Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: April, 2017

Baghdad, the Gift of God

Weam at School

They say that Baghdad means the “gift of God” in Persian. That definition reflects the memory I have of my birth country, not the news, which is saturated with accounts of prolific violence and a reign of terror. Instead, I visit that place, the past, which contains flavors of a happy childhood, of magic and mystery.

In the 1970s, children in Baghdad owned the streets during the hours when they were not in school. We were like the train gate in control of traffic. When a car drove by, we scattered left and right to make way, and once the car passed, we resumed to jump rope, hopscotch, tag, hide-and-go-seek, and play the all-time favorite game of marbles, where we drew a circle on the ground with a stick, placed all the marbles in the circle, then shot their smooth and brightly colored glass sphere to knock the other marbles out of the circle.

We did not worry about thieves or kidnappers because the majority of mothers stayed at home and watched the children, theirs and the whole neighborhoods’, as if they had binoculars implanted on all sides of their heads.

We didn’t have toys, board games, or electronic games. Television programming started at 6:00 pm, opening up with Quranic prayers, then children’s shows, followed by regular family programming, and the news. By midnight, the screen would go dark and then the colored bars came on, followed by the pink noise and static-filled screen. In the summer, two additional hours were added in the morning to get the kids out of their mother’s hair.

Our district was our amusement park.

We didn’t need waterslides, merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, cotton candy, popcorn, or lemonade. We just had a simple desire to be together, and to be creative.

Once the early morning winter frosts had given way to spring, the wild flowers and fruit trees sprouted over the land the way in which brown and yellow grass turned green here in America. There are more than 3,300 plants and flowers in Iraq. The scent of palm trees, fig trees, citrus trees, berries, Jasmine, sunflowers, and roses – the national flower of Iraq and the United States – is enough to cure ailments and feed the soul before their parts are removed and used for food or traditional medicine.

In the summer, our bedrooms were dismantled and our pillows, bed sheets, and blankets were carried to the rooftop, where they were set up in rows so we could sleep under an open sky. The rooftop was a real entertainment.

During broad daylight, we would go to the rooftop and watch the man in a white tank top smoke, his arms resting over the roofless wall; a woman hang bed sheets, pajamas, nightgowns, and men’s tank tops and pants on a clothesline; our neighbor’s older sister hold up a mirror in a well-lit corner as she plucked her eyebrows; a young student across the street who liked to pace back and forth while reading his book.

In the falling twilight we would crawl out of our beds on the rooftops to chase after the moon that changed direction whenever we changed direction. We’d stand on top of the beds, raise our voice, and call out to our friends next door, asking them, “What are you doing?” Or we argued about who the moon was actually following, us or them, until our mothers would hush us up and scuttle us back to bed. Lovers had their own secret way of utilizing the rooftop, which we were then too young to learn the details of.

Every July 14, we watched the fireworks celebrating the 1958 revolution that took place in Iraq, marking the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy established by King Faisal in 1932 under the support of the British. One July 14, as we competed with the neighbors across our roof, we screamed so loud and jumped so hard that the bed broke and we fell through to the ground. The neighbors laughed hysterically and we got up, all red-faced.

Long before that, Baghdad was the center of learning and commerce where the House of Wisdom was built. The House of Wisdom, was a key institution in the translation movement where Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Syriac works were translated into Arabic and the concept of the library catalog was introduced. When the Mongol invaded Iraq in 1258, they destroyed the House of Wisdom, along with all other libraries in Baghdad, and that has become the story of Iraq’s life.

My family left Iraq when I was nine years old, and I didn’t visit that land until 20 years later. I spent Easter of 2000 in Baghdad, church hopping and eating pacha with relatives. I visited my parents’ and grandparents’ village of Telkaif in Mosul, and slept on the rooftop under the star filled night. Iraq was not the same as I remembered it, but I still had a lovely time.

This article was originally published by Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/baghdad-gift-god/#.WO5FxRMpPxw.facebook

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Author Nicholas Belardes and the Aboutness in Our Stories

Nicholas

In 2012, I went on a four-day writer’s retreat in Colorado, which was led by Random-House author and literary agent Cicily Janus. Cicily, a young mother of three children, brought many authors, editors, and publishers together through her retreats. She had a number of health complications and passed away last year, but those who formed friendships thanks to her visions and dreams have continued to inspire each other. One such person is Nicholas Belardes, whose career I’ve followed with admiration – especially when he posts Facebook pictures of the beautiful locations where he writes and takes walks.

