Monday, July 13, 2009

Revenge of the Colonies

With the revolutionary imaging techniques now available, neuroscientist are able to pinpoint brain activity down to the minutest of details. It has become clear that memory plays a much more significant role in our perceptions than we ever suspected before. It turns out that when looking at an object the image that one sees, as reflected in the visual cortex of the brain, is drawn more from stored memory than from the new input created by the light stimulus of the retina. In Paris, believe you me, I had the chance to verify this claim to my own satisfaction: Every which way I looked I saw Bridgette Bardot. True, more often than not, on closer inspection she would turn out to be African, Arab, Vietnamese, Indian, or any one of a dozen other racial imports from France’s former colonies. Yet the ravishing BB in the flesh was veritably there: the innocent flaunting of all that there is for a teenager to flaunt, the youthful indolent pomp, the reckless absent-minded and mischievous tease, and the silly abandon and cigarette smoking.

The colossal grandeur and opulence of Paris’s historical edifices, the glorious monuments to France’s past, the epic proportions and splendor of its public gardens, and the multiplicity and magnificence of its museums, all inspire awe and admiration of the cultural essence of this most European of Europe’s capitals. And yet, all of that is not enough to dispel the impression gained at first glance of a revolutionary transformation of Paris as a society, a veritable melting pot of France’s former colonized subjects. Historic examples abound of victors, France included, ravaging the capitals and cultural icons of the vanquished. The Taliban’s recent defacing of two Buddhist statues in Afghanistan was but a cruel reminder of the savagery and thievery of most conquerors. Need I mention what the Hispanic conquistadores did to the Aztec culture or the ancient Egyptian obelisk on display in Paris’s Place de la Concorde!

Paris as a whole appears to be more the image of its former colonies than the other way round when it comes to the varieties of humanity amassing at its center. It is tempting to conclude that the peoples of its former colonies have conquered Paris. And what benevolent occupiers they seem to have been, leaving all of its historical icons intact and preserving the essence of its cultural milieu by reinventing themselves in France’s image, the conqueror emulating the vanquished. It is the ultimate revenge of the colonies.

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I had visited Paris at least three times that I remember: once as a starving university graduate touring Europe in a camper and twice “on business,” the business of promoting attention to the health and development needs of the Palestinian Minority in Israel. The very last time, I actually was the guest of the French Foreign Ministry in connection with President Mitterrand awarding me a medal of honor. As such, it was a little tedious and too stiff for my usual lifestyle, what with the standard official wining and dining that goes with France’s medal awarding fare. Each day I was accompanied by an English-speaking guide for the duration of my appointments. Then, when that was over, it would be the turn of my two ‘nephews’. The two brothers weren’t really my nephew’s but they are the children of cousins and they called me uncle out of respect. They made a living in Paris by serving as summertime drivers-cum-guides for “rich Arab princes” and/or their wives. The rest of the year they hung loose or did odd jobs whether at a garage, a fruit stand or a restaurant. The two insisted on taking me around and declared me more worthy of their attention and services than “the richest damned prince” that there ever was. And that was, dear reader, how I found myself one Saturday midnight in the company of two ‘dancers’, a mother and daughter team as it turned out, at a floating restaurant-bar on the Seine where one of my ‘nephews’ worked as a bouncer. The dancing was good but the pair’s profession was sure to be of an older sort.

One other highlight of that trip was my visit with Dr. Bernard Kouchner as Minister of Humanitarian Affairs. I was particularly enamored with him for being a founder of the NGO ‘Medicin sans Frontiers.’ After visiting him I was even more enamored with his personal secretary, one of the most elegantly beautiful young women I ever met. Very personable too. As she chatted me up in preparation for my meeting with her boss, several times I would choke on my coffee when she chuckled and winked at me. But that is all in the past. Now Kouchner is Foreign Minister and has taken on the task of clearing the international field of obstacles for Israel’s bulldog of a racist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. That is why I wrote him a letter chiding him for having distanced himself from the field of human rights and from the task of aiding the desperate and the voiceless, for opting to confine himself within the oppressive and exclusive borders of racist diplomacy.

