Spring is here, but we’re stuck at home in constant anticipation. Some of us are hopeful, others are expecting the worst.
On March 30, the 167th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s birth, a painting by the Dutch master was stolen from a museum in the Dutch city of Laren, which had been closed as part of the lockdown to battle the spread of COVID-19. The irony is that the painting, created in 1884, is known as “Spring Garden” (its full title is actually “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring”). So a Van Gogh painting depicting spring was stolen, at the same time that many of us are feeling that we’ve been robbed of spring itself this year.
But meanwhile, another great painter reminds us “They Can’t Cancel the Spring”: As he self-isolates in his house in Normandy, France, British artist David Hockney is creating several iPad drawings of spring as he witnesses it in his garden, and the BBC has published a few of them, which you can see here.
In this challenging moment, and as a gift to the little ones bored at home (and the parents struggling to keep them entertained) we share the steps of growing a bean plant in a jar, a spring activity that should keep adults and children alike engaged for a couple of weeks:
-Fill your jar with some water then pour it out, but keep the jar wet.
-Fold a napkin or a kitchen roll and place it inside the jar, then place one bean seed between the roll/napkin and the glass.
-Place the jar on a windowsill or anywhere it can catch a good amount of light, and sprinkle some water on it daily.
-After a few days, the seed will start to sprout roots, followed by a stem that will grow upwards, as it searches for light.
-In ten days to two weeks, the stem will grow some leaves, and now you can take your little plant out and place it in a pot with some soil to make sure it keeps growing.
This week, as we spend our spring in confinement, we decided to devote our Read section to share some of our experiences in quarantine. Several members of the Mada team describe what spring means to each of them, while Nawara Belal tells us about her attempts at creating a spring garden at home, and Ahmed Wael shares some cooking adventures.
Omayma Ismail: Spring usually brings about lots of contrasting emotions for me; I don’t know if I should celebrate or mourn. The spring is both birth and death: the growth of new branches in the family tree: my children, and the death of the tree’s roots: my parents. Spring is both the blossoming Mulberry trees and the wilting wheat kernels. Spring is the scent of jasmine driving me to open the windows every morning and it’s also the sandstorms fouling the air I breathe.
Radwan El-Tayeb: They say life emanates only from death. It’s a complete cycle.
Lamiaa: I never thought I would make it to be 30 years old. I always thought I would die young. Before my 30th birthday, I got into an accident and felt my end nearing. I was mistaken.
I made it to my thirties only to find the disease that killed my mother haunting me. I’m early, though: she experienced the symptoms in her early forties. Now I have to ram through as many plans as I can in the coming eight or nine years. In April I’ll be 32.
Mohamed Ashraf: I’m not as excited for this spring as I usually am. The real spring begins once the coronavirus stops spreading. Then there will be no curfew, and we can go out and enjoy the evening breeze or the morning sun. I look forward to seeing what spring will look like in the new world when all this is over.
It was March 22 and my breath was short. I had just heard snippets of President Sisi’s speech. I needed to get out so I went with my friend and flatmate to the Spring Plant and Flower Fair for the first time ever.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the coronavirus actually encouraged me to visit the fair. I dislike crowded places, especially those full of jubilant Egyptian males expressing themselves — more often than not — through different forms of violating women’s bodies. I was relieved the fair will miss the crowds that such events usually attract because of the lockdown. And, after all, it was spring, and I felt reckless and brave to defy my isolation and go out.
My senses opened up in ecstasy as I took my first steps in the historic Orman Botanical Garden where the fair is held. I suddenly remembered my trip to the shores of the Indian Ocean in Mombasa two springs ago, as if to help me get over the panic of being in a public place in the throes of a pandemic.
After a short stroll among the flashy spring colors, reminiscent of Soad Hosni’s famous 1970s song, I started feeling anxious, and not just from the risk of getting infected. There were so many options to choose from and commit to. I dreaded the moment where I had to make a final decision as to what I would buy. I didn’t just have to keep these plants alive, but, more importantly, I had to ensure they would flourish in a healthy environment.
