Saturday, January 25, 2014

S. Ansky and the Russian revolution

A few years ago, when I was taking a playwriting course at the Berkeley Rep theatre, I came across Tony Kushner's adaptation of "A Dybbuk," a play by S. Ansky, translated from Yiddish by Joachim Neugroschel and collected in a volume by Theatre Communications Group with afterword by Harold Bloom and a few other Jewish folk tales and tales by Ansky. The collection traced the motif of the dybbuk--a malicious soul of the dead capable of taking possession of somebody still living--from 19th Century Eastern European Jewish folklore to Ansky's popular piece of Yiddish theatre. Shortly after I read the book, brothers Coen released A Serious Man where a dybbuk vignette prefaces the main narrative: one of the most memorable recent adaptations of the motif.

The book introduced S. Ansky himself very briefly, describing him as a Yiddish author who wrote "not only realistic but also supernatural stories, for which he drew on the mystical tales handed down in Chasidic communities." (Harold Bloom's afterword was dedicated primarily to the discussion of Kushner's adaptation of Ansky's play.)
S. Ansky

Recently, reading up on the history of the Russian revolution, I came across Ansky's name. In brief: he was born Shloyme Rappoport in Belarus, a part of the Russian Empire. Though he received a traditional Jewish education in the yeshiva, as a seventeen-year old he broke with orthodox Judaism, learned Russian, and traveled around Jewish shtetls as a teacher providing secular knowledge. He became a passionate narodnik, trying to enlighten peasants (Jewish and Russian) to their own condition of serfdom and to incite social unrest at the "grass roots," as we put it today. He worked for several years in a coal mine near Dnepropetrovsk (today, a part of Ukraine), organizing readings among the miners and trying to convert them to the socialist cause. The miners were very mixed in their ethnic and religious origins: from Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians, and other to Lutheran Germans, Volga Muslims, Jews; all who failed to make a living on the surface. They gave Shloyme Rappoport a nickname: Semyon Akimovich.

Gleb Uspensky
He then started sending stories of mining life to a prominent socialist newspaper, and one of the editors noticed his gift for storytelling and advised him to take instruction with Gleb Uspensky, a notable Russian writer of socialist leanings. Viktor Chernov, later a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary party, relates a story of how Rappoport arrived to St. Petersburg. He had no place to stay and no papers (Jews at the time had to have a special permission to be allowed in the capital). Instantly upon arrival he went to party headquarters and sat in on a meeting, and after the meeting everyone went home but Rappoport was shy to admit he had nowhere to go. He spent the night walking the streets, afraid to sit down for the fear of being picked up by the police. Towards morning, Uspensky, returning from an all night dinner party, found him roaming the streets. The older man was touched by Rappoport's story and took him under his wing. He gave him a few pointers about the literary world and helped him come up with his pseudonym--S. An-sky.

Eventually, the socialist group sent An-sky to Paris, to work as a secretary to an older narodnik, Petr Lavrov. An-sky worked for him for six years, taking dictation of Lavrov's influential philosophical and political essays. Eventually An-sky started writing essays and fiction to explain the socialist ideas in the language that would appeal to peasants--that would inspire them and turn them to political action. That was a rare talent among the revolutionaries of the time, and An-sky quickly became an important figure in the socialist movement.

After the failure of the revolution of 1905, An-sky little by little turned his attention to the Jewish cause and organized the first ethnographic expedition to Jewish shtetls, describing the effects of pogroms on the communities, and also witnessing the practices of everyday life, recording folk tales and legends, oral histories. During the revolution of 1917, An-sky was elected to the Constituent Assembly as a member of the Socialist Revolutionary party--the democratically elected legislative body that was later dissolved by the Bolsheviks (under Lenin's leadership).

A fully bilingual author, An-sky seemed equally comfortable writing in Yiddish and Russian, though he rarely translated himself and didn't like doing so. There are several origin stories of "Dybbuk": he wrote the play in 1914, and at some point showed it (the Russian version) to Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre who admired it and gave advise. The play received its premiere in 1920, after WWI and Bolshevik takeover--it was staged in Warsaw, in Yiddish by Vilna troupe--a few weeks after An-sky's death.

