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Orhan Pamuk’s Objectomania

Orhan Pamuk’s objectomania.

I have long been fascinated by objects. My passion took its most extreme form during the years when I worked feverishly on a novel that would come to be called The Museum of Innocence. This was not just a novel; it also culminated in the birth of an actual museum in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul… but let me tell you how I got there.

The idea for my museum came when I happened to meet His Imperial Highness Prince Ali Vasib at a family gathering in Istanbul in 1982. The prince was Sultan Murad V’s great-grandson, and he would have been sitting on the throne had the Ottoman sultanate still existed. But this octogenarian had just received permission to return to Turkey as a tourist on a foreign passport — nearly six decades after the collapse of the Ottoman state and the foundation of the Turkish Republic forced him to leave. He had lived in Alexandria and spent his summers in Portugal, killing time with the deposed and retired kings and princes of Europe and the Middle East. He knew many secrets; for example, why the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, had separated from his first wife, Fawzia. Ali Vasib Efendi’s memoirs, published posthumously in 2004 as Memoirs of a Prince: What I Saw and Heard at Home and in Exile and edited by his son Osman Selaheddin Osmanoglu, reveal that the prince’s constant worry in life was indigence. For many years he made a living by working as a ticket-taker and eventually a director of the Antoniadis Palace and Museum in Alexandria. I had written about one of the last Ottoman princes in The Black Book; the topic was always of interest. My curiosity at the family table prompted the elderly prince to share some stories, among them King Farouk’s kleptomania. During a visit to the Antoniadis Palace and Museum, Farouk had opened a cabinet and tucked away an antique plate he’d set his sights on for his own palace back in Cairo. A few years later Farouk was forced to abdicate, leaving behind a wealth of possessions that one witness called “the world’s biggest and most expensive accumulation of junk.”

When I met Ali Vasib Efendi, he was looking for a job that would allow him to settle down in Turkey permanently after his long exile. He cared neither for the throne nor for political power; he wished only to be able to remain permanently in the country that his ancestors had ruled for more than six centuries. Someone suggested that he might find employment as a museum guide at Ihlamur Palace, where he had spent so much time as a child. The prince was very familiar with life at the palace and knew how to manage a museum; would this not be an ideal solution to his problems?

Upon this suggestion, the prince and all of us at the table began to imagine, in complete seriousness and without a trace of irony, how Ali Vasib Efendi might show visitors around the rooms where he had rested and studied as a child. He would walk away from the ticket-toting crowds, step over the line that visitors are not allowed to cross and sit once more at the desk he’d used in his youth. “Esteemed guests — this is how I used to study mathematic.” I imagined the joy of being the guide to the museum and one of its artifacts at the same time. This was the very first seed of the Museum of Innocence, both the novel and the place.

My “prince” would be an upper-class Turkish man who, separated from his beloved, spends years obsessively collecting objects that have some relationship to her, which he exhibits in a museum in a manner similar to Ali Vasib Efendi. But I wanted to write the story of this fictional man by collecting — and exhibiting — real objects and artifacts that would have been important to him.

I set out to do research. I sought out small museums in my travels, like Sir John Soane’s Museum in London or the Frederic Marès Museum in Barcelona. I walked the stalls of the overfull Çukurcuma flea market, and spent hours on eBay and its others. As I accumulated diverse objects, what I found most enthralling was the way in which objects removed from the kitchens, bedrooms, and dinner tables where they had once been utilized would come together to form a new texture, an unintentionally striking web of relationships. I realize that when arranged with love and care, objects in the museum — an odd photograph, a bottle opener, a picture of a boat, a coffee cup, a postcard — could attain a much greater significance than they had before. I had to put these strange photographs and used objects on my desk and re-imagine them as pieces belonging to the lives of real people.

Hence one of my favorite issues of Bidoun — Objects. Things in and out of context, more than the sum of their incongruous parts — a museum of experience. The dwindling days of Naguib Mahfouz, attested by his mysteriously meticulous white linen suit. The name of God, inscribed on a fish. A magical horn. A pack of cigarettes. A hole in one child’s heart, and what they filled it with.

–Orhan Pamuk

Naguib Mahfouz’s White Linen Suit

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I was in Cairo, trying desperately to interview the aging pop star Ahmed Adaweya, whose penis, depending on whom you talk to, was or was not cut off by Saudi royalty. It was a uniquely American endeavor, mocked a friend of mine — invade the region with superior firepower, help topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, and then come in on a tourist visa to find a castrated singer.

