19 July 2019

CDMX Sor Juana

Illegitimate child Juana Inés de Abaje became Sor Juana de la Cruz, a celebrated seventeenth-century writer. Falling in love with Sor Juana de la Cruz is easy when you view the Netflix series called Juana Inés. In her lifetime, her intellectual gifts were recognized in both the Old World and the New. Not without a price to pay.

Unattributed portrait at https://www.biography.com/writer/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz

Many details and intimacies of her life ‒ four hundred years ago ‒ are opaque or unknown. Clearly her humble birth (circa 1650) did not hold her back; sent to relatives in Mexico City, she flourished in self-learning. Her devotion to scholarship attracted the attention of the Spanish vice-regal court where she became a lady-in-waiting. At one point she ‒ this anomalous female prodigy ‒ was tested on a range of advanced knowledge by doubting Church authorities, leaving them astonished at her erudition.

Consumed with learning and writing, and with no interest in the customary path of marriage and domesticity, Juana's destiny was the convent. She chose to be cloistered within the Hieronymite order at Santa Paula convent, Mexico City (aka San Geronimo convent), where she also taught. The convent was not terribly strict; inhabitants were allowed visitors and gifts. Sor Juana and her apartment were "protected" for years by the vice-regents Marquis and Marquise de la Luna who published her works in Spain. It's reported that she had one of the largest private libraries on the continent.

San Geronimo convent
The convent was next door to our AirB&B lodgings. Fittingly, today, it is an active hive of university programs.

Over the years she created a prodigious amount of writing: poetry, philosophy, hymns, letters, theatrical drama. Among other attributes, her sharp wit and staged plays gained a popular following. Secular love as well as sacred is evident in her poetry. If the Netflix script were to be believed, gossip hinted at a special relationship with the marquise. Sor Juana's distrust of men being all-dominant in every walk of life was not hidden; she was a pioneer feminist who deliberately challenged conventional ideas of women's nature and "place" in the world, advocating their right to access education and knowledge.

Such an unequivocal attitude did not sit well with the Church, of course. As her stature and admirers grew, so did disapproval in the religious hierarchy. Among other events, an argument with her confessor and the departure of her vice-regal supporters in 1688 left her vulnerable to criticism of her spiritual commitment. She was not without humility and self-reflection. By 1694 she had retired as a public figure.

A few quotes are scarcely sufficient to give the flavour of her varied output:

"I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus – I was born with it and with it I will die."
"I believed, when I entered this convent, I was escaping from myself but alas, poor me, I brought myself with me!"
"In my opinion, better far it be to destroy vanity within my life than to destroy my life in vanity."
"I walk beneath your pens, and am not what I truly am, but what you'd prefer to imagine me."
"You foolish men who lay the guilt on women, not seeing you're the cause of the very thing you blame –"

The Cabrera portrait is the usual image associated with Sor Juana. A curiosity is the breastplate, or shield, on her habit. Typical of Hieronymite nuns of the time, the shield displayed a pictorial devotion to the Virgin Mary.

A celebrated (and sometimes castigated) person, no one can deny the stunning integrity and magnitude of her opus — words and thoughts that reverberate today. "A woman of genius" is the common judgment, as per Britannica, which has an excellent biographical sketch (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz).

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

26 June 2019

Nizwa, Oman 2013

Our route from Muscat is climbing the Hajar mountains not on foot, but on a smooth highway as we head south to Nizwa. The mountains are higher here than in the north; giant slabs of rock. Villages we pass have many houses of a common size, as if regulated. Nizwa itself is on an ancient trading route, an oasis of extensive date plantations.

Almost everything here in the town looks new modern development occurred only since 1971. Nizwa had long been the seat of an area of sharia rule by Ibadi imams; the first half of the twentieth century saw periods of armed hostilities between the powerful Imamate and the Sultanate of Muscat. To put it very briefly, in the 1950s the Sultan defeated the rebels with some difficulty and British assistance on a nearby mountaintop here, and the Imamate was abolished. Nizwa's conservative religious history included a period of notable Islamic scholarship. It was sometimes called "The Pearl of Islam," discouraging outsiders.

Nowadays tourists are very welcome. The weather is extremely warm even at this time of the morning and it's a relief to go into the food souk on the main level of the castle complex (entrance above). Here we sample coffee and date treats. And we stroll the aisles of market produce: vegetables and fruit, meat and sweets. The sellers are still setting up for the day; few customers have arrived yet. Fresh date confections, nuts, and spices tempt us to buy. Unfortunately this was not a day for the livestock market where goats predominate.

