All right, all right. Two weeks ago I went to a Turkish Opera and Ballet performance, and for two weeks I've been trying to hammer out a blog on the event itself. And I can't get it right, to capture exactly how fantastically hilarious the whole event was, and at this point if I don't publish it, I never will. But the blog is just a journal, and I want to at least have some semblance of a memory of this event, so I'm going to slap it up on the blog without it being what I want. Take that as fair warning that this piece can be ignored. So then:
It's not every day that an invitation to the Turkish Embassy comes down the pipeline, and it's further not every day that the basis of the invitation is Turkish Opera and Ballet.
Let's get this out of the way: I love ballet. I'm able to make that statement because I've been to a ballet (Coppelia), once, when I was 18. Likewise, I love Opera because of my attendence, once, of a performance at Catholic University (of The Magic Flute, but for pretension's sake I always refer to it in the original German as Die Zauberfloete).
As you can see, my ballet and opera credentials are impressive. And what could be more exciting than going to a ballet AND opera, without even having to pretend that you know anything about it? Because let's be perfectly honest for a moment: there's no one on the planet who knows a damn thing about Turkish fine arts.
The evening, we found out, was to be divided: three ballet presentations (classical, demi-classical, and modern), followed by "folklorama opera." I, a gigantic fan of all-words-ending-in-rama, was pretty stoked. A lady from the Marriott, who had sponsored the event and provided the sound equipment and catoring, gave a brief speech worshipping the Turkish Ambassador, and mentioned that everything had been ruined by the massive electrical storm the night before. But they fixed everything, she informed us, because "we are the Marriott. And this is what we do."
What exactly was it that they do? Let's take this piece by piece:
One tends to forget that no matter how western and secular one is, living and working in a Muslim country is going to lead, unconsciously, to becoming a bit more conservative in one's views. So when the opening ballet presentation (a 3-minute version of Swan Lake, condensed for the attention deficit) hit the stage, I think we all had pretty much the same thought: Oh my god, that's a penis. You forget that ballet costumes are pretty much just saran-wrap for the crotch.
Enter the Turkish Ballet, and the end of this pandering to the West with well-established choreography and story-lines like Swan Lake. To set the stage: a blank backdrop with a single roman-style arc de triomphe-esque arch painted on it; under the arch, a half-circle was cut out of the wooden panel, and a sheet was draped over and through it.
This sheet, we found out during the ballet, was in fact the birth canal. Chew on that for a moment, remembering that we're in a Muslim country.
So then, the demi-classical ballet's story centered around a father (dressed in Soviet-style baggy clothes with requisite pork-pie hat, sort of like Newsies meets Stalin), and his lovely wife. The wife and husband danced around in the extasy of their love for one another, with mom clutching her stomach from time to time. After about ten minutes of the prance-n-stomachclutch, she entered the above-mentioned cloth uterus and gave birth to a fully-grown ballerina. This ballerina-sized infant, swathed entirely in white spandex, then spent the rest of the opera in the fetal position, as one would expect from a newborn; a hard role to play, certainly, but she was quite skillful.
The mother dies in childbirth, and the rest of the opera features the father attempting to find a wet nurse who can keep his child in milk. The search for a wet nurse was interpreted fairly literally by the other ballerinas, who spent quite a bit of time grabbing their breasts and then pushing outward to demonstrate how much they'd like to be giving milk; the constraining burden of poverty meant a deficit of milk, though, and this was demonstrated by retracting the arms and re-clutching the breasts. You know, like you do. Dad, desperate to find a wet nurse, even goes so far as to try to pass off the kid on such undesirables as an old woman with a wonky leg, and a blind ballerina, neither of which ever managed to pass milk muster.
Ultimately, dad's about to give up on the kid and leave it for dead when mom suddenly re-appeared in the birth canal to remind him of his fatherly duties. He then swings his ballerina-sized newborn back onto his shoulders and continues the search for a wet nurse.
