“NO STRAIGHT LINES” Album Release April 14th

No Straight Lines Album Cover (low res) copy

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted here.  My sincere apologies!  I actually created a really detailed post a while back with great visuals and links about how many pieces of equipment broke down during the making of “No Straight Lines,” my upcoming album.  But I somehow exited WordPress without saving and you know what happened.  If you see the humor in this you are surely my kind of person.

Regardless, my “long-awaited”new singer-songwriter album NO STRAIGHT LINES is coming out April 14th and now the fun part (for me, at least) starts.  The sharing.

I’ve pasted in below some of the early publicity about the album.  If you are inspired to click on the colored hyperlink above you can hear excerpts of all songs off the album.  For each song you will also find album credits, lyrics and session notes about either the writing or recording of each particular song.  Hope you enjoy!  And if you subscribe to my Mailing List you’ll get updates, bonus tracks and other stuff over time.  Salud!

Bill Gable: A Map of Life with No Straight Lines

Straight lines. They’re a man-made conceit – highways, railroads, the quickest distance between two points. But nature likes to meander, to take a slower course. And No Straight Lines is a path that suits musician and singer-songwriter Bill Gable. His new record is inspired by those destinations never quite reached.

“Every record is a journey,” Gable remarks. “I wanted to carry the listener with me. I often thought of these lines from a poem by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa: ‘To be great, be whole; exclude/Nothing, exaggerate nothing that is you. Be whole in everything. Put all you are/into the smallest thing you do. The whole moon gleams in every pool./It rides so high.’ Through attention to detail in the storytelling and production, in my own small way I tried to do that.”

Gable began writing No Straight Lines in 2004, a year after his second disc, This Perfect Day, was released. Much of it was composed in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, in the hotel rooms where he lived, soaking in the countries, their culture and their music.

That travel resonates through the songs. The lyric of “I Threw Your Heart,” for example, burrows deep into the pained flamenco tradition, while on “I Was Born To Love You” Gable’s voice takes on the cracked patina of a flamenco singer, with cajon and footwork providing the rhythmic base.

“I read a lot of flamenco lyrics, a lot of Lorca, Pessoa and Sufi poets.” Gable recalls. “I let them seep in and this is how they came out. But in everything I tried to include influences from where the songs were composed.”

And that includes America, where the fragments of two songs came together to make “A Million Miles Away,” the easy warmth in Gable’s singing evoking ‘70s era Stevie Wonder. It’s a disc of shades and moods, pop music in the same way that Brazilian MPB is popular music – sophisticated and intelligent, with heart and depth. Its music dives into the soul, rather than gliding over the surface.

But that’s probably no surprise. Raised in the Midwest, Gable is a classically-trained pianist and cellist who played in symphony orchestras growing up before heading out to the West Coast with a literature degree in his pocket. He worked with jazz group the Yellowjackets on many albums, garnering three Grammy nominations, writing a number of compositions for them and other artists ranging from Chicago to the DeBarges.

In spite of that background on piano, the songs for No Straight Lines were all written on guitar.

“It’s more intimate,” Gable says. “It gives a more personal song.”

And the tracks of No Straight Lines are studies in emotion and life. The characters in Gable’s songs are people on the trail of certainty, but rarely finding it. “I realized I’ll be on the very verge of beginning/every second the rest of my life” he sings on the album’s title cut, a summation of the understanding that comes with age.

It’s a document of a journey that can never end, but he has some strong companions along the way. Along with Gable’s own voice, guitar, cello and Portuguese guitarra, Steve Rodby (Pat Metheny Group) and Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets, Bruce Hornsby) play bass, Larry Goldings (James Taylor, Norah Jones) contributes on piano, and Greg Ellis (Beck, Mickey Hart) adds percussion, along with several other guests, and the Eclipse Quartet delicately grace “Road Of Pain” and “End Of The Day” with strings. Not to mention a special appearance by Motown legend Leon Ware (I Want You) on background vocals.

Gable is a traveler with an open heart and open ears, and he pulls the listener along with him, conjuring up the sights and smells of Fes with the shadings of the oud or the ney flute, the crisp palmas of Granada, or the cumbus and clarinet of Istanbul.

