Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Status: Unknowable" in the João Roque Literary Journal (September 2017)


“And how do you say your name?”
I am prepared for this question. “Feh-AO,” I over-enunciate with great geniality. The official attempts to mimic the sound I’ve just made. “Fer-OH?”
My name provides the finest bait-and-switch. In this moment, I am secretly grateful to the Portuguese for happening upon my people’s shores some five hundred years ago and bestowing upon us their multi-syllabic monikers. (Never mind that de Albuquerque himself likely had the Moors to thank for his Arabic-sounding name and that he dethroned the Muslim king of our coast.) And they say colonialism gave us nothing!
“Don’t worry,” I commiserate. “I don’t think I say it quite right myself.” He smiles and waves me through.
Self-deprecation is a lost art. I sail through the checkpoint, name mangled, but passport restored.
I always check in online the day before the flight. Even if it’s a domestic flight, I still take my American passport with me – all other forms of governmental identification are too whimsical for these endeavours. I must always resist the urge, nonetheless, to place said passport in a frame of gold that I would hold up like a monstrance on the Highest of High Holy days. The car service has been ordered to arrive a full fifteen minutes before I actually have to leave my home to get to the airport a full two hours before the time at which I’d have to board the flight (which is a full half-hour before the flight is actually scheduled to depart).
That same night, I will have packed all the things I will take on my trip in clear re-sealable bags. On Monday, I will have gone to the supermarket to replenish my store of these containment apparatus. I need them in small, medium, large, and pillow-case. Don’t worry – I recycle. I reuse the bags as often as I can. I always take the same things and so I’ve learned to pack efficiently. At first, I place all the items that are to be sequestered upon the bed in a grid by degree of size. The socks can go into the smallest size bags if I fold them just right. The underwear in the medium. The shirts are stacked in pairs and fit neatly into the larger bags. The trousers will have to go into the largest. When these bags are close to disintegration, I will use them to hold the snacks I take to work. And when they truly cannot be used anymore, I’ll place them in the blue recycling bin.
I know the TSA agent who will check my suitcase would appreciate my efforts to reduce, reuse, and renew, were I able to let him know how Earth-conscious I am. I don’t want him to worry about the multitudinous amounts of plastic he will see when he opens my suitcase. He will kindly let me know that he has randomly checked my luggage, by placing an advisory note lovingly on top of all these see-through packages. He will appreciate that I’ve made his job so much easier by letting him survey at one glance all that my valise holds, and that there is nothing suspicious about my possessions, even if he thinks that the person who has organized and contained these items must seek help for their neurosis. I shall add the informative note he will leave me about how these luggage checks are about my safety to the pile I have collected at home. They remind me of how secure I should feel after the completely routine and random check of my ziplocked underwear.
Also on Monday, I will have acquired new razor blades from the store. I need this to complete my pre-travel toilette. On the night preceding my departure, I will scan YouTube for the latest advice on how to shave so closely that my face will take on its once pre-pubescent mien. This is a challenge, you see, given that every pore on my face sprouts four hairs from each root. Warm wet towels, shave cream, brushes, razors, balms, aftershaves, and unguents will be laid out on my vanity alongside my laptop. From this gadget, the media star I have chosen to counsel me on the occasion will expertly deliver step-by-step instructions on how to relieve myself of the hirsuteness of my face. But, just to be certain, I’ll also shave against the grain. In the morning, I’ll wake up an extra half hour before I normally would to repeat the process. The shaving industry loves my facially hairy race, no doubt. But let it be known that they, too, are doing their bit for national security with the inability of their razor blades to last beyond a few uses.
As an added precaution, I trim my eyebrows. They have betrayed me at the best of times, adding punctuation to my unvoiced thoughts on an otherwise expressionless (and hairless face). It’s like they function independently of all my other facial features, operating heedlessly to reveal my otherwise so well repressed feelings. These damned arches will rise higher than Greek pillars of yore, and rival the sweep of the Arc de Triomphe. One simply cannot have this. Taming these shrewish brows will ensure some measure of control over their wantonness when my travel documents are requested and carefully pored over as if they are written in a language so long dead, it would take a doctorate-holding scholar to decipher their authenticity. But as I tell myself (and my querulous eye-framing pelts), this is indubitably in the service of making everyone’s experience at the airport (and the nation at large) just that little bit better. Down, eyebrows, down!
