Scenes of Abu Dhabi, UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young masked men play pool outside Madinat Zayed. Others seem to be selling fake designer clothes in an illicit secondhand market. A lone man in a polo shirt has erected jumping castles to make extra cash outside the Gold Center. The castles are deserted. He listens to something on his phone, absorbed with all the intensity of the clouds gathering above. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Laborers in the city must continue to earn money. Juice shops, cafeterias, carpet sellers, cobblers, tailors, honey vendors…all remain. They sip tea in their shops, trying to sell. In 48 hours, they will have to pack up and stay home for two weeks. Almost everyone on the street is masked. Small cigarettes and “massage cards” lie motionless on the pavement. Malayalam, French, Urdu, Wolof, Bengali: all the languages of the streets, of the working class, dance. They filter through masks and mix with the air like steam rising from the chai at Happy Cafeteria. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Small groups of young West African men swap cigarette boxes, thin rolls of money, and bottles of hand sanitizer as they congregate outside an apartment building. I try not to look. I, girl with the zooming camera and lens-corrected eyes, am looked at. I stumble upon a shop called MASK FASHION nearby. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — continues to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Vamika Sinhais a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Postscript. Find more of her photography here.
അമ്മ (Amma) My Amma’s Malayalam is Trivandrum slang, shifting between simple churidar and formal sari in a blink. trishurpooram cacaphony is her laugh, words the speed of onam boat races on slow crashing waves of kovalam beach. It is every spice bubbling in my Ammuma’s cheenachatti, both sweet sharkara and sour achar Chutni podi with chilli podi by her hand. Her Malayalam hits hard Ammuma’s soft palms, Appupa’s rare playfulness; Her Malayalam is a 22-year-old recipe, came along to flavour a desert.
My Amma’s english is accented with Malayalam, from ancestral beef fry to salmon grill Other worlds and words with a twist of her own Kovalam softened by corniche calm, chilli podi, sounds of two cities, date syrup and desert sand filling the gaps in her english “Yalla pogam!” She yells “Mafi Mushkil, Aathma!” Sharkara lacing her laugh, it echoes loudly in between the buildings of Hamdan St.
Appupa said my laugh is like hers, I carry it safe in my voice box. My Malayalam is a mirror of her slang, her lullaby my tongue Trishupooram still resounding in them.
They complain they can’t understand her, her laugh too loud, her accent too strong for their weak ears They demand us altered for their palate demand silence, compliance for their tongues to handle.
Amma did not move for me to be silent; our laughs are trapped ancestral joy, they died for the spices you came to our shores for, they died. Our laughs are eulogy folded into our voice boxes.
Does your tongue burn? Here, have the water– our laughter will not drown again
അച്ഛാ (Acha) My Acha’s malayalam drips on the page, fountain pen sprouting rhymes, rhythms, words of a Love, land, loss, gain, home, no home, new home, old home, dreams to come, dreams left behind, shore he came to, shore he left, a sea, a kadal that watched him come and go over and over and over– the second half of his life, the first half he refuses to forget.
He polishes an english accent with experience, age, command and Malayalam slips in, a jewel found: film comes filim, his english crashes under Malayalam exclamation, the language of his soul sees no barrier.
An architect of words, an architect of worlds an architect on two shores, he built poems, he built places, built a love for words in his Molu, built a home, a city for his daughter.
This new city gentrifies her tongue; he wonders if he can build a bridge, a boat for his daughter lost in the kadal between the poems of his soul and this new city she speaks of.
blue flame turned light blue turned orange under half-sphere metal waiting to turn milky texture into crispy shells that my grandmother’s toothless gums cannot could not chew despite how much she wanted to
ladle spooning texture onto hot metal, circling it around the sides in an upstairs, dimly lit second floor, plastic metal chairs and tables, corner behind the glass panel in an Abu Dhabi street I cannot remember in a foreign city turned home
rice flour, coconut milk, yeast mixed and left to rise for my one staple served between semesters when my feet landed on the ground I was born in
aerated bubbles popping on black surface pan creating corridors weaving through streets leading from Madinat Zayed next to luminous pink venus salon in the night because they only serve appa for dinner
sliced onions fried with miris and sugar spotted with chili seeds creating fire within my tummy the spicy seeni sambol wrapped in soft crunchy appa remind my taste buds that they are alive
white tender squishy center radiating into light crisp brownness served on 1st avenue snuggled thinly between fire escapes and basement shops selling South Asian spices
sunny side ups sitting center in bithara appa waiting for crunchy shells to slit through the orange yolk oozing over, coating memories of introducing Sri Lankan food to the habibis and habibtis on warm humid days where the spices hit their tongues into foreignness later where the spices hit their tongues into homeness
They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.
Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.
How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.
These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.
Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.
It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.
Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.
We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.
This is my favorite daydream.
Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”
Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.
Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.
“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.
I hope he knows.
Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.
The time is somewhere between jaunty April and the gloved-hands of November in 1867. You are a wide-eyed visitor at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the most elaborate fair the world has ever seen, in a city where both human and physical geography is growing and diversifying seemingly overnight. For the first time in world fair history, the Second Empire has planted pavilions beyond the boundaries of the Palais Omnibus and allowed her global architecture to bloom like exotic flowers in the surrounding Champ de Mars. It is a wild spectacle! Your red-leather fair guide, with an introduction by Victor Hugo, pinpoints where to slog in this crowded global garden to experience traditional Swiss cottages, the sweeping yellow roofs of soon-bygone Chinese dynasties, and the one-room American schoolhouse (representative of universal free education!), among others (Chandler). These fairgrounds are a “world of dreams” where “illusion is all that we require” for the more than eight million visitors (Çelik). And fashionable you, in your crinoline petticoat or elegetic three-piece suit, beeline for the competing pavilions from the Japanese archipelago–the most anticipated exhibits at the fair!–the shogunate’s “The Government of the Great Prince of Japan” and the Ryûkyû Kingdom’s “The Government of the Viceroy of Satsuma of Japan”. This is the Land of the Rising Sun’s debut in the world fair circuit and both parties hope to sell their foreign wares. In truth, during this decade, European fascination with this far-off land had already “reached a crescendo” resulting in much connecting, borrowing, appropriation, and assimilation of Japanese artistic aesthetics by western artists (Weisberg). And since that time, despite the misfortunes of 20th century war, enthusiasm for Japanese bric-a-brac, crafts, and art has never completely waned. From ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) to cosplay to anime to horror films, Japan has effortless and timeless heaps of what a lot of nations (and individuals) would like to have: Gross National Cool.
One-hundred-and-fifty years later, within a country preparing for its own world fair in 2020, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened a special exhibit to highlight these first cultural exchanges between Japan and France. From September 6th to November 24th, visitors can enter a small gallery within Jean-Nouvel’s illusory floating museum-village for “Japanese Connections: The Birth of Modern Décor”–Japonism’s Middle Eastern debut. Like the 1867 Exposition Universelle, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is also dreamlike, but a dreamscape of a more sleek, traveled, and politically-correct generation. While 1867’s connection seems as messy as a love affair, hemmed with power dynamics, baggage, chaos, rumors and gossip mongers, this latest display of Far East connection, featuring about forty works of art organized by the Musée d’Orsay, is refined, halcyon, and mostly quiet. Laurence des Cars, President of the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, says about the exhibit, “ [It] takes an aesthetic rather than a thematic approach, its free-ranging exploration calls into play a certain universality of the gaze.” Indeed, visitors activate their gaze with an immersive experience, a walk through the streets of Paris during the latter years of La Belle Époque while large screens loop black-and-white images and videos: wide boulevards, sturdy black umbrellas, the old Gare d’Orléans, the Jardin du Luxembourg, horse-drawn carriages along the Seine, women balancing enormous hats on their heads and dragging dark skirts like Victorian headmistresses, and even the Eiffel Tower half-undone. Meanwhile relaxing piano music plays overhead as you pretend to step back into time.
Following this, you learn about the Nabis, a ragtag brotherhood of young French artists who fell under the spell of Japonism at yet another world fair (1989) after stumbling upon the work of Gauguin and other post-Impressionist painters. Interestingly, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection holds Gauguin’s Breton Boys Wrestling (1888); however, Gauguin and other early acolytes of Japonism (such as: James McNeill Whistler, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, Manet, and even Degas at times) do not enter the narrative of “Japanese Connections”. The beginning of the exhibit also features an informative movie to help visitors understand the process of creating ukiyo-e, supplemented by an interactive game that utilizes exhibited works (such as Ker-Xavier Roussel’s The Terrace, and Hiroshige’s The Bank of the Sumida River in Edo) to illustrate the complexity and repetition of woodblock ink application.