Finding musicians to provide some of the more unusual instruments sometimes proved a challenge, even in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

“I knew I wanted flamenco footwork on some of the songs,” Gable says, “but there wasn’t anyone here who really knew it. Finally a friend called me up and said ‘There’s this guy called Manuel Gutierrez who’s just arrived from Spain. He’s the real deal.’ The minute he pulled those little wingtip dance shoes out of that bowling bag I knew he was.”

For all the care in the details of the arrangements, Gable acknowledges that No Straight Lines is very lyric-driven, like all my albums.” They’re the picture and the music provides the frame. And powerful pictures they are, too, such as “Like a snake, my heart has split its skin/somewhere far away it blew” (“Came So Close To Loving You”) or “The truth was never true enough/and you were never you enough” (“Sustenance”).

It might have taken 12 years for the words and music to finally surface, but the wait is worthwhile. It’s easy to understand why Steely Dan’s Walter Becker called Bill Gable “a great songwriter [with a] marvelous ability to incorporate exotic musical elements and seemingly disparate influences.” Not going in a straight line makes for a much richer journey.

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Cozido

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All this talk about literature is making me hungry.

The above photo is of Portuguese cozido, a typical Portuguese stew.   It can be made from a range of vegetables and meats including pig’s ear, pig’s tail, blood sausage and other various “unmentionables.”  Ahhhh…

When I went to Lisbon to write, two friends I made there, Ana Bárbara Ramalho and Pedro Simoes Dias, separately both wanted me to do the very same two things (so I did them): go to a particular Japanese tea house they loved, and eat a genuine Portuguese cozido.  In its eclectic use of unmentionables, a cozido is not all that divorced from a “feijoada,” the national dish of Brazil in which I have seen pig’s tails.  I was later surprised to learn that the Portuguese actually also have their own various versions of feijoada, some made with white beans.  Nao posso acreditar!  By the way, my Brazilian Portuguese (not that it’s all that great any more) was utterly useless in Lisbon.

It rained a lot of the time I was in Lisbon, perfect cozido weather.  I stayed in my room a lot, working on “NO STRAIGHT LINES.”  I wrote most of the lyric for a song called “Tale Of My Life” that didn’t make it on the album (but which I’ll release separately next year).  Over the process of making the record I wrote three entirely different sets of lyrics for the song that became “Road Of Pain,” one of them in my little room in the 2-star Albergaria Senhora Do Monte, situated on the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills.  Here was the view, without the rain.  The good life.

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Speaking of feijoada, the guitar part in “Road Of Pain” was very Brazilian-influenced, a holdover from my past.  I was expecting to hear lots of Brazilian and maybe some Angolan or Mozambican live music in Lisbon, one of the principle reasons I was exploring possibly relocating there during that trip.  Although Brazilian music is nowadays ubiquitous worldwide (though I spent a lovely evening listening to two guys playing bossa novas out of the Real Book in a tiny restaurant on Santorini all the way back in 1979) I either didn’t know where to look or Lisbon wasn’t a great international music town — disappointing given how musically rich Portugal’s former colonies were and are.  (And speaking of the “Real Book,” a song I wrote with Jimmy Haslip for the Yellowjackets years ago called “Sonja’s Sanfona” is included in Chuck Sher’s classic “New Real Book.”  I wrote the opening of that song in a hotel lobby in Belo Horizonte (speaking of Brazil) in 1984 waiting for Toninho Horta to pick me up to stay at his house.)

But I did hear some wonderful fado in Lisboa though, in the back streets of the Alfama and once in a jam-packed club in the Barrio Alto where the players didn’t start playing until 2:30 am!  Lisbon is most definitely a late night city.

A couple of the currrent era fadistas I quite like are Mafalda Arnauth, especially her “Encantamento” album, and Ana Moura.  (For me Amalia Rodriguez is too much an acquired taste from another era, or I’d recommend her initially as well.  Fado can be a bit like crawling through fudge for all its sentimentality, though this from someone who admittedly speaks limited Portuguese.)  Here’s one of the many beautiful songs off of “Encantamento” called “As Fontes.”