Color commentary was provided in perfect deadpan by Refugee coordinator Hollis: "Do you think the whole story was an extended metaphor for Turkey's struggle to gain EU membership?"
Final conclusion: Is demi-classical even a word? Is it even a legitimate art from? Indeterminate.
The Modern ballet was pretty similar to the classical, in that all any of us could focus on was the glaring presence of penis on the stage. The story, according to the program, involved the soul-crushing effects of living in a city when you've got country roots. That said, I can now say on good authority that three out of four male Turkish ballerinas are hanging to the left.
I'm not even sure where to begin on this one. The ballet dancers reappeared on stage to form the background. They were joined by 6 Turkish opera singers, bedazzlingly adorned sweet 1970s disco-eqsue sequin-lined silver jackets. Each of the singers and dancers had a candle-shaped flashlight taped to their hands, (symbolism: unclear); it was undoubtedly tied into the story being told in the singing, all of which was in Turkish. Given that my Turkish is limited to the word goodbye and the numbers one through ten, I can tell you this much: the opera did not involve counting or anyone leaving. Aside from that, it's hard to say.
Words can't really do the opening number justice, but let's just say that I wasn't expecting the opening number to be reminiscent of a pirate's sea chanty. But it was! It was only by massive dint of self control that we the Diplomats at table four were able to maintain our composure.
The sea-chanty was followed a slow solo number, sung by a woman who appeared to have an excellent voice. It's hard to say, exactly, because her microphone didn't work. Note to Marriott: If this is what you DO, you need to work on what you do a bit more. She sang a few bars and then exited the stage gracefully, since no one could hear her.
The refugee coordinator, spot-on in his deadpan color commentary throughout the evening, sort of made the extremely long folklorama opera tolerable. Following an upbeat number: This opera seems so upbeat! You'd never guess how many of the pieces were about HIV prevention. Another slow solo number: That one was really sad! Do you think another wet nurse died?
With each additional performance, microphone quality deteriorated, until the opera sounded like it was coming via a radio station that was having technical difficulties. .av.ng..techn..al..iffic...ies, if you will. A few performers got up the gumption to rip off their microphones and go it solo. We, at the best table in the house, front row center, were able to hear them, barely. No one else could. This became the glaring elephant in the room, and was basically painful to sit through.
Following the final number (almost three hours after the beginning of the program), the Marriott woman took the stage, and rather than just ignoring said elephant, proceeded to explain that the reason the sound quality sucked basically wasn't the fault of anyone, but would, inshallah, be better the next night, but no promises, really. The Turkish Ambassador, a towering column of terrifying diplomatic might, then took the stage, thanked the performers, and continued to point out said room-elephant, apologizing profusely and lambasting the Marriott with vague threats about how the next night would be better (or else).
Then the food was served, including Doner Kebab, a favorite of mine. I, in line with a coworker, was standing in front of one of the ballet dancers, a strikingly beautiful Turkish woman who spoke flawless English and had studies in America, where she improved her dancing abilities and came to the conclusion that she never wanted to live in America again. She informed us, casually, that she didn't really believe in eating. Not because of the dancing, but just because. So it's nice to know that even international ballet stars retain the tradition of rampant anorexia.
Posted by Dakota on 7:55 AM link |
Today was the Consular Corps Fraternity Lunch, a monthly event in which all the visa jockeys from all the embassies in Islamabad get together to eat food and talk shop. Since there are so many American visa jockeys, we go in shifts so we don't overwhelm the lunch with our presence (most missions only have one or two visa jocks; we've got double digits worth). This month I was one of the lucky ones; the Germans were hosting, and lunch was in the Moroccan restaurant in the nicest hotel in Islamabad.
This will be a roundabout story with little payoff.
I was at a table with another American, two Canadians, and a Norwegian. The topic of the luxuriousness of the Canadian visa came up -- it's got an inverse cutout maple leaf, and reverse-intaglio printing which in the business is known as having "the feel of steel." (Keep your snickering to yourselves -- I love the feel of a nice visa under my fingers, all right?)
