Wednesday, May 23: After we complete the last of our duties of math invigilation at the university this afternoon, Mario and I take off to my house, where we share some snacks of cheese and crackers (of course!) and an excellent bottle of 2009 Spanish Merlot (Atrium Torres).
We plan to go to the Sahab Hotel at the top of Jebel Akhdar this evening. We found out last time we went up the mountain that we could eat dinner, accompanied by our own bottle of wine, poolside at the beautiful Sahab Hotel. The brochure for the Sahab describes it as such: Sahab is a unique and tranquil luxury boutique hotel situated on the Saiq Plateau located 2,004 meters above sea level on Jebel Akhdar in the western Hajar Mountains, overlooking a canyon that contains ancient villages and famous terraced farms. Designed and built in tribute to the charm of the mountain, life style and modern way of life. (Sahab Hotel)
We don’t want to go up the mountain too early though, so we sit in my flat and enjoy our wine accompanied by cheese and crackers and slices of avocado. Our conversation drifts to what makes a person’s identity. We talk of several people at the university whose lives seem to be defined by their work, who spend every waking hour inside and outside of work marking papers, preparing lesson plans, or creating worksheets and activities for their students. Though some could find that kind of dedication admirable, Mario and I, being older, feel life should be a balance of work and a rich outside life that is totally removed from work. We often see things in a similar way and that’s why I feel we have a close friendship.
We also talk of people we know whose identities seem to be tied up with some experience from their childhood; one person we know lived in great poverty growing up and now seems to be consumed with negativity and a sense of unfairness at the disadvantages he suffered. Mario notes that in El Salvador, he also grew up in poverty, in the midst of war and violence, yet he maintains a joie de vivre and a sense of adventure.
All this talk of identity reminds me of a blog post I wrote while I lived and worked in Korea: the agony & the odyssey…in search of “silver” sand (& ruminations on identity). It was a fun post for me to write because I wrote it in 3rd person, as if I were a character in Don Quixote. At that time, I was ruminating about identity because I had just been to Turkey a month earlier and was reading The Black Book by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk about just such questions of identity.
Once this topic brings to mind my blog post, I ask Mario if I can read it to him. He’s too polite to say no, so the poor guy suffers through my long-winded post which describes my trip to the Sangju “Silver” Sand Beach in South Korea. Here are just a few paragraphs from this post, for those of you who don’t care to read the whole post.
She (meaning ME, written in 3rd person) is in the midst of The Black Book; a dense novel about a Turkish man whose detective novel-reading wife left him. The book has layers and layers of stories about Istanbul, a blending of ancient history and contemporary (1980s) life. There is a famous newspaper columnist, Celal, whose columns make up every other chapter of the book. Galip suspects his wife may have run off with this columnist, who is actually related to both him and his wife (!). Galip slowly starts to take on Celal’s identity. It’s a difficult book, but this girl, our heroine, our wanna-be Don Quixote, has just been to Turkey and fell in love with it and the book takes her back.
This book, The Black Book, fills her mind here at Sangju Beach with questions about her own identity, questions that can only be answered by stories in her own life. It gets her mind working, probing about in too many dark alleys & dusty corners. She begins to think about her physical identity. For one thing, how can she really see herself? She can never see herself, not really. She can look in a mirror, but the instant she finds herself in a mirror, she immediately puts on her best face; she corrects her slouch, she smiles to bring her hangdog face to life. So is she really the person she sees in the mirror, this 2-dimensional person with the fake smile and upright posture? Or is she the uncorrected version of herself who goes about her daily routines looking neither happy nor sad, neither here nor there? She can see herself in a camera, but once she knows she’s in front of a camera, she immediately smiles, or puts on her best face, showcases her best angle. In front of the camera, she becomes a star, someone who steps out of her own under-dazzling skin. Heaven forbid the photo turns out badly, showing her at an unflattering angle or with an ugly expression. She always deletes these pictures, which no human eye will ever see. Of course she is fooling only herself, as everyone else in her world sees her all the time in these unflattering poses.
