The moment we met
I could feel you
I could see you
How could there be life
The moment we met
I could feel you
I could see you
How could there be life
The tape operators drew lots to determine whose grim task it would be to give William Broom the dreadful news that Hipster Scenester had sabotaged the signal going into Film Transfer 6 and then skateboarded into the sunset. The murder weapon would be a skateboard. The motive was obvious. They placed bets on how many bones Hipster Scenester would have left unbroken when Broom caught up to him. First Person Witness rolled by at ninety feet per minute. Bespectacled Driver and Winchester Pump sit in their black ’68 Dodge Charger and exchange nervous glances. They speak through gritted teeth as the words of giddy girls pour from their mouths.
E robot guiyopda!
Nae robosi choigoya!
Roboturi maru anduro!
E robot kunnejunda!
Somebody suggested Liliana. Broom liked her. Everybody knew if they phoned Liliana Luz Leung for any reason she’d be paid two hundred percent of her wage for a full eight hours and nobody wanted to explain that to Ms. Patrick. Ask Hey Zeus. Broom listened to Cuauhtemoc. They dialed 55 5255 5327 but hung up. He’d left a movie phone number. I offered to call Betty. I’d seen them in the kitchen many times. She worried because he drove his motorcycle too fast. The guys looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
‘Call the maid? The cleaning lady? The butler?’
‘What for? To take out garbage? To vacuum? Do dishes?’
‘This is film. This is serious.’
My work was done but I had a few hours before my shift was technically over so I decided to make the long walk and tell him to stop.
‘I wouldn’t if I were you. It’s a hallway to hell.’
‘He’s mental. We’ll call your next of kin right now.’
‘Sue PosteTotal. If you survive.’
‘You won’t be the same if you make it out of there.’
Film Transfer Six grew further with each step. The din from the equipment room died down and the hiss of the air conditioning fell away. A hollow silence filled the air. Broom’s room was shut tight. I lifted my arm and rapped the hard wood of that black gate. A knob turned. The door creaked. Its hinges squeaked. The dark clad William Broom stood in front of me.
‘Man, I’m totally blanking on your name.’
‘Martin. I’m a fan. I have Rotor. I have Metal Fatigue. I love 666.’
‘That was ages ago. You don’t seem the type. What’s up, Martin?’
‘First Person Witness. It’s no good.’
He tapped the space bar. Bespectacled Driver and Winchester Pump froze in mid sentence. He flicked a switch. The two characters transformed into a million little pixels as the videotape sped backwards. He pressed play. Charger. Driver. Winchester. Giggles from Computer, War, Tennis, Shoes.
Roboti maru anduro!
Nae robosi choigoya!
He pulled back the long black hair that hung over his chiseled face and asked me if I knew what the kids were saying. I said I didn’t know a word of Japanese. He knew many but it was Korean for the robots are out of control. He’d put it together in two seconds. Hipster Scenester routed the audio from Film Transfer 4 into Film Transfer 6 and then skated. The guys in the equipment room had been too afraid or too bored or too stupid to say anything and sent the new guy to break the news. I’d put a couple of rolls from the film cleaner and asked if he needed me to stay, check things, help out.
‘Herr Direktor sure won’t dig his dailies the way they sound now. 666 you say?’
‘Yes! Backwards guitar solo, double drums, funkadelic bass, sleazy footstomper -’
‘You could have read it for all I know. Remind again me how great it was. Sing it.’
‘Single or album version?’
William Broom smiled his rock star smile. He went to the back of the suite, pulled his Martin twelve string from its case and began to play. The riff he’d written was so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come up with it myself. I took my cue the moment he struck the E minor.
Ever the old pro
On with the show
Should have said no
All those years ago
It’s written on the page
All the world’s a stage
You’re all the rage
Try and act your age
Never read the script
Couldn’t get a grip
Take a little trip
Set sail on a ship
Sold you down the river
Diamonds gold and silver
Never did deliver
Ache and shake and shiver
You must remember this
Stricken from the list
You’ll cease to exist
Come on baby let’s do the twist
Memory grows dimmer
No more than a glimmer
A day player in a parallel cinema
Don’t you know the meaning
Nightmares you’ve been dreaming
Who’s name are you screaming
At that private midnight screening
Your money’s been spent
Every last cent
Can’t pay the rent
Wonder where it went
Rain and hail and snow
Wind begins to blow
Darkness starts to grow
Cast no shadow
Can’t recall the scene
Do you know what I mean
Yesterday’s man has been
You ain’t never seen
Mon Amour Hiroshima
Or The Lady of Fatima
Southern California we have a dilemma
The faded superstar of the parallel cinema
I’m telling one and all
Writing on the wall
Hammer to fall
Who you gonna call?
Such a shame
Fortune and fame
Up in flames
That’s the name of the game
Large it looms
Man, you’re hand picked
And you’ve been tricked
The end is coming quick
You’re sick, sick, sick.
He seemed amazed and flattered and troubled that I knew every word. I told him I’d had the cassette in my car but I was too embarrassed to tell him about the times I’d played it on my tennis racquet alone in my living room. He asked if I knew who he’d written the song about. I didn’t get to answer. An anonymous Samaritan knocked on the door and left the stack of First Person Witness that had gone through the cleaner. Broom scooped up the entire pile and placed it next to his film scanner. He watched as I threaded the negative through its wheels and pulleys and lock it into place. He flicked between the shots Liliana had done the previous week and the current scene. Broom’s fingertips moved swiftly. He made the Charger’s driver and passenger match the earlier footage exactly and then he hit the record button.
Are you waiting for an invitation? Shoot, man!
Get your head down.
What? Wait! Don’t shoot! Where is he?
He’s out of control and headed our way. Head down. Now.
Driver and Shooter had been filmed by four cameras at every conceivable angle. Broom said the scene was more interesting with the Korean dialogue. I laughed. He hated tinny digital audio and hoped to do more interesting work in the sound mixing department after First Person Witness wrapped. Scores of people watched movies but few actually listened. I asked how PosteTotal had landed First Person Witness when they were shooting on the other side of the world. He replied that Liliana Luz Leung was here not there. I felt a little braver and inquired why he’d walked away from Faith Shaker when he seemed on the brink of having a big career. He must have been asked the same question a million times before but he didn’t mind answering. He wanted to put out a record that someone may enjoy. That was it. The thought of being branded a one hit wonder didn’t pain him. He mused that in some alternate universe 666 would not have been released on the same day as Enter Sandman but even in this reality Metal Fatigue had sold plenty and Faith Shaker turned into something complicated not long after. Wolves knocked at his door, he let them in and bought everything they had; hook, line, sinker, kitchen sink. He would have signed 666 over had it not been for a clear headed Mexican who had directed a video that Broom hadn’t wanted to make for a song he hadn’t wanted to release. He claimed he’d fought tooth and nail to get out of it but the record company held firm. Tooth and nail must have been a figure of speech because I could not imagine anybody forcing William Broom to do anything against his will. The men sat side by side in the same small edit bay for three days. Broom admitted that he scarcely recognized the gaunt caricature on the monitor in front of him. Cuauhtemoc told him to walk away. The record company people called the Mexican every name in the book and told him that he would never work in their town again. They made good on their promise. Broom thought Jesus Cuauhtemoc was crazy but he was glad he’d listened.
Give me that thing! I’ll do him myself.
Keep your mouth shut. Keep your hands on the wheel and your foot down.
Why is that?
You’ll live longer.
‘Want some advice for free?’
‘Do whatever Cuauhtemoc asks you. He tells the truth. Maybe not the literal truth.’
‘Will Cuauhtemoc or Liliana or you get to do the scenes with Chanimar?’
He laughed and said nobody. The entire movie would turn out to be one big waste of time and money because Chanimar would abandon First Person Witness the same way he’d quit 007: Devil His Due, Gran Premio and Ziggurat.
‘You’re forgetting that Chanimar appears only on film.’
‘Not even video dailies?’
‘Film. Alpha. Omega. Ever rented one of his movies or seen one on TV?’
‘You never will. Chanimar can only be seen on a silver screen.’
Cool it, man. I got a twelve gauge.
He’s got three hundred and ninety cubic inches. And a death wish.