Thinking about caring for plants has always anguished me, fueled by a history of failure to care for silent beings. At one point I decided to care for a stone and called her Zulekha. She died in an accident, shattered into a million pieces. Going to the fair stemmed from a need to challenge my failures, to teach myself how to care for beings that can’t scream, wail or destroy the house when they were hungry for food or attention.
Our small house has a large balcony. We share it with a dog, a cat and two pots full of oregano, basil, mint, rosemary and two cacti, as well as some indoor plants. We returned home from the fair with even more creatures: two trees (apricot and orange), two bougainvilleas, two climbing vines, a colored cactus, and three Israeli succulents. We also got some lavender, parsley and lemongrass.
Perhaps my desire to care for plants rather than cooking and baking — a common quarantine activity, it seems — emanates from the fantasy of being able to eat what I plant if the ‘end of the world’ turns out to be anything like the movies. I only need to cross the living room to get some mint and basil from the balcony (these days, we’re relying more and more on herbs and spices instead of sauces and cream to make meals).
But the real satisfaction of nurturing plants against the threats of the pandemic and human intervention comes from touching and communicating with them. I don’t see many friends, and despite some stolen hugs and touches against our better judgment, we’re still abiding by the rules of physical distancing, and it isn’t easy. Just like I’ve been sleeping next to my dog in recent days, calming myself by touching her hand and following her steady breath; spending time in the home garden — speaking to the trees, rearranging the plants and touching their leaves with no feelings of guilt — has also helped calm the misery of physical isolation.
I lie on the bed after an exhausting day. He comes clean to me: “The food was awful.” I am not surprised. In fact, his words are pretty convincing — it’s like I expected them.
It all started in the morning. He was playing the piano and I was reading intently. But it didn’t feel like just reading. I was absorbing the ideas, even predicting them. My mind was active again, which brought me great joy. I wondered about the possibility of writing today. And that was it, my mind started wandering. I tried to focus once again, but I kept on bouncing between the pages in front of me and listening to my son’s beautiful music. My bout of mental energy vanished along with my focus as he started yelling questions at me. I answered him, keeping my voice low, until he screamed: “I’m hungry.”
Alright, then, it’s showtime. I had to head to the kitchen; my wife was asleep, despite the noise.
I realize that I’ve lost my touch — my cooking is not what it used to be. My diet isn’t what it used to be either, and that change happened long before the pandemic took control of our world and our future: I stopped consuming dairy and meat, with the exception of fish.
Our bodies are our curse. They never fulfill our dreams and they always make us feel bad or even hate ourselves. We pretend to be health-conscious while in truth it’s all about happiness and self-approval. But how appropriate is it talking about cooking and finding peace with one’s body when the destruction of mankind and the end of the world are looming? I don’t know.
My appearance remains the same even with all my attempts to alter my diet. Like an ancient mountain, it doesn’t change. It’s still huge, weighing me down. What changed, however, is my ability to cook, which crumbled as I turned into a vegetarian and then a pescetarian — as if food decided to hide its secrets from when I stopped relishing it. My connection to the food I don’t eat has been severed. I am now a “fasting cook,” one who doesn’t taste what they’re preparing, oblivious to whether their food is good or bad.
As I stood in the kitchen, cooking lunch for my son (who turns seven tomorrow), I shuddered when I touched the chicken. Words like ‘shit’ and ‘disgusting’ kept coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t stop thinking what this chicken ever did to deserve this. I considered an easier choice: pasta béchamel — but my similar emotions towards ground beef stopped me. I continued preparing the meal, and at the end of it all, my son’s frankness grounds me: “The food was awful.”
