Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Istanbul 05: The Church

Procopius said is best:
So the church has become a spectacle of marvelous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible. For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty, because, though a part of the city and dominating it, it at the same time towers above it to such a height that the whole city is viewed from there as from a watch-tower. Both its breadth and its length have been so carefully proportioned, that it may not improperly be said to be exceedingly long and at the same time unusually broad. And it exults in an indescribable beauty. For it proudly reveals its mass and the harmony of its proportions, having neither any excess nor deficiency, since it is both more pretentious than the buildings to which we are accustomed, and considerably more noble than those which are merely huge, and it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun's rays from the marble. Indeed one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine.

Open Letter to the Haters

Dear Homophobic, Right-Wing Assholes:

Your marriage was already a mockery. Don't blame me.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Istanbul 04: The Dervish

By revolving in harmony with all things in nature--with the smallest cells and with the stars in the firmament--the semazen testifies to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, thinks of Him, gives thanks to Him, and prays to Him. In so doing, the semazen confirms the words of the Qur'an (64:1): Whatever is in the skies or on earth invokes God.

Monday, May 19, 2008, Turkoman Hotel, Istanbul

Ate at the Rumeli restaurant before going to the large outdoor tourist cafe to watch a whirling dervish spin and spin. He was such a beautiful boy, probably in his mid-20s with a heavy five o'clock shadow and exquisite Sufi outfit. I kept thinking of how he (the man) disappeared in his dancing à la anātman in Buddhism, yet really more akin to Western mysticism because the experience of Śūnyatā within Buddhism is not supposed to be mystical at all.

Here he was, dressed all in "death": his robe a shroud for the ego; his camel-hair hat, a tombstone. But as any mediocre Tarot card reader will tell you, death is merely a symbol for change.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I was in Beijing just a few days after the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was still closed to the public for “renovation,” in anticipation of protests and commemoration events. I could only get a few shots of the huge Mao poster above the gate before shuttling along to the next stop on our tour.

I was attending a conference on biography and life writing at Peking University, presenting a co-authored paper entitled “Politicizing the Trivial: Life Writings of Virginia Woolf & Slavenka Drakulić.” It was basically a comparison of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Drakulić’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, an evaluation of how early twentieth-century capitalism and late twentieth-century communism had failed in gender equality and how those failures resonate with each other across geography and time. I was still surprised I had even been given a visa after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade the previous month.

Since I never technically saw Tiananmen Square, I’ll rely on the description from Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, a brilliant memoir that should be required reading in literature, politics, journalism, and cultural studies.
Tiananmen is gargantuan, the biggest square in the world. It is a hundred sprawling acres in all, flatter and bigger than the biggest parking lot I have ever seen. I used to get tired just walking from one end to the other. Moscow’s Red Square was intimate in comparison. Tiananmen could simultaneously accommodate the entire twenty-eight teams of the National Football League plus 192 other teams, each playing separate games. It could stage an entire Summer Olympics, with all events taking place at the same time. Or if you put a mountain in the middle, you could hold a Winter Olympics there instead.

Tiananmen Square made me feel tiny, insignificant, powerless. That was no accident. As the geographic and political center of Beijing, it was enlarged after the Communist victory to celebrate the grandiosity of Red China. In 1949, the Great Helmsman stood on the rostrum, in front of the Forbidden City, to proclaim: “The Chinese people have stood up.”

Tiananmen, which means Gate of Heavenly Peace, is also one of the least hospitable squares in the world. There is no bench or place to rest, nowhere to get a drink, no leafy tree to offer respite from the sun. Only the one-hundred-foot high Monument to the People’s Heroes punctuates it, and, after 1977, Mao’s white and gold mausoleum. Tiananmen is also one of the most monitored squares in the world. Its huge lampposts are equipped with giant speakers for crowd control and swiveling videocameras. The commercial photographers, with white pushcarts and colorful shade umbrellas, are actually plainclothes police. For a modest fee, they snap photos of Chinese tourists posing in the square and mail you the pictures a week later. That way, they have your name and address, too.

Here is a well written op-ed from the New York Times: China’s Grief, Unearthed by Mia Jian. For those of you less squeamish, here's an excerpt from a BBC report nineteen years ago: