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Entries in heather mcrobie (13)


In Which It Is The Reason I Have Been Standing On The Wire

Practicing Alphabets


You love Jerusalem the way you love your father. You have to, it’s like God. Golden and eternal and looming down, only there are no shadows to hide in when faced with it, not in any quarter. You submit to its logic, its walls weighted with allegory and tiny little tucked-away dreams, scrolls upon scrolls of little insignificances, lost in the stony face of the city, hills like smoke mixing physical geography and parable. Its gates open and close – announced and regularly – but beyond your control. It’d be as useless to resist as it would be to remove the pattern of your fingerprints on your fingers, or change the day you were born. You’re nothing in the face of it – at best, you’re a little unoriginal replica or a conduit that it moves through. It exists, complete and eternal, irrespective of you.

You love Tel Aviv the way sometimes in a café on either side of the Mediterranean you’re the just right temperature already, there is heat and breeze in the right combination already, unholy and earthly and just-right, some shitty music of just the right kind and some faint laughter from teenagers outside, and then at some inexact point in the afternoon you see someone suddenly and – you were complete before, you understand; it’s not that you need anything – and yet you are suddenly blurred in love, in a smudge of watermelon flavour and soft alcoholic edges and the Dopplering mush of music up and down the beach, none of which you needed until it was suddenly there.

Jerusalem is saying never to forget that you alone are just a fragment or scrap and you won’t even understand the enormity of the page you come from. Tel Aviv is saying – through its neon and its Bauhaus buildings, which you don’t need and which don’t need you but just curve and curve and curve – that you don’t need to live in your worst moment forever; that you can construct yourself anew, enamelled and glistening with careless, improbable joy.

Perhaps, too, both are saying to you – do not think of the other half of the sentence. Jerusalem in its achingly solemn eternity, Tel Aviv in its miraculous hurtling to the future, say together, as opposites, as twins – don’t think, just for a moment, what buys this beauty, what’s hidden and erased now, what and who have had to pay for all of this.

This isn’t a story about either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is not really a story anyway. It’s a little exercise in not becoming too enamelled and not making everything a story. It’s difficult to keep things light. It’s difficult not to draw constellations out of an arrangement of lights. This is what I wanted to explain about Tunisia – not golden iconic Jerusalem, not neon miraculous Tel Aviv, but a place as a place, breezily intangible, that wouldn’t ask to be decoded.


The summer I was twenty-three I won a writing prize only five other people had entered with a story that grew into a novel, which was published and froze my embarrassingly unformed juvenilia in place out in the world like a pre-historic bug trapped in amber, or like some kind of pinned not-quite-butterfly. I wore a white dress to the book launch and, drunk in front of my Dad for the first time, I told a real grown-up writer that I was wearing white because “because, maybe, maybe this party is like…my wedding, and maybe it’s like, my books will be my children? Maybe…” I trailed off, imprecisely. The real writer and my out-of-place Dad laughed at me as though I was twenty-three and unformed, and I remember I felt ashamed.


The summer I was twenty-five I was studying on the same course as this guy, and I moved in with him because I was lost by all the fractures and codes and loaded surnames of where I was. This guy with a specific passport and a specific surname and of origins of no relevance here crucially once threw my clothes out of the window of the apartment we were staying in, and said something about ‘smashing my teeth in’ because of something to do with the length of my skirt and something to do with my passport, and really there is too much that isn’t mine in this story for me to try to explain it. To stop being trapped – in Novi Zagreb, ugly part of a pretty city, miles from the cool of the Croatian coast – festering in the building with this guy I’d once liked and his fists and sudden changes of mood, I made a bargain with him. I’d write his thesis for him if he would leave me the summer alone and unbruised, and let me keep the apartment while I do it.

I was writing my thesis too. July and August were a blur of decoding graffiti on concrete footbridges and my attempts – alternating with my own thesis – to write in the voice of the man who’d left. I felt detached and professional, numb enough to slump by the electric fan every evening and watch the dubbed and dated soap operas and without feeling affinity for one character in particular. I thought I was mastering the art of getting the overview of a situation, though I wasn’t.

