Partings, unions, separation and reuniting
|Home > Journal > Partings, unions, separation and reuniting. Witney, Oxon, 11th November 2002|
Ever tried warm yoghurt vodka? In this long-awaited edition of Helen’s journal, learn about her last two months working in Mongolia: the warm send-off she received from her friends and colleagues there (complete with sound clip, once we get it working!), as well as the entertainment they provided for her and her visitors during the summer. But Helen left Mongolia in late September, and it’s now almost mid-November! What’s been going on in between? Where is she now? As she describes, important events in the lives of family, friends and loved ones have kept her preoccupied. These are also why she may not have phoned or answered your email yet! Read on for more
Partings: bayartai, bayarlalaa, Mongolei!
‘Saihan yavarrai, saihan yavarrai!’ ‘May you travel beautifully!’ Horolsuren’s voice carried across the square, my cream straw and nylon sun hat perched atop her unwashed head and her corpulence bulging through her blue t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms as she sprayed the front wheels of the jeep with milk from a plastic mug and teaspoon. Young mothers giving their summer-born babies some autumn air, bent old ladies on coloured benches outside stairwells, and men with nothing much to do all watched on.
We both suppressed and wiped away stray tears and I pressed my lips together as she called, waved, and threw milk. When am I going to see her again? The driver reversed, and turned round the jeep that was carrying me, Baska, office Horolsuren (as opposed to landlady, folksinger Horolsuren), and the latest addition to the Mongolian Business Women’s Association’s Board of directors away from my home of the last six months. We drove out of my square of 30-year old grey apartment blocks in Ulaan Baatar’s 19th microdistrict towards the airport.
This was just the end of a meaningful final morning together in her flat. Horolsuren got up early to clean the kitchen; and while I continued my process of sorting through endless bits of paper and packing what had not been expensively air freighted two days previously with all but one piece of my beautiful new handmade ger furniture, she prepared a large pan of banshtei tsai for our breakfast: small mutton dumplings cooked and floating in salted weak milky tea. While it was cooking she took a small bowlful, and grabbing an old piece of cloth to cover her head she opened the doors onto the apartment’s enclosed veranda. She murmured prayers for my safe journey as she hurled tea through the outside window to the sky and in the vague direction of the airport.Horolsuren served our dumpling breakfast in the butterfly-decorated china bowls I had just given her as a parting gift from England – they are a bit small for a hearty Mongolian portion, but as we christened them with our slurps she commented that they are well-designed for drinking tea from, and will remind her and her husband Lhagva of me as they do so.
My Mongolian had not progressed far during six months, but by September Horolsuren and I had become able to hold reasonable conversations through gesture and mutual understanding. I understood from Horolsuren that morning another of her ‘pearls’ – “whenever you are exhausted, especially after you have given birth, make sure you drink banshtei tsai, and you will be fit again in no time” she urged. A few slurps later I promised to tape and post the words and basic tunes of some of the English folksongs from the book I had got her, which she is keen to learn for her repertoire: she is famous as a singer of Kazakh lovesongs, and she can’t speak that language, so why not have a few numbers in English? We talked of new recordings – incredibly, despite her widespread fame within Mongolia, Horolsuren hasn’t got even one cassette of herself singing – and they are impossible to buy. I love Horolsuren’s strong rich full voice, which bursts like a freed bird unexpectedly from her bulk. She is humble about it though, and will not admit loudly to also having the uncommon talent of throat singing – the peculiar, spine-chilling, Mongolian technique of turning one’s voicebox into a bagpipe. In her usual deferential yet enthusiastic manner, that morning Horolsuren suggested that if she were to make another recording, it would be good to do it together with Oyun-Erdene, who has such a fine voice. ‘With whom?’ ‘Gochntav’. ‘Oh, yes!’