When I got back I wanted to incorporate some kinds of Portuguese influences on “No Straight Lines” beyond the mere fact of having been inspired so deeply by Fernando Pessoa (see my last post) and having spent time in Lisbon.  I early on wrote a couple of songs in a fado style for the album but never felt comfortable singing them and abandoned the idea.  I also really wanted to use Portuguese guitarra on the album, but had no ideas for players.  I called my good friend Don Cohen (who has written great introductory books on not only fado, but also tango and gypsy music), who told me to forget about trying to find anyone nearby or even in California who could play the instrument well (though I did find one guy who could do that), let alone play it outside a fado context.  I toyed with the idea of doing a long distance session with someone from Portugal but for various reasons it was too cumbersome.

So, for better or worse, I bought one and played it myself — not all that well, mind you, and surely not anything like a real fado player, but passably, I hope!  What an amazing instrument, very particular, and incredibly fun to play.

BG 6ML

On Bronzes

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Fernando Pessoa appears to be Lisbon’s largest tourist attraction.  In front of the Café Brasileira, pictured above, sits a statue of Pessoa in front of one of the most popular restaurants in the Chiado where tourists and university students flock to get their pictures taken seated next to the man whose writings they have likely never read.

In my last post I mentioned Pessoa’s amazing “The Book of Disquiet.”  It is remarkable that Pessoa only published one book (“Mensagem”) during his lifetime.  When he died he left behind a trunk filled with his unpublished and unfinished manuscripts, some of which became the basis for “The Book of Disquiet,” published 50 years after his death.  By clicking here you can access one person’s selections of pithy quotes from that book (though many of my favorites are more humorous).  I guarantee if you buy this book and can get through the first 50 pages or so (I always find it starts a bit slowly) you may find yourself richly rewarded with your own list of discoveries!

“The Book of Disquiet” was “written by” Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s “semi-heteronyms.”  Pessoa wrote under numerous heteronyms.  According to the ever-authoritative Wikipedia, “heteronyms differ from noms de plume . . . in that the latter are just false names, while the former are characters having their own supposed physiques, biographies and writing styles.”

My favorite heteronym is Alberto Caeiro, about whom Pessoa claimed “Alberto Caeiro was born in 1889 and died in 1915; he was born in Lisbon, but lived almost all his life in the country.  He had neither profession nor any sort of education.”  (From a letter to Adolfo Casais Monteiro, January 13, 1935.)  As Alvaro de Campos, another of Pessoa’s heteronyms and himself a disciple of Caeiro, once observed, “My master Caeiro wasn’t a pagan: he was paganism.  Ricardo Reis is a pagan, Antonio Mora is a pagan, I am a pagan, Fernando Pessoa himself would be a pagan if he weren’t a ball of yarn rolled up inside himself.”

I highly recommend Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s “Poems of Fernando Pessoa” (though it may no longer be in print).  Below is a short stanza from Alberto Caeiro’s “Keeper Of Sheep” (and here is someone’s more extensive compendium of selections from that work):”

When I sit down to write a poem
Or when ambling along the main roads and bypaths,
I write lines on the paper of my thoughts,
I feel the staff in my hands
And glimpse an outline of myself
On top of some low-lying hill,
Watching over my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or watching over my ideas and seeing flock,
And smiling vaguely like one who doesn’t understand what’s said
And likes to pretend he does.

During my Lisbon trip I was reading Jose Saramago’s “The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis,” a book based upon the life of one of Pessoa’s heteronyms — a fiction balanced on top of another fiction.  Bravo!  After Saramago died, Portugal declared two days of mourning and billboards like the one below appeared along the boulevards:

 ObrigadoJoseSaramago“Thank you, Jose Saramago”

What makes Portugal so proud of its writers?  Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, but were there public outpourings like that here when Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner died in 1962?

I was primarily raised in Bloomington, Illinois.  In its airport there is a seated bronze — more or less just like the one of Pessoa in Lisboa — of Adlai Stevenson, who hailed from there and was certainly a remarkable man.

