Friday, September 23, 2016

This is Jalala by Nadia Elkadris

Photo: Associated Press
Any horror is better than your own.


It was our third scary movie in a row, and at this rate I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep that night. Seeing as sleep was a commodity in the region, I requested that my Movie Night friends could perhaps try watching something a tad lighter. I will never forget the looks they gave me. Horror movies were their standard fare, and it’s a sentiment shared by the the majority of the population. A great psychologist (whom I see every day in the mirror) once said, “People hide behind the things they are hiding from.” If my friends, my distant relatives, and all of those people I see queuing up for The Conjuring: Part 2 are all hiding behind horror movies, then the thing they are hiding from must be, theoretically, equally or exceedingly terrifying. What, I ask, can it possibly be?

Jalala is a small town in a small region in a small country that goes by the name of Lebanon. It’s smack-dab in the middle of Israel and Syria, who are embroiled in a centuries-old conflict that just happened to escalate. Bombings are the norm, and prepubescent soldiers roam the streets, their guns hardly drawing a glance. Travel advisories from all of the major countries hem and haw, but they all basically tell you the same thing: don’t touch the place with a ten-foot pole.

So here I am in Jalala, sitting on the porch that hasn’t changed in a decade. A plastic bag floats across the sky and my cousin, Rana, points it out, wryly asking me “See how beautiful Lebanon is?” The bag’s flight path is interrupted by a billboard advertising the army, which is fairly unnecessary considering the fact that the army’s presence can be felt around every corner. A four-wheeler blazes past, reluctantly carrying four fully grown adults. It is then and there that I learn the general rule of thumb regarding vehicles here: “fit as many people as there are wheels.” I am grateful to Rana for letting go of the awkward silence that threatened to overwhelm us ever since the morning when I compared bees stinging people to suicide bombers. The way she froze, you can tell I cracked their well-crafted façade of progress.

Lebanon is beautiful in its backwards simplicity.

Its beauty can only be seen in the light--not the oppressive sun or the stars and moon hidden by layers of pollution, but human-made light. Every technological advancement is embraced, albeit slightly unusually. Phones are used as flashlights to illuminate games of Basra, an Arab card game of skill and luck, during one of the myriad power outages. Video game consoles are used as mirrors to check on headdresses. Therefore, every night is set on fire in celebration of this light.

Fireworks take the place of stars in the night sky, and the day sky if the kids get too impatient to wait. They’re sold by convenience store owners that invariably have some sort of link to your family. They cause an insane amount of noise pollution, but in the town that boasts twenty-plus barking dogs at night, no one seems to care. In fact, the fireworks resemble explosions, and it’s common for visitors such as myself to duck and hide behind their grandmother’s berry tree (or so I was informed by my relatives between fits of laughter). Meanwhile, the locals don’t flinch. I wonder if this is because they are used to fireworks . . . or explosions.

The war lingers like an unwanted stray that you refuse to name in hopes that it’ll go away. Throughout my stay, I search for good things that came from everything that occurred. I land at a conclusion when I see the mobs of kids running amok in the streets, tolerated because the adults know they are reminders of an era in which you could give birth to nine kids, brimming with potential, and be left with one (or less) in a few years. Parents rejoice to have the resources to keep a kid alive. No one thinks of the baby boom that will affect their futures. Everyone lives in the present.

I am 15 years old. I’m at that age where everyone wants to know my plans for the future. I braced myself for the questions I was almost certain to receive in a room full of adults, prepared my answers to the word. To my surprise, they appeared unconcerned. It got to the point where I was “subtly” nudging the conversation towards college matters. When I saw their politely interested faces, I finally gave in. This is Jalala. They are determined to live each day individually, because that’s all they can do while keeping a brave face and their sanity.

Forget travel advisories; Jalala taught me the real advice. When I leave Lebanon, it will be like waking up from a nightmare that I’ll look back fondly upon. And then I shall smile and move on with my life.

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Nadia Elkadri is a 15-year-old aspiring lawyer and journalist who is still, unfortunately, in high school. However, she is making the best of that and her Canadian-Lebanese roots by making sure to explore both worlds. She loves to travel but planes scare her, so she has a bit of a dilemma. 

