Monday, June 22, 2009

Washington, D.C. and Richmond 3.1.92: Ethiopian Inculturation and the Moon Before the War

John Ash, “World’s End”:

“The issue is exile, how far we have come and will go/in a spirit of inquiry and despair . . . (in The Burnt Pages [NY: Random House, 1991], p. 90).

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Mr. M., who escorted us around Washington on New Year’s day, spoke incessantly, punctuating his sentences with dry laughs that were more like musical accompaniment to his words than like sounds of mirth. He spoke of Islam, which he called the “first reformed Christian church.” Of its manifold ways of praising God, of its saying that Allah is karum. He wailed these Arabic prayers in the close, ill-appointed Ethiopian restaurant, as young Ethiopians with appraising American eyes swung sidelong glances at him. Were they glances of disgust? Was he playing the buffoon for the white men? Were his tie and his formalities and his indefinable sense of command politically incorrect, proclamations of his 1950s confidence that a bit of jovial tinkering with the economies of developing nations would produce an economic “take-off”?

But did they know a better truth, these Ethiopian youths who have imbibed American culture as the sponge drinks water, who flaunt fashionable hostilities and send subtle waves of unwelcome to the white visitors in their restaurants?

Who, after all, knows any truth, any truth untarnished by human appropriation?

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Now back in Charlotte. The 2nd, Steve and I spent at the Phillips, then went to an 18th Street restaurant, Le Saigonnais. The owner-proprietor was excessively nice, giving us cha gio we had not ordered. His niceness made me uncomfortable—a fear I couldn’t respond sufficiently in kind, an abashed worry that he had some commercial end in his mind. Perhaps I felt as I did simply because there was something Hollywood about his bright smile and confident cadences. I prefer my courtesies less brittle, more in tones of blue and green, Oriental style, or Southern style.

Nice, on the other hand, to feel my relationship with Steve can be not off-putting, but recognizable and affirmable.

After lunch, some desultory shopping, then back to the hotel to get the car. We headed for Richmond, stopping at the Herb Cottage, a chi-chi gift shop near the National Cathedral, before we left D.C.

The Cathedral itself technically stunning, but somehow disturbingly aseptic. The bevy of what-you-call-them, docents?—the women who show you around—with absurd purple hats with crosses on top, were like movie extras, there for the effect. Some 15 of them, and only 3 or 4 tourists to see the church, so they sat talking in bright pseudo-English tones at the front of the church as we strolled around. Among them one or two men, very feminine, who seemed at home and much liked. How nice to spend one’s days removing dried leaves from poinsettias, needle-pointing altar appointments, and chatting about the stunning peasant earrings of one’s hostess of the previous evening. What a civilized way to live.

In the Cathedral, an altar to/for the poor, and photos of homeless people taken by a D.C. photographer, who befriends the homeless and asks to photograph them in ways that show their dignity. I was moved to tears by these. I wonder if Mr. Bush ever comes to see these pictures in the church of his own denomination?

In the Herb Cottage, four women of that instantly recognizable Anglican type—cropped hair, hearty voices, no make-up, sensible shoes and sensible stride. I bent down in the shop to pick up something and the seat of my pants ripped wildly and loudly. A French woman nearby must have heard, but showed no signs of having done so.

To Richmond, where Steve and I quarreled because I honked at a man who crossed in front of us—at night, against the light, insolently and on a main street. But was that (is it) why we quarreled? I was tired, and being homeward bound elicits all my deepest fears somehow—the horror of the ordinary.

So tired we went to bed at 9:30, got up at 6:30, spent the day in the State Library, and then drove home in the dark and rain.

Richmond unremarkable—a detestable Republican newspaper with a silly, venal editorial attributing the “peace” of El Salvador to Reagan and American arms sent to the country. But as the Southern Belle told Mr. Oscar Wilde when he admired the moon in Alabama, “Oh, Mr. Wilde, you should have seen it before the war!”

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