IMG_0622MLTaking nothing away from Stevenson, I’d love to think there will someday be a bronze outside some cafe of David Foster Wallace, who lived and wrote in Bloomington for many years before moving to California.  Now that he is dead people make pilgrimages to his office, which, ironically, was in Stevenson Hall.  Oh well…”The World was not made for us to think about…” (Pessoa, “The Keeper of Sheep”)

PS: Here are a couple of cool links to the syllabi Wallace was using during those days: http://flavorwire.com/373519/learn-from-the-best-10-course-syllabi-by-famous-authors/view-all; http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/press/releases/2010/dfw/teaching/

Lisbon 2005

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In 2005 I traveled to Lisbon to continue writing songs for “NO STRAIGHT LINES.”  I was considering moving there at the time, where I thought I might try to set up a European legal practice representing high-end clients needing advice on U.S. intellectual property law.  I met with several of the largest Lisbon firms and explored various strategies with them, made a few friends I still keep in touch with today, and wound up doing a few Portuguese deals afterwards as result, but eventually decided against the move.  I was also hoping to meet up with Mafalda Arnauth on that trip to see if she might be interested in singing on the album, but she was out of the country on tour.

But all was not lost, of course, because I was there mostly for Fernando Pessoa.

pessoaFernando Pessoa

Tucked away in a corner of Praça do Comércio (back behind the red trolley car in the photo above), the main square of Lisbon that fronts the Tagus (i.e., Lisboa’s version of St. Marks’ Square in Venice), one can find the illustrious Restaurant Café Martinho da Arcada, Pessoa’s favorite haunt.  I of course needed to eat there at least once, though I chose not to try the juliana soup (see below), cod and fried eggs with cheese Pessoa usually ingested there.  I can’t remember what I had, but it was probably the grilled sardines or caldo verde, neither of which I could ever get enough of in Lisboa.

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I am in the process of re-reading one my favorite books of all time, Fernando Pessoa’s remarkable “The Book of Disquiet.”  Pessoa’s work has been swirling around my head ever since I first discovered him in the early 1980s.  I often read Pessoa while I was working on “No Straight Lines,” and plainly see his influence on certain lyrics on the album, especially I suppose “At The End Of The Day.”  But it has been now more than 10 years since I last read cover-to-cover this tour de force of prose.  I’m savoring it page by page.

For anyone who has never encountered the amazing work of Fernando Pessoa here is an exquisite short poem of his from 1933 found in “Poems of Fernando Pessoa” (translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown), Ecco Press, one of my very favorites:

To be great, be whole; exclude
Nothing, exaggerate nothing that is you.
Be whole in everything. Put all you are
Into the smallest thing you do.
The whole moon gleams in every pool.
It rides so high.

I owe my discovery of Pessoa to Dori Caymmi who, at a feijoada at John Pisano‘s years ago (more on that subject and John later), told me Pessoa was his favorite poet in the Portuguese language.  That led me to first read Pessoa’s poetry, and later everything of his I could ever get my hands on.  This being back in the 1980s, a fair amount of his work still wasn’t readily available in the U.S. in English translation then, including “The Book of Disquiet,” though that has changed.

It turned out that I had already by then heard a fair amount of Pessoa without knowing it.  It wasn’t until I traveled to Lisbon in 2005 that I discovered the album “Various Artists – A Música em Pessoa”

and realized I had been listening to these songs for years without knowing the lyrics came from Pessoa — songs by Jobim, Edu Lobo, Dori and his sister Nana Caymmi (my favorite female singer from Brasil, at least from the MPB era) and many others I knew so well.  Vicente Soto Sordera”s “Pessoa Flamenco” is another great offering, showing Pessoa’s influence extending into the flamenco realm.

I’ll write more about Pessoa later.  I’m far more interested in his literary output than others’ use of his work as lyrics, but it’s gratifying to see the world embracing this visionary poet and thinker.

In My House

BG Frigiliana

In my last post I was reminiscing on my time spent in Frigiliana, Spain in 2006, in the early stages of writing songs for No Straight Lines.