At the gate, as I count down the time to my flight, I shall pull out the book that I always carry with me when I fly. Its title is innocuous, its cover non-descript, its content never actually consumed. The book is just a prop – it might as well be part of the carefully curated costume I always wear when flying. Let’s start with my shoes. Non-marking soles, dark uppers, no metal parts. My slacks, also dark, comfortable, but most importantly button-flied. This is a necessary detail. Getting in and out of airplane bathrooms rapidly helps keep one’s bodily functions from being misconstrued for other activities. For this reason, I will also not have consumed any liquids up to three hours prior to my flight. And certainly no diuretics. Coffee, tea, and alcohol will not know my insides for several hours. I absolutely appreciate that the cabin pressure and unusually cold air in the aircraft will drain any remaining moisture from my skin, so that upon arrival I shall bear the appearance of an unbandaged mummy. The premature aging this will result in is unfortunate, but the dehydration is tantamount to one less visit to the cloistered space of the bathroom in the sky. Indeed, those obscuring doors, that fold like origami to conceal one’s whereabouts for a few minutes are evidently cause for concern. It is best to limit one’s forays into these alcoves’ mysterious depths.
But I digress. My travel trousers have never known the constriction of a belt. The metal buckles of such bondage devices are tricksters waiting to set off the scanners. It is true that I am often to be seen shimmying in airports as I try to pull my trousers back upon my buttocks. For this reason, I stay seated for as long as one can before the boarding process ensues.
Upon my torso will be seen no letters or patterns, for my t-shirt and its encasing jacket will be devoid of any such visual encumbrance. I don’t want anyone to be of the impression that Nike might be the holy deity to which I profess my devotion and loyalty to such an unfettered extent that I would be willing to lay down my life for them.
This tried and tested ensemble is as practical as it is elegant while being, at the same time, completely inconspicuous. That I look like someone from an Old Navy commercial, circa 2003, 1999, and 2017, is a compliment I will take for my sartorial ability to be the very definition of a yawn-inducing surburbanite.
Occasionally, a fellow-passenger will attempt to engage me in conversation as we both await entry into the hallowed space of the metal bird. I am prepared. “You on this flight?” they’ll ask. I’ll look up from the book I am not reading, push back the glasses I do not need to read (but such a useful travel prop, I must say!), and smile. “Uh huh!” In those two syllables I will have successfully made known my friendliness, while also politely demonstrating that my communication skills are those of someone more given to rumination than utterance. The spectacles work well, too, to affect just that slight bit of nerdiness which everyone knows to be a sure sign of lovably excusable social ineptitude. 
“Flight’s late again!” someone else will proclaim within earshot and obviously with the intention of bringing me into a collective rant about the general nature of air travel today and how it no longer bears the charms and glamour of the golden era when one dressed up in their Sunday best to travel and were served martinis while discussing how the good ol’ boys were doing in the playoffs. In response, I will let my eye catch theirs for the briefest of seconds, sigh, shoulders raised and lowered just so, smile, and then go back to not reading my book. I love being a friendly part of the community at the airport.
It is now that moment we have all been waiting for. We are about to board the flight. The bag I carry is the perfect size so that – you guessed it! – I can occupy my seat quickly after having stowed my luggage efficaciously and without incident. But then, alas! Disaster strikes. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the flight attendant’s garbled voice says over the PA. “I must ask you to deplane.”
For this I am not prepared.
As I retrieve my bag and share unplanned eye contact with the other passengers who slowly make their way to the exit, I feel the sweat seep through my t-shirt, creating a pattern around my speedily beating heart and spelling out tell-tale words across my heaving chest. My trousers start a mutinous descent down my flanks. My decoy book looks even to me like a manual for mayhem. My heretofore empty bladder threatens to betray me at any moment, its contents brimming alarmingly.
Back at the holding pen after we make our egress, I feel the itch of someone staring at me. I pretend to pay rapt attention to the airline staff who are about to make an announcement. “We’re really sorry, folks. We’ll have you back on the plane momentarily. Slight maintenance issue – one of the toilets needed to be unclogged.”
Don’t look at me, dude. I didn’t need to go to the bathroom until just now!
We are allowed back onto the plane. I take my seat by the window and anticipate the arrival of the person who will make the journey alongside me. When they show up, I am given not more than a look and am said nothing to, which suits me just fine. My practiced smile turns up the corners of my lips for a millisecond and I return to the ardent non-study of the tome in my hands. Only a few hours before this journey is done. It’s so close at this point that I can taste it!
Closely shaven to within tasting distance of my circulatory system, properly packed with methods to unimpede security’s optics, meticulously dehydrated to the point of being shrivelled up into a raisin, what I want more than anything is to have a drink. But I cannot afford such a luxury while the mission still remains unfulfilled! Exhaustion looms, but I am wired. I look like I am devouring every last letter in this well-thumbed book…
Not until I am off the plane, have retrieved my suitcase (I cannot wait to read the love-letter the TSA have left me this time), and departed the sanctum of the airport that I allow myself the pleasure of declaring victory. I have made it through without raising suspicion of my birth in the Middle East!
But I cannot let this triumph soften me. I must begin plotting for my return in a few days hence. Do I have enough resealable bags?

