Monday, December 15, 2008


After a delayed flight out of India, then not finding a stand-by seat out of London, I finally made it back to Calgary on Saturday. I was welcomed by the warm arms of my wife and the icy embrace of a Calgary cold snap. It was nearly 30 degrees when I got on the plane in Kolkata. When I got off the plane in Calgary it was minus 40 degrees with the wind-chill. Who needs anything like as amorphous as 'culture shock' when the landscape offers you actual physical shock.

My time home, however, will be short. I will be abroad again by mid-February visiting the West Bank Security barrier, the fencing around the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and the fallen wall on the divided island of Cyprus. I've been to Israel and Palestine several times and I am excited to return, but I am most looking forward to Cyprus. Aside from a little history, I don't know very much about the place, but I can't imagine a Greek and Turk-populated island in the Mediterranean can be anything less than beautiful. Certainly the weather will be better.

I will spend the next couple of months writing down the material I managed to glean from my time in India. As I mentioned before, I will have to return to Kashmir - and visit the Pakistan side - in the spring or summer of 2009 to do my research on the Line of Control, but I probably have enough material on the Indo-Bangladesh border fencing. I won't know for sure until I get writing.

Another task I have to accomplish before I leave is to prepare a lecture for a monthly gathering of the Canadian Author's Association in Edmonton. I was honoured when they invited me to address their membership in January and speak about travel writing. Still, I am nervous. I have no problem reading from my work in front of a crowd, in fact I really enjoy it, but I have never stood before an audience and talked about my own writing process and philosophy. I am sure it will be a useful exercise but I am feeling rather jittery.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Café moment

Yesterday, as I was reading in a Starbucks-clone café, the man sitting at the next table removed one of his sandals and began caressing his bare foot while whistling ‘My Heart will Go On.’

Finishing in Kolkata

I am back in Kolkata winding down the last few days of my trip. I will be home in Calgary on the weekend, and while returning to a Canadian winter and the Christmas nonsense holds little appeal I am glad, in a way, that this trip is over. It has been a frustrating couple of months. Early snowfalls, security bureaucracy, controversial elections, official-but-undeclared curfews, and the occasional terrorist attack scuttled much of what I wanted to do. At least I’ll be home for Christmas Eve dinner at my grandmother’s house.

(My wife has been printing off my blog entries and giving them to my grandmother to read. This is no small task. Nonna is in her eighties and English is her second language. She manages to read through the blogs alright, but apparently it takes the better part of a day. Each time I write a word she might find difficult I feel a brief snap of guilt. Wait until she sees all the Indian names in the next paragraph….)

I’ve been spending the last few days eating Bengali and Hakka Chinese food, and immersing myself in ‘Indian Lit.’ Having given up on ‘wall’ research for the time being means I can devote serious hours to other people’s books. The shops and streetstalls are filled with wonderful Indian authors that I never read before. This is a welcome change from North African travels earlier this year when I could not find English books anywhere. In India, I’ve ‘discovered’ Kirin Desai (I am the last to read Inheritance of Loss, no doubt), Amitav Ghosh, Siddharta Deb, Basharat Peer, Amit Choudury, Sanjoy Hazarika, and Calcutta literary saint Rabindranath Tagore.

What most of these writers have in common is a remarkable eye for detail and a poet’s gift for description. Even when the narrative fails to hold my attention, which happens once in a while, I am happy just to give in to the beauty of the language.

It is strange to me, then, that the same community that produces such rich and observant fiction can write such bland nonfiction. I read an anthology of Indian nonfiction early on in this trip and was alarmed at the clichés and flat prose. I found the same phenomenon in another anthology, called AIDS Sutra. Even gifted Indian novelists – with some exceptions, my friend Jaspreet Singh being one of them – tend to write stilted nonfiction.

I wonder why this is. In spite of India’s pantheon of great writers, nonfiction is a genre that does not seem to be fully embraced or explored. The abundance of Bollywood biographies in the ‘best of nonfiction’ anthology is, perhaps, a good indication of this.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Imposing identity

I’ve spent the last week or so in Assam and Tripura. I intended to make another attempt at the fenced-in village of Bhogdanga in Assam. I had a contact at a television news channel that was willing to ‘lend’ me some credentials, but the attacks in Mumbai meant that all of India’s more sensitive border areas were made even tighter and I was not granted permission to visit. Instead I spent a few days in the company of anthropologists, photographers and general smart people. We had impassioned discussions about bombings and borders inspired by some fine Nepalese rum.

One observation, among many, that related to my walls project was this: The construction of physical barriers along borders inspires feelings of nationalism that were not already there. I find this very interesting. It is the opposite phenomenon I witnessed in Melilla, for example, where the fencing is built because of a sense of national and cultural pride, not the other way around.

On some parts of the Indo-Bangladesh frontier, the actual borderline separates people of different ethnic groups that have little in common culturally. This was often the case in Meghalaya, where ‘tribal’ groups such as the Khasis lived on the Indian side of the border, while Muslim Bengalis lived on the other side. However, in many other areas, people on both sides of the border share the same culture, language and religion. Before the fencing, people crossed over freely to visit with family, go to the market, or fetch water never considering, or at least not caring, that they were crossing an international border. The invisible boundary, drawn by some official in some office in some city far away, was meaningless. And so, too, was the idea of nationality. If I share my entire culture with the people in the next village, does it really matter that I am Indian and they are Bangladeshi?

But the fencing changes things. Yesterday I visited two villages along the border fencing on the outskirts of Agaratala, the capital city of the tiny Indian state of Tripura. With a Border Security Forces officer as my guide, was able to cross through the fence into the so-called ‘No Man’s Land’ that separates the two nations. Women led cows by tether ropes to nibble on dry rice stalks. Men tended to vines of bitter melon. Girls in bright saris poured water onto budding cauliflower from shiny bulbous pots they carried on their head. Clearly this was some man’s land.

A young man told me how, before the fencing, he used to cross the frontier to play cricket with his cousins. Or watch the Bangladeshi trains go by. Now he only sees them after he passes through the soldier-guarded gate and goes to work in the fields. He has to be back before six in the evening; that is when the gate is locked each night. And I met an old man with a fabulous white beard and striped-rotten teeth whose family house is on the Bangladeshi side of the fence. A worn footpath from his compound led straight past the border pillars into Bangladesh. His family has had that plot of land for 100 years, long before the ‘nation’ of Bangladesh even existed. In the past, the invisible line meant little to him, perhaps it still does, but the Indian government now insists his family move to the Indian side of the fence. “It seems it would be better to not have relations with Bangladeshi people anymore,” he said.

Since the fencing went up three years ago, people cannot freely visit family across the line. The impromptu cricket games between cousins no longer happen. Those who live in the shadow of fence posts and barbed wire are starting to develop a sense of national, political identity that never existed before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it is not organic. It is imposed. The fence demands allegiance.

On Mumbai

I’ve resisted commenting on the Mumbai attacks in this blog because I don’t think that my take on the disaster is at all relevant. I was, thankfully, not in Mumbai at the time, not even close, and I knew none of the victims. I cannot pretend to understand what Mumbaikers are feeling – though to assign a single emotion to a city of 18 million unique souls is insulting anyway – and I don’t want to give armchair commentary. There is enough nonsense in the Indian media. The newspapers and news channels clang with typically grotesque post-disaster rhetoric that creates heroes in one moment and assigns blame to villains in the next. Politicians read bland pre-typed statements while the pantheon of Bollywood icons step forward in their turn to give their own starlit take on the disaster. I find this repulsive, too, though I suppose these cinema icons represent the class of Mumbaikers who could actually afford a room, or even a meal, at the hotels targeted by the terrorists.

