Memoir

The message of Al-Masudi

'He who stays at home beside his hearth and is content with the information he may acquire concerning his own region cannot be regarded in the same way as he who divides his lifespan between different lands and spends his days journeying in search of precious and original knowledge.'
Al-Masudi, AD 895-957 – The Meadows of Gold

 

I HAVE DIVIDED my life between five continents and far too many cities. Any 'precious, original knowledge' I may have gained there has been serendipitous. Sometimes along the banks of rivers, the Mississippi, the Melkrivier, the Rio Tejo, there have been unexpected moments of grateful clarity.

During a hard winter in St Paul, on the upper reaches of the Mississippi's four-thousand kilometre course, the river froze over from one bank to the other and one evening my friend Greg said, 'Let's walk across the river sometime.'

'Walk across the river? Holy shit.'

'Sure, on skis.'

Ski across the Mississippi? Madness. Until I thought about it and realised skis would spread one's weight so perhaps you could negotiate cracks or sinkholes in the ice. Still, a safe crossing was hard to believe despite Greg telling me about skiing across shallow sections of the river between sandbanks down in Winona where his dad used to take him hunting every autumn for Canadian Geese flying south. His dad was one of fifteen hungry children of Polish Catholic migrants who hunted and fished all year along the river to feed themselves. He knew the Mississippi like Huck Finn did.

Ice fishing in Minnesota meant sitting for hours in lumpy, makeshift shelters surrounded by blowing snow and skittering ice churned by an ice-awl, a clumsy but essential instrument used to drill holes through the ice to find the right depth, colour and movement of water. Getting that right meant fish might be there, waiting for the drifting lure cast patiently by a frozen hand. Another piece of essential equipment was the hip flask, enabling the frozen hand to connect to a vodka-soused brain, a perfect combination for ice fishing. Sometimes Greg's dad trapped muskrats or beaver, as well as raccoons with their pungent smell and gamey taste. He brought us a 'coon once, 'Cuz they're easy to catch in fall when they start hoarding food.' It was wrapped in a plastic bag, its little black hands just like a baby monkey's tied together and sticking out the top.

'I can't eat that,' I said.

Knowing I liked curries he promised to spice it up and he did. I still couldn't eat it. Nothing seemed to faze him. His was a large, undaunted spirit, made fearless by extreme experiences. I miss him.

Sitting in St Paul, looking at the cold geometry of snow crystals silhouetted against the window glass, I remembered him saying that each snowflake is different. It was hard to believe and still is. Perhaps I should try suspending disbelief? Ski across the Mississippi?

'Below freezing again,' the radio announced, reminding me of the frozen river and branches pulled under by the licking current.

I looked at Greg and laughing nervously, said, 'So, when do we go?'

'When it's really cold, first thing in the morning.'

Strapping on my skis in the half dark, bent over the blue early morning snow, I heard water gurgle under the ice and across on the far, far too far, bank of the river was a line of trees and the pale space where Minnehaha Falls hung in solid white sheets. Inside me something had frozen too, seeming suspended while my body continued doing what had to be done. I'd agreed after all, I was going.

My breath was shallow. I need to control my breathing, I thought, pulling on leather mitts, gloves would have given more control, better for adjusting and holding onto poles. Control? I was putting myself in the hands of the gods. The chances of falling were high and my slippery protective clothes made the chance of sliding into cracks and being pulled under higher still. The river's ferocious mid-stream current was well known and if I did fall in, that would be that, I'd be trapped under the ice. My ego had seduced me into a dangerous situation from which I couldn't back out. The chips were down.

Sliding off the riverbank we faced our first obstacle, pack ice. Heaved slabs of ice through which we clambered, clattering and skidding despite the layers of sticky wax applied for traction underneath each ski. I tried to steady myself by jabbing the poles into crusty surfaces, conscious that somewhere in front his dark figure had turned to watch. Enraged by my own clumsiness I bit into the rough wool of my scarf, feeling my saliva freeze, tasting nothing, smelling nothing, seeing only the tracks his skis made through thin layers of snowdrift out there over the midstream. I steeled myself, salivating like a dog, sweating with fear.

