Sunday 29 October 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Hanine and Helw the Lion Tamer, and Idris' angle

Here is Hanine el Alam, a violinist, composer and performance artiste from Lebanon - take a listen to her brand of fusion in this track called  'Arabia' - and click on her name to find out more.

Another megarambler

This is kind of a complicated non-story in a non-story in a non-story post, the usual megarambler only the rambling quotient even more ramped up. Bear with me, please.

I suppose it all started with the film.  A short film called The Chair Carrier won a prize in some festival in USA late 2010 and appeared on my feed somewhere. I watched the film and liked it (and shared it as part of my A-Z 2017 series Arabiana. Watch it here) In the credits was the name of Dr Yusuf Idris, the writer of the original short story from which the film was adapted. I filed the name away in my mind for future reference.

This was a few months before the Spring was sprung. The film went on to win a slew of prizes across the world. Later, after the President fell, it naturally cropped up regularly all through 2011 alongside words like prescient and prophetic. I might mention here that the original story was written long before the film was made.

The Lion Tamer

As I’ve said earlier, 2011 expanded my cultural horizons in myriad ways - and one of them was Galal Amin. Here's another excerpt from an essay of his –

The opening of the National Circus...was part of a wider scheme which included, among other things, theatre, ballet, folk art, and classical and Arab music institutes, and it succeeded in unearthing new talent and in attracting wide audiences, until the events of 1967 put an end to it.

Soon after the military attack against Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the National Circus suffered a recession, as did many other aspects of life in Egypt. This derived as much from the depression and hopelessness felt by many Egyptians in the wake of the army’s rout…

In this general dispiriting climate, a tragic accident befell the most important personality of the circus and the most prominent member of the Helw family. A lion named Sultan fatally mauled the trainer Muhammad Helw as he stood in the ring before the audience. This was on the night of October 12, 1972, and it so happened, that the gifted Egyptian author Yusuf Idris was in the audience that night. In the tremendous shock of the event, Idris saw something fearsome in the human side of the tragedy, symbolising not only the state of the circus at the time, but also the political and social life of Egypt in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. He recorded his impressions in a famous essay…published in the newspaper Al Ahram a few days later. The essay had widespread reverberations of its own, because it echoed exactly what many people were feeling at the time. He concluded that the lion’s attack on the trainer was an allegory for the state of Egyptians of that time – fearful, defeated, their high ideals lost, and their dreams of heroism and glory destroyed.

 ~ Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

Oh déjà vu 

The retelling of the circus tragedy totally blew me away - déjà vu a thousand shades deep! 

Flashback to mid-seventies, to my schoolgirl self growing up in Maiduguri, in Northern Nigeria. I read a Bengali short story in one of the annual issues of a children’s magazine, these were fat, hardbound books with a wide collection of children literature written specifically for the annuals – general fiction, sci-fi, whodunits, poetry, cartoons and what have you, published every year in Sept/Oct to coincide with the autumn festivals of Dussehra/Durgapuja, and lovingly sent to me from India through snailmail, which I would receive the following spring and duly gobble up. 

Anyway, to get back to the point – I read a short story in one of these jobs about a lion tamer who devised more and more daring acts to attract audiences, upping the ante till the audiences sat with their collective hearts in their mouth. The final climax of his act was putting his head into the lion's jaws and then his release upon command. And you can guess what’s coming, can’t you? - one evening the lion clamped his jaws down and didn’t release the trainer, the story ended there with this awful cliff hanger, with the trainer’s torso suspended from the lion’s fangs, thrashing around in agony. Quite horrifying enough to read, can't imagine what it must be like to watch.

For some reason, I instantly got it into my head that this story was connected to the events at the Egyptian National Circus, quite firmly convinced. Sadly, though I tried all sorts of ways to confirm the link, I just couldn’t, both the author and the title of the Bengali story have passed completely out of memory, total blank.   So the cast iron conviction turned out to be the usual modification of memory to suit the present and clear biases. Sigh...

The first man to put his head into a lion's mouth was an American animal trainer  - Isaac Van Amburgh, way back in  the 1830's, and he may have been the inspiration for the story, though he did not die of mauling - one of the few lion tamers who died a natural death. Several lion tamers got injured when they put their heads into a wild cat's mouth in the 1800's, read about one here. Circus animals quite regularly maul their trainers, the story may also have been inspired by any number of other such attacks. There have been at least two more similar incidents in the Egyptian Circus itself, Ibrahim el Helw was mauled fatally in 2004 and his wife Faten was attacked in 2015, though she survived. In spite of these maulings and deaths, the Helw family have been steadfastly working as lion trainers since the 19th century.

I tried to trace that famous essay by Dr Idris too, but no luck there either, so I went and got his novel ‘The city of Love and Ashes’ and an anthology of his short fiction. I enjoyed the short stories more than the novel, but then I always have been an absolute sucker for short stories anyway. Right from schooldays till now, I'm blaming that on those annuals.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Is that a lesson plan?

I’d tear this poem into shreds, minute,
into wild blossoms but not pluck even one
let them ripen for you, into fruit,
and then the fall, decay and its lesson.

I’d tear this poem into a rough sea,
and pick a wave of it to make a raft,
tear it into whatever needs to be
for you to steer and learn the sailor’s craft.

And I’d rip it into a darkened sky
where no sun nor moon not even a pole star
shone out to reassure, you’ll find yourself by
guiding yourself alone to what you are.

And when the trip’s done, you’ve reached the shore, then
I’d piece the million pieces back again.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

The Darkest Place : Write... Edit... Publish... October 2017

Okay so I thought I could do a flash - a spooky sort, but nope, it vanished into thin air ghost. Then I started with another which coolly wriggled out of its obligation towards the original prompt. Inveigled itself into a thoroughly non-spooky type - aaaargh! Right, I'm falling back on poetry, much more reliable... 

So here we are - at the annual autumn/spring scarefest at Write...Edit...Publish... hosted by authors Denise and Yolanda. With design inputs from Olga, and prompt inputs by someone who has been hoisted by her own promptard and shall remain nameless.  

We have a prayer in the Hindu scriptures, one of my favourite verses - '(Lead me) from falsehood towards Truth, from darkness towards Light, from death towards Immortality.'

Darkness and Light, Anxiety and Tranquility, Suffering and Bliss. All is in the mind, ultimately. No place darker than a tormented mind.

The Darkest Place

This isn’t a poem you’d want to write.
No morning pills of positivity,
just a convulsed line rushing, falling free
in and out of digital screens and sight,

dripping fluids of unknown origins.
No trickles of moons, rivers, women’s scarves,
not an inch of no man’s land between wars.
A trembling drop in time’s sharp toothed engines.

Nor is it a poem you’d want to read
out loud among strangers, folding paper
art, to hang it like buntings of wafer
thin, lavish rhymes; jewel toned; filigreed.

This - the one you keep in the dark recess,
between the planes of sane and loneliness.

WC - 100+

And it is Diwali tomorrow, the darkest night of the year according to the Indian calendar, when we put up lamps around our homes to make sure that everything's headed in the right direction, as per the verse! :)  A very happy and prosperous Diwali to you and yours if you are celebrating! And lots of sunshine, moonlight, starlight and candlelight to you even if you are not. May your life be illuminated at all times and never get into dark places.


Read the other entries here and join in -

Sunday 15 October 2017

Call me!

Where are you today? I keep trying your phone
there’s the same message playing, it doesn't change -
hope you're not at a concert? within range?
Are you with friends? Are you, by chance, alone?

Are you at this moment by a riverside?
and suddenly a hired van swerves too close,
scatters the commuters - hope you're among those
who see it coming and quickly jump aside.

Are you in a park? or college campus?
where a ruthless finger plays with a trigger.
Are you trapped where no-one can quite figure
if we’re firing guns, or the gun’s shooting us?

Call me dear one, call me back, I can’t bear
this silence, my world’s broken everywhere.

For those who've lost family or friends to senseless violence across the world. 

Sunday 8 October 2017

Empty nester run-up

You haven’t left the house yet. But everything
suddenly falls into a chill headlong -
a choked gasp like my room itself were being
sucked dry of all the room you’d brought along.
No space, no space, none to breathe or to sing,
even the urban birds lose their tortured songs;
the universe feels like it’s lost its footing -
the sky and earth are both awry, hanging wrong.

You’re not going away just yet, you’re here,
a foot sometimes must swing out - that’s enough
to deform rooms to ooze, undo the year.
All birds’ eyes are wounds, all the stars are fears;
and all the words I can speak, or think of,
keen at the edge of grief, though they start with love.