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Distance Learning

This morning, via Lit Hub (and look, it’s Nella Larsen’s birthday), I skim a piece in the LA Times, in which the writer Laila Lalami shares her “quarantine diary” from last week.  On Saturday, she is WhatsApping with her mother, who is in Morocco (Lalami herself lives in Los Angeles):

Earlier that week, Morocco had declared a state of emergency and army tanks were deployed to enforce shelter-in-place orders.  Now the government was restricting nonessential movements: only one person per household could go out to get groceries.  Morocco’s response to the pandemic has been vigorous, likely because the number of hospital beds per person is low and the healthcare system won’t be able to handle a curve like Italy’s.  I worry constantly about my parents, who’ve reached an age that puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus.  When I became an immigrant twenty years ago, I never thought about situations like this, where I’m separated from my loved ones by thousands of miles.

I trip over that last line, and find that I have to stop, turn around, and look back at it, like a cobble set crooked in the path.

When I became an immigrant twenty years ago, I never thought about situations like this, where I’m separated from my loved ones by thousands of miles.

What do you mean, I am suddenly saying, incredulous, to the Lalami in my head.  What do you mean you never thought about situations like this?

Girl.  How can you say that?

From the moment I became an immigrant.  Through all the moments that have followed.  Even if it’s not exactly this.  It is exactly this.  It is precisely situations like this, where I’m separated from my loved ones by thousands of miles, that I have thought about.

In some ways, in some places inside, there has been nothing else to think about.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[martedì 30 marzo 2020 ore 12:04:01] []

Of Intertextuality, Worldliness, and Woolf

Most folks are talking today, if they are talking of her, about the letter.  But I have been wanting for a while, since reading Orlando at last this past January, to put this somewhere safe:

She was reminded of old Greene getting upon a platform the other day, comparing her with Milton (save for his blindness) and handing her a cheque for two hundred guineas.  She had thought then of the oak tree here on its hill, and what has that got to do with this, she had wondered?  What has praise and fame to do with poetry?  What has seven editions (the book had already gone into no less) got to do with the value of it?  Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?  So that all this chatter and praise, and blame and meeting people who admired one and meeting people who did not admire one was as ill-suited as could be to the thing itself—a voice answering a voice.  What could have been more secret, she thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song of the woods, and the farms and the brown horses standing at the gate, neck to neck, and the smithy and the kitchen and the fields, so laboriously bearing wheat, turnips, grass, and the gardens blowing irises and fritillaries?

And look, too.  Look at how she’s phrased it.  It’s a question.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[sabato 28 marzo 2020 ore 13:04:03] []

The Ghosted Street

Nowadays and sometimes, with some people, I have started to answer when they ask about my brother, with a careful, tight-rope-walker kind of truth.  I do not always get it quite right. I keep falling off the sides, into telling too much or telling too hard or telling too lightly.  There are many sides.

The best I have so far: We are not in touch.  (This is his decision, not mine.)


These nights with the numbers that skyrocket, four-hundred and twenty-seven dead, then six-hundred and twenty-seven dead, then seven hundred and ninety-three dead.  A friend asks in an email, why must they announce the numbers at six in the evening?  In Spain they do it at one.  At least then you have the day to grapple with it.  And it’s true.  These are not numbers you want to lie down with.

Then every morning you wake up and think of the picco, still so many days away.  And what that will mean for tonight.


My brother does not speak to me and he does not tell me why, and this April it will have been, depending on which medium you are considering, among emails and phonecalls and text messages and more, two years.  Two years of telling me with no words at all (and so with all the words there are in the world), that I am not worth a response.

And no one, not a one in my entire extended family, what is left of it anyway, has said any version of wow, this must be hard for you.  This must be terrible, what you are going through.

So that maybe then I could say back, listen, if I were the kind of person who wished things on people.  I would not wish this on anyone.  If I had a worst enemy, I would not wish it on my worst enemy.  If I had a sister and if she, for whatever reason, became my worst enemy, I would not wish it on her.


I try to stay off Facebook.  I try not to check first one news site, and then another.  I try to look out the window, except looking out the window is not what it used to be.  It’s too easy to see down the ghosted street, and on to the next one.  And the one after.


What else to tell you about this room.  To say that I miss my brother would not be entirely accurate.  I do not miss being treated the way I was trying for so many years not to be treated.  And how anyway, can you talk about missing someone who seemed so breathtakingly uninterested in anything other than what and who was missing to him, and him alone.  But if missing is the word I must make do with, then I miss him in ways far more twisted and poisonously complicated, than if the worst had really happened.  I try not to think about this, for more than one reason.


And speaking of wishes.  What is it that I would want, if the genie came out of the lamp and asked?  What is there to wish for?  To go back to the world in which carelessness was not so absently delivered?  To be told, in intimate detail, all the ways in which I am required rather than recognized?  I don’t know what to wish for.  There is nothing to wish for.

With the numbers though.  That’s easy.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 22 marzo 2020 ore 15:03:29] []

“...that every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about such things.”

On Saturday I speak on the phone to someone about another someone, who “does not believe in abortion.”  After the call, I find myself telling Andrew about a thing that Calvino once wrote in a letter.  About the sin that it is, to force a human being to come into this world—to exist an entire lifetime—in any situation other than one in which that human being is entirely and utterly longed for.  I try to explain from memory, the way Calvino charted with his words a kind of flipped and mirrored parabola, to the one most commonly and vehemently drawn by all the popes, priests, and more or less petty patriarchs of the world’s most organized obsessions.  A curve of equal and opposing vehemence, plunging just as fully to equal and opposing depths of moral righteousness.

Later I go looking for my copy of Calvino’s Letters from the shelf he shares with Hemingway—my two grand old men of concision and curlicues.  I find the letter to Claudio Magris, written in February of 1975, in an Italy ablaze with arguments about abortion:

Dear Prof. Magris,

I was very disappointed to read your article “Gli sbagliati” [The Deluded].  It pained me a lot not only that you had written it but above all because you think in this way.

Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents.  If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior.  A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.  If this is not the case, then humanity becomes — as it is already to a large extent — no more than a rabbit-warren.  But this is no longer a “free-range” warren but a “battery” one, in the conditions of artificiality in which it lives, with artificial light and chemical feed.

Only those people—a man and a woman—who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate.  If this is not the case, they must first of all do everything not to conceive, and if they do conceive (given that the margin for unpredictability continues to be high) abortion is not only a sad necessity, but a highly moral decision to be taken with full freedom of conscience.  I do not understand how you can associate abortion with an idea of hedonism or the good life.  Abortion is a terrifying thing...


Your “integrity of life” vitalism is to say the least fatuous.  For Pasolini to say these things does not surprise me.  But I thought that you knew what it costs and what the responsibilities are if you bring other lives into this world.

There are some flaws of course, that time especially, tends to foreground.  But still.


Last week, when we were still going to bookstores, I was at my favorite neighborhood bookstore.  Or rather, I was at the café that forms a very important part of my favorite neighborhood bookstore.  I was chatting with a fellow customer, who asked me (because it happened to come up in conversation), what particular book I had on order.  When I told him it was a second copy of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, because I wanted to give it to a friend, he raised his eyebrows.  And so I explained that, contrary to what one might think from the title, this was a book that explored, with rare and dedicated, almost painstaking courage, what it means to be a woman who is ambivalent—maybe even more than ambivalent—about the idea of having children.

To which my co-conversant (a male, as you may have gathered), declared with the ease and knowingness that men are so good at summoning in such situations, how it’s really just a natural urge that all women have.  It’s very difficult for a woman to fight such a basic instinct, you know.

In the minutes preceding this exchange, this particular man had already suggested that the Coronavirus was merely a plot conceived by the young Greta Thunberg, and that anyway the virus can’t survive above twenty-six degrees (never mind, I thought to myself, what the temperature is these days in Singapore), and so this would all be over by April.

Anyway.  I didn’t tell him he was being a bit of an ass.  I didn’t tell him that the idea of a “natural urge” that “all women have” to become mothers, is a lot like the idea of a “natural urge” that “all men have” to fight wars, or hunt, or fondle power tools.  I didn’t tell him either, that it’s a lot like the idea of a “natural urge” that “all men have,” to sleep with women.

That would have been hitting below the belt.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 16 marzo 2020 ore 15:03:18] []

As Yet, Untitled

Two weeks ago, in a time before this time (if you’re reading this years from now, or maybe months from now, if we were lucky enough for months to be all that was required...), Jeannie and I were talking about writing that first book.  The one that is, all the way up to its writing and for as far as you can see after (if you can see at all), the only book.

