Noilly Prattle: December 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011

Persian Odyssey: Part V – The Sacrificial Lamb

We returned from doing the tourist thing in and around Hamadan sometime in the afternoon. My student's family planned to honor their “special guest” with a traditional Iranian feast for such occasions and had asked us to return early enough so that they could “prepare” for it.

I was ushered into the living area of the house for refreshments which consisted basically of tea and fruit. I can still see in my mind's eye the baskets of golden fruit on a low table surrounding a red vase of flowers.  

I put my camera on the table next to the baskets of fruit and chatted with family members while sipping tea and munching on an apple. Soon, the men disappeared into the courtyard of the house. I sat around still sipping my tea, munching on the fruit (maybe grapes by now) making polite small talk with the ladies. It wasn't any deep philosophical, and certainly not political, discussion since they spoke no English and my Farsi was rudimentary at best. I was soon rescued by my student who asked me to come into the garden with my camera. I jumped at the chance to escape from the somewhat awkward language problem.

The men of the family were there holding down a bleating frightened-looking sheep. The sheep, it turned out, was to be the main course in the traditional feast in my honor. I must have instantly lost my desert tan and turned several shades of pale for any number of reasons having to do with culinary preferences, but the most shocking element of this whole scene was that they wanted ME to take a bloody picture while they cut the struggling sheep's throat. Aghast and horrified I stammered that I couldn't possibly take such a picture and showed my student how to use the camera while I almost ran back inside the house.

I sat there alone in utter silence (the women of the house had disappeared) praying that the deed would be done as quickly as possible and wondering how I could possibly eat the roast lamb without losing both face and the meat in front of everyone who had been so welcoming to me. Of course (as you may have surmised by now), slaughtering and roasting a fresh lamb is the highest form of honor you can pay an important guest in Iran.

Within minutes my grinning student (holding the rear legs of the sheep looking at the camera in the photo below) came back with the camera apologizing that he couldn't make it work. It was a somewhat complex SLR camera for a novice to use. So, I looked at him, laughed (hysterically, I suppose), took the camera and said: “What the hell!” to myself. Out we went and they proceeded with the slaughtering of the lamb and I took one of the most remarkable pictures I have ever taken. Oh, and yes, the fresh roast lamb was out of this world (as the lamb now was), and no, I didn't disgrace myself.

 the slaughtering of the lamb

To be continued...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Twixt Christmas and New Years

Twas the night, not before, but of Christmas. And all through the house not a sign of Santa could be seen. I at the computer and the SO in the bath, it's hard to believe it's the 25 of December. But not to despair, I've been here before. You see, this is Japan, a Buddhist and Shinto land, where New Years is the big thing and a special cake on the eve of today is what Christmas is all about. Like in the West where December 25 is a time when families get together, January 1, called OSHOGATSU in Japanese, is when Japanese families flung far and wide come home. So, our small family will be together on January 1.

Since a Christmas tree isn't appropriate I decided the combine the spirits of two worlds. A kind of East meets West of the flower world. I tried loosely combining the Japanese art of Ikebana with the decorations of a Christmas tree with the following result. This will be our holiday tree.

So, anonymous, are you hooked on my little cliff hangers? :-D

It gets better. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Persian Odyssey: Part IV – Hamadan

Hamadan, like Damascus in Syria, is thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, built, perhaps, as early as 3000 BC. Around the 6th Century BC it became one of the capitals of the first Persian Empire along with Susa and Persepolis under the Achaemenid kings Cyrus and Darius--both “the Great”. The main purpose of my trip (besides adventure) was to visit the archeological sites of these ancient cities. Hamadan was the first one on my itinerary.

              night view of Hamadan

I had arranged to meet up with one of my IIAA students and visit with his family. So I arrived in Hamadan and, following his written directions, managed to find his family's home. Teachers are held in high esteem in Iran and I was warmly welcomed and treated to every courtesy the family felt I was due as the teacher of their son. I was a little embarrassed at such attention, but secretly basked in it. I was informed that a banquet would be held in my honor that evening. Imagine, a banquet in my honor! Sounds like Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings, doesn't it?

My student and his cousin offered to show me around Hamadan. The most interesting artifact in town is the Ganj Nameh (treasure epistle) carved in granite on the side of Alvand Mountain dating from the 6th Century BC. The inscription is in cuneiform and basically praises the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda (no relation to the automobile of the same name I presume), and brags about the accomplishments of Kings Darius and his son Xerxes. I believe this was before the arrival of a pissed off Alexander the Great. (There seem to have been a lot of “the Greats” around in those days.) They no doubt walked on piles of skeletons to achieve their greatness.

                      Ganj Nameh--Xerxes, how great thou art...

After checking out a few more monuments of more or less interest, we went to the bazaar so that I could buy a few provisions for the next leg of my journey. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't much of the ancient city left to see. Being continuously inhabited tends to obliterate the ruins of preceding eras as new construction is built over the older buildings.

                    suburb of Hamadan and Alvand Mountain and cousin

                       outside the Hamadan bazaar

inside the Hamadan bazaar

By late afternoon we returned to my students home where I got the first shock of my trip.

