Umber, marigold, apple blossom white. Teak, East Indian rosewood, mahogany, dark walnut. My round table, a bit too massive to be comfortable, a piece of my own Dutch still life. Fine linen cloth, a broken, sophisticated shade of indigo. Coffee or tea? Exclusive porcelain set, ivory white, translucent, fragile. With a fine golden stripe around the rim. Green tea and jasmine. Lilies and peonies. Another set, ethnic, coarse; cups made of thick clay, keeping the coffee warm; clay incense burner with a matching pattern of fine, dancing strokes of white and red. Another linen cloth, Bedouin brown; I mean, the shade of a Bedouin tent made of goat wool, with a darker stripe; umber would be the standard art colours denomination. Contrasting pleasantly with bright orange marigolds. A grain of Omani frankincense with the coffee. Cardamom.
Rose-ringed parakeets, feral, nesting on the tree behind my window. Fresh vegetables from the Saturday market. That sort of large, flat bean pods that are probably called Romano in English, but that I usually call by their Spanish name, judias; nonetheless, when I go to the market in Leiden, I just say: alsjeblieft, al-fasulya. The stallholder could be a Turk after all, but al-fasulya never fails; perhaps the Arabs don't know its European name, either. Coriander, parsley and mint for my salad, distributed just like in Morocco, three in one, just one euro to fill a plastic bag. Blueberries. Fish. A slice of lamb. Quail. Cheese, just to see myself a solvent citizen in my own Europe. White wine to fill the tall flute bought in the gift shop at the Rijks Museum, an exact replica in light bottle green glass.
All concepts incarnate, become material and earthly. Truth is reachable, palpable, consequent, accountable. No need of abstractions suspended in the void.
A single petal falling from a rich rose blossom, captivated in its flight. They usually interpret it as a symbol of tempus fugit. A memento mori. For me, it is a symbol of life, of a plenitude of time that can only be achieved there, in the Netherlands. A rose petal contemplated in its fall, the velvet quality of time. The glossy silk of silence.
The only homeland worth cultivating, the only colours worth defending. She was a great Dutch patriot, they will say at my funeral. It doesn't matter who you are born, it does matter what you truly believe.
Poland is supposed to have a new ruler. That's better for me, better than chaos and frontal clash with the European Union. Like this, things might continue as usual. I would be able to live in Europe without bothering about work permits and so on. I would be able to take my books and sell my apartment. Who knows, I might even be able to spend the summer there.
For the rest, it is a perfect solution. Poland slowly falls into itself, with the new ruler that is so consensual. Things will get back to normal again. Krakowski inteligent, katolicyzm, episkopat. Oh yes, I see those new keywords on the horizon. Even me, who do not share the same attachments, I feel the familiar smell of it, literally, with full nostrils. Especially, it is striking how the supposed liberal opposition made peace with the bishops, only weeks and months ago stridently accused of paedophilia.
Some people used to believe that Poland is a deeply divided nation. It is not. Those recent developments show very clearly how deeply the country is one, unified, without alternative. How easily it fell into perfect consensus with itself. It causes me no other feeling than mild disgust.
And here we are, on the opposite shore of the river. Once again, we simply outstayed History, rather than outsmarted it.
Who is "we"? A mere rhetorical devise. There is no "we", of course. There is nothing between myself and them. Not even the determination of calling them "them".
I lived through such a crisis before. A crisis of separation. It was when I lost my family. Lost, I mean, in psychological terms. When I stopped nurturing feelings about them. I remember it was also a Ramadan. In spite of the ritual prohibition, I went to draw blood, to establish my blood type; I didn't know which it is. It was a symbolic gesture. It meant that from then on, if anything happened to me, let's say a car crush, I was on my own. I felt exposed, unprotected. And I made that test to get a little orange card with my blood type, in case of accident. To increase my sense of safety. As simple as that.
Perhaps I will get back to Kraków soon. To finish packing my books and finally selling that damned apartment, before I move to Paris this autumn. I wish I could go to the zoo again. I could even travel through Poland, for the last time.