“Next thing, you’ll probably want to steal this guy’s wife,” my friend said, way too loudly, waving in the direction of a Sayeedi in the corner of the coffee shop where we sat. “You’re like Genghis, but with loafers. You can just throw dollars at them. Or Michael Jackson records.” I looked nervously over my shoulder at the Sayeedi, who was wearing a green djellaba. Thankfully, he seemed oblivious to my home-wrecker plan, his eyes glued to the flickering television set. 50 Cent had his shirt off and was bragging about his magic stick. His abs were glistening; they seemed almost extraterrestrial in their beauty. No one in the coffee shop was immune to their strange and terrifying allure.

“This is not the story of 50 Cent as object of the Sayeedi gaze,” said my friend, touching my leg just above the knee. “This is the story of what you choose to see when you come to Egypt. All you see is castration.”

“Isn’t it better than being really into Umm Kulthum’s glasses?” I asked. “Or Nasser’s Hawaiian shirts? Or Sadat’s car? Or Muhammad Naguib’s presidency? Or Souad Hosni’s white dress?” Ruby started dancing on the television. “Or Ruby’s flared nostrils?” “Her nostrils are beautiful,” said the coffee-shop owner. He finished adjusting the coals on our sheesha and blew his nose on the hem of his shirt. “I could write a ghazal about her nostrils.”

“We’re talking about Ahmed Adaweya’s penis,” announced my friend.

“Not much to talk about!” Exaggerated laughter. “Now Ruby’s nostrils — there’s an object worthy of being a subject!” He whistled lasciviously and traced the outlines of the female form as imagined by a horny monk — an infinity of rolling hills.

As he walked away, I tried to explain my idea about Adaweya. Because we spoke in Arabic, I used awkward, muddled phrases, each ending with a questioning lilt: It’s about more than the rumored castration? It’s about the history of Egyptian pop music? About the shift from classically trained poets and composers to working-class louts? About technology and the cassette tape? About the man who sold a million tapes, even though the government wouldn’t allow his songs to be played on the radio? They were too lascivious? An allegory for the swamping of Egyptian nationalism by Saudi oil money?

“It’s just so crass,” my friend said. ”You like Ahmed Adaweya because he’s crass. You like him for the same reason you like this coffee shop, because it’s crappy.” He started pointing: the rickety wooden chairs with torn woven wicker seats, the dented, aluminum-topped tables, the grains of Keda tea floating in tepid water, the blanket of sawdust on the stained tile floor, the giant gap in the coffee-shop owner’s top teeth, the subtle stench of garbage wafting in from the side alley, the spidery cracks that spanned the length of the walls, the sharp smell of butane from the gas stove, the single bulb swaying on a thin wire from the sooty ceiling…

”What’s wrong with Umm Kulthum?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with being fascinated with Mahfouz or Abd al-Haleem Hafez or Fairuz? Something that requires a mastery of Arabic music or history or the goddamn language?”

“Yeah,” said the coffee-shop owner, his jowls quivering with excitement, “and why don’t you go to a nicer coffee shop?”

“I’m leaving,” the Sayeedi suddenly announced. He twirled his magnificent mustache, picked up his mysteriously bulky jute bag, and walked out of the coffee shop.

“Where is he going?” I demanded. My friend looked embarrassed. The coffee-shop owner ignored me. Outside, the Sayeedi hailed a minibus and got in, heading off to wherever it is that Sayeedis go. Where do Sayeedis go? Upper Egypt? Ain Shams? Ezbet el'Nakhl?

But this is not the Sayeedi’s story. Nor is it the story of the Sayeedi’s mustache, which nonetheless deserves a book-length study of its own. And it is most definitely not the story of Ahmed Adaweya, who is, let’s face it, kind of crass. It is, rather, the story of Naguib Mahfouz, who turned out to be worthy of fascination after all.


It turns out that meeting a Nobel laureate is far easier than meeting a washed-up and possibly castrated pop star. The difficult part is figuring out what to wear. In preparation for my interview with Mahfouz, I turned to the best-dressed man I knew, the owner of the corner store near my apartment. He was an old man, maybe sixty-five years old, and the very picture of worn elegance. He wore a three-piece suit to work every day and had four strands of hair on his head that he combed carefully. He even wore a fez, perched to display the four strands of hair.

He was very pleased that I was to meet Naguib Mahfouz. It was extremely important for a foreigner like me to meet someone like that. “There is no one alive in Egypt today who can take you into the heads of the people like Mahfouz can.” He advised me, gravely, that I should take a notebook. “He will explain Egypt to you, so you can explain it to America.”

He paused. “Of course, you’ve already read his books.”