It is an extraordinary thing to hole up in a place like that to write songs.  You bring your instrument, your tape recorder, your notebooks, your rough ideas.  You know no one, though you always make friends.  Everything around you has a newness to it.  You arrive full of hope.  What you might possibly draw from your surroundings you can never know, and that’s why you go there.  Fes, where I spent time in 2004 writing, was a relentless beehive of people.  Frigiliana, arriving as I did during the rainy off-season, was a silent, whitewashed dream.  Ironically, in each place I got exactly what I wanted — total anonymity.

I love literature easily as much as I love music.  Many times during the writing of No Straight Lines I re-read Lorca‘s inspiring “In Search of Duende” essays and many times over his poetry.  Modern flamenco owes a lot to Lorca, having organized with Manuel de Falla the legendary 1922 Concorso de Cante Jondo in Granada, that helped flamenco begin to be appreciated for the incredibly deep art form it is.

cante_jondooriginalAn amazing recording from that event exists.  A number of years ago Sonifolk, a label in Madrid, released a CD of performances from the Concorso along with various selections from both de Falla’s and Lorca’s personal flamenco collections.  It’s quite a slice of history.  I naturally had that with me in Frigiliana as well.

Songs are miniatures.  I often think of them as akin to pottery, certainly not high art.  They’re hand-thrown objects that might at best hold a few ideas, assuming the listener wishes to store something there.  The lyrics have to fit around the outside.  Half of the time they crack in the oven.  They most likely get thrown out and only rarely passed down through generations.  If I consult the higher arts for direction now and then, it is only as someone seeks a flashlight in the dark.  I love being informed by what is out there in the world.  But I can’t fit into my own pants from ten years ago, let alone a larger figure’s shoes.

Stumbling down the hill to Frigiliana’s central café every morning, I blew through two café con leches at the bar thumbing through yesterday’s emails on my Blackberry while the the chief of police nursed a breakfast sherry next to me.  Afterwards I trudged back up the many steps to my rented house, where I spent the day hard at work writing, as the shape of the album began to finally take seed in my mind.

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Songs like “I Threw Your Heart” and “Came So Close” off of No Straight Lines became highly influenced by flamenco lyrics.  For a really nice, concise collection, check out “Gypsy Cante,” selected and translated by Will Kirkland.  In the meantime, below is an Andalusian poem in a similar vein, one of my very favorites.  As the writer (and lawyer) José Monleón once aptly remarked, “Flamenco is a tragedy in the first person.”

In my house
I am keeping a garden,
so I can sell flowers
for you if hard times come.

I went out to the fields to cry
like a mad man screaming,
and even the wind kept telling
me that you loved someone else.

From your neck hangs a cross
Set in gold and ivory.
Let me die on it
And crucify myself there,
On that cross that hangs from your neck.

I have bought three knives
For you to end my life,
So that I will not have to
Suffer the pain
Of hating you.

 

Frigiliana

 

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In my last post I was writing about Al-Andalus music.  “Al-Andalus” refers to the lengthy period from roughly 711 through 1492 during which major parts of Spain were under Moorish (i.e., Muslim) rule.  If you enjoyed the music I linked to there then why not throw this on some Saturday while you’re cleaning house…a Spotify playlist that purportedly contains a full 26 hours of Al-Andalus influenced music (assuming you’re willing to use Spotify, which I do have mixed feelings about).  https://play.spotify.com/user/prakalos/playlist/0NxQpTdmstDfIVRlJ6Qp6E

The small, whitewashed hillside Andalusian village of Frigiliana looms large in the creation of No Straight Lines. I rented a house there in early 2006 where I worked on a number of songs that wound up on the album, and where I took the photo above.  But to discuss Frigiliana I need to go way back.

