Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"Untitled Short Story," Author's Commentary

First of all, all credit goes to Islamic for publishing this story. The original version of the story was extremely well-written, and packed the punches in all the right places, but I've always had a penchant for adaptations. I thought I would adapt this into a story, and thus was born my first short story.

Of course, strictly speaking, by the length of the narrative I constructed, it isn't really a story. The word count is too low and if the story was portrayed in real-time, it would probably span 10 to 15 minutes. With the general guidelines of what sort of narrative density a short story should be, it should be noted that a short story is actually something that can at least be adapted into a 2-hour movie. Several good examples of short stories on the big screen is the award-winning Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King, and Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick.

Therefore, all apologies for the misnomer. It's up there now, and I don't think it right to change it. "Untitled Short Story" it remains.

The inspiration, like I said, was from Islamic, but the drive was actually an external one. Having been involved in the campus magazine for the past 2 years, I was approached by a particularly intelligent young man who wanted to work for me. It being the middle of the semester, and the magazine not recruiting anybody till the next year, I had to turn him down, but I had seen some of his work in a "teen magazine" in Bangladesh, The Daily Star's "Rising Stars" feature. As such, I approached him if I could contribute to the magazine.

Once confirmed that my contributions were welcome, I was adamant that my short stories had to reflect well on the people who were reading them. I had realized early on that it was a "teen magazine," and having read several thousands words of drivel passing off as "stories" in the Rising Stars, I wanted to make my mark by having a story rich in not only language and narrative, but in a message, a hidden ideal that I might brush off on the unwary reader. I had read everything from SWAT-team sieges of banks to the most awfully mass-produced, tacky, tasteless romantic literature on that magazine, and I wanted to offer something different.

As such, true to the Hollywood spirit, I proceeded to tear apart the characters in the story skeleton I took from Islamic Everything would be different, save the main story, and the message intended in the original. Firstly, I changed the setting from the Masjid Al Haraam in Makkah, to a local mosque in some other country, so readers can relate more immediately. Secondly, I changed the African sister to a little girl, to represent innocence. Thirdly, I changed the main character who was a rich Saudi in the original story, to a bleeding-heart fool with a decent head on his shoulders, named Fareed. Fourthly, lastly and most importantly, I changed the beggar, from a run-of-the-mill beggar to an introspective, slightly exaggerated old sap.

The extremity of the character of the beggar was pointed out to me by a friend, but I have to maintain that stories, at times, tend to have exaggerated characters. The storyteller does this on purpose, to get a point across. Subtlety is an important thing, but even a sledgehammer is a useful tool at times.

It was a tremendous experience crafting all these elements into a story. It is indeed most surprising, that a lot of the creativity involved in such work comes spontaneously, almost out of the blue, as if my hand were forced. As my first story, I had a good deal of fun writing it, and even more fun reading it afterward. Many of the changes, for example, the little girl, were spontaneous. Many others, for example Fareed's unwillingness to pay, but his inner desire to, was not, and it had to be beaten into shape at the smithy.

So as it evolved, and I added a few more elements here, some thoughts to the self there, subtleties in Fareed's unwillingness to pay with his stiff jaw and terse reply, subtely acknowledging his desire to give in to the emotions this beggar is inciting, things started working more and more, the tones began to resonate, and constructively interfere.

Then, after I had finished my final draft, I let it sit for a few days, and then read it again another day. I noted things I had not noticed before. For example, Fareed, the emotional sap he is, is a direct reflection of me. He also happens to be the only person in the story with a name. None of the other characters have any, and the only person that I can relate to most personally, is the only person with a name. A subconscious stroking of the ego, perhaps. Then I noticed, for all the love that went behind constructing Fareed, the true main character of the story is actually the unnamed little girl, because it is in the actions of the girl that the message of the story lies! What that message is, of course, I'll leave it to the reader to think about, because that's where the real fun lies.

Then I realized, perhaps the subtelties I note in many authors isn't something that they consciously put into their stories, but something that their subconscious puts into the narrative, without their necessarily knowing it. Perhaps the way we think and the way we look at the world affects us at every level, even when we are moulding a story to make it work with an audience. Maybe hidden messages we try to reveal in our stories, be they short stories on a blog, or ghost stories by a campfire, or small anecdotes of what happened to you at the immigration office, is a reflection of our own larger perceptions of the world around us.

Although the story was very nice, it wasn't mine. As far as the messages are concerned, although they may be practical and noble and praiseworthy, I didn't explicitly put all those messages into the story; some of them just found their way there. As far as the telling of the story goes, I'm a little disappointed by it, and I think it could use a rewrite. I will, however, not indulge, and leave it as it is, in all its imperfection. As such, all good in that story didn't really come from me, and all bad did.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Gulf Terror Wave Spreads

Before it was Saudi Arabia. Then it was Kuwait. Now it's Qatar. And the ripples spread.

Bob Newman, director of international security and counter-