Judge's Comment: Jalala, Lebanon. Twenty-two miles east of Beirut. Hardly top of many people's bucket lists. Even our writer admits travel advisories say 'Don't touch the place with a ten-foot pole'. But people, people like you and me, live in Jalala. Fireworks light up the sky. Adults play cards. Teenagers watch horror movies to mask the horror they are living. Kids play in the streets. And 'The war lingers on like an unwanted stray that you refuse to name in the hope that it'll go away.'

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Finding Atlantis by Hal Ackerman

No summer will be remembered more passionately, in more vastly different ways that the summer of ‘69. Events that occurred within sixty days redefined the outer limits of humanity. In both directions. There was sublime peace and love at Woodstock. There were bloody corpses in Bel Air. Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell/Charles Manson. Helter Skelter. Teddy drove Mary Jo off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And I went in search of Atlantis with the woman who would someday become my second ex-wife.

Oh yes. And there was Vietnam.   

I had just written a searing political satire that I was certain would cause the entire American populace to rise up against the war, and that I would be my generation’s Aristophanes, our Jonathan Swift. Some unscrupulous people tried to wrest the play’s authorship from me, and in the end it was not done in the prestigious theater that would have been the pulpit to carry its message. It did not end the war. I did not become the voice of my generation. I needed to get away, and when I read about the dig I wrote to the director-general of antiquities for the Greek Ministry of Culture, Professor Spyridon Marinatos (whose name I still love to say out loud), informing him that I was an American photojournalist interested in visiting the site. Some part of that statement was close to being almost true. I was an American with a 35mm camera and writing implements.

The war was far more ferociously opposed in Europe than it was in the States. Every traveling American was held personally accountable. But in this two-week period from lift-off to landing, the other side of our national split personality captured the hearts and imaginations of the world. People broke out in smiles and celebrated us--“Americani! Astronauti! La Luna! La Luna!

We were heading south through Italy to the port of Brindisi, where we would cross the Adriatic to the mainland of Greece, take a brief detour through the Peloponnesus, where I would make a pilgrimage to the theatre at Epidaurus, ancient home to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (the voices of their generations), then on to the port of Pireaus, from whence we would take an overnight boat to the island of Santorini.

The boat left at dusk. We traveled deck passage amidst our guitar-playing, hash-smoking, moving glob of hippie cytoplasm. After six hours the engines stopped. We were a few hundred yards from shore in a lagoon that had once had been the caldera of the volcano that had erupted and split the island of Santorini in half, and, if speculation was correct, had buried Atlantis. Before us was a two-thousand-foot cliff that had been the center of the island. With the engines cut it was perfectly quiet. Moonlight shimmered across the lagoon. You did not have to be on acid to be on acid. 

We were instructed (or herded) to climb overboard onto a small motor launch that carried us the last few hundred yards to the harbor. There, we were hustled onto the backs of mules that were prodded by muleteers who ran alongside their animals up the thousand-foot stone spiral staircase, prodding them with long sticks and a Greek word that sounded like ”delax.” The little whitewashed town rested at the top on a plateau, where innkeepers awaited the arriving tourists in a feeding frenzy of hospitality. Still. Compare that to the experience of a stranger getting off a bus or a train in ANY American city… at midnight. Would there be anyone to greet him but pimps and hustlers?

The dig was at the far end of the island at a site called Akrotiri. The bus went out there one day each week, which by our good fortune was the following day. The three-hour ride was over one-lane roads without guardrails, precariously terraced hundreds of feet above a sea that had already swallowed a continent. I had only seen archaeological digs in movies, where hundreds of workers wearing tan shorts and pressed shirts scurried around the hillside, showing their new amazing finds to the head scientist, who frequently exclaimed ‘eureka.’ When we got off the bus we found two guys with shovels and a wheelbarrow. Because this was grape growing country for world-famous Santorini wine, the excavation was being done so as not to disturb the crops. Rather than digging an open pit, they had tunneled underneath the farmland and made a cave. Long, witchy white-tipped roots dangled free and exposed into the hollowed space, like blind worms wriggling to find nourishment. It made me think a bit of how our marriage was starting to feel. When you fall out of love, everything is a metaphor. I’m sure she felt it too, but we were both smart enough or frightened enough not to say anything. There were no guardrails to break the fall into the ultimate truth that neither one of us wanted to face so far from home.