I will say, though, that the attack in Mumbai, as well as the bombings in Guwahati which happened a little over a month ago, reminded me of an essay I read two months ago by Amitav Ghosh. I don’t have the essay with me so I cannot quote directly from it, but in it Ghosh speaks about another spate of violence – I don’t remember which; perhaps the riots in 1993 – and the way it was written about. He said writers have an unfortunate tendency to approach violence aesthetically. They feel that violence must be described in its lurid, realistic detail, and ‘writing violence’ means painting a visceral scene of black smoke and blood. He doesn’t mean that the writing is necessarily gratuitous, or even poorly written, but that it focuses only on the mechanics of death.

Ghosh argues that this sort of writing pays humanity no service. Instead, writers should step back and observe the acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that always accompany such tragedies. And he is not talking about the rescue workers, SWAT team members and fire-fighters who are the official, media- and politician-christened heroes of these terrible days – though their efforts should, of course, be celebrated. He is speaking of those for whom heroism is not their job. He is talking about those who lead others through dark hallways to emergency doors. Those who drag the bleeding to shelter. Those who press fabric torn from their own clothing against the wounds of strangers.

This is not heroism. It is humanity. It is the light that exists on the other side of the darkest shadow. Sadly, it gets the last of the ink if it gets any at all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Photos of Srinagar

Since it has been a while since I've posted any photos - and since I seem to be scamming someone's wireless signal in my Delhi hotel room - I thought it a good time to add some visuals.

All these photos are from Srinagar, the largest city in the Kashmir Valley. (The man in the close-up is the guy who made my new hat.)

Kashmir postponed

Sadly, I left Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley the other day without having visited the villages I wanted to see. My research plans were frustrated by the combination of snowfall-closed roads and the idiosyncrasies of elections in a disputed territory: general strikes, sudden blockades, and undeclared curfews. I will return to Kashmir in the spring or summer after temperatures warm and tempers cool.

The trip, though, was not a waste of time. Being in Srinagar for the elections was fascinating, if sometimes frustrating. There were three general strikes in the six days that I spent in the city. Each was a result of the Indian army shutting down the roads in fear of protests and marches against the election. With the streets closed, shopkeepers did not bother to open. There were soldiers everywhere, armed with rifles or batons, standing bored on street corners or building fires out of trash to keep warm.

Whatever tension the blockades may have caused was not apparent in the faces of the boys who, with a day off school, took their flat wooden bats into the empty the streets for impromptu games of cricket. Every block had its own game going, some overlapping with others, with cardboard boxes, traffic pylons and wooden planks standing in for wickets. It was a fabulous scene: the severity of men with guns juxtaposed with the happy clamor of boys with bats and plastic balls.

Bill Clinton once said that Kashmir was the “most dangerous place on earth.” This is a territory being fought over by two nuclear-armed enemies. The potential for an unfathomable disaster is as great here as anywhere. But it is important to say that while the political situation has, in the past, stumbled drunkenly towards crisis, and may do so again, the Kashmiris themselves are not brutes. Far from it. I was treated with generosity by everyone I met. One can be passionate about a cause, and one can live in a disputed place, but political frustration does not cancel out one’s impulsive tendency towards kindness.

There is a tendency of some travel writers to exaggerate the danger of the places they visit in order to come off as adventurous or romantically reckless. This sort of writing is lazy and offensive. Doing research for this trip I came across a two-part story by a Western journalist who travelled through Kashmir. He spent one night as the guest of a village family. They offered him tea and dinner and a place to sleep, but the writer kept repeating the danger he thought he was in. He mused over and over about his fear that the man who invited him into his home would eventually slit his throat, as if the offer of a meal and a bed was a ruse for murder.

First of all, if the writer was indeed afraid for his life, he would never have accepted the invitation. Of course not. Secondly, and most infuriatingly, the danger he manufactures does a disservice to the people he is writing about. Especially in Muslim Kashmir. In a world already sick with Islamophobia, it is irresponsible to tar all Muslims as potential murderers in a cheap attempt to paint yourself as brave.

But I digress.

My trip out of Srinagar had to start early. It was another strike day and I was afraid the highway would be closed once the sun came up, so I walked to the taxi park before sun loosened the thin crust of ice on the open sewers. I got on the last transport headed south. It was a rare road journey done in the daylight; I’ve suffered through far too many overnight bus trips in the last couple of months. The Sumo, an eight-passenger Land Cruiser-clone, climbed into and out of the Kashmir Valley, where soldiers walked through the morning mist with metal detectors and swept the roadside for bombs, and where men at the tea stalls sold saffron packets, wicker baskets and cricket bats.

The temperature began to rise as we descended the foothills of the Himalayas’ southern slopes to Jammu, Indian Kashmir’s ‘winter capital.’ The other passengers and I spent our time peeling away layers of clothing as the temperature rose, and complained as our driver stopped repeatedly for tea and cigarettes. Only I seemed amused by the hundreds of pink-faced monkeys sitting on the roadside like cranky old men waiting for an overdue bus.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In Kashmir

Winter came early to Srinagar this year. It is rare to receive snow in the Kashmir Valley before December. It reminded me of my home in Calgary, where winter always catches autumn unawares and snow chases the still-yellowing leaves from the poplar trees. At least here in Kashmir, winter seems to have realized its rashness and pulled back a little. The sky has cleared, the air warmed, and the snow melted into mud.

Still, Kashmir does not fully reveal its beauty in November. It only suggests it. Birds step across the green lotus pads in Dal Lake, but the flowers are not in bloom. The houseboats are shuttered and empty. The vegetables have already been harvested from the floating gardens, and the saffron already plucked from the purple crocus fields. The famous Mughal gardens are gated and their fountains dry. The Himalaya Mountains are faint through the winter clouds, like Gandhi’s face in the watermark of a worn ten-rupee bill.

Since the bulk of my travels in the last decade have been in the Islamic world, my arrival in Kashmir felt like a homecoming of sorts, even though the security at the airport made it feel as if I was landing in an army base. I feel comfortable among Muslims. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hinduism is a complete mystery to me. I can’t keep straight all those multi-hued and -headed gods, and I don’t understand the rituals or philosophy. But I understand Islam. It is refreshing to hear the familiar symphony of inshallah and salaam aleikum.

I’ve come to Kashmir to write about the Line of Control, the ceasefire line that separates the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir. Since Partition in 1947, the battle for Kashmir has defined relations between the two neighbors. Not long ago, Pakistan and India nearly hurled nuclear missiles at each other over the territory. These days, though, Pakistan has other things to worry about: a resurgent Taliban, American air-strikes over its territory, and national bankruptcy. Here in Srinagar you rarely even hear the word Pakistan. The Kashmiris much rather talk about azadi: Freedom.

“Do not say that Kashmir is in India,” said the young man in the bookstore on Residency Road, even though I didn’t. For him, and for most of the people I’ve talked to, Kashmir is an undivided state that has been denied independence. “Kashmiris are living in a cage,” the man said. “We are tired of being slaves to India.” Elections are going on right now, and there are several independence parties, but none can claim wide-ranging support. There are no inspiring leaders, and Kashmiris, especially the young, are distrustful of the politics. Some parties have called for a boycott of the elections, and when polling happens here in Srinagar on Christmas Eve, few of the men I talked to will cast a ballot.