The next four rooms mostly consist of works by Nabis artists (Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and the Sérusier couple) as well as some Japanese legends like Hiroshige and Hokusai. The name Nabis comes from the Hebrew and Arabic words for “prophets” (النبيين), and this group felt Impressionism had run its course. They rejected the “illusionistic three-dimensional space of perspective in favor of a [more Japanese] flattened representation of the world comprised of juxtaposed plane surfaces arranged in tiers” (The Art Story). Throughout “Japanese Connections”, works by Nabi artists are often displayed parallel to works by Japanese artists, incontestably illustrating the Japanese influence on the Europeans. Also, while all but one of the European artists featured are men, the subjects of the paintings themselves tend to be of women and young children. In the Japanese paintings, you see more animals (notably cats) and men, such as the prints from Hiroshige’s series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833-34). Furthermore, in Hokusai’s work, you see stains of the color Prussian Blue, which is the only discernible example in the exhibit of the “connection” moving in reverse, from west to east. Prussian Blue, as explained in Kassia St Clair’s marvelous book, The Secret Lives of Color, was discovered inadvertently by early 18th-century alchemist Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin and quickly spread throughout Europe. As explained by the Louvre AD tour guide, Prussian Blue arrived in Japan via its Nagasaki Port by Dutch ships, antecedent to the French connection.
With that stated, throughout the exhibit, there remains a lopsided feel to this asserted connection independent from the museum’s exquisite showcase. In fact, Japanese artists were also influenced by what they saw and learned in Europe. It wasn’t long after the 1867 Exposition Universelle that the Tokyo School of Fine Arts opened in 1889 and the school’s first principle, Okakura Tenshin, expanded the curriculum to include yōga (western-style painting). This was during the emergence of the Shin hanga movement in Japanese art, when ukiyo-e sensibilities were undergoing reinvention and beginning to incorporate western concepts. For example, traditional Edo-period ukiyo-e prints were mass produced to the point where European customers would even repurpose these paper prints as wrapping paper for more important goods. This is also why Hokusai’s stormy waves can be on view simultaneously in: New York, Melbourne, London, Giverny, Chicago, and beyond. Conversely, Shin hanga “resurrected the highest production values achieved in the distant past by employing thick mulberry paper, rich mineral pigments” and other specialized techniques (Marks). However, Shin hanga sold better in Europe and America than in Japan because foreigners regarded the movement as a fine art, whereas within Japan, shin hanga prints were still viewed with commercial skepticism. Additionally, there was opposition to the yōga style by nihonga painters (such as Hashimoto Gahō) who favored traditional Japanese conventions.
The final section of “Japanese Connections” features other kinds of cultural connections. The focus on interior décor includes an enchanting six-leaf screen by Hara Zaimei of Japan and more than a dozen ethereal panels by Odilon Redon, a symbolist painter from the port city of Bordeaux. In his work, Cherry Tree Blossom Against a Gold Background, Zaimei evokes the ephemeral and borrows techniques from his immediate western neighbor, China, for his Cherry Tree’s ginger-root-shaped trunk. Zaimei’s gift for transcendence through color is evident in how the artist seems to suggest the blameless white flowers and browning tree could at any moment disappear into the golden mist and be lost forever. Likewise, Redon’s works are saved for the finale of the exhibit and his enormous panels suggest a unfamiliarly-familiar spiritual dimension. Originally commissioned for a wood-paneled dining room in Burgundy, some of the pieces illuminate with golden sunlight while others calm with natural tones of ponds, storybook illustrations, insects, and flowers. They have an “unreal atmosphere” and they “simultaneously suggest medieval figures, Hindu priestesses, or depictions of the Buddha….combining cultural and religious elements from Europe and the East…” (Japanese Connections Birth of the Modern Décor). With this confluence, the exhibit ends within Redon’s dreamy atmosphere, leaving heads spinning with the possibilities of a world where earth and dreams connect and harmonize.