My thesis was on writers persecuted by the state, why we need writers, how literature expands our empathy. The thesis of the man who’d once found a cockroach in the apartment and thrown it at me because I took too long coming back from the shops was on the idea there’s no such thing as morality. Once, after he’d left, I walked back from the bakery stocked up on sirnica and individually-sold sachets of ‘Nescafe’, and briefly appreciated this symmetry between my thesis and his. It was more difficult than writing a novel or building something you believe in, trying to write like him – thinking which avenues of arguments his mind wouldn’t walk down, which subtleties he would have smashed through. Bluntly, because I was feeling bruised and needed to nourish myself with anything I could find within me, I liked having to think of which book he wouldn’t have read, how to limit the thesis’s arguments accordingly.

If that sounds unkind and intellectually snobbish, the guy with the surname had had plenty of educational opportunities, and also once spat in my face and called me a whore for speaking to [ ] because [ ] had a passport from [ ] country. Also, he was willing to have someone else do his work for him.

Like many overgrown boys full of anger, he claimed to be a big fan of Nietzsche. I quoted the philosopher in the thesis I was ghost-writing for my freedom, but – as a subtle, feminine act of resistance – I always made sure I did it slightly incorrectly. Just like you can deliberately sew a button on wrong: not so it comes off straight away, but so it will not hold.

At the end of the year what matters isn’t the graduation ceremony – which was Italian in medieval redness and embarrassment, or the party afterwards – which was Southern in an outline of broken glass and Yugo-rock – but just that my thesis on literature and empathy got a higher grade than the Nietzsche-thesis I’d written for him. This simple fact secretly sustained me the whole winter after I came home and tried to find a palatable way to explain this period of my life to old friends.

I no longer feel very ashamed of this. After all, no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. Know who said that, overgrown violent boy? Friedrich Nietzsche.


The summer I was twenty-seven I went to Tunisia because I was sort of studying the political situation and recreationally in love with an improbably good-natured visiting French student whose father was from Tunisia though he, my smiling sort-of boyfriend, had never been there himself. When I e-mailed my friend from neighbouring Libya, she wrote back: ‘Tunisia, so cool so blue so white so nice.'

Although it wasn’t completely spared the pilfering imaginations of colonial-era writers – there’s Flaubert’s Salammbô, which he wrote in an overgrown-boy sulk at the French reception of Madame Bovary; and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, which treats the country as static backdrop for the Frenchman’s awakening to bourgeois hypocrisies – Tunisia at least wasn’t subjected to the same malignant obsession that France held for Algeria. It was colonised, it was abused, of course, but as it wasn’t anointed as the jewel in the delusion crown of imperial conceit, it could, it seemed, sometimes, just quietly be. I’d learned in the ugly part of beautiful Zagreb that there are few benefits to being an abuser’s chosen object of fixation. Tunisia was comfortable as a country among countries, not stewing in the story of itself. That summer the visiting student and I drank in the Salons de thes and ate makrout and swam and talked about going to Libya but of course weren’t going to Libya, Tunisia was cool and blue and fresh and smelled of jasmine and its revolutionary cry had been for ‘karama’, dignity, an unembellished, unassuming plea.

There were few ‘isms’ and factions in the newspapers, not the political Rubik’s cube of the international arena or the aching fault-lines that split on either side of here, the demand had been the way someone just gives you a look when you’re being unreasonable and you stop being obnoxious. It’s a beautiful word, ‘karama’, because what can you say in the face of someone asking for dignity? It just says, don’t be unreasonable.

Don’t be unreasonable, just go to swim in the sea, make more makrout, let’s not argue, why does it matter, come to bed, never mind we’ll go another day, go to Carthage if you want but these aren’t ruins like Jerusalem’s, electric with live history, these are just beautiful things to be set on the table of a mind next to jasmine and blue-and-white-painted streets. Since I thought of this summer as the French student’s story – visiting his father’s country, seeing the food he’d eaten at home at street vendor stalls, the town south of Tunis that had his surname – I didn’t read meaning into everything. I’d sometimes seek significance in things on his behalf, point out a phrase he’d use that was also spoken here or a repeating pattern in the architecture, and he’d say “but why does it matter?” and it wasn’t mine to make matter or not.


I didn’t always know this about places and people and things and languages. The summer I was twenty one I’d gone alone to Israel, and though I didn’t catch Jerusalem Syndrome or get drafted into one of the cults comprised of lost backpackers, in my aloneness and my twenty-one-ness I read everything into everything, in every way all at once until it exploded meaning, by which I mean I think I became unwell, in a way that didn’t get cured until the summer six years later when I was happy.

