered in snow may look like, I wonder if the white coat may make them look less scary.

The brown slosh is a powerful coming back to my present: a reminder that is important to think of beauty in relation to its context and that is important not to forget to keep looking around.

SPRING

Quasi Fellini

Dedicated to Pierce O’ Broin

Rain, rain. A slow and cold rain. It is supposed to be spring, but it seems it has gone hiding somewhere. The dull grey sky paints an eerie atmosphere that looks like one of Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings.

Kabul is strangely beautiful in this light.

Mud softens the sound of our steps, I have the displacing feeling of looking at myself from the outside.

The camera is set on black and white.

Pierce and I walk on the street trying to avoid puddles. It feels like stepping into the Afghan version of a Fellini movie.

Quasi Amarcord. Including Nino Rota’s soundtrack.

Below the hill of Tappeh-ye Maranjan sprawls the whole of Kabul. This is where people go to fly kites on a Friday afternoon. In a makeshift market of improvised stalls, car booths are full of colourful kites and children crouching next to torn rugs balanced between a stone and a puddle sell spools of bright red, blue, green string. There is a cart selling strawberries and one selling popcorn, a cart selling ice cream, one dates and one sunflower seed.

A group of kids with extremely long brooms pointing at the sky run around trying not to trip over the colourful strings.

– What are the brooms for?

– Look over there.

In the kite war, kids use the brooms to get hold of the falling kites – these are the kite runners, bedraggled and with broken shoes. They run and laugh and shout.

A few steps away there is a merry-go-round: a green pole with green arms and small dangling planks of wood. Boys and girls get hold of ropes and planks – when they are all ready, a man grabs one of the arms of the merry-go-round and starts running in circles. Round and round; faster and faster. Feet lift off the ground, legs get a tighter hold of the rope, a hand brushes the ground. Round and round; faster and faster.

A black, menacing cloud surprises us from behind. Rain coms fast. People start running to avoid getting soaked in the storm. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

A different afternoon, a different hill. The ame black and white photos, the same persistent rain.

On Wazir Akbar Khan hill, in the north of the city, there is a swimming pool. Empty but freshly painted, it has three diving boards with bright yellow ladders: a strident contrast to the infinite shades of brown and grey of the city and the sky. Empty, but full of memories: it is rumoured that the Taliban used the highest diving board to execute political prisoners. A deadly jump with a stunning view and the city and the mountains as witnesses.

Outside the swimming pool there are reels of razor wire and a military barrack.

A girl walks past eating chips; she has a sailor’s hat and a coat of the same shade of blue as the pool.

Fellini. Amarcord. Nino Rota.

A few steps and a few puddles away, beyond the soft mud, there are the carcasses of two Soviet tanks; rusty, derelict, abandoned.

We look for the right angle for a photo.

In the background on the top the silhouettes of the diving boards, then the razor wire, the military barrack, the tanks looking over Kabul.

Untitled. Landscape with Soviet tank.

Rain becomes colder. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

 

SUMMER

The eye of God. Kabul from above.

Dedicated to T.M.

Earlier this morning I sent him a photo I took last night: three dots – two yellow and one orange – in a black background. This is all my phone could record of the stunning view of Kabul I was surprised with.

Maybe you should delete it. The one in your mind’s will always be brighter.” Comes his response.

It is one of our usual early morning email exchanges. We generally talk about writing and the small, cherished details that life in Kabul offers us: they would be soon transformed into written words. Like the little bird that the guards keep at the entrance of the compound, or the policeman who stops the taxi driver to offer him dates to break the fast during Ramadan.

The last email of this morning’s thread ends with these words and no salutation: “Everything in Kabul is caged… the women, the birds, the bookstore, the city itself”. He is referring to his own writings and I can see the expression of his eyes while I read these words – very serious, concerned, almost stern and yet mixed with a glint of excitement for the new discovery – I could hear the intonation of his voice had he spoken them.

As I read his words, my eye fill with last night’s breathtaking view of Kabul. A friend invited us for dinner, she had anticipated that the rooftop terrace was what made her fall in love with her new house, she also mentioned that it would be the best place in town to spot the exact location of bombs and attacks as they may happen. I recorded the information without really making sense of it. Until last night.

We climb up the spiral stair case and an immense sky opens over our heads. We are on the seventh floor of a building in the very heart of the city: Kabul surrounds us in all her beauty.

I stand in the wind and turn on my feet, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, the city is all around me: I feel happy and free and blessed with opportunity to experience a moment like this.

A gigantic orange moon is rising above the hills; I am surprised by the amount of little, dim lights: I was not expecting the hills to be so densely populated. The hills embrace that side of town as a crescent, they look like a necklace full of sparkling precious stones: an unintended homage to the wealth of this country.

There is something peaceful and liberating about the view. Kabul is not a city in a cage, this is a city that secretly hatches hope and the possibility of change. It is a city that is growing, aggressive and resilient, powerful in all the potentials that are yet to be revealed.