Friday, 7 June 2013

Dr Sarah Alexander - You could become all flame

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can say I keep my office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

March 17.

Three hours after leaving the hotel, I  finally reached the Bazaar as the evening light was dimming. At least the air was cooler, three hours on a bus that could double as a slow cooker is pretty much my limit I'm afraid. I am relaxed enough now to make these notes, but I spent most of the afternoon in a state of mounting panic since nothing about my experience seemed to tally with the many descriptions I had collected, not least from my esteemed colleagues back at the university. Indeed, we will have to have words when I return.

First off, the bus was not full, far from it. There was myself, being the exhausted academic, stereotyped in her canvas suit and sunglasses, hair haphazardly tied back with what could be a genuine example of local head wear, or something that is churned out by a factory in China and imported for the purpose of making the foolish visitors feel that they are contributing to the local traditional economy, and only two other passengers. From what I could make out they were certainly related, possibly married, but for whatever reason were sitting about five seats apart, occasionally throwing out the odd crumb of conversation without apparent reference to the previous statement or reply. As far as I could tell they were speaking different languages. Was this for my benefit? Something to amuse themselves on the trip? If so, I never caught so much as a glance in my direction. All in all it made me feel extremely uncomfortable and I was glad when we pulled up at what I assumed was some kind of "comfort" stop pending the next leg of what was starting to feel like a never ending journey.

Except, no, the driver stood, turned, bowed theatrically (again, for my benefit alone?) and leaped down to the barely delineated road below. This was it. This? This was the fabled Bazaar? I had already adjusted for the tradition of hyperbole that infested the reports of what went on here, but even the rout of all exaggeration had not prepared me for the shoddy sight that awaited. My travelling companions had slunk out of sight ahead of me as I struggled to get my rucksack down from the step. There seemed to be no one around but me and the bus. I had come in search of silence and I seemed to have found it exactly when it was of no use to me.

The doors to the Bazaar were locked. Wonderful. I wandered around the building to no avail, then turned back towards the "border". I had been warned to expect the worst when crossing. Searches, intimidation, possible interrogation. At the moment the boundary seemed to be demarked by a few sandbags, one of which was revealed with closer inspection to be a sleeping dog.

Insanely I wondered if the locals were somehow hiding nearby. Perhaps as I walked down one side of the building they were scuttling en masse along the other, signalling to each other pantomime style to be silent, struggling to contain their laughter. Well, it wasn't funny. The light was fading fast and I  needed somewhere to stay, never mind a guide to take me to the object of my quest.

The dog sat up and barked happily. Not that I am such an expert on the intonation and timbre of canines, but rather that I could see he was responding to a young boy loping along towards us with his arms stretched above his head, fingers waggling as if he was conducting the landscape.

I called out to him in what was, I hoped, a relaxed, cheery fashion. He looked at me as if I was breathing fire. At least he did not turn and run, but began to pet the dog, which ran around his feet.

After my attempt at some truly awful Arabic, it became apparent very quickly that he spoke a hybrid language which, whilst including lapses into relatively fluent English also comprised some local dialect with which I was unfamiliar and, bizarrely, some French. I explained that I was looking for the garden of the Desert Father and I needed to find a place to stay until I could organise the second part of my journey. He looked at me, then looked at his dog. The pair of them locked eyes and for the third time that day I felt that a joke was being shared and that joke was me.

I asked again about a place to stay but he answered a question I had not asked, referring instead to my introductory remark, "Abba Shenouda, oui, bustan al-rohban. The garden, not far, my dog knows the way." I asked him if we could walk there. His dog looked at me as if I was simple whilst his master nodded and set off away from from the Bazaar, finding a path I had not seen from my earlier vantage point which initially tracked the border but veered away towards the mountains.

Very quickly we came to a sheltered area at the foot of the red mountain. A huge outcrop of rock stretched out like a root, and cradled behind, completely hidden from view but not hidden from the sun that would creep up across the whole area in the morning, was a surprisingly large area of cultivated land and a one story dwelling, more than a hut but somewhat less than the majority of more traditional flat roofed properties I had noted on my travels.

"Abba Shenouda is here?" I asked, "He will see me?"

The boy answered "Oui, he will see you".

"Can you tell him I am here please?"

"Non, He has gone to gather flowers on the mountain."