I visited with a retired history professor, Dr. Khan, in his home the other day. We drank tea and talked about the Line of the Control. He scoffed at it, and called it a “colonial conspiracy.” Dr. Khan said that the villages closest to the Line – the places I hope to visit – are where the people suffer the most. “They are constantly surrounded by military. They live in perpetual fear.” Then he added, “Whenever you draw a line, you commit an inhuman act.”

I will seek permission from the District Commissioner to visit border towns both here in the Valley and in Ladakh. In the meantime, I am happy to walk amid Srinagar’s red brick and timber neighborhoods, eat apricot kernels, and stare into Kashmiri faces. Winter may have dulled the landscape, but grey November does not detract from the beauty of the Kashmiris themselves. Great sloping noses. Eyes like dark honey. Women drape themselves in swoops of coloured scarves and walk through the streets like rolling gems. The chilly air reddens their cheeks while henna reddens men’s beards. The old men hide baskets of burning embers under their robes to stay warm. Deep wrinkles make every face a mountain range.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I am in Assam, I am.

Assam must be beautiful. Tea plantations spread over the slopes, rice patties flank the river valley, and rhinocerous lumber in the national parks. But I haven’t seen any of this. Trying to get my research done means I am spending my time in bland cities and travelling by night. The Assam I imagine is out there, but I can’t see it in the dark or in the streets of the capital. The closest I get are the rhino posters in the hotel and the beautiful Assamese tea I drink all day long from the road-side stalls.

The reason I am in Assam is to visit Bhogdanga, a village on the Bangladeshi frontier that is completely surrounded by the border fence. But I haven’t seen Bhoghdanga either. The border area is sensitive, I am told. A hotbed for militant elements. “Heaven for terrorists.” Certainly, too dangerous for a foreigner. I was forbidden to go anywhere near Bhogdanga, so instead I spent the other day in Dhubri, the closest city of any size. All day I was tailed by security forces, intelligence officials, and cloned policemen in identical tan uniforms, identical red berets and identical moustaches. They were there for my security, or so they said.

It became clear right away, though, that these men were not only interested in my protection. They were suspicious of me and my intentions here. When I telephoned a contact in the capital, one officer listened to the conversation over my shoulder. When I used an Internet café, two policemen went in after I left to question the proprietor. Four officers stood outside the shop where I got a shave and a haircut, and six men, one aromatically drunk, were at the bus station in the evening to make sure I really left town. It was a frustrating day.

It was hard to appreciate Dhubri while under surveillance and hearing the constant putt-putt-putting of police motorcycles following me all day. But now, two days later and in the capital, I see what a beautiful place Dhubri was. The town sits on the edge of the Brahmaputra River. Having nothing else to do, I watched the morning labourers arrive in Dhubri from villages across the river in great wooden boats. Hindu women in bright salwars and bracelets clinking on their wrists. Long-bearded Muslim men and their black-clad wives coming to barter for lambs. Sikhs here to pray at the gurudwara.

Muscular, barefoot men heaved sacks of onions and neatly bundled bamboo from overloaded carts onto boats for the return trip across the river. Bicycle rickshaw-wallahs argued for custom on the streets. Goats nibbled on whatever trash they could find, and cows – safe from the butcher’s block here amid the Hindus – lazed in the sunshine and dust.

At night, once the days commerce was over and the riverfront quiet, birds and bats rioted in the treetops. And a full moon followed the purple-smear of dusk to scatter shards of light over the Brahmaputra.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

After Meghalaya

I’ve just finished my tour of the villages along the Bangladesh border in the Indian province of Meghalaya. This is some stunning landscape: overwhelmingly green with slender betel nut trees, paan vines, rice patties and fruit orchards. Many of the people who live in these areas are known as ‘scheduled tribes,’ India’s official indigenous peoples. Most of the tribes in the area have adopted Christianity with vigour. There are churches everywhere, Bible verses painted on trucks, and statues of Christ along the roadside. Still, some of the old beliefs still persist. Yesterday at the main market in Shillong, a goat was slaughtered and his entrails ‘read’ as an oracle of the year ahead

Traditionally, the official border has meant little to the people who live on the frontier. The villagers here are used to passing freely across the line to sell fruit and betel nut to the Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshis come north to sell meat, fish and imported kitchenware. Security has tightened in recent years, but India’s Border Security Force soldiers assigned to protect India from ‘infiltration’ are happy enough to let visitors pass through for a small bribe.

But times are changing. India’s entire border with Bangladesh is due to be fenced, and in light of the recent bombings in Gauhati which were blamed on cross-border militants, the government has made fencing a national security priority. Those who live on the borderlands understand this, and are resigned to the coming of the fence, but they disagree with its route.

According to an agreement between India and Bangladesh, no defensive structures can be built within 150 yards of the actual border, or ‘zero line.’ This means that for many villagers, their land will lie on the other side of the fence. For some of them, their homes will be lost. The government promises to build gates to allow access to the fields, and there are rumours of compensation, but no one knows any details. Where will the gates be located? How long will they be opened for and who mans them? Who decides the value of the land that is lost and when is the money paid out?

Also, the villagers worry about the security of their crops. Even now without a fence, villagers assign armed guards to watch over the fields during harvest season to protect against thieves from Bangladesh. Who will protect their crops when the fence is built?

The issue here is the collision of big, national interests with the ‘small’ interests of those who work the land. Big issues like terrorism and infiltration have louder voices than the small landowner who needs to sell his oranges or tend to his rice. I had tea with a village headman whose family home is close to the zero line. He will lose the house if the fence follows the planned route. Even if he is compensated for the house, there is nowhere else to build. He doesn’t know where he will go. “We are not rich people,” he said, “or big landowners. We are labourers. If the fence comes and we lose our land, what are we supposed to do?”

It may be small consolation, but they have plenty of time to consider their options. The newspapers are full of politician bluster about sealing the border quickly, but very little of the fence has been completed. I rode along one border road near Baghmara to see the progress on the fence. In some areas, the posts were up. In other areas the strip of land for the fence was still being flattened. Mostly, though, there was no evidence of fencing at all, and Bangladeshi traders were passing over the line without any problems.

Small black stones on the edges of the rice patties claimed ‘India ends here,’ but only in the quietest of whispers.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Archers of Shillong

Here are some photos of the daily archery stakes in Shillong. Archers fire arrows across a pitch at a tiny bamboo cylinder while on-lookers lay their bets with bookies around town.

Tomorrow I am on my way to the villages along Meghalaya's border with Bangladesh. It will be a fascinating trip. The fence that India has built along the border is formidable and, according to the Governor of Meghalaya, is important to counter the smuggling of cattle and, especially, the movements of militants across the border.

However, the fence is a hardship for some poor villagers who have always traded with villagers across the line. The fence makes this impossible. I hope to meet with these farmers and write their stories.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A First Look at Meghalaya

In spite of the day’s tragedy, the drive from Guwahati, in the state of Assam, to Shillong, in Meghalaya, was a wonderful one. This is hill country where smart slant-roofed houses line the highway and where the landscape is clean and green. I love the aroma of the forest. It reminded me of the days I spent in a forest monastery in Togo a decade ago. There was that same freshness. The same vegetative sweetness. (Scent memory amazes me). We passed hilltops shrouded by rain-clouds and palm trees reflected in placid lakes. This was my first experience with ‘natural’ beauty on this trip, and after Mumbai and Calcutta, I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

Meghalaya is predominantly Christian, and as we drove into the region the statues of blue Krishna are replaced with white Christ’s, and the tiny roadside stalls selling rice with pig’s blood, a local specialty, outnumber the vegetarian eateries. The people, too, are different. They look more East Asian than Indian. Once we reached Shillong I was impressed with how clean the city was – again, especially coming from Calcutta. And although this is one of the most economically depressed regions of India, there are no beggars on the streets. I wonder why that is.