Gochntav means 35 in Mongolian, and Horolsuren and I would use it to refer to her next door neighbour, in flat 35. When I first arrived in Ulaan Baatar I could never remember the double-barrelled Mongolian names, so it was an easy way for Horolsuren to explain to me that she was popping to see her pal for a gossip – Gochntav always knows everything that’s going on. If I still looked blank as she tried to tell me where she was off to, Horolsuren would also refer to Gochntav by a different term, ‘Enigma’, and immediately I would know whom she meant. Gochntav is another folksinger, a friend from the Mongolian concert circuit as well as her closest neighbour. But what differentiates Gochntav from all other 60-something female folk-singers living in UB apartments is the recording that she made with the European trance music group Enigma. When Horolsuren first told me of this, I immediately nodded and ahhed in recognition. Horolsuren sang a couple of stanzas from the song in question and I nodded again, uncertainly…. it did sound vaguely familiar. Horolsuren then told me the name of the original Mongolian song, but that promptly exited my brain, leaving no mark on my memory. Since that early time in my Mongolian stay I had often shyly greeted Gochntav, a petite old lady with tidy clothes, subtle make-up and dyed black hair, as I pounded into our building at the end of another wearying day and she sat on the bench outside our stairwell, watching the world go by. But I had never heard her sing.
Filled with dumplings and tea, I returned to my room to finish clearing up. Horolsuren called that she was off to see Gochntav, and was back five minutes later, with Gochntav, her daughter, and a large portable stereo. They came into my spacious room so I pulled up a chair for Gochntav, and Horolsuren perched on the edge of a padded armchair. (I think I noted in my last journal entry that during the summer, when Horolsuren, Lhagva, and their grandson went to the countryside, I had moved into one of the flat’s two large rooms, my narrow bed, chintz wallpaper, and reclining nude exchanged for a fold-out foam sofa, brand new grey, gold and silver walls in 1980’s casual chic style, and lots of space and bright daylight). Oyun-Erdene’s daughter plugged the stereo into the wall and inserted a CD. It was the Enigma recording!
Her daughter moved the CD to the right track as Gochntav sat up very straight, breathed in, and began to fill the flat, the staircase, or perhaps the whole square, with an incredible sound. Hairs rose on my neck and down my back and my eyes filled with tears, the music of Mongolia’s wide spaces and mountains pouring forth into my bedroom. I could describe it as a wail, but that may not convey the intense beauty of Oyun-Erdene’s voice - it was piercing, in contrast to Horolsuren’s dulcet richness, but as a result it penetrated yet more deeply, and in no way could it be described as thin. The Enigma song, to which Oyun-Erdene’s line was supposed to be an accompaniment, was mere background noise to this. Oyun-Erdene’s eyes shone brighter as her voice warmed, and I could see a gleam of excitement and deep pleasure in this tiny straight-backed old lady as she sang along to her own voice on CD – she has such natural control of volume and tone that it was obvious the producers had done nothing to adulterate her line as they compiled the track.
The song ended. I breathed deeply in and out, murmuring thanks, overwhelmed by her performance for me. Horolsuren pointed out Gochntav’s pronounced cheekbones and jutting nose: they are how one can tell she is a native of Huvsgul, the mountainous province around Mongolia’s beloved ‘sea’, she told me cheerfully, with a touch of pride in her friend. After a quick consultation with her mother, Gochntav’s daughter skipped the CD forward three tracks, to one of Oyun-Erdene’s pure Mongolian recordings, and she opened her mouth again to sing. A song about Mongolia’s horses, Horolsuren told me.
This time there was no disco throb, drum machine and breathy voice to support Oyun-Erdene’s line, yet her song was at least as powerful, the wild romance of a herdswoman astride her mount singing to the wind, exulting in the natural beauty of her surroundings. I don’t count myself as someone who mines the emotion of music, normally. But the combination of the generosity of Oyun-Erdene’s performance for me, her raw talent, and her diminutive physique and persona left me stunned, almost empty inside.
But soon my colleagues from work had arrived at our home, and it was time for another meal. Oyun-Erdene had become Gochntav again, and had returned, after a grateful photograph by me (which unfortunately in typical Flynn style has become ‘temporarily mislaid’ in my removals), to her flat. Baska and office Horolsuren presented me with flowers, and I regretfully passed them on to landlady Horolsuren – better for her to have them than for them to end up in the bin at Sydney Airport Customs Desk. This time we ate buuz, steamed mutton dumplings (larger than bansh), which are the Mongolian staple, and standard fare on special occasions. The new member of the Board of directors got her work subordinate and the driver of their company jeep up to enjoy the food – there was far too much of it, so soon after being filled with bansh!