I still read "Gazeta Wyborcza" first thing in the morning; it is a bad habit indeed. The psychological process going on is the "ratification" of the state of exception by the opposition. The simple information that the state of exception will be introduced as an alleged consequence of the presidential election gone awry is openly divulged. What is more, it is enveloped in all sorts of exhilarating puns and comments, which, of course, facilitates the acceptance of the unacceptable and diminishes fear. As we say in Polish, the state of exception becomes tame (oswojony). Anticipated by a fortnight, ratified before it comes true, zero risk.
It is still hard to say that these developments surprise me. I wrote about the hidden mental solidarity between the opposition and the new authoritarian regime two or three years ago. I suppose the idea of this new state of exception appeals to nostalgias. We miss listening to Chopin again, on the heights of pathos, in the middle of History deploying national tragedy in its full colours. We like them dark and intense, it is not only my private taste.
I'm really tired with this never-ending story. Nonetheless, I continue attached to the familiar taste of it, just like a drunkard is attached to his daily provision of the cheapest wine. "Gazeta Wyborcza" every morning is a drug. Adrenaline shot. Emotional blow that stupefies for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, I have things to do, I should write new papers, book reviews on recent Brill publications. I should at least learn new words. They simply do not enter my stupefied brain. Not even one by one. And I start to see it every day more clearly: as long as there is Poland, my life won't get back to normal. The choice is between this addiction and my dreams, my future, even my sheer biological survival.
A life to live when History finally clarifies itself.
A house in Leiden. A little old house with a small garden, or at least a patch of earth to plant a climbing rose to frame the entrance. Contrary to the Dutch usages, I don't like to paint the interior in white. I like dark, intense colours. Mahogany bookshelves. Brill editions of Oriental poetry, hard covers in dark green. An Orientalist painting with desert and camels for my living room. An erotic Orientalist painting with a beautiful Arab male, dangerous like a tiger, for my bedroom.
Alternatively, I might buy a manor in Frisia, and keep an Arabian mare and a falcon. A fanciful scenario, but no. Better to be a scholar in Leiden.
A house in Leiden, then. Mahogany bookshelves, an armchair by the window. Various nooks and crannies to hide with my reading. An armchair and a lamp, and a little table. Exclusive porcelain set, ivory white, translucent, fragile. With a fine golden stripe around the rim. Green tea and jasmine. Lilies and peonies. A grain of Omani frankincense with the coffee. Cardamom. Fresh vegetables from the Saturday market. Coriander and Moroccan mint for my salad. Fish. A slice of lamb. Quail.
The smell of paint, a little workshop in the backyard.
Travels. Things to do in good universities. Oxford, Heidelberg, the south of France, Italy, Spain. Respectable colleagues to dine together from time to time. Travels. Morocco, Jordan, Emirates, Saudi Arabia. The smell of sandal oil. Tunisia, and Egypt, and Syria after the war. Damascus. The shadow of quince trees. The Mediterranean.
Books, heavy illustrated volumes on art that require a special stand to be read. Going on train to Amsterdam. Museum, concert, dining out, buying books. Books. Heavy illustrated volumes on art. And perhaps instead of that Orientalist painting with desert and camels, a piece of modern Islamic art, names of God inscribed in complex geometry, depicted in deep, cosmic blue. I might paint such things myself, in the little workshop in the backyard.
I lay on my bed, listening to the most emotional among Imam al-Ossi's Quranic recitations and trying hard to persuade myself that there are things greater, more crucial than local histories of Middle Europe.
The comparison between the current situation in Poland and 1947 elections reappears in various comments and opinion articles. The only difference is that now we have no geopolitical excuse.
Will it actually happen? The state of exception, Poland leaving the European Union, years, perhaps decades of impoverished, confined life? In many comments, I notice an undertone of resignation, and the use of futurum perfectum, the grammatical tense of the Ineluctable.
Confronted with the Ineluctable, I close my eyes and dream of white Arabian horses, of mahogany bookshelves full of Brill editions of Arabian poetry, and yes, why not, also that Persian poetry speaking of exiles, from the 9th century on. And on. And on.
I suppose my situation is better than most people in my old country. Because I'm here, with this marble pavement of Lisbon under my feet, in the first place. Because I still have some money on my account. Because I speak languages of Europe so fluently. Because I have homelands beyond homeland. Multiple belongings, roots, memories, legacies. It is nearly impossible to strip me bare, leave with nowhere to go.
