10 August 2020

Travel No More


My dirge, a pathetic coronach, for the current state of being, especially for us of a certain age. Covid.

There’s a Proclaimers’ song* that goes:

Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more, Lewis no more, Skye no more ...” and it gets stuck in my brain some days.

My head is dolefully singing: “Travel no more, travel no more, travel no more ... .”

In my best impersonation of an Edinburgh accent. Pronounced Em-bruh.

* Letter from America. How utterly befitting.

Airlines are suffering. Cruise ship companies are suffering. Holiday resorts are suffering.

Bankruptcies coming.

What a world, this new world.

The United States of America are at odds with each other; Canadians want none of it, none of them. They could walk 500 miles to be here (I’m on my way) but we keep the border closed.

Is our beautiful planet retaliating with force against the destruction we’ve caused it? My heart was broken ... 
Do we still have a chance, and the will, to disassemble the massive doomsday machine we built?

Sorrow ... sorrow ... sorrow ... travel no more. 

Before the Internet breaks, savour the virtual tours of places you’ve been, places you’ve never been, all the humanity you will never meet, all the portions you did. 

Diluted joy, but I’m gonna dream about the time when I’m with you ...

We're gonna be okay
We're gonna be more than okay

02 May 2020

Havana, Cuba 2019

Cuba is a beautiful country in spite of the fallout from revolutionary idealism. The Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea still roll onto its shores; around Havana the waves still pummel its colonial defence structures. Castro’s exciting revolution of the 1950s seems a long time ago now. Granted, we only had a week to explore this legendary Latin American city; it was not a beach holiday ... fortunately, because we rarely saw the sun!

Alicia Alonso’s sculpture graces the entrance staircase of the famed Gran Teatro de la Habana, now named after her. Ah yes, in my youth she was as familiar as Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn or Tamara Karsavina and Galina Ulanova. I see now that Alonso died only this year (2019). The buildings of the glorious complex are one of the city’s greatest treasures. And their outdoor cafe featured a classical string trio. When the trio rested, someone was blasting Camila Cabello’s “Havana.”

Gran Teatro stock photo

Havana was celebrating its 500th anniversary (not the world’s best-designed logo, see below). Nonetheless, the celebrations were clearly of more immediate joy than that of Christmas. But religion has been reinstated once again, and the Catedral de San Cristóbal was preparing for Christmas Eve midnight mass. It’s one of the most beautiful plazas in the city, surrounded by baroque eighteenth-century buildings. More of the historic buildings and monuments are slowly being restored.

In the heart of the old town, tourists sit in the sunny plazas and patios enjoying Cuban drinks; mojito, daquiri, and Cuba libre are the most popular offerings. One cafe or another would always have live music that came to define the city for us. We spent most of our time on the streets of the old town with the happy variety of Cuban music issuing from doorways and restaurants. Street performers stop and pose to pass the hat. On one corner, salsa lessons in a large airy bar. Small shops, mostly souvenir-oriented, dot the pedestrian streets, but for middle- or upper-class shopping I’m told one must visit more affluent areas like Vedado and Centro. We didn’t.

A morning at Almacenes de San José, an old warehouse on the waterfront transformed into an arts and crafts culture market: an acre of craft stalls requires hours of contented browsing, and upstairs we found hundreds of locally-created art works. In many cases the artist was working there, only too happy to discuss painting or negotiate price.

And what is Havana without Hemingway?
His longtime residence here is celebrated, famously with the statue in La Floridita bar. His estate on the city outskirts, Finca Vigia, is a magnet for visitors. In the old town we went up in the attendant-operated elevator of the Hotel Ambos Mundo to see his apartment there, and his view. Books everywhere, of course.

Later we dined on the hotel’s wildly windy rooftop restaurant. A little sun would have been welcome!

Another notable landmark – from the 1930s – we visited is the Gato Tuerta (One-eyed Cat), a restaurant and nightclub that still resounds with late-night jazz musicians.

On the side streets and back streets, the lot of working-class and poor Cubans seems unchanged after sixty post-revolution years. They make do with less. Each time we ate at a restaurant, half the menu was not available. Fresh vegetables, particularly greens, were lacking. Cubans recycle and repair. Hence the refurbished old cars for which the city, the country, is famous. We note several government stores that advertise water, soap, shampoo, and other desirables. They never seem to be open, but always, crowds wait hopefully outside.