Horolsuren wanted to send me off in style, and she did so. That morning at her home was altogether different to my send-off by the President of the Mongolian Business Women’s Association the previous evening, an equally remarkable occasion. Zaya drove from her goldmine 10 hours away back to UB just for the dinner, after which she returned to deepest Bulgan through the night! It was quite a meal, symbolic, ironic and very Mongolian on several levels. We dined at a place known as ‘Bayan Uul’ (rich mountain), a hangover establishment from communist Mongolia that is still owned and operated by the government, for the government. It’s the place where meetings are held and deals get done – perhaps the President of the World Bank, being a ‘close friend’ of the President of Mongolia, is familiar with it. Office Horolsuren had worked hard to get the required permission for us to eat at Bayan Uul, inviting the Board of directors and the representatives from the AYAD programme in Mongolia as Zaya had instructed her. Several of these women couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make it, but in the event our numbers were boosted by members from a couple of rural branches who happened to be in town, and some local female bureaucrat. There was still space on the table, so halfway through the meal, one member of the board called her son (who was in the usual manner driving his powerful Mongolian mother around) to come up and eat, to reduce waste.
Bayan Uul is outside Ulaan Baatar, to the south-east of the city, in the rolling hills that rise up from the river valley that were so green in May. By September, the first snow having fallen on the hills two weeks earlier, they were brown, and sections of the road were very dusty. There was a hold-up for us and the car in front, one of UB’s pervasive black Mercedes sedans, as we rounded the base of the hill that this strange rent-a-room hotel sits on – shepherds in shabby deels, on horseback, where rounding up a large herd of sheep and goats as the sun was sinking. This juxtaposing image seemed to neatly encapsulate post-communist Mongolia for me on my final evening. The contrast continued, with all my fellow diners wearing pristine western outfits; while I, the foreigner, was proudly displaying my brand new green-and-flowered satin deel, identical in style to the garb of the herdsmen. It had been brought just that day to the UB office by Zavkhan branch’s director; one of the local members there, a highly enterprising seamstress-cum-baking trainer, had made it for me. The building we were to dine in was decidedly shabby on the outside: blocky communist cement with the required socialist sculpture outside the front door. But inside, the reception was bright and shining – like a modern hotel – complete with chandeliers and marble coffee tables. We padded up a grand flight of stairs and down a corridor. Our dining room looked like a converted bedroom – in the grandest possible manner. The whole place was as silent as anything – we might have been the only people there!
I gratefully received from Zaya the certificate of recognition that Baska had had made for me, worded in Mongolian and English, and then used the inevitable speeches with vodka (sipped politely, not thrown back in abandon as they had been in June at the post-AGM party in Huvsgul – these UB women are ice queens), to tell the President and the few members of the board of directors who were there what I had been doing over the previous five months, and to advertise the strengths of the new Executive Director, Baska, whom I had been working with since she was hired just after Naadam. It was thanks to her that I had not given up in despair in my job, though I did stop short of saying that explicitly, since she was translating for me and was embarrassed enough as it was!
Pubescent waiters arrived and vanished, filling glasses with mineral water, Sprite, Coca-cola, nasty sweet vitamin-enriched pseudo-fruit juice (a Mongolian special), or French wine, as we moved from course to course. Individual salad platters (carrot, ‘Russian’, and cold meat and pickles) were replaced with wide bowls of tepid thick leek and potato soup. This was followed by a chicken extravaganza: two kinds of hot chicken, including one that was vaguely curried, with two kinds of rice, and vegetables. In my usual fashion, I ate it all – chicken is a rarity for Mongolians, normally, since the rearing of fowl for meat is only just beginning and it is all imported from China or Russia. The silent waiting boys swiftly replaced our dishes with another one – the meat course! Silly me, chicken isn’t meat! I was far from alone in thinking this additional course excessive, and most of the stylish board members did little more than toy with their mutton, dressed as it might have been as something more exotic. As the guest of honour (and never one to leave food untouched…) I attacked the latest round of miniature vegetables and the slabs of meat with as much energy as I could after all the preceding courses. The ‘cuisine’ up to this point had been quite passable - Franco-Russo-Mongolian socialist fare, with a hint of nouvelle cuisine and World Cooking – and the setting was undoubtedly striking, if a little sinister. But dessert shouted loudly that sweet after meat is not a tradition of Steppes banquetry, and probably never will be. We were graced with martini glasses of tinned mango and tangerine. The sophisticated ice queens took it in their stride, with one announcing that the best thing to liven it up would be to add some of the red wine to the syrup. So in that went!