To be continued.... 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Presents

I got a great Christmas present today. A gift of color, light and beauty. And it didn't cost a dime. But it is a priceless gift because it is from the heart of an old and dear friend who seemed to know instinctively what I would love to get for Christmas.

Call me Scrooge, but the ongoing collapse of the consumer shop-till-you-drop economy on maxed out credit cards got me to thinking about the value of the compulsive present buying that starts the day after Thanksgiving and goes on relentlessly until Christmas Eve. It seems to me that the more frenetic the shopping for ever more presents the less value is placed on any one of them in a kind of inverse ratio. I have seen people almost robot like open one present after another, hardly look at it, and then tear into the next one in the same robotic manner. Their self worth seemingly in proportion to the quantity and not the quality of the gifts.

Scrooge was a miser not so much of money as of the human spirit. When he bought a huge goose for the Cratchet family, he was not so much opening his purse, but his heart. The message of Dickens story is that a true gift benefits both the giver and the receiver.

As my old friend shared this gift of light and beauty with me, so I pass it on to you dear friends.

Click on the title to see this beautiful gift. If it doesn't raise your spirits, then maybe you need a visit by the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future.

                       Oh, and here is one more tree and, of course, me.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Can you see the resemblance?

I was doing a project with papier mache and paper clay in one of my elementary art classes a while back. I hit on the idea of using PET bottles to make it easier for the kids to work with the material. But I realized that it was such fun that I got carried away in my spare time and went hog wild. This little bust is the result of the fit of madness. The eyes are green marbles imbedded in the paper clay. I stained the whole bust with an oil-based maple stain and rubbed tempera blended to resemble a copper patina over the stain. Finally I varnished the whole thing.

Persian Odyssey: Part III – A Sense of Space

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness...” So wrote the 19th Century Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. He was describing how in any relationship people need the space to be who they are without one dominating and manipulating the other. Well and good. But have you ever thought about your own personal space. Where are the boundaries of the space we occupy on this planet? It can be almost non-existent as in sex; it can include largely ignored physical contact in a crowded subway car; a few inches or feet as in a friendly conversation. But when you are alone in the desert where you are vulnerable in the extreme, how close is too close for comfort?

I had an opportunity to discover my own personal boundaries and those of strangers encountered in the wilderness soon after I started out on my desert odyssey. I had stopped for the day and was camping on a mountainside overlooking a village off in the distance below me. Here is a photograph I took at sunset shortly before the incident. 

It was around dusk. I had set up my tent and finished my evening meal and it was beginning to get dark. I was relaxing with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and enjoying the view when I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye on the slope below me. Being alone and feeling vulnerable I kept a close eye on the motion until it coalesced into a recognizable configuration. It was a small group of people climbing up directly in my direction. Remember that the Islamic Revolution was already underway and foreign interests were being targeted and I was obviously a foreigner and alone. I did carry a knife for protection, but it would have been useless against a group if their intentions were unfriendly. It was already too late to strike camp and take off.

I didn't know if they knew I was there or actually had some purpose in coming up the hillside at that hour of the evening. It was getting fairly dark and it was possible that they hadn't seen me. I decided the most sensible thing to do was to make my presence known while they were still far enough away not to be overly startled. They, including some goats, were still coming directly towards me. When they were at a certain distance I stood up and said: “Good evening” in Farsi, the Iranian language. It seemed as if two magnets of the same polarity had suddenly pushed against each other. To my relief, they acted surprised and answered politely and began to veer off the straight line towards me and moved in an arc at a safe distance and continued nonthreateningly on their way. To feel secure I needed to know why they were there and asked them where they were going. They said that they were going to another village, that I wasn't yet aware existed, on the other side of the mountain . Somewhat relieved I said: “Salaam Alaikum,” (Peace be unto you) and they continued on their way. It took me a while to fall asleep though. I kept listening for returning footsteps from the village on the other side of the mountain.

But no, peace was still unto me in the morning. I ate some breakfast, had a smoke, broke camp and continued on to Hamadan where I would visit the family of one of my students.


To be continued....

Monday, December 12, 2011

Persian Odyssey: Part II – Preliminaries

A couple of the stops on my itinerary started at the class picnic. My class completed their course of study in basic English communication and specialized helicopter-related vocabulary in their IIAA cadet training program and were granted leaves if absence before the start of their helicopter flight training. (I was to start as an in-flight language “troubleshooter” after my trip, but that's a story for another time.)

Iranians love picnics which they hold in green belts—oases of a kind in an otherwise desert environment. Such a green belt in Esfahan runs along the Zayandeh Rudh (River) that bisects the city. One of the city's architectural gems, the Si-o-se Pol (33 Arch Bridge) crosses the river connecting the northern and southern parts of the city.

    Si-o-se Pol over the Zayandeh Rudh

In the course of our graduation picnic I told the students about my intended trip and they invited me to visit their homes since they would be visiting their families during their leaves. Two of them lived in towns that were on my itinerary (Hamadan and Kermanshah) and I said I would be delighted to visit their Iranian homes and families.

