Calligraphy alley – Xi’an

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During my week in Xi’an, I went back several times to calligraphy alley.

It is actually a main alley with a few small side streets, ending in the Stele Forrest Beilin Museum, housing some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

But it is the alley with its stores filled with brushes of all sizes, kilometers of rice paper rolled up or folded, the smell of ink and the seriousness of the buyers that attracted me most. I was one of them, checking each bush for its softness and feel between my fingers. I unrolled paper and opened exercise notebooks, taking all my time while choosing a few items.

I returned to the same store a few times, making friends with the owner, love for calligraphy being our common language. She spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese. My nine year old son was equally fascinated, and the lady kindly let him try out several brushes before he settled for one.

As I walked, I could only imagine what it must have been a thousand years ago, as Xi’an was the start of the silk road and an important center of learning. A town more than 6’500 years old, it became the political and cultural center of China in the XIth c. BC and continued to be so for almost 900 years, of which 300 where under the highly sophisticated Tang Dynasty.

I imagined old Tao masters and Confucian students walking down the street looking for the perfect brush, smelling ink stones and appreciating their blackness, while exchanging arguments on whether wisdom is acquired through living or learning.

Having been an important Buddhist center as well, I also pictured monks in loose robes and small umbrellas, gently feeling the thin rice paper, and choosing the best one to copy the Sutras Xuan Zang had brought from his odyssey across India in the VIIth c., now housed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.

I felt most humble when I was there. This was not the site of some major battle or conquest, as so many historical places tend to be, but one of knowledge and beauty. I think anyone would have felt the same.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Photos I took in Xi’an and at the Stele Forest Beilin Museum – June 2018.

Wan Chai market

 

Tucked between gigantic buildings, erect monsters made of glass and steel, where people are very very busy breathing artificial air and adding up countless numbers, I found the small market.

There, colours vibrated from the bright green of long string beans (I had never seen such long ones!) to the earthly hues of fat bamboo shoots to the yellow of tender orchids.

And I could feel the breeze coming from the South China sea!

Merchants smiled while shouting the prices of their goods.

The smell of recently fished fish intermingled with the steam of dumplings and the scent of ginger flowers.

It felt like home. I bought deliciously fresh apricots and many handfuls of raisins from Xinjiang Province.

Finally, sensations I could feel, sprinkles of humanity I could touch.

Kenza.

The Terracotta Army

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The terracotta warriors they call them.

Yet peaceful and often smiling they stand with their topknots and shoes, and without swords.

A few rest on the ground, asleep.

What is our role in this play? To witness the greatness, the whims of an Emperor who never had any misgivings about destroying human life so that he may have a place in heaven and fight the armies of the beyond?

The beauty and calm of all the warriors – what are we to make of them? Should we make something of them?

The sheer size and details are astounding: the perfection of the eyes and the wrinkles on the foreheads of the generals, the slight bellies and pointed shoes of the mid-level officers, and the peaceful faces of the common soldiers standing erect.

They seem to be waiting as though to welcome rather than to fight. Maybe history is just a trick and what the Emperor wanted as threatening, comes to us as peaceful and silent.

Kenza.

Illustration: A photo I took at the Terracotta Army site built in 210-209 BCE, following the orders of Qin Shi Wang, First Emperor of China – Xi’an, China, June 2018.

I do not

I do not write about lingering sunsets, falling blossom petals, the light in the early morning or even about birds taking flight.

I do not use metaphors either. Using the beauty of the world to describe emotions, renders all things oh … just so so banal.

There is no need to trap beauty into words and fancy imagery, forcing it to jump through loops of twisted grammatical constructs.

As for emotions, if you love, if you feel sad; just say it! No need for the rain to take the place of your tears. Your tears are beautiful just as they are.

In this self-centered world, where poetry is measured in hits and likes, as though it was a piece of furniture, I admit to finding little solace in the words of others.

So I lean back on the old Masters like Verlaine and Kobayashi and Hafez and Pushkin and Wang Wei and Victor Hugo and Rumi and Li Pao and Neruda and Basho, and many others.

When I hold a book of their poetry, the world slows down, everything becomes tenderly subtle and I can then hear the silence of beauty.

Kenza.

Gregor Samsa – a better world is possible

So you know how it goes.

You are a child and they put you in school. If you are lucky they won’t cram A’s and B’s into your brain. But most of the time these days they will, even if you already grasp the concept.

Numbers also appear and sometime along the way, you are asked to learn multiplication tables by heart. And then they explain adjectives and verbs and grammar. But never do they tell you why grammar is important. Diligently you learn the rules, make mistakes aplenty and in orthography too, and you start fearing exams. And you study some more, and you memorise some more, and somehow it is fine. Grammar you see is important because without it there would be chaos and there would be no communication. But they never tell you that.

And you move on … with the herd.

Then one day, while at the public library, you notice a little book on a table waiting to be placed back on the shelf. You are barely 11 years old but the cover attracts you. It is a bug -kind of a cockroach really- and it is looking at you. You pick it up, sit on a chair at the corner, and start to read.

“One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.”

You meet Gregor Samsa for the very first time and your life changes.

The world becomes multi-dimensional and filled with the unknown. You realize that not understanding is not such a bad thing and that it leads you to question, to ponder, to search some more. You realise that someone else thinks along the same lines as you do, and even writes about it without being belittled. You encounter poetry and the magic of words. You realize imagination has no boundaries, no shapes, and that it is immense, colourful and filled with flavours that you, yes you, can change at will.

I remember the joy of delving into a new world, pondering Gregor Samsa’s dilemma and feeling sorry for him; but also rejoicing at his uncanny freedom as he leaves the house, and by the same token, the drudgery of his working life. He may be a bug, a “vermin” as some translations put it, but he is suddenly free and unburdened. And that, you see, is just fine.

The world is an open field and we have the ability to avoid falling into drudgery if we really want to. We need not become a bug, but we can metamorphose at will. Our mind, our imagination, our sensitivity to the world are to be used, to be expanded upon.

As the world seems to be breaking at the seams with rampant ignorance, prejudice and violence, we can let our mind be free and we can dream. Just like Kafka, we all have a wonderful capacity to expand our imagination beyond the confines of even books and words.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Hibakusha – 被爆者

A peace poem

Hibakusha –
atomic bomb survivor
… what a distressful epithet.

Loss
tragic loss
carbonized beings
in an urban desert.

And for so many years
discrimination
pushed aside
for being different
branded
feared
– that instinctive fear
brought on by ignorance.

Seventy three years
since Hiroshima and Nagasaki
and still
people have not learned
people fail to remember.

Still playing with missiles
as though they were match sticks.
Still trying out new ways
to kill, to inflict pain.

Big people playing
the games of little brats
for real
because they can
because we let them.

Kenza.


This short text was inspired by a recent encounter with a Hibakusha. My son and I were honoured by his presence and his words, poignant words said with utter simplicity about his experience on that day and the years that followed. We were most humbled as he encouraged everyone to work for peace, no matter the size of the gesture. The gentleman was six years old when the atomic bomb feel on Hiroshima.