Thursday, February 22, 2018

Beirut is where Michele (pronounced mi-SHEL) lives.

Street Art in Gemmayzeh
"What's he doing?"


"They look like spikes."

Angela and I are in Beirut. It's our first time in the city. 

We wanted to see each other. The current blockade makes it extremely difficult to visit each other as she lives in Dubai and I in Doha. We were looking for nearby destinations. The flights to Beirut looked good to travel on staff rebate. 

So here we are, a day after Valentine's, exploring a city both of us have read about in books and in recent news.  

We see an old man hunched over a low work bench. He's sitting in a deep chair with armrests with his back to the street, his hands are busy polishing what look like brass spikes.

We carry on walking.

"What do you think he's making?" asks Angela.

"No idea." I confess. "Perhaps he's cleaning them."

Our thoughts linger on the hunched over old man in his grayish bluish coat, peering through his glasses, steadily polishing golden rods (about 6-8 inches long) without looking up, for a few minutes before our eyes spot something interesting-- an achingly old building with a fading facade that hides tales of eras past. 

A few hours later, tired but excited about being in Beirut, we decide to head back. Without intention or design, we find ourselves on the same road, in Gemmayzeh. The old man's hands are still busy. This time I spot a table laden with jewellery pieces. I am almost tempted. It's getting late and there's always tomorrow. We hail a taxi and leave.
Next morning, we decide to start our exploration from the other end of Beirut (Hamra). The map, which till yesterday had looked like a puzzle, behaves like a friendly guide.  A longish coffee stop and lots of walking later, we find ourselves looking at the old man's table full of  jewellery in Gemmayzeh. It's late afternoon and lunch is on our minds.

"These look good." I declare.

In the freshness of a new day and the familiarity of day two in a new city, the area around the table covered in red cloth reveals more of itself. The table is set out on the front pavement of an old Antique Shop. There is a bright light trying to peep through the cloudy glass of the half open doors. The old man is wearing a brassy ring on his left thumb and using a tool with his right when he looks up and smiles.

"Do you make these?" I ask.

"Yes." His voice is clear and warm, like a glass of fresh milk: soothing and full of life. "I make these."

He walks the short distance from the far corner where his low work bench sits, laden with tools and a twisted brassy sheet, over to us and slides the ring off his thumb.

"It says 'my light' (or did he say 'my love'--I'm not 100 % sure) in Arabic." He says in perfect English and holds the ring up so we can see the light enter the calligraphic carvings on the ring.

"You did this?" Angela and I ask him in unison.

"Yes. You can come and make with me if you want." he offers.

I'm not sure I've heard him correctly. Maybe he doesn't mean that. Maybe he wants to say he'll make one for us just like this one.

I'm doubtful. Surely, he's not going to spend his time teaching us! Surely, he's expecting us to buy something. Odd, how easily cynicism overtakes trust. Why are we programmed to veer towards mistrust as our first instinct?  Is it evolution (survival of the fittest) or just the way the world has come to be?

"What's your name?" we ask.

"Michele." He smiles and disarms my canons of cynicism with his grin.  "And I'm ninety years old." He beams. 

"No!" we almost shriek like teenagers. "Ninety?"

His eyes twinkle a little more brightly. I ask if I can click his picture. Michele obliges like a true gentleman and even poses.
"What's yours?"


"Like the angel." He says and takes Angela's hand while I continue to take  pictures. Angela melts in front of me.
Michele looks up and I give him my name.

He squints quizzically at me.

"Like Art with an I...Arti." I offer an explanation.

He nods and smiles and when he finds out that Angela is from England, he mentions Teresa May.

"This world needs more women really. Women are smart."

Who would've thought we'd run into a ninety year old male feminist on the streets of Beirut!

"I was watching a programme on TV about ancient Indian architecture recently, it's so good." adds Michele exuberantly when I mention to him that I'm of Indian stock.

"Yes, India is full of amazing art and architecture." I add and nod. 

It feels part surreal and  part normal to bump into Michele. Human connections such as these is the reason why I love travelling. No monument or museum can live up to simply connecting with another soul. Unless, of course, I'm walking alone in the hills, then I'm happy to be all by myself.

My conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, is that Michele is the most interesting man I've met on my travels in a while. We could've talked the afternoon away, if we wanted to. 

"What were you making yesterday?" Asks Angela. "those spike like things..."