In that blur of emotion I stopped, aware that the ski taking my weight was springing slowly up and down like a tree branch, arcing over a crack in the ice. I knew immediately that if I moved my weight forward the ski would slide backwards and if I leant back it would certainly slide forwards. Either way I'd lose my precarious balance, fall onto the ice or through it. I had to find somewhere I could dig my poles in to lift my weight off and inch the ski to a secure spot. Scratching around to find a grip on the ice with the poles' metal spikes became a kind of madness. The next move would be crucial. Under me the crack exposed flowing water; I had to move, soon. Stopping to take a breath, I registered snowflakes floating past in the pale light and looking up in desperation at the web of stars, I understood that whatever I did, my fate was sealed. So I relaxed, slowly screwed a pole into solid ice and pushed myself off.

That happened during a winter more than forty years ago when the river, as it wound through Minnesota, stayed frozen until spring. During one of those years ice that had fallen as snow the previous October was still frozen to the ground on 25 April. Winters were harsh but reliable in America then, when we knew what to expect.

Now the freeze is irregular, coming in spasms all winter, leaving the river open. This past decade, skiing across ole' Miss' has been far too risky and is now unthinkable. March 2012 saw average temperatures 15.5 degrees above normal, the warmest on record. Those happiest with the change are the homeless, sleeping under bridges, and the unemployed, hunched in once-trendy cafés, their hands around give-away coffees. Others have moved and my friend Greg has gone to Canada. Economic and climatic changes force us to adapt, to adjust our behaviour more or less, but inner change comes hard and only then in moments when we are outside ourselves. Something I learnt on the Mississippi that winter.

 

IN GLARING CONTRAST to those North American winters, our southern hemisphere summers were long and dusty, spent driving on parched roads from Port Elizabeth into South Africa's Karoo Desert where my sister-in-law manages a private game reserve. Cooped up and toasted in the ancient Land Rover's metal cab (no sissy stuff like air conditioning for us), beaten into silence by the ricochet of gravel clanging underneath, it was only the distant mirage with its pale blue promise kept us going. There had been a long drought and the Melkrivier was barely seeping through its sandy riverbed. Eventually the corrugated road would get us to the game reserve, stopping only once, in Graaff Reinet, to catch up on gossip with the local farmers and their wives, joining them for beer and chasers in the garden behind the Drostdy Hotel. They were mostly fundamentalist Christians, gun-carrying, Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans and this year they must have decided to work on our politics, or were so drunk they unwittingly invited us to join them for dinner. They considered us lefty, eco-warrior intellectuals and knew we were related to members of the once-banned South African Communist Party who'd been detained by police under the infamous Ninety-Day Detention laws.

Their families however, had arrived in the Eastern Cape as followers of Jan van Riebeeck, sent by the Dutch East India Company in the eighteenth century to settle there and provision ships en route to India and the Far East with mutton and vegetables. Their attitude of entitlement after two centuries was perhaps understandable, but there was something else not so understandable: as devout Protestants they all belonged to the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church, or NGK), which taught them to 'hold the Bible as the authoritative Word of God by which all doctrine is judged'. This provided scriptural support for the teaching that black people were inferior to whites, which was later used to justify the racist apartheid policies of their Afrikaans/Nationalist governments.

In the early 1950s several Parliamentary Acts were passed by the Nationalists including the Group Areas Act, which assigned different racial groups to separate residential and business districts and the Pass Laws Act of 1952, which made it compulsory for all black South Africans to carry a passbook containing the written permission of their employer to be in 'white' areas as well as the employer's comments on their conduct and character. Resistance to these discriminatory laws was expressed in continual protest and the black township riots that resulted in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

After that tragedy, one of Graaff Reinet's famous sons, Beyers Naude, galvanised the country. A pastor in the NGK for twenty years, preaching religious justification for apartheid, he resigned his position in a loud and public denunciation. His father, another well-known cleric from Graaff Reinet, was one of the founders of the Broederbond, a secret organisation of Afrikaans-speaking white males pledged to uphold apartheid's racist policies. From that background, Naude's fearless and outspoken support of racial equality was shocking and the way in which he did it, unprecedented.