The nights are cool. Another relief after Calcutta’s and Mumbai’s swelter.

Of Fireworks and Other Explosions

Just like the last Hindu celebration I witnessed in Mumbai, I don’t understand Diwali, the “Festival of Lights.” It has something to do with the blue-skinned Krishna’s victory over something or other. Every street in Calcutta had a temporary shrine to Krishna built. Some were tiny modest structures. Others were grand tents several metres high. Inside was a statue of Krishna, trampling his defeated foe with a garland of severed heads around his neck.

Most exciting, though, especially for the young, were the fireworks. People set off fireworks all night long all around the city. These were not professional fireworks displays, but the festivities of individual families who bought their 'crackers' from the markets. I watched from the roof of my hotel as the city lit up all around me. There were so many crackers going off it sounded like a war zone. Once and a while, a burst of coloured flares would rise up in a bouquet from one street or another. Sometimes the fireworks did not have the altitude to reach over the rooftops, and one had to watch for the occasional flash of light from between buildings, or the wall of some tower suddenly light up with colour from the explosions I could not see.

The boy at the hotel said that the fireworks would end at midnight, but they went on all night long. The next morning, scraps of coloured foil and piles of ash and soot littered the street, and there was so much particulate matter still suspended in the air that flights from Calcutta’s airport had to be delayed. They call it the Diwali Effect. It happens every year.

Yesterday I left Calcutta and flew to Guwahati. I arrived just in time for the explosions. I don’t know how much play the attack got in the Western media, but northeastern India is in a crisis right now. Five bombs exploded in Guwahati. Four others blew up in smaller towns in the province of Assam. The bodies are still being counted, but up to 72 people have been killed and hundreds injured. I'll spare you the gruesome details that the papers did not.

I did not hear the bombs go off – I must have been in my taxi from the airport at the time – and I didn’t visit the scenes of the carnage. Instead, I opted to leave Guwahati and head to Shillong, a city about a hundred kilometres south where I am scheduled to meet the governor tomorrow. Our driver had to take an alternate route to Shillong since the bombing shut down the main highway. We were lucky to get out when we did, because a curfew was imposed and the roads going in and out of Guwahati were closed.

The mood is somewhat tense here in Shillong as well, even though we are in a different province. There are police on the roundabouts, and last night, at ten o’clock, a half-dozen police knocked on my hotel room door. They were going from room to room making sure that all the guests had good reasons to be in Shillong.

Considering that most commentators blame jihadists from Bangladesh for the bombings, my research into the border fence has suddenly taken on a whole new urgency.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

So Happy This Didn't Happen to Me

(I don't know if I am allowed to just cut and paste stories from The Globe and Mail onto this blog, but I can't resist posting this one.)

Flush from embarrassment


Special to The Globe and Mail

October 18, 2008

It didn't come crashing to a shrieking halt. Bags didn't fly missile-like from overhead racks. And people didn't tumble into the aisles.

Instead, all was calm as the train rolled gently to a standstill: This is what happens when you pull the emergency stop?

We were two weeks into our journey across Western India, heading north from Udaipur through the colourful state of Rajasthan. And we were relaxed for a change.

After our white-knuckle drives on India's treacherously narrow highways (where the still-smoking wreckage of transport trucks seemed part of the natural landscape) and agonizingly long journeys on buses vibrating with Bollywood music, spending a night on a train felt like a walk in the park.
Print Edition - Section Front

Indeed, rail travel in India is a fantastic way to see the place. More than 63,000 kilometres of track criss-cross the country's 29 states, and more than 13 million passengers ride the rails each day, staggering numbers by any measure.

You can travel first, second or third class. You can standing room only, or opt for an air-conditioned sleeper, complete with freshly-laundered sheets. You can also travel in the privacy of your own spacious cabin. Or, if you're a woman travelling solo, hop on a female-only car.

Best of all, you can open your windows to the scents of sea and spice (and diesel), and to the calls of touts and hawkers peddling chai and spicy samosas.

Much as I was enjoying this heady awakening of my senses, though, I was distracted by the rumblings of my stomach. So with some trepidation - what would a toilet used by hundreds of millions of people look like? - I headed off to the washroom.

Thankfully, Indian Railways is the world's largest state employer and I had little to fear. Somebody, clearly, must be assigned to clean the toilets. And now it was up to me. I glanced at the sign posted on the wall behind the toilet: Flush before and after use, its bold, black letters advised; in front of the sign dangled a bright, red, chain.

I shrugged and pulled hard, staring down at the toilet. But there was only silence. It was then that I noticed the foot pedal on the floor. And in a flash, the adrenalin began to course through me.

With a gentle sigh, the train started to slow and I made my way quickly back to my seat.

"It's stopping," I whispered anxiously to my unconcerned partner.

"Uh huh," he said, not looking up from his book.

"You don't understand. I did it. I pulled the emergency stop!" I could hear the panic in my voice as he stared at me in amazement.

We glanced at the sign posted across from our seat: "To stop train, pull chain," it read. "Penalty for use without reasonable and sufficient cause, fine up to Rs. 1,000 and/or imprisonment up to one year."

I imagined police, angry passengers, a year behind bars. I could pay the 1,000-rupee fine (about $20). But would I get to choose?

And then, in a small voice, the child within me spoke. "Do you think they'll know it was me?"

Within a minute I heard shouts and saw men gathering around our rail car. We poked our heads out the window and followed the fingers pointing upward.

Busted. A small red flag flew accusingly from an opening in our roof.

"It was me," I yelled, anguished. "It was an accident!"

And then I watched in horror as word of an "accident" spread like wildfire through the car.

"No, no. It was me." I said, struggling to get the story back on track. "I thought I was flushing the toilet."

More shouts, more head-shaking, more quizzical expressions. Finally, a passenger beside me leaned out the window, translating.

Silence. Disbelief. Then, miraculously, laughter. Giggles and chortles and outright guffaws. Rail travel in India is nothing if not entertaining.

I can't remember if I ever made it back to the washroom on that trip. But with no fine, no jail term, no major public humiliation, that train journey remained a relief.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Comedians and Street Sleepers

It is amazing to me the two societies that exist here. There are the middle and upper classes who go to work in their business suits and dress up for weekends at the nightclubs. And there is the population that lives just beneath their knees on the ground and in the dirt, the people that seem miniaturized by poverty. The two groups occupy the same space at the same time, but might as well be on different planets. And neither group seems relevant to the other aside from the occasional coins that drop into someone’s tin cup.

The other night I saw both sides. I watched the Canadian comedian Russell Peters perform at the Science City auditorium in eastern Calcutta. With ticket prices starting at $25, this was an event for the upper classes only. It was a great show. Peters’ parents are originally from Calcutta and this was the first time he performed a show here. The crowd – dressed in shiny saris, high heels and sports jackets – welcomed him like a favourite son. They even laughed when he ridiculed Indian film stars and mused about what Bollywood-inspired porn films might be like.

