The Mango Rains

The air hangs heavy, electric in the evening; lightning chases around clouds that do not yet release their rain while the wind whips the dust in a flurry. They are not ready, they are preparing – gathering energy and purpose for the upcoming torrents. The rains in Africa. I slowly bounce my basketball; shoot, swish, dribble, shoot, miss, chase in a pattern. On the other side of the walls and the concertina wire children are out of school; they are all gathering yelling and scheming around the base of the huge mango tree. Walls that divide, reminding me that while I am in this place I am not of it; I wonder what they think of my obscure patch of land beyond the wire, where somebody is bouncing a ball? They are throwing rocks now at the fruit, one climbs upon the shoulders of another, and yet another has grabbed a stick to beat down the treasures. One of the more industrious has climbed the tree, and waves at me through the razor-blades as he reaches out, grabbing a coveted fruit.


This is Africa, and the mango rains are upon us again. The air is musty, pregnant with the future. The ground waits expectantly, thirstily. The mango rains, another two months of the dry season but the rains come to announce that the harmattan is over and now people can start preparing their fields to receive the seedlings; Africa’s Groundhog Day, but have we forgotten the purpose of our own legend; remembering more of Bill Murray than we do of the delicate patterns of life lived year-to-year? Mango rains, because in a day or two there will be scattered, refreshing showers that wash off the mangos for the little African children to eat them.

This morning it was humid and expectant when I woke my little boy for school. His glass of milk, a breakfast cookie while we read – I am finally introducing him to Tolkien’s hobbits, the illustrated version; he’s of that age now, and the tales of trolls and goblins and dragons, his eyes growing wide as Gandalf summons the morning, turning the trolls to stone. Outside the children prepare also for their classes, singing and memorizing before another afternoon working on the mangos; while my little boy runs around the yard through the sand playing tag and hide-and-seek.

We all live in seasons. We all have our traditions. Though for many Americans rain has become a curiosity of nature, to be enjoyed or complained about; in Africa people await the mango rains with nervous expectation. Had they saved enough seed from last year? Were they forced to eat too many of the precious stock out of hunger or calamity; or was the long harmattan one of opportunity and were they able to save? Will the rains come? Will they come on time, and with sufficient force?

Traditions. Tolkien is for we “children of the kindly west” one of our great traditions; taken in part from days when we too sat around waiting expectantly on the weather or huddled together afraid of the earth’s often fickle temperament. I wonder how many people are reading Tolkien here in Africa? In the west…? where we no longer read, where we no longer think we need the traditions, where the siren’s song of ‘progress’ has lured the unsuspecting to perilous shores, drowned along with their ancient wisdom. When we were in Mali, I would read my boy the story of Sundiata, the Lion King and his epic struggles against the sorcerer Sumanguru. I wonder how many fathers in Mali tell their children the stories of Sundiata? Are the tales really so different? Children’s stories all that shape our view of the world and define our place in it; fights against evil and the ghastly things that occupy the night that it is our duty to defeat. The emptiness of ambition, power; joys of camaraderie; importance of sacrifice; love of liberty; and the preeminence of family and tradition.

Our stories – for how else will we preserve that which has made us human? How else will we who live in Africa know what the mango rains mean?

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The Inferno of the Living

There’s a cyclicalness to the world that makes us uncomfortable. We in the west prefer to think that things are neatly stacked, one idea upon another in a glorious edifice of success; eschewing the crumbling waste which is not to last as it disintegrates away leaving the foundations solid and enduring, mortared as they are by the good qualities of upright men.

Civilization, we call it – the abiding construction ever upwards in a richness unto glory.

But things are not lasting, not eternal nor stable. They rise and fall and rise again – like the cities of Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”.

Worse still, things are not even consistent. Like Calvino’s cities – Kublai Khan’s surprise that his guest is just describing Venice over and over and over; future and past, wealth and ruin, death and rebirth, destruction and renewal; the traveler afraid to say the name of his own home: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased (…). Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” We are all afraid of losing our home; afraid to say the names of the things which we love lest they fade away, ephemeral in the light we shine upon them. And we too are afraid to speak about what it is that we love, lest our enemies notice that which is in our hearts and target their evil toward its destruction.