Before she set off into the night, Zaya thanked me again for my work with the NGO she had founded 10 years ago. I thanked her back – if not so much for her contribution to my assignment, at least for the hospitality she had shown me intermittently. With Dad and Richard and Asel in Mongolia during August, we had visited Zaya’s goldmine, as she had suggested to me. The day we turned up she was not there – she was in UB, and then Darkhan, trying to track us down. But her manager came straight into stride organizing tea, a tour of the mine that Zaya is in the process of rehabilitating, and then some vodka with our dinner. Asel moved from being our guest to playing a vital role as interpreter – the manager, fortunately, spoke quite good Russian! For the next two days communication was Asel’s primary task, as even Zaya’s English is paltry.
In the middle of the following morning Zaya returned to Bugant, one of Selenge’s wealthy shabby mining towns, in the forested valley of the Yeruu River. We had spent the night in an oversized concrete ger which seemed to be Bugant’s special events location – perhaps for wedding parties? As far as we could work out, the manager’s smiling wife was something to do with the running of it, and we unanticipated dumb foreigners were well looked after. Our small party was about to set out on a day beside the river close-by, perhaps trying also to engage in the cherished Mongolian activity of berry-picking (berries being the only native type of fruit in this harsh land), when Zaya arrived. Within an hour or so we were off on an expedition with her and some others to a superior hidden location on a curve in the river, where Juge could wash his 4WD down inside and out, Dad and I could clutch uncomfortable stones, in absurd clothing, trying not to be swept away by the Yeruu’s might, and we could all feast in the warm sunshine on a picnic that included boiled meat, crisps, tomato and cucumber salad (our contribution), and apples. And tea, coffee, sweet ‘sangria’ (in a large screw-top bottle), vodka, and beer.
This was all bliss enough, but the day was improved by our being transported from this idyll to another when evening fell. This time we were high above the river, on a ledge above a steep wooded slope into the valley. We dined again, on tough kebabs skewered on sapling lances and roasted over fresh charcoal, and continued to work through some of the remaining provisions and sangria. It was time to sing. Songs from Selenge, and Zaya sang, as she always does, a song about a horse. But they were eager to hear us, too, and Dad struck up with Greensleeves. Asel, after a few refusals, quietly sang the one Kyrgyz song she had written down the words of before setting off from home, and Richard remained bashful as ever. But when Dad, Richard and I murdered ‘London’s burning’, Richard’s talent was out from under the basket, and our Mongolian hosts were begging him for more. As a bass, he claimed he ‘didn’t have anything to sing’, but then suggested one more, in parts: Once in Royal David’s City. While Dad and I faltered from our respective lines, Richard kept us together, and we all felt happier from the exercise to our lungs.
Unfortunately Richard’s resistance was only worn down at this evening picnic – there had been plenty of singing opportunity the previous week, when we had stayed for three days with Horolsuren and Lhagva at their place in Tuv aimag next door to Horolsuren’s sister Dolyamsuren and her husband Tsendkhoo (by the way, a ‘khoo’ in Mongolian is not a guttural throat clearing, but more like a saliva-ridden ‘coo’, air blown through an arch-shaped gap made by the roof of your mouth and your tongue, which is held tight and flat between the opposite sides of your upper molars). We’d picnicked with them, too, on a cloudier day, our hosts erecting a small tent in case of a downpour. Alas for them and their animals and the approaching end to summer, there was no rain. But that meant there was ample opportunity not just for us to hear Horolsuren sing to and about the natural world around us, and hear her grandson Tolga play some of his most practised violin pieces, reading music held aloft by his four year-old brother, but also for Horolsuren to dress us all (particularly me) in traditional costumes she has used for performances in times of slighter stature. Hishgee, one of two student volunteers working in my NGO’s office for the summer doing translation work, had kindly accompanied us and was helping explain things. She was a willing participant in the jovial dress-up session, but wisely removed her garb before we set out on our post-picnic wend up the nearby hilltop, emerging through the trees to look along the valley back towards the settlement Horolsuren has leased for forty years (the closest thing to private land ownership in this country of nomadic roaming), and over to the next ridge of hills beyond – but no further.
