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From Anthills to Asmara
By Charles Cantalupo
Michigan State University Press
Copyright © 2012 Charles Cantalupo
All right reserved.
Chapter One From the Other Direction
I looked down at my feet in the sandy dirt on a site of ancient Jericho. Ants tunneled where twenty cities had risen and fallen. I couldn't look up, blinded by the pallor of the Dead Sea to the east and the cliffs and caverns of Qumrum to the south where, according to one account, a Bedouin shepherd searching for his stray goat forty years before had found the Dead Sea Scrolls. To the east, a rickety administration building flying an Israeli flag in tatters between the water and where I stood and, to the north, a seemingly endless, abandoned Palestinian refugee camp also forced my eyes to look down at the ants digging around my feet. I could not connect with anything I was seeing or feeling. I felt as if I didn't exist except as an illusion.
Before this, I had been in Jerusalem as a kind of religious pilgrim in search of consolation. To a great extent, although I would not have said so at the time, I thought I could get over my wife's death from breast cancer two years before in the United States if I saw how—not if—the Holy Land could be real: not a Holy Land of violent newspaper headlines or fundamentalist faiths, but of a Bible rich with rhetoric and ambiguity and looking like a renaissance Italian painting—a Holy Land of beauty.
I was drunk on death and had had enough. it made me religious, going back to being a roman catholic, attending predawn daily Latin mass and singing from the oversized illuminated Psalters in a Cistercian monastery a block from where I lived, studying Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs and St. Augustine on the Psalms instead of reading Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as a professor of literature at that time was supposed to.
I had traveled to Israel to follow a dream I had one night of my dead wife's being back with me in bed and alive. The dream ended when I reached for her and awoke. it made me think that I could understand her death and how to go on with my life if I became or at least wrote from the perspective of a kind of Orpheus, seeing her as a Eurydice. Trying to hold my dead wife in a dream resembled his leading her out of hell and, turning around to see her, making her disappear.
As I walked through Jerusalem, my willing suspension of disbelief, my poetic faith, became indistinguishable from my religious faith—"the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," as Hebrews 11.1 defined it—that seemed to be growing everywhere like wild rosemary lining the paths. Why not conflate the voices of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and St. Paul? The ancient olive trees of Gethsemane bloomed as golden as the Dome of the rock. What Middle East war? Bright limestone walls enclosed cisterns of dark waters and whispered healing. I watched a prophet finding her way amid the sheep shearing and goats grazing along the sides of the Valley of Judgment. The bread on the slab of the claustrophobic tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where I huddled at midnight with six others, readily became His body. Outside, a flood of voices, dead and alive, requiring no distinctions between "I am" and "Let there be," flowed down Mount Zion and out of the city of David. feeling that I witnessed the "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation," Coleridge's definition of the primary imagination repeating like a mantra in my head, whenever I looked up, a swallow showed how to live. She could find a nest for herself and her young nearly anywhere and make it an altar. Whatever the direction, she flew exactly among a multitude of swallows—all looking the same but none seeming to follow another or in each other's way. They flew like the prayers of the faithful at war with each other below—Muslims, Jews, Christians, and all their variations—only made perfect and at peace with one another in the sky.
Before Jericho, I had also been to other places in Israel. I reached into a hole in the floor in the church of the nativity in Bethlehem to touch the ground supposed to have been soaked by the blood of Mary giving birth to Jesus. I listened to how the cave in Hebron that contained the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah echoed the footsteps of Jews and Muslims, which sounded the same. They shared the surrounding building but worshipped at different times, when it became either a mosque or a temple. I relaxed buying donuts in a Palestinian bakery in Ramallah and sharing French fries with the armed and bandoleered Israeli guards at the tomb of Joseph. I read the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3–5 engraved on the wall of a chapel built on the spot of the Sermon on the Mount, surrounded by the green hills of Galilee bathing in the sunlight of the sea that I heard rattling the pebbles on the shore below:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
I could hear the angel Gabriel's Ave, gratia plena, Dominus tecum yet see the words as they appeared on Simone Martini's The Annunciation: the long, thin bar of raised gold letters extending from his pursed lips to her pinched and hooded face shrinking in fear while she gathered her dark robe to her throat. I heard the words again but thundering ominously in the Golan Heights looming over my shoulder as I crouched beside a charcoal fire and ate fish netted the night before in a part of the Sea of Galilee where fishermen often saw their departed loved ones walking. I dreamed of collecting the bones of my own lost love and, as they stung my hands and made them bleed, taking an entire day to place them in an ossuary twelve months after she died. I greeted the eastern star as if it had not been born countless times before. I witnessed the making of the first frescoes and icons of the Christian pantheon on the lower slopes of Mount Sinai. Echoes of any injunction against graven images only sweetened the dawn and strengthened the herbs on the summit as it seemed to burst into honey, and I gulped the cold air.