“Of course.” Like everyone else, I had started and almost finished The Cairo Trilogy.

“Then you know that Ustez Mahfouz can describe anything.” He looked around his store, at the artfully arranged pyramid of toilet paper, at the dark wood floor and polished glass surfaces. He was rightfully proud of his store. Though he sold the same Lux soap as every other store in Cairo, he sold it with dignity. After a moment, he pointed out the window at the coffee shop across the street, where I had been sitting with my friend.

“Ustez Mahfouz understands what happens in Egypt’s streets and its coffee shops.”

Outside, the owner of the coffee shop was arguing with the mechanic who worked in the garage next door. Their daily altercations were a neighborhood ritual. The two extremely large men would start yelling at each other about something minor, then about the color of their mothers’ vaginas. Then would come the climax of the fight: approaching within inches of each other, they pulled up their shirts and twisted their torsos violently from side to side to shake their corpulent bellies. Everyone on the street froze, mesmerized by the vast expanse of hairy flesh quivering in the hot Cairo sun.

We watched from the darkness of the store. “Naguib Mahfouz understands why those two men shake their bellies?”

“Of course. Ask him. He will explain to you why they choose to fight like that. He knows what they had for breakfast this morning, what they dreamed about last night, how many children they have…”

I interrupted. “Does Naguib Mahfouz understand what a Sayeedi thinks?”

He laughed. “He even understands the secrets of the Sayeedi’s mustache.”


I showed up to my meeting with Mahfouz wearing a new suit. The store owner had taken me to his favorite tailor, and after two hours of close deliberation, they settled on a gray wool. But something had gone wrong in the tailoring; the arms reached down to my knuckles while the pants barely made it to my ankles. It was not, in any case, an easy suit to wear in the heat of a Cairo summer. By the time I reached Ustez Mahfouz, my shirt was stuck to my back. The old men had made me buy a waistcoat (for the pocket watch I would one day buy, they said), and I could feel my sweat pooling up against the stiff fabric. To make things worse, I had worn bright white socks that day, and by the time I arrived at the Shepherd Hotel in Garden City, they were stained a dusty brown.

I met Mahfouz in the hotel bar. He wore a striking white linen suit that hung loosely over his small frame. He was lost in a high-backed leather armchair. I shook his hand gingerly — this was three years before his death, and everything about him seemed delicate. I was worried that Naguib Mahfouz would see my socks or notice the poor cut of my suit. When I sat down, I could feel the stiff neck of my new dress shirt grown damp with sweat and nervousness.

Not that there was anything to be nervous about; Mahfouz was asleep for most of the evening. I was left alone with the coterie of men who made up the ranks of his salon, a group of intellectuals who filled the void of Mahfouz’s silence with talk of their own. When they found out I was American, they roared and began to lecture me on the necessity of American intervention in the Middle East, using exotic terms like “Drudge Report” and “Fareed Zakaria.” “America must push, push, PUSH on the Middle East!!” yelled one.

From time to time, someone would shake Mahfouz awake and yell a question into his ear: “Ya, Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of Ahmed Adaweya and shaabi music?”

“I love it.”

Cheers, applause, and laughter. “Ya Salaam, Naguib-bey!!”

“Naguib-bey still loves the music of the people!”

“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the situation in Palestine?”

“My heart goes out to the Palestinian people.”

“Naguib-bey!!! So kind!!”

A journalist from Al-wafd pointed to me: “Write that down and send it to America!!” I pretended to scrawl something down in my notebook. The pool of sweat had breached the waistcoat; even my jacket was sopping. I gulped down my water. I was completely mystified by Mahfouz, who never seemed to break a sweat.

“Naguib-bey, how do you feel about your recent birthday?”

“Praise be to God, I am still alive.”

“Ahh, Naguib-bey! So modest!!”

“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the movement toward democracy in Egypt?” Silence, soft snore.

“Ahh, Naguib-bey is grumpy today.”

It took several attempts to get Mahfouz to answer the question.

Finally, he whispered, “Where is this democracy movement?”

“Ahh, Naguib-bey!! So wise! Where is the democracy movement, indeed!” “Genius!”

“Naguib-bey: still the most intelligent critic in Egypt!!”

“Write that down and send it to America!”

And with that, everyone joined in the master’s silence, content to watch Mahfouz doze peacefully. I wondered whether I should pay for my water and leave, but no one else seemed restless at all, and there was something calming about the sight of Mahfouz, he brightness of his suit set against the dusty red leather of his seat.

