A Syrian or an Assyrian

The following poem by Derek Walcott is from his collection entitled Midsummer. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and passed away in 2017. The name of the poem is the Roman numeral LIII (not to be confused with Super Bowl LIII):

There was one Syrian, with his bicycle, in our town.
I didn’t know if he was a Syrian or an Assyrian.
When I asked him his race, about which Saroyan had written
that all that was left were seventy thousand Assyrians,
where were sixty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?
he didn’t answer, but smiled at the length of our street.
His pupils flashed like the hot spokes of a chariot,
or the silver wires of his secondhand machine.
I should have asked him about the patterns of birds
migrating in Aramaic, or the correct
pronunciation of wrinkled rivers like “Tagus.”
Assyria was far as the ancient world that was taught us,
but then, so was he, from his hot-skinned camels and tents.
I was young and direct and my tense
was the present; if I, in my ignorance,
had distorted time, it was less than some tyrant’s
indifference that altered his future.
He wore a white shirt. A black hat. His bicycle
had an iron basket in front. It moved through the mirage
of sugar-cane fields, crediting suits to the cutters.
Next, two more Syrians appeared. All three shared a store
behind which they slept. After that, there was
a sign with that name, so comical to us, of mythical
spade-bearded, anointed, and ringleted kings: ABDUL.
But to me there were still only seventy thousand
Assyrians, and all of them lived next door
in a hot dark room, muttering a language whose sound
had winged lions in it, and birds cut into a wall.

Horror Journeys

If you read Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir, you should probably start with the penultimate chapter entitled “What Bores Whom?” In it, she muses about a large group of hippies staying at her hotel in Eilath, Israel’s port on the Gulf of Aqaba. The gilded youth were mostly strung out on hash, and their conversation was mostly about how so-and-so was squashed out of his or her gourd. And then, quite suddenly, we get Martha’s thoughts about travel:

Thinking of those kids at Eilath has given me a new slant on horror journeys. They are entirely subjective. Well of course. If I had spent any time analyzing travel, instead of just moving about the world with the vigour of a Mexican jumping bean, I’d have seen that long ago. You define your own horror journey, according to your taste. My definition of what makes a journey wholly or partially horrible is boredom. Add discomfort, fatigue, strain in large amounts to get the purest-quality horror, but the kernel is boredom. I offer that as a universal test of travel, boredom, called by any other name, is why you yearn for the first available transport out.

Travels with Myself and Another gives us four journeys, all of which are quite horrorshow. But they are by no means boring, though I would have given money to have stayed at home. First there was her trip with then-husband Ernest Hemingway to China in the middle of her war with Japan. That was followed up by a boat trip in the Caribbean in 1942, at a time when Nazi U-Boats were sinking hundreds of ships there. The longest chapter is about a solo trip to Africa, starting in Cameroon, stopping in Chad and the Sudan, and finally a jaunt through East Africa in a Land Rover which she drove herself. Finally, there is a short chapter about a visit to Moscow around 1972 to visit Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam—during which she could not get a single decent meal.

Although all four of her journeys are truly horrible, the author seems to revel in her difficulties. In a way, they make her observe more clearly. And her book is a travel classic despite all the “discomfort, fatigue, strain.”

I think I will read some of her war correspondence next to see how she regards travel when she is being fired upon.