Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kabul-Old Hotel True Horror Stories and Books to Read

The suicides attacks and fires at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel inlate June brought back sweet and sour memories of our encounter in 1971, when the hotel was newly opened. We were on a 5 week self- conducted tour of Afghanistan,India and Nepal- the first leg of which encompassed 10 days in Kabul, with trips to Jalalabad(source of much intrigue these days) and the Bamiyan valley , where we were escorted through caves to stand on the top of the legendary Greco-Buddhist Buddhas statues carved out of the cliff- two huge monuments that were a prime attraction for visitors and a reminder of Afghanistan's confluence at the center of many worlds- a crossroads of civilizations(until theTaliban, at the urging of Wahhabis detroyed them before September 11,2001.)

Who can forget that bizarre trip in the early 1970's when the King was still in power and the most dangerous thing to do was to sleep out in the open, and be exposed to bandits and cutthroats.
That first night- in the Spinzar Hotel,we watched the geckos run down the wall ,gazed out at the open stalls still lit; the skies over the thrusting jagged Hindukush peaks were blazing with stars .And then we casually went to the Afghan music room in the hotel, not yet daring to venture out since we had landed just before dark that afternoon and the night and timeless uneasy feeling in the air was just a little bit threatening.In this small upstairs foyer we listened to an Afghan version of the oud played by a young soldier off duty while another Afghan man tried to dance with the newlywed spouse who was wearing a long dress but not a burqa)-
I had to politely cut in to discourage his efforts. But those were the days when the university students were not veiled, nor were the koochi(nomads) and one third of the population seemed to be nomadic.
The last night we were there my lovely wife was just recovering from dysentery encountered at the aforesaid Intercontinental Hotel, where we were assured that the water filling our canteens had been thoroughly distilled and purified.Not! Shortly after returning to the hotel the next day from steaming Jalalabad she felt seriously illand
She remained in bed the last two days we were in Kabul. The last night, after receeiving reassurance from a local Afghan physician, who advised chewing on lemons, she was strong enough to struggle down to the dining room and order tea and bread-
For my part, having been sickened by the smoky smell of aged mutton cooking in the streets(the aroma made fecal matter seem ambrosial)- I told the waiter that I would prefer my own food and proffered a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli bought from one of the"gourmet" stores on Chicken St-
He replied "you do not like our food sir" and I countered that I was under doctor's orders to eat Chef Boyardeee once a week-(Please remember this is a country where the Pathan code of hospitality,best exemplified by the Taliban's refusal to turn Bin Laden over to the West in 1999 since he was entitled to all the privileges of any other guest) obliges strangers to invite one into their home for dinner ; one does not want to give insult under such delicate circumsytances.
So I gingerly walked into the kitchen,and made the surprised staff remove ten inches of stale oil from an iron pot that looked as if it were minted at the time of Timerlane- and that was the best meal we had in Kabul...
We never made it back to Afghhanistan, despite plans to visit Mazar-I- Sharif, but if one wishes to read a great work of literature and crazed travel writing, Rory Stewart's The In Between Spaces, an account of his winter's journey by foot after 2001 from Herat to Kabul over the Hindukush, is one of the most compelling solo travel accounts of all time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Robert Jay Lifton-Witness to an Extreme Century

Robert Jay Lifton, now in his 80's, has graced us with numerous works of psychology and history focusing on some of the more extreme traumas and events of our 20th century past- from thought reform and brainwashing by the Chinese, to the hibakusha-the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the meaning of living through a nuclear holocaust- to the way that the Nazi doctors were able to reconcile their respective Hippocratic oaths with carrying out torture and horrible medical experimentation on concentration camp victims.The discussion of how Nazi doctors and others make use of a kind of psychic numbing or mental separation from the horrible acts one is contemplating or engaging in, is as startling today as when I first encountered it thirty years ago in Lifton's writing. As is Lifton's poignant and brilliant mosaic of the horrors of the bomb and living in its aftermath. The descriptions of how a city like Hiroshima was literally wiped out of existence in a few instants are alone worth the price of admission to these pages.
These canvasses as well as the Vietnam war are covered in a detailed moral memoir of an engaged life that has just been published as Witness to an Extreme Century by the Free Press. Lifton was both an analyst and activist on many of these issues and has written on the protean man- always changing attitudes and consciousness, cults like Aum Shinryiko in Japan and numerous topics dealing with history and matters of human survival.
What stands out for me is his perceptive analysis of what he calls "totalism"-a totalistic mental environment in which "eight deadly sins" are present-