Sometime around 2000 I took a trip to Spain.  After visiting old friends in Granada (I started going there in 1979), I wound my way through Murcia and Andalusia on back roads ending up in Seville in an old hotel near the Cathedral Gino Dauri had recommended to me.  It’s fitting I mention Gino, because he would later play his own role in No Straight Lines.  I met Gino really soon after moving to LA in 1980.  Probably the best-known flamenco player in LA during those years (though rejected by some purists because he was always into experimentation), he later sold me the Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar I used for most of the nylon string guitar parts on No Straight Lines.  Gino was quite a character…but if I were to go off on Gino – whose flamboyant life was cut down way too soon by cancer about 10 years ago – I’d lose the ever-important meticulous and decisive train of thought that so defines this blog.

My travel journals say I was re-reading Lorca’s plays, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Jan Morris‘ excellent “Spain” book during that trip.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I often hand-pick books to read whenever I travel that are tied in some way to the place I am in.  I so strongly recommend traveling that way, it adds immensely to any trip.

But I digress, because on the way to Seville I had discovered this amazing small whitewashed village called Frigiliana, only 5 miles inland from the Mediterranean town of Nerja, but seemingly still 500 years in the past.  I arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon. The town was utterly dead and I mean utterly. There were a few dusty ancient cars and a handful of existential donkeys spread around the main square.  It was incredibly hot.  I started walking up into the village on these winding walkways that seemed to never end.

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I finally arrived at an outdoor café perched high on the hillside already closed for the afternoon with a large unoccupied patio that looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance.  I was totally winded so I sat down to catch my breath.  Remarkably, Pat Metheny Group’s “First Circle” album was playing softly through the patio speakers.  Having recorded This Perfect Day a few years earlier with PMG bassist Steve Rodby (who also played on No Straight Lines) but also knowing both Lyle Mays and Pedro Aznar in that group, I had a really uncanny feeling sitting there — in such thoroughly familiar musical surroundings, while simultaneously in some faraway distant place and time.

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For some reason I afterwards often thought if I ever found myself with an extended period of time to write, I might want to return to Frigiliana.  So in early 2006 (through an incredibly generous 5-month leave of absence granted my employer Morrison & Foerster to allow me to travel and work on music) I holed up there for a steady month of writing.  The photo above was taken from the rooftop of the 600 year-old house I rented, looking out beyond the newer part of Frigiliana to the Mediterranean beyond.

I’ll write more about my time in Frigiliana later, but today I am making Ajo Blanco (white garlic) soup, and that’s what prompted this post — the interconnectedness of Al-Andalus music and Ajo Blanco soup.  Because it was the Moors who introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula and most likely also invented Ajo Blanco.

Whenever I had put in an especially hard morning of work in Frigiliana, I rewarded myself with lunch at La Bodeguilla, a family-run place featuring regional food.  They made a truly memorable Choto Frito (stewed kid) that I always ordered with Ajo Blanco and Migas (fried breadcrumbs with garlic) on the side.  (For a short article on Andalusian food, see http://www.marbellagoldenmile.com/andalucian-food.asp).

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Not only is Ajo Blanco incredibly good, it’s just about the easiest thing in the world to make.  If you’re interested, I’ve included my recipe below, created from trial and error.  It makes batch large enough for about 12 servings or 1 small foot bath.

3 cups blanched almonds

6 garlic clove

one 6″ x 3″ piece of day-old white bread, crust removed

1 1/4 cup Spanish olive oil

10 tablespoon sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez)

4 teaspoons salt

5 1/2 cups water

Instructions:  Cover bread with water and soak 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, pulse the almonds and garlic in a blender or processor until finely ground.  Then squeeze the excess water out of the bread and pulse it into the almond mix until it becomes a thick paste.  With the motor running add the olive oil slowly, followed by the vinegar and salt, and finally the water.  Put the soup in a tureen in the refrigerator and cool for at least a couple of hours.  This will get you started, but then taste the soup and add more water, salt or vinegar to suit your taste.  It should be tangy.

 

 

 

 

 

Egypt 1979

 

It is simply incomprehensible and surreal what is going on in Egypt right now.