As if they already don’t; already aren’t.

The irony is not lost on me that I came to learn of Calvino’s masterpiece in an article about Aleppo – that oldest of Mesopotamian cities. That place where Abraham milked his sheep to feed the poor. Important in the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian as well – the Amorites and the Hittites and the Persians. The capital of Sham; the center of civilizations rising and falling and recurring. The end of Kublai Khan’s silk road; visited by Marco Polo to be sure, and described to the Khan in all its ancient glory.

“Aleppo has fallen” – how many times has that gravid phrase been repeated since the misty days of prehistory? From the days when writing was done upon clay taken from the Queiq River using a stylus carved perhaps from wood taken from the ancient forests of Lebanon. Will it rise again, after its recent destruction? Time will tell.

Yes, history rises and falls – and it is for those of us who fear to utter the names of our own cities, lest they too fall away and are spoken of no more – to understand why, and to announce to the world that which is good and true and abiding. For, “…the inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

I, for one, do not accept the inferno – nor will I become a part of it.

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On Money and the Miserly

It was a lazy week in the sleepy suburbs of a West African capital, and I was bored, attending as I had been a conference on something or something else. The lulling drones of the presenters hyphenated by breaks – Africans do love their breaks, after all. Coffee and lunch and snack; networking over piles of buffet rice and plantains. But I have never been very social – and wandering through the decaying lobby of the bedraggled hotel I stumbled upon a bookshelf with the odd assortment of books you are wont to find on bookshelves in dilapidated hotels in the third world. I started thumbing through them until I ran into Dickens. Specifically, a Christmas Carol. Now, I like Dickens, so I picked up the little book; realizing as I did in a flash of embarrassment that I had never actually read that story. Oh, I knew it of course by heart – it has been retold so often, the epicenter of our Christmas traditions – how could I not? I sat down, sun pouring through dust I had kicked up as I began to turn the pages.

Yes, I like Dickens, as I like many Victorian British novelists. I guess I was curious to see if the movies had stayed true to the little novel. I guess I wanted to say that I, to, had read it. But as I began to get engaged in the story, my motivation changed and I read because I wanted to read it. That’s what a good book does – so many books, especially classics, we read because we know we should – because we who are authors know it will improve out craft – because we believe that through the old books that are still read long after their creators are gone is transmitted wisdom we need in a world of frivolity and foolishness. This I expected; but to be entrapped in story, that was a pleasant surprise.

You all know the plot, so I won’t bother going over it. But I will tell you what it means; which is not what most people think it means. It is not a tale of money, nor is it really a story of greed. Perhaps that is because greed is not what people want us to believe it is; in fact, the word greed has become so charged that any debate regarding it is immediately poisoned. “Scrooge was selfish,” people say. “He was greedy,” they go on, “because he loved money more than people; and we all know that money is evil.” Oh, I’m not defending greed. I’m defending money.

“Money is evil,” everybody says all the time, the perfect excuse for those of a certain political persuasion to nab some of yours to do with as they think you should, but almost never do themselves. But is it? Money is, after all, very simply a tool – a store of value and a unit of measure. Ayn Rand writes (yes, I’m getting immense mirth at quoting her here, sure as I am that you believe her to be Scrooge incarnate), “Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.” We don’t know what Scrooge did to get rich, but he didn’t steal his wealth so obviously he was offering somebody value, and was therefore rewarded.

So why the story? Why was Scrooge so unhappy; and why has that despondency led him to become the poster-child for the evil of wealth? Charles Dickens calls him a miser. According to a miser is, “…a person who lives in wretched circumstances in order to save and hoard money.” Therein lies Scrooge’s problem – not that he had the money; but that in its frenetic accumulation he ‘lost the plot’, making himself miserable (the root of that very word being ‘miser’). He forgot that money was a tool to facilitate obtaining voluntarily that which he valued. No, the money did not make him miserable; it was his miserliness that did not allow him to employ his money in the pursuit of the things which had value for him; family, charity, respect, stature – happiness. That is what this story is about. It is a story about value.

