Syrian Writer-in-Exile, an interview with Yasmine Merei

Posted in Human Rights, refugee crisis, Syria with tags , , , , , on December 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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THE IMAGES of the Syrian migrants go from harrowing to devastating: families facing batons of Hungarian police, a drowned three-year-old face-down in the surf of a Turkish beach. Then we try to grasp the reality of people still in Syria, the place that drove these refugees to risk the death of their children on foreign shores — Assad’s thugs; the black flag of ISIS; rogue militias; Russian bombs; US (and now French) air strikes.

Maybe I would feel less powerless, less despairing, if I could understand more, understand better than I do. When I heard that a Syrian journalist and human rights activist named Yasmin Merei was staying at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, I jumped at the chance to talk with a woman recently arrived from the front lines of the turmoil.

No one answered, however, when I rang the buzzer for our appointment at 520 Paseo Miramar on a quiet afternoon in late October. Just the sound of a few leaf blowers and the occasional passing car broke the silence on that winding street high in the hills of the Palisades. I peered through the barred iron gate. No activity at all. I glanced at my watch; I was half an hour late. Perhaps I had the date wrong? 

The Villa Aurora was once home to another writer-in-exile, Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish playwright and novelist who recognized — and wrote about — the Nazi threat as far back as the early 1920s. By the time they assumed power, the Nazis named him “Public Enemy Number One.” Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta moved to the south of France, but once that became occupied territory they barely made it out of Europe in time. Their salvation came at Roosevelt’s bequest and with the canny assistance of diplomat Varian Fry. Once they arrived in the United States in 1941, they moved to California and, in 1943, Marta was able to purchase the rundown villa — built in 1921 and modeled on a “Castillo” in Seville, for $9,000.

The villa became a focal point and a regular salon as Lion and Marta opened their home to European and German artists and intellectuals in exile: among them the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and composer Ernst Toch. Now the Villa is an international residency program for artists, administered by the nonprofit Friends of Villa Aurora, with partial funding from the German government. Marta donated her husband’s library, now The Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, to USC.

This year, Villa Aurora invited Merei, a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Lobby, to be their “Feuchtwanger Writer in Exile.” She travelled from Turkey, where she had been living since 2012, and where she edits a magazine called Sayyidat Suria (“The Lady of Syria”).

My interview prospects were starting to look dim. No response to texts. The driveway was gated and stairs off the sidewalk lead down to a locked boiler room. I wrote out a note to leave in the mailbox, and tried the buzzer one last time. To my surprise, this attempt summoned a courteous young man, who told me he was an artist from Berlin and welcomed me inside. I followed him through the large tiled kitchen, out the back door onto a brick patio with an expansive view. My guide knocked politely on a closed door, then rapped his knuckles again: “Yasmin, you have a visitor.” 

A woman opened the door a crack. She was in her pajamas, just awakened, and understandably abashed. I countered her string of apologies with reassurances: I was not in a hurry; I knew she keeps difficult hours, editing through the night via Skype with her magazine colleagues in Turkey and Egypt. I know you have to sleep when you can.

I seated myself at a wooden table on the patio and stared out at the Pacific coastline. Fruiting orange trees lined the terrace below. The bougainvillea gleamed translucent scarlet. The blue sky was cloudless.

In a few minutes, Yasmin emerged from her room in a pink embroidered blouse, glossy dark hair brushed back from her the oval of her pale face. She offered a warm smile and more apologies as she joined me at the table. Her eyes, I noticed, looked weary, even haunted. With her permission, I turned on the tape recorder. Her English is “not perfect,” as she says, but understandable. I’ve largely maintained her word choice and syntax, which struck me as lilting, at times poetic. 

I’d never interviewed a Syrian revolutionary before, someone whose family was made to suffer gravely because she decided to fight for a better Syria. How to talk to her about so painful and fresh a period in her life? I took my cues from Yasmin, and, when she needed to, let her cry in peace. Interview (originally published in Los Angeles Review of Books) follows… MORE

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Captiva #climatemarch

Posted in Art and Culture, CAPTIVA, climate change with tags , , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by Louise Steinman
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Ding Darling in the studio (photo LS)

The night before our (very) local climate march (to coincide with the talks in Paris) finds the artists of our residency up late in Bob Rauschenberg’s mega studio in a confab of furious prop-building to the accompaniment of Ukrainian chaos-rock on someone’s iphone. Will shows Susan and Matt how to use the sewing machine to stitch the streamers. Lavinia and I hot-glue the home-made and hand-painted umbrellas to the poles that Bill painted in b/w stripes. LeBrie letters SUSTAINABLE on magenta-painted foam core with lemon yellow letters. Kate is painting, cutting, checking on costumes.

Our #climatemarch intends to enchant our audience—snowbirds on their last day of vacation on this luscious sub-tropical island and local Captivians with their ritual cocktail at sunset hoping for a green flash over the Gulf. We want to connect to voices in Paris and all over the world– and as well to remind all visitors here that the site of their adoration and pilgrimage, the beach itself, Captiva itself, will eventually be, as artist Buster Simpson points out,  “a paradise lost to sea.”

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off to the beach for the staging (photo: Matt Hall)

We are inspired by Bob Rauschenberg’s spirit of art in the service of activism, by the great conservationist Ding Darling, whose Fish House graces the Rauschenberg waterfront and whose prescient efforts on behalf of the wildlife and ecology of Captiva and beyond are on view at the Ding Darling Refuge nearby; by participants at last summer’s Rising Waters Confab here at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (especially Gretel Ehrlich and Mel Chin’s storyboard for a film/an action, poodles pulling Inuits from Greenland on sleds through Paris  so that they can speak at the Climate Talks about the disappearance of their way of life in Greenland.) How can artists engage people’s attention about global ecological issues? How can we remind people that the Arctic is Captiva? The Arctic is Detroit? The Arctic is Beirut? Rising waters everywhere…

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drawing by Mel Chin, collaborative project with Gretel Ehrlich

It’s our first collaborative group project and—after discussion– we decide to engage our local audience with humor, good will, with beauty. Will Cotton is a painter and his palette for our props and costumes are from pictures of Balinese rituals (and, though we didn’t realize it until afterwards, Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits.”)

People run up to take pictures. Some cheer. Some are puzzled. Some ask questions. When asked to join us, one man demurs, “…I would… but I paid for parking…” Another woman jumps into the surf to join us. We invite two pig-tailed sprites in hot pink two-piece suits to carry the poles with the streamers flowing behind. They’ll never forget this day. Bill explains that the stripes represents a way to measure “how high the water is rising.” LeBrie tells them, “we want there to be beautiful beaches like this for you when you grow up.”

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photo: Matt Hall

When the sun goes down, we retreat to a near-by Mexican restaurant, sitting around a weathered green and red wooden table. Climate activism stimulates the appetite. The collaborative fervor further bonds us.

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photo: Matt Hall

The walls of the café are oddly adorned with one dollar bills. Will is excited to see bananas growing in a palm above us. A charming waiter from Costa Rica brings plates of local blackened redfish and refried beans, too-sweet margaritas. Then we mount our blue bicycles and dart off into the night like a fleet of pelicans—new constellations above us, new projects ahead.

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“Our Solo Round Star Squeezed Between the Sky and Sea,” painting by Lucinda Parker

 

70 Years After

Posted in Human Rights, Life and What about It, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Louise Steinman

On August 6, I joined 35-40 others in a mosaic-tiled garden in L.A’s Beachwood Canyon for a service commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. We sat in silence for half an hour and then, at 8:15 AM, the moment the Enola Gay dropped the bomb over Hiroshima, a cellist began to play. We listened to the trancelike drone of his bowing, the occasional plane above our heads in our peacetime city, the rumble of service trucks up the wooded canyon road, a dog barking across the street. A Buddhist priest chanted sutras and rang a bell 10 times, a Zen monk in maroon robes lead a chant of compassion for all beings.

In Los Alamos, NM– where the bomb was conceived and engineered– on this same day a group of citizens walked the streets in a silent march for peace. The organizer, the Rev. John Dear, proclaimed: “All roads lead to Los Alamos.” What is the connection between where the weapons of war are conceived and where the fall? What binds the people of both places together?

In Calais, desperate Somalis and Syrians risk their lives to cross the Chunnel into England, convinced that somewhere, there’s a better life. A life without bombs falling. They float across the Mediterranean in flimsy rafts, to wash ashore on Greek islands. A grey-haired woman sitting on the rocky beach of Lesbos watches for them. She says the flow of desperate people– including women and children– onto her local beach– “has driven me mad.”

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron refers to the “swarms” of people heading for British shores, does he realize he’s speaking of people, not insects? In Susan Southard’s new book on the bombing of Nagasaki, she quotes bombing survivor Yoshida Katsuji who puts it simply: “The basis for peace is for people to understand the pain of others.” Is he right?

