A Beautiful Ugly World

It’s five in the morning.

Streets lie quiet in unconscious abandon, the residents of this city napping soundly, ignorant of the struggle of the jet-lagged storyteller to bring himself to rest while his mind refuses to lie dormant, not now, not when it’s ten at night the day before in the land he just left, not when his body has not yet adjusted to the cycle of those who rest around him.

A motor scooter, a moped, a red Vespa, zips down the otherwise empty street. A chicken crows at a sun as yet unseen. The sky remains an inky black, and I sit on a third story balcony—second-story, for anyone who isn’t American—as the city below me begins to rise.

It’s five-fifteen. The call begins.

I am in the Middle East for the first time in six months. I am in Lebanon for the first time in a year. I have been in Beirut for thirty-two hours, and already, I am, as I often am whenever I visit, touched.

The call begins. The disembodied voice of a devout man echoes between the side streets and back corners of this capital, the government seat of my father’s land. It is a voice I had grown all-too accustomed to hearing during my time spent here. Nevertheless, after its absence, I find it chilling to be speaking to me again.

A prayer, a prayer children in this part of the world know without yet understanding its power, a prayer that is a verse that is a chapter that is a book that is a word that is a vow to a power they will never see but into which they will put all of their faith, awakens this part of the city.

Perhaps this is why it is called Faith.

It’s five-thirty. The call falls silent, its final words resting on the ears of a slowly rising country, the ears of an ever-listening world, a world full of impossible odds, full of miracles.

Perhaps this is the Faith we should have in the world.

It’s six in the morning. The power has gone out. The city is awake now. The smell of gasoline chokes the fresh Mediterranean breeze. I cannot stop it.

We live in an ugly world. This is an ugly, unfair world where nobody lives forever, where hearts flooded with darkness exude only hatred, spilling it onto the cracked foundations of societies in which its people have long stopped believing, a world where if a nation is not at war with someone else, it is at war with itself.

It’s seven in the morning.

The first rays of sun soak Beirut in their golden glow. Engines, horns, shouts of shopkeepers and old friends fill the atmosphere. Something cooking below smells incredible.

I live amongst gods. I associate with creators, world builders, forces of nature.

We live in a beautiful world. We were not born into a beautiful world. We were born into a sandbox and left to our own devices, and we populated the world with art, where a man lives until his name is forgotten, where immortality is granted not by any supernatural means, but by the magic of legend, by being remembered.

We live in a world that is always itself and its opposite. This is a state of nature we have created.

It’s seven-thirty. Good morning, Lebanon. Did you sleep well?

Left to our own devices, we created duality.

We live in a beautiful, ugly world.

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Spectre

When my father was eight years old, his country turned inward on itself.

He lived on the Green Line, the barrier of earth and grass that split the city of Beirut in half. The city destroyed itself in a fit of madness and rage. He saw his father shot walking across the street for bread. He watched his friends and neighbors drop in the street. He could do nothing to stop the steeds of War and Death from charging through his home, leaving only destruction in its wake.

I wonder about Azrael.

The Angel of Death does not kill people. In the Muslim tradition, only God knows when and where each and every individual will die; all Azrael does is lead souls to the afterlife once they’ve been separated from their bodies. He has no free will, no choice. This is the duty he must perform.

What must it feel like to be a Spectre, an Angel of Death? If we could speak to Azrael, what would he tell us?

What was it like for him when my father was eight years old, and the Angel with four faces and four thousand wings had to walk through the streets of the Middle Eastern Switzerland, picking up the remnants of the Apocalypse?

What was it like for him today, in Newtown, Connecticut?

I could never be him. I could never sit and watch souls so young, so fragile, so fresh to this world, barely touched by the hand of life, suddenly be ripped from their bodies and left for me to collect.

God is said to know when and where each and every person born to this Earth will die, and even knowing this, even as Azrael, knowing tens or hundreds of years in advance where I’ll have to go next, knowing who I’ll have to collect when, it still does not feel right.

To have that knowledge of these events and be able to do nothing to stop them does not sit well with me.

No one should be fated to die.

This is, perhaps, the chief reason I cannot bring myself to believe in fate: to accept that this world has a plan for you, regardless of your actions, is abominable. Why should some of us live forever while others have their end of days decided for them? Why should the innocent lose their families while the guilty never die? We don’t like what has happened, yet we convince ourselves that there is a reason for why these events happen.

What reason is there for this?

It’s hard to believe that sisters and daughters, brothers and sons dying, children taken from the Earth, workplaces destroyed, homes wrecked, forces of nature tearing the ground asunder, could all possibly be part of some cosmic scheme.

Maybe there is a plan. Maybe there is a need for pain and evil in the world, if for no other reason than because the onset of darkness is always counterbalanced by the emergence of light from within. This is the justification people give for the Holocaust and why, were we to travel back in time, not one of us would kill Adolf Hitler or stop his actions from occurring: the atrocities of the Third Reich were so great in scope and power that the rest of the world recoiled in shock, yes, but more importantly, had they not happened, someone else would have performed actions just as terrible, if not worse. Humanity, for the most part, learned its lesson, a lesson that would not have been learned had these events not happened.

This is the justification we give.

This does not make the events any less heinous, any less painful.

From the heart of darkness always emerges a ray of light, and people choose to console themselves by believing in the light, praying that the light will come. Perhaps it will.

Perhaps there may even be something good we can take away from today. Perhaps.

I was reminded of my mortality today. It’s humbling, being reminded that your world can end tomorrow. Every arbitrary number of seconds, another person takes the hand of Azrael and is led away from this world, whether that person wants to leave or not, whether Azrael wants to take them or not.