So let me ask you, dear reader – what is it that you value? And do you pursue it? Or are you instead miserly, with your time, your attention, your discipline, your love, your poverty and – yes – even your money? That is the lesson of Mr. Dickens’ short Christmas story.

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“OSLO” – A Play About Peace

In Angus Deaton’s seminal work on inequality “The Great Escape” he observes, “Our current deep-seated concerns with fairness, as well as our outrage when our norms of fairness are violated, are quite possibly rooted in the absence of storage options for prehistoric hunters.” As with inequality, so too with race, with religion. Layers and layers of conflict going down one beneath the other into the murky pits of prehistory.

So what happens when they converge? What happens when history and time and fate bring together race rage, language and ethnicity and religion and inequality upon a tiny patch of earth? And what if, on that patch, a holy building for one tribe is built upon the holy ground of another? How can these two make peace, when the problems are not necessarily about ideas or philosophies, although there is that too, but more about that primal urge for sanctuary? “Arafat is tricky,” Shimon Peres’s character in the play says, “but he is a man. And a man aches for one thing above all. His home.” When one group is happier clinging in misery to their ideas of nation – checked by enemy soldiers before they enter their holy site – than be given golden castles in a foreign land; and another with an ancient claim that is so much a part of who they are that it is indivisible from their ideas of self, and who have been the recipients of so much prejudice and hate for millenniums that they have nowhere else where they can feel safe.

When both claims are so ancient, when parties to the conflict argue over stories of “the twelve tribes” or “the Canaanites” – when the fight is entwined in the roots of time so far beneath the grounds of prejudice and propaganda that every piece of ‘truth’ has an alternate; and meet upon a tiny patch of earth in a troubled part of the world.

I recently read the play “Oslo” by J. T. Rogers (I didn’t see it in theater, and plays lose some of their punch when they are only read, without observing the whole production). The play is of course about that – about the back-channel Oslo Peace Process that led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority and the beginnings of the ‘two state solution’.

It is a prescient play, because 25 years after 1993 – when the accords began to be discussed – we look to be as far from real peace as we’ve ever been. I don’t pretend there is an easy answer, and neither does this play. The greatest actors on the world’s stage have all set their herculean personalities against this boulder, and failed to even budge it. Only the moistened diplomats fresh from their safe spaces think it’s easy – and this play does exude the naivety of the Norwegians, for which we love them. To see the good in everybody, to believe fixing problems is only a matter of finding the right formula – we need people like that in the world; hope.

I’m glad for this play for one simple reason; it was not prejudiced on one side or the other (which is odd for the arts, so steeped as they are these days in anti-Israel propaganda, a thin and easily pierced veil hiding ancient deep-seated ideas of antisemitism that only reinforce the Israelite’s existential fight for their homeland). That made it readable. Maybe it will inspire some people to begin to rethink peace in the Middle East. I do not have the answers (although I certainly would love a chance to try); I’ve been working on issues of ‘war and peace’ myself for long enough to know that people are not rational and peace is not a natural state. Nevertheless it is achievable – if people can find a way; but the well has been so poisoned on this particular issue that the way is most certainly treacherous and those who embark will surely die upon the path. While we all want to see ourselves wearing that shiny medal; very few want to take the risks involved.

So read this play, and pray for peace. There is no greater commodity, for didn’t Jesus say, from that very patch of contested land, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

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Italo Calvino – “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”

I was prompted to start reading Italo Calvino’s novels after coming across an article in Foreign Policy magazine “The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls” by a pseudonymed writer Amal Hanano who turned out to be Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian refugee and activist who lives in Chicago and writes often and emotively about the end of Aleppo. In that her most famous piece, Attar uses an Italo Calvino novel “Invisible Cities” – in which the protagonist Marco Polo describes various cities he has visited to Emperor Kublai Khan until the Mongol finally realizes he’s in fact hearing about the same city over and over again from different angles – as an allegory to show the different sides to the destruction of Aleppo, her home.