The following day we were in Tsendkhoo’s care, and he had organized for us all to spend the day with friends of his, a family of ‘tenant’ horse-herders who were at their summer pasture point not far away. Our entertainment this time involved a clamber through a rocky outcrop that overlooked the family’s sheltered winter pasture a few miles away, where they had left the roofs of their animal sheds spread with dung, ready to be burnt upon return in a few months. This excursion took place after the sheep that Tsendkhoo had procured for everyone’s lunch from another family’s ger on our way to their friends had been slaughtered, Mongol style. This method is very different to the Islamic ritual that I have now witnessed many times. Women are not supposed to watch the moment of death in Mongolia, so Asel, the most Mongolian-looking of the visitors, and the only one able to understand the explanation in Russian provided, was led away for that instant; but I stood close-by, and watched our host slit the sheep’s chest open, reach in, and grab the animal’s heart, clenching it until it stopped beating. Blood is saved, rather than discarded as by the Muslims, and in this case was poured into the stomach once that had been roughly cleaned out with water from a freestanding tank close to the gers (there were three).
During our exploration of the rocky area the hosts’ eldest unmarried children brought airag to refresh us, and introduced us to ‘cow’s eye’, an edible rockery plant, and wild rosehips. We’d also had an ample breakfast at Horolsuren’s, including the clotted cream and yoghurt I had helped Lhagva make the morning before. But there was no way we could avoid our lunch of entrails, and in fact I quite enjoyed it – but I was not the centre of attention, and having done this type of thing in Central Asia enough times, I knew that the best approach to successful consumption of suspicious innards is to swallow it all fast, as soon as it is offered, and not to look at it, think about it, or toy with it. For Asel, it was all fairly normal – she told me later that she finds Mongolian mutton really delicious, better even than that reared in the lush pastures of Kyrgyzstan. Dad and Richard were seated along the bed of honour at the back of the ger. Despite their 17 days in the Kyrgyz Republic before coming to Mongolia, still lacked the necessary knowhow, and their plates, before they knew it, were piled high with boiled bits of sheep that became ever-more unappetizing, the longer they contemplated them: lung, heart, liver, kidney, intestine, and the crowning glory: slices of blood-stuffed stomach. Asel, a Muslim by tradition, refused this last innard, but I stomached the lot - a far cry from my experience in Osh in early 2000!
The only distraction from the feast was vodka, which Richard refused. Dad and I accepted as little as we possibly could, politely, and soon the meal was over and it was Dad's chance to get into the open air, and go for a short ride on one of their short horses. Tsendkhoo stayed very close, concerned lest either Dad or the horse should get hurt. Meanwhile, an interesting process was taking place in the ‘work ger’, next to the family’s ger for sleeping and living. This ger was stacked with wool and sheepskins, and in the centre was a multi-tiered tank with a fire at the bottom – a mini distillery! The alcohol was being distilled from fermented yoghurt – during the summer months, Mongol herders have more milk than they can consume, and the country lacks the infrastructure for all but a tiny portion of it to be transported to the urban areas. No matter. Besides yoghurt and clotted cream, there are also secondary by-products in the countless varieties of aruul and other dried milk stuffs, spread to dry on trays placed on the sloping roof of the ger. But still you may have more yoghurt than you can make aruul from – and for a Mongolian, home brew therefore comes from milk. We tasted some of this ‘Mongol arikh’ as soon as it was ready, and Horolsuren, in her usual manner, donned a hat and threw some to the sky and the surrounding hills to enjoy. I found it palatable: hot, it was rather like cheesy sake. It may even be preferable to the Russian equivalent – though I didn’t drink it for long enough to be certain of this!