أيـن الملوك ذَوو التيجان من يمنٍ وأيـن مـنهم أكـاليلٌ وتيجانُ ؟
وأيـن مـا شـاده شـدَّادُ في إرمٍ وأين ما ساسه في الفرس ساسانُ ؟
I had lost my kingdom and my homeland long before the fall of Seville. Surely the demise of Poland does me no harm. It will leave no ruins more dismal than those of the Sassanian Fars or of those buildings that Shaddad raised in Iram. For the misfortunes of an epoch are of many different kinds, and History has joys and sorrows.
فـجائعُ الـدهر أنـواعٌ مُـنوَّعة ولـلـزمان مـسرّاتٌ وأحـزانُ
.لـكل شـيءٍ إذا مـا تـم نقصانُ - And perhaps the only reason of my lament on the fall of Warsaw is that we decline without having reached perfection...
Today's "Gazeta Wyborcza" explains what is the state of exception and how it can be done. Technically. I had nightmares again, and as I went out, it seemed to me that an African man coming down straight on me carried a machine gun.
When I read these things, I have the sensation that reality fluctuates slightly in front of my eyes. Is it real? Do I read on "Gazeta Wyborcza" that a state of exception may be introduced in Poland any day now? Or it is their womanly silliness? The author of the article is a man, of course, but gender is a cultural construct.
How real is it? I would say a comfortable 85%, maybe even up to 95%. We cannot say we did not see it coming. Anyway, the outcomes are little more than two weeks away; all doubt will be dissipated soon.
What can I do? How can I face these coming two weeks? I retrieved some extra money from cash machine. What else?
I should work, be a scholar again. Take steps to grant myself a future. Meanwhile, I think what kind of menial work I might take on, if the circumstances force me to suspend my academic career for a while. Perhaps still no need to come down to this. I have enough resources to persevere, go on with my studies. If only the cotton in my skull might become a brain once again. The most reasonable thing to do, I presume, would be to get back to my proposal and simply anticipate the positive outcome, start realising the research. Go on with everything as planned. Europe will reopen soon. And I should reopen my little intellectual stand together with it. Everything will be as planned.
Here I am, in Lisbon, the familiar marble pavement under my feet. Portugal will be back to normal soon. One of the coming Sundays I might go to the Gulbenkian museum again.
Ah, and Ramadan starts today. I could have some sort of plan for it as well. Study Quran, learn Arabic words, write any little paper in Islamic studies, a book review on any recent Brill publication. There is more homeland than just Poland. More books than just those that I left in Kraków. More things to worry about than just the authoritarian takeovers of Middle Europe. I could be above this new emergency, if it comes true. When it comes true.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Vivemos como se tivessemos escolhido ser pobres
Jose Saramago, A Jangada de Pedra
On Al-Jazeera, there is a Catalan guy who writes that the pandemic may be the utter demise of the populist regimes; he speaks of the last straw that broke the camel's back. On Gazeta Wyborcza, someone else speaks of our passage to the next stage of the authoritarian takeover, that he calls "ratification". When social players accept the new status quo. I suppose that my own attitude, the fact that I chose to coil on the European shore and just turn my back to the bleak landscape, may be seen as such a silent "ratification". I have been saying that the roots of the current situation, the emotions that foster it are too deep in human souls to permit a sudden turn of the tide. Those people found their true identity, they found who they are. This is why I believe the only option is to leave them alone, as long as they don't bring any widespread crisis to Europe, don't cause any new continental war. Let them live their little life. The last straw to break their backs will be economy, just as it happened at the end of the communist regime. But the level of misery to which they may go down before they break is still decades away.
There is an instinct of being poor, of returning to poverty, against all economic odds that might play toward the opposite goal; I know it better than anyone. How much I see myself living as a pauper, will all the money deposited on my account? With all the money that might flow to my account, if I actually chose to live a different, more dynamic life? It is a choice derived from those deeply rooted identities, in which I have a share, very much against my will. At least I can understand, better, as I suppose, than many analysts, how those people may vote in the European Parliament against the funds being offered to their country, how they may actually vote against receiving money. Apparently, such things don't happen in real life. I know from my own experience they do happen, over and over again. I have myself, privately, voted against receiving money on countless occasions. Because I believed money was alien to me, unfitting.