Mahfouz woke with a start and asked for the check. We all trailed after him as he made his way to his car, which, as I was informed several times over by a member of his entourage, was the same car he had been driving for the past two decades and, indeed, the same car beside which he was stabbed a decade before. We stood outside to watch his driver help him into the car and slowly maneuver into the traffic on the Corniche. It was late evening, and the heat was still oppressive. I wiped my forehead with the arm of my suit, which was almost comically wet. “The car still exists!” one man exclaimed. “Naguib-bey’s car is with us still!! It is a beautiful car!! Naguib Mahfouz still exists! He is with us still!! Naguib-bey is a beautiful man!!! It is a beautiful car!! Today is a beautiful day!!!”

But this is not a story about Mahfouz’s car. Nor is it a story about his entourage and their multiple ejaculations. It’s not even really about Naguib Mahfouz. Rather, it is the story of his miraculously pristine white linen suit, its elegance unperturbed by its surroundings, its whiteness unsullied by his obsequious hangers-on, let alone by me.

Sign of Allah

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Five years ago my Aunt Berkah gave birth to a miracle baby. My infant cousin’s right ear arrived crumpled into a vaguely legible spelling of “Allah” in Arabic. The doctors and nurses were overjoyed, local newspapers picked up the story, and the whole community considered the baby a blessing. Aunt Berkah named her Aya, which means “Qur'anic verse” as well as “sign of Allah.”

Now more than ever, it seems, the divine is at work in the world. The evidence is everywhere, especially on the Internet and most especially in the amazing email-forwarding chains that can keep news of the miraculous alive nearly indefinitely. These phenomena are by no means limited to Muslims. There was the baby Jesus in the snail shell that was discovered in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and subsequently put up for sale on eBay; and the “Virgin Stump” of Passaic, New Jersey, in which Mary’s visage, revealed in the grain of a newly exposed tree stump, was preserved, converted into a shrine for the devout and the curious. Christians have described the faith-quickening power of a two-inch-long Virgin composed of dark-chocolate drippings in Fountain Valley, California, and the face of Jesus himself in a twist of pasta on a billboard for Pizza Hut in Atlanta, Georgia. But Muslims have their own form of pareidolia, and, as befits a calligraphic culture with a somewhat vexed relationship to the visual, it is the text-image in which the divine manifests, the “word made flesh,” with Allah’s longhand the sought-after and perceived sign.

As it turns out, it’s fairly common for Allah to sign his creations. His mighty tag can be found in the froth of the sea and the pulp of the tomato, in the wool of the lamb and the rubber of the Nike. But one of Allah’s favorite mediums is certainly fish scale.

Allah-fish turn up with inspiring frequency in places like Jakarta, Manchester, and Dakar, on the fins and bellies of everyday fish, the words Allah or Mohammed beveled into the skin as some warped form of adaptive camouflage. For whatever reason, God signs “Allah” far more often than, say, “Al-Rahman” (Most Beneficent) or “Al-Mutakabbir” (the Tremendous) or “Al-Latif” (the Subtly Kind) or any of his ninety-six other, mostly more elaborate-looking, names.

The year 2006 was big for miracle fish. In February, an albino oscar fish, originally from Singapore, appeared in the tanks of a pet shop in Waterford, England, and quickly became a celebrity of sorts. “Allah on one side, Mohammed on the other,” as Mohammed Riaz-Shahid, from the Oasis Fast Food restaurant across the street, proclaimed. A sign from the heavens. Still, the young man who bought the fish, Naz Raja, insisted that he did it “because it was beautiful. It might be a sign, I suppose.” A miracle, the reporters pressed? “Kind of, yeah.”

Those minced words did not represent the views of the enthusiasts at the Allah-fish’s official website, where photos, testimonials, and videos were greeted with a generous outpouring of Sabhan'allah!s and Allahu Akbar!s. In June of the same year, a fisherman off the coast of Oman caught a rabbitfish signed by Allah. “I’m overjoyed at being the one to find this miracle in praise of Allah,” he told reporters. He sent the rabbitfish straight to the local taxidermist, where it would be preserved forever, Allah’s dead proof.


Just as Allah makes himself known in the skies and sea, so does Shaytan make waves in the aquatic underworld. Type “fish girl” into any search engine and you’ll find a grainy video of a girl who was turned into a fish after kicking the Qur'an. This sign is said to have originated in Dhidhdhoo, Maldives, though the origins of such viral videos are difficult to trace. In the footage, the fish-girl lies belly-up and vulnerable to the handheld camera that shakily follows the contours of her humanesque body, paying special attention to the orifices. The girl did not survive the transition, it seems. The corpse is the color of an artichoke heart, and its wispy fins look just like roasted leaves. She lies on a blanket-covered table with her rigor-mortised tail protruding over the edge. A Qur'anic cassette tape plays loudly in the background. We get a brief glimpse of a man bent over, examining the cursed girl. The video, which is variously titled “girl who Turn out to be a fish” and “Fish Girl: FULL STORY EXPALINED HERE!!!!” is like a lo-fi Islamic version of the Ray Santilli alien-autopsy video from the 1990s, right down to the bloated belly.