'Beyers became a leper in the Afrikaaner community,' Archbishop Desmond Tutu had observed, and at our Graaff Reinet dinner more than thirty years later, we were still hearing Naude's name linked with the Devil's. Talk at the table about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission started a tirade. Only a month ago on November 18 1999, the leading NGK pastor Dominee Swanepoel, in his address to the Commission had admitted to the entire country that, 'We have taught our people wrongly with regard to apartheid as a biblical instruction.' Apparently the Afrikanerbond (the 'reformed' Broederbond) sitting at that table had not swallowed Swanepoel's bitter pill and never would. As far back as 1976 Beyers Naude had predicted, 'For many it will be impossible to live in this new South African society, they will be destroyed physically, emotionally and psychologically. They would be allowed to stay but would find the atmosphere unacceptable and therefore many will say, we cannot adjust, we must go.' The new South African society Byers envisioned finally arrived with Mandela in 1994 and brought with it the changes many white South Africans didn't want. As he foresaw, they did not 'adjust', they left, many migrating to Australia, as would the family who'd just served us roast Guinea fowl, calling it 'the new South Africa, mostly black with a few white spots'.

On our way back to the reserve late that night we reminded each other of the town's black dissident, Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, sentenced to lifelong detention on Robben Island together with Nelson Mandela and Ray Mhlaba, both also from the Eastern Cape. Sobukwe is buried where he was born, in Graaff Reinet, to a poor black family with few prospects. Both he and Beyers Naude were heroes in the anti-apartheid movement but neither has a monument or even a prominent plaque near their graves; 'lepers' and dissidents bring about change but are not usually thanked for it.

This spring, in 2012, the Melkrivier was in flood, roaring over dams on the game reserve, pulling down trees, demolishing the swallows' nests built in its clay banks and keeping the entire valley isolated for weeks. The thirty-eight kilometres of copper cable carrying telecommunications, left hanging from leaning telephone posts, were stolen and probably sold on the black market in Port Elizabeth. Also sold on some more distant black market were the Rhino horns sawn off by poachers using tranquiliser darts shot from helicopters, leaving no trace of their operations except the animals' mutilated bodies rotting in the sun. Standing on the riverbank, looking at their bloated bodies, their stretched unwrinkled hides smoothed over bone and trying to avoid nausea, I stepped back onto another carcass and saw, in its staring eye, my own reflection. What could I have done to change all this? I wondered later. Perhaps I should have stayed or done more? I keep asking myself whether I could have changed anything and am left to ponder if it's a life's deeds that are remembered, or monuments?

 

THERE IS ANOTHER river, the Rio Tejo also known as the Tagus, which flows towards the Atlantic from Spain, forming part of the border between that country and Portugal. Its history is associated with two famous cities: Toledo, where it embraces the medieval town on three sides and is crossed by the Roman Alcantara bridge, and Lisbon, where its wide estuary was the scene of those famous departures and returns of the Descobridores. More recently it has become a place for my own departures and returns since my first stay in 1968.

Milena, one of two sisters from Angola with whom I went to university, was now, in 1972, a married woman living in a penthouse reached by an ancient lift, one of those cages with concertina metal doors, operated by a very small man wearing white gloves. At the opulent front door decorated in bronze appliqué work, I was greeted by a maid who ushered me along a corridor past huge paintings of Brazilian rainforests, looking like those obliterated by Milena's husband's expanding coffee plantations and probably bought with 'conscience money' from some penurious artist in Rio Grande do Sul. It was quiet except for our footsteps on the parquet flooring, lined by long mossy green carpets. I could hear children's voices somewhere, muffled.

Following the maid through another elaborate doorway, double doors, carved wood, I entered a drawing room that occupied one end of the penthouse overlooking the Tagus. Glancing through ceiling-high windows I could see the tide ebbing, ships pulling at anchor and slow birds. Inside the room children sprawled everywhere, toys and bright coloured clothing scattered around like flowers in an abandoned garden. Milena, propped on a long sofa with two of her older girls, Miusha and Maria Jose, was reading in Portuguese. She waved and yelled, 'Querida Dianna, come. Look what's happened to me!'

After embraces and introductions to her children we found a quiet corner in which to drink coffee and talk. One of the maids laid out a long tray with paraphernalia for a coffee drinking ritual as elaborate as any Japanese tea ceremony. As we sat down Milena looked at me directly and said, 'You see, I've become aSenhora da Casa after all our predictions to the contrary. Remember, when we were wild, careless students together?'

She smiled an apologetic smile and turned away to pour hot water into an ornate silver cafetière, hesitating while she slowly pushed down the plunger with the palm of her hand. It took some time, the coffee slowly oozing through the filter and I waited, watching her hand extend its diamonds and polished red nails.