Curiously it is not only a lingering shadow of my lowly origins. It is also a lesson of Polish intelligentsia that I have internalised. I have seen in my youth university professors that were put as role models because of their asceticism. I can think about living people, I could put names here; Kraków was full of them. Such models have never been revoked, replaced with any other type of charisma. Even if there has been an opposite slope in my life, these last thirteen or fourteen years, my taste for luxury was strictly private, hidden like a perversion. Arabian stuff, by the way, is not fashionable in most contexts. Except some circles, some aristocracies that know no shame. In Poland, anyway, it would be simply taken for some sort of incomprehensible fiction, a lonely woman's fantasy. This is why I lived that kind of double life. A double life so deeply attested in Middle Europe. Among those Polish movies that shaped my perception of my country I have never commented on one that is very important: Kieślowski's Podwójne życie Weroniki. On that double life that is associated with high culture, like a high C that cannot be maintained. Because the heart of the singer breaks, right on that familiar miserable stage of Cracovian philharmonic. We were afraid our hearts might not support too much beauty, too much content. This is perhaps the reason why we always followed the example of those ascetic professors living their spiritual -instead of intellectual- lives in tiny flats overcrowded with dusty, miserable little papers. I had such a flat in Kraków, I still have, with its hoard of miserable little papers only partially removed.
Meanwhile, my husband is a constant source of hope. If this government collapses, he says, we might spend our vacations in Poland again, perhaps in September. Vacations in Poland in September, new assignment in Paris in October. And the advantage of wisdom and maturity that I might, after all, derive from this pandemic. A fresh outlook on things, bought at the price of six weeks of total inactivity and isolation. A new awareness to build up: that money, after all, does befit me. That it is becoming for a woman of my position to be a solvent citizen in her own Europe.
PS. This afternoon "Gazeta Wyborcza" confirmed my predictions from two days ago. Those about hearing Chopin's music soon.
Every day I sleep longer; today it was past 2 pm when I finally decided to get up to bring some coffee. I say to myself these are the last days before getting back to full activity. The state of emergency in Portugal is supposed to end 2nd May, if I'm not mistaken. Thus eight or nine days to enjoy this emptiness and leisure. I spend my nights seeing movies, some valuable, some less valuable. Last night it was a movie about a German war prisoner crossing Siberia, As far as my feet will carry me. Recommendable. There is no more news from Poland, just conjectures, signs, omens.
I am very far from all my past academic work. It is a major break. My last, pendent works were for Poland. There is this essay on Islam and Christianity that had peer-reviews in Przegląd Orientalistyczny, and the other one, for Teksty Drugie, that seems to have no outcome. I should ask them about it. I was also trying to write an essay in English for my Silesian colleague. But I feel this is the moment of laisser tomber. Poland does not need my essays on Islam and Christianity any more, no need for that sort of loose historico-Quranic recollections. Nor essays about travels. Nor essays about languages of the humanity, living, dead or dying. No need of anything I might say. The time of intellectual activity is over; the time of fighting for having an academe is over.
Anyway, they never truly wanted me, needed me. All those years, I was an unwelcome addition to things. A woman who narzuca się. An expression without an English equivalent, connotative of unwelcome sexual attention and readiness. Only men are allowed to have such attitudes, not women.
Ah, that is just a noise of words, shallow bitterness, that doesn't really matter any longer, not even for me. This is a closed chapter, a thing that is no more.
All links are dissolved. It could be something private, a marriage ending in divorce. I have largely avoided private catastrophes, I just have to deal with this. It could be worse.
Things ceased to matter. There is only a bleak, snowy landscape from now on.
And I turn my back on it.
There is Leiden, Oxford, still. I wonder what will happen now, if Great Britain returns to Europe. I suppose it will. There will be European Union again. There will be life. There will be university. There will be books. Libraries. Mahogany bookshelves. Flowers. Those tall lilies for which I never had a suitable jar in Leiden.
