Friday, November 30, 2007

Last weekend, we finally made our first foray out of Cairo since arriving back in the city in August. And not a moment too soon: as busily as we have been marching toward the end of our 3rd semester here, I have still had time to notice the persistent fog of haze clinging over the city. Is it me, or does it seem worse this fall than it did last year? It didn’t help that hot temperatures lingered into November, packing in the particles. Also not helping: leaded gasoline, the burning of rice fields and garbage, living in a valley.

And yet, what plagues me about life in Cairo implies one of the tremendous benefits of leaving the city. In Egypt, where everything is out of proportion, where most people live on a thin strip of land, leaving the city means leaving behind the stink and the hazy air. Things seem unspoiled. The air is crisp and clear, the sky deep bottomless blue, the sun golden on the craggy, sea-side mountain face. Did I mention the clean air?

Our trip took us a couple of hours out of Cairo, along the Gulf of Suez with its persistent ships approaching or departing the Suez Canal. We visited two very old Christian monasteries, the Monastery of St. Anthony (now with adjoining cave) and the Monastery of St. Paul, the pimped-out Vegas strip of monasteries. These monasteries are still active, populated by many devout and stylish monks who wear black habits and skull caps, and long beards—who also use their BlackBerries to communicate with the outside world and wear fashionable, coordinating sunglasses.

The saints after whom these monasteries are named escaped religious persecution in Cairo and Thebes back in the day, settling in the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert, a few kilometers from the Red Sea. Following their deaths (of old age), the monasteries were built in their names and have continued to thrive, despite many assaults from Bedouins over the centuries. These monasteries, in fact, have the look of an ancient fortress. Both are protected by high walls, and each has at its center an ancient “keep,” surrounded a moat, where the monks would retreat if their outer walls had been breached.

Today, these active monasteries are protected by the Egyptian government—which I admire, given that the country is now overwhelmingly Islamic. There is one road in to each of these monasteries, and our bus had to stop at a checkpoint, manned as usual by some of Egypt’s finest. The roads extended for miles into the desert, to the foot of mountains where the St. Anthony and St. Paul kept safe in their lifetimes. Inside their walls is a thriving and largely self-sufficient community of Christian monks, giving tours, driving construction equipment, tending gardens, baking bread, splashing unsuspecting agnostics with holy water from the springs that sustained these monasteries for so long.

I have visited some historically significant Christian churches and cathedrals in Europe and America, but I found my sense all things Christian heightened at these places. It was like entering another world, one half-familiar to me. Gone were the minarets, the rounded structures, the open air prayer rooms, of Islamic architecture, which (of course) dominate the landscape throughout Egypt. Instead I saw icons of the saints after whom the monasteries are named, of Jesus himself. I saw it next to Arabic script, as I heard Arabic spoken around me, in the soft, compliant voices of the monks whose homes we were visiting. I sensed, as these monks must have, that these monasteries were safe havens now, protected, their place in Egypt secure. I found myself admiring the monastic life I saw around me, so different from the bustling city just two hours away. Even though the monks buy olive oil from the grocery rather than press their own olives, even though they drive moving equipment and depend upon generators to provide one fundamental of modern life—electricity—their lives are not significantly different than those of monks who have lived at these monasteries for generations dozens of generations. I admire people who live the lives of their convictions, even if I don’t share those convictions myself.

With one caveat—the Monastery of St. Paul. The place itself is ancient, but it is fairly bursting with pilgrims and tourists, much more so than St. Anthony’s. When we pulled up to St. Paul’s, we were confronted with a large but poorly-conceived parking lot built on a hill, which was already half-full with tour buses. As we approached the entrance to the monastery, we passed a roiling gift shop that sold such things as toy machine guns (one little boy had the gall to point and shoot at me, but couldn’t keep firing long enough for me to snap a photograph) and loud religious-esque music blaring from speakers. Inside, we had to squeeze among other tour groups as we visited St. Paul’s relics, gathered into a child-sized coffin covered with a sheet of clear plastic—and the ancient spring, the presence of which our monk guide claimed cannot be explained.

The parking lot at St. Anthony’s, on the other hand, was virtually empty. When we climbed the modern stairwell up the mountainside, ascending to the cave where St. Anthony retreated from persecution, I had to stop a few times, calves burning, lungs belching forth the sediment of three uninterrupted months in Cairo. After reaching the top and squeezing into the narrow cave where the man had lived, after collapsing on the rocks and breathing in the fresh, thin air, I looked over the precipice where we all sat and, for the life of me, I couldn’t see another living soul:


Friday, November 09, 2007

Props for Sari

Hey, guess what? We're still in Africa. In honor of that, you should go to this selection from Brevity, an excellent journal of short nonfiction and a spin-off of Creative Nonfiction, and both of these mags are primo to get into. Anyway, indulge with this great piece of Sari's, which I've always loved:


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Another meme – this time from Kate at I’m supposed to put down five writing strengths. As a result, this is more like a note to myself, or an affirmation.