Yet other images in the Sinai became more troubling. The huge jagged rocks made me nauseous. Could one rubber hose running impossibly for miles and miles along a road a few degrees away from catching fire be the only source of water? Did I really have to wait to hear a voice on the bus radio from Mecca announcing the sunset before I could eat? A moment later, could I refuse to tear a chunk off the greasy chicken passed around the bus for everyone to share? I chewed more sand than flour in the pita. The land looked like a huge accident: a head-on collision of all the gods—of the Torah, the Koran, the old and the new Testament, the Zarathustrans, the pre-Christian Axumites, Byzantium and more—who had emerged from the red Sea. I felt them following me back to Israel into a room piled high with only the eyeglasses of executed Jews and another room piled high only with their shoes in the Holocaust museum in Tel Aviv, Yad Vashem.
I went to Israel for consolation. My grief felt cured. Why become a troubled pilgrim? I decided to leave Israel and take a flight to Egypt. Orpheus or not, I wanted to see the pyramids, the Sphinx, and other exotic sights and stay in a luxury hotel built on an island in the Nile to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal. Let the serious part of the trip be over.
Fifteen years before, during my first year of college, nearly all of my preconceptions and values had been undermined by the Vietnam War and the protest movement against it: soldiers roaming the quads and firing on students, campus buildings on fire, universities shut down, hallucinogens and the answers to all problems in Eastern religions and mysticism.
Then I read Dante's Divine Comedy. Enthralled by the terza rima, his vision, and all that it resisted and affirmed, I decided that I had to devote myself to knowing and accounting for my own, Western culture before seeking out or learning any other. Like most first-year students at my university, I really only knew a slice of the contemporary American culture of my origins: white, middle class, and suburban. But reading Dante made me want to know more. In the early modern literature in England and painting from the same period in Italy, the Ring of Kerry, the monasteries of Mt. Athos, the ruins of classical Greece, Ukraine if I could get there, modern American poetry, London, Paris, and most of all in Rome I would find who I was. I decided that the Africa of black nationalists—like the poet, Amiri Baraka, in my hometown of Newark, new Jersey—the Asia of the Beat poets, Native American ideals of environmentalism or even American literature before 1900—around when my grandparents on both sides immigrated to the United States—had nothing to do with me.
But what I read and wrote in the next fifteen years didn't prepare me for Cairo, Al-Qahirah, "The Victor." fifteen million people and no traffic lights? The morning after my arrival, trying to ignore contemporary Cairo as I had also tried to disregard contemporary Jerusalem, I walked from my hotel to the national museum. As I entered I felt that I could have been on Mars: floor after floor packed with what I didn't know, never learned, and didn't understand; glittering gold, black, and uncanny angles, minutely detailed drawings and symbols painted into an infinite perspective. Less than a week after I had seen the ants digging in the dust of Jericho, again I felt totally disconnected and ephemeral compared with what I saw. I entered a maze of images and messages, almost as if I had followed the ants into their tunnels and chambers below Jericho. At the entrance, I felt disoriented, but I left feeling overwhelmed with desire and starved. in between, I lost who I was.
Something beyond measure confronted me in the dust of Jericho and now in Cairo. I could only express it by trying to describe the art I saw as another kind of holy land: of the Nile not the Jordan; lotus and papyrus, elaborate illustrations for the dead, fertility in red mud, black soil, yellow mountains, little rain, deserts and green irrigated fields. Had I been starving in Israel like a son of the biblical Jacob? I fled to Egypt. its ancient gods welcomed me to eat. They cried out to me in the museum and crowded the streets. Seshat gave me her ink, a mixture of night and stars. Thoth provided his durable, precise, and ageless style. I rose above the city on the long wings of Nephthys. The falcon, Horus, picked the old world out of my eyes. requiring no authority or sacred power, Isis bathed me in her milk. She led me to Osiris, who said he thought I had died. When Ptah said he put me back together after I had fallen apart, Anubis laughed.