Leonid Pasternak's painting: S. An-sky reads "Dybbuk"

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ramayana Matters

Our last three days in Bangkok were a flurry of activity. One of the highlights was a five-hour long bicycle tour through the busy markets and Buddhist temples, navigating through alleys so narrow and congested that had we wandered there on our own, we probably wouldn't have dared to venture in. Bangkok was introduced to us a city of marketplaces: weekend markets, night markets, floating markets (the Chao Phraya river used to be Bangkok's main trading artery), Chinatown markets, wholesale markets, flower markets, etc etc. Dave writes in greater detail about our bicycle adventures on his blog.
Wholesale flower market

Though Buddhism is Thailand's official religion, Thais also believe in spirits. Every other city intersection seemed to feature a spirit house, to which people brought daily offerings of flowers and food. Certain large trees were also decorated and worshipped; later we heard that every time a new house is built, a displaced spirit needs to be pacified by construction of a new shrine outside of the house's shadow. Garlands of yellow flowers are in such high demand that an entire section of the wholesale flower market was dedicated to their assembly and sales. Need to pass a test? Have bad fortune and want good fortune? These occasions undoubtedly call for extra offerings to the spirits.
Placating the tree spirit

The Wats themselves--the Buddhist temples--were plentiful and magnificent. It was not uncommon to see terrific poverty and squalor next to the tall white-washed walls and gold-plated doors of newly renovated temples: eerily similar to the experience of walking down Market Street in San Francisco, with all the new skyscrapers going up right above the homeless. We also walked through many neighborhoods of malls and hotels and office buildings and middle-class single-family Thai and Western-style style houses with garages and backyards. The different areas flowed easily into one another, extensive networks of alleys and courtyards dissecting each city block: to get a sense of each area, we quickly learned to go off map and follow our noses. Every populated alley and large intersection seemed to feature several food carts selling barbequed meats, noodle, rice, and egg dishes; carts offering instant coffee espressos (sugar and condensed milk optional); spirit temples; 7-11s. It seemed common for families to keep chickens and turkeys in their compounds. There were also many dogs and cats roaming around, none of them lacking for food: let's just say that Thai spirits were generous and ready to share.

A window of almost every store, restaurant, or semi-official establishment (including cabs and tuk-tuks) featured King Bhumibol (also known as King Rama IX) and/or other members of the royal family. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, ranked currently 135 of 179 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom index (somewhere between Afghanistan and Russia). A perceived criticism of the royal family is a punishable offense for both locals and foreigners alike. And who would want to criticize His Majesty? He's a very photogenic presence and a natural model--as evidenced by hundreds and thousands of images of him we've glimpsed during this trip--a photographer himself, and from what I understand a talented poet. And he takes after the best: in the late 1790s his ancestor King Rama I created Thailand's greatest epic, Ramakien, by compiling and rewriting certain episodes from the Hindu Ramayana. His son Rama II adapted the work further, apparently construing a happy ending. (The very name of Thai Kings, Rama, at least in English, comes from Ramayana, but this business is very complicated--as are Thai naming customs.)

This business of Ramayana/Ramakien gave me a great deal of hope: it instantly made Thai culture feel approachable. That is, I could simply read the Ramayana (with a great deal of footnotes) and then study the Ramakien, and this would give me far greater understanding of the Thai imagery and symbolism. As it was, Dave and I soon learned to spot references to these epics. The galleries of Wat Phra Kaew (the temple attached to the Grand Palace and housing the Emerald Buddha), for example, retold stories from Ramayana. And so did many paintings at the Contemporary Art Museum, MoCA Bangkok, one of the city's newest museums.

In every country we visit, Dave and I usually try to look up the contemporary art scene. Prior to this trip, we'd heard from my brother Kostya and Dave's colleague that Bangkok boasted a vibrant community of artists: a recent feature in the New York Times made this official. Vibrant art community there might be, but not at MoCA, Bangkok. Let's just say, I made a googling mistake. And from the photographs and the TripAdvisor page the building itself looked very respectable. Dave and I braved an hour and a half-long trip by two trains and a bus to the outskirts of the city--to find ourselves nearly the only visitors roaming the five floors of exhibit space. The art... well, it was very clean and featured many contemporary takes on Ramayana/Ramakien. Temporary exhibit #1 showed off His Majesty's own photography.
Best of MoCA: Dave with Dali wax sculpture
Actually learning to take the bus in Bangkok proved useful. The very next day, Dave and I got embroiled in another adventure. I suppose, if one were attributing blame for these things, one could say that I made another googling mistake. I looked for a good walking tour, and every walking tour I was finding seemed to be at least four or five hours long. Finally, I discovered the tour that claimed to take only two and a half hours and was free to boot (I assumed the guides operated on tips--we had taken a tour like this in Sydney). The webpage gave the time and location; so I figured we'd just show up. In the worst case scenario nobody would meet us, and we'd put together our own tour: we had the map and an idea about what major Wats and palaces we still had to see.