But the devil, it seems, is lazy, and his work is easily debunked. On further investigation, the fish-girl of Dhidhdhoo is actually just your run-of-the-mill guitarfish. In images and videos of these weird tropical fish, they flit about all slit-mouthed and crevice-eyed, and if you squint hard enough at its underside, a guitarfish could easily be mistaken for an anak durhaka (insolent child).

Luckily, since her miraculous birth, my cousin Aya’s ears have grown out. After the Allah stage, her ear unfurled into more of a classical cauliflower shape. And Aya has turned out to be quite the insolent child herself. All the early attention about her holiness seems to have spoiled her rotten. Aunt Berkah is just relieved that the ear’s divine message is gone; no more strangers begging to kiss or fondle her daughter anymore. Now that Aya is entering school, her ear is just an illegible echo, a smudge rather than a stamp or a squiggle, a sign no one would take for a wonder.

Afro-Horn

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I only saw an afro-horn once, and I hardly saw it then. It must have been the summer of 1968 because it was after Hank Dumas got killed. I didn’t know him that well to begin with, and he’d spent a good part of 1967 in St Louis, so he wasn’t around much that winter. But one night we found ourselves sitting next to each other at the filthy bar at Slug’s, listening to the Arkestra and talking about the music. In the break between sets, Hank told me he’d been doing research on esoteric instruments. I knew about some of Sun Ra’s discoveries in that sphere (the Jupiterian flute, the Solar Sound Organ), but Hank was talking about something I’d never heard of: the afro-horn. He’d written about it, he said, but dismissed his effort as “mythopoetic.” “I thought it was just a legend, a tall tale. But the thing is,” he whispered, speaking so softly that I had to lean toward him to hear, “it’s real.”

Hank claimed that the instrument was invented by the ancient Egyptians, who called it the Tun-tet. In the Book of the Dead it’s described as an “instrument to open the mouths of the gods.” Some scholars thought the Tun-tet was just an implement, a kind of crook or staff used in burial rituals, but in fact it was a horn, Hank explained, forged of an extremely rare metal found only in Africa and perhaps South America. No one knew exactly how it was made, and the tuning system remained a mystery. He added that there was supposedly a “hornbook” to accompany each afro-horn. A primer or instruction manual, a treatise on harmony? I wondered whether it would be written in hieroglyphics or in some esoteric musical notation.

Hank didn’t say much more, except to mention that he’d been trying to locate one. He’d never seen an afro-horn, he said, and there were rumored to be only three in existence: one was held in the collection of a museum in Europe and another supposedly guarded jealously by a small indigenous community on the west coast of Mexico. But the third was in New York, having recently entered the possession of the musician Roland Kirk. Or so it was said. Hank swiveled back around on his stool when the band came back out, and we didn’t speak anymore while the Arkestra played. When they finished, the musicians marched through the audience chanting a kind of recessional (the habitual conclusion to their shows), and Hank and a few others in the audience jumped up to join them. He looked back at me briefly, smiling, as he followed them out onto East Third Street, taking up their refrain: “It’s after the end of the world / Don’t you know that yet?” It was the last time I saw him.

Any fan of the music knows that Roland Kirk was a connoisseur of obscure and handmade reed instruments like the manzello (a modified King saxello, itself a modified B-flat soprano saxophone favored in the 1920s by military bands playing mazurkas and pasodobles) and the intimidating-looking stritch (a thick-set Buescher straight E-flat alto with an inverted neck). He gave them nicknames: He called the manzello his “moon zellar” — an instrument to lure the moon underground. “Stritch” suggests a kind of stick, but something more than that; a stick with an itch to stretch its tonal capacities into something broader, richer. And yet perhaps a stitch too far, as well — an instrument pushing beyond itself, leaping to something new but not entirely succeeding. Kirk was a sight to see on the streets of Manhattan: a big blind man lugging a felled forest of burnished horns behind him in a green golf cart. Onstage he’d drape a menagerie around his neck — not only tenor but also manzello and stritch, which he would play simultaneously and in harmony. These were augmented by a variety of other props: a transversal flute, a nose flute, an oven timer, various sirens and whistles, amulets and necklaces.