One of the speakers at the Los Alamos peace march, the Rev. James Lawson (a civil rights veteran) was quoted in the NYTimes as saying “Today’s weapons of mass destruction are nothing but the evolution of our understanding of violence.” When asked what he meant by that, he replied: “The police officer who shoots an unarmed boy or sees a young man as a demon rushing at him represents the same lost regard for human life we learned with the bomb.”

His statement makes you stop and think. Stop and think. Take a moment. How does it all tie together? Tomorrow is seventy years from the day the United States dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, the last city to have endured an atomic weapon. In this nuclear-armed world this world of desperate people on rafts at sea– we must somehow continue to try to understand the pain of others.

After dinner with Jane I woke up in the middle of the night

Posted in Art and Culture, Poland with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6764At dinner with Jane Hirshfield, before her talk at ALOUD, she asked– since I couldn’t tell her all of them– to tell her one conversation I’d heard in Poland that she should know about.  I’ve even forgotten what I said in that moment, since in my heart, I really didn’t know the answer. I woke up at 3 AM that same night, realizing just what it was– that one most important conversation I heard/had in Poland.

It was four iterations of the same conversation, heard on four different occasions in four different cities (Warsaw, Krakow, Sejny, Lublin) with 4 different sets of Polish friends, with Tomasz and Sylwia; with Wojtech and Joanna; with Maja and Adam; with Kris and Malgorzata. And I wrote to Jane: “We would be sitting in some lovely cafe, in Kazimierz, for example, in the sun, eating a beautiful meal—pierogi and beet salad, a glass of chilled Italian white. One person would remark what an idyllic moment this was, and the other would respond, ‘I wonder if this is what it felt like in August, 1939?’ Then we’d talk about Putin and what aggressive moves he might make, just what was he capable of? Then they’d tell me what their “Plan B” was… time to consider that fellowship at the university in Chicago, or that job in London or Los Angeles. Then the partner/spouse would admonish him/her and say, ‘Oh you’re being paranoid, that’s not going to happen…’ and they would talk and disagree and share their worries, about Ukraine, about unpredictability in the Baltics and then you began to wonder just what DID an idyllic day in August 1939 in Poland feel like? Yes, I heard this conversation at least four different times in four different cities in a country that’s been invaded, occupied, torn apart. On a beautiful day in late spring, 2015.

And it was a beautiful spring night in Los Angeles, with Jane about to read poetry at ALOUD, to talk about uncertainty and not knowing, to help us think about how, in its “musics, its objects, its strategies of speech, thought and feeling, a poem plucks the interconnection of the experience of self and all being.” And we sat under the olive trees in the last slanting rays of sun in the garden in front of the Central Library. Image [painting by Andrzej Wróblewski, from the show “Wróblewski Recto/Verso,” Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw [photo of LS and JH by Irene Borger] [Jane Hirshfield quote, from TEN WINDOWS: How Great Poems Transform the World, Knopf 2015]

Notes on a Warsaw Residency, 2

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

image Shall I write about the storks clacking their beaks high in their nests on the road to Sejny? And in Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithuania, the hare that bounded across the road and straight out of Milosz’ beautiful poem? In the candle-light coffee-house, Song of Porcelein Cafe, in the basement of what was once Milosz’ childhood summer home, surrounded by Polish listeners from surrounding villages, I speak with my host–Krzysztof Czyzewski– about my “time-based” work, this ten year journey to learn about the actual Poland, our shared history, to “re-imagine” the “Poland in my head.” image Three institutions were just a dream when i began this project– the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was just an idea among some people in an office; the House of Words in Lublin was just some printing presses in a basement; and the poet Czeslaw Milosz’ childhood estate, Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithunania,was a dilapidated forestry hut in the woods. What dynamic visionary enclaves have sprung from those ideas and on this 2015 trip to Poland, I pay a visit to each one for book talks and conversation. image Now POLIN in Warsaw is a magnificent museum chronicling 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland; Krasnogruda is a magnificent conference center for poets and bridge-builders from around the world; the House of Words in Lublin occupies the whole of that building and thrums with historical necessity and present-day creative energy– master printers, school children, archivists, book binders, paper-makers. Here, local children learn the (almost) lost traditions of their city, in a place where the Nazis murdered the staff of the printing houses, the presses are rolling. The good people of the Grodzka Gate scrutinize old photographs for the clues to the identities of the murdered Jews of their town– to honor them, to restore their names. “This is not an exhibit anymore,” the founder, Tomasz Pietresewicz tells me, “this is a library of lives” and Tomasz and his colleagues are “the reliable workers of memory.” image In Lublin, after my talk, in the Brama Grodzka Cafe, musicians pulled out traditional Polish fiddles, bass and drum, tables were pushed away, shots of Zubrovka appeared and dancers whirled and sang and stamped their feet. There is joy in the room; I can feel it pulsing through my body. image In Sejny, at 5 AM the morning after my talk, too wired to sleep, I walk to the edge of the lake, looking towards Lithuania, and watch the clouds that roil across from Lithuania to Poland, from Poland to Lithuania. Two loons on the water and five flying cranes silhouetted overhead in the dawn light. Tonight, back in Warsaw… I accompany Joanna Klass, my indefatigable Warsaw host, to a small alternative space called XS for an improbable and rigorous discussion/practicum on the subject of LAUGHTER which is, as we all know, beneficial, contagious, and sometimes– even hard work. OK! and onwards to Krakow. image[drawing from POLIN Muzeum confersation by Mariusz Tarkawian]