I expressed my amazement that a lad from some slum could have become the richest movie star who had ever lived. Broom replied there was nothing mysterious about his rise whatsoever. Chanimar could act. Billions lined up to see him for that reason alone. Performers of his calibre came along once every century. There was Chanimar. Every other actor was several rungs below. Broom asked if I knew how films got made. I mentioned Cuauhtemoc had drawn me a diagram; camera, laboratory, telecine, editing, inter positive, final color correction. He asked again. I answered no.
Money. With few exceptions filmmakers had to go to several different sources to get it. He used an example of a movie that had a budget of one hundred dollars. He asked me to imagine that was an amount I could never possibly come up with myself. In my case that sum had always proved true. As a producer, I would try to set up meetings with broadcasters and government ministers. I would fly all over the country to attend lakeside soirees and conferences high up in the mountains. These galas were full of influential men and women whose hands had never come in contact with a page of a screenplay or a frame of film. As a producer, I would introduce myself to these total strangers and comment how nice their hair looked. I’d walk up to people whom I’d never met and notice how they’d lost weight and remark my back had also been acting up and compliment their pretty necklace. As a producer, I’d ask if I may please have a few dollars to make my movie. He asked me to keep in mind the few dollars I ever did see from multiplexes, airlines, home video, television, would go to the party goers with the fabulous hairstyles and sparkly necklaces and sore backs. They’d own my film for the next fifteen to twenty-five years because they were good enough to sign a promissory note at a fancy dress up ball. I understood why Hipster Scenester had skated away from the business.
‘I’d rather smash every tooth in a person’s head than utter one word I didn’t mean.’
‘Violence is direct, honest, more respectful. My fists have never failed me.’
‘I’m a fan. I have Metal Fatigue. I love 666.’
He laughed. He kept his focus on the Charger but saw that I was hopelessly lost. I mumbled it sounded like a lot of hoops to jump through just to tell a story.
‘Positively Byzantine. You’ve spent ten years chasing after one hundred dollars.’
‘The second thing? Money and -’
Loneliness. Broom estimated more than half of every movie audience was composed of lonely souls who had nowhere else to go and nothing better to do. Every production office, every set, every post facility was full of lonely people. Loneliness was universal. Loneliness did not discriminate. Loneliness dug in deep and did not easily let go. He was convinced that Chanimar had taken the time to listen to the three times divorced production accountant, the coordinator with the delinquent teenaged son, the old location manager who never had the chance to marry. All the lonely people taught him everything they knew about the movie business.
He asked if I needed to get some air. I replied I was happy to keep working. He needed more coffee and had to give a pep talk to the gang in the equipment room. He took off. I took his collection of coffee cups to the kitchen and hauled some film down to Room 101. I heard every word he had for the tape operators even though I was three floors below. He returned. We started up again.
I told you when we got into this deal there were lines I wouldn’t cross.
And I told you I wasn’t going back to prison.
‘May I ask how Liliana negotiated such a favorable contract?’
‘Liliana? Negotiated? It isn’t her smile or her form-fitting clothes.’
‘Nobody has complained too loudly.’
Broom guessed Liliana’s immense salary had more to do with voluntary suspension of disbelief than her formidable technical skill. Cinematographers, directors and producers needed to believe somebody could make their movie look better than the others just as PosteTotal needed to believe somebody could bring those people in. Liliana understood people’s need to believe. Every producer in the world knew Chanimar worked with a very small circle of people and she was part of that circle so hiring Liliana Luz Leung was like buying a ticket to Chanimar and she knew that, too.
‘She understands things technical and psychological like nobody. She exploits both.’
‘Last roll. Last take.’
‘Where were we? Liliana? Chanimar?’
He wasn’t certain how the mysterious recluse had scraped together his first crore of rupees but knew he provided producers with every resource they needed. Chanimar made their lives easy and their dreams come true. No bankers. No bonders. No brokers. No need for empty compliments. No fees. No financing. Plenty of interest because his audience was massive. Chanimar was the only marketing his movies had ever needed. Directors and distributors gambled everything to work with him because he wouldn’t take a single paise until his movie turned a profit. Then he took everything.
This is the end of the line.
What do you mean?
I’m out of gas. You’re out of ammo. Gas chamber or chair?
Suit yourself. I got one more cartridge left.
‘Better the devil you know.’
‘You can say that again. Marty, hand me my bag, would you?’
I feared William Broom had held back his rage at having to redo that scene and would exact his revenge on everyone and begin with me. He pulled out a long, black cylinder and pointed to its displays and features. He was amazed at how many shots he could get off without ever having to reload. No film required. The days were coming when they would use a similar camera to shoot movies. Everyone would be able to do it. Camera in one hand. Computer in the other. No more need to pay a king’s ransom to a man who walked around a film set with a light meter in his hand. No need to pay extortion to a lady who color corrected and transferred motion picture film to digital videotape either. Technology would hit the film industry like a tornado.
‘Roboti. Maru. Anduro.’
‘Do you want to know a secret?’
‘When, not if, Jesus Cuauhtemoc leaves this place it’ll be over.’
I meant to ask about the silver crucifix that hung around his neck and if he struggled with his faith and if he thought the Church, like Liliana, exploited a need to believe and if we were all voluntarily suspending our disbelief but then I thought it must have been part of his rock n’ roll get up like his muscles, shoulder length hair and tattoos so I ended up asking him about his V-Max. He never got his chance to mix sound. Funkraum’s Digital Robots Disco Dancing On The Autobahn was ruled to have borrowed with both hands from 666 and William Broom, composer, copyright holder and hard negotiator, was almost buried alive by the avalanche of royalties. He purchased and restored a farmhouse in Majorca but didn’t feel the need to author a dozen books about his experience. He was right about First Person Witness. It was reported that Chanimar had flown to Queensland but was refused permission to land. He never returned. That snub spelled the end of productions shooting in Australia. Nobody would risk offending Chanimar by going there. Riots raged across the sub continent all summer long. Australia’s ambassador to Delhi was sent packing. Emboldened by the worldwide success of The Satisfaction, Chanimar demanded the producers of First Person Witness reconstruct San Francisco circa 1968 outside Pyongyang but then walked away from the film. He spent the next two years filming Furor Circencis in Tripoli.
Liliana Luz Leung appeared just as I had finished preparing Film Transfer 1. Seeing her was like being struck by lightning. I didn’t know how to act. I may have introduced myself or maybe mentioned that Ms. Patrick had asked us not to begin until she brought the director in. Liliana smiled.
‘Martin, I am here now.’
She studied the camera reports I’d photocopied for her and then she scanned through every roll of film until she’d found the shot she was looking for. I noticed she took her black bag with her whenever left to change film rolls. I noticed everything. I was glad she was so thorough because it gave me the chance to study her every move. She found the scene was looking for, gave it a magical glow, made every subsequent shot match and started recording without a word of warning. The night’s work was finished in the quickest time imaginable. She checked to make sure I’d typed every scene and take correctly. She studied the video tape to confirm the first edit had gone in at 01:00:00 and the last had come out at 01:59:50. She listened to make sure the sound was in sync with the picture. She was about make her exit when Ms. Patrick entered with her guest. She apologized for their late arrival. The director tried hard to give the impression that he and Liliana were life long friends. He promised he’d stay to help her establish a feel, a look, a mood. She promised him that the feel, look and mood had been established hours earlier.
I pretended to do some business with my papers as Liliana walked out the door. Ms. Patrick excused herself and ran to catch her. I introduced myself to the director. He nodded. Liliana was a long way down the hall but the words she leveled at Ms. Patrick were loud enough for all the world to hear. She explained that her film suite was not an amusement park and she did not conduct field trips or curate museums or do tours through zoos and nobody dictated how she did her job. Ms. Patrick returned and apologized for the miscommunication. The director was eager to see his dailies. She asked if I’d stay and help. I hit the play button.
Where will you go, Khajag?
I will go to America. To Toronto.
Toronto is not America, Khajag. Toronto is Canada.
Is Canada not America?
I do not know, Khajag? Perhaps it is.
The director asked me to replay the scene. He studied every frame of every scene. The man and the woman acted like they were lobotomized zombies sleepwalking through a field of wheat. I had to remind myself they were Canadian actors in a Canadian film. After a few hours he exclaimed to nobody in particular how delighted he was with his actors and his pictures. Ms. Patrick readily agreed. He left Film Transfer 1 and promptly got lost in the hallway. I escorted him to the elevator because Ms. Patrick looked like she’d had a trying day. I replayed my whole evening as I walked home. I wondered if I should have done more or said less. Liliana Luz Leung was still very much on my mind as I climbed into bed.