1-milieu control of virtually all communication in the environment
2-mystical manipulation from un uncertain source above
-3 the demand for an absolute purity of good to defeat an absoolute evil
4-the cult of self-confession(eg inChina)
5-sacred science,meaning claims for doctrinal truth that is divine and scientifically "proven"
6-loading the language--
7- doctrine taking precedence over person,with doubt considered as an aberration or personal flaw- and
8-dispensing of existence/and or the right to live between those who have a right to existence and others who ,unfortunately do not.

In this approach to totalism is much of fundamentalism , claims for national exceptionalism and superiority, cult behavior,and other aspects of authoritarian and doubtless minds.

This is one of the most important memoirs I have ever read.Cool, level headed and with some optimism too for the survival of our species, despite the ugliness of the last 100 years.

The photo above of the mushroom cloud is of Bikini atoll in the Pacific where the US conducted above ground nuclear tests right after World War II and allowed military photographers to view the explosion from less than a mile away.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bloomsday and Al Goldstein;Robert Jay Lifton-Witness to an Extreme Century

I celebrated Bloomsday(June 16, the day in 1904 that the entire events of Ulysses take place)at Left Bank Books, the fine antiquarian/used bookshop on 8th Ave between Jane and West 12th st.
While numerous readers declaimed from various chapters of Ulysses, when it came my turn, I read sections from the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Finnegan's Wake, wherein Joyce expounds on the great feminine archetype of life-giving waters, the Liffey, and in the course of doing so buries hundreds of hidden names of the world's rivers.
As if this treasonous activity weren't enough, I then proceeded to read from Selected Joyce Letters, a one volume abridgement and selection of new and previously expurgated letters published after the death of Nora Joyce, James Joyce's wife, and edited by Richard Ellmann.
In the course of doing so I explained how I found Joyce through Al Goldstein, the once famous publisher of Screw magazine and first amendment warrior.
The circuitous route went like this: I was just beginning my legal career, doing First amendment work and libel readings, when I saw the cover of the then current issue of Goldstein's sex tabloid Screw, brazenly announce the publication of just published smutty missives from James Joyce to his amour,the Irish actress Nora Barnacle in 1909.
Naturally, Al Goldstein, who was never one to turn down an opportunity to push the boundaries of free expression, took the most juicy letters just published in the Ellmann edition, and sprayed or splayed them all over the pages of his magazine.
My assignment as fledgling attorney was to write the obligatory infringement letter on behalf of Stephen Joyce and the Joyce Estate, it being understood that it was unlikely they would engage in court proceedings.
We did so, and shortly thereafter left for vacation in Afghanistan , India and Nepal( those were the days when one could still safely take one month vacations)
When I came back, numerous people visited me and asked what I was doing with multiple copies of Screw magazine in my desk drawers. I explained that these were potential plaintiff's court exhibits and asked why they had entered my office and were prowling though my desk.
All I got In return was a knowing smile...

Thus I learned two inportant lessons-1- always lock your desk when you leave on vacation and 2- James Joyce, who wrote the steamiest prose I had seen must be worth reading- So I ventured beyond the Portrait of an Artist and Dubliners into the encyclopedic dayworld of Ulysses and night world of Finnegan's Wake and life was never the same...
And it was from one of these letters that I read last week, the one sent on Dec. 16, 1909 which says F*** me in multiple imperative phrases ,each for a different and unusual position,and continues with "Basta basta per Dio -[soon I shall be in] Trieste... I shall be happy there-I figlioli,il fuoco,una buona mangiata, un caffe nero,un Brasil,(the children, a fire, a good dinner, a black coffee, a Brazil cigar)
...A hundred thousand kisses darling!
It's as hot now as it was `102 years ago...