Dave wasn't feeling well that day. He'd caught a cold a couple of days earlier and was powering through it. A tuk-tuk delivered us from our hotel to the historical center. The day was particularly hot and humid, probably the hottest day of the trip so far. The location was a large park right outside the gates of the Grand Palace. The free tour guides were nowhere to be seen, though we combed the park back and forth in several directions. Dave approached a respectable-looking Thai gentleman carrying an orange umbrella and asked him if he might be a tour guide or if he'd seen any tour guides.

The man shook his head: he was a lawyer, teaching at the nearby law school. Where were we from? he asked. Oh, California. His uncle was in California, in Southern California. What did we want to see in Bangkok? Grand Palace and all the main Wats were closed this morning because of an important Buddhist ceremony, but he could point out some temples on our map that would be open and that we had better see. We'd have to go by tuk-tuk--these temples were further away. But we could get a "governmental" tuk-tuk, with white and yellow license places, and the whole route would cost us 40 Baht (a little over a dollar). There was also a great silk store on the way that was running a special promotion. The man raised his orange umbrella, and after a short while tuk-tuk materialized. We thanked our new friend and climbed aboard.

In fifteen minutes, the driver deposited us at a small temple outside the perimeter of the old city. We weren't entirely disoriented--we had a map and a working smartphone, and we'd spent several days roaming the city at that point, and had an idea of its geography and layout. There were no other visitors at this temple. The security guard seemed very curious--how did we hear about this Wat; most tourists don't know about it, though it's a very important Wat--one of the members of the royal family had been a monk there, and the family gave the money for the temple's upkeep. The story sounded familiar--I had read about a temple like that, and so Dave and I looked closer at the Buddha towering over us. The security guard was sweet and wanted to know how long we've been married--we must've been on our honeymoon... Then, he recommended a shop where we had to go after this Wat, a shop selling gems and jewels, rubies, sapphires, with a 600% discount.
Confused at a Wat
Dave, I think, was suspecting a scam from the moment we got into the tuk-tuk, and had he not been affected by the cold, he wouldn't have let things go this far. I refused to believe that we were being scammed--so elaborately and bizarrely--for as long as I could. But then when the tuk-tuk driver insisted on taking us to that store, I had to admit that we were being taken for a ride--that that's where the expression "being taken for a ride" probably came from.

Getting out of it all was awkward. We were in the middle of nowhere. The tuk-tuk driver had called all of his friends, and there were something like eight people meeting us at the gem store (to make the place look more popular, I suppose?). The idea was that we'd go inside and buy things. The scam was apparently so popular (and effective) that it was outlined, step-by-step, in all the tourist guide books we'd read. Still it was hard to believe how many people must've been involved. On the other hand, we decided, this was probably not that different from being talked into attending a time-share presentation in Las Vegas. In both cases we didn't actually have the money on us. In Bangkok, we were down to our last few hundred Baht, and we needed them to get to the airport later that evening. So we apologized to the tuk-tuk driver--we felt bad embarrassing him in front of all of his friends--and walked away.

We visited the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha--both sites turned out to be open. (It took us that entire day to unravel all the stories that the scam artists had told us about Bangkok--and I'm still not sure about some of them: do, for example, differently colored license plates on tuk-tuks mean governmental vs. private?). Getting out of the downtown area proved nearly impossible. With so many tourists needing a ride, the cabs refused to turn on the meter--they preferred to charge a flat fee for at least twice the amount what the meter would cost. Though in the US dollars the difference amounted to that between $4 and $8, not getting cheated became a matter of principle with us that afternoon. Armed with the smartphone, we could take a bus where we needed to go for less than a $1. Except we couldn't: in the mid-afternoon, the city suffocated with traffic, and the right bus never came.