Are you Canadian?
I was born and raised in Canada. I am Canadian.
Am I Canadian?
You arrived in Canada an hour ago. By boat. Of course you are.
I rarely needed to leave the transfer suite because somebody inevitably brought Liliana’s film up from the lab and then somebody else took it down to Room 101. I never made any comment about Happy Days or asked what she kept in her black bag because it wasn’t hard to figure out. I offered her a slice of the margarita pizza that Betty had made for me. I was surprised when she accepted. One Thursday evening the flight carrying the film from Toronto was delayed and we found ourselves alone together for a couple of hours. She asked why I’d wanted to work in the movies. I replied that I’d grown up in a northern mining town called Phantom Lake and my Dad had taken me to the Rex Theatre every Saturday. He and I used to watch cowboys shoot Indians, monsters terrorize the strange-sounding citizens of distant mega cities and American scientists escape the earth’s pull right before the meteor entered the atmosphere. Liliana turned around in her chair and smiled at me after I’d told her how much I loved Saturday at the Rex with Dad. Happy Days arrived soon after and we went to work.
What are you rebelling against?
What do you have?
Seriously, Khajag, what’s your problem? Answer the question.
What do you mean?
Liliana asked me about my weekend so I told her how I’d helped Betty, Magia and Marisol move. Betty had done the hard work. My job was to lift the heavier things. I invited them over for a familiar creation called Disco Stew which was basically spaghetti, tortilla chips and whatever else happened to be in my fridge. Betty had brought over a chicken and some canned tomatoes so I threw those in the pot as well. Tortugitas dragged my table and chairs to my little deck and guaranteed me it would be like having a fun picnic. They weren’t wrong.
Canadian tax payers will not pay ten dollars for a kilo of blueberries.
As a Canadian tax payer I tell you we will.
One of the take-up arms in the film processor had to be replaced so Liliana and I found ourselves with more time on our hands. She asked me to tell her another wild tale from my misspent youth in Phantom Lake. I warned her my best stories involved my Dad or things that had happened a quarter century earlier. She said she was happy to listen to anything I had to offer so I told her how my Dad found few things more distasteful than bragging. As fate would have it the very next day we had a substitute teacher. He looked at my sheet and asked me how much time I’d spent doing the assignment. I stood atop my desk, pounded my chest and boasted to the whole class I’d done my homework in five minutes. It wasn’t bragging. It was the truth. The substitute teacher marked my paper in front of everyone. I had three correct answers out of twenty. My classmates laughed like hyenas. That was the last time I ever boasted about anything. She laughed softly and suggested I may have gone into the wrong business.
In my country we solve problems like men.
Here in Canadian, Khajag, we engage in meaningful dialogue.
My ways are not Canadian ways.
Happy Days rolled by. Liliana said the movie was beautifully photographed which was the only thing she had said about it. I asked if she’d figured out what the story was about. She stood up and stretched. I forgot whatever I’d said.
‘Have you ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey?’
‘The Man Who Fell To Earth?’
‘The Maltese Falcon? The Passenger?’
‘I’ve seen those, too!’
‘Tell me what they were about.’
I hadn’t a clue. I had no answer when she asked me what a wonderwall was. She said sometimes it was best not to get so caught up with the meaning of things.
‘May I ask a question?’
‘Anything you like.’
‘Did you get to meet Colleen Alexis?’
‘Yes, I did. Why?’
‘We were born on the same day.’
‘You should have come down and introduced yourself. Colleen is nice.’
‘She sure is. How did she feel about her Rising Action being destroyed in our stop bath?’
‘Contractual obligation. Couldn’t have cared less. She spoke to Betty the whole time.’
‘I’ll bet Piers wasn’t happy. Insurance claim? Re-shoot?’
‘I suggested they cut the scene.’
‘They cut the scene.
Operator, I would like to place a long distance telephone call.
Is this an international call, sir?
I beg your pardon?
Do you wish to make an overseas call, sir?
No. I would like to place a call within the empty vastness that is Canada.
‘Worst childhood memory or greatest fear. Take your pick.’
‘Worst childhood memory. That’s easy. Dad bought me a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey -’
‘Your friends had Canadiens sweaters. I’ve heard that story before. Greatest fear.’
‘Going to hell, math tests, quicksand, UFOs, that squid thing from Space 1999 -’
‘May I ask what frightens you today?’
‘I’ve narrowed the list down to going to hell.’
And losing my job. And not having any money. And being alone in a big city. Because thinking about something happening to Dad or Betty or Magia or Marisol was too terrible to contemplate. Liliana was curious as to how my Dad owned Soviet aircraft and an American fossil. The planes were easy enough to explain. Dad had cash. Aeroflot did not. He told them they could take his money or leave it. They took it. He got a couple of Tupolevs for next to nothing. Some people in Phantom Lake called him a war profiteer but they changed their tune when forest fires surrounded the town the following summer. I said his love for a blue, 1966 Ford Galaxie was more difficult to get my head around. He’d bought it the day he’d met my mother. It was hardly a muscle car but he claimed its two hundred horsepower was a three-fold increase from the Renault 8 he used to own. Liliana knew every last detail about my car and asked me to consider that Dad may have exaggerated the power output. There was a long silence after I asked about her Alfa Romeo. She finally replied the car had come from a director she’d dealt with. I didn’t press her for details. She explained their working relationship had changed so she’d taken his Avenue Foch apartment, his Fairlady, his Miura as well as everything else. The old Datsun and Lamborghini were in Paris and she’d brought the Alfa over for no other reason than science fiction orange was her favorite color. She claimed to have no attachment to either car. I didn’t ask why she’d insisted one be shipped across the Atlantic.
Khajag. Where is your land? Your heart? Where are the people you love.
My land is here. My heart is here. My people are here. In Canada.
Happy Days was more like a series of confusing, never ending, random vignettes than a movie. I wondered who would ever watch it.
‘Do you have another story for me?’
‘Is it better than this one?’
‘I don’t know. I hope so.’
My little mining town must have been unlike the tropical locale of Liliana’s childhood but she did not act the least bit surprised when I told her how cold Phantom Lake winter nights could get. She encouraged me to keep going. I remembered my job at local radio station and Living In Another World. The song was seven minutes long which gave me time to put on my parka, toque and gloves, run down the stairs, sprint down the street, start the Galaxie’s V8 and make it back in time to catch the end of the song. I loved how it took me a different place every time I listened to it. Bowie’s Wild Is The Wind was almost as good but not quite as long and definitely not suitable if the temperature fell below minus twenty. Liliana laughed when I told her how I’d brought the Whenever You’re On My Mind forty-five home from the station one sunny afternoon. I’d intended to put it on Dad’s turntable and record it to cassette but then I forgot about it and it melted to the dashboard. Dad wasn’t happy with me. Nobody at the radio station noticed the record was gone. She admitted she wasn’t familiar with the songs but would like to hear them.
Liliana never offered any stories of her own but when I persisted she said she enjoyed nothing more than visiting parks and gardens. She described Parisians as being more reserved than uptight. Leblon was lovely. Bogenhausen, Cronulla and Rechts Boomsloot were, too. She had been offered parts in films many times and she’d been to the Cannes Film Festival. She had not been the least bit interested in either. The town itself was pretty but she had never encountered so many desperate people gathered in one place. She had never seen the beggars of Calcutta but doubted the film festival attendees could be much different. I had been to Calcutta but I kept that to myself. Liliana didn’t feel any nostalgia for any place. Travel was part of the job. Only a few of her flights had ever been cancelled. She’d never had enough luggage for any airline to lose. She rarely spoke with the people seated next to her on flights. The Concorde wasn’t worth the price of her ticket. Somebody else paid for her ticket. SoHoPost had found her a flat in Knightsbridge. She said the battling brothers, the flamboyant vocalists and the moody guitarists had sat quietly and sipped cups of tea while she’d color corrected their promotional videos. She’d quit London because she couldn’t listen to another line of syrupy dialogue uttered by yet another saccharine English actor. I asked if the stories were true about her leaving Skywalker Ranch after five minutes of Episode 1. She explained how everybody at that facility had been too blind to see and too afraid to say how terrible Episode 1 was going to be even though the evidence had been staring them in the face.
In ancient times man looked to Athens for enlightenment.
Yes, Khajag. Once upon a time that was true.
Nowadays, Canadians turn to Toronto.
Khajag, truly you have showed Canadians what it means to be Canadian!
