Meeting Azwar Hassan in Banda Aceh after the tsunami
Azwar was an effervescent, well-educated man in his early
thirties, with salt-and-pepper hair. He had lived through the horror of being surrounded by dead bodies in the tsunami’s immediate aftermath.
Originally Acehnise, Azwar had lived in Jakarta until the day after the
tsunami, when he rushed home to find his family. What he found was a blacked-out city underwater. No electricity and nowhere to go. The only place
with lights was the Governor’s office, where the journalists and aid workers
who were beginning to pour into camped out.
He set out on a blind search for his mother and sisters. The
Baiturrahman Mosque appeared to be full of sleeping people. He thought, “Maybe
some family members sought refuge there.” Upon closer inspection, he found that
most of the people were dead. Others lay dying, and he was helpless to do
After a few tortuous days, the bodies of his uncle and cousin were
found. He learned that his mother and sisters were safe. In all, twelve of his
relatives had died or disappeared.
“How can I go back to Jakarta and live a normal life?”
he asked himself...
Encounters with Berber children on the road tread by Alexander the Great
What a feeling of freedom to bicycle the back roads of Siwa! Dozens of children, both girls and boys, called to me “What’s your name?”
I would answer in Arabic “Isme Dallal.”
Then more would run after me, “What’s your name?”
I asked each one, “Ismik eh?” (What’s your name?) The count of Amels, Fatmas, Sofias, Noors, plus the Ahmeds, Mohammeds, and Alis became so numerous that I would never remember who was who. As I rode on, a strong push from behind the bike spun it out of control. A large mentally ill boy was running behind, pushing my bike at full speed. It took all the children to get him to stop.
A tiny girl with brown braids ran to me and said “ America ?”
“Aiwa,” I responded, meaning “yes.”
She said with the determination of an expert, “ America good. Bush bad.”
Other children echoed, “ America good. Bush bad.”
I pedaled my rickety pink rental bike through blankets of palm trees to the Oracle of Amun, a ruin that was much more ancient than the Shali. A guard showed me around what was left of the collapsing structure, through a maze of passages which led us up several sets of stairs. The ruins contained two ancient Egyptian rooms where the priests of Alexander the Great’s day relayed messages that the Gods wanted to send to earth...
Kibuki, a spirit channeling ceremony
Charcoal burners with incense sprinkled over the coals lined the dark entrance. An older woman in a trance led me to a room and sat me on the floor with some other women. They took away my black camera bag, which I was using as a purse, and said that “spirits don’t like the color black.” There went my telephone, so I wouldn’t be checking in.
I felt conspicuous as the only foreigner in a room full of women who obviously knew the ropes. They danced to channel the spirits of soldiers who died long ago in a war in the Comoros Islands . These soldiers liked to drink brandy or cognac, so the women drank while possessed. I learned that if the spirits are attracted to someone they give them coins and offer them imported brandy. If you refuse, the brandy is thrown on your head.
A young woman who spoke good English introduced herself to me as Taiya. She worked for an NGO that restores historic buildings with funding from Sweden . I appreciated being able to communicate with someone, though it seemed incongruous to be having a casual conversation about historic preservation while people were falling into trance.
Two women swathed in stiff white fabric were escorted into the room, accompanied by spear-wielding elders. They were seated on two small woven stools. A woman in a trance danced before them. More women, wearing colorful kangas, stood up and danced. Those on my side of the room were uninitiated and had to remain seated. This was part of a four-day ceremony for the two women in white...
Bedouin wedding outside the ancient ruins of Petra
Women and children sat around on mats in a cement floored room. Several teenage girls, mostly in modern clothes (jeans, long denim skirts, dresses over bellbottom pants, and very few head coverings), danced dabke, which is a line dance that has simple steps unless you are the one in the lead. The leader usually improvises fancy stomping footwork, and the others follow.
Wedding festivities can last as long as a week. This party was a celebration held by the groom’s family. I couldn’t figure out which of the groom’s father’s two wives was the groom’s mother, but both women seemed in charge. The Egyptian wife was enormous, with a strong character to match. She wielded a stick, which she alternately used to dance with and to control teenagers. The local Bedouin mom was just as big, and the two wives seemed to get along well. At one point, there was a break in the recorded music and the two moms sat with some teenagers singing songs of praise for the bride. Afterward, headscarves went around the hips and below the buttocks. It was time for belly dancing...
A visit to the traditional herbal doctor in Hoten (the home of Uyghur Traditional Medicine)
Abdumejit’s office was humbler that I had expected. I imagined him to be an old man in a big center, but he was about thirty. His office was one of many similar herb shops in the Chong Kur Bazaar, a sprawling complex of fabric sellers, dirt streets, and herbal-medicine stores. Medicine shops lined his street. Rustic wooden folding tables contained metal boxes filled with varieties of herbs. Inside, the walls were lined, floor to ceiling, with old-fashioned yellow cabinets full of small drawers; it looked like a pharmacy from America ’s old west.
Hoten was on the edge of the Taklamakan desert so everything in the town was covered with dust. The herbs on Herb Street of the Chong Kur Bazaar were no exception. People seemed used to breathing and ingesting dust.
A young man came into the shop holding a large lizard on a leash, hoping to sell it. Abdumejit’s shop contained a few dried animal species, but not as many as the doctors in Kashgar had. He weighed the reptile, inspected its body, and rejected it. As people came and went, he consulted a thick “book of knowledge.” Its cover was cut from a cardboard box. He explained, “For over two thousand years people have tried herbs to find out what worked and passed their experiences on to the generation after generation. This experience accumulated and became the body of knowledge it is today.”...