When Dumas died so suddenly that spring, I felt — as another young writer striving to find ways that language could approach this music — that it was somehow my responsibility to continue his research. I went up to Kirk after a show at the Vanguard, approaching him as he packed up his horns in the narrow hallway back by the bathroom. I’d met him once or twice, but I had no idea how he’d react to my inquiry. Bent over, he stopped moving when I said the word “afro-horn.” He didn’t peer up at me, of course, but instead almost listened up quizzically at me, as though he were gauging the sound of my intentions even after I’d stopped speaking. Finally, he said in a gruff voice that I’d have to come to his place. “Right now?” I asked. But he’d gone back to packing his horns. So I waited out front by the stairs leading up to Seventh Avenue.

When we left together, Kirk began talking. He made no effort to engage me in conversation, nor did he ask why I was interested. It was as though the word itself were talisman enough to bring me into a circle of familiarity.

Kirk told me that he’d been given an afro-horn by a vagabond who had been a common sight on the streets of the Village. I remembered him. He called himself Aulos and fashioned himself a sort of amateur archivist of diasporic arcana. He walked around pushing a shopping cart laden with piles of what looked like rags and useless objects. Most people walked right by him without a second glance. But every once in a while, he would stop a passerby. Never a white person. He would walk right up in a manner that couldn’t be ignored or evaded, always to offer a gift, as though he had a special delivery in the cart that he’d been waiting patiently to give to just that person. It would be a small thing, but something with some unusual aura or oblique relevance. One day on Bleecker, I saw him give a deck of cards he said had belonged to the magician Black Herman to a man who, after a brief double take, admitted he was a professional gambler. I heard that Aulos once surprised the trumpeter Lee Morgan near Cooper Square with a rusted cornet valve that he claimed had graced Buddy Bolden’s horn. Aulos came up to me only one time, back when I was trying to write about what I called the unsung heroes of Pan-Africanism, and pulled out a yellowed issue of Dusé Mohamed Ali’s newspaper African Times and Orient Review from 1913, with articles by Marcus Garvey and George Bernard Shaw. He turned away before I had a chance to thank him properly. Reading that paper opened up a whole new direction in my research.

When we reached Kirk’s apartment, he didn’t turn on the lights. I’d heard that he often went around his place in the dark and was in the habit of listening to music that way. It’s perfectly logical, when you think about it — what difference does it make to a blind man? But it was something to be sitting there in a room lit only by the moon and by street-lamps and slowly come to realize that the afro-horn he was telling me about was right there in the room with us.

Kirk spoke to me for hours about the reasons he couldn’t or wouldn’t play the afro-horn. I didn’t follow all of it. Any reed instrument is another voice, not your own, he told me. The reed itself, even before it’s in the saxophone, is an “ersatz tongue,” and if you paid enough attention you could hear its accent. Once, while in the South of France to play a festival, he’d made a pilgrimage to the cane fields outside Fréjus, where the great majority of saxophone reeds are still made. Uncut tongues hum in the wind around you like a nasal Mediterranean language you don’t know but almost understand, he said; you smell the sea, but you can’t hear it. So to put your mouth to a horn is to wrestle with another mouth, a distant way of speaking. You know what the French call the bell of an instrument? he asked. They call it a pavillon, from the Latin for “butterfly”: something takes flight when your horn talks, the sides of a tent flirting with the breeze.

“There is thunder in that bell,” Kirk said, pointing at a bundle in the moonlit corner of the room. “Hungry, always hungry.” I stared at it but didn’t dare go over. It was not in an instrument case but a kind of misshapen bag, possibly made of felt or canvas. The bag bulged with sharp and irregular protrusions. It was partially open at the top, and a bit of metal was visible. It didn’t look like a saxophone, at least not any sort I’d ever seen. It wasn’t shaped right, for one thing. It was bigger, and it wasn’t clear where you would put your mouth, and it looked like there were too many keys. It almost looked like one of those nkisi nkondi protective statues from the Congo, a kind of animalistic shape covered with dozens of nails and tacks driven into its body. As though each hand that touched it would have to find its own fingering in a treacherous thicket of thorns.

The problem with playing the horn wasn’t actually a technical one, Kirk explained. It was above all a matter of what he called the “danger of extensions.” Hank had used the same term; I thought he just meant the overtones present in any sound wave. But it meant something more. I remembered something Kirk had said a few hours earlier to the crowd at the Vanguard, explaining the effect when he played two horns at once: “It’s splitting the mind in two parts. It’s like making one part of your mind say, ‘Oo-bla-di,’ and the other part of your mind say, ‘What does he mean?’” Extensions have to do with the coexistence of frames of reference. Sound, more powerfully than any other sense, could transport you to Fréjus or to Fez. And that effect, Kirk went on, was immensely powerful; if it could bring people together around a shared but submerged register of vibration, it could also overwhelm a listener for whom a given frame was impossibly alien. This overwhelming could even be physical. Many years later I found a phrase for it in an essay Amiri Baraka wrote about Hank Dumas: black music is forceful because it makes the whole body “a field of sonic ideational penetration.”

Kirk said he’d only taken the afro-horn with him to a club once. He didn’t even take it out of the bag, but a woman sitting next to the stage became violently ill during the concert just from the sympathetic vibrations of the afro-horn as he played the stritch. Since then, he’d kept it in the bag at home, he said. He added that he wanted to give the afro-horn to Albert Ayler, the one musician who might know how to handle its power.

I don’t know whether he ever had the chance to do so. After Kirk passed in 1977, I asked musicians who were close to him if they’d heard tell of the instrument among his possessions, but I got only blank stares. A few years ago, I made a trip to Paris after finding what I thought might be a reference to another of the afro-horns in the online catalog of the Musée de l’Homme. A polite archivist, overlooking my poor French and the strangeness of my request, agreed to fetch the relevant box but came back from the stacks empty-handed. Introuvable, she shrugged, possibly lost or misplaced or stolen over the years.


In the winter of 1970, after Ayler’s body turned up in the East River, I used to go to the Congress Street Pier in Brooklyn and look out into the harbor. I suppose it was a morbid pilgrimage of sorts, to go to the place where the waters had delivered him and stand there listening out into the distance. Once, looking into the flotsam and muck beneath the dock, I saw a book floating in the water, an elementary school English textbook. Jettisoned primer, waterlogged tongue. The sky was dark, and I heard a rumbling far away, but it hadn’t started raining yet. Words came into my head, a quotation the source of which I couldn’t recall to save my life. Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.

Santé Cigarette Box

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Just a crushed red box, another and then another, an ordinary companion always in the pocket or under a pile of papers unless desire is aroused.

The box contains flat cigarettes made from a cheap brand of tobacco, harvested who knows where, cultivated and harvested by the oppressed wage earners of the world. The ritual is accomplished better with a match than a lighter, so the matchbox and the cigarettes go together. With this particular brand of Greek cigarettes, it was the color of the box and the woman in a circle at the center that really attracted my attention: the red is cadmium, with a slight orange reflection, which reminds me of sucking deep red oranges.

The cover lifts, and inside are the twenty-odd flat cigarettes. Up in the mountains of Crete a quarter-century ago, every peasant smoked this particular brand, so the taste and the smell of it lingered in the mouths of poor Greek villagers of that time, along with ouzo or homemade retsina. The blonde woman in the circle could have been Marlene Dietrich singing “The Blue Angel,” dangling her black-stockinged legs in the air, puffing a cigarette attached to her long cigarette holder. It could easily have been Renata Jordan of the Cairo-Berlin Gallery, who would assume from time to time the persona of Marlene Dietrich. Strangely enough, the heir to the tobacco company happened to be in Cairo for a while and befriended Renata, and together they would sing “The Blue Angel” in German. As time went on, they both died, but the little red box, like any other object, lingered on.

Gossip can sometimes be entertaining, and sometimes it can shed light on topics that are meant to be kept secret. The woman on the box had tinted blonde hair that is unlike but also like so many Greek blonde women. I was told she was the mother or the grandmother of the heir to the Greek tobacco company, but it was also said that this particular Greek woman was associated with Ataturk, a close friend or even his one-time mistress. It was easy to see her in the Dolmabahce Palace, in Ataturk’s bedroom, see her standing behind his white muslin curtains, singing love songs to the modern dictator, who had it in mind to throw a few thousand Greeks into the sea down by Izmir. It may even have been the whole city, as once when I strolled through Izmir I could only find the names of Greeks inscribed on walls of Greek-style architecture. Those who survived Ataturk had crossed over to the Greek islands, and as a memory of past days they had a little Greek red box with a Greek blonde woman.

My Beating Heart

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I was the cutest baby in Queens. Somehow none of the fated genes had stuck, doubtless helped by my mother’s daily prayers and the hefty dose of sesame seeds (turns the eyes blue! makes the hair blond!) that my father sprinkled on everything they ate, hoping for an Aryan miracle. Platinum-haired and green-eyed, I was not what the spawn of two black-haired Iranians should look like. I was lucky.