‘That’s a wrap. May I ask you a question, Martin?’
‘Marty, please. Anything you like.’
‘Betty mentioned that she remembered you from her church.’
‘Betty? Did she? I used to go to St. Paul’s shortly after I moved here.’
‘Do you still?’
‘Now and then. To St. Mary’s. During the week. It’s quieter. Less crowded.’
‘Marty, listen. This business erodes souls. Be careful.’
I wanted to tell Liliana everything but I do not think the whole world could contain the books that would be written with the things I never said. Renault and Revlon had her for a month but there were rumors of a Jan Rotter film coming to town so I hoped I’d get to work with her again. Khajag’s Diary was named best picture and audience favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its director called incessantly to invite Liliana as his guest. Ms. Patrick attended instead and brought back contracts by the bushel.
You’re convinced your plane is going to shake itself apart as you begin your descent and you seriously consider you’ve made one visit too many. You land and half an hour later you’re bored out of your mind because you’re surrounded by a bunch of worried looking school administrator types as you wait at banda 14. You can’t quite believe it when a twenty kilogram suitcase actually comes with all the others. You show the guy your luggage claim thing and he points you to your customs official. You hand over your passport. She stamps it and gives you back that piece of paper you’ll need to present to somebody when you leave the country. You put it in one of your pockets but forget which one two seconds later. You and your twenty kilogram suitcase are stopped by another set of officials. They point to the button. You press it. Green means go. Red means you’ll never leave the country alive. It flashes green like you knew it would and you’re on your way. You buy your taxi voucher from the authorized people and you remark it’s gone up since your last visit. You’re not surprised when they don’t respond. Your taxi stand is at the far end of the hallway but before you get even half way there some guy rushes out. He grabs your suitcase and tells you in his broken English that he wants a one hundred peso tip to take it the rest of the way. You tell him you’re going to saw his hands off and then you slam his head more than once against the nearest windshield in case he doesn’t understand your fractured Spanish. It’s late Friday evening and it starts to rain. Your driver doesn’t say much. You don’t either. You half listen to whatever plays on the radio and you recall when you were younger you’d tell people you were a forensic accountant or an auto wrangler for the movies until you realized your back story didn’t mean anything. You remember how you began sending stuff down for a little bit of extra money and then you discovered ways to send more things for a lot more money until you had so much money nobody or nothing mattered anymore. You’re at your hotel before you know it. Your driver knows better than to help you with your twenty kilogram suitcase. You give him a generous tip. You recognize the lady behind the counter but you’re not disappointed when your face doesn’t register. You offer to pay for your room in cash. She asks you if you’d like to see it first. You explain you’ve stayed here four times before and everything has always been great. She smiles as she takes your money. You roll your twenty kilogram suitcase into the tiny elevator. You open the door to room 614 and realize there’s something on the bed. You’ve been up a long time and you have a lot on your mind and the room is dark but it looks like a dead body. You roll your twenty kilogram suitcase into the elevator and go back to reception and explain as best you can that 614 appears to be occupied. She phones someone and asks you to have a seat while she sorts it out. Five minutes later you’re back at 614 and you laugh at the tricks your imagination can play on you. You have a shower and lie down but you never sleep.
The next day you make your pilgrimage like you always do and find yourself staring at her like you always do. You pray she’ll tell you to stop. You know you have to but she just looks the same way she always does so you leave and wonder if any of it is true and if it isn’t then it probably doesn’t matter. You leave and climb the steps to the top of the hill. You’d be able to see the whole city if it wasn’t for so many black clouds. You walk through stalls that sell every kind of junk imaginable before you reach your station. You’re back in your hotel room soon enough. You leave your twenty kilogram suitcase in your closet but then decide the safest thing is to take it with you. You head to the bus station in the south of the city. You know it’s quicker to fly but whatever. You buy a drink and your bottle spews all over the place the moment you open it. You wish you could buy a beverage that is what it says it is and it doesn’t come laced with icing sugar and carbon dioxide. Your bus breaks down forty minutes outside of the city. You wait two hours at the side of the autopista for its replacement. You can’t recline your seat like you could on the other bus. You look out whenever you stop at a check point and you see a lot of flashing lights but nobody comes aboard and you never stop for very long.
It’s mid morning by the time you finally arrive. The humidity is enough to knock you flat on your back. You take your twenty kilogram suitcase and grab a cab. Your driver leaves your twenty kilogram suitcase alone. It’s only a five minute ride but you’re drenched by the time you get to your hotel. You ask where everybody is and wonder if they’re even open. They tell you there’s nobody else at the hotel and even their restaurant is closed. You pay cash for three nights and carry your twenty kilogram suitcase up the smooth steps to room 16. You have a shower and try to rest but you can’t because your ceiling fan is basically a useless noisemaker. You close your eyes and the next thing you know it’s pitch black. You squint at the cheap watch you’ve brought with you and wonder if it’s evening or early morning. You’re covered in sweat so you have another shower. You almost slip on your bathroom floor. The night guy recognizes you but can’t remember your name. You ask him about his family. They’re great. You say you’re going out to get some dinner and offer to bring him something back. You’re surprised when he says yes. You ask if pizza is okay. It sure is. You walk the beach instead of going through town. You and a ten year old girl are the only people in the whole restaurant. She’s buying a pizza with the money her mother has given her. You see her family waiting in their car. The pizza maker is surprised that you remember his name and he apologizes that he can’t remember yours. Your pizza is done first because the little girl asks for double pineapples and extra onions. You pay for both pizzas and hope it comes as a nice surprise for the little girl and her family. It begins to rain. You almost slip on the stairs and your nearly drop your pizza in the middle of the adoquin. You take a cab the rest of the way. You and the night guy split the pizza and you converse with him as best you can. The TV is on and you see something about some Teacher’s Federation. You ask him what it’s all about. He rolls his eyes and tells you about their strike. He grumbles that they’re always causing problems while the teachers in other states never do. You nod as you pick the strings of cheese from your chin. He asks you if you want him to change the channel. You shrug. The rain comes down like you’ve never before. He smiles when he sees the expression on your face. He talks about his job at the hotel. You’re too ashamed to admit that you’ve worked four days since the last time you visited and you’ve earned more money than he’ll see in a lifetime. You offer the him the rest of your pizza and say goodnight. You’re soaked and you’ve almost tripped going up the stairs. You have another shower for all the difference it makes. You can’t sleep so you might as well get it over with. The overnight guy opens the gate for you and offers to call you a taxi. You accept. The place is always a little farther than you think it is. It’s hard to see anything for all of the rain but you think you’re probably in the older part of town. His place is easy enough to find. You ask your driver to wait around the corner because you won’t even be five minutes. You scale his fence and walk through his little courtyard as quickly as you can because this rain will just not let up. Entering the place is easy. It always is. The old fellow looks surprised to see you but you both know he really shouldn’t be. Dealing with him isn’t a problem because those stone floors are awfully slippery during a such a heavy rain storm. You give your cab driver a hefty tip when he drops you back at your hotel.
You see the cleaning ladies the next morning. They can’t remember your name but they do know you from before. You smile and make chit chat as best you can. That was some rain last night. It sure was. They giggle. You continue on your way. You check your email. You go to the bank. It’s all there. You take it all out. You return to your hotel and try to sleep but you can’t because this heat and heavy air is too much and that noisy fan does nothing. You don’t do much over the next couple of days. Your neck and forearms take the brunt of the sun. You let the waves do whatever they want with you. You’re kind of surprised when they take you back to shore. You decide to check out early and head back to the city. You leave your entire four hundred thousand peso fee on your dresser and pray the cleaning lady who finds it will share the money or at least put it to good use. You grab your twenty kilogram suitcase and tell your taxi driver to the head to the airport. You can’t handle another bus ride and you really don’t have time either. The youngsters at security don’t bother checking anyone or anything. There’s a kid outside with a uniform and a machine gun that looks bigger than he is. You remember it wasn’t so long ago when he was you. You nod at the child soldier but he looks right through you. You and five others get on your plane. Your flight isn’t nearly as long or eventful as your last one. You land at the smaller terminal and haul your twenty kilogram suitcase all the way to the metro station. You ask some studious looking young man for directions. You’re surprised when he rides with you and guides you through the other metro stations. You’re kind of glad when he gets off a couple of stops before you do. You step out of the train when you reach your destination but you leave your twenty kilogram suitcase behind. You can’t help but wonder whose idea it was to build a metro station so close to a Presidential palace as you hurriedly climb the stairs and go out onto the square. You glance at your watch and against your better judgement you find yourself back at that cathedral. You sit at the back pew like you always do. Your legs and arms begin to shake. You tell yourself it’s because of the heat and lack of liquid and sleep and nothing more. You notice the poor young man and woman who have sat down next to you hold what looks like a baby. The infant’s face looks as if it has been slashed with razor blades and then wrapped with barbed wire instead of bandages. His eyes look off to infinity. The rest of his face is otherwise frozen. You pray for that baby and its parents while you try to convince yourself it’s just a doll that they use to make money from sympathetic fools like yourself. You check your watch as your leave. You see cops everywhere and notice they all carry guns.