Lingering further is the idea of the exhibit’s title–the word, the noun–connections. While the world continues to laud “connections”, one has to question the nature of these connections and what exactly do we mean by the word. How do connections differentiate from collisions? When do cultural connections disfigure into cultural appropriation? These questions are as meaningful today as they would have been in 1867, if only such questions had been asked. The word connections is a safe and pleasant word. In a review of a current exhibit (“Mobile Worlds”, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe) in Hamburg, Jason Farago writes on the exhibit’s unorthodox curation choices, “All of them [display arrangements] replace the fiction of cultural authenticity — and, by implication, the oversimplified idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ — with a far broader constellation of terms: translation, simulation, exchange, conquest, recombination, hybridity.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Connections title could possibly be considered as an umbrella for Farago’s constellations of terms, and to that end, the fun for the visitor of “Japanese Connections” can be in determining which pieces from the exhibit are translation, simulation, exchange, conquest, and so on. It is too easy to see everything nowadays, including the connections in this exhibit, through the lens of appropriation, because ultimately, this limited lens will backfire and distort our creative worlds as well as our personal communities and relationships. Though the word “appropriation” has long existed in the art lexicon (hello, Surrealism and Pop art), it has taken on a newer widespread meaning in recent years, especially in North America (and particularly on Twitter). Yet, even in the late 19th century, while people understood artists used other styles as departure points for their own works, there were already lines drawn based on artists’ intentions, eschewing the simplifications of appropriation. On these later years of Japonism, American art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg writes, “While some artists were struggling to assimilate and transform concepts from the art of Japan into their own vocabulary, other artists and artisans perpetuated the Japanese craze through marketable art works that were quickly seized by the upper middle-class who wanted novelty and exoticism…” (“Aspects of Japonisme”). For Weisberg, it seems intentions matter. Exhibits like “Japanese Connections” can push us to ask the same question–do our intentions matter when borrowing, learning, and connecting with another place? How do we show our intentions? How do we all become more like the artisans who strived to understand and transform…and less like the ones who seized other folks’ ideas and cultures? We might not all be artists in the fabled sense, but we all do create our own lives, and perhaps, as we make our own connections, we can decide what kind of artists we want to be… even if our canvas is only ourselves.
One early selection from “Japanese Connections” is Paul Sérusier’s Women at the Well, which echoes the Greek myth of the Danaids. The Danaids were fifty sisters, forty-nine of whom killed their husbands (oh, ancient politics!), and as punishment, much like the repetitive eternal torment of Prometheus, these sisters were sentenced to an eternity of filling and refilling jars of water in the underworld. Sérusier’s humbling painting of the procession of these doleful women carrying their identical bright red jars, jars never to be full, “expresses both a quest for concentration and an impulse to a geometrical, even mathematical, construction of space…”, which may connect with the question of eternal recurrence, a question quilted with Nietzsche (Japanese Connections). Are they satisfied with their life choices? Many of Sérusier’s women who killed their husbands appear overworked, yet some of them…defiant (maybe even free). While Albert Camus might call this question the absurdity of life, this question might also be the opportunity of life. We all have this jug. We all go to a world fair (Paris, Dubai, elsewhere). We circle through it all. We make connections, but what do we do and see differently? Is it even possible to do things differently? David Foster Wallace may have said some of these jug women are whispering “this is water, this is water” while most of them are not. Confronting “connections” from the past, our own past blunders and hurts, and all that grey history can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it is also important to talk about connections, the inherent power dynamics of our connections, and our own connections to our historical selves and our present selves, especially when paying and spending our limited time to see an exhibit featuring such a title.
In Steve Pinker’s heavily-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he makes a firm case that humans today are less violent and less cruel than in the past. We are becoming more reasonable, more universal. Remember Laurence des Cars used the phrase “universality of the gaze” in describing “Japanese Connections”? Well, this gaze contrasts greatly with the gaze that others or the gaze that exoticizes, which seems to have been the case in those early world fairs and unfortunately still, in many contemporary cultural connections. So, while the present may have bleak-shaped shadows, from Pinker’s vantage point, maybe it is apropos to note that the average visitor to today’s “Japanese Connections” exhibit is not the same visitor as the one to the shogunate’s 1867 pavilion in Paris. It might sound obvious, but a belief in moral progress is in itself a catalyst for further moral progress.
So, if you are the visitor leaving “Japanese Connections”, as you walk into the new museum’s interior, below the falling raindrops of light, you might ask yourself: how has the world changed since that first contact with Japan and France…and how will the connections I make in my lifetime be part of a further progress?
Header Artwork: Section from Femmes À La Source by Paul Sérusier
Brown, K. and Goodall-Cristante, H. Shin-Hanga: New Prints in Modern Japan. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996.