Sometime into my first year my luck ran out. I turned blue. There must have been trips to the hospital, to the pediatrician, a whirlwind of sterile smells and tests I can’t remember. A tiny pin-size opening between my atrium and ventricle. A hole in my heart.

There was nothing they could do, at least not yet; I was too small to have the operation. In the meantime, my father learned everything there was to know about atrial septal defect and called all over the country with his passable English to find the best doctor, all the while working three jobs and finishing his PhD in psychology.

I don’t remember a thing.


What I remember starts in the car outside Boston Children’s Hospital, when my father crashed the Cutlass Supreme into a parking lamp and my parents started fighting. My mother said we were at a hospital and there was a surprise waiting for me inside.

My three-year-old mind raced. There was a tense moment of endless waiting; then I was brought into a book-lined room that didn’t smell like the rest of the hospital, and there was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers, from TV, was standing there in front of me. It was like meeting God. My television universe had exactly two shows in it, 3-2-1 Contact and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Three if you counted Dallas, which I watched while pretending to be asleep on my mom’s lap. Later I learned that my mother had called Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh every day for a year. Finally, he relented: I’ll send a personal letter and a photo. Not good enough, she said. She won.

Mister Rogers explained why I was there. I don’t remember the words but instead the hushed calm his voice made when it mixed with the air in the room. His hands were restful and clean, and his fingers were long and white. He had perfect nails. I wanted to poke him and see if his skin was made of wax. He assured me I was going to be all better soon. Then I took him to meet my boyfriend Richard from the heart-surgery ward. We had cookies and juice on red plastic chairs. I don’t remember for sure, but I think he was wearing the loafers.

I had met Richard in the common room. He made me a paper crown and put it on my head. Then he made himself a crown, declared himself king, and said, “Now you are my wife.” (It occurs to me that this is what my boyfriend, Brian, said to me, too, six years ago, before we decided to spend the rest of our lives together. Before we were together at all.) That might have been when my dad told the staff, “We are not villagers,” and demanded a private room; I was moved that day.

I remember being wheeled into surgery and the nurses talking about the Mets game as bright lights in the ceiling flashed by. When it was over, two people dressed in white stood over me and chuckled and told me that I had asked for ice cream in the middle of surgery. They gave me a lot of ice cream after that. I was in intensive care for twenty days, and then we got out of there as quickly as possible. I never did get to say good-bye to Richard, but I knew things were over. There was talk of Disney World. I was ready to move on.

At Disney World a month later, my mom bought me a straw purse that I liked to hit the Disney characters with, especially Goofy. One morning I saw Minnie, Donald, and Pluto eating breakfast together. What kind of world was I living in, where I could have apple juice with Mister Rogers and breakfast with Pluto? Minnie’s eyelashes were six feet long and indestructible. Every time I saw her, I tried to climb up and pull them off.


A few years later, I spoke to my mom about my surgery. I asked her why we had gone to Boston and what was wrong with me now.

The doctor, Dr. Riteman, was the leading heart surgeon in the States and the only one using natural tissue to mend the heart.

You mean he used tissue to close up the hole?

Yes, he did. All the other surgeons are still using synthetics. There’s a history of the body rejecting the material, so we searched for an alternative. Dr Riteman only uses tissue from your own body.

He used my own tissue, from my heart?

Well, not exactly from your heart, but, yes, he used tissue from you. Where was it from, then?

From inside of you.

From where inside of me?

From your vagina.

Oh, I said.


I hid this disgusting information well. It was bad enough to have a scar that cut me down the middle like a dissected frog. I wore strategically chosen bathing suits, shirts that came up to my chin.

When my first real boyfriend asked me what had happened, I embraced my defect for the first time. I have a piece of my vagina on my heart, I told him.

So that’s why I love you, he said.

One time I read an interview with Fred Rogers where he talked about religion. He said that he didn’t really have a particular belief system, but that he thought that there is a heart beating at the center of the universe, and it cares about us all.


When I was sixteen, I got my belly button pierced on Newbury Street in Boston. I was visiting a friend who went to college there. We went to a clinical-looking tattoo parlor, where I filled out a form, took off my shirt, and got on a platform. The piercing technician paused, kneeling, needle in hand. He stared at my scar and then at me.

Did you have heart surgery?

Yes, I answered. What a genius, this tattooed man on his knees.

Atrial septal defect?

Yes?

At Children’s Hospital? Dr. Riteman?

I couldn’t breathe. I stared back at him.

I was your nurse, he said, grinning. Your parents are crazy! Your dad called us all villagers, and your mom kissed our hands when you left. How are they? How are you? How’s it going under there?