Our journey back to Horolsuren’s and Lhagva’s, Tsenkhoo’s and Dolyamsuren’s neighbouring homes had three stops. First, some of our hosts’ familiy accompanied us to a middle-sized pond not far away, which the Mongolians called a ‘lake’ and were all extremely nervous and respectful of (most Mongolians cannot swim). There there were more photographs in Mongolian clothes at Horolsuren’s suggestion, and the horses had a drink. Our next stop was for some shooting practice for Dad and Richard – not at marmot, the plague-carrying beaver/rat delicacy that Horolsuren had extolled to me, but at a marked target on a piece of cardboard. Tsendkhoo and his son displayed both their marksmanship and their generosity and sense of fun: I was the last to have a go, and they pretended I had hit the bullseye. Our final stop was a short distance from ‘home’ – at the spot where the two-three men that herd Horolsuren and her family’s sheep and goats stay overnight during summer. We watched the sheep and goats be herded into a pen, and Horolsuren asked me to pick a lamb – a gift for me! I picked, with Asel’s help, a brown and white perky little fellow, and later named him ‘Erdene-Amarlang’, to their bemusement! However, Horolsuren later told me she had switched my ownership to a young female, so that her offspring could be mine too. So I should have a herd of my own within a few years.
Dad, Richard and Asel were not my only visitors, however! The intrepid Anna Moore combined an astronomy conference in Hawaii and a visit to a friend in Hong Kong with 10 days in Mongolia, followed by some work with telescope engineers in Beijing and Nanjing! She visited in September, by which time my attention and time was on not just my work, in a frantic attempt to deepen the impact of my assignment now that I had the wonderful Baska to work with, but on my own imminent departure. Without even considering the issue of how to remove my newly purchased ger furniture, I was preoccupied with managing the mass of things I had unfathomably managed to accumulate in less than six months! But Anna took this well in her stride, and embarked on her own trip to Kharkhorin and other spots in the countryside, as well as playing an historic role in the ‘International A’ cricket team that was winding up its season at the national sports ground... and it was lovely for me to spend ‘down-time’ with a friend from home.
One reason why I was so busy in September at work was that I had taken an extra week off in late August, after the departure of my first batch of visitors, to attend the wedding of my dear friend Naomi. In southern England. It was an exhilarating injection of old friendship, and well worth the effort of the journey and the time. Little did I realise in Mongolia that after witnessing her and Jules’ civil marriage ceremony in Lewes with a small group of family and friends, Naomi should request that I make a speech at their main celebration the following day! And the following morning, another friend told me that I was to be one of Naomi’s bridesmaids!!! What an honour, at such short notice! Having been away all year, Naomi’s and Jules’ wedding gave me the chance to meet their smiley blue-eyed son Sacha for the first time too, a real delight. And a further side-benefit was that due to the irregularity of flights to Ulaan Baatar, I had to pass a day in transit in Bejing on my return. This gave me a chance to spend more time with Yang Ying, as well as to stock up on some Chinese language reading and study material for the future (once I have mastered Arabic, that is...)
That hot and happy couple of days in August comprised the first of four weddings for me to attend in rapid succession. Having regretfully declined an invitation to the wedding in Malaysia of my Beijing room-mate Kay a week after Naomi’s, I was happy to rush from Mongolia to England as soon as was allowable, via four days in Sydney, to get to the nuptials of Cloe, another friend from school. While Cloe’s and Mark’s wedding (which followed English tradition closely) was very different in style and tone to Naomi’s and Jules’, the radiant happiness and mutual commitment of the bride and groom was just as evident. Then, again, a week later, I spent a full weekend celebrating the union of Alex, a friend from college, and another Mark! This happy time (accented for me by the best steak I have had in England, and the fiercest horseradish!) also gave me the chance to see many friends for the first time in years, as well as to be reunited after only a few weeks with Anna Moore, for whom this wedding was the last stop of her adventure – she is now back in Sydney!