Were I the Angel of Death, I would renounce my position at once. I have nothing but respect for the Spectre: it takes a powerful will and strong heart to have to perform the world’ most depressing job until the end of time.

Which is why, dear readers, I address you now in joining me:

Take one moment, one minute, out of your day right now, for yourselves, for me.

And send out your heart.

Send your heart to Newtown, to the children and the teachers taken from the world today.

Send your heart to Beirut, to my father’s people who no longer walk among us.

Send your heart to the ones you lost, to those who cannot speak.

Send your heart around the world. Give your heart, in this moment of silence, to Azrael, so he may know you pray for every life lost, every breath stolen, every soul departed.

And thank him for bearing this back-breaking burden.

We were reminded today why every moment is important, why any minute could be our last. We were reminded today why every last second must be lived to its absolute fullest.

So, when you have taken your moment of silence, go. Find your family, find your friends. Tell them you love them. Tell them you care. Laugh together, cry together. Live together. Die together.

And should Azrael come knocking on your door, don’t be afraid to ask him to come back tomorrow. No one is fated to die, and he might just understand.

Thank you, World, for sharing this with me.

Thank you, Spectre, for carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.

Thank you, Love, for keeping hearts invincible, no matter how fragile the body may be.

Review – Django Unchained

On the surface, the phrase “refuge in audacity” quickly comes to mind. But buried deep beneath the floorboards of this explosive, over-the-top stage—and dragged very quickly to the surface at the drop of a hat—is violence, determination, and all levels of passion, and it presents itself naked, unabashed, right in your face.

Django Unchained, the latest from the cutting room of Quentin Tarantino, tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed and employed by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They work together to bring down Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Candyland plantation master and slave-fight connoisseur who controls Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

As was said before, this has all the fun facets of a Tarantino picture set in the American South just before the Civil War, and it tackles a surprisingly serious subject: slavery, the violence and subjugation of an entire race in a nation founded on freedom. It is a cruel practice fueled by bigotry and enforced by law, and despite the humor, despite the fun and hilarity, the overblown excitement of each and every action scene, this subject is presented raw and uncut.

There will be people, I can assure you, who will complain that the film is too violent for their tastes, that it was hard to take seriously because of the violence. Well, quite frankly, slavery in America was violent. I was born and raised in Virginia, Capital of the Confederacy, and every history book I read as a child, every plantation I visited, every museum exhibit I spent more than thirty seconds examining made one thing perfectly clear: slavery was terrible, and I applaud Quentin Tarantino for not holding back, for depicting Antebellum America exactly as it was and for giving his main characters a chance at fighting back.

Dr. King Schultz, a kind-hearted convict killer, nevertheless shows his soft side when subjected to the severity of slavery. The German traveler, the foreigner, he is time and again disgusted, appalled by the abhorrent behavior of nearly every white American he encounters on his journey, his valet Django “Freeman” by his side. Nevertheless, this does little to curb his sunny disposition, his shining optimism and confidence, and after seeing Christoph Waltz play the most terrifyingly cunning Nazi in fictional existence, it’s refreshing to see his talents given to the role of the good guy.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, also lending his talents to an archetype so far separated from any role he’s ever done, stands Leonardo DiCaprio’s deceptively suave and all-too-real Calvin J. Candie, a twisted man born into privilege and plantation ownership, a terrifying man who has slaves trained to fight to the death, who not only not only studies phrenology—the pseudoscience used to justify the implementation and continuation of the enslavement and subjugation of “lesser peoples”—but believes it, wholeheartedly and sincerely believes that what he’s doing is not only okay, but is in fact the natural order of things. This mindset, this scientifically-applied bigotry that is the platform for Candie’s character is what makes him truly terrifying, and DiCaprio does not hold back for even a moment, lending both strength to the character and reassurance to the idea that DiCaprio may be one of the most versatile actors of our time.

And then we have Django, a slave at the end of his rope who, when offered a hand of civility, a chance at freedom and finding his beloved wife, not only jumps the gun, but takes it and exacts divine retribution on all who would stand in his way. Now, I’ll be the first to admit: I’m not a Jamie Foxx fan. The last films I thought elicited decent performances from him were Collateral and Ray, and those were eight years ago. So to watch him turn around and deliver a performance as sardonic and madcap heroic as this was incredible. Django thrusts himself head-first into scenarios that are simultaneously heart-wrenching and gushing with hilarity, and he handles it all with such cocky panache and brazen gusto, you’d be forgiven for believing Foxx had been channeling the spirit of a young and reckless Clint Eastwood. True, his character was entirely static: he was very much illustrated as a straightforward cowboy gangster with no deeper motivation than finding his wife. He is, quite simply, a hardcore, no-nonsense, gun-slinging bad boy. Maybe Django deserved more than just the occasional introspective moment. But he was still fun to watch.

Which brings this around to the film itself. It is, at the end of the day, many things: over-the-top, reckless, hilarious, dark, depressing, violent, shameless. And that’s what makes it great: Tarantino has taken a serious subject and shown it for what it really is, and he still manages to get plenty of laughs and a sense of adventure and, more importantly, hope channeling through the film. The laughter isn’t just out of relief, either, although that definitely helps. No, sincere humor and appreciation resonated in that crowded theater as everyone cheered for Django.

Despite the dark and stark themes, and assisted by incredible performances from major and minor cast alike—Samuel L. Jackson is both hilarious and terrifying, and Tarantino himself makes his most explosive and unforgettable cameo ever—Django Unchained is more than just an homage to spaghetti westerns of old. It is a film that, like Django once the shackles came off, is more than capable of standing strong on its own two high-octane feet.

9/10