After the show, I decided to walk back to the centre of town rather than try for a taxi. It was around ten o’clock and the shops in this part of Calcutta had been closed for some time. Along the sidewalks were the street people. (One Indian journalist I read calls them ‘starvelings.’). There was one about every hundred metres, sleeping on the pavement. Some dozed beneath trucks or rickshaws. Some had a scrap of cardboard to sleep on. Others a sheet of cloth or plastic. One man on the Circus Street flyover even had a small pillow. But the most ragged slept directly on the ground.

I wonder if these people choose where they sleep. Why this stretch of pavement or this traffic median and not the next? Are they in the same place every night? Or do they wander until they are tired, then simply lay down?

I passed a one couple that was still awake. A man and a woman, camped out on a flattened carton and leaning against the side of a building. They had their arms around each other and sat there smiling and laughing as if at a picnic in a park.

At the Bangladesh Border

The official at the Border Security Forces office with the small cheery moustache laughed when I told him I wanted to see the border fence at Jayantipur. “That is impossible,” he said. “It is a restricted area.” Otherwise, he and the other soldiers in the office were friendly and happy to answer all my questions. They told me that in some places, the fence separates Indian farmers from their own fields, and that the fence itself was likely inspired by the “Palestinian Wall,” but I couldn’t get anywhere near it.

I had come by train that morning from Calcutta, and even though my intention of seeing the border fence was bust, it was worth coming to the area just to get out of the big city. This was my first foray out of the teeming Indian megopoli since I arrived in the country. It was a relief to be able to breathe the air.

I hired a bicycle rickshaw man with red, paan-stained teeth to bring me from the train station to the border post. At first we were stuck in a jam of similar rickshaws, carts, and bicycles. Most were armed with an old-style squeeze-bulb horn that the drivers honked continually. It sounded like a riot of angry rubber ducks. Eventually the traffic thinned out and I was on a wide road lined with trees and barbers’ stalls. In this part of rural India, the villagers use cow dung for fuel, and nearly all the trees along the road were spotted with the drying brown patties. Each had a hand-print in the middle left by whoever did the splatting. We passed over small rivers and beside clean ponds where women bathed and boys swam. After Calcutta, I was struck by how green everything was. In the cities, even the trees seem grey.

After being denied access to the fence, I walked into Jayantipur anyway, curious as to how far I could go. A teenage boy on a bicycle stopped me. He spoke a little English and when I told him I was just going for a walk he shook his head. “That way is Bangladesh,” he warned. “No-man’s land. Soldiers.” He mimed a soldier firing a rifle. “AK-47!” He beckoned me to follow him back to the main road and offered to double me on his bicycle back to the train station. We rattled back along the main road. My driver – whose Bengali-Muslim name escapes me – was thrilled to have me as a charge. Each time we came upon a friend of his he jerked his thumb back at me, smiled and shouted “Foreigner!”

I returned to Calcutta just in time for the evening rush hour. At the station near the border, the Indians waited in tidy queues to buy tickets, but once the train arrived, it was bedlam. I was swept up in the current of pushing bodies and launched into the train purely under the power of the mob. But this was nothing compared to the scene waiting at the station in Calcutta. There must have been a thousand people fighting to get on the train as the rest of us tried to get off. Again, I had no power over any of my movements. I was ejected from the train by the surge behind me, then forced across the platform to the exit in tiny steps, trying to keep from falling. Or weeping. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Crazier still, was that the street people who sleep on the train platforms did not move. They risked being flattened by a thousand footfalls. I almost stepped on one woman. She lay on the ground, impossibly asleep in her white rags, as the wave of commuters seethed above her and did their best not to trample her to death.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Calcutta

In revenge for the burning of his wife, Sati, the God Shiva decided to destroy the universe. The God Vishnu, thankfully, stopped Shiva by flinging a discus at him. The weapon also severed Sati’s charred corpse into 51 pieces which were flung across the landscape. Her little toe landed on the banks of the Hughli River, and became a pilgrimage site that eventually grew into Calcutta: an overwhelming city of some 18 million people.

I arrived in Calcutta by train on Monday, and in describing my first impressions it is hard not to succumb to clichés of poverty. Some of the scenes on the street are punishing. Trios of naked children. Cripples wave their stumps at passersby for donations. Entire families live on a patch of sidewalk. I saw a woman lying on the pavement with two infant children. One was suckling on her breast but the woman herself was unconscious. Beggars plead in my ear and tug on my sleeves. Homes built of scraps of cardboard form against the sides of buildings. Thin men pull rickshaws or push heavy carts. The street vendors sleep on top of their stalls at night. Others sleep on the highway overpasses, inches from traffic.

But alongside of all this is a contemporary thriving city. There are smart Starbucks-clone cafés, juice bars and bookstores patronized by young couples and businessmen. Bollywood stars hawk everything from jewelry to steel rods from enormous billboards. This is not a city of homogeneous squalor, but a place where the desperately poor somehow live alongside the comfortable middle class. Sometimes directly under their feet.

Speaking of feet, I‘ve spent most of my time in India looking down. The uneven sidewalks and pavement sleepers are one reason for this, but everything, it seems is happening at ground level. The sellers, the beggars, the taxi derby are all terrestrial phenomenon. There could be angels soaring above all of this and I would have no idea.

I had an interesting conversation with some new Indian friends on my last night in Mumbai. My hotel was in Colaba, the tourist centre on Mumbai, and I had noticed that I received far less aggressive attention from the touts and souvenir sellers than some of the other foreigners did. The drum sellers and pashima scarf vendors never pestered me after I refused, but I saw the same men tail other tourists for blocks hoping to plead a sale out of them.

I was trying to figure out why this was. I thought that maybe my relatively small stature and conservative dress made me less noticeable to these guys. Compared to some of the enormous dreadlocked Aussies I might as well be invisible. Then I thought maybe I am just dark enough to pass as a local. No one would confuse me for a dark-skinned Bengali, but I could be a Parsi. And on a couple of occasions, men asked me for directions in Hindi assuming I was a local.

But my friends Angad and Tara had a different explanation. They said that these touts and sellers can spot an easy mark a mile away. That is their job, after all, and they have perfected the ability to instantly size up a potential customer. It is not that they don’t notice me, it is that they can immediately tell that I am not interested in buying and nor am I likely to be talked into it. I hadn’t given these guys enough credit. They were reading me right all along.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thinking about Travel Writing

Last night I attended a reading and discussion put on by the American Club in Mumbai. An American nature writer and poet named Bruce Berger was in town. After reading some wonderful poetry, Mr. Berger spoke with a moderator, poet Ranjit Hoskote, and the small audience about the writing life.

The discussion turned to travel writing, a genre that Berger also writes in. He talked about how great travel writing used to be, especially in the post-war years when magazines like Holiday published long-form stories by such writers as Paul Bowles. Back then, there were places in the world still to discover and explore. Now, with the global media ad cheap airfare bringing the most far-flung locales within reach – virtually if not actually – there is little left to write about.

Berger’s complaint is a common one, but I feel he is missing something. In a world where there may be no new places to discover or explore, travel writing has changed. It is no longer enough to describe an African marketplace or the beaches on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. This has already been done. Now travel writers – the good ones, at least – are seeking out narratives in these places, not just scenes. They are looking for people’s stories. They are writing about relevant things, not just postcards.