Friday, February 10, 2017

"Visions of Ourselves" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (11 February 2017)



Exhibitions in the cities of Panjim and Paris prove the need for art curation that heeds history and Goans themselves.

In The Rape of Europa (2006), a documentary about World War II-era efforts to protect European art from the looting Nazis, there is a striking segment about St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, Poland. Its storied altarpiece had been dismantled and taken to Nuremberg by the Germans. This loss was not only that of an artistic legacy, but that of the community’s heritage. When sculptor Veit Stoss’ Gothic masterpiece was unveiled in the fifteenth century, the Polish were awestruck. But it was not religious wonderment they experienced as much as a sense of familiarity. The icons that constituted the altar looked like them, ordinary Poles. Stoss had used his neighbours as the models for his creation.

In December 2016, for the first time in my life, I entered the Palácio Idalcão, recently thrown open to Goans after years of having been off-limits due to renovations. Beautifully restored, the nearly half-millennium old building overlooking the Mandovi river in Panjim, was the site of an exhibition that constituted the Serendipity Arts Festival 2016. As in Kraków, ordinary folk in Goa would have been able to see people who looked like themselves in an artistic setting. On exhibit was a set of vintage photographs titled “The Way we Were”. Curated from the archive of Souza & Paul, a studio still in existence in Panjim and whose origins date back to the late nineteenth century, many of the images were on view publicly for the first time.

While art and exhibitions of it delimit viewership by class and social status, the situation of these historic photographs in the iconic building in the capital city of Goa denotes the importance of creating public spaces in which Goans can appreciate their own artistic heritage. There has been talk for some time now of the Palácio serving as a permanent museum of specifically Goan art, but one wonders why it took an effort from outside Goa to create the exhibition being discussed here. A museum at the Palácio would go a long way in bolstering art appreciation and education in Goa, but it would also re-enliven engagement with Goa’s history. When I asked the person that gave me a ride to the exhibition to drop me off at the Adil Shah Palace, he looked at me quizzically. “Old Secretariat”, I clarified. 


Certainly, the Palácio’s function as the former site of the Goa Assembly is one that is far more recent than its having been the viceregal residence during the Portuguese era, or Adil Shah’s summer palace until his ouster by the Portuguese in 1510. Yet, the erasure of the edifice’s erstwhile name from public memory, and the absence of any prominent signage to mark the building’s originary title, evidences the ongoing amnesia around and deliberate eclipsing of Goa’s Islamicate heritage. The ability of museums to serve as public spaces through which to propagate such learning was made apparent at an exhibition I visited at Paris’ L’Institut du Monde Arabe, or the Arab World Institute (AWI).

The AWI exhibition “Ocean Explorers from Sinbad to Marco Polo” (15 November, 2016 to 26 February, 2017) puts on display objects associated with the history of medieval and early modern seafaring. Prominent among these are elements specific to Goa and Iberian history as they relate to the Islamicate world. As one of the exhibition notes explains, the European search for oceanic routes to the Indies was largely predicated upon undermining the centuries-old “sea trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean [which] was controlled by the Muslims … Right at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese began to sail in the Indian Ocean…” Consequently, there was a rise of exports from such places as “Goa and Iznik [Turkey], [where craftspeople] began to work in a semi-industrial way to produce the goods destined exclusively for external markets. This … established new dynamics, laying the foundations for the first phenomenon of globalisation”.

Items such as an ornate late-seventeenth century chest with inlay work, exported from Goa, serve as proof of the region’s involvement in this global circuit. Simultaneously, the influence of Goa’s contact with other parts of the world is to be seen in various artefacts. Chief among these is a sixteenth century marble tombstone from Goa (on loan to the AWI from Lisbon’s Society of Geography Museum), which bears inscriptions in Roman and Arabic scripts in addition to calligraphic design. It struck me that one had to come to Paris to see such instructive examples of Goa’s past.

Part of the educational experience was the level of detail in the curation, something which was sorely lacking at Serendipity. For instance, many of the Souza & Paul images were presented sans dates and with dubious information about the subjects. “Christian Man” a note would say, as if the subject’s ‘Western’ garb would be enough to derive such information. As Goan art historian Savia Viegas demonstrated in “Moments, Memory, Memorabilia: An Exhibition of old Goan Photographs”, which she curated at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research in December 2015, even Catholic subjects would sometimes affect ‘Hindu’ style in order to demarcate their caste standing. The curators at Serendipity, it would seem, needed to have done a little more homework.

When Stoss’ altarpiece was rescued from Nuremberg, it was returned to its rightful owners, the people of Kraków whose likeness the sculptor had captured. Likewise, the Idalcão belongs to the people of Goa. That it could serve as the site of preservation and propagation of Goan art can only be a vision fulfilled if it also involves those whom that art represents.  

From The Goan.