Good writers need to read – we often gain inspiration from books we’ve encountered and ways of telling tales that strike a chord in our consciousness as we also hone our own craft; making us at once more ourselves but also more them too. For this reason I enthusiastically picked up a copy of Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler…” (working my way as I am toward “Invisible Cities”).

This novel is the story of readers – two readers specifically; written in second person one of the readers is ‘you’ and the other is a girl who the narrator seeks to love. It is also the story of writers, one legitimate novelist and his nemesis, a fraud who is pawning ‘apocryphal books’ using the famous author’s name and stealing and misplacing titles and translations in a grand conspiracy that eventually reaches back to the girl; as all good stories do. Through the story the protagonist continues to find unfinished books (the first chapters of which are written into the novel, showing Calvino’s versatility) – to be dragged into their stories only to be abandoned as the books are inexplicably truncated. In his increasingly desperate search to find the reason for the fragmentary novels and the villain responsible, you as a reader who are also a character in the story are inescapably captured.

“If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler…” is not a normal book as Calvino is not a normal novelist. If you are expecting a story which requires no thought, a trip where the ending is already known, you might find this book frustrating. But if you are a reader – like Lina Sergie Attar is a reader – you will find yourself in Calvino’s prose – and you might even find an answer or two.

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The Measure of a Man

“That is it!” a man says to his son;
I’ve done my part, and now my rest is won;
To seek my peace in world that’s hard and cold;
Of joy to find before that I am old.

How to rate the measure of a man?
A lifetime spent; of work and wait and plans;
At times the fight brings vict’ries pure and true;
But usually to lose is what we do.

We always hope that there is something more;
That there’s an epic task we have in store;
Our dues are paid and now our time has come;
And finally there’s nothing to shrink from.

But what if all our struggles are for naught?
Nothing can we show for what we’ve fought;
Can we make peace with lives not lived out loud?
When at the end there is no maddened crowd?

When off into the quiet we do stride;
And no-one left does know that we abide;
Will history be kind to life lived small?
Or will we be remembered not at all?

No easy answer to this sacred poll;
If at the end we can’t assert our role;
There is one thing that I’ve however judged;
Which helps me toward the end without a grudge.

The world, a placid pond is best described;
And each of us are rocks, though different sized.
Each rock, though small a gentle ripple makes;
And ripple into wave, time passing makes.

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The Vict’ry For to Keep

Can you feign that there’s naught wrong with you?
Lest your close friends begin to doubt you too;
Can you endure, alone to bear the scar;
Received from your oft fought clandestine war?

Can you wake, to fill the morning’s tasks?
Make the bed while putting on the masks?
Take down the laundry, breakfast, then to work;
Knowing that’s a duty not to shirk.

At coffee bell into the bath you sneak;
Remove the mask and at yourself you peak.
Though hate you wound, yet always to return;
Remind yourself, because you never learn.

At noon’s repast into combat you rush;
To lose a round, again with death you brush.
Haggard now, return to endless post;
Relentless though it comes, and you a ghost.

At last the buzzer sounds, and you are free;
Except in ways that you will never be.
Again to home, where combat waits anew;
And dishes, dinner, drinks do you fight through.

Till children down and you alone at last;
Tis only for the solitude you fast.
Your weakest time, admit, is when you’re tired;
And all those who defend you have retired.

Alone at last, the battle rages on;
And your last strength to fight the foe is gone.
Surrender, once again defines your day;
You’ve found no way to push impulse away.

And on it goes, the days of endless war;
Until you give, for fight you can no more.
But in that moment, dark and silent – cold;
You are reminded of that adage old.

While foe on plain seems mighty, oh so strong;
Up close you see his weapons, something’s wrong…
Dangerous he’s not, he’s just a man;
And you know to fight him that you can.

So go and seize uninterrupted sleep;
Wake in the morn, for to your life to keep.
Each day is new and you again are young;
Today’s the day your vict’ry will be sung.

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