You read Established 1911 on the empty chair in front of you. Your waitress brings you your glass of water. You watch as they take out their cell phones. You can’t believe they’re actually at the table in front of you. They’re the only guys in the whole place wearing turbans and the only ones to acknowledge their waitress so you know they aren’t from around here. You order a beer and a club sandwich. You ask her for another glass of water. You can’t get it in you fast enough. You ask her for another. The place is packed. You see a mariachi band at the back of the room. You hear them tune up while the turbans chatter away on their cell phones. You wonder how they can listen to whoever is at the other end with so many sirens blaring and if they know this is the last conversation they’ll ever have. You overhear one of them ask for the bill. You race out the door and take care not to get run over by the fleet of speeding ambulances as you cross the street. You remove the machine gun from the young officer who stands guard at an ATM machine. You rush back into the place. You yell for the waitresses and patrons and even the mariachi band hit the ground. You stand right in front the turbans and take aim. They don’t move. They’re more bewildered than panicked. You worry your machine gun might jam or blow up in your hands but you pull the trigger. Your bullets find your target easy enough because you’ve fired them from pointblank range. You count to seven. It’s over. You quietly applaud your plan and figure the turbans will be blamed for everything because they almost always are. You drop your machine gun and stroll out onto the street only to hear the biggest bang you’ve ever heard. You’re knocked onto your stomach and you hope it’s just a shock wave from a blast or even a small tremor but you’re dizzy and have a hell of a time getting up. You can’t really say for sure if it was as hot when you came into the cafe five minutes earlier. You sweat and you’re all of a sudden thirsty like you’ve never been. You think about going back for your glass of water but you’d better get to your hotel. Your legs have pretty much betrayed you by the time you’re at 614. You lie down on your bed. You notice the fan above spin and spin and spin and you use all of your strength just to turn your head. You wonder why somebody has left such a hideous mannequin on your bed. Your door opens for half a second. You were almost certain you recognized yourself standing there.
ARCE stands for the American Research Center in Egypt and runs a number of projects throughout the country, primarily with funding from USAID. Holding the concession for Khonsu temple at Karnak in Luxor, ARCE teams work on different projects focused around conservation and preservation at the temple and surrounding complex.
As ARCE photographers for the 2008 season, myself and Sara, the other ARCE photographer, shoot pretty much everything pertaining to the comings and goings at Khonsu. The fair explanation would be that Sara shoots a series of talatat blocks while I run around photographing everything else, from small flecks of gold no more than 3mm across, to large wall sections 20m by 10m. So far it’s involved scrambling up scaffolding, lots of creativity, imagination and patience. It’s also involved just plain getting dirty, so my inner 4 year old has been well satiated, and looks to continue to be so well into 2009.
The existing Khonsu temple dates to Ramses III, a new kingdom construction devoted to the child god Khonsu (son of the god Amun-Ra and goddess Mut). However, multiple inscriptions to subsequent rulers and high priests hint at different construction phases, while reused blocks in the bark sanctuary area date to Amenhotep III, providing clues as to how the temple was built and with what materials. The complete complex is roughly 70m long by 27m in dimension. To north lies the great temple of Amun, while a smaller temple built to the hippopotamus goddess Opet, borders directly to the west.
It appears many of the blocks used in Khonsu’s construction were borrowed and/or pillaged from other temples; those built under the reign of previous rulers. Thus blocks used in the foundation of Khonsu may have, in an earlier phase, belonged to a lintel on the west bank of the Nile dedicated to Amenhotep III. Figuring out what blocks come from where and what inscriptions they hold is of great interest to a team of epigraphers from Chigago House, working in conjunction with ARCE.
Egyptian temples are generally constructed to mimic a primordial creation myth — or so I’ve been told. Land rising from a swamp supporting the first means of human life, or perhaps in this scenario, sustained agricultural practices allowing a transition from hunter-gather societies. In addition to leaving mineral rich soil deposits suitable for crop production, the annual Nile flood inspired those who depended on it for life. Receding waters would leave a series of high ground islands on which temples were built, mimicking and paying tribute to the entire flood process. On entrance to any number of temples, one would find themself in an open air series of colonnades, full of light, extending upwards to the sky, signifying the present. On procession through the temple, space would gradually recede in scale, and the light in intensity, finally breaking into a series of small dark rooms at the heart, or back, of the complex. As one moved through the temple, they moved not only from front to back, open to closed, light to dark, but in time, from the present to the primordial origins of life. Or so the interpretation goes. How old are we again? And how do we measure that? One death, fossil records, rock, sun, moon? (The truth of the matter is that “we” — whatever you take/interpret “we” to be — can’t/don’t exist without out stories and myths… It’s part and parcel. Alexander had a handle on this when he arrived in 331 B.C. One doesn’t just rip everything down, and build from the ground up — one subverts, matches God for God, builds bridges between systems of worship, societies, and peoples, redefining the us/other relationship… But even then, divided up and cut into neat little sections, one section compared to another, but how does one, or perhaps, how do we, divide one thing, that through being that very one thing, is indivisible? And so the paradox reveals itself. The truth Ruth, begins with a “t”, but that “T” don’t mean jack without it’s 25 friends.)
Wall engravings, carved reliefs and statues within the temple generally depict, or establish which ruler built the temple as well as what god the structure is dedicated to. Additional carvings may record historical moments of significance within a specific pharoh’s reign. Unfortunately, or fortunately – depending on your position, time and place – the means of erasing a ruler who fell into disfavor, while at the same time establishing one’s dominance, consisted of chiseling off the engravings specific to said ruler, re-mortaring the surface, and then inscribing one’s own name and achievements.
In the late 60’s, French and American teams realized that many of the monumental pylons at Karnak had been built on the back of previous temples, ripped down and used as fill for these structures. What made the construction/deconstruction process relatively easy was the size and shape of a standard block. One “talatat” measures approximately 54cm by 30cm, or roughly the measure of full length arm by the distance from hand to elbow. When the initial temples were finished, large sections of wall were inscribed and painted with various scenes depicting rituals, daily life and offerings. Their subsequent deconstruction and reuse, unknowingly began the world’s first (and potentially) largest 3-dimensional puzzle; the first step in recreating the pylon fill facades being the logging, photographing and stacking of talatat blocks that continues to this day. Several sections have been successfully pieced together and are on display in the Luxor Museum, but there are many, many, more blocks that have yet to be excavated.
Initial estimates of the talatat blocks that Sara, and a team of conservators working on the project had to photograph and record were 16,000. Divided by the 9 month time frame for the project, it meant roughly 100 blocks a day, at approximately 10 minutes a block. Unfortunately logistics never work as smoothly in the mathematically arena as they do in reality, and this certainty coupled with multiple faces on a 1/3rd of the existing blocks (5000×2) as well as more than a few crumbling facades in need of a little “TLC” has made for a slower pace than anticipated. They’ve just broken 1000.
On the linguistic front, ancient Egyptian gets eerily similar to Japanese in the way Hirgana, Katakana and Kanji are combined to form written communication — thus there are set of symbols with one phonetic reading which remains consistent regardless of context, combined with pictogram derivatives, that have different contextual readings. The large wall section I’ve been shooting at Khonsu has a number of symbols I recognize but have no idea of meaning or reading. Perhaps in time…
In addition to the work done by Chigago House epigraphers and the talatat project there are 5 other projects (give or take) on the go revolving around Khonsu. Ed Johnson runs a field school training a cadre of egyptian conservators in temple evaluation and preservation techniques, while Dany Roy heads up a team of stone masons cutting block and reassembling broken sections in situ. Pam Rose digs holes in the floor and fills them them pretty consistently, and a team of Italian conservators have just arrived to clean two rooms in the back chapel.
I’ve been lucky enough to run around photographing pretty much everyone. It’s kept things even keel so to speak. Since arriving at the end of October I’ve done everything from macro shots of gold flecks about 2mm across, to large wall montages on the south pylon facade of Khonsu roughly 20m by 10m. In addition I’ve started shooting for the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) on their recent excavations at Karnak as well as at Luxor temple on another ARCE project documenting salvage finds from sewer-line construction a few years ago.
Some of the work has been pretty challenging, and there are times I’m left scratching my head wondering about the best way to light a certain scenario, but at the same time these challenges are what make the work interesting. So far my favorite solution has been, flash-on-stick with the white underside of reflector shield used to bounce the flash and create high contrast relief lighting for inscribed surfaces. I’m not allowed to post anything I’ve been working on, but after the contract has finished and I’ve gotten written approval from the SCA there’ll be posts to the blog and updates to the portfolio section. My big hope is that ARCE will agree to let the Khonsu wall montages be published to the web using the same technology employed by google earth, thus allowing the viewer a comprehensive means of zooming in and out of the facades and really making the most of the resolution of the photographs…
Sara and I have wound up meeting a lot of other photographers working in the area. One of note is Yarko Kobylecky, who’s been affectionately dubbed the Obi wan Konobi of photography in Luxor (quite possibly all of Egypt) It’s like having a photographic great Uncle or Grandpa who comes along at all the right moments with all the right hints and suggestions. Although it’s never been voiced, at the heart of Obi wan Yarko’s teaching is creativity and imagination — transcend those limitations, and photographing at Khonsu becomes a game among games.
It’s been really nice to explore Luxor and Egypt with another photographer. Sometimes a little creepy how similar the thought process can be, and although we wind up with similar shots some of the time, there’s enough stylistic difference to make it complementary. There’s talk of a few projects/books in the works if we can ever find time away from work. Check out Sara’s work — she captures moments with the best of them, and her name leads me to believe she’ll be famous some day: www.saralafleur.com (http://www NULL.saralafleur NULL.com)
In the months to come there will be lots more archaeological photography and it’ll be interesting to see what lies in store. At some point I’ll have the opportunity to teach a class on photography basics and the premise underlying archaeological photography. So yes, more to follow; periodic and thorough I hope — I don’t find writing easy, but will try.
Sri Lankan Airlines: : Serendib Magazine (http://www NULL.agencyfish NULL.com/custom-publishing-serendib)
It is not even midday yet, but the sun beats down regardless – it’s hot. From the sway of a camel’s back, a desert landscape emerges: sand dunes carved from wind; stunted broken trees scattered scarcely about, blue, blue sky, no hint of clouds. Here in the middle of Oman’s Wahiba Sands – a series of 250-kilometre-long golden-red sand dunes that run north-south – my thoughts have turned to water and Wilfred Thesiger. One can only imagine how this intrepid British explorer, who lived amongst Oman’s Bedu during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and wrote about their nomadic lifestyle in Arabian Sands, survived such harsh conditions. Back at the Nomadic Desert Camp, Abdullah Al-Mughairy offers an explanation: “No AC, no cold water, just warm water, a little bit, sip-sip – [you] get used to it.” In other words, without jumping from extremes, one becomes acclimatized and adapts, as Thesiger did, to the conditions dictated by environment. Unfortunately, I’ve only been in the desert for a day.
A stable, thriving country on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman might be better known through tales of Sinbad the sailor, or from the mention of frankincense borne by three wise men of biblical renown. Although developing oil interests later than neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman has proved itself a fast learner, with the ability to manifest change within mere decades. Before 1970, the country had only two primary schools, next-to-no hospitals, and was in a state of civil unrest. It now boasts locally-run hospitals, government-funded universities and vocational colleges, a vibrant economy, well-maintained infrastructure, and electricity that reaches even the remotest of mountain villages.
No wonder, then, there is a healthy respect and admiration for Sultan Qaboos, the man behind the reforms, who travels the country annually in a “meet-the-people” tour, and has proved himself a distinguished peacemaker in the international arena. There’s a sense of pride reflected in the faces of Oman’s population, from elders in a small fishing village who enjoy universal healthcare, to the smiles of their grandchildren, for whom tertiary education is now not only free, but encouraged.
Oman is no fool when it comes to resources, and although “peak oil” is a hotly contested subject, economic diversification has already proved an important strategy for a country that had limited supplies to begin with. An average of one million tourists visit the country annually already, and development is in the works all along the coast. Aiming for the tuna of tourists, the goal is to lure a wealthy clientele with luxury hotels built on prime ocean real-estate. But surely a Sultan with a demonstrable commitment to the environment recognizes what has been an increasingly global shift to ecotourism over the past 5 years? If the next-door, Middle East Conference on Sustainable Ecotourism Development held this past January was anything to go by, the answer would be yes. But whether smaller-scale community-based initiatives receive as much support as their luxury-styled brethren remains to be seen. Oman’s opulence is not outshone by its smarts though, and it wouldn’t be surprising to observe the development of both over the coming years, especially if the country continues to balance a tolerance of foreign customs and values, while at the same time showcasing its own heritage – something it seems to have managed admirably already. Wealth lies not only in luxury resorts, but also in enriching cross-cultural interactions encouraging visitors to “learn while at play.”
Back in Wahiba Sands, the Nomadic Desert Camp offers guests the opportunity to do just that, relaxing in a Bedouin environment while learning about the culture. For the Al-Mughairy family, what started off as an occasional service for ex-pats living in the Muscat of the 1980s has now turned into a successful business catering to tourists from all corners of the world.
“I want to show people what life was like before,” explains Rashid, 32, the eldest brother of an eight-sibling family, and de-facto manager of a business that supports and involves almost every family member. He adds, “I’d like to show the spirit that exists in the desert – of helping each other and of welcoming strangers into our homes.” Since opening for tours officially in 1999, Rashid has helped his father grow the business through a strong word-of-mouth connection, as well as some smart networking. In addition to the traditional Bedouin-style camp, the family organizes desert crossings and tailors trips according to client requests – from one day, to two weeks – enhanced by relationships with English, German and Swiss agencies specializing in unique travel experiences. The trick has been to keep a local focus while building a steady clientele of repeat customers. “I love to meet people from different cultures,” explains Rashid. “To shake their hand at the end of a stay and hear about their experiences – that’s important.”
Apparently a mind reader as well as adept desert navigator, my guide for the day, Sultan (the 3rd son) pauses to magically produce a water bottle from camel-bag. Thirst quenched, we dismount and give the camels slight reprieve from their cargo while making our way down off the dune. Shade under an Acadia tree on one of the flat, hard-packed corridors that separates dune from dune provides shelter, and Sultan is soon preparing a traditional Bedouin meal. First, coffee laced with cardamom is boiled over an open flame and accompanied by dates. A simple flat bread is made next: flour, water and a touch of salt kneaded together, baked in a pot, then torn into pieces and soaked in milk. Apples round out the meal, leftovers are given to the camels, and the fire easily buried. We rest for an hour and give the sun a chance to move over in the direction of clouds that have appeared on the horizon, then make our way back to camp.
As the sun sets on Barasti (palm frond) huts, guests gather in a communal open-faced Arabian Majlis for tea and relaxation before the evening meal. As one might expect in a desert camp modeled on the Bedouin experience, not all amenities are available. There are showers, but no hot water, and once the sun has set, the only light to be found is in the glow of lanterns and the moon overhead. Dinner is served to an eclectic group of guests, including the German Ambassador and his wife, travelers from Austria and Germany, as well as Dutch and French ex-pat families from Muscat. As the stars begin to peek out, we enjoy halwa, a traditional Omani dessert made from dates, saffron, cardamom, almonds, nutmeg and rosewater, boiled in a huge copper vat, and stirred for hours. Then we retreat to the campfire or retire for the night after a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into Bedouin life.
Canwest News Service: He Digs Adventure in the Desert (http://www NULL.canada NULL.com/edmontonjournal/news/sundayreader/story NULL.html?id=f7170c98-4fa1-4a1a-80a3-443cdc3e1404)
Tish Prouse would be the first to admit that his interest in archaeology stems from a boyhood love of Indiana Jones.
But the Edmonton native had no idea his interest would one day lead him to Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country of brutally hot summers, bitterly cold winters and a pockmarked landscape that invites comparisons with the moon.
So why is he here? The answer is Merv, an ancient city along the Silk Road that was once a thriving metropolis, one of the largest and most important in the region for over 2,500 years.
Little remains of it today, mostly depressions, lumps and rubble. But beneath this desolate landscape, you can find “buildings, industrial complexes, mausoleums, minarets, streets, markets, and houses,” says Prouse.
In other words, it’s an archeologist’s dream and part-time home to this graduate of Strathcona Composite High School.
Prouse candidly acknowledges that his childhood interest in archeology comes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the adventure movie starring Harrison Ford.
He earned a B.A. in archeology from the University of Alberta, then a master’s degree in archeology from the University College of London in England, and that in turn led to an invitation to join the research at Merv.
From his studies he also picked up some “important” tips. Prouse winks: “The first year in university when I started seriously studying archaeology, my professor said the three things one had to do to become a good archaeologist were: get a good hat, show an appreciation for scotch, and smoke high quality cigars while excavating.”
For Prouse and other archeologists, the interest in Merv lies in its fan-belt location in the Kara Kum Desert. Fed by the Murghab River, which flows down from the Pamir mountain range in Afghanistan, a succession of cities were built on separate sites extremely close to one another.
First came the fortress citadel of Erk Kala, later expanded to the city of Gyuar Kala, in turn abandoned for the city of Sultan Kala. Collectively, these cities are referred to as Ancient Merv.
The fact that Merv encompasses three distinct cities makes it huge, coming in at a combined total of just over 600 hectares. The archeology remaining at the site is vast.
As Prouse points out, “If the funds were available, you could employ 10,000 separate teams, with a core of 20 workers all doing their own section, and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.”
The trench where Prouse is working has already yielded much of interest — along with a few prerequisite snakes, there is evidence of a Mongol sacking and the skeletal remains of an old woman with two youths trapped below a collapsed mud-brick wall.
But the most interesting aspect of Prouse’s trench lies in a canal system and series of pipes discovered over the past two field seasons.
“What you’ve got is an amazing system of pipes which twist and lock together, fitted with resin to keep water from seeping out of the seams. Not only that, but the clay itself is ridiculously solid, so even when it’s buried and under pressure, it still functions properly.
“These locking systems are incredibly similar to what we use with modern PVC tubing, sealed to maintain air pressure. Even with a minimal amount of water the same pressure is maintained in these 1,000-year-old clay pipes and they won’t cave in.”
This is the first time a functional water management system has been uncovered at Merv, and the discovery raises many questions about the technology used to build it and what the pipes were for — perhaps providing fresh water or removing waste.
“The thing I enjoy about my job,” says Prouse, “is that like Indiana Jones, there is a certain amount of adventure. I’m thrown into situations where most normal people don’t go, I interact with locals on a different level, I explore places people haven’t seen in a thousand years.”
But the real treasure lies in understanding how a city was built and functioned, and that’s what Prouse’s excavations at Merv seek to contribute.
“Unlike Indiana Jones, the serious aspect of academic research is teaching, researching, talking to colleagues, and documenting evidence. It’s not just walking into a temple and taking out the long-lost relic.”
“One has to record as much information as possible so that other scholars can come back to the same place and use your evidence to draw new research insights into how humanities evolved and functioned.”
Preface: I’m a firm believer there’s no better place to be than where one finds themself – peaceful communities arise through the acceptance and acknowledgment of those in their midst, peaceful individuals arise through the acceptance and acknowledgment of the communities they inhabit – both function well with a measured level of respect, humility, understanding and consideration, regardless of national border or personal identity. Culture, like language, is a living embodiment of interactions between individuals in a society, and on a metaphysical level, between the individual and society. Life, it might be said, is the narrative spun both through, and by these interactions.
To call Canada and Japan the same would be akin to showing someone an apple and a cherry while trying to convince them they were the same thing – regardless of name, even blindfolded the subject’s countenance might register a markedly different taste. But despite taste, and texture, color and feel, apples and cherries find themselves fruit in the same manner that Canada and Japan find themselves countries. In particular, both are faced with an aging population and low birth rate.
Although the latest figures show a slight rebound in Japan’s birth rate, the total fertility rate needed to avoid population decline has itself been in decline since 1973. Even if the birth rate were to increase during the next decade, the number of Japanese women having children is set to shrink sharply over the coming 15 years. Such figures coupled with a rapidly aging demographic are cause for concern: projections for 2050 forecast an elderly population that outranks the young by roughly 3:1. The outlook in Canada is eerily similar. Despite an increase in births since 2000, Statistics Canada reports show a fertility rate in overall decline since the 1970s: by 2031 seniors over 65 years of age will outnumber Canadian children under 15 by approximately 2:1. Make no mistake, Japan and Canada have populations that are still growing – but over the next 20 years they’re set to age – rapidly.
With these figures come a plethora of concerns: feasibility of pension and healthcare systems, social security issues, the economic burden placed on a young generation, not to mention the future outlook for both countries.
Over the past five years, Canada’s immigration policies have made up for 60% of it’s population growth, attracting nearly 200 000 new immigrants each year – a far cry from Japan’s closed-door policies. However, even if Japan seriously considered immigration reforms to address domestic labour concerns, neither country would find immigration alone the requisite answer to an aging population and low birth rate. The solutions, it seems, need to run deep and find their roots in programs that encourage and support family structure, regardless of whether that family finds themselves newly arrived immigrants in a land of multi-ethnicities, or multi-generational heirs to traditional land. Canadian and Japanese families need to be encouraged to have children and supported with policies that allow parents to be parents: fully funded maternity leaves, flexible employment practices, child benefit allowances, and a reinvestment in early education. Both countries need to address the ramifications posed by a rapidly aging population and low birth rate, and realize that as with the environment, family concerns are implicitly tied to future economic realities.
Running late. Nothing new – it’s the norm. Taking short cuts, familiar back routes through the rice fields of Toyama on route to something else; always something else, some reason, some rush, some… Rarely a drive now, for a drives’ sake.
65km/h, bend in the road, bridge ahead and on it an old man. He’s waving a hand and with it, an umbrella. I slow down thinking maybe he needs directions or some help – waiting for the moment he looks at my face only to wave me on having predetermined I can’t speak the language. Not today. Window goes down – face peeps in. Old, white hair, crooked teeth, split level glasses slightly dirty; umbrella in hand has wavered down, too.
“Tsurete iku?” (take me with you)
Caught off guard – he’s asking for a ride… Nobody hitch hikes in this country, nobody asks – it just doesn’t happen, if they do they’re young and elsewhere other than back roads.
“Tsurete iku? 10pun dake…” gesturing in the opposite direction of main road, towards the mountains.
A car passes – I’m late already, no time, caught up in a moment: ears open, mind closed. However, it’s raining, and he’s old, stooped with what looks a heavy bag in the other hand…
“Amari jikan ga nai – tomodachii to yakusoku ga arun kedo…” (I don’t really have time – got an appointment with friends, but) I open the door.
“Uchi made, sonanni tokuani – koko kara 10pun dake” Not far to my house, only 10 minutes from here.
“Shiteru ne?” Nod of the head. (You understand [Japanese] don’t you)
“Un” (yes) I do– a little, but right now I’m thinking I’ll just drive you as far as I can – 5 minutes perhaps, halfway maybe, then see whether you can’t get a lift from someone else…mind elsewhere – preoccupied…
His name is Sakai Shouta, and he lives off in the mountains of Osawano. No family, by himself. Or rather, with two cats – “it’s a little lonely you see”… He’s just been into town to get some groceries; tinned food, wrapped with newsprint carried in a plastic bag next to umbrella on the thigh of slightly unkempt trousers.
“Things aren’t like they used to be in the old days, not many people in the mountains anymore – all moved to the cities. Used to be able to live off the land completely – healthy Japanese food – lots of fresh vegetables, and so many fish…”
“Takes a long time to walk this road – perhaps an hour and half for an old man…meet a bear and that would be the end,” he chuckles…
“You know if you go straight on this road it’ll take you through Osawano onto the 41, down into Gifu – only in the summer mind you – winter’s a different story”…
I’ve started listening now – rather than automatic replies, rather than thinking about the next place to drop him off. As the road continually narrows, my mind has opened ever so slightly.
“What do you do in Winter?”
“Not much – stay in my house – can’t go anywhere, the roads aren’t open.”
“What about food?”