Last, but by no means least, was the wedding of my sister Sarah to Philip Stark. They had kindly taken the dates of my friends’ weddings into consideration when planning their own, which I was grateful for. And I was home sufficiently far in advance of their celebration to become a little involved in the table-placing arrangements for their guests, and more in the presentation of this information. In Flynn style there were close to 250 guests, so it was by necessity a complex task! On her wedding day I was as struck by the breadth of Sarah’s smile as many of the guests were, and as equally moved by her and Philip’s marriage ceremony. The celebration passed far too quickly, despite starting in the middle of the day! I didn’t even have time to get to the dance floor, except between courses, when I managed to fell a small child with the swinging legs of one of my extremely energetic younger cousins... but dancing for me on that day was secondary to seeing and speaking to many of our family’s friends.
Separation and reuniting
Thankfully there was a smile on my own face on the day of my sister’s wedding – but there might well not have been. Ibrahim’s hopes to start work as an English teacher in Kuwait in mid-September eventually foundered; by the time the Kuwaiti authorities turned their attention to issuing his residency papers, his passport was too close to expiration for their liking, and time was too tight for him to be able to renew the passport in Jordan (where he had passed his summer of waiting), be issued residency, and start the new school year. He eventually had no choice but to return to Syria in early October, probably to embark on his two-year military service obligation. Probably turned into absolutely at the border, where the authorities decided to take him into custody – according to them, he had evaded the first two months of training. The two weeks prior to my sister’s wedding became the most fraught of my life, my anxiety heightened by my sense of helplessness. Little comfort was it to think that even if I could speak Arabic my influence would be nil. Ibrahim’s father and brothers continued to struggle to act in his interest, as they had done for months, but they could not prevent him being escorted straight from the prison to the army enrolment, without a visit to his family.
It is hard to convey the relief that I felt the day before Sarah’s wedding, my brother John’s 28th birthday – we received a phone call from Ibrahim’s eldest brother, who told us that Ibrahim was on his way home for the evening. Although I was only able to speak to him for about fifteen minutes after he got home, this conversation erased my fears and eased my anxiety, at least for the time being! Back on home ground, Ibrahim is able to manage his circumstances as well as any recruit. Since that happy afternoon, we have spoken a couple of times when he has been back home (excelling in his training college’s running team has its benefits!), and are looking forward to ending this drawn out period of separation and limited communication. Being with him is my priority.
So I am going to Syria for three weeks, next week. Ibrahim is hoping to have two short breaks from his training in northern Syria during that time, so at last we have a small chance to speak and be together. While he is away, I will be able to spend more time with his family, becoming more familiar with their way of life (especially as it is now Ramadan) and improving my Arabic. The one thing I have been able to focus on in the last few weeks has been a modicum of Arabic study: I am armed with the cassette and text book that Mum used on the course she did at SOAS in the summer, and have progressed as far as Chapter 7! That’s a lot further than I ever got with my Mongolian tape and text book at the start of this year, and it has helped me consolidate my knowledge of the alphabet, and given me the first taste of basic sentence structure. Listening and conversation skills garnered from time with Ibrahim’s non-English speaking relatives should complement this ongoing study agreeably!
I have not forgotten that I have a book to finish, however – impossible to do so! But with everything else that has been happening (of which, believe it or not, this journal records just a sample); it has been hard to turn my attention to it properly. Completing it and finding a publisher remains a priority, but I am currently trying not to chide myself excessively at my inability to focus on this project as I would have to with a job someone was paying me to do. At Sarah’s wedding I met a man who suggested a possible publisher I wasn’t even aware of, and I am sure the horse is not yet dead. It’s just that the rider has been unable to flog it satisfactorily for the last ten months. Perhaps a sojourn in Syria is all she needs to be reacquainted with her muse and her motivation.
Richard and I are all too aware that I have made false promises regarding the ‘new look’ of our website, too! Sorry! But if you have got this far in the longest ever edition of my news then the turquoise blocks are surely not too offensive. I won’t give you a new release date with certainty (what is certain about anything, these days?) but Richard has set himself the deadline of ‘Christmas’.
Thanks for reading this far, this time. Comments about any and everything, as well as your news, sent to me by E-mail are appreciated as ever - friends and new visitors to the site alike. But beware, I am likely to have little or no access to my E-mail while in Syria!
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