That’s it. I give in; there’s no point in trying. From now on, in this house — where we are now confined, only going out for necessities — I will only cook what I eat; otherwise my role will be confined to cleaning the stovetop and doing the dishes. It’s hard to accept, given my long history of making tagines and mahshi. (My peak was when I used konafa instead of breadcrumbs to make fried chicken or cordon bleu)
Cleaning the stovetop is a comforting activity, though. It gives you clarity. Your mind can wander away as you perform this tedious task, and it also gives me a much-needed feeling: a sense of accomplishment — something I never get from writing, and no longer get from cooking.
Ever since we started self-isolating, we’ve had to rely more on imagination in our daily life at home. There’s no office, no school, no club or amusement park. No one’s going out. I carry him and we pretend we’re at the sea, feet wet and all.
Fish remains the food we share together. Perhaps there’s still hope. As the pandemic spreads and the curfew is imposed, I order a sushi making kit. Rice and fish are among his favorite foods. My friend Naglaa Koura guides me over the phone:
How to make sushi:
-Cook Egyptian rice without oil. Then add vinegar and sugar. Mix well.
-Place a nori sheet (seaweed) on a sushi mat made of bamboo.
-Distribute rice evenly on the sheet.
-Slice your favorite toppings vertically (cucumbers without pulp, shrimp, avocado, cooked crab sticks, cooked salmon, etc.)
-Hold the edge of the mat with one hand then roll it while pushing down the nori sheet with the other until a roll is formed.
-During the rolling process, your hands have to move in opposite directions
-Cut the roll into rings and serve with wasabi and soy sauce
A new film program from Detox.
While spring — in its different meanings and manifestations — is the string that loosely ties these five films together, they share another theme that we found even more compelling: the journey of their protagonists through life and the seasons it contains.
Some of the characters in these films reshape their lives, others reinvent themselves entirely; some search for meaning but find no wisdom, while others simply want to live; and some dream their way through the everyday.
We hope these stories keep you company in the seemingly endless days of the current quarantine.
Paolo Sorrentino, 2013
The Great Beauty captures the journey of a man who is reborn at 65.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a writer who published one successful novel 40 years ago and has not written another one since. Surrounded by a group of friends he doesn’t seem to particularly like, he leads a life of excess and extravagance in Rome.
The film starts at his 65th birthday party — in a brilliantly directed and edited sequence that bursts with movement and color — where he realizes that he is deeply discontent with his life, and for the first time touches the emptiness at the heart of his lonely existence. Jep’s newfound melancholy intensifies when he finds out his first love has died, and her husband tells him that she had, in fact, never stopped loving Jep. What would his life have been like had they stayed together and made a family?
“One thing I learned a few days after I turned 65 is that I can no longer spend time doing things I don’t really want to do,” Jep says in the film’s voice-over narration after spending the night in the bed of a woman he soon forgets. He roams the streets of his city in the late hours of the night, as though discovering it for the first time. The avenues and sidewalks and bridges — abandoned by the usual throngs of people, now asleep — eerily resemble the pictures we see today of cities in lockdown, as everyone is forced to stay home.
Jep’s journey in search of the subtle beauty hidden in the folds of a miserable world — a misery he knows well despite his privileged life — is also his journey towards writing again. Beauty exists; it comes in fleeting, sporadic, unexpected moments, but it exists, patiently waiting for those who diligently seek it, before it makes itself seen in all its full, generous glory.
Akira Kurosawa, 1990
We see a man approach the bank of a river where a group of women are washing some clothes under a bridge. It is a vibrant image, the bridge made up of brightly-colored blocks of stone. The man asks the women about Mr. Vincent Van Gogh, and they tell him where he is but warn him about the Dutch painter’s demeanor. The man crosses the bridge, followed by golden fields lined with wheat stalks, in the midst of which he finally meets the artist. The latter tells him how he cut off part of his ear when he faced some difficulties while painting a self-portrait, before setting off at a brisk pace, with the other man trying to follow. The world where both men move seems straight out of a Van Gogh painting, a cinematic manifestation of the iconic artist’s technique. Suddenly, Vincent disappears and a group of crows appear out of the blue, just like in his famous painting.