1. I try to treat characters fairly and realistically, whether they are fictitious or real.
2. I’m good at describing the region I’m from without sounding totally sentimental.
3. Like Kate, I’m not married to my sentences. I love to cut, edit, and revise. I get a kick out of putting a big X through a whole page. Revision is discovery.
4. Rejection (of the literary journal brand & otherwise) has made me a better writer. One beautiful morning, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg edited every sentence of the eight-page piece I had submitted. I had been hoping to dazzle him into inviting me to write for the New York Times. However, he informed me that I had no idea how to write a sentence. I was in an MFA program, pursuing my second English degree. But he was right. It wasn't personal, either, because he proceeded to say the same thing to all the other MFA students who got to meet with him. Klinkenborg, you pissed people off, but I love you!
5. I don’t get in a hurry about finishing a piece of writing. A lot of books I read feel rushed, as if the heady, ephemeral whiff of publication were the only thing driving the writing.

Tagged: James! Bryan! Stephanie (! Sari!


Friday, November 02, 2007

Yesterday, Anne Lamott, author of Bird By Bird (a book about writing), novels, and memoirs, visited the university. J and I were invited to a roundtable discussion with her in the afternoon, and we got to invite some of our students, too. Lamott is an intriguing woman – just look up any biographical information about her and you’ll begin to see the multifaceted nature of her persona.

Last night, she gave a lecture in Oriental Hall. As Lamott was escorted in, she whipped out a disposable camera and began to take pictures of the beautiful room. She proclaimed that she wanted to live there, in that room, for the rest of her life. Me too. Oriental Hall is indeed impressive and lavish, so indescribable that I refuse to try.

She began by speaking about all the things that had baffled her upon arrival in Cairo, the kinds of things J and I were writing about in our earliest posts. It was fun to hear the raw response of someone who had just arrived. Also, it was wonderful to listen to a writer speak, to listen to a writer tell her audience of budding readers and writers all about the joys and heartbreak of writing, to tell them some of the things J and I have come to understand and some of the things we have not fully experienced but have already heard much about (like the fact that publication is not really a ticket to anywhere, even if your book is successful). But we hadn’t heard stuff like this for a long time. This was the kind of thing we had constant access to at home, but here, not so much. This lack of access is both a relief and a loss. For me, yesterday, it was enough to watch some of my students see an aspect of the literary world for the first time. I remember that feeling, and I did catch my breath when dreadlocked Lamott walked into the discussion room that afternoon.

There were questions at the end of the lecture last night. The final question was from a young Jordanian woman who said she had known all her life that she wanted to write, but that she was afraid to work on the novel she had had brewing in her head for some time. She was afraid of failure; she was afraid that she would never do it. Lamott asked her about the novel – if she knew where it was set, the characters, etc. The young woman had specific answers. Lamott looked at the young woman, really looked right at her, as if they were having a private conversation, and told her to go home after this and write for an hour. She told her that if she didn’t do that, tonight, she would never write this book. She joked that she would be watching her.

I don’t know why this moved me so much, but it did. The delivery of Lamott’s words, of course, greatly mattered – her style is casual and kooky and seemingly a ramble, though it is clear she knows where she is headed as she makes her points. The effect she creates is that she is human and fallible and not always certain about her writing and her life. So I think that the reason Lamott so often has a packed house when she goes on tour or lectures is not so much her practical advice but her attitude in presenting that advice. She is eccentric and warm. She is proud of her accomplishments without sounding like a big jerk – for instance, she said she had a “gift with words” more than once yesterday, and, though this sort of thing usually makes me ill, from her it sounded just fine. She looks people in the eye. And she listens to them talk about their own love of writing or reading – she listens to them publicly speak about the 300 pages of their first novels, and she listens to us neophytes try to publicly piece together and declare our penchant for writing – without giving even a whiff that she has heard this so many millions of times before that she could scream and that her writing is eminently more important, thank you very much. Also, her particular sense of humor eschews the kind of irony so popular these days from a literary world that feels threatened by waning public interest. She just doesn’t do any of that crap. I’ve only met a couple of writers like that. Charles Baxter (who is not at all like Lamott) gets the big golden trophy for it, of course.