Our cococab driver one evening had a less than healthy (motorcycle) engine. She put on her gamest face as her mount clearly strained to make a small hill, and then quit. It did fire up again, limping homeward with us, but somehow we felt guilty that we were a burden.

On a side street of the old town, a man emerged from the doorway of his house – open to passersby, perhaps for ventilation, in the heavy humidity. He confronted us with a plea for money to buy his grandson a birthday cake; the key words being interspersed in English. It’s an unwelcome variation of a known tactic. As I shake my head with a smile – no – he blocks our way with gestures, increasing his urgency. At our feet a dead rat lies beside the curb.

Moving around him, we were followed into a main street by his fiercely persistent pitch, his next ploy being to guide us somewhere we didn’t ask to go. Stay good-natured, keep saying no, gracias. Finally he gave up and melted into the street scene. Were we too unsympathetic? Yours truly is somewhat jaded by experience with predatory shills in other corners of the world. Certainly we did slip coins into a few hands here and there, but he was too blatant. Sure wish I had a photo of the rat.

Then there was Nilda, our hotel chambermaid. One time my slightly drunk and expansive companion engaged her in a fashion discussion. The way one does when neither speaks the other’s language. Thinking she saw an admiring gleam in Nilda’s eye, companion said if you like the dress I’m wearing, maybe I will give it to you when we leave; I don’t like it much. Whereupon Nilda opened our closet and pointed out exactly which garments she wanted for herself and her daughter.

Hotel Nacional

A less formidable chambermaid filled in on Nilda’s day off. We gave her soap and shampoo that day and she was so overcome she had tears in her eyes. Not Nilda, when our last day arrived and no dresses materialized. Loading her up with soaps, shampoos, and pens, we were tartly and loudly informed that these were regalos (gifts), not her propina (tip).

The Commies should be ashamed of institutionalizing poverty. They say Russia has pulled out of Cuba and the ubiquitous Chinese are apparently filling the hole. Lord help us all.

© 2020 Brenda Dougall Merriman

05 April 2020

Cemeteries - Tunisia

Some cribbing and commingling from a much earlier posts.

Tunisia is a secular country, estimated at 97% Muslim. In 2012 I noted it was the most liberal Arab country I had visited at the time. There I had opportunity to view a Muslim cemetery up close. Burials are generally made within a day of death, avoiding the embalming process that interferes with the body. While all mourners attend the funeral prayers led by an imam, only men accompany the body to actual burial in the cemetery. The deceased are buried on their right side facing Mecca. In general, elaborate grave markers and flowers are not encouraged; prayers are preferred as memorials.

The town of Hammamet is about 60km southeast of the capital, Tunis; a place of lovely beaches for holidayers. Apart from seaside attractions, it has a fascinating medina (old town) dating from the 15th century. After climbing one of the protective walls to enter (on a ramp), one meets a maze of narrow streets zigzagging throughout, bursting into colourful small piazzas of shops and vendors. Photographers’ delight!

A cemetery is located outside the walls along the Mediterranean seafront. Many tombs have traditional mosaic decoration. Here, the customary marker is the representation of a book: the left hand page identifies the individual with name and dates; the right hand side has a quotation from the Koran. Grounds maintenance does not seem to be a priority. We saw litter dumped in one section. A small Christian cemetery is nearby with many Catholics of Italian origin.

Some years ago, preparation for new construction in Hammamet unearthed an extensive Roman necropolis among remnants of the ancient settlement known as Pupput. We did not see that particular area, but signs of the old Roman occupation are everywhere across the country. Many museums exhibit excavated burial markers – stelae – and funerary objects, some as old as the 1st century AD. Most stelae commend the departed to the pagan household gods (dis manibus sacrum – DSM). They usually give the person's name, age, parents, status, and name of the person who erected the stone. Date of death does not seem to be the norm! That the inscriptions have survived so long is likely due to being covered by soil as new communities developed on top of them – inadvertent conservation.