The bus had to return. There were no hotels within miles, meaning that we had to make the return trip on the very same bus, and that this entire trip will have been for half an hour. Either that or…well, there was no or. Maybe the workers sensed this. They allowed us to peek at the few artifacts that had already been unearthed. Among them, huge clay cisterns that once held olive oil. This was an early equivalent of the US Treasury’s repository of gold at Fort Knox. Ten years later there would be a huge twenty-page spread in National Geographic of the amazing treasures that dig had yielded.

We returned to Athens on July 20, 1969. By then we had forgotten about their voyage. I was lying on a metal army cot in a youth hostel in Athens. Men and women had separate accommodations. I splurged and went for “Very Especial,” which meant that the quarter-inch thick, stained mattress was covered by a semi-laundered sheet. It was too hot to sleep and around ten or eleven o’clock I went for a walk.

It wasn’t much cooler outside the youth hostel but at least there was a breeze. Presently I came upon a cluster of people gathered in front of a closed and locked appliance store. Inside the gated windows an eleven-inch black and white television set was turned on. There, in that fuzzy flickering image I saw Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base and utter the most famous misquoted line in history.

With all the strange smells and sounds around me, I felt as displaced and remote from my home planet as Armstrong was from his. I chanced to glance up. Above and behind the appliance store, in the same visual frame as the astronauts walking on the moon on that fuzzy TV screen, stood the Acropolis and the twenty-five-hundred-year-old Parthenon, its marble pillars gleaming in the light from the moon that was now being trodden for the first time in the life of the Universe. And tilting my neck up just a few more degrees, there was that very 4.5 billion-year-old moon. My own private trinity.

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Until his retirement in 2015, Hal Ackerman served as co-area head of the UCLA screenwriting program. His first novel, Stein, Stoned, won the Lovey Award for best first novel in 2011. His short stories have appeared in  New Millennium Writings, Southeast Review, (Winner there of Robert Olen Butler’s pick for World’s Best Short Short Story),  and most recently in the current Idaho Review Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me” won the William Saroyan Centennial Award for Drama, and was named Best Play at the 2011 United solo Festival in New York. 

Judge's Comment: We are hooked at the start into what is to be both an archeological and a personal journey: it's 1969, 'And I went in search of Atlantis with the woman who would some day become my second ex-wife.' Wonderful evocation of the time:  'We travelled Deck Passage amidst our guitar-playing, hash-smoking, moving glob of hippie cytoplasm.' The description of the breakdown in the relationship is stark: 'There were no guardrails to break the fall into the ultimate truth that neither one if us wanted to face...' An oh so sad story, but with a beautiful, uplifting ending. 
 

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Kiss of Oranges and Myrtle on Crete by Mihaela Lica Butler

Ah, Crete, the Minoan cradle, that place of legend, where Basils of the world still hope for Zorba to teach them how to dance the sirtaki at Stavros. That iconic tune of “Zorba the Greek” still echoes here, with every kefi, for Cretans are born to dance, and they couldn’t care less that before 1964 there was no Zorba dance: they made it tradition, because – and any Cretan will tell you – it frees your inhibitions, and renders you happy from the opening gentle tunes, till your feet move so fast and so high that you feel like you could touch the skies with the hopping that seems to lift not only body, but the whole of your spirit. Oh, how I wanted to dance Zorba at Stavros! But my Cretan experience didn’t take me there.


Crete was a lot of things to me that March – we visited off-season, since that’s when you can truly take in the soul of the island. Cretans have something most people don’t have – they call it filoxenia, the love for strangers, and it’s real, overwhelming a powerful sentiment that brightness your day, from the first kaliméra. Filoxenia cannot be explained: it’s felt in their dance, it shines on their faces when they smile so openly welcoming you in their homes, treating you like family from the moment you arrive, till you leave and they part with a glitter of sadness in their eyes: “come back soon.”