Then she looked up and started to tell me about Gonzalo, her great love, who had been blown up by a landmine in the early days of Angola's war of independence, how she'd later met the much older Raul, who had seduced her with comfort and security, with the ease of money, into which she sank happily. But she'd discovered she couldn't legally leave the city or the country without his written permission, was not allowed to manage her own finances or own property in her name. The Catholic Church and the dictatorship controlled every move she made. She knew she was trapped and this was the price for her comfort but it obviously rankled this independently minded, intelligent woman.

The Tagus rolled on and in April 1974 the Carnation Revolution (named after the flowers put into the soldiers' gun barrels) changed the entire country and everyone there, especially Milena. A few days after the revolution Milena called, at three in the morning, urging me to come to Portugal immediately. It was important, she said, so much had happened, was still happening, 'A strong feminist movement is growing here after that banned book by the Three Marias...and you must come because your "intellectual mentor" Simone de Beauvoir will bring her French feminists to support our cause...and my husband has fled to Brazil because he's afraid of the socialists in the new regime, communists he calls them...but it's us! And I've fallen in love, the apartment has become a crazy political headquarters, my kids are singing on the streets. We're so happy. You must come!'

She sounded like a raving young student again. I went, found the expected chaos and in the clear light of spring, colour exploding everywhere. Along the road from the airport, around the squares, the Rossio and all down the Avenida da Liberdade red banners streamed, the red of passion, not blood. There had been no bloodshed, prisoners were taken with some violence but the military officers who'd planned the coup wanted no more killing. They'd spent their youth fighting pointless, costly wars against the independence movements in Portugal's colonies. They were tired of wasting their friends' blood, not only their comrades at arms but friends on the other side – black kids they'd been at school with in the colonies and who they must now kill. They bitterly resented the dictatorship's bureaucrats who sat at desks in Lisbon, blind and deaf to the realities of their wars. The Carnation Revolution had been simmering for years.

In Milena's once splendid apartment the maids, no longer in white, sat around giving directions; men, women and children breezed in and out of what was now the unofficial headquarters of the Portuguese Womens' Movement: Milena's kitchen. Most of the women leaning across the large table were preparing pamphlets, arguing about wording in clouds of smoke and talk. Talk that had been curtailed or only whispered for forty years now flowed openly, endlessly, like the river. Arguments that began and ended in one corner of the apartment would re-emerge in another, taken up with a different opinion, made a joke of, denigrated, idealised, immersed in camaraderie, sexual innuendo and kisses. Milena's new love affair was with a woman, whose credo was 'opening the way for women everywhere, together with full economic equality'. I boggled.

The 'consciousness-raising' groups I'd attended in America paled in comparison, their Anglo rhetoric seemed quaint and their bra burning simply adolescent. Here a crowd of thousands outside shouted 'Nunca Mais!' (never again), pelting each other with red flowers. Inside, half-empty wine bottles lay on shelves where books had been removed to give away to people on the streets hungry for what had been censored for so long – ideas. This revolution was an incomprehensible, beautiful flowering that brought with it a tide of people up the Tagus into Lisbon, Angolans and Mozambicanos migrating from the decimated colonies, and even Brazilians, sensing new possibilities in an open society.

On my recent return last Christmas, I found the 1974 revolution a blurred memory, even for those who participated, and completely irrelevant for those born since. My friend Milena is dead and, so it seems, is her feminist revolution. Her daughters tell me jobs for women in the tight economy are fewer and fewer, any available are in the service sector, underpaid and, as always, humiliating. Half-naked women are sprawled on posters and machismo is back, fashionably ugly.

It rains in December along Portugal's Atlantic coast, sweeping in from the grey sea, blowing down narrow streets and along grimy walls traced with graffiti depicting greedy bankers and listing whores' addresses. Quiet prevails in Alfama's small cafés where televisions murmur in a corner, blobbing colour onto men's faces as they look up impassively, waiting for news. Of what? Anything.

Their muttered talk is of the economy, the cost of food and housing, the cost of just existing. Beggars and pickpockets work the trams, 'Desculpe senhor, nao tem trabalho,' they apologise. In the queues outside passport offices everyone wants out. Migration flows, planeloads go to the ex-colonies like Brazil, independent and rich in oil and opportunities. On Lisbon's waterfront sitting on pitted marble steps, possibly built during Roman or Moorish occupations, the Tagus laps and the harbour is quiet again, in winter, waiting.

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