Back when there were only three networks to choose from and your parents decided what movies were okay to watch you had to depend on National Geographic to give you the lowdown on how the world looked, feeled, smelled and tasted. Our tv ws a black and white model of unknown origins so Nat Geo colored my world. And as such, it was where I shopped for the flavors of my earliest writing.
I lived in a dark house with poor lighting until the remodel when I was 7 or 8. Then it was a dark house with harsh flourescent lighting. Don't even get me going on the horrors of DIY redos sans input from pros. I lived in a bland world where the most color I'd see in any given week was an ornamented Catholic mass at Saint Francis. Then in '78 when we built the new church it was watered down too. The only color came from the two stained glass windows that you couldn't see unless you sat in back by the support struts. Even Christmas wasn't all that colorful since the tree was subdued to suit Father Nice (who wasn't much). Holidays were the only time we really painted our lives with brightness. And back then holidays didn't last all that long. As an artist, I need color. As an artist I need flavor. In our foods there was no spice or seasoning other than salt and pepper and some cinnamon in the baked goods. It was all so vanilla. Except in Nat Geo. Nat Geo was a bright sari in a foggy London market.
Grampa got a subcription when I was 5 or 6. The whole Kig Tut things started a wonderous decent into the colors and textures, sound and dancing in our global community that lasts to this day. Nat Geo was Kool Aid to my vitamin D milk world. Egypt was far more colorful a place than we imagine now. Time has worn the monuments to a bland sunbaked ecru. Every white surface you see in current photos was drenched in vivid color from paint to tile and molten glass fillings to the gilding, literally, of Nile lillies in frescoes and friezes. Inner chambers, protected from Ra's glare, retain their colors. Here you see that there was more than intellectualism and warfare in the leadership. There was vanity and artistry.
The Nile's most resplendant culture held my fascination for a long time, even now I get lost in a good photojournal or archeaology report. It was also the gateway to other cultures; a tunnel through the Arabian peninsula to the colorful shores of the Arabian sea where India peeks out above the water. The photo journalist filled his lens with dancing line and color, portraits of the animals and people. The writer described the landscape and culture with words that made me drool with anticipation. To live so colorful a life... to taste the desserts in the photos, to smell the sweet, tangy, musk smells the author smelled. Of course I forget the description of camel sweat and streets strewn with dung and trash... I'm a kid with the a grand capacity for idealism and ultruism. To some extent I still am. I wanted to visit Turkish bazaars in Istanbul/Constantinople/whatever. I wanted to shop for sari's in Indian markets and taste the weir looking fruits and treats in those photos. Mostly though, I wanted to know the poeple who's eyes showed curiosity and alarm at meeting a lens face to face. The people were colorful even with the dark eyes and the uniformly black hair with the bluish sheen. In the women I saw a wariness that felt kindred. I was always in wonderment of the things that were different, always afraid of the things I did not know. In the old men I saw the wisdom of experience that sat atop the wariness. I didn't know what colonization was at the time so it never registered that the american journalist's camera was a Pandora's box of uncertainty. In the younger men there was a kind of infectious joviality that I would always associate with the colors of Indian textiles. And did so as we watched old movies like "Hadji Babba", the "Lion in Winter" and the various incarnations of Aladdin. Which brings me to the myths.
I must have been bored by dragon tales and glossed over the evils in djin powers being absorbed in the strangeness of the magical creatures. Of course I dream of Jeannie didn't really help me either. I couldn't have stood for cheerful servitude to a douche like Major Tony Nelson or resisted the urge to poof that insipid idiot Major Roger Heally into another existence. But she had a great custume, awesome cosmic powers and a gorgeous albeit itty bitty living space that she did not have to share with a snobby sister alsmot completely devoid of imagination. Oops, I digressed. Digression stands.
The other thing that I noticed in these movies, photo shoots and stories was the inescapable fact that the women in these cultures were desirable. Captain Kirk fell all over himself when that Orion woman (obvious middle east influence in the costume) danced, some "arabic" villan was always running off with some other "arabic" guy's chick, bellydancers commanded undivided attention and in some cases were valuable enough to garner a great price. Of course I didn't understand the concept of slavery and how dare you bring that into this discussion while I am waxing nostalgicly naive. I am after all talking about past impressions. So little me who is frequently left to her own devices and imagination as being little better than ignored, geeking out by deault, dreams a vivid dream of colors, flavors, textures, high adventure and above all being wanted. If only I could be wanted as much as those girls in harem pants were.
With my imagination I could ride atop an elephant in a howdah, buy dates, figs, pomegranates, persimmons and all sorts of tantalizing treats at market, wear coloeful saris, jackets and curly toed slippers (the closest to bare feet if one MUST wear shoes), race camels, sleep in colorful tents under starry desert skies or on a rooftop and not in a bed but a pile of voluminous pillows with a soundtrack made by non-western looking instruments. And of course I blended all of the middle eastern elements from Turkey to India, which is actually the beginnings of the Far East, into a wild kaleidescopic backdrop for my rather uneducated plots.
The setting was, as I reflect now, more heavily detailed with the arabic aesthetic while the hero was almost exclusively Indian. My pop culture influenced mind read the swarthy arab male as inherantly rough and somewhat ungentle-manly with his impatience and agitated defense of his property and people. Indian heroes seemed to possess more charm and charisma. I could probably credit Kipling with the concept of smiling Maharajas. Make no mistake, I understood then that their smiles often disguised the sword hiding behind their backs. Its just that there is a concealing mildness in the beguiling rounded face that is not present in the craggy features of say a Bedouin shaped by heat, wind and sand. The desert is a harsh teacher and cleaves pretense rather effciently from a man's marrow. I like wildness... just not untamed wildness.
To be continued...