Adjoining the marketplace is a handicrafts area lined with pottery and souvenir stalls, and silversmiths who create exquisitely crafted khanjars.

The outstanding feature of the large castle is the huge round tower fort that defended the city. Inside, various sets of narrow stairways zigzag to lead up but without a guide you might never find the right ones to reach the top and catch distant views of the date palm plantations and surrounding mountain heights. Dates are the biggest export here. 

The castle museum is a great source for cultural heritage, showing clothing and daily life of this particular region. Although at this hour very few women are about, the museum gives information on the fascinating (what I call) "Nizwa Niqab," a distinctive face-covering that originated among the conservative Muslim women of the area. Known as battoulah, the same practice apparently also spread here and there around the Gulf region; only an older generation wears it more or less consistently.

Certainly I noticed it at a Bedouin camp in Wahiba Sands and occasionally in other Omani souks. Resembling a falcon's beak, the original purpose was simply to keep sand and dust from the nose and mouth. It is generally handmade of such fabrics as silk or leather. Sometimes it can look menacing, sometimes it is elaborately designed for special occasions, but always considered a sign of modesty. [The names of Muslim women's clothing items familiar to us ‒ e.g. burqa or hijab ‒ do not necessarily refer to the same clothing item in different countries.]
Here is the coffee "shop" where we could sit and relax after climbing and exploring.

Nizwa offers more than we were able to see or do in a few hours; mountain trails attract hikers who want, literally, to go off the beaten path into the former rebels' stronghold. Further up those mountains is UNESCO World Heritage (restored)site Bahla Fort, an enormous complex, the original section older than Nizwa's fort. The sheer size is overwhelming, with seven miles of walls and labyrinthine sections within. Beside it lies a village apparently scarcely changed from mediaeval days. And Jabreen Castle, perhaps the most impressive of all, which I deeply regret not seeing. It's a monument built by the seventeenth century imam who encouraged the arts and made it a centre of learning. Full of splendid, surprising architectural details and artistic decoration, it says much for the best of Islam.

Yet another facet of this interesting country.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

28 May 2019


A visit to Mexico City ‒ CDMX for Ciudad de Mexico ‒ imprints images in the mind and heart. The sounds and colours of a city in perpetual motion. Yellow uniforms of the street sweepers who start at dawn; bold designs of street art everywhere; the smooth hissing of the Metro; a ceaseless flow of passersby day and evening; sidewalk sales of shoes, hats, handbags, vibrant merchandise; the clamour of market vendors; shimmering feathers of indigenous costumes; painted buildings contrasting with stately stone; the iconic Frida Kahlo appears everywhere, in every medium.

Street performance is a time-honoured Mexican tradition, buskers of every stripe will pose with you, like an awesome mime in faux-bronze. Old-fashioned organ grinders ply a waning trade, competing with live music in the evening that induces impromptu street dancing. Children up till all hours (well, it was Semana Santa).

Many colonial family mansions have been re-purposed into museums, art galleries ... and restaurants.

The unexpected always delights:

A Moorish pavilion in Santa Maria la Ribera park
Panteon San Fernando
Queen of the harp, Plaza Garibaldi
Festival de la Cartoneria

In the side streets of the historical centre, the bustle slows down somewhat by late evening. In our neighbourhood's pedestrian streets, coffee houses and bars emit a warm, inviting glow; restaurants entice with signboards; street art murals abound. A vertical garden faces the entrance to Regina Coeli church. Across from a row of cafes, a convent has been re-purposed for university programs; do the students ever sleep?

Has a major city ever been so clean? Has a subway system ever worked so well? ... among the many things we could possibly learn from this amazing city. More to come ...

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

30 April 2019


Five years. Five years since I began chasing camels. Chasing them here on a blog, mind you. It was 23 April 2014 when I began writing.

The real camel adventures began much longer ago and continue sporadically. After all, it's not every day you can find camels to ride, pet, admire, or kiss.

... And Camelogue is still available at https://www.blurb.ca/b/8605379-camelogue.