“Buy some in the village…”
“But the roads are closed…”
10 minutes, 20 minutes, late, not late- it’s all relative. Sakai-san has a mouth full of teeth ready to drop out; black, crooked – two missing on either side of a front tooth, withered away by the years. His suit is old, dirty in all the spots that show wear easily — I’ve noticed now — Sunday best from 20 years ago, and perhaps without cleaning since then either. But behind split level glasses, and gap-toothed mug are eyes that smile and conversation that’s genuine. I drop Sakai-san off at his house – in the middle of nowhere, on a road scarcely wider than a car; abandoned houses scattered around lonely rice fields surrounded by forest. Boarded up, splintered roofs, crumbling walls…
“Lot’s of green out here” Sakai-san remarks. He tries to push money into my hand for the ride, but I won’t accept it.
“9 gatsu gurai, uchi e iku to hanashite mo ii? Yes he’d like that, it’s lonely up here all alone – nice to have someone to talk with, other than the cats.
“Out in the mornings mind, around in the evenings.” Old man with crooked smile, young man with time on his mind: we’re both looking towards September…
Sakai-san is 78-years old.
Born in 1927, Namerikawa, Toyama, youngest of seven children and a second son.
“Ha—ha-ha-ha—.” A wheeze of a laugh, gap-toothed mug, purple hair and smiling eyes. “Didn’t have much money then, see, and if you don’t have money, you have children. They help out. More mouths to feed, but more people to help. Ha-ha—ha—ha—ha-ha . . . Yup, six older siblings, one brother, five sisters.”
“And Sakai-san is the youngest? Are any of his brothers or sisters . . .?”
“All passed away now. All dead.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear . . .”
Silence. A smile.
“What about their children? Nephews, nieces?”
“Sure. Must be some, but I didn’t really know them. Don’t go out to Namerikawa anymore now. Hard to get out there. Don’t really know them.”
Silence. And another smile.
Perhaps if Sakai-san weren’t senile, he wouldn’t forgive me — and then again, maybe he would. What’s remembered, what’s forgotten, conscious or not, are decisions that bound the realm of willpower and presence. What makes it all fit together is that Sakai-san’s lack of memory matches perfectly with my inability to comprehend. What doesn’t come the first time, comes the second, third, fourth, fifth . . . Something a little different revealed in each telling, a process of refinement leaving consolidated thought, rich, crystallized memories —not to mention the opportunity to pose the same question repeatedly. We both say the same thing, again and again and again. For a second, intent seems to preclude means, attaining a level of truth that is as quick to make its presence known as it is to vanish.
“Brother went to China, part of the military.”
“And Sakai-san . . .?”
“Never wanted to join the army, but had to. Eighteen years old when we entered the World War II. It was conscription — no choice. War is stupid, but it put money in my pocket. Foolish. Was working for a company at the time, and didn’t have much of a choice . . . Army base is where the university is now, can-you-believe-it — big garrison there, bunkhouses, the whole deal. [The] Americans fire-bombed us at night; they knew what was going on. Everything in the city [Toyama] burned. I remember, commanding officer sent me and another fellow out on an errand that night, out into the countryside, and when we came back, everything was gone — burned, leveled. Yup, I remember that . . . We knew what was going on too, though. A lot of families left their houses in the city, fled to rural areas. Yeah, I remember that.”
“And what about Sakai-san? Where are the children to help him?”
No children, never married, plenty of chances, though.
“Didn’t want to get married to someone a lot younger — nothing to talk about, not much in common. Imagine a 40-year-old marrying a 20-year-old. Used to happen, but not for me. No, the single life is better, I thought,” said with a sigh in the eyes.
“Living alone is sad, isn’t it?”
“The truth, yeah, it’s sad, it’s lonely. I talk to my cats and I work. Work is what makes my life fun . . .”
Sakai-san is senile, slightly or severely, perhaps somewhere in-between, like his split-level bifocals. Call it anterograde amnesia, short-term memory loss, a lack of lucidity, Alzheimer’s. Call it what you want, Sakai-san remembers who I am, but forgets questions he’s asked only a few seconds before, forgets what he’s doing in the middle of doing it, forgets whose pot is whose, and what’s in it -— genuinely surprised to find soup in the nabe he’s convinced is mine.
Sakai-san sells art.
“Got a list — all the big companies here in Toyama. I go to see the guy in charge, right to the top.”
Sakai-san sells art.
“Making a list —you know, big companies around Toyama, I go to see the guy at the top . . . It’s difficult sometimes. Have to take photos of what I’m selling. Can’t just take the original, now, can I — too heavy!”
Sakai-san sells art.
“Think 70,000 ¥ is expensive for a painting? It’s not. Tokyo people, they’ve got money. Might not even think twice about buying a picture this size . . . [gestures] Yaa, that’s where the money is. Here in Toyama, well . . .”
Sakai-san sells art.
“Hard to get down to Takayama now. That’s the furthest I’ll go.Transportation issue, really. Trains aren’t too good. Next year I’m thinking of stopping.”
It’s dark now when I get there . . .
Five-fifteen. But already dark, winter, soon December, soon snow. A moment of unrecognition, then the familiar gap-toothed smile . . .
“Ha, wow! Today I’m lucky. First my niece and her husband, and now you. I’m happy.”
I don’t catch it the first time ’round, focused on what appears to be the broken burner in Sakai-san’s hand.
“Not even a chair for you. Oh, here we are . . .”
The desk has disappeared from its usual position, and there’s more food around.
“My older brother’s daughter and her husband just came, brought me some food!” Sakai-san is sitting down to a healthy meal of rice and fish.
“Ran out of canisters for the stove there. That’s the one you brought me, right?”
“I’m sorry, I should have brought more.”
“It’s useful; I just keep forgetting to buy more. Put memos inside my wallet, but still forget. You know, so when I’m going to pay for something, I’ll take money out and see the memo, but . . . always, I’m forgetting! Forgot to buy oil for the stove too! Ah – I’m an old man, always forgetting!”
Scattered around the room are some new large-sized books. Handsome foreigners in expensive suits grace the cover, and I ask Sakai-san if I can take a look. They’re old fabric sample books, and I realize he’s burning them to stay warm in lieu of the oil heater. On ignition, they burn a deep, dark smoke. Through it, I can barely see him, spitting up kernels of rice with words — one seems to slip out as easily as the other — but then again, Sakai-san doesn’t have many teeth to speak of.
“Ah, when you’re a single man, this is how you do things [burning fabric swatches]. They burn nice and hot. Keep me warm for a while.”
“Okay, but please be careful. Easy for other things to catch on fire this way . . .”
“Yeah, my niece and her husband come and visit me three or four times a year. Always bringing so much food! . . . I get by with the old-age pension money — every month, the post office delivers it here — but I want to move to Toyama city. I know there’s got to be some free places to live there, too; everyone’s always building new houses. I just want one of those old ones, in the middle of a rice field, a place someone will say, “Here you go. Live here, please — rent-free.”
I ask Sakai-san about the past again. “After the war, what did you . . .?”
“Oh, lots of things, but when my older brother got out of the army, I went with him and one of my sisters, and we sold medicine in other prefectures across Japan. It’s an old Toyama tradition, you know. Used to be tons of traveling salesman, and at the time, it was the easiest thing to do. But the money, it wasn’t good after a while. People only paid for what they used, [and gradually they didn’t use so much].
“So then . . .?”
“Then I went with my brother and worked as a traveling medicine salesman.”
“Oh, I see. And after that . . .”
“Oh after that, some other things. I worked for Fujikoshi-nachi [Toyama’s largest company] for a while. Made big long pipes and
tubes, parts for machines and such. And for a while, I sold clothes —tailored men’s suits — but that’s work for young eyes and hands. Get older and it’s no good. And always I liked the arts. Couldn’t draw worth a darn, but always liked the arts, ya . . . Went to Tokyo’s top art university for the graduating show and met with the head dean. He encouraged me to sell his students’ paintings, so I decided to switch jobs. But Toyama’s people are too low to appreciate that kind of art. Too expensive. If you talk to the people at the top, then it’s okay — but only the top guy, not even number two will do . . . Left my card and lots of photos with Toyama Prefecture’s governor, but he’s always out when I call . . .”
“When you sleep, do you remember your dreams?”
“No, don’t need to. I don’t dream. Don’t have anything to worry about, so nothing to dream about. I’m living a relaxed life, not too many stresses. Ha—ha-ha-ha-ha.”