"But you said he would see me."

"Oui .هو في كل مكان في مركز الكون  "

I was starting to get the feeling again but I was simply too tired for paranoia, too tired for Arabic, too tired to deal with the consequences of my ridiculous academia.

"Can I stay here? Till Abba Shenouda returns? Do you think that would be alright?"

He nodded enthusiastically. Good. I really did not want to hear that "Oui" again for a while, however beneficial the affirmations had been.

On stepping through the only visible entrance, reassuringly comprising a solid wooden door and bolt, I found myself in a blood orange room of much more sophisticated construction than I had anticipated. Set into the walls were areas for storage, and large wooden beams supported the roof frame above a fired clay workbench in the centre of the room. Oddly, the uniform fiery orange of the room did not have a hot, agitating feel, quite the contrary, the air was cool and still and, momentarily, so was I.

I do not know how long I was standing taking in the ambiance, long enough for my little friend and his dog to scarper back from whence they came. I am about to unfold some of the blankets that are resting in the alcove and will try to get some sleep. It was not my intention to spend the night here but other options are limited, and the one constant in the tale of the desert father is his open hospitality. Only thing is I can't see any option but to bolt the door. Hopefully if Abba Shenouda does return with his flowers (for what purpose? Medicinal/ herbs?) then he will still be as patient and understanding as in his philosophy when he finds is locked out of his own house by the neophyte, like a monastic Fred Flintstone.

March 18th.

Incredibly, it is mid-day and when I put pen to paper here it is not because I have been exploring and interviewing all morning, it is because I only woke up ten minutes ago.

Abba Shenouda has not returned. Or at least, if he did I not hear him knocking on the door which seems unlikely, no matter how deep my sleep was. I need to rustle up some breakfast, seems rude to eat from the garden so I will strike out for the bazaar and let someone sell me some overpriced manaqeesh and tea.

Also must note that one warning I was given by the other professors is proving correct: nothing electronic lasts here. My phone, which became useless for calls and internet pretty much ten seconds across the border, is now also struggling to record voice notes so I am pleased I packed these notebooks. Plus, the internal clock is scrambled. My watch is still ok but according to the phone it is now the 19th March. I hardly think I was THAT tired.


Perhaps I was more exhausted than I anticipated. The walk to town, which yesterday seemed little more than a hop and a skip in the company of my young friend, stretched out ahead of me in a fashion that I just could not undertake in the boiling heat of mid-day. Resting in the shade of the cliff for a while I watched the heat waves shimmer and dance across the sand, sometimes almost indistinguishable to the eye, other times lining up in a solidifying formation, a dance troupe of the intangible following a rhythm defined by the landscape, performed for no one. If it sounds like I am starting to hallucinate then it was true then, but not now, not after I sauntered back here to this cool shelter and spend the rest of the afternoon sitting in the overgrown garden. It occurred to me that it would be just like the usual comedy of my life to head over to the tourist trap Bazaar to barter for some rustic junk only to have the Abba pop back for supplies and head out again, none the wiser to my presence.

The sun is setting across the garden releasing the night time smell of the desert, the awaking creatures, the transformation of solar to lunar, Kusuh for Selardi, the masculine blaze overpowered by the female mystery...

That was a sharp return from my reverie. I was certain I saw a figure watching me from the edge of the garden, the dusk disintegrating the edges of his figure and obscuring his face but clearly enough visible to make me cry out in fright. As I shot upright I realised  the figure was not, as I had already subconsciously decided, the desert father, for it was as small as a child, even adjusting for perspective, but then as the moonlight strengthened over the wizened trees beside the wall there was nothing there at all.

March 19th?

It's ridiculous how easy it is to lose track of time here. You would think that having nothing but the sun and the moon to focus my attention on would simply matters, but I am forced to conclude that my recent travels have played rather more havoc with my sleeping patterns that I was previously prepared to concede.

Specifically, I had another visit from my young guide and his dog. His conversation was more fragmented than I expected after our first meeting, but perhaps he used up all his English on the in response to the questions he encounters most often where is who are why why not. From the disappointingly small amount of sense I could extract it was apparent that his mission was, at least, one of compassion. He had bought with him, or rather his dog had bought with him via a bag currently dangling much too closely for my comfort from the animal's charming but saliva filled snout, some provisions and a newspaper in English. I did not recognise the title, it seemed to be much concerned with African affairs but as allowed myself the puzzle of working out place of origin from the of purchase price my eye rested on the date of publication. First rested, then had a good stab at burning through to the back page.