None of this spoiled our mood one bit. We were having fun. Dave had sweated out some of the congestion in his chest. We bought a coconut and visited another museum that afternoon--Jim Thompson's House. Then Dave took a nap and I explored the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, a proper contemporary art museum (also an art school and a shopping center for books and new age gifts), displaying very creative and high-tech works of art, integrating variety of media, engaging with artists around the world, and reflecting on contemporary social themes beyond the Ramayana/Ramakien.
Cutting the coconut
That night, after Dave woke up refreshed from his nap, we packed up our bags and headed out again to while away a few early morning hours till our 7 am flight. At 3 am we found ourselves at a supermarket in Patpong, shopping for Sriracha and tamarind snacks to take back to San Francisco as souvenirs. Then we took the metered taxi to the airport, and spent our last half hour before the flight at duty free shops, sampling the rice crackers these shops were promoting: all the same brand, but different flavors. (There must've been a dozen shops in a row running the same promotion--that's a scary amount of rice crackers.) We passed out the moment we got on the plane and slept all the way to our layover in Tokyo.
Round ping-pong table at Bangkok Art and Cultural Center

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy 2014!!

Our New Year's celebrations started on the evening of December 30th, when our friends Olga and Ron caught up with us in Bangkok. They had spent two weeks in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand, playing tennis with ladyboys at the resort next door to where Serena Williams was also practicing (they got a picture with her).

We share fun history with Olga and Ron. Olga is the baby sister of my classmate Lena; she'd moved to Helsinki, Finland for work about a decade ago. One summer she and her boyfriend Ron spent three weeks traveling in the US, and they stayed with Dave for a couple of days in San Francisco--I was visiting St. Petersburg then. Ron proposed to Olga during that trip, and a year later Dave and I partied at their wedding in St. Petersburg. Here's Dave's blog about that epic party. So we knew we were in for something special when we'd heard they'd be in Bangkok this New Years.

The morning of the 31st we shopped. We had to come up with "smart casual business" attire for the evening--not easy after packing to wear only bathing suits (us) and tennis clothing (them). Each of us except Dave needed extra items of clothing. Dave and I spent the day at the MBK mall, a mix between a department store and a crazy Shanghai-style knock off market; seven floors of big and little shops. We got lunch at the food court for something like $3 total.

In the afternoon, the four of us reunited and boarded a former rice barge redesigned as a dinner-cruise and circulating up and down Chao Phraya River, the major water artery in Bangkok. The dinner started with a round of Mai Tais and deteriorated from there. The embankment was a surreal combination of old-style wooden lean-tos, deteriorating European-style buildings from the end of the 19th century, and super-modern construction. As the sun set, all the Buddist Temples (and an occasional church) on the shores of the river lit up, and here and there people started setting off fireworks. Olga and Ron taught us Thai for "thank you," and we were all extremely thankful to everyone around.
Wat Arun

We returned to shore around eight o'clock and taxied back to Siam Center, the mall district. December 31st and January 1st, though not a part of Thai traditional calendar, were observed by the locals as the "Western" New Year--everyone on the streets and in the malls was wishing Happy New Year to everyone else. We were heading to Red Sky Bar at Centara tower, and the way there seemed to lie through floors and floors of the shopping mall. Dave photo-bombed a bunch of selfies. We shared a couple of Mrs. Fields cookies (also spotted in Bangkok: Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kremes, Starbucks, Coffee Bean, etc etc). We kept taking escalators up. At some point, we passed a multi-story movie theatre and a hotel, and kept climbing. Finally, we found the elevator and rode that the rest of the way to the top of the city.

Centara Mall

It was around nine when we finally made it up; we were among the first at the bar. We could see crowds starting to assemble below, a Times Square-like mess of people armed with glow sticks and noise makers--of which, by the way, we had our own, and we put them to good use. From another view, we could see into a courtyard of a giant Buddist temple--hundreds of people praying together. We'd heard from our cooking teacher May Kaidee that the local Buddhist temples scheduled extra sittings for the Western New Year.