One of the Canadians suggested that a possible improvement would be to have the next wave of Canadian visas but not just feel-of-steel, but also scratch-and-sniff. "And the smell" he continued, "would be maple -- REAL maple, none of this Aunt Jemimah crap."
I felt that a slap in the face of Aunt Jemimah was basically salt in the eyes of the American People, and as such I leapt to her defense.
The Norwegian, despite speaking flawless English, had no idea what we were talking about. The other Canadian leaned across the table and informed him: "it's this creepy American pancake syrup, sold in a plastic bottle that's shaped like a NEGRO SLAVE!"
Now, two things leap to mind:
1. Technically speaking, she was talking about Mrs. Butterworths, and not Aunt Jemimah.
2. What? Is she right? Could she possibly be right? Can someone with access to an American grocery store go buy a bottle of this stuff to see if she's correct?
Although to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I want to know. Because I LOVE hyper-sweet over-processed American "maple" pancake syrup, and if it actually is being hawked in slave-shaped bottles, I'm not sure I can, in good conscious, continue to purchase it.
Posted by Dakota on 8:12 AM link |
Things that are new an interesting in my life:
Posted by Dakota on 4:54 AM link |
I've now fallen into a Sunday routine of getting up, doing nothing while I finish the majority of a pot of coffee, and then going to the Embassy to do nothing poolside for the majority of the day. It's possibly the best Sunday routine one could have, and yesterday was no exception to the rule.
Mind you, it's now hot in Islamabad. And by hot, I mean ungodly unbearable to be outside kind of hot. Yesterday we hit 108 on the Fahrenheit scale, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. Anyhow, at about 5 or so, I was racking up another big loss on the backgammon table (they say it's a skill game, but it seems like it's all luck to me; in related news, I have incredibly bad luck). The sky was blue and the sun was shining with the sort of afternoon intensity that implies the temperature isn't going anywhere south of triple digits for a long time.
5 minutes later, the sky was pitch black and the wind was howling. "We should chug these Coronas," my backgammon partner mentioned, "and get out of here before this really get's going." The 'this' in question wasn't a summer rain shower -- we're in the middle of a drought here in Islamabad.
The drought's been going on long enough that people in the south are dying, and people in the north are running out of water in their homes. I, a cushy diplomat, am not exempt from this, and last week had to have the embassy request extra water for me when my tanks ran dry and my only hope for showering was a liter and a half of hot water from a bottle that I had conveniently left in my trunk.
Anyhow, the storm turned out to be a dust storm, a phenomenon which I think of as occuring exclusively in Steinbeck novels. Incorrect, it seems. It wasn't the largest sandstorm ever, according to people more experienced than I (including but not limited to my backgammon partner, with her thousands of years experience of living in Africa) -- but for me, a dust storm large enough to blot out the sun for a while is large enough. Regardless, this much I can say on good authority:
1. Dust storms are unpleasant.
2. My time in Pakistan is pretty much slowly but surely putting a check in every weather-related box you can think of. Dust storms: check. Earthquake: check. Soul-searing temperatures: check. Locusts: undoubtedly on their way.
In semi-related news, the volcano in central Indonesia that's threatening to go off like a roman candle at any moment is Mount Merapi. Merapi is about 30 kilometers from the house I used to live in, in Yogyakarta (beloved Yogya!). I'm hoping that Ibu Wignyo Sutanto and her national record-setting long-distance hang gliding son have had the good sense to evacuate.
Posted by Dakota on 9:15 AM link |
Today I interviewed an adorable couple for their immigration to the United States. They, a spry couple in their early 70s, had been petitioned for by their daughter. Keep in mind that I adore old people considerably more so than (for example) screaming babies who poop in the waiting room.