“Egypt court sentences Al Jazeera journalists”

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/egypt-finds-al-jazeera-journalists-guilty-201462373539293797.html

I don’t offer any easy analysis here, merely a fond personal recollection of way better times. Egypt was the first Islamic country I ever traveled in. I was there during Ramadan in 1979.  I arrived at the Cairo airport from Athens around 1:00 a.m. I was startled to see so many people there to greet the plane at that hour in the night thrusting cards in our faces and waving their hands wildly directly outside customs. I wound up following the first hustler who spoke English and offered me a place to sleep, way down into the belly of the city, in a place called the Gresham Hotel that cost 1.85 Egyptian pounds a night. I can still recall the huge cockroaches that scuttled off the tops of the bed into every dark corner of the room the minute he turned on the light to proudly present my room. All night long car horns were blaring non-stop, just like in Athens.

The next day I began to take it all in. I saw mendicants crawling down the middle of the main street.  In the train station 500 men were down on prayer mats facing Mecca.  Cairo was utterly chaotic, draft animals and cars sharing the streets.  I heard one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, the call to prayer of the muezzin. I’d never been any place like that.  I’d read a lot about ancient Egypt before going there.  I was in no way prepared for modern Egypt.  But I never felt alarmed.  I felt welcome everywhere.

What I remember the most about Egypt is how great people there were.  Behind the Pyramids I met a guy selling hash.  He had none of the high-pressure sales pitches you quite often get in places like that, just a really nice down-to-earth Egyptian guy about my age.  I had the most incredible photo of the two of us standing in front of the Great Pyramid that I lost within a month of returning, as with so many other precious things.  That was still in the era when they allowed people to climb all the way up the narrow walkway of the Great Pyramid into the King’s Chamber.  I remember how claustrophic that walkway was, and how I was so bent over the whole time.  I know I must have been telling myself “soak all of this in” but of course you never fully can.

When I got outside the guy was still there hanging around. We walked over to the Giza village, where I took the photograph above.  All the streets were dirt then, I bet they aren’t now.  We ate excellent falafel from street vendors.  Everyone was so laid back and friendly.  Afterwards we took a wild taxi ride at breakneck speed out into the country to the small village he was from.  I bought a carpet.  With his friends it was all in sign language.  We all had tea.  I can’t remember exactly how I got back to my fleabag hotel, although he probably arranged a taxi for me.

That falafel was definitely a bad idea.  In the middle of the night I started exploding out of every bodily orifice, my fever reaching 104 degrees.  What followed was one of the most miserable weeks I’ve ever had, a violent dysentery that came back over and over again during the months that followed.

 

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Two days later I bought a 2nd class overnight train ticket from Cairo to Luxor.  I spent several days there.  I was barely able to eat anything other than entrocid, my stomach was still so sensitive.  I was travelling on $15/day so I rented a bicycle and rode it out through the desert in 120 degree heat with bottles of water strapped to the bike. I rode it to Karnak through small villages alongside the Nile, children running alongside me.

The streets in Luxor were dirt.  I stayed in a small downtown hotel for 4 days and became friends with the hotel owner, also about my age.  We kept in touch by letters for a year or so.

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It’s hard to describe the awe one feels in a place like the Valley of the Kings, or in Karnak.  And so hard to describe my feelings upon hearing in 1997 that Islamists had massacred tourists there.
  I oppose fundamentalism everywhere, in every form.

Postscript: I quite often read books related to the place I am traveling, one of the simplest pleasures in life. I was reading “Justine” on that trip for the first time, from Lawrence Durrell’s amazing “Alexandria Quartet.”  One morning before I got sick I splurged on the breakfast buffet at the Nile Hilton, which someone had told me was supposed to be fantastic. It was! I had three full plates of food. Afterwards I wandered into the gift shop and noticed a short row of perhaps 20 books for sale. Thinking I might at least maybe find something on Egyptian history, I went over to see if they had anything interesting. What a peculiar twist of fate. Throughout the late 1970s I had been looking everywhere for a copy of the complete 3-volume set of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” Previously published in the U.K., only the first volume remained in print in English.  For months (before the age of the internet no less) I had been trying to find the set through U.S. and U.K. used booksellers, without any luck.  Right there in front of my eyes, next to a stack of pyramid-shaped nicknacks, was the entire Musil set!