Çelik, Zeynep. Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
North of Terblijterweg, behind a hill by Discusworp, there is an island. A moat snakes around its outline; blotches of bright-green algae float on its murky water. In summer, white geese flock to the banks, nesting behind a screen of puzzlegrass and dull shrubbery. By midfall, they are gone, leaving behind a sea of feathers and dried excrement on the slope.
The island, small and bleak, is a host to two schools and three residential houses — each has three stories and a brick facade, a combination of gray and brown. From the top floor of the big school, through a window, one could see beyond the hill at the towering beige condominium, the fenced parking lot, the secluded dog paths shrouded with trees. Once in a while, children would bike across the road, heading downtown, with shiny orange plastic pads strapped to their wheels, rotating rapidly.
This place, this island, is where I used to live prior to college.
The town where it resides is called Maastricht, a three-hour train ride from Amsterdam, towards the south. I was there on a generous scholarship to pursue a high school diploma away from my home country Indonesia. My parents, both ordinary civil servants, had slipped a thin envelope containing a few hundred euros in my backpack before I boarded the plane. A note was scribbled on its face: Dine outside with your friends sometimes. The money, clutched in my hand at the airport, was all I had for my two years in Maastricht.
From the beginning, my relationship with the island was clear: it was my home. Still portraits of its paved yard, the dank corridor leading up to the gym, the revolving main door with black brush along the bottom edge — all of them are still vivid in my head, permanently lodged in my memories. The island was where I spent most of my time, working on problem sets and essays, laying on a patch of grass, lounging around with friends.
I knew, from day one, that I was going to pack a lifetime into the two years I spent on the island. I had countless first moments there: first snow, first cuddle, first time meeting people from countries I did not know existed. I learned tricks and shortcuts on the island, when to sneak out to another house, which classrooms were more likely to be haunted. I attended parties and witnessed Indians dancing to Pakistani music, Spaniards gorging on Mexican food, house parents arguing over girls and boys together. I dipped my fingers in numerous birthday offerings: cakes made of Oreos, layered margarita pizzas mounted on a baking tray, chicken curry and bean soup. By the time I had to leave for college, I was ready: I was proud of having fully “lived” on the island.
During my studies there, I rarely ventured into town. The only times I left the island were for my community service, grocery shopping, or when my friends asked me to tag along on their weekend excursions. I dined outside the island only seven times, three of which were thanks to conferences. I only remember two street names in the entire town and made a point to never learn Dutch despite the school’s obligatory courses. My mental map of Maastricht is a constellation of the only few spots I frequently visited: the retail area, a mosque very far away from the island, Jumbo, and a tiny English course center where I used to work. I never went to the bookstore inside the church, or the coffee shop with the chocolate fountain. I turned a blind eye to Dutch politics and would not know the answer if asked what life in a typical Dutch household in Maastricht is like. How they eat, what they find funny, which TV shows they watch.
At first, I was convinced that it was all because I liked living in a bubble, behind the border of my island. I felt a sense of belonging there. I was not a foreigner in a Dutch town anymore; I was a foreigner in a pool of foreigners, of fellow international students who, like me, were all in the process of adapting. The fact that the island felt detached from anything Dutch gave me the right to call it home.
Maastricht, the town itself, was just lurking in the background. Festivals were happening, Saturday flea markets were held, but I never went — though I basked in knowing that they happened so close to the island. Sometimes, when I did go to the city, I would look at a cathedral, with tourists coming out of its arched door, and think about how I had just sat there on the cold pew inside. I would observe people eating chicken basquaise at a French restaurant and suddenly feel that my stomach was full. I would walk into a shop, try on some clothes and shawls, but never really buy anything. My relationship with the town was often more imaginary than real, second-hand than direct.
I was reluctant to engage with Maastricht outside of the island; the experience of exploring the town felt repeatable to me, inconsequential, deferrable. Maastricht was still going to be there tomorrow. Vrijtkhof, the waffle shop, Meuse River — everything will remain intact in its place years from today. I can always return to the cathedral or the basquaise restaurant any time. I can always save enough money, book a flight, and land in Schiphol in case I desperately want to see Holland.
But the island — I was scared of missing its moments and of letting a second pass without my witnessing. There was always a trade-off in my mind: that the more time I spent in the city, either volunteering or buying packs of pasta, the less time I would have left with my friends. In my head, the island existed in a different time zone, its clock always rushing, minutes ahead. Like Maastricht, the island will still remain in its place years from now. But it was never about the space that I was attached to, that I occupied, but the time period. I did not simply live on the island. I lived on it in a specific time with specific people. If I did not get to know the islanders during my days on the island, then I had absolutely missed the chance to know who they were in 2014, 2016, or beyond. Then I have deprived myself the ability to say, in the event that I meet them one day in the future, that they have changed, or that some parts of them still remain the same: the garrulity, the precariousness, the accent, the obsession with certain songs.
