Triumph and Disaster

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same”
(Rudyar Kipling)

What if this is not a story of overcoming? A story about coming out stronger at the other end? A journey of self discovery, of a great revelation? What if there is no enlightenment, no epiphany at the end? Not even a hint of poetic justice here, something that brings some kind of consolation for all the pain and struggle.  What if this is a story about realizing one’s own shortcomings and not really becoming stronger or wiser? Just coming to terms with what you are? With your limitations, doubts and insecurities? Would it just plain boring, uneventful?  Is it less of a story? Would a reader feel that he / she is wasting his or her time, like catching by mistake the wrong bus home? Would he measure me through the extent of my failures? Judge me for not trying? Dismiss me for not being worthy? Think of me in terms of disaster, since there is no triumph?

Stories of overcoming are more plentiful in America than anywhere else in the world. The myth of the American dream pervades each one of them. Success stories are the prevalent language of Hollywood. Basketball players who overcome a history of losses and disasters, athletes who overcome their physical problems to become winners. Weak teams that rise from the ashes to be hailed as national heroes. Ordinary individuals who achieve popularity, profit or distinction.

Stories of immigrants who come to this country and face the tribulations of separation, the obstacles of a second language to become successful scientists, PhDs, medical doctors abound.

There is a glorification of these successful images that are proudly advertised everywhere, including stickers on your car. This is what is perpetuated in the media, in movies and fiction. And reaffirmed in stories we tell each other. Winners are exalted. There is no denying the positive impact these stories have in the American ethos. Many people believe they really can be successful, maybe even heroes, no matter the adversity they were born  into or they stumbled upon. It is a beautiful thing to see the fire of success burning in people’s eyes. It is true that if you can wholeheartedly believe in an idea, the idea can start to have a mind of its own and slowly but surely take place. With hard work, commitment and faith.

I’m afraid triumph has not happened to me in America.

But what if my story is different? That’s it make it less “American”? Less appealing?

I feel that success only happens outside me. It circles me, surrounds me. But I cannot reach it from within these walls. And yet I cannot bring myself to leave these walls.

It is true that my publications and academic engagements lend me a certain respectability and the idea of success but they also paradoxically paralyze me because they impose many restrictions.

I am frequently torn between going for it or simply accepting the fact that I’m not a “go-getter”, an “ass-kicker”. I am simply not an American badass. It is true that I have occasional bouts of energy – this is when, in my own terms, I still try to seek triumph. It is when I still believe that something can be done. That I can save myself and finally take the right road to success, and then things can happen almost like in Hollywood. I am split between a sense of deep insecurity and moments of pure arrogant superiority: I am bilingual, trilingual, they are not. I am a PhD, they are not. I am different, maybe more cultivated and more international than most. However, they communicate faster, are more articulate, have a an admirable sense of organization and pragmatism, an enviable community as well as that damned faith in success.

We can try as hard as we want, but we are all doomed to be what we are. We can deceive people – and ourselves – temporarily but not all the time. This is not to say that people don’t evolve or change but I confess that I have always been a little skeptical of magical transformations. Triumph is indeed an impostor and the many “losers” in this country are an irrefutable proof of it.

What if this me is someone who struggles and sometimes finds it difficult to go through the day. Someone who tries hard to find some sense of satisfaction in isolation. Communicating has become more difficult. Sometimes I feel that my voice is muffled and, when I do speak, the words come out in violent sputters, as if they had been suppressed for way too long and feel this crazy urge to exist.  Much like this post, I’m afraid.


“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of my favorite novels/films. If you know me well, this will not be a surprise at all. The story talks about identity, memory, belonging, longing and geography, subjects that I used to teach in my Cultural Studies course. The particular geography that the book describes so vivaciously is the Sahara desert. Indeed, the desert has unique characteristics that make for a fertile narrative: it is fluid, changing and full of yearning. It lays bare the precariousness of the lines in the map as it constantly defies demarcations and exactitude.

The setting is such an important narrative element in The English Patient that it becomes its main theme. Much as the English patient’s identity is hard to be established, much as his love affair with Katherine can neither be defined by convention nor recovered by a failing memory, much of what is happening in a post World War II Europe is precarious, nebulous and unstable, so is the geography of the desert. And so is the geography of human beings, for that matter, particularly the ones that feel displaced and foreign, like myself.

Truth be said: I have always been obsessed by the desert.  In my imagination, the desert was almost always associated with the East and with “other” civilizations that were radically different from my own. In other words, I was fascinated by its exoticism. The desert represented luxurious, exotic and sultry lands that spoke foreign languages that I could not understand.  The desert marked my difference and I marveled at the fact that I could never fully grasp it.