Sensing distress, the dog began to jump around. The boy too backed away as I turned to him.

"What is this?" I said, stabbing at the top of the page, "March 21st? Is this a weekly publication? Dated ahead?" But I knew as the words pointlessly left my mouth that not only would the boy fail to understand, but that the chances of there being a weekly newspaper called "The Daily Chronicle" were non-existent.

"21st March?" I persisted, "Do they deliver newspapers from the future at your Bazaar?"

I caught his arm. He did not struggle but looked at me with a look of pity that I did not see that I could deserve.

"Sabet, the driver, he pass it to me yesterday. Five days you have been here, I have not seen you, bring you food, friendship, The food of one person is enough for two, food for two is enough for four, and food for four is enough for eight."

I released his arm and asked my head to stop spinning. Calm, calm.

"Where is Abba Shenouda? Why has he not returned? How long until he sees me?"

Where why how

" Abba Shenouda has gone to gather flowers on the mountain. He will see you."



Presumably it is safe enough to date this entry simply with the month - I have had to accept that the desert heat and relaxing state of the garden has made me completely unable to tell when I have slept from noon to noon and not realised. Part of the reason for my weariness is simple enough to explain. However relaxing the atmosphere within the walled garden, there could be no dispute that large parts of the various beds were over-run, both with planted and overly flourishing blooms and a variety of suspicious looking and encroaching climbing Ivy. My plan is to smooth the waters with Abba Shenouda for imposing so much on his hospitality (rent free, let us recall), by tending his garden until he returns from the mountain, which return becomes more imminent with each passing day.

My friend (I realise it is so terribly rude not to have learnt his name but now I cannot think of him as anything other than simply "my friend") has taken to calling every couple of days with bread and other simple provisions. I give him token amounts of money from the decent enough balance I have left, he doesn't seem to care either way. He is not the most helpful in the garden however, preferring to sit and watch me as I chop and dig. With no previous empirical evidence to support this supposition, and indeed some to the contrary, I feel that I am developing a talent for cultivation. the soil within these walls appears, to my inexperienced eyes anyway, to have remarkable properties. Plants embedded the one day break through and flower within a matter of days.


I date this April as the work I have done in the garden suggests enough days have gone by to make it impossible to be March. Oh, I know I am foolish, I should make my way across to the border and re-establish my bearings in time and space, send a message back to the university, but I cannot risk leaving, each time I take a step away from the door towards the horizon I can hear the corresponding footfall of Abba Shenouda, not so far off in the distance, his arms festooned with bright stems and herbs.

I was saddened today when my friend appeared. He awoke me from a dream that slipped away but I could not be angry with him as I could see immediately that he was pained, and also the source of his pain. His dog, his faithful companion in this area of nothing, was clearly unwell. His canine hide was shrivelled and his breath came in shuddering fits. An illness, just last week he had been leaping around the garden, underfoot. The boy, so adult in his physique, still a child in his pain, sank to his haunches beside his animal, a hand across his eyes.

My friend's face was heart-breaking to see. The lines on his face were intensified, the sun damage, perhaps normally held at bay by his youthful energy, relished the opportunity to manifest across his features, giving him the impression of one years older than I knew him to be.

Even at this distance from my homeland I am crippled with the reserve that has simultaneously protected and pickled in aspic the social mores that created me . I knew I should put my arms around him, comfort him in some way simply through my very existence but I could not find the mechanism which would force my staid muscles to obey my rebellious instructions. But I had to take some action, I could not turn away entirely, so I sat beside him and began to speak. What I thought I was doing I had no idea, but given that he wasn't going to understand more than a third of what I was saying, I reached down deep, right back to the bright parish mornings of Sunday School, enraptured by Jesus and St Assisi equally, each little bird that sings.

To my surprise, but much more to my relief, the moment passed and my friend gazed up at me with something approaching wonder before suddenly scooping the skeletal dog, so reduced as to be almost weightless, and darting again out of the garden. No learning is wasted. How many years have I insincerely preached that mantra to my dis-interested students, and now here, with no one to witness, I find that it is true.