Midnight praying
Little by little, the crowd around us gathered: a cosmopolitan crowd. There were some businessmen from Iran and India, and right next to us were three guys from Kuwait--Dave and Ron were fascinated, and made conversation. They came to Bangkok for one day only, to party and drink: they couldn't drink alcohol in Kuwait. At some point of the night, Dave said salam alaykum to them, and one of the guys responded with: "Can I take a guess about something? Can I wish you shalom?" Then everyone joined the conga line.

Panorama of Bangkok from 56th floor
After New Years and fireworks, the dancing started. It was easy to lose track of time. At some point after this, the bar was closing, and I lost my purse, and then my purse was found by the hotel's security; then we somehow ended up on Khao San road (which, my brother Kostya had warned us, was the most touristy place in the city), and Dave and Ron were ordering pad thai... And finally, Olga and Ron had to go to the airport and we all rode the taxi out to Suvarnabhumi Airport, where we put the two of them on the non-stop nine hour flight to Helsinki, with promises to see each other again soon.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Arrival to Bangkok; protests

Did you know that Thailand's capital is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest place name? The official name is a paragraph long and translates as "City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra's behest." City of Angels for short: Krung Thep.

Dave and I arrived to Bangkok on Monday evening, and after dropping off our bags at the hotel, roamed around Siam Center, a neighborhood of shopping malls and department stores, lit up and decorated for Christmas and New Years. Instantly we fell for the beat of the city. Street vendors were selling shirts, watches, bags, trinkets, food: noodles, various meats on sticks, savory and sweet pancakes, fresh pineapple, watermelon, papaya--peeled and diced, packaged in plastic bags for easy snacking. Thais practice the art of fruit carving, and even at street carts the pineapple and watermelon were prepared in intricate geometrical patterns. After a week of eating little other than fruit for dessert, Dave and I grew googly-eyed at all the sweet options around: doughnut shops, smoothie and milkshake cafes, ice cream and frozen yogurt stands, bakeries selling pastries, pancakes, brownies, cupcakes, tarts, jellys. We shared a cream parfait and a brownie at one of these shops and, sated, returned to the hotel to sleep.

After five days of sleeping on the boat, we continued to see fish in our dreams, and as we assumed horizontal position, the room seemed to rock about us. All our senses were off. The boat's motor and the sea waves had been a loud and constant noise on board, and now the hotel seemed too quiet. Our room smelled of cigarette smoke even though the hotel staff assured us we'd been assigned to a non-smoking floor. The room also seemed cold: the air-conditioning wouldn't let us set the temperature higher than 62 F, and we had to ask for a second blanket. Used to the boat schedule, we fell asleep promptly at 9 pm.

The next day we explored the city on foot. Our destination was May Kaidee's Vegetarian Cooking School, where we'd booked a cooking class for that afternoon. On the way there we passed a large gathering of people singing and partying on the street, and later figured out that this was the protest we'd been seeing on TV.

Protesters at the Democracy monument
We'd intended to avoid the protest, but having walked into it accidentally, later we returned to the area and walked through it for a few blocks. The protesters set up tents all along a boulevard ring that encircled the center of the city. A canopy shaded the central area: protection from the sun. There were individual tents for sleeping and shared communal tents where water and foodstuffs were distributed, also medical tents, tables with water buckets for washing dishes, portable toilets on the perimeter. Each major intersection seemed to have a stage; speeches and music performances were also filmed and broadcast on the large screens all along the street.

This musician went from singing Dylan's Knocking on Heaven's Door to a Chinese song
Anyone seemed welcome and free to join the party; there were plenty of casual onlookers besides us. And on some blocks this protest did feel like a party: people waving flags, munching on rice or soup, singing, smiling. Other blocks seemed more somber: here people sat or lay down on thin plastic blankets spread on the asphalt, possibly meditating or listening intently to the speakers. As we went on, we noticed that some blocks were barricaded with sandbags, though this was done discreetly enough and allowing plenty of room for all the gawkers to pass through.

A friendly young man gave us a word of warning: "Make sure you go to your hotel by 10 pm," he said. He didn't explain what happened at ten, and we weren't curious enough to find out. It was only 6 pm or so, and we'd seen enough. We veered off to look at the royal grounds. Later that evening, we had plans to meet up with our friends Olga and Ron who were arriving to Bangkok that evening, and we wanted to rest and catch up on email. A lot of email had accumulated during the five days offline.

Check out Dave's blog for his stories and photos!