For the first few days I was just practicing the alphabet and practicing how to be alone. But soon the dead sea scrolls were speaking to the synagogue from Kerala that had been dismantled in India and shipped across an ocean, to be rehoused in a national museum, the great trade routes of empires were springing up in my mind like a global cat’s cradle that I had to consciously hold in place at all times and mustn’t ever let slip, the signs of every newspaper reporting every event in every adjacent country, the languages whose alphabets were cousins of each other, the histories upon histories, each event ricocheting off each other, each genealogy of reminiscence, each side of each story and each collective memory all at once, languages I hadn’t heard of that suddenly I needed to know – who knew about Phoenician, where can I study Assyrian, where can I study all the ways these all interlink and all at once speak to each other. All the little hurtling pollen of history landing on and blossoming in the Biblical and futuristic present – golden Jerusalem and glistening Tel Aviv together – I lay awake at night with notebooks for practicing alphabets and with several books open but not reading any of them because I didn’t know how I would fit everything into my mind all at once so that it was complete.

I think this is what going mad is like, more than thinking a book launch is like a wedding because your unwritten books are like unborn children, or like writing someone else’s work for them to put their name on, or choosing to love a completely inappropriate person, although none of those are very wise choices. The French visiting student would sometimes say to me when I was thinking through something I was studying or writing “but why does it matter? It doesn’t matter, okay.” I had rational views about how the revolution might turn out, based on the newspapers I’d developed the habit of reading, the -isms and factions I’d learned to trade in, but emotionally the idea grew that it works best when a place is a place, so cool so blue so white so nice, and with none of the colours or the names too painfully heavy with meaning.


If this story wasn’t about growing up exactly it was about an un-stitching from how you’ve threaded yourself into the codes of the world too intensely. Or a little loosening from that quest to mythologise everything around you – load every name and letter and alphabet and dress and swinging shop-sign and little symmetries of hand-movements of the person sitting opposite you and the major and minor notes struck every time a person laughs and every diacritic and every birdsong or mobile phone tone or date of email address and every airplane ticket and every geographical point and every funeral hymn and every goodbye and every beginning with this weight. It’s very hard to be unsymbolic, not see everything as part of its own language, with a grammar you could learn if you just applied yourself more completely.

It should be easy. For every constellation you make there’s a pattern-less un-remarkableness that you could draw just as easily, if you chose to, or chose not to choose. The summer I was twenty-two I photocopied in an office and baked carrot cake but not very much, the summer I was twenty-four I wrote a bit but not a lot, I don’t remember anything that happened the summer I was twenty-six and I just wasted this whole year I’ve been twenty-eight vaguely thinking about what it would be like to kiss someone I’m not completely sure I’d want to kiss anyway. There don’t have to be patterns. What contentment could come from no longer looking for them, even just for a while.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a novelist living in London. She last wrote in these pages about Ivy's girls. She twitters here and tumbls here.


In Which We Dig Up All Our Colleagues

The Way to Slovenia


The Americans
creator Joe Weisberg

Digging a hole and getting stuck in it isn’t a subtle metaphor. The last season of The Americans saw our favourite spies contemplating their escape – being offered the chance to return to Russia – but here we meet them, stuck in repetition compulsion, still in America and still trying to dig up. Between the end of the show's fourth season and this week's premiere, increasing evidence has piled up of Russian involvement in the presidential election, and allegations of wiretapping fill our 2017 headlines, so our fictional Soviet spies are not the only ones trying to dig themselves out of a mess.

Elizabeth and Philip, aka Nadezhda and Mischa, are excavating the body of a colleague who was caught, infected with the disease he’d been tasked with taking back to the USSR, and died in the hands of the CIA. So there is unfinished work here, and when their colleague cuts himself as they try to retrieve a tissue sample from the corpse’s body, Elizabeth tells him in reassuring tones that it’s okay, don’t worry – and then shoots him.

There is new work too, as Elizabeth and Philip play at happy families under new identities with their new Vietnamese ‘adopted son’, Tuan. Elizabeth and Philip work for an airline under this identity, presumably because the show refused to finish without having a character wear a quasi-nautical Duran Duran-style double-breasted suit.