I will need to try and reconstruct the dates retrospectively. For the moment I have to record that I seem to have acquired, if not a disciple, then certainly a zealot. Today my friend was not alone when he called, bringing with him a woman who could have been anything from his mother to great grandmother, so hunched as she was inside an indeterminate number of dark garments. At first I was too distracted at wondering why she did not turn to steam within her swaddling so overpowering was the heat to be too perturbed at her appearance. Before I could tear my thoughts away from that conundrum I found that she and my friend had cheerfully plunked themselves down in the middle of what I had come to regard as my living room floor.

A strange set of eyes on me restored all my awkwardness and I moved about the room gathering pieces of bread and cups of water in order to give my ridiculous body something to do under such scrutiny. By necessity I joined my guests on the floor in order to pass out the refreshments. The intake of water seemed to break an internal dam because the woman began to spout a stream of closely connected sounds that defied understanding, and not, I suspect, only through lack of language. The speech was heavy, scraping through the air without pause for smile or expression of light. The words were chained inside a well of misery, it was impossible not to feel the need for release.

How foolish I must look, when, as if I am back in my classroom, I begin to lecture on death. I have made an intuitive leap that the vacuum of expression in the old woman's voice can only have been sapped so terribly by the loss of a loved one who filled the space.

I explain about the twin bothers, Thanatos and Hypnos, death and sleep, Hypnos especially, who arrives to take away the pain of his brother's visitation,   Apollonius "She wailed, and leaning back her neck breathed Hypnos who walks with Thanatos ; for verily it was ordained that both should have all things in common and pursue the works of the elder brother: hence women, weighed down with sorrowing eyes, oft-times, while they weep, fall asleep." and then Colluthus "Nothing shall part us in our love till Thanatos at his appointed hour removed us from the light of day."  All is inevitable, immutable, Aeschylus ""For, alone of gods, Thanatos  loves not gifts; no, not by sacrifice, nor by libation, canst thou aught avail with him; he hath no altar nor hath he hymn of praise; from him, alone of gods, Peitho (Persuasion) stands aloof."

What happened next was quite bizarre, as if, indeed, the little tableau was not bizarre enough. The woman got to her feet, and with great dignity rearranged her the scarves across her face to reveal her shockingly young features. "Thank you Ammas" she said. "ألف ش".

Sometime following

Apparently I have become something of a local curiosity. This is very close to the opposite of my intent but it seems that if I have any chance now of greeting Abba Shenouda it will be as one of many. First is was the a stray visitor in the afternoon, as I admired my handiwork at keeping the grove, content to sit with me and listen to whatever tales I cared to recount in order to bring the audience to a close, then groups of three or four, and now it is difficult for me to find time in the day to tend the garden or prepare the vegetables for the evening meal.

My friend has not visited for a few days but has sent what can only be his elder brother, so powerful is the resemblance. He calls me "Abbas Alexander" or "Desert Mother" in what I take as good natured jibes, but the names have stuck and are now how I am universally addressed, no matter how much I protest.

I feel that I am understanding the needs of my strange students so much more than I ever did in those rooms of bored young women. No one here is attempting to scribble their personal mythology behind the screen of a textbook, here the faces are upturned, the chatter suspended as I run through the very near infinite catalogue of stories I have taken in and transported, waiting for release.

A time after the previous time

Today I was tired and had to ask for my guests to return to their homes early. In truth I felt the weariness in the tongue as much as the body. I would not have thought it possible but I believe I have told all I know. Worse, as I scan the gardens for inspiration I am aware that I have neglected the grounds in place of talking, and there are distinct patches that have become bare through lack of attention. I am a poor tenant, small wonder Abba Shenouda does not return. How can he until his property is restored to glory? Oh vainglorious fool to allow the death of the garden for love of the affection of crowds! I raise my head to the moonlight and rest my gaze on the distant horizon, dominated by the eternal hills. The sliver light bathes the wild foliage so high above once tended greenery here, no longer vibrant, so much in need of regeneration. Tomorrow I will remove myself to the quiet for a while.

Tomorrow I shall go to gather flowers on the mountain.

Abba Poimen said: "A man may seem silent, but if in his heart he condemns others, he is talking ceaselessly. Yet there may be someone else who talks from morning until night, who, because he says nothing unprofitable, is truly silent."

In the garden

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