Notes from a Warsaw Residency, 1

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Life and What about It, Poland with tags , , , , on April 13, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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some notes from this Warsaw residency (courtesy Adam Mickiewicz Institute, courtesy Warsaw Bauhaus)… the word “resident” from the Latin <em>sidere</em> to abide awhile, to settle down. To settle down on ul. Smulikowskiego, to read and write and move and think in this quiet flat not far from my friends Joanna and Wojtek, to emerge from this quiet flat to walk in the morning, drink coffee in cafes near the university library, to observe the animated conversations of young Warsavians, the changing exhibitions at Warsaw Bauhaus…

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to enter the Warsaw zoo where the sight of flamingos ignites the landscape, where strolling families are exiting after a Saturday looking at zebras… to a special ceremony to dedicate the villa residence of the Zabinskis, the zookeepers who rescued many Jews during the German occupation of Warsaw..

that was two days ago, sitting under chestnut trees listening to Chopin with geese clacking overhead and i swear i heard other creatures (wolves?) adding to the melange of sound and feeling… late afternoon walk on the nearby Vistula, admiring a barge named Atalanta, thinking of the saviors of Atlantis who wandered and collected the shards of Jewish history in Poland after the war, to the present, the vibrant present here in Warsaw today… walking through the doors of the new POLIN Museum and where I will be in conversation with my dear friend Tomasz Kitlinski in just two days… a chance to sit and talk with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the scholar, the nimble mind who designed, oversaw, strategized, curated the core exhibition… which, as she points out, is told without foreshadowing or backshadowing, where we are asked to walk through a 1000 years of history, an exhibition worthy of debates, an exhibition that left me emotional and asking questions and remembering that moment years ago, when my friend Cheryl asked, startled, “Am I Polish?”

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To sit in the flat of the journalist Kostek Gebert, with his cat Kescia on my lap, purring… to feel at home in Warsaw. To walk Dobra at night, under the bridge where the tram clacks along, a mysterious night walker passing by, wearing  a coat with a fur collar….

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to wander the Warsaw flea market with Joanna and Wojtek, where discarded dolls speak from boxes of clutter, postcards of alpine flowers and soldiers from a war a century ago, tools that had a meaning in another age, that stretched a woman’s elegant shoes, a Ukrainian ceramic of a fish with a wide-open mouth, bent-wood chairs, 60’s jazz playing on an old turntable, a yellow china teapot my grandmother might have used to brew her dark tea, which she’d drink through a sugar cube, held in her mouth.

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Anna the Almaziful: Remembering Anna Valentina Murch (1949-2014)

Posted in FRIENDS, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Louise Steinman

img453 On Friday nights, the Sabbath prayer that my husband and I recite is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We light the candles and chant: “In the name of Anna the Almazifull, the Everliving, the bringer of plurabilities…” and as we praise Anna’s “haloed eve,” I think of my beautiful friend, Anna Valentina Murch, who died this year. It’s been nine months; I’m having a hard time believing she’s gone.

She was lovely, my friend. Playful. An artist through and through. Anna’s house on the peak of San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, shared with her husband and collaborator – Doug Hollis– was full of candles and mirrors, living room windows open to the glittering city below. Anna loved light and shadows; harnessed them to great effect in her installations for museums and public spaces over the last decades. Her lighting design for Portland’s new Tillicum Bridge (with Doug) completed after her death, casts jewel-colored beams of light above into the night sky and below, onto the surface of the Willamette River.

16543200-mmmain Anna and I held an Old Country in common; though hers was probably more Nabokov’s White Russia and mine hewed more to the shtetles that Isaac Babel described in his diary. Her mother’s family was from St. Petersburg, and fled to Shanghai after the Revolution (when my grandparents emigrated to the Lower East Side). During the second World War, Anna’s father—a British naval officer—was stationed in Shanghai, and fell in love and then married Anna’s mother—a beautiful red-haired Russian actress.

