I fell in love with Prague the moment I arrived. I remember standing in the tram as it rattled on & sighing at how beautiful all of it was. On february 23rd, as we all sat in Cafe Klarov with two pots of Moroccan mint tea sitting between us, I wrote in my travel diary:
"Today we walked up hills that were paved with cobblestones & flanked with souvenir shops. Prague is so, so beautiful. When we arrived, it was as if early summer had melted with the late winter air."
The balconies seem like the kind that the man in Italo Calvino’s story looked up to as he shouted “Teresa!” Old european. Beautiful. Used & weathered, but in a dignified way. Like wine, perhaps — it gets better as it gets older. I remember a man with a towel wrapped around his waist leaning on his balcony. Sam said he could smell his soap from where we were standing.
We went for a free tour and our guide was a seemingly quiet irish man who had fallen in love with the city the moment he set foot on it many years ago. He decided to stay. At first he was quiet, asking us the usual things; Where were we from? Who are our favourite Irish writers? How long will we be in Prague? But the moment the tour started, it was as if a firecracker was set off. His arms spread out & he boomed “Welcome to Prague! I love this city! I loove it!” He walked us through the streets, always energetic, always gesticulating his passion and love for the city. Looking at him, you understand how a beautiful thing can change a person. How it can make the quietest person break through their bubble of silence because their love for that beautiful thing demands expression.
The room we were staying in overlooked the river and the castle’s spires could be seen in the distance. The water sparkled. The swans loitered near the banks glamorously as if they knew they were treading on the waters that belonged to one of the most dignified & beautiful cities in the world.
Prague is a city touched by artists. Beautiful things just exist without reason or excuse. The sun would flood through the crack between two walls of buildings and paint everything in golden light. Baby-faced angels sit on banal windows. Saints and quiet women with flowers in their hair and hands are painted on walls. I remember looking up to see a window filled with moss.
Prague was a city that went through fierce revolution and pain but today exists quietly in its beauty and wisdom. It exists like a dignified old woman who went through tragedy but lives a polite, comfortable life. She keeps her best jewelry in her drawer but she can’t hide her grace, her beauty, her wisdom and her acceptance.
Prague taught me to always look up, because that’s where the beauty is. You have to keep your head up. Look at the spires. The castle in the distance. The angels. The paintings. The budding flowers and naked branches. The sun.
Prague was wonderful, except for that one surreal incident as we were walking along the Vltava towards Prague Castle, enjoying the crisp air and the sunset and the backstreets and the balconies, and all of a sudden we found ourselves having our wallets sniffed for cocaine by two fake policemen.
It was a three-man con, really—it started out with one man standing by the river, looking lost and actively forlorn—waiting for tourists, really, I suppose—and then as we walked past he came up to us and pleaded for help finding the Intercontinental. We stood there for about three minutes trying to find the place on our maps, and that was when the two fake cops came in, flashing their badges quickly, demanding our passports fiercely, claiming that drug deals had been done around the area and they were on the crackdown.
Later we found out (after having reached a wi-fi area and googled it) that it was a common tourist scam they’d do, where they swipe your wallets of cash while they sniff it. Fortunately, they were either intimidated by the fact that we kept asking for their IDs or pitied us for the pathetic amount of money we had in our wallets, so we managed to get off lightly, with nothing lost.
I guess what I’m saying is—be careful in Prague, don’t hand over your wallets to strangers, and…fuck the police?
The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker’s cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.
My husband, photographer Michael Nye, once photographed in a West Bank Palestinian refugee camp for days, and was followed around by a little girl who wanted to photograph her. FInally, he did — and she held up a stone with a poem etched into it. (This picture appears on the cover of my collection of poems, 19 Varieties of Gazelle — Poems of the Middle East). Through a translator, Michael understood that the poem was “her poem” — that’s what she called it. We urged my dad to translate the verse, which sounded vaguely familiar, but without checking roundly enough, we quoted the translation on the book flap and said she had written the verse. Quickly, angry scholars wrote to me pointing out that the verse was from a famous Darwish poem. I felt terrible.
I was meeting him for the first and last time the next week. Handing over the copy of the book sheepishly, I said: “Please forgive our mistake. If this book ever gets reprinted, I promise we will give the proper credit for the verse.” He stared closely at the picture. Tears ran down his cheeks. “Don’t correct it,” he said. “It is the goal of my life to write poems that are claimed by children.”"
Naomi Shihab Nye, from her essay “Remembering Mahmoud Darwish”
O those who pass between fleeting words
carry your names, and be gone
Rid our time of your hours, and be gone
Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea
And the sand of memory
Take what pictures you will, so that you understand
That which you never will:
How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky
From you steel and fire, from us our flesh
From you yet another tank, from us stones
From you teargas, from us rain…
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
For we have work to do in our land
So leave our country
Our land, our sea
Our wheat, our salt, our wounds
Everything, and leave
The memories of memory
those who pass between fleeting words!
it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.
Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas—abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken—and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created."
Photographs of the Asia-Africa Conference
Indonesia, Bandung (1955)
Indonesians are pretty damn proud of this. In 1955, representatives of newly decolonised nations came together in the town of Bandung, Indonesia, and laid out the framework for the Non-Aligned Movement: a fraternity of developing nations with ideologies separate from Western capitalism and Soviet Communism.
The 29 nations represented included a few who wouldn’t quite last in their current form - the Kingdoms of Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos, Libya and Nepal; the Ethiopian Empire, the Imperial State of Iran, the Syrian Republic, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the State of Vietnam and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.
You can still visit the building where the conference took place - the Gedung Merdeka (Independence Building). There’s a museum dedicated to the conference there.
It’s always nice, you know, to have a little reminder of the first days when you were free.