The above sequence is one of many tales included in Akira Kurosawa’s film, based on a number of dreams the Japanese filmmaker — who died in 1998 — actually experienced. Another story involves peach trees being torn down in an orchard, and the anger of the spirits that haunt them, while another depicts a war-torn world ravaged apart by the atomic bomb. It is an imaginative and highly immersive viewing experience.
Fallen Angels’ Paradise
Osama Fawzi, 1999
In this film, which is based on Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s novel The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (1988), respected family man Mounir Rasmi (Mahmoud Hemeida) abandons his home and privileged position for a life of freedom on the streets, governed by nothing but pleasure. This is the first death: the death of the prim and proper gentleman and the birth of Tabl, the rogue who dies. His second and actual death — occurs in a dingy joint with his friends, who continue with their game of backgammon next to him, unaware.
This film’s events are set in motion when Tabl’s lover, Hobba (Lebleba) decides to inform his wife and daughter of his death, even though he left them over ten years ago and a fight over the dead man ensues. His family wants to give him a fancy funeral, fit for Mounir Rasmi, while his friends decide to steal the body and bid Tabl farewell their way — with one last wild night, which takes place in the alleys of Cairo’s underworld and concludes in a captivating scene where a car without doors rushes at full-speed down a tunnel that seems to have no end.
Who has the right to determine our destiny after we die? Rather, who has the right to determine our destiny while we’re alive? Such questions might occur to the viewer as they follow this bizarre journey, but there is no place for answers or meaning here. Absurdity alone rules over the paradise of those fallen angels and the film is an invitation to submit to it, and indulge in the twists and turns that it brings.
Ki-duk Kim, 2003
In this film, the world is confined to a floating temple in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains, where a Buddhist monk and a child reside.
The one thing that separates the small wooden structure in which the film takes place from the rest of the world is a freestanding door. Here, the nameless protagonist (the child, who we watch grow up) is a stand-in for Man in the larger philosophical sense. The dialogue is sparse and condensed, filled with grand statements like this one: “Possessiveness, as a desire, will soon awaken another desire: murder.”
We are taken through the multiple stages of the main character’s life, each of which is represented as a season. We watch him as a little boy, then a teenager, then a mature man in his prime, then, finally, an old man.
The film’s meditative nature makes it a great choice for the long hours we’re spending at home nowadays.
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick, 2011
An almost documentary-like, historical quest for the secret of existence and the origin of the universe that starts as a regular family drama about a young boy, Jack, who lives with his family in the US state of Texas in the mid-1950s.
The family suffers a huge blow with the death of Jack’s brother, and when Jack grows up (he is played by Sean Penn as an adult), he realizes he has problems not only with the notion of fatherhood but with both modes of parenting employed by his parents (played by Brad Pitt and Julia Chastain).
The film presents two underlying rationales to understanding life: nature, where one is not preoccupied with happiness but rather with survival; and grace, where one finds joy and satisfaction in what they are given.
Jack concludes — or so we understand — that he has no soul, and in the drama created by the friction between those two perceptions of the world, he begins to seek the meaning of life in a long and strange journey of epic proportions.
It’s the first weekend of April, which means it’s time for Ahmed al-Sabbagh’s monthly playlist, where he curates a selection of recently released tracks for your listening pleasure. This time our Tafneeta is almost three hours long, and we need not remind you: listen in any order you wish — shuffle away!
The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture has launched a virtual program titled “Screens and Streams,” where it will be making available a number of films it has funded and music tracks from albums it has supported. You can listen to this week’s playlist here. Meanwhile, the film line-up includes Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s And on a Different Note (2015), Rania Stefan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011), Salma El Tarzi’s Underground/On the Surface (2013), Chadi Aoun’s Silence (2016) and Ahmed Nour’s Waves (2012). We wish you a happy listening/viewing experience.
Until next week, dear readers — stay safe, sane and sanitized.