It has often been said that there is no European identity, that European Union is not a homeland to anyone. But in this emergency it is to its colours, if any, that I am attached. It is my homeland, I have no other. The only thing that brings us together, between Leiden and Oxford, and Paris, and Heidelberg. Between Christians and Muslims, sedentary and migrants, and refugee intellectuals. The only thing that stands for true life, among China and Russia, and United States. The only safe heaven, the only place on earth to be free, and to work for freedom, for everyone.
There is still a chance any day now the message from France will come. That I have my place granted in Paris, for the coming months. That I can work on my project of the Poetics of the Void. Write my first book. That everything is just hunky-dory.
I can return to my ideas any moment. Read again, learn Arabic again. I can still be whoever I wanted, it's not too late. An Orientalist.
As the doors of Middle Europe are closing behind my back, I feel a great void of any competence, of anything that might imply status, accumulated achievements, research experience. I feel blank like a newly bought notebook. Starting from zero, from a flat surface, from a bare polder.
Predictions for the old country are bad. I still follow on "Gazeta Wyborcza" the fight the opposition is trying to wage, but whatever they attempt to do is clearly not a winning strategy. The chaos grows, and with it, the chance of sudden, unpredictable developments. In my estimation, the probability of getting through this crisis are less than some carefully counted 5%; and the count is so high only due to the risk of popular revolt to defend the European founding to confront the economic crisis. Even so, the probability of successful authoritarian takeover is crushing. The European Union won't send tanks, of course, to restore order. Although what it will actually do is under a shining interrogation mark; I don't even spare a guess. From the Polish side, I guess the failure in organising presidential election, in the middle of the pandemic and the chaos of crisscrossing laws and parliamentary proposals, will serve as a justification for measures that will be a great surprise for everyone. Just the kind of surprise I remember from the time I was eight, and one Sunday morning switched on our TV set to see my favourite children's program "Teleranek". And instead of the familiar cartoon cock I saw a bespectacled man speaking gravely, with the national flag in the background. I think they played Chopin on that occasion; I could never listen to that music again without trembling. I bet we will hear Chopin again, as well.
And this is how I say good bye to my books, to my small box of jewellery, to half-emptied flasks of perfumes, to the CDs that I left in my Cracovian apartment. No more valuables there. When I was leaving, I avoided carrying any weights, because I was afraid I might cough; it used to happen before. On the other hand, I still had the illusion that my travel was a mere fancy, that I was just going to Lisbon, under the excuse of doing some more research, because I had money on my account and could do this, simply pay for my womanly silliness. That soon enough I would be back, smiling at my womanhood and telling alhamdulillah it was only a moment, a sharp bend of History, in which women screamed. Those years of my Arabian marriage taught me that womanly silliness should be fully acknowledged, respected, and financed without a frown. But of course I know there is a hidden wisdom behind such attitudes. These last ten thousand years or so, many a tribe has avoided total biological annihilation just because the women have the presence of mind to panic in the right moment.
The old reality flows away from me, every day it stays farther and farther behind. The real trouble is that my old self is dead and gone together with it. That old girl without the front teeth, constantly doubting if she can take on any good thing coming her way. That girl bearing all the contempt and suffering she had passed through written on her face. That stoic survivalist confronting the reality pragmatically, one step at a time, and slightly, unfervently believing in a God who loves beauty...
The predictions for Europe are good. Definitely, we are on the descending slope, even if it takes time to get down. Still tens and hundreds of dead every day, depending on country. Portugal is OK, relatively. In the Netherlands, things are predicted to last longer.
Meanwhile, it is Arabia that worries me; they had passed the level of 1000 new cases today. Even if the explanation given is that they went down to test the migrant workers, legal and illegal. This is how they discovered all those sick people. Overall, their response to the pandemic is surprisingly orderly. They are closer to the Swiss than to the Poles. How surprising, how changeable the cultures are in today's world.
This is why it is so crucial to stand on the right side of History. Because the levels of impredictability and change are so elevated.
It is the first time, at least in my adult life, that I could have such an extensive period of almost complete emptiness. The result must be, as I presume, some sort of subtle change in me, although apparently I remain even more the same than I have ever been. As if I had fallen into myself with increased gravity.