To be fair I hasten to add that on the whole this time I found the French, the true blue-blood European French included, to be much friendlier than I ever found them before. I recall on the first trip to Paris being repeatedly ignored despite my wife’s usage of her practiced college French to get directions to the bank. “Ou est la Bank?’ she would twitter in as many charming turns of the phrase as she could muster to convince the Parisians to direct us. When that failed I took out my last dollar bill, waved it under people’s nose and shouted: “Bank? Bank?” and they still walked away. This time every one is helpful to a fault; gone seems to be the haughty dismissive Parisian aloofness. Old ladies with their poodles in tow would stop to offer unsolicited assistance to us, four lost-looking foreigners. If I ever doubted the efficacy of the European Union, this put an end to my doubts.

There were two pre-arranged meetings with Parisians as well: One was with a hippy and arty-looking type who gave us instructions to meet her “in front of the defunct movie house at the exit from the metro. You can’t miss me. I am a short woman with red dyed hair and green pants.” Sure enough she was there when we emerged from the metro station but she didn’t seem to be aware of our presence. Later, when I asked what happened to get her so preoccupied she explained: “That is a standard meeting place for hookers and their clients and I didn’t want to be taken for one, acknowledging every man that looked in my direction.”

The second prearranged meeting was no less surprising. We had arrived at the Resistance Bookstore to find a lecture in progress about the Algerian Revolution by one of its long-dimmed heroes. A couple of the people we ran across there turned out to be of Palestinian refugee stock. They inquired about our whereabouts in the old country. Hearing the name of Arrabeh, a Hijab adorned young woman became agitated with curiosity: What was our family name and did we know the Labans and who exactly among them did we know and was Bader Laban, the father of Qasim Laban, her sister’s husband who now lives in Canada, one of them? etc. etc. It turns out that she hails from a refugee family originally from Haifa. Her parents had fled their home to Lebanon in 1948. In the camps in Lebanon her sister met and married Qasim, the son of another refugee family, who is now an engineer working in Canada. I said I knew the father and his extended family. In fact they were next-door neighbors in the days of my childhood before the Nakba.

What I didn’t have the heart to share with the lady was the rumors I had heard in Arrabeh about her sister’s father-in-law. As a doctor I came to know Bader as a blind and frail old man who came to see me a few times to establish his disability status under Israeli law. The explanation he gave for his return from Lebanon was rather far-fetched; it was a gesture of good will by the Israeli authorities under the rubric of family unification, a lengthy process for which my medical report on his failing health would come handy as well, he claimed. But his miraculous return to the village in the midst of the confusion that followed Israel’s 1982 invasion of South Lebanon and the selective opening of the borders with it had sparked suspicions about the man’s past. There was hardly any precedent for this magnanimous gesture by the Israeli authorities toward an old Palestinian refugee desiring to return to “die in the lap of my Hamuli --the extended family-- in the village in former Palestine” as he put it. It was rumored that there was a death sentence issued against him in absentia in Lebanon for collaboration and spying for Israel.

I now recall that something seemed fishy about the way Bader insisted on seeing me after regular clinic hours to get his medical certificate and that it created a moral dilemma for me. You see, I had set a rule very early in my solo GP practice in Arrabeh to lighten my burden and avoid conflict of interest; I had decided never to accept payment for a deserved medical certificate. “I am here to treat the sick; I don’t trade in paperwork” I would declare to dissatisfied customers seeking false medical certification. “But lawyers live from that. Are you better than them?” some smart aleck would argue back to no avail. So, here I was being aroused from bed to supply a grimy old man with a sick report possibly as part of a process to cover his dubious past career. Shouldn’t I be skinning him alive with an exuberant charge for my services and in partial punishment for his treasonous past, I wondered?

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The present trip to Paris was decided on the common assumption that every life deserves to be enriched by a leisurely week or two in the world’s fashion and cuisine capital so as to absorb some of its culture and savor some of its delectable specialties. A couple we know intended to meet this obligation, invited us to join them, and invested some six months in its planning. For every day of the two weeks we spent in Paris there was an hour-by-hour schedule with metro and bus details of how to navigate between the various museums, parks, gardens, churches and restaurants together with a plan B in case the original failed or we opted to split for a day. And for each sight detailed information was copied fro two dozen travel books with differing perspectives and historical accounts. Together with the general commentary about Paris as a whole, the standards of behavior for good tourists, the pictures of the Euro coins and bills, the range of temperatures, when to go where to avoid all the other tourists who, it would turn out, read the same directions, etc. etc. it added up to a sizable tome that we were provided gratis upon arrival. Never in all of my life did I ever have such thoroughly planned two weeks.