My approach to being a part of community, to living in general, has always been about witnessing growth. I crave to see traces of time, of experience, on the faces of people that I encounter daily. If I did not have that ability, if it was not part of the deal, then I’d be sure to put minimum effort into integrating myself. I find it extremely difficult to live in a community where people just come and go, where relationships are transient, where the only things I know about people are their names and professions. This traffic — of people simply visiting, never truly around — frustrates me. It gives me the license to basically not care at all. To walk past people without the slightest intention to smile. To look at them and think that no matter how many times we have bumped into each other, we will still remain permanent strangers.
In Abu Dhabi, where I go to college now, this is the kind of community that I live with. The setting is almost the same: my college, like my high school in Maastricht, is also nestled on an island — Saadiyat Island. Itis also located quite far away from the city and the campus area is also reasonably secluded. Despite the similarities, I do not (or have not), however, feel the same anxiety that I did in high school. Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island do not exist in different time zones or as separate terrains. In the city or on campus, I feel equally anonymous, foreign and alone. The urgency and the desire to spend time with friends on Saadiyat Island, to belong, is often absent.
From the way my global college education is set up, everyone in my university is bound to move around. January term away, semester abroad, summer course in the US — all of these contribute to people never rooted simply in one place, on a single campus. One semester you may meet A, the next she might be gone in Buenos Aires. The semester after, she will be back in Abu Dhabi, but you will be away in Sydney. The next time you meet her, she will be graduating, with a job offer in hand, soon gone – you, entering your senior year.
On campus, where people have their majors and clubs and things to tend to, everyone seems to be shelved into their own private worlds. The friends I have made in college, most of them, are those I have taken classes or worked on a project with — almost exclusively so. I am certain that there are more people out there in my college community that would perhaps make good friends, but I have yet to meet them. In high school, if such people existed, I would have, in one way or another, found a way to talk to them, because meeting them was inevitable. But in college, where everyone coexists but revolves around different orbits, there is a higher chance that I may never see them at all.
On the island in Maastricht, because the place was small, everyone was conditioned to interact with one another, although it was not the interaction that made me feel less like a permanent stranger to the islanders. Rather, it was the sheer habit of seeing them around, of having them near. Above all, it was the fact that we shared the same reality. We all knew each other. We knew all the house parents. We all attended the same conferences, the same holi festival, the same prom. We could agree on which teacher was the funniest or which was better at teaching geography. We could talk about the same subject or an event on the island for hours. In college, because things are changing so quickly, there is a sense that other students and I do not always live the same, full reality and instead only share fragments of it. It is not necessarily a bad thing; it just is what it is.
In high school, even in such a place where social exchanges were seemingly contained, we did not, of course, all get along. The community was not perfect. It was simply what I was, and still am, more accustomed to. On my last day on the island, I wept for everyone, including people I only shared perfunctory chatters with in the library. The mere knowledge that they were going to be absent from my life, that I had lost the chance, just the chance, to talk to them and laugh with them and celebrate their birthdays, tore me apart.
In my journal, as a writing exercise, I often write pages after pages of just pure description of the island: the rich soil behind Kurt Hahn building, the square plasterboard ceiling of the school, the gray rooftop carpeted with pebbles (the one that was going to be turned into a garden, but never was). And in my description, there is rarely any mention of the islanders. I keep them from occupying the places I describe because I like the idea of them being by my side, out of sight but present, taking in the view at the exact same time that I did, experiencing the island together, looking at how the moat turned from clear to seaweed-green, trying to shoo away the aggressive geese.
I see the description in my journal as my secret love letter to the islanders. I have shared some bits here and hope, beyond anything else, that it would remind any of them, who happen to find their way into this piece, of the home that they once shared with me: the home nestled on an island in the south of Netherlands. Home of bygone time, lodged in the two years that we will never be able to repeat, even if we return to the island and live the way we once lived. And if somehow, it reminds them of me sitting by their side, laughing with them, out of sight but forever present, then I shall be grateful.
Because I, too, remember you.
This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series. Artwork by Nop Briex, “Views on Maastricht”