And perhaps they are doing it in disguise. No one would immediately call the ‘Letters From …’ articles in Harper’s travel writing, but the stories are long dispatches from abroad, usually with some cultural or political focus. I just finished reading a book called AIDS Sutra in which a number of authors of Indian descent, my friend Jaspreet Singh among them, told the stories of the communities in India most impacted by HIV-AIDS. The authors wrote about sex-workers in Kolkata and Andra Pradesh, AIDS orphans and the transgendered in Mumbai, and drug-addicts in Manipur. This is not a travel book by anyone’s definition, yet each story brings to life both people and their place in the world.

Perhaps we have reached the end of our explorations on this earth, but all that means is that those who write about far-away places will have to find more interesting stories. We cannot write about rivers we’ve discovered or mountains we were the first to climb. We can no longer write about ‘first contact’ with ‘the natives.’ Now we have to sit down and listen to them.

What a fantastic opportunity this is. In a time of falling towers, when people are increasingly afraid of the other, we writers are invited to tell the other’s stories. The end of discovery might turn into a golden age of travel writing. Or whatever you want to call it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Painting the Walls in Mumbai

“My friends drool over guys. They drool over cars,” said Dhanya Pilo as we walked along Chapel Road in her neighborhood. “I drool over walls.”

Meeting Dhanya and writing about her Walls Project are the primary reasons I am in Mumbai. It is an interesting story. Last year, Dhanya had just finished an internship working with a well-known fashion photographer. The work was exhausting and Dhanya was looking for “something physical” to do. Something that might, as she says "relieve her mind and eyes" and recharge her creativity. She asked her landlord if she could paint one of the walls in the compound. He agreed and Dhanya, along with some of her friends spent the day turning the bland concrete slab into a colorful mural.

This inspired an idea. Dhanya knew that there were no shortage of walls in her neighborhood that could benefit by a few licks of colour. She scouted out potential locations, sought permission from property owners, and engaged the help of the neighborhood’s artistic young people. The streetscape in Dhanya’s small corner of Bandra was was brightened by sudden splashes of colour and design, and Dhanya had found a project that had a long term vision.

Dhanya told me about the moment she knew that her idea became a Project. She had found an abandoned house in a field near where some young boys practiced volleyball. The house used to belong to a famous Indian film star, but was now crumbling. Dhanya asked the neighbors if they thought it would be okay if her friends painted the old walls. The moment they consented Dhanya summoned her friends with her mobile phone. ‘Bring paints,’ she texted them, ‘and bring your cars.’ It was night, and the artists needed to shine the headlights on the walls in order to paint.

Once the cars started arriving and the painting began, residents from all the nearby buildings came out to see what was going on. Someone called the police, but when the officers saw Dhanya and her friends weren’t vandals , they let the artists be. Now Dhanya is a neighborhood celebrity. Residents in the neighborhood call out to her to compliment her on the work, and offer up their own walls to be painted. A group of graffiti artists from France showed up in Bandra and helped paint a couple of murals. Now Dhanya cannot look at a building without thinking of it as a potential canvas.

After receiving some press for the Walls Project, Dhanya got a message from an NGO working in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s largest red-light district. The organization wanted to Dhanya to ‘import’ her project into their neighborhood and involve the sex-workers in bringing some sense of whimsy to the brothel walls.
This is what I am most interested in: the painting of Kamathipura’s walls. I want to write about what the murals might mean in such a neighborhood. And what the walls themselves represent to the people who live there. For those women working in the brothels, does it matter that the walls around them are painted with flowers? If so, why? What can art accomplish there?

Unfortunately, I may not get a chance to find out. I had hoped that the Kamathipura project would have begun around the same time I arrived in Mumbai. (It was a bit of a gamble, I know). But project has still not started and will not begin for at least another week. I’m afraid I will be gone before then. My time in India and Pakistan is short, and the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier beckons. I also need to get into Pakistan before December or my visa will expire. Writing about the walls in Kamathipura might have to wait for another time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mumbai moments

I don’t understand Hinduism. The philosophy is simple enough, but the rituals and the pantheon of multi-headed and multi-armed gods are beyond my understanding.

I witnessed a ritual on Chowpatty Beach the other night. Devout Hindus prayed and sang in front of the statues of goddesses, then they immersed the goddesses in the sea. I watched as a 50-metre effigee of Ravan, the ten-headed demon, was burned to the ground on the beach. The annual triumph of good over evil to the tune of fireworks and flame. That same day, Hindus decorated their vehicles with garlands of marigolds. Cyclists hung flowers from their bicycles. Taxi drivers broke melons in front of their cars and crushed limes beneath their tires in a ceremony of blessing.

The rains have just ended and the air is still thick with the moisture of monsoons. There was a whiff of a breeze on the beach that night, but the wind blew from the city out to the sea instead of the other way around. It was as if the water itself coaxed the dirty city air towards it, following the path of the believers who sunk their idols. The next day was the hottest yet, and the marigolds that still hung from car hoods and handlebars had grown as soft as egg yolks.

There are no neutral moments in Mumbai. Everywhere you look there is something that moves you. A man with a henna-reddened beard passes a street stall selling alarm clocks and vibrators. Another stall crushes sugar cane into juice while the bin of discarded splinters attracts flies. Burning incense sticks are rammed into the roots of trees. Bookstalls sell poorly-bound versions of famous novels, and the magazine stands offer the new Indian version of GQ. There are men who sleep on the streets every night. Women shine and sweat in their saris. At the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, wealthy members jive to a live band playing swing tunes and Elvis, while just outside, in front of the Gateway to India, beggar girls offer strings of orange blossoms to strangers in exchange for rupees. Each trip in a taxi is like an amusement park ride.

There is nothing banal in Mumbai.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In the Maximum City

I am finding it hard to know what to write about Mumbai. This is a city, after all, that has been so well-served by writers far better than I am. And one of them, Suketu Mehta, encapsulated Mumbai in two words: ‘maximum city.’

I didn't know what to expect here. Everyone I know who has travelled to India has spoken about the place in superlatives. It is like 'another planet.' It 'blows the mind.' Still, I've never been attracted to the place. The Islamic world and Africa are more my beat, and if it weren't for this walls project, I might not have visited India at all.

But my first few days here in the maximum city have been exhilarating. The streets here are like nothing I've ever seen before. They are so filled with colour and industry. Men and women sit on the pavement and thread marigolds into garlands. Streetside shops crush sugar cane into juice or press paan into betel leaves. Black and yellow taxis avoid accident by inches as they serve around pedestrians and cyclists whose bravery borders on madness. Everywhere is the smell of incense, fenugreek and car exhaust. At noon the smog filters the sun and turns the streets to sepia.

I’ve heard about the infinite hassles of India, but in the last two days in south Mumbai I’ve experienced little of it. A young man offered me hashish. Another a pretty girl for a massage. And the taxi drivers in front of my hotel plead for custom. But these offers are without aggression. I am permitted to walk amid the noise unfettered.

I don't know if my mind has been blown, but there is certainly something about this place. (I do know, however, that these are banal and obvious observations. I blame the jet lag.)

Last night I had dinner with Dhanya Pilo, an artist responsible for the Walls Project I am writing about. She and a group of young artists painted the compound walls in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, with murals and graffitti. It was a way to bring life and beauty to some drab city streets. Since then, a representative from Mumbai's largest red-light district has been in touch with Dhanya asking her to bring her Walls Project to their neighborhood. Sometime in the next few days, Dhanya will join with some of the sex-workers in the district to bring some whimsy to one of the city's most despairing areas. I am looking forward to hearing the women's stories and learning about the walls that surround them.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Literary Gluttony

Anyone else getting tired of food writing?

I started my freelance career writing about food. A fabulous little bi-monthly food magazine in Calgary called City Palate published my first paid article, an account of my time in Mali's Dogon country drinking millet beer with locals. I went on to write about a dozen or so pieces for the kindly editors at Palate. Nearly all the stories were about eating abroad. Those stories led to a monthly gig at another Calgary magazine writing profiles of local chefs. I hated that column - chefs are rarely as interesting as they think they are - but I managed to churn out ten profiles before abandoning it.

Suddenly, somehow, I was a food writer. My stories about cuisine and restaurants gained far more attention than any of my other work. One year I had written a story about two people I met while traveling in the Middle East: a twenty year-old female army officer and a former Palestinian terrorist-turned-tour guide. (This was pre-September 11th). The story meant a lot to me both personally and professionally, but was completely overshadowed by a puff-piece I wrote about the secret life of waiters. People still mention that waiter story.

The fact was, and still is, that food-writing sells magazines. I have far more success pitching food-related stories than I do any other kind. My first long-ish story for The Walrus was about two famous chefs from Konya, Turkey. EnRoute published a piece about a tavern meal my wife and I enjoyed in Istanbul, and will print a story about a cafe owner and a Chinese restauranteur in Jordan. City Palate still calls me once and a while to ask for material - usually my long-promised diatribe about breakfast diners and eggs - or to contribute to their annual 'Cheap Eats' column. This is surprising considering a number of the places I've recommended in the past have been shut down by the health board.

I've no problem eating food. I still obsess over cuisine when I travel. Just ask my poor wife who I dragged, starving, through Istanbul one summer in search of authentic anchovy pilaf. Just last week we were in Portland where we I visited cinemas that serve pizza and microbrews, and swooned at menus that included such delightful weirdness such as braised lamb BLT's, quail with marrow sauce, and foie gras profiteroles. And I can't wait to fill my stomach in India and Pakistan this fall.

I love the eating. I'm just weary of the writing.

Perhaps it has something to do with what has happened to food. Groceries have become status symbols. You don't believe me, check out the crowds at the Calgary Farmer's Market in their lululemon pants and zillion dollar baby-carriages. Ingredients are fads. Last year you couldn't find a menu without smoked paprika and pork belly. The year before it was pea shoots. Now we are pickling everything. Television chefs are adored for their sociopathology - only in pro-wrestling are villians so popular. Bartenders are mixologists now. Today people refer to themselves as 'foodies' in the same way they used to describe themselves as 'wine connoisseurs.' (Both terms are never used by real experts in food or wine. Mention to your waiter that you are a foodie or a connoisseur and watch his or her eyes roll). Tap water is 'in.' Writing about this stuff feels like prostitution.

Granted, there is some fine food writing out there. I just finished reading John McPhee's essay "Giving Good Weight" about the farmers' markets in New York City during the 1970s. It was fabulous. Saveur Magazine and gastronomica is full of good writing. And, quite frankly, my Konya piece, "Sufi Gourmet," is the best thing I've written in a while. I guess the key for me is that food-writing has to be about culture. Not pop-culture. If I write about food again, it will have to be a story with some meat on it. Something with relevance and real characters. No more empty calories.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cheap Books

Hello all.

It was one of those moments that eventually humbles all writers. I recently discovered that the hardcover edition of my last book, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, has been remaindered. This means that it will soon appear on those bargain tables in front of bookstores alongside back-issues of The Believer and books about gardening.

I managed to rescue a couple of boxes of P&P from such a fate and I am selling them cheap to anyone out there in Bloggerstan who might be interested. I will unload them for $12 bucks each; that's less than half of the cover price and cheaper, even, than the paperback edition. If you live in North America, I will pay for the postage. Hell, I'll even sign them.

I am under no illusions that the book will suddenly be a hot commodity among the readers of this blog - I am no doubt related to most of you - so I am not going to set up a PayPal account or anything like that. If you want a copy just email me at harmattan(at)telus(dot)net and we can work something out.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Forgotten Wall

Here is a very brief excerpt from the piece I wrote in Banff.

It is a time of no war and no peace. The ceasefire holds but cracks are starting to show. The refugees wait, and though one man says it is courageous to be patient, it has already been more than thirty years. There are more than a hundred thousand refugees and they’ve built a nation out of nothing on wretched hard-packed sand. They are ready to cross over the wall that separates them from home.

The wall is built of sand and stone, but also of rumors, half-truths and bluster. I hear the wall is an Israeli design, and that Americans provided the radar installations. I hear the entire Moroccan army stands along its length. I hear that the minefields that line the wall are veritable catalogues of ordnance: three million mines of every brand and design. Someone tells me the wall is the only thing keeping the Saharawi people from reclaiming their territory. I hear it stretches for 2700 kilometres, and I hear it is much less than that. I hear it is the longest wall in the world.

The Saharawi refugee camps lie on the eastern side of the wall, near the city of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara. The land is a gift of the Algerian government, but it is not much of an offering. It is called the Hamada du Draâ, a rocky limestone plateau covered with sand and devoid of beauty. The few plants that survive here grow armed with thorns. This land is far from imagined desert scenes. Like most of the Sahara, there are no sudden green oases here, and no slow shift of curving dunes. Instead, there is only pallor and the whip of winter gales.

Only the Saharawi themselves interrupt the paleness. The men walk through the camps in blue or white robes that crinkle like tissue, embroidered with gold thread, and fragrant with tea steam and tobacco. The women swaddle their bodies in colors that don’t exist in the natural desert. Bold reds. Tie-dyed blues and greens and purples. The colorful fabrics keep the skin beneath cool and colourless. Pale skin, pale as the desert itself, is prized among the women here. I find this vanity strange. But then again, here on the barren plain, it is perplexing that there is any life at all.

Leaving Banff

Today is the last day of the Literary Journalism Program and my last afternoon in 'The Hemingway'. It has been a wonderfully fruitful month. With the help of a careful editor and the the suggestions of my writing mates, I have managed to put together a polished first chapter of my 'walls' project. I also made a pile of contacts in Canada's writing community, shared ideas for new stories, and drank enough wine and bourbon to float a king's ship. The post-Banff detox starts Monday.

The environment here at the centre is like no other. Besides the other writers, the place is crawling with creative types. The writers hosted a party on Thursday night that was attended by opera singers, dancers, lighting designers, actors, visual artists, costume designers, and classical musicians. I will likely never attend an event with that sort of crowd again, and so I am feeling rather melancholy about leaving this place.

When I return to Calgary I will begin planning the next research trip for this book. I will fly to India in October and look at the walls along the Pakistan, Bangladesh and, possibly, the Burma border. Then I will travel to Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf States. I am also interested in visiting Kandahar in Afghanistan. The Canadian military is building a wall of stone and brick around the university so Afghan students, especially women, can feel secure attending classes. I am unsure, however, of the logistics about traveling in a war zone.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In the Hemingway

Greetings all.

I am currently, and blissfully, ensconced in my forest studio at the Banff Centre. I am one of eight writers enjoying a residency as part of the Literary Journalism Program. We will be here for a month working on new projects with the aim of having a long magazine piece ready at the end. I am working on turning my experiences in the Saharawi refugee camps into a viable chapter for my book. So far, it has been going well.

Today the group of writers, and our three editors, will gather to discuss my first draft. I am excited to hear what they have to say. These folks are not only excellent writers but close readers as well.

The Banff Centre is a paradise for artists. I am surrounded by ballet dancers and opera singers. The path to my cabin passes a collection of music huts, so the sound of classical cello, violin, and flute welcome me to work each morning. Each of the writers in the program are given a studio to work in while they are here. Mine is called the Hemingway. And although the studio is named after the architect Peter rather than the writer Ernest, seeing the name above the door gives me something to shoot for.

If any of you are within striking distance of Banff this month, the writers in the program will be reading from their work on Monday the 21st at 8pm. In addition to hearing me go on about walls and deserts you will hear from writers working on a number of interesting topics including Palestinian hip-hop, traffic as a metaphor for chaos in Italy, a GoogleEarth-obsessed 80 year-old who grew up in Nazi Germany, and the psychology of whales.

There will be free wine.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I have some happy news to report.

I've been chosen as the University of Calgary's 2009-2010 Writer-in-Residence. My residency begins in August 2009 - which is perfect, as I should be done the bulk of my traveling for this 'walls' project by then - and will last for ten months. I will be responsible for helping new writers with their own work, but the bulk of my time will be spent writing. Writing, writing, writing. The university generously provides me with an office and a salary for this purpose.

It is a wonderful gift, and I am humbled by it.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Hello all.

I am home now where I will stay until the beginning of July when I begin a month-long residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts. I will use my time in the 'Literary Journalism' program to turn my scrawled notes from the Western Sahara into a legible first chapter of the Walls book.

My next research trip for this project will begin in October. I will head to the Indian sub-continent to investigate the walls that seperate India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Iran. I hope to also visit the Farghana Valley in Central Asia and see the wall along the Uzbekistan-Kyrgystan border. It will be an exciting trip, and I am most anxious to return to Iran, a country I got to know and love while writing my last book.

So, until the fall, I will be updating my blog only once in a while, and from environs decidedly less exotic than northern Africa. In the meantime, a recently published story about my honeymoon in Georgia can be found here:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More Melilla

I am back in Tangier now and rounding out my last few days on this trip. I will back in Canada on Wednesday, if all goes well. I am looking forward to getting home, moreso than on any of my other travels. I miss my wife, my friends, my family and the easy conversations. I've also never returned from a trip with so much to do.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the last several days in and around Melilla. I slept most nights in the village of Beni Ensar on the Moroccan side of the frontier. This border area is the ugliest place I've seen in Morocco. The streets are torn up for roadworks and there are heaps of rubble and wire everywhere. The winds from the Atlantic cast about the trash bags and dust. Puddles of grease stain the ground along with the slugs of mucus left by spitting men. Stray dogs limp around the streets afraid of everyone except for the teenage boys who huff slovents from dirty rags. At night, the streetlights flicker and men fight.

It is a shock crossing the border into Spain. There are smugglers everywhere. They are mostly old women who carrying huge bundles on their backs, or tie items beneath their clothes with twine. The word 'smugglers,' is not quite right. It suggests something furtive and secret. There is no doubt what these women are doing, but as long as they drop a few coins into the palms of the Moroccan border police everyone is happy.

I went to investigate the 'wall' and I found it means different things to everyone in the city. It was built to keep out illegal migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, but the migrants find other ways in. And once they are inside, the wall takes on a different meaning. As I wrote earlier, it becomes a symbol of imprisonment. It was built to keep them out, but now it reminds them are trapped within.

For the Spanish 'Christian' population in Meilla, the wall represents a barrier between their life in Europe - with tapas bars, bull fights and art modernista - with the wilds of Morocco. For centuries, Spain's primary adversary has been the Moors, and this wall represents another facet of ancient animosities. This is our side. That is yours.

But for the 'Muslim' population in Melilla, the wall means little. The border is fluid. They can come and go, legally and illegally, without much problem. The Muslim's are more concerned about what, if anything, their European citizenship means to them. Melilla's largest slum, dubbed the 'Canyon of Death,' lies just inside the border fence. Residents here are Melilla's poorest and are treated with disdain from the 'Spanish' elite. Steel wires and barbed wire are more forgiving that poverty and bigotry.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thinking about walls

My walls project is in its early stages, to be sure, but I´ve been musing a little lately about what all of it means. What do these various walls have in common? What do they tell us?

At first I was thinking that these walls are simply expressions of fear, but I think that might be too simplistic a take. I wonder, instead, if the walls are monuments to failure. They represent a lack of ideas and of imagination. The walls are not solutions, but are a manifestation of the failure to find a solution.

Any thoughts?

Border stories: Melilla

I wandered around Melilla during siesta the other day. I drank espresso and brandy in a cafe near the art deco synagogue, then found a tapas bar behind the old bull-ring. The bartender poured me a short draft beer and cut me a few slices of salty serrano ham. In the old city, at the Church of Our Lady of Victory, a priest said a quiet Mass for five Catholics among the statues of weeping virgins and bleeding Christs. And in the Plaza de Espagña, just in front of the city hall and the modernista casino, two dozen illegal migrants lay on the sidewalk weary from their third day of a hunger strike.

Melilla is Spain´s other autonomous enclave on Africa´s Mediterranean coast. It is a fascinating place that takes great pride in its mix of cultures. Christians, Jews, Muslims and a scattering of Hindus all live in relative harmony in the city. Each group sticks to their own, but everyone seemed to get along, and the local tourist board portrays the city as a rare beacon of tolerance.

But everything is not well. Just like Ceuta, Melilla is a popular destination for African and south Asian migrants trying to live the European dream. Once here, however, most find that they are stuck. They languish in the immigrant detention centre, some for years, waiting for passage to mainland Spain. Many end up deported to where they came from. The strikers on the square - Algerians and Indian Kashmiris - are tired of waiting and hope their action speeds things along. Sadly, though, no one is paying much attention.

Melilla´s ´wall´is a high-tech fence that runs for 11 kilometres along the Moroccan border. The green-posted structure leans into Morocco and has a distinct reptilian look. Three high fences are equipped with motion-detectors and barbed wire. A ´moat´seperates the first and second fences is filled with a tangle of steel cables meant to trap jumpers. It is impressive. At one point, a vine of pink flowers breached the barbed wire and were growing across the cables, but since the Spanish erected the fence two years ago, no human has made it through.

The fence is clearly visible from the immigrant detention centre. It is just outside the front gate and across the road. The irony is that the residents of the centre made it into Melilla by circumventing the fence. They paddled in on overfilled boats, strapped themselves under trucks, and stuffed their bodies into the trunks of cars. In a way, they defeated the wall. But now the wall has become a symbol. It is a visible reminder that they are trapped here, not by the fence itself, but by bureaucracy, politics, and poverty. I asked a man at the centre what he thought when he looked across the road at the wall. He was from India and said in imperfect English ¨I feel terrible. I feel like we are bounded here.¨

While I stood outside the centre, an African woman came out of the front gate on a bicycle she borrowed. Her braided hair bounced in a pony tail as she pedalled up the hill in front of the fence. Two of her friends came out to watch. When she reached the top she turned around and coasted back down. She lifted her hands from the handlebars, and her friends cheered her bravery. Once she reached the bottom, she pedaled back up the hill, getting breathless, and sailed down again past the wire, barbs and steel.