This all was the wife’s work. Like us, the husband followed the same game plan of his wife’s. Unlike us though, he came thoroughly prepared for all touristic eventualities. Take for example his top of the line miniature camera with capacity for video and still color photography, image stabilization, forty-fold zoom, infrared mode, and dark adaptability. It would probably pose in his place if he weren’t there at the right moment. And he had GPS in addition to being excellent in deciphering maps: you step out of the Paris Metro and he is automatically oriented and moves in the right direction. At the post office when we wanted to mail a package, right on the spot, like Inspector Gadget, he came up with the required masking tape and spring-scales. The man wore a 23-pocket jacket and had them all stocked with the right items. When at the Louvre, he led us to the original black marble column on which the Hammurabi code is inscribed in Cuneiform Chaldean script and had his picture taken standing next to it. That seemed to be the crowning event of the visit. He knew the details of the code and found the column awe-inspiring. I guess when you are that orderly in your own life and thoughts, you respect those who impose order on their surroundings, even if it means chopping few idle heads here and there.

If nothing else, I can now drop names of Parisian sites and cultural icons should I need to. I now have seen it all: from the Louvre to the Pantheon; from Notre Dame to the church where Dante worshipped when in Paris, to St. Eustach with its 8,000 pipes organ; from The Palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette’s old romping grounds, to the Concierge where she spent the last three months of her life and where she carefully applied her rouge before stepping up to the guillotine, and from Rodin’s garden to the bust of Dalida to that goofy saint Denis carrying his severed head in his arm and making a scene of it wherever he stopped in Paris. And we practically lived in the Eifel Tower, our hotel was that close to it.

And we visited The Pasteur Institute. In recent months we had discovered that Didi has a severe reaction to dust mites causing her an occasional allergic cough. About the worst cough spasm she suffered in Paris was at the Pasteur Museum, former home of the father of hygiene himself. It happened as we were leaving the mausoleum where he is buried. I could hear creaking and was sure it was Pasteur turning in his coffin. But it was only the old wooden stairs.

But to be fair, Paris is much more hygienic than I remember some of its poorer sections being in the past. And the metro system is such a vast improvement on that of New York, for example, though it still feels like living in an alien society with tunneling as its dominant cultural feature. Like Gazans nowadays, Parisians may well have descended from a mole-like branch of the human species. Not unlike moles, both seem to have adapted well to the subterranean conditions with so many of them fully at ease playing their music, asking for help or reading their papers. One destitute person particularly piqued my curiosity with her very proper upper-class apparel, including fashionable high heels and proper makeup, sitting primly in a respectable-looking chair and reading a book with her extended hand the only condescending admission of her need. Alas I was not alone to approach her and satisfy my curiosity; I handed her my change.

During the many hours we spent in the bowels of the metro a memory from rural childhood days kept recurring in my mind. Pesky moles were a common abomination in the small vegetable plots most village homes had for the family’s daily supply of fresh produce. I remember a neighbor explaining to his son why he needed him to catch a gecko and bring it back alive. Geckoes were plentiful and if you stood still next to any of the stonewalls or thorny cactus hedges separating the plots you were sure to see one popping out next to you to do its daily push-up routine. We used to think they were praying though they often didn’t seem to follow the rule of facing towards Mecca and prayed all day long and not five times at the appointed hours when the Muezzin called for prayer. If patient, gutsy and agile enough, a child was sure to manage to grab one alive. The animal often lost its tail in the process.

This task accomplished by his son, Abu-Salim clasped the rough-skinned animal with one hand and with the other took two cactus thorns and with them blinded its eyes. He then released the blind gecko in the single opening he had dug to the maze of mole tunnels in his vegetable garden. He held his ax high above his head and waited for the scared mole to run out of the opening and wacked it dead. The blind gecko doesn’t see the opening to escape and it drives the mole stir-crazy as it runs randomly in the unfamiliar metro maze.

The cruelty of my childhood neighbor was now haunting me as I sat at a bar-restaurant by one of the Metro stations in central Paris to savor a dish of chicken. It didn’t take me long to logically exonerate Abu-Salim of all charges of cruelty. He was acting to protect the foodstuffs that sustained his children. And he didn’t do anything worse than what I had just done to a once pretty bird. Also the Israelis do that to the Gazans every day. Though they don’t eat them, they destroy their tunnels in the sand and kill them in the process.