NAMOU: When did you decide to become a writer?

BELARDES: There was a moment early in grade school where I was asked to write a story. It turned out to be one of the first moments I was confronted with the idea that actual, real people write stories, that someone has to imagine them, someone’s mind has to be filled with words, and somehow those words have to spill onto the page.

I remember writing about hairy outer space creatures. It was kindergarten. Mrs. Robinson was the teacher. She always wore her brown hair in a bun. We’d visit her house, play with her dogs and cats. Her son lived in a converted barn behind a pond and he’d tell me stories, offer me food, tell me he was eating octopus. I’d run back by the pond imagining he was a real adventurer (because every adventurer must have octopus in jars to snack on). That time in the early 1970s in San Jose, California sparked something in me that never went away.

Actually deciding on becoming a writer was a slow process, something that haunted me on and off for many years. It flared up during episodes in my life where I took on writing jobs: creative writer for the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, scene blogger, managing editor/journalist for an ABC News affiliate. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I dedicated my entire being to writing fiction, essays and poetry. I’d just been sidetracked up until then.

NAMOU: Why do you write?

BELARDES: I really don’t think there’s anything I’m skilled at other than writing. I fail at everything else.

NAMOU: What have you written and what are you working on at the minute?

BELARDES: Novels, an essay collection, a book of oddities, books of poetry, a memoir, cheesy animated shows, news articles, and a small mountain of short stories and graphic narratives. Some of all that is published, including some short stories in journals. “St. Augustine the Starfighter” is in Carve Magazine. “Gaspar” is in Pithead Chapel. “A Different Kind of Boiling Point” is in the Acentos Review.

At the minute I’m revising a literary fantasy novel. Last week I finished ghostwriting a novel for an African client. I take on ghostwriting to pay the bills. My personal efforts are mostly with the literary fantasy, though I am slowly developing a Middle Grade novel, which is being overseen by a literary agent. It’s all very weird, because the life of a writer is frustrating, exhilarating, annoying, depressing, challenging and fun!

NAMOU:  What are your ambitions for your writing career?

BELARDES: For now it’s a simple vision of finishing the literary fantasy and finding a literary agent who cares about it seeing the light of day as much as I do, and writing more publishable short stories.

NAMOU: Do you write full-time or part-time?

BELARDES: Full-time.

NAMOU: Where do the your ideas come from?

BELARDES: An idea can come from anywhere, a friend’s story told over the phone, a news article, an experience, brainstorming interests, a political reaction, a social reaction. As a dual ethnic I try to find connections to both my Latin X side and my white side. Some stories blend the two. Some are one or the other. It also really depends on what I’m intending to write at the moment.

Even ghostwriting may include a pre-formed outline, or one I completely make up to expand from. Those ideas come from discussions with a client, from pure creativity, research, and from my experience of understanding story and character. Maybe we can think of the realm of ideas as cloud banks whispering around us. They can take any shape. A writer must find a way into them.

NAMOU: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

BELARDES: I’ve become more socially aware. Reinventing myself along those lines has been important. Caring about the plight of farm workers, or immigration reform, or socially and culturally oppressed areas like that of Bakersfield, California, where I spent much of my life. It helps me to understand that good writing doesn’t just involve language, or charged language, but what Ezra Pound once wrote as “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

Anything else, when it comes to my own work, is a waste of time. I have to consistently create a body of work that reflects this socially aware version of myself. For instance, in the short stories I mentioned, “St. Augustine the Starfighter” tackles child cruelty, and how we can grow out of the cruelty we inflict on the world as children. “Gaspar” is about living within an oppressive system and taking on those same characteristics (and needing a way out). “A Different Kind of Boiling Point” is about a retired farm labor leader. She realizes her own imperfections and failures are part of a path of penance and revolution. If we don’t find this aboutness in our stories, then why write them?

NAMOU: What is the hardest thing about writing?

BELARDES: Accepting more defeats than victories. There is an article I read recently that every writer should aim for a hundred rejections a year. That’s really not bad advice!

NAMOU: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

BELARDES: Aspiring writers really need to figure out what I meant by “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” Once they do, they will be on to something in their own lives, and in their own words. Oh, and take walks. Lots of walks. And connect to powerful writers. Be inspired by them. Say hello to them once in a while.

To learn more about Nicholas Belardes’ work, visit his website: onhttp://www.nicholasbelardes.com/