I can't remember walking from the museum to Qarafa, Cairo's "city of the Dead." As a child on his bicycle touched my arm, I looked through the gate of a garbage dump. I wanted to hide but couldn't decide between Misr Al-Qadima and its Coptic compounds dark with the earliest ideas of Christ or the thousands of mosques, enfolded in marble and palms and pointed with minarets to tell Allah exactly where they were. Whose voice was that? "I am the sand. I am the sand." Was it mine? "I am the sand of Egypt. Everything comes to me and falls." The same words lined the walls, pulsing in the veins of basalt and red granite where I slid my hands descending a passage into a pyramid's inner chamber at midnight a few days later. Was this the wisdom of the desert? The secret of the Sphinx? raw fear in the shadow of a crow's wing on the limestone cliffs at noon? Did Amen Ra rise out of the Sinai, fade into the soft gray Nile, and weave between the tombs of Memphis and Thebes and their massive columns a rainbow from underground? Did it reach a disembodied finger two hundred miles east to write on two porphyry tablets handed to Moses, which he destroyed, only to write once more what would eventually become lost in the wisdom of Sheba?
I felt a flush and vertigo in the dust of Jericho, the piles of shoes and eyeglasses at Yad Vashem, the Sinai landscape, cairo's national museum, the streets of Cairo's City of the Dead, the bright hieroglyphics—in thousands of sarcophagi and on wall after wall of the underground tombs, deeper and deeper in Luxor—and in the everyday Egyptian eyes I was afraid to meet. Whatever Western knowledge and religion I had, they couldn't explain what I experienced now. My pilgrimage to witness the beauties of the Holy Land took an unexpected, disturbing turn. It gave me a sick feeling of having made a big mistake somewhere—of having missed something. I didn't realize it then, but my decision fifteen years before to focus primarily on my European cultural origins was coming apart. The bottom—quite literally, considering their geographical relation to Israel and Egypt—was falling out. Most of all, I didn't understand I was in Africa.
Two years later I wanted to go back. in the interim, the Latin rites of the Cistercians and the beauties of nature in the deep forests surrounding my house in Pennsylvania helped me to put in perspective the gaping shadows of the Sinai and my feeling like the easy prey of an ancient Egyptian pantheon—at least enough to write a long poem called "Orpheus the Pilgrim." Published the year before in a literary journal that focused on mystical experience, the poem didn't include seeing the ants in the dust of Jericho—that I decided to omit—or the relics of the Holocaust, which seemed too political. Now I wanted to travel to Senegal, Gambia, and Togo to see and write about how roman Catholic theology, rituals, and iconography adapted to African cultures. Thinking that catholic saints and sacraments could resemble African worship of ancestors and animism, I eagerly anticipated discovering a kind of African and Catholic syncretism. Since I had a friend working in the American embassy in Kenya, I could visit there too and explore the game parks and the coast of the Indian Ocean. Combining what I thought would be the theology and spiritualism of West Africa with the natural beauty of East Africa, I wanted to write another long poem. Thinking about it brought back an experience of ten years before.
Staggering in Athens's summer sunshine after a fourteen-hour flight from new York and wanting nothing more than sleep, I found a high-ceilinged, hot, and shuttered hotel room. Street clatter and neon lights awakened me at dark from a dream in which I felt sure and full of a sense that I had reconciled something, but I could remember nothing more specific. I started to say a word I remembered from the dream—meh—but couldn't finish it. Two years later as I retold the story, the word came to me: metamorphosis.
After a few days in Greece, I couldn't understand how classical Greek art and Byzantine or Christian art originated in the same rocky soil. Each seemed epitomized by its sky: dazzling blue or gleaming gold. Did the ruined temples, columns, and caryatids—or the bright mountainous expanse of Delphi—and the orthodox icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints enclosed airlessly and deep in the churches drink the same wine? The two visions seemed so opposite.
Reading Yeats, I wanted to explore the art of Byzantium and experience what he imagined when he wrote,
O sages standing in god's holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul.
I planned a trip to Mt. Athos in the north of Greece to visit its orthodox monasteries. Staying for a day and a night in Thessalonica, a kind of staging point for the trip where I also had to obtain a license to visit Athos, I visited the municipal museum and saw a golden vase of scenes from the life of Dionysius. Like the ants in the dust of ancient Jericho ten years later, it challenged as illusory everything I thought had led me to this point.
Excerpted from JOINING AFRICA by Charles Cantalupo Copyright © 2012 by Charles Cantalupo. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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