Two photos above at Sousse Museum
Even older! Near the ruins of Carthage, that legendary city ultimately defeated and ruined by the Romans, parts of the excavated Tophet cemetery show stelae from the time of Carthage’s great power BCE. These were all child burials; the indicative geometric sign appears often. I diligently took many photographs, only to learn later my new SIM card was corrupted. The two photos below are thanks to Atlas Obscura and the individual photographers who shared.

by Patrick Giraud
by Dennis Jarvis
Tophet has long been a locus of serious controversy; scholarly and scientific researchers debate whether it was a place of infant sacrifice. My discovery of a blog called Bones Don’t Lie was serendipitous; here’s a great discussion:

The city of Kairouan ‒ inland but still considered coastal region – with its Great Mosque is Tunisia's spiritual centre. In fact, the Great Mosque there is the holiest Muslim site in Africa; the original portion is from the 9th century. Overall it is the fourth holiest site for (Sunni) Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

In the courtyard

Outside the walls of the medina can be seen (with the mosque's minaret in the background) the small old Ouled Farhane burial ground named for the tribe that had once requested this location close to the mosque. I can’t ascertain when the burials began or the age of the stones. All inscriptions have long vanished over time and whitewash is the only memorable feature.

And then to modern times. A visit to the small town of Monastir included the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), the enlightened and revered father of modern Tunisia. He became the first president at the time of independence in 1956. Among other reforms such as banning the burkha and niquab, Bourguiba instituted universal health care and compulsory education up to full high school level. A processional avenue leads up to his grandiose monument with its golden dome, within the town's extensive el-Mazeri cemetery.

The interior has private rooms for family visitors and a public room serving as a small museum of Bourguiba’s life. Separate rooms have comparatively plain burial slabs for members of his and his second wife's extended families.

Thus, the deceased provide quite the contrast in time periods, cultures, even empires, in one rather small country.

© 2020 Brenda Dougall Merriman

15 February 2020

Oman's Great Treasure

With some sadness I noted the passing of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said on January 10th this year. For fifty years he was the figurehead of one of the Middle East’s most stable countries.

As the omnipotent ruler of several million people, the Oxford-educated Qaboos inspired widespread personal loyalty for his progressiveness. In 1970 when he took power from his reactionary father with British support, the scattered tribal country was divided and underdeveloped. In addition to an advisory Council of State, Qaboos established an elected Consultative Council. He used Oman’s comparatively modest oil resources to fund modern infrastructure and communications.

Education became paramount: it is free, but not compulsory, through secondary school; internal and external scholarships are available for university and colleges. Free national health care; universal suffrage; slavery was banished. Early on Qaboos had the foresight to plan for developing alternate resources, knowing oil is exhaustible.

Birthplace of Sultan Qaboos, Salalah

It wasn’t all roses during Qaboos’ rule, of course. The ripples of the Arab Spring (2011) were relatively minor in Oman with largely peaceful demonstrations for reform, although on occasion security forces did use tear gas and other measures to dispel crowds. Two people died, and more were arrested, charged with illegal gathering. Qaboos complied with reforming to a degree; he weeded out perceived corruption in his State Council and extended the Consultative Council’s powers. Despite being more liberal than its neighbouring Arab states, Oman nonetheless is under Human Rights Watch for the rights of women and immigrant labourers, as well as for harassment of political critics.

As a younger man
Oman has a majority Ibadi Muslim population, which partially accounts for it avoiding the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflicts in other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Smaller (but historically slightly older) than the two main sects of Islam, it is considered more tolerant and prone to justice without violence. Omani law protects all religious faiths.

Internal policies aside, Oman is a great pleasure to visit. The pleasure comes from not only the great variety and beauty of its expanses, but the genuine, warm friendliness of its people whether you meet them in urban or rural settings.

Palace gate, Muscat
The man himself, who united his country and inspired that personal loyalty, was intelligent, soft-spoken, and globally respected; Qaboos’ diplomacy in mediation was sought by all major powers in countless Middle East negotiations. And so he leaves a profound legacy inside and outside of Oman. 

Inshallah may his successor, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, continue to earn such respect and extend human rights goals. I end with a quote:
Oman today ranks at the top tier of most human-development indexes but with little of the conspicuous consumption or flash of its richer Gulf Arab neighbors. Out of a fractious population of several million, riven by tribal and confessional differences, Qaboos shaped a sense of national identity in a region where sectarian divisions were multiplying. -- William J. Burns, 13 January 2020, “The Death of a Temperate Leader in an Intemperate Region,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/sultan-qaboos-oman/604807/ : viewed 10 February 2020).