Thursday, June 03, 2004

The New Conquistadores

Not having my own telephone connection at home…STILL..and not having a television set has really restricted my awareness of the world. I used to read the news online daily. Now I might connect every second or third day and I don’t have the news daily. Oddly enough the world seems to continue to evolve even as I am unaware of it. That’s reassuring, I suppose, but it would be even more reassuring if the world could find a better path here and there while I am unaware. The American insistence that it can “fix” places like Iraq and Afghanistan is mind-bogglingly naïve. Having nice boys from Ohio and Louisiana maintain order in places like these is rather like taking your Japanese made vacuum cleaner (complete with instructions in Japanese) to a Mack Truck repair station for an overhaul. The truck station probably has lots of great tools, but the staff haven’t the slightest idea how the vacuum cleaner works, nor can they read the manual. So all these nice boys from Ohio and Louisana and New York and Idaho are walking around a country where they can’t read a sign, write a note, pass the time of day with a local, ask directions, buy groceries, basically function in any normally human way, but they do carry some rather astounding weaponry and have the power of life and death. Bizarre concept. Conquest is such an awkward thing.

Monastery restorations

My neighbour works for the American Research Center in Egypt and she called me the other day to join her for a dinner party that she was giving for a group of Italian conservators who had been here for some time doing restoration on some ancient Coptic frescoes at the Monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul on the Red Sea coast and the Red Monastery in Sohag. There were four young men probably in their late 20’s and early 30’s, their leader who is in his late forties, and a Coptic monk from St. Anthony’s Monastery who was their liaison. They’d been working for some months and were leaving for Italy in the morning.

We’ve been blessed with some very reasonable weather for the past few weeks, so Janie set her tables on her balcony upstairs where the sunset blended with the brilliant blooms of the bouganvilleia that creeps up from the garden. After grilled quail, salads, and fruit we all had time to sit around to listen to the stories of the young men about their work in the monasteries. They’ve been working there for a number of years coming each year for a few months and going back to Italy where they do restoration in churches in between. For young men used to life in Rome and Naples, the adjustment to life in a monastery that has existed in a rather remote location since the third century would be a challenge. Their comments were fascinating. Each of the men spoke of the change in the way that he saw his life after living with the monks for a month or so, of a sense of peace and a centered-ness that grew gradually with time in these remote communities. With the restoration projects, the monasteries are becoming more and more used to visitors who come to see the newly restored paintings. In some cases, the pressure of the visitors has demanded some changes in routines in the monastery. At St. Anthony’s the monastery was used to being supplied with water from a spring in the mountain. The spring was sufficient to serve the needs of the monks and their fruit orchard but now they need to bring water tankers to cope with their visitors’ needs.

There is something about the desert of Egypt that makes the ascetic life of the monks understandable. I don’t know what it is. The barren mountains broken by the odd oasis, perhaps. I just know that when I’ve traveled in Sinai, the thought of dropping my mobile phone by the road and crawling into a cave to contemplate the nature of God, man and the universe seems remarkably appealing. I don’t know that I’d last with the sort of work that one must do to survive there, but in some ways the move that I’ve done from the city to the countryside is much the same kind of move. The first few weeks and months, I did a lot of moving back and forth from Maadi to the peace of the new house, but now I avoid trips to Maadi and the city. I don’t want to deal with the noise and pollution. I don’t want to buy things that I don’t really need just because they appeal to me. I’d rather stay at home and work in the peace of my own garden.