We arrived on Crete on a stormy evening. The clouds raptured over Koules in Heraklion like impossible swarms of raging raindrops opening the heavens above with the light of Zeus’s mighty thunderbolts. The storm scared my little boy, Paul-Jules, and I remember telling him how the king of the gods was born on the island, and he watched me fascinated to learn how Zeus grew up in a cave, raised by a goat. Then we arrived at Lato Boutique Hotel, and we watched the storm raising the waves of the sea as high as the walls of the fortress from our windows. Paul-Jules was tired after the long trip, but, this being his first encounter with the sea, he watched the storm spellbound, holding an aromatic orange in the cup of his hands: “Mommy, this smells so pretty.” Funny what children seem to notice when no one else pays attention.

The second day, after the storm, we continued our journey: destination Metochi Villas in Platanias, not far from Chania. This was about to become our home-away-from-home, for the whole three weeks we had planned on the island. The ride to Platanias is the fondest recollection I have of Crete. The memory of the fragrant orange was still fresh in Paul-Jules’s mind, so as we drove, he exclaimed “Oranges!” every time he saw a vendor waiting patiently on the side of the road for a car to bring the next customer. “Mommy, please, can I have some?”

So we stopped – at random, as such things normally happen. A short, elderly woman, dressed in dark colors, with a black kerchief covering her head, was waiting patiently in the shade, by her improvised fruit stall. She promptly stood up when she saw me approaching. I wanted to buy a couple of oranges, but she only sold by the bag. I don’t know how many were supposed to be in a bag, but I quickly assessed about 20 big and bright organic oranges at 5 € quite a bargain.

All I had in cash was a 10 € bill, and she had no small change – I was her first customers that day. I got a bag of oranges, and a couple of lemons, and handed her the bill, with a poorly pronounced efharistó, to let her know that I didn’t care for change. For a short while afterwards we spent time pushing the bill back and forth: she didn’t want to take the money, it was too much, she was trying to tell me, showing me that for 10 € I could buy two bags. I would have, gladly, but our rental car was already full, and there was simply no more room for so many oranges. So I insisted, with parakalo and efharistó, till she gave up, and accepted the bill.

Then, something strange happened. The old lady wept – tears in her kind eyes, and the feelings that enveloped my heart in the mystic of the moment are still strong today. Her expression, as she thanked me, was humble and gentle, reminding me of the look in my grandma’s eyes when she returned home with flowers and basil from the church: I believed that those offerings were sacred.

So I gave that old lady a hug, and the moment I embraced her, I felt her scent: she smelled holy, like myrtle and oranges, and also like olive oil, just like my own grandmother once. Without thinking, I gave her a kiss on her cheek, and I wiped her tears, smiling, repeating efharistó – the only word I knew, which seemed appropriate.

Then I walked to the car, opened the back door, took an orange out of the bag, and handed it to Paul-Jules, whose cheerful voice welcomed the gift with a loud “yay!” The old lady heard him, and waved. She followed me quickly, and as she approached, I saw she was holding as many mandarines as she could carry in her hands. She came to the back door, where Paul-Jules was busy sniffing the orange, and spoke softly, offering him the fruit. None of us could understand what she said, and I was too overwhelmed to say anything but “thank you.”

Then we drove away, leaving her there, alone by her oranges, and she watched us waving goodbye for a while, till we couldn’t see her anymore. Her scent of myrtle and oranges rubbed on my clothes, and I took it with me – in a sense it still follows me, and I feel that, in meeting her, I experienced the very essence of what filoxenia is supposed to be.

Meeting her triggered emotions that I had not expected: Crete felt familiar, safe, and warm, just like home. The look in her eyes reminded me of my childhood, a happy-go-lucky time under the loving care of my grandma. These feelings were so strong that for the next three weeks I didn’t feel like a tourist: I belonged there, I was supposed to make Crete my home.

Crete is today more than a cherished memory and a page in a travel diary: I left a bit of my heart in a kiss of oranges and myrtle, and I weep when I recall the scent of the woman whose kindness was the prelude of the best vacation of my life.

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Journalist Mihaela Lica Butler has built a career while chiming in on many topics, from relating the trials of the people of Kosovo, to experiencing first-hand the heroics of the soldiers serving for the UN. But she thrives in conveying her love for travel, cuisine, and places, in written word. 

Judge's Comment: Here the writer builds a strong, instinctive bond with a stranger a fruit seller and shows us a first-hand instance of 'filoxenia', the inexplicable Cretan 'love for strangers' which is touchingly contagious. The story brings tears to my eyes each time I read it.