Her mother, Valentina, played a role in the 1948 film of Anna Karenina, and, like the romantic title character, eschewed the maternal role. Anna was packed off to a strict English boarding school at the age of three. Her liberation came in her twenties, art school and graduate work in lighting and architecture in London. Her adventurous spirit brought her to the U.S, to San Francisco.

Her first art works as a newcomer to the American West in 1976 were in the desert. She planted glass rods in the shifting gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico, a test missile site. Where did one space begin and other end? How could beauty co-exist with destruction? Light with dark? The presence of geological shiftings and fault lines in her adopted land, both geological and psychological, engendered a series of “volcanica” installations, red neon illuminating black coal. Anna always wanted to know, wanted us to wonder, what lay underneath the surface of things?

“I want things to unfold slowly,” Anna once said of her installations. “Often my things are quiet and simple enough that it takes time—a kind of slow overlapping—before people feel it.” She wanted to make time palpable. In her installation, “Voyages” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you entered a small room, crunching underfoot stones washed smooth from years of river time. You could feel time in your feet.

From early childhood, she was fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings, old barns in the Devon countryside she knew well, stone houses in north England, bombed out residences in London. Who had lived there? What secrets and memories had been shared in what were now the empty shells of dwellings? The remnants of a structure often provided the basis for an imagined archeology. She was also consistently  fascinated with psychological thresholds, boundaries, and what it was that empowered people to cross over them.

She built her “Staged Garden,” on the crumbling concrete foundations of an abandoned lot in downtown San Francisco. At night, the installation was entirely transformed by gelled theater lights, hidden in the long grass, which illuminated the stage and left long low shadows. A “stage door” lit by blue neon—though sealed– beckoned from a niche of weathered bricks. To explore the piece as a spectator, you became a performer.  And part of the performance was the sight of bejeweled opera patrons promenading past the empty ghost stage on their way the San Francisco Opera House two blocks away.

Anna loved dressing up, giving dinner parties, inviting friends for Twelfth Night with the house glittering with candles and redolent with savory aromas from their kitchen. She adored hats, silver sandals, a jacket with a good cut. Even when she had to wear a wig, she did it with style. annahat2 She was explicit as to what I meant to her as a friend. We talked about artist- husbands and the demands of our jobs (she was a much-loved professor of art at Mills College for two decades), about balancing our responsibilities while trying to do our own creative work.

On our last visit, in January, we took a slow walk around Bernal Hill, leaving “the boys” as we called them, to their own pace. We sat on a bench and looked out over the city. She told me she knew she didn’t have much time. I wanted to push it away, to say that wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. it was likely true. She still had good days, like the previous week, which ended with Anna and Doug strolling arm in arm on the sand, tide lapping around their bare feet, in Pacifica. I reached them by cell, their voices were happy,light. They’d made it to the beach without having to walk down steps. Doug said they would go there again, it was so easy.

“Space is our friend, but time has death in it,” the poet Gaston Bachelard has written.   Perhaps the fact that much of Anna’s art was a meditation on time helped her cross the threshold from this world with what appeared as equanimity. She told me she was not afraid of death, and I believed her. The more time you spend in a space, she once said, the more choices you have in what you see and how you see it. She had bravely struggled with, lived with breast cancer for years. She worked in the garden and together with Doug on their collaborative public art projects almost to the last day. She spoke on the phone to old friends here and in England. As Doug said, “She used her time very wisely.”

On that day in January, our last visit, in the late afternoon, the four of us brought deck chairs up to the garden, leaning back to catch the last rays of winter sun, clocks of our life spans ticking. Anna shoulder to shoulder with Lloyd to the right; Doug next to me on the left end. It was a sweet and unburdened hour, four friends talking quietly or sitting in companionable silence as we might have on a trip together to Yosemite or Joshua Tree. We left in early evening, so that Anna could get some nourishment, so that we could drive across the Bay Bridge and relieve the babysitter at our nephew’s house. We said goodbye with such tenderness, pushing hard against the thought that this could be the last time we’d see each other face to face in this world.

In the name of Anna, the Almaziful, The Everliving,

The bringer of plurabilities

Haloed be her eve!

Her sing time sung,

her rill be run, unhemmed,

as it is uneven. img452 [top photo: Anna, SF, wearing Jim Pomeroy’s shell earphones… they really work!]

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