Tuan makes awkward conversation at school with the new kid who has just arrived from the Soviet Union. The details of the school cafeteria makes us think for a moment that we are watching another 80s coming-of-age drama. Then we are back in Moscow, where Oleg, just returned from his posting in America, has given the new assignment of sniffing out corruption amongst the nomenklatura, the Soviet elite in which he was raised. It might make for awkward conversations with his family, but his boss tells good jokes.

In a hint, finally, to all the therapy that teenage daughter Paige will one day require, she tells her mother she has been having nightmares since she saw her mother kill a mugger at the end of the last season. Her mother takes her down to the garage and starts pushing her around to teach her self-defence. Meanwhile, the blossoming romance between Paige and Matthew, the teenage son of the friendly neighbourhood FBI agent, is concerning her parents. But who knows, maybe they would be concerned anyway – it’s always hard to map over what would be problems in some parallel universe in which they are a normal family.

Playing at being another normal family, with their son Tuan and under their new guise as airline employees, Elizabeth/Nadezhda and Philip/ Mischa have dinner with the family of Russians who have defected to the west. The father of Tuan’s awkward new Soviet classmate speaks like a stock character out of the Robin Williams’ 1994 film Moscow on the Hudson, of how full the supermarkets are in America. He isn’t wrong, of course, but his wife looks embarrassed, and he doesn’t seem to notice or care that his wife looks embarrassed.

In the kitchen, where the knives are kept, Elizabeth/ Nadezhda and the wife of the family of defectors make small talk about learning English and recipes, and Nadezhda, as Elizabeth, gives advice to the other woman about how to make a home here. But we hate to meet those who have come to a place for the opposite reasons to the reasons that brought us there, and in the car home afterwards Elizabeth/ Nadezhda expresses her frustration at their new ‘friends’ and their seduction by the west.

The sexiest new cast member of The Americans this season is 80s Yugoslavia, the kind of edgy new high-school kid of twentieth century ideology shown here as Mischa’s son – released from a psychiatric institution at the end of last season – makes his way to Slovenia. Yugoslavia, having split from the Soviets some thirty years earlier, is reminder of the ambiguities and alternatives that exist to the show’s usual Washington DC versus Moscow binary.

A decade later and the hills you can see in the Yugoslav bus ride would be covered in soldiers, as Tito’s state ripped to pieces. For now, Mischa’s son is in this liminal place, slowly making his way west, away from home but towards his father.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the Mecca Mall.


In Which We Leave The Countries On The Other Side Of Here

The Mecca Mall


Just before I first moved to Amman my boyfriend at the time gave me a book about Jordan that he annotated with his own notes and little jokes. He was a graduate student and so I unkindly joked at the time that he had time to produce such labour-intensive gifts, but it was touching nonetheless. It touches me more now.

There was a picture in the book that he gave me of a statue of Artemis in Jordan’s National Archeological Museum, and next to it my then-boyfriend wrote about how Artemis was remarkable because she was both the hunter and the symbol of the home. I think he was right that it was strange, that she was both the one who leaves and the one who keeps the house – even then, I knew there was a choice, especially for women – the world will try its best to make you pick only one of those roles. I saw a similar picture of a bust of Artemis seven years later, in a seminar last year, when a Libyan archeologist stood there and explained how they are hiding artifacts from ISIS, and I cried in the darkness while the old man clicked through his slides of all of what will and may be lost.

Like many people coming from Europe and north America, Amman was my first experience of living in the Middle East. In that late Bush and early Obama era –when Jordan was awash with sketchy western businessmen ‘just back from Iraq’, their SUVs with tinted glasses and their job titles smudged into plausible deniability – my friends and I joked that Jordan was the ‘starter country’ for Arabic language learners and kleptocrats-in-training alike. Every expat graduated to a new city within a year or two, and in the meantime westerners were fond of the unkind nickname for the country, the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom. All of which is to say that all the dodgy influences coming and going from the north (Lebanon), south (Saudi), east (Iraq) and west (Israel) didn’t do anything to make Amman remotely sexy in our ungrateful eyes. It was shopping malls and roundabouts and people trying to get to or from the airport as often as possible.

The general sense – even from our Jordanian and Palestinian friends, as much as from the little group of internationals I fell into spending my time with (I’d yet to learn the tricks of getting away from fellow countrypeople abroad) – was that Amman was a kind of under-achieving sibling of the region’s metropolises, and it was a kind of permanent arch joke that we’d all wound up there instead of somewhere Real. It wasn’t really fair to the city that three great golden universes of history were each a taxi ride away – Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem – the places where shit went down, historically, instead of the place that just sold a lot of nice shit.