While reading her book, which probes questions of identity quite extensively, she thinks about how difficult it is to truly be herself. Who is she anyway? Is she the person who, when she is in the company of her best friend Rosie or her crazy friend Lisa, becomes a suddenly hilarious person? She and these friends play off each other and she is brought to life as a comedian. To these people, her identity is crazy and fun. Or is she the person who, in other people’s company, becomes quiet and boring? Is she the person who in yet different people’s company, becomes defensive and irritable? How can she really even be herself when herself varies with each person she encounters? Sometimes she likes herself a lot, enjoys her own company, but other times, she hates who she is. Which one is she? The one she loves or the one she hates?
In the book, she reads about a Crown Prince who, in an effort to truly become himself, decides that too many books have filled his head with other people’s ideas. He is dismayed to realize that the thoughts in his head are really these writers’ thoughts and not his own. So he burns all of his books and goes for years without reading. These writers’ thoughts continue to permeate his being. It takes him a long time, a strong effort, to remove the thoughts from his mind. He is never really able to get rid of them. But when at times he feels he can clear his head of these thoughts, he realizes he has no thoughts of his own.
So, what is the upshot? About identity, our heroine doesn’t know the answer. She only believes that her own identity is still in flux, constantly evolving, ever-changing. It is a composite of all the books she has ever read, all the interactions she has ever had, all the people she has ever loved and hated, all the places she has ever been, all the hobbies she has ever pursued, all the aches and pains and heartbreak she has ever felt, all the happiness and sadness and anger…. as well as that blob of gray matter that is in her rather large head. Plus. Many more things known and unknown, things remembered and forgotten, things experienced and only dreamed about. Who is she? She wonders if she will ever really know.
Mario & I continue to talk about identity, agreeing that it is something constantly in flux. But we both think there is a core that is our essential me-ness. We talk about the Crown Prince in the The Black Book and when I question whether all the thoughts in my head are just composites of all the books I’ve ever read, Mario voices his opposing view. He thinks that we form our own thoughts, our own persona, and when we read we simply identify with the author. We relate to the human experience that’s expressed in the book. That’s why we love reading so much, because in reading we discover that we are not alone in the world, that there are other people who feel our own very human emotions.
Mario hates labels for people; he remembers a psychology class about deviant behavior. Every time he read about one of these psychological labels, he felt offended. Because he could have been considered any one of those deviants. I guess it’s like when I was in nursing school and thought I had symptoms of every disease I studied.
After our long conversation that of course goes in every conceivable direction, we hop in the car and drive the hour-long drive up the steep and winding paved road up Jebel Akhdar. In the Sahab Hotel, we find we are the ONLY guests at the hotel! There are no overnight or dinner guests. We have the whole place to ourselves… 🙂 We are shown to a table that sits next to the pool and overlooks the canyon and the terraced fields and villages of Jebel Akhdar. Surprisingly, the weather is fabulous. It’s breezy and maybe about 75 degrees, cool and comfortable and clear. Amazing because at the bottom of the mountain it’s probably in the mid-90s, even after dark.
We enjoy a meal of chicken and vegetables including carrots, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. We of course continue to enjoy our wine with dinner. For dessert we order an apple tart flavored with rosewater and a small dish of ice cream and strawberries to the side. All the portions are just right, not the huge portions we would get in the US or Canada.
We continue good conversation about many things. At one point I talk about how I’m thinking it would be nice to reconcile with my husband. That is, if he doesn’t have a girlfriend and if he would ever want me back. I miss having him in my life and being a partner with him. Mario wonders why at this stage in my life I am not just happy in the company of good friends. I say that I miss that special connection and physical chemistry and intimacy with someone. What I don’t mention, and this is also important, is having someone to support me through thick and thin. I have had too many friends come in and out of my life over the years to be able to count on friends always being there for me.
It’s a lovely evening, as it always is in the company of a truly good friend. We both agree that this should become a once-a-month excursion, now that we’ve discovered it… 🙂