Now I call the desert home. I live in the heart of the Sonoran desert in Arizona, Southwestern United States. Granted, Arizona couldn’t be more different from the deserts that inhabited my imagination. First of all, it is located in the most capitalist country of the Western world. The United States doesn’t exactly rate high on my (or on anybody’s) exotic list. I speak the language well, I am well acquainted with the culture and literature. I used to teach American literature and culture in my country, for what is worth! But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would end up living in Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran desert. It has been a surprising experience in all senses. A love-hate relationship, let me admit.  While Arizona is strikingly beautiful and alive with colors and sunsets, it has also become a symbolical desert of sorts for me, a space where I felt I could not continue to grow as an individual. Gradually, I felt more and more shortchanged and crippled by loneliness and fear.  I felt that I lost much more than I gained.

But the nature of human beings is to be resilient. It has taken longer than I feel comfortable sharing with you here, but I have been more at peace with Arizona lately. I have learned to be a nobody, a kind of ghost. Not to have family or friends. I have learned to accept and occasionally even rejoice in my foreignness.

But I digress…to go back to the title, yes, I do understand the sadness of geography that Ondaatje describes so graphically in The English Patient. After all, this sadness is permanently sketched in my skin, like a tattoo. Only that the beautiful Sonoran desert is not to blame.

More on that soon.



The not so obvious languages of the desert

Two conflicting views of the desert used to inhabit my imagination.  On the one hand, it was a desolate and barren landscape and, on the other, an exotic and mysterious dreamland. This imagination was fed mostly by the Western movies I watched in my childhood and the romantic fiction I read in my early adult years. In the movies, the desert seemed vastly inhospitable, lifeless and desolate. In my mind, the sand smelled of dry baked earth and tasted of dust and silver dollars. The harshness of the arid wilderness mirrored the white cowboy’s ambiguous “frontier justice” and his mythic struggle to survive. Much more vivid and exotic, but by no means less stereotypical, was the desert of the fiction I read. Exotic looking men with thick turbans roamed the desert dunes on camel caravans bringing merchandise and mystery to hopelessly romantic minds like my own. This desert was mostly a psychological backdrop to the fiction I read, used as a metaphor to convey the effects and meanings the author wanted to create.

If fascination is a kind of love, this turned out to be a fickle love affair.

The truth is when I moved to Arizona, I missed my green hometown. I missed even the rainy days that I used to loathe.  I missed the temperate climate and the extensive leafy parks where I used to go running.  I missed the sweet smell of jasmines and wisterias and night blooming flowers. This was home. Moving from one extreme biome to another has taken a heavy toll on  me. As far as ecosystems go, the sub Atlantic forest is literally poles apart from the Sonoran desert. The lush, abundant vegetation that I found at “home” was nowhere to be found in the Sonoran Desert.

I lost my bearings.

It has taken me years but I have learned something: the beauty of the desert is not an obvious, polaroid one. Similar to poetry, the landscape reveals its magnificence for eyes that are trained to capture its subtleties. This unfolding requires time and effort. My relationship with the real desert, the one that became “home”,  was a rather shaky one. Its vastness initially scared me. It has taken me a long time to understand its languages.

I am still learning.

Yet, the beauty of the desert has always been there waiting for me and it surpasses even my romantic imaginary deserts. After all those years, I still marvel at the multitude of colors that the Sonoran Desert displays daily. Little by little, I started to adjust my eyes and discern its colors. Waves of reds, oranges, peach, terracotta and tans appeared to me in a beautiful tapestry design against  different shades of blue skies. This is by no means a rain forest but it is the most humid and fertile desert of the planet – plants not only survive, but thrive. Wildflowers grow even in the hot summer months but it is during the spring that they flourish spectacularly,  in extensive carpets. Full of life, color, drama, sound and and yes, a bit of fury (given my tumultuous beginnings).


English Teacher

I’ve just listened to Karen Carpenter on spotify. It sometimes occurs to me that it was through my childhood fascination with her beautiful voice and melodies that I became fascinated with English. I desperately needed to understand what she was singing so I started to translate the lyrics with a dictionary and somehow put the words together so that they made some sense to me. I think I was my very first English teacher.

The rest is history.

The New Millennium in Muscat.

Date: December 31, 1999.

Place: Muscat, the fascinating capital of the Sultanate of Oman, where I was working. More precisely in the Al Hajar mountains. The thought that I had never felt so far away from home was welcoming. Oman was exactly the place I needed to be: distant, different and exotic. The sweet and relaxing aroma of frankincense, the glittering Arabian Sea against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, date-palms, watchtowers, men in kummah and flowing dishdasha, and Muttrah, a souk by the sea . It offered me a life that I imagined I needed. Welcome to the New Millenium! On the horizon, the lights of the city. Much closer, the bonfire from a group of English revelers drinking and celebrating. The sky ridiculously filled with stars. I close my eyes and they remain in my retina. I try to rearrange the constellations of stars in order to recognize the sky. A failed project, I could not find the familiar Southern Hemisphere signposts. As I said, this was clearly not home. Thankfully.

When happiness comes like this, you swear that you can imprison it inside you forever – my thoughts, then. But of course this is not true. Happiness is not a tangible thing that you can keep in your pocket (even though I had naively sworn so in the past). Happiness is something slippery. And it can be deceitful.

No problem. At least I imprisoned the image.