I reached the routine portion of the interview, in which I asked the wife: have you ever been arrested? She laughed; her husband leaned forward. I arrested her, he said, because she stole my heart. And then he grinned. Adorable.
In related news, in case you're wondering about the hazards of working in Islamabad referenced in paragraph one, above -- indeed, a few days ago a woman was holding her diaperless child, when the time came to (shall we say) get down to business. She saw it coming, and sprinted for the bathroom. But not in the nick of time. Pakistani food is hard on the digestive system, and the resulting line of demarcation went more or less across the waiting room.
There are days when I complain about my job, but this much I can tell you: it doesn't ever actually involve cleaning up crap off the waiting room floor, so I suppose it could be worse.
Posted by Dakota on 6:22 AM link |
Today I received an email forward that indicates that Pepsi is coming out with a new series of patriotic cans. Appropriate, I suppose, since nothing signals love of the fatherland like overconsumption of soft drinks. Apparantly the cans will feature the American flag, significant Empire-state esque landmarks, and the text of the pledge of allegiance.
The forward is calling for a full boycott of Pepsi for omitting the phrase "under god" from said pledge. I'm not a big soda drinker as it is, but I think it goes without saying that Pepsi has just superceded coke as my soft drink of choice.
Posted by Dakota on 4:01 AM link |
So then, from time to time you can't help but have an accidental one month hiatus from blogging. Happens to the best of us. Left Abu Dhabi after the conference, and come home to find a message to call home immediately; I did so and found out that my grandmother wasn't doing well; about 5 hours later, she passed away at the age of 91. It was more of a blessing than anything else, the end of a lot of pain, all of that. But nonetheless a sad event, and one for which I had to return to the States. Ten days later, I was back in Islamabad, but the will to blog sort of wasn't there. But now it's time to get back on that horse.
Two days after I returned home, one of my Chokidaars (Shah, who had asked me to buy him a watch in Thailand (Sieko, sir -- SEIKO) and who had offered me his entire gardener's wages for the month to do so, which I had turned down) stopped me on my way to work. Excitedly, he gave me a plastic bag and explained in his heavily accented and largely incomprehensible Urdu that someone (he?) had broken into my house (my house?) and (stolen?) a pair of my shoes and taken them (to a village?) and these (shoes?) here in this bag, these are for you, sir.
I was baffled.
I asked him again to explain, and the following story comes out: I went to America. He, ever industrious and hoping to show his appreciation for his new watch beyond just words (although he'd previously told me that upon showing his family the watch, they'd told him: you're so lucky to work for a Sahab so generous as that one!), had asked my housekeeper to let him into the house in my absence. He'd found my boots (or perhaps my housekeeper just got them for him), regardless, he obtained the boots I hadn't taken to America with me, and traced them (here he held up the tracing of my boots). He then took that boot tracing to his village in the NWFP and had his friend -- a well-known cobbler, apparantly -- make me a pair of sandals.
The sandals are awesome beyond words. They're made from recycled tires, weigh about 5 pounds a piece, and are done in black plastic patent-pleather, with an open-strap back and a toe hole that lets peek out a single toe (number two) at the front. "The design," Shah informed me, "is from Saudi Arabia. But the handicraftsmanship is from my village."
I have yet to find an opportunity to wear them. But hey, free shoes!
Back at the office, a week after my grand return, one of the Pakistani's I work with asked me: hey, what size shoe do you wear? I said I didn't know (I don't -- Pakistan uses that wonky European system for footwear), but we did the conversions -- I'm a size 47 -- and then (yes, only then) did I stop to ask why. Turns out her husband had bought a pair of shoes for me in Peshawar. But they were a size 43, far too small for me. She said she'd have him return them and get them back to me. (Apparantly he, upon being told this, asked: can't he just cram his feet into them?).
The shoes haven't made it back to me yet, but the long and short of it is: if you've been wondering how I am, the short answer is: shoeful. Very, very shoeful.
Posted by Dakota on 7:36 AM link |