It was a good talk.  It was a good talk, maybe especially, for me to be having.  But we got sidetracked at some point, as happens often enough, with these long afternooney days we do so well together.  I think this particular conversation was at Santino, so it’s possible a plate of cheese had arrived.  Or one of our glasses had needed refilling.

Anyway.  It was only later when I came home, or maybe even later than that—maybe even the weekend—that I bumped back into a small and quiet poem that I had cut out of the New Yorker months ago.  Something both buried and adrift.  Leaf-like and trapezoidal.

It was only then that I remembered, that we hadn’t finished that particular conversation.


I’m trying not to re-read the poem too often.  That too, feels important.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[martedì 10 marzo 2020 ore 15:25:00] []


In 1966, together with his brother, my dad founded one of the first TV advertising agencies in Pakistan to specialize in cinema and film.  You know how in the US, at least through much of the 90s, there was that one guy’s voice you heard so often on TV commercials?  (“Visa. It’s everywhere you want to be.”)  The guy who sounded kind of like J. Peterman on Seinfeld?  My dad was that voice, when it came to TV and radio ads for movies, in Pakistan.  You heard him all the time.

Then in 1973, he was recruited by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government to manage advertising and distribution for the country’s newly formed National Film Development Corporation (NAFDEC).  NAFDEC was soon defunct (some of you may notice that 1973 isn’t very long before 1977, when things changed rather dramatically in Pakistan), but if you mention it to any Pakistani who’s old enough to remember it, you’re likely in for a fun and nostalgic few minutes.  

My favorite thing about NAFDEC, however, is that it’s in this poem, by Reza Ali Hasan, which happens to be, funnily enough, about so many things my father loved...

The reason I’m rambling about all this is because the setting for most of these pictures has to do with events, receptions, and whatnot across Pakistan’s nascent (or anyway more or less fledgling) film world, both foreign and home-grown.

The woman in black, the one with the glass in her hand, is an Iranian actress.  The man in the polkadot tie is the Pakistani actor Waheed Murad (try mentioning him to a Pakistani woman of a certain age, and see what happens—grin).  And the ‘woman’ accepting a prize from another woman is actually my dad, being awarded first place at a fancy dress party, by Waheed Murad’s mother.

The group shot is also, I think, from that fancy dress party.  Among those seated, third from the right and chin in her hand, is my mother.

It’s also my mother in two of the other shots.  She’s the one with the shiny pantsuit and the hoop earrings.  This Monday she would have been seventy-seven.

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[sabato 07 marzo 2020 ore 18:21:00] []

Mapping the new year’s vanishings.

February was dinner at Com Saigon with Ciro and Jessie, and another small and soon-to-be person whose name we don’t know yet.

February was Valentine’s Day, and eating standup souvlaki on the street outside La Compagnia, before going in to watch a movie about a love that lasts forever but only because it never happens.  I think of those flowers, the ones you never brought me.

In February we listened for the first time, to “Malafemmena.”  For the first time, together, to Proust.

February was that sunlight in the Sala Donatello, what seemed for so long like just the sunlight, and Jeannie, and me, with that statue of a poem of a statue.

(I loved Verrocchio’s David too.  The way he looks at you as you pass him.  The way he looks like so many Florentine men used to do.  The way he might have been Leonardo.)


In February, in Amarcord, we watched a peacock strut fully-unfurled, through a snowstorm.  In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, we listened to what it might sound like, if Leonard Cohen had been Iranian.  And in Unrelated, we watched a woman wheel her suitcase down a road in Monterone d’Arbia.

(Later we drove past Monterone d’Arbia, coming home from that other San Casciano, the one we can still go to without wondering about the ways in which some friendships work, and don’t.)


February was Nicole Sealey at Villa Sassetti, and a conversation with Courtney Bryan about Dante’s pretence-of-a-tomb at Santa Croce.

(We were talking about how yes, she should go see Santa Croce.  Afterwards I wanted to send her that poem.  Afterwards I did.)


February was plantar fasciitis, and whatever this thing is that’s making my arm a menace.  But it was also the blue between the elbows of a blue caryatid, and the scarlet in the sky above a woman named Vava.  February was the eye of a whale.

In February we finally met Francesca.

And February was Samiya Bashir at Le Murate, with a line that settles into the middle of a circle like a feather, like a sword, like a bell of a question.  Who we gonna be?

(Maybe the year will tell us.)

[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 01 marzo 2020 ore 14:03:04] []