The day of my departure finally arrived. I had rigged the Yamaha with two enormous bags designed for carrying things on camels. Yes, really! I had to carry everything I would need for survival in the desert—both my survival and the bike's. I intended to camp out when not staying at students' homes, so I needed a tent and cooking paraphernalia. I would pick up provisions at bazaars along the route. I had to carry tools and some spare parts for the bike in case of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere (except the one thing that I eventually needed and had to ride on on a wing and a prayer without).  

my silver Yamaha Enduro 250cc. rigged for the journey

The first leg of my journey took me northwest out of Esfahan toward Hamadan. Click on the title to see Google Map.

To be continued....

Friday, December 9, 2011

You're Santa Claus

I guess you've sort of arrived when you can play Santa Claus without a costume. I had the unexpected thrill of discovering this dubious “honor” the other day. I am retiring from my current employment situation. I was doing a publicity gig for my next incarnation as a private part-time teacher at my friend's English language day school here in our town. It was a photo-op for next year's public relations brochure to introduce me as doing sort of “celebrity” appearances teaching Art, story telling and tutoring Japanese returnees (kids who have lived abroad and attended school there in English). To kick off the lesson in cartoon drawing I asked if any of the kids in attendance knew me. One of the little girls who is a 1st Grader at the school where I have taught Art for 19 years raised her hand and said: “You're Mr. B.” She was right. Although I don't teach the 1st Grade all the students know me as Mr. B. Another, older boy, who doesn't attend my school, said: “You're Santa Claus.” I said: “Well, thanks a lot.” And muttered to myself: “Well, you ARE pushing 70 after all.”

Well, OK, enough BS. This is all by way of saying HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all and to all a Good Morning. It's 10 a.m. here.

                                                      I added the hat

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Persian Odyssey: Part I

I had a dirt bike in Iran. It was a silver 250cc. Yamaha Enduro. Actually, it was my second bike. The first one had been stolen right from my courtyard. It was a royal blue 250cc. Yamaha Enduro. In my eyes, the silver one could never match the beauty of the royal blue one. I learned to ride on the royal blue, but I became a veteran off-road and back-road rider on the silver Enduro.

It was the fateful year, 1978, of the Islamic Revolution and I was living and working in Esfahan, said to be the most beautiful city in Iran. Much of its architectural beauty derives from the 16th Century when it was Persia's capital under the Safavid dynasty. But, no, I wasn't there researching 16th Century Persian architecture. I was indirectly working for the hated Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, although we only heard rumors about his tyrannical regime. We were to learn the truth soon and brutally enough.

My work was teaching English to cadets of the Imperial Iranian Army Aircorps who were in the helicopter pilot training program at the army base outside Esfahan. On the right are some of my colleagues on a picnic on the banks of the Zayandeh Rudh. After a few months of classroom study, the graduates would undergo Bell helicopter flight training, using their rudimentary English conversation skills, with American instructor pilots (who, of course, couldn't speak Farsi—imagine!), and who were fresh from the napalm runs of the Vietnam War. When my class graduated I decided to take a 7-day solo trip on the Yamaha that would take me to  the sites of the summer, winter and ceremonial capital cities of the ancient (circa. 500 BC) Persian Empire: Hamadan, Susa and Persepolis.

By then the early convulsions of the revolution had already begun. There had been fire bombings in Eshahan of places that were considered sinful to Islamic sensibilities, but popular with Western expatriates and the younger more progressive elements of the native population—movie theaters, nightclubs, bars and restaurants; as well as a few banks for good measure. Gunfire could be heard nightly outside the thankfully high walls of our house, including machine gun fire. By morning, however, the streets had been cleared of any bodies that might have fallen the previous night. Some of my friends warned me against traveling alone under the circumstances, but I couldn't resist a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these historic places. The trip turned out to be one of the most dangerous but unforgettable experiences of my life.

To be continued....

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Throw Away Old Ladies Mountain

It sounds better in Japanese: obasuteyama 叔母捨て山」」. In modern American slang we might say “throw grandma under the bus”. There is a legend in Japan about this mountain for discarding no longer productive people over 70-years old. Did such a strange custom really happen? The legend has been made into a classic movie titled “Narayama Bushiko” (The Ballad of Narayama) twice, in 1933 and 1983. It takes place in rural Japan sometime in the unspecified past. The original film was shot in pre-war Japan in sort of a mixed western play and Kabuki style. The 1983 version is filmed in a more natural world and is rather explicit in some of the scenes. It's basically a story of survival and family relationships in a subsistence level society.

The time has come for two of the old villagers to go to Mt. Nara to die—one willingly the other not. They must be carried by the eldest son just before the first snow flies so that they will not have anything to eat and potentially survive on the mountain. It is a very moving tale of what it really means to be alive and human in a world of scarcity where an extra mouth to feed can mean hardship for an entire family.

Click on the title for a trailer of the 1983 version with English subs.