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Whoever invented the axiom that all members of the human race need a measure of Parisian acculturation did not deal with the concomitant expense. The exorbitant prices of all aspects of Parisian life inspired me to develop a fancy dieting scheme. Potentially, it makes for a highly profitable enterprise for some ambitious and style-conscious young entrepreneur. And it is simple: The dieters are taken to Paris for a month on a tight budget.

There is no where better than Paris on an inadequate budget and with a developed taste for French cuisine to demonstrate the validity of the old adage: “necessity is the mother of invention.” Paris was the perfect place to try and shed the extra weight I have been lugging around all the last few months. Whether in the park, visiting a museum or using the metro, you wind up walking considerable distances and work up an appetite. But food is terribly expensive; hence your budget limitation has to be factored in. This brought back a quaint quasi-scientific explanation I used while still in medical practice: I had read a report by a Harvard team based on a review they did of the claims made by the various experimental dieting regimes and the claimants’ own figures and reported outcomes. The Harvard team’s bottom line was that there was no magic bullet; the deciding factor was how many calories a dieter eats and how many s/he burns up. I adapted this simple fact as my standard explanation in response to customers’ frequent queries about weight management: I would sum-up by alluding to the example of a bank account: “The calorie content of what you eat is like the amounts you deposit in your account; the energy you spend is equivalent to your withdrawals; and the weight gain is your savings. Let us see how much we can get you in the red within a month’s time.”

While in Paris it dawned on me that you can give a third dimension to the above two-dimensional equation by factoring in the actual funds to which you have access. While using the theoretical example of the bank account as a simile for losing weight you fall back on the limitation of your actual bank account as a compelling factor in such a plan. Whoever tries to implement my Parisian dieting scheme has to use something more binding than an honor system for it to work. I know because I didn’t loose much weight. Perhaps only the leader of the group should be allowed access to cash that s/he distributes daily with a heavy fine for cheaters.

Another compelling factor for losing weight in Paris is the clash in physical dimensions one is apt to experience in Paris, and I speak literally here. Accommodations are costly and space is at a premium. Hotel rooms in pensions and cozy bed-and-breakfast joints are highly utilitarian and functional in their design. Space is at a premium and a heavy-set person seems often to need a shoehorn to fit in some of the facilities. One is likely to have trouble fitting in his or her shower and on more than one occasion I would end up unintentionally changing the faucet setting of the water and getting a cold or a scalding gush of water. What better reminder of the need to slim down a little. Good thing I have never visited Tokyo where hotel rooms are reported to be even moreutilitarian.

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While at the Louvre I had an inspiration: I have to reread Edward Said’s treatise on Orientalism. Hungry, exhausted and with my head spinning from running circles in its endless corridors, I sat down on a bench in the middle of one of the halls of the Louvre and gazed at the massive paintings covering the walls. After regaining a semblance of full consciousness I suddenly started comprehending the details of the painting I was looking at. It was another of Delacroix’s depictions of the Levant, full of violent and lascivious turbaned men and seductive lewd harem. It felt uncomfortable and insulting in the extreme: Here is what the average European child is brought up to assume about my culture, the images he or she incorporates into their subconscious as representing me and my world. It probably wouldn’t have meant so much to me and I wouldn’t have taken it so personally was I not looking that day for cards to mail to my four grandchildren. After all they are the product of Europe’s culture regardless how hard their American parents try to instill in them a sense of pride in their Arab roots.

Speaking of which I have to admit to an awful oversight. One of the Paris tourist attractions was not on our itinerary and when Didi suggested it I was too tired to pick up on the offer of another couple of miles’ urban hike. We ended never visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris and its North African surroundings. I learned later that the sight is underrated by others as well; few are aware today of the role it played in providing sanctuary for Jews hiding from German and Vichy troops when they ruled France. It came as a big surprise to me to read someone’s description of it “as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France." [The story is told in a 1991 film Une Resistance Oubliee: La Mosque de Paris (A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris) by Derri Berkani, a French documentary filmmaker of Algerian Berber origin.]

One final piece of advice for the ambitious tourist in Paris: Don’t kill yourself trying to cover all its parks, all of its palaces or all of its museums. You need a lifetime for each genre. And if you have to visit one museum it should be the Picasso. It is one of a kind not only because of the genius of the man but also because when you walk in you suddenly realize that here finally is a museum that makes sense; it starts at the start, with his early years, and ends at the end, with his death. I didn’t see another with such obvious logic. What a fittingly simple way to celebrate a unique and complex giant.

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