Being from England, Amman was also the first and the closest I got to experiencing what popular culture has told me life is like in mid-west America: we’d drive to the mall, we’d drink milkshakes, we’d go bowling, we’d have young-people arguments and we’d go home. The mall for bowling and for boredom-induced milkshake-drinking was called Mecca Mall, its neon sign written in the Latin alphabet, its escalators and entertainments full, just like American movies told me that malls are, with kissing teenagers and girls talking about clothes. My friends and I never did make it across the Saudi border all the way to Mecca; the Mecca Mall stood as testament to how all our lives were facsimile, in starter-setting: the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, we’d laugh, Mecca Mall and we’ve never been to Mecca.

This constant background-noise of how studiedly unremarkable Amman was held extra significance for me because living in Jordan, in my early voyage out practice-of-adulthood, was also the last period of my life when I felt remarkable myself. My first novel had been published eighteen months after I graduated from college, at the time when my peers were facing down the tarmac-chewing period of internships and it’ll-be-great-for-your-resume servitudes, and tightrope-walking the precariousness of my status of half-waitress half-celebrity was a disorientating experience – so much so, in fact, that I’d run away to the Middle East. At twenty three, there was a serious discrepancy between the period in which a person can actually socially trade on ‘I’ve written a book’ (one year and four months) and the time I thought could glide through life as an ingénue (forever. I thought I could do it roughly forever).

So I got a job in Jordan working on human rights, and called my boyfriend in America as often as was inconvenient to tell him all the atrocities I’d either researched or read about or, you know, sometimes just dreamed about. Aged twenty-four there was an obstructive chasm between the amount of time a person can use ‘I work on human rights’ as an excuse to make Skype calls at 3am out of insomnia and weltschmertz (one year and eight months) and the amount of time I thought this professional badge of Being A Good Person would be a get-out card for having to learn to not bulldoze through other people’s lives (forever, more or less. But I promise I have learned since that there are no badges or titles that give you a pass on that). He finished his PhD on ancient artifacts while I was slowly learning to not use either the Being A Professional Good Person badge or a fluke of early success as a free pass through human interactions. I wrote to him, last year, after I’d been to the seminar of the Libyan archeologist who stood so solemn and quiet as he showed us the artifacts he risks his life to save. My once-boyfriend wrote back in a timely manner with helpful advice, and maybe that is the mark of a real good person, with no badges.

In our youthful arrogance, back in my Jordan days, my friends and I constructed this narrative about Amman so effectively – or perhaps inherited it, from whichever young people had been hanging out in Mecca Mall in the years before we arrived – that we didn’t even bother to notice when the city in its complexity refused our story. We occasionally discussed the divide between east and west Amman – one side historical Palestinian refugee housing then layered over with precarious temporary accommodation from the Iraqis who had fled since 2003; the other side the shops of Shmeisani where you could get anything you didn’t really want made out of gold (we went to look once for the most ridiculous made-out-of-gold item we could find there, and I think the winner was a stapler), and where, my research and my nightmares told me, wealthy inhabitants beat their Sri Lankan maids and confiscated their passports.

More often though, we went from our day jobs of report writing on human rights violations to our evening past-times of wandering the mall and drinking milkshakes, and our nighttime pastimes of Skyping people far away and pretending to be better than we really were.

Eight years later I live in Tel Aviv – the Mecca of my queer friends who left the countries either side of here and neon in its own self-mythologies – and Amman is two short bus rides away, give or take any trouble at the border. The man who gave me the book lives far away. Amman’s complexity shows more now – would even if these last years hadn’t beaten from me the ability to ignore that which doesn’t fit with an arrogantly neat summation of a place or person – through the Syrian refugees who have since layered over the parts of the city the Iraqi refugees were pushed into, and the Palestinians before them.

Still of all the horrors in all those reports and all those years and all the nightmares, there is a singular little cruelty in how we dismissed Amman so easily in our practice-run adulthoods. Even if, as they did in our stories, people just went to work and went to the mall and went home and lived their lives, that seems now to be something to hope for, a normality lost in the golden places nearby that we so aspired to be in and be like. Just be a place, like Amman, just be a person, like any other person. Much better that than a statue of Artemis, once revered and now with her face smashed in.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Tel Aviv. You can find her tumblr here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.