"Come inside the shop, I'll show you..." says Michele and wanders towards the glass door. 

Loud music is blasting  from a corner of the shop. There is stuff everywhere. 

"I haven't had the time to clear up..." he offers an apology and sounds like I do when friends drop in and my house hasn't been dusted! "This is what I made with the spikes..." he points to the light and stands next to it with such a big grin that he looks like a six year old who's just got a 10/10 in his math quiz--absolutely delighted with his work.
"You made this?" We sound like we don't really believe him.

"Yes, and I'm making these to send to my son in Canada. He will use them to make another light like this one." Michele points out the spikes we'd seen him with the previous evening.
If I ever reach ninety, please God, let me be like Michele--working with my hands, open to strangers, warm and kind and curious like a two year old.

I spot a pair of swirly earrings on the table when we step out of his shop. I consider getting them for a friend but decide to wait till I explore a bit more and perhaps come back the next day.

"We should buy a cake for him and go see him again." suggests Angela as we polish off our vegan lunch at the Sursock museum cafe a couple of hours later. 

We haven't stopped talking about Michele. It's been a while since we said bye to him and carried on with our exploration. 

Imagine the stories he'd have to tell. 

What all must he have seen in his life.

He must've put the music that loud so he could hear it outside.

How amazing for us to come across someone like him...

 and on and on.

The one regret I have is that we decided to postpone our cake with Michele idea to the next day. 

Rain and wind and grey skies welcomed us the next morning. We went to the shop. It was shut. It was our last day in Beirut. Our flights back were in the evening.

Sometimes, cakes should be bought and shared as soon as the idea enters our hearts--for one never knows if there will be another tomorrow.

I don't have Michele's number or address. But if anyone in Beirut is reading this and knows him, please give him our love and heartfelt thanks for infusing our weekend trip with his generous smile.

Facades cover buildings, like faces cover souls--what is that old saying again? Never judge a book by its cover.

Better still, never judge.

There were many such kind and helpful humans in Beirut who we encountered in restaurants, shops and even at the farmers market selling their delicious vegan wares. If you're thinking of going to Beirut, I'd say, if you can, then just go. 

Leaving you with a few eclectic shots of facades that caught my eye on the day after Valentine's in the city of Beirut.

 This reminder of 'James and the Giant Peach' (as Angela pointed out) is an old movie theater.

The oft-photographed colourful steps on Armenia Street of Beirut
Wishing you all a colourful, warm, creative, chilled-out kinda weekend. 
May you take notice of every moment of today and tomorrow and 
may you smile when you do. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

February is here

It's been a long break from blogging this time; more than two months. Two whole months of not penning down thoughts or sharing any photos here. Why? I really don't know. 

I've been in a confused state lately--unsure, muddled, questioning every thing, not finding my heart in anything I do. I do it all but there is a part of me that seems to be watching me doing it, like I'm not in the act of living my day to day, like I'm a spectator of my own life, like everything around me is an illusion and I'm supposed to be somewhere else, like my days are happening under water, submerged, unclear, unsure--I can see and hear it all like a scene from a film in a theater, but I'm not part of it, like there's a distance between my senses and what's going on around me, like there's wool filling the gap between life and me, like I'm sort of removed from it all.


I'm not sure.

All is well. The children are well and healthy. The husband and I are happy and healthy. 

Do you, dear reader, go through cycles of doubt and woolliness when there is no apparent reason for it?

A lot of astronomical phenomenons are keeping the skies busy this week. So perhaps, it's the celestial cycles that are responsible. Or perhaps, it's the useless pandering of a person who has too much time on their hands. 

"Your life has to be bigger than you." an old school friend who I was seeing after more than 25 years last week, said to me.

His words got me thinking even more haphazardly.  What does it mean to live life bigger than me?  

Is keeping a loving home where children grow up to be good human beings enough to qualify me as someone who's lived her life well? Should I have invented something unique, written a great novel, painted a masterpiece, managed a business or saved a life to call my life 'successful'?

Did my grandmother ever feel like I do? Did she ever question if she was doing enough? Did their generation feel lost every now and then?

"Only when you're lost, can you find the way." A wise saying I'd read a while ago pops into my head.

So is feeling lost a good thing?

Do people who feel lost find their way or do they end up getting even more lost?

I look at my husband who works hard to provide for his family every day. He is so clear with what he wants from life and how he's going to do it. I wish I was more like him. But I'm not. 

I'm not sure how long this phase of mine will last, maybe it's already coming to an end--I'm sitting down at my kitchen table and writing today.
I look through old photos I've yet to sort through and the one above catches my eye and makes me laugh. Sometimes, the cows of creativity just don't budge. They have other plans.

So, what does one do when such a phase impales you in its icy grip? One steps out. 

I decide to make friends with this woolliness and invite her to sip  tulsi and adrak wali chai with me.

Open kitchen door.
Step out.
Nip tips of holy basil.
Wash its tender leaves in sink.
Water in  pan is almost coming up to a boil.
Plonk leaves in.
Scrape ginger and grate it on a palm sized grater while the water starts bubbling.
(hands feel the heat of the stove)
Oh! forgot pepper...
scramble cupboard door open, pour out a few pepper corns into wooden mortar, crush the corns in a hurry as water is boiling angrily by now and threatening to become vapour if I don't get my act together.
In go the crushed pepper,
followed by tea leaves
add milk
add sugar.
Life is beautiful.

I take my cuppa with me to the front of the house where the morning sun lights up petunias and nasturtiums and the asparagus fern. House and garden sparrows chime their songs in the neem tree. Blooms of Frangipani bob their heads with the breeze. I sit and sip. And wonder if life is already bigger than me.

What more can I ask for?

February, my favorite month of the year, is here. So what if January ended with a flu. So what if this stubborn cough refuses to bid adieu. So what if my plans to write a book are still just plans. February is here and look what promises it brings:

Tomatoes will soon start to blush and before long, they'll drape scarlet dupattas to let us know they're ready to be picked.
We've already eaten aaloo-methi (methi from the garden) twice this fortnight. Fenugreek greens show off their white blooms. 
Calendula sprinkle sunshine wherever they bloom
Soil and sun fill these beauties with fire. I've used a couple to make coriander chutney (Coriander Chutney Recipe) which goes amazingly well with methi ki roti (fenugreek bread).
Baby figs flatter my gardening ego:)
Life is beautiful indeed.

And just like that, the woolliness of January dissipates.

I'm not looking for a bigger-than-me-life at the  moment. Life: normal, ordinary and mundane will do me fine.

No, this is not an excuse to be lazy. Or at least I don't think so. It's like tuning into my rhythm. I would like to write that book. And I will. There--I've said it. My first February confession. I'm owning up to my dreams and saying it out loud. I reckon it's the first step in the right direction. 

It's not easy to bring discipline into something that one does which is not satisfying the ego, or making money or being noticed. Walking, practising yoga, meditation, writing and gardening  all fall by the way side when woolliness sets in. The funny thing is that those are the very things. i.e. walking, writing, yoga, gardening  and meditation that help clear out the cob webs of self-doubt.
There's never just one way of looking at things. Right?

Your way of dealing with your doubts will be different from mine. But, I'll share what works for me anyway--when self-doubt raises its tentacles to trap me, I fight it back by simply saying 'well done' to myself for accomplishing day to day chores: a pat for each job done with love --lunches packed for husband and son, dishes washed, kitchen cleaned, laundry sorted, a few pictures clicked, a few chapters read, a cupboard shelf/drawer re-organised--basically any task. No task or act is too small or too insignificant to be noticed and appreciated. 

By the time noon bells chime, I've collected so many well dones for myself that I'm beaming again--ready to welcome my men back from school and office with a hot meal and a ready ear to listen to how their day went by.

This is important. This self-help is essential. 

A friend posted this recently--
"The deep roots never doubt spring will come,"
Marty Rubin.
I try to cobble together this post and promise myself that however loud the voice of resistance is, I will sit and write everyday--a few lines, a page, a poem or perhaps a story, but I will live my life fully by doing things that make me me. I will write and harvest the greens and plant more seeds, and go for long walks and listen to Sufi songs and while I'm doing all this, I'll pat my back and tell myself--"well done for living your ordinary well."

And wherever you are and whatever you're doing or planing to do, do take half an hour out of your busy day to sip a cup of tea/coffee/hot water and sit and stare. Doubts and certainties, pauses and starts are tides of life. They come and they go. 
Sonia (above) sells tea on top of this stunning canyon near Shillong (Meghalaya). It's called Laitlum. A couple of other photos in this post are from there too, clicked in October 2017.

Wishing you all a fabulous February:)