My odometer registers eight countries that offered me camel experiences. Some more than once. They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

"Sublime" Pushkar, India, 2009
"Ridiculous" dripping wet Bellingham, Washington, USA 2016

I was still wet behind the ears when I first went to Egypt. Were seductive Saqqara and Giza planting a subconscious seed? Did they poke some epigenetic trigger?

Of course, I will run out of camels and travel locales, sooner or later. Not to mention the nickels once saved for my old age. Who needs prism spectacles or hearing aids or new teeth, she says, when the world offers so many fascinating cultures to explore. When we find, see, and feel ancient footsteps. When we still have magical, natural places to feel oneness with the planet. Where the sky blissfully expands into the universe.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

08 April 2019

MOVIES Part Three

Highly opinionated comments on movies that have some aspect of camels or desert. Continued from MOVIES Part One and MOVIES Part Two. You know you can click on those links, right?

The Sheltering Sky
Debra Winger and John Malkovich seek isolated places in the Sahara to find? avoid? remedy? their hollow relationship. I never liked Malkovich but he's bearable here, till he gets typhoid and takes far too long to die. She ‒ restless, dazed, possibly nuts ‒ wanders off, meets a camel caravan and one mishap after another. Appropriately acclaimed for its gorgeous cinematography, it's Bertolucci-directed, but Paul Bowles' aimless existentialism and characters leave me cold. Partially filmed in several Morocco locations.

OK, 'fessing up. Only watched the one-third (or so) that takes place in Morocco (and actually filmed there in studios I visited in 2017). A sad, harrowing tale of little boys playing with a gun and how far the consequences reach — in a random universe, we all have a degree of connection to everyone else. Brad Pitt does a more than creditable job; it was agony watching/waiting for Cate Blanchett to die.

Pure treasure hunting good fun, and camels! Mathew McConaughey performs as Clive Cussler's action hero Dirk Pitt in an improbable story of a search for a missing Civil War-era iron battleship, supposedly sunk upriver in what would be Mali(!). Great camaraderie interaction with supporting actor Steve Zahn. Penelope Cruz plays the trusting wench, albeit a humanitarian doctor; no one dies except the bad guys. Yes, some filming in Morocco, more in Spain, 2005.

Sand and Sorrow
George Clooney's activist side narrates (and produced) this documentary of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur - a province in Sudan - largely being ignored by the rest of the world. Government-directed genocide of "non-Arab" civilians, millions of people still displaced and unsafe even years after the doc was made (2007). Killing and burning. Very difficult to watch.

P.S. I loved you once, George, but I can't forgive you for the Nescafé ads. 

The Story of the Weeping Camel
Oh — what a slice of life in rural Mongolia! Absolutely enchanting. This 2003 docudrama is available online. Of course it's the Gobi desert where, in the midst of their daily life, a nomad family tries to save a baby camel rejected by its mother. The effort requires special attention with traditional customs and music. Deeply moving and joyful.

Letters from Baghdad
A documentary of 2016, Gertrude Bell's letters speak to her adventures and British service in Arabia prior to and during the First World War. As much or more than the more celebrated T.E. Lawrence, Bell helped shape Middle East alliances and policies. Less attention is paid to her archaeological accomplishments and her founding of the renowned Baghdad Museum. Produced and voiced by Tilda Swinton as Bell, the film is rich with archival footage and Bell's own photographs, with contemporary commentary from the many historical figures she met or worked with. Extremely well done.

The Little Prince
Aside from unable to grasp the wispy little voices of child characters (uneven sound?) half the time, I could not make much sense of it. Maybe because it's so French? Same trouble with the book, moi, long ago. This new adaptation (2015) includes a darling little girl who, in searching for the Little Prince, sees the worst of grown-up behaviour, assisted by the incredibly ugly but kind Aviator. The Sahara makes a brief appearance along with an enigmatic fox and a snake. The Little Prince himself did not impress me. See with your heart seems to be the message, but it's enough to know that the twinkling of stars means happy laughter.

Cairo Time
A romantic side of Egypt, of Cairo (2009). Juliet arrives in the city to meet her husband who remains absent in Gaza until the end of the film. Husband's good friend Tareq escorts Juliet in sightseeing, a mutual attraction building. Ultimately, consummation is thwarted. Flimsy story, but the scenes of Cairo are wonderful, so many places I've been. ... I know he's acted in Star Trek and Syriana and numerous films or stage productions, but why can't we see MORE of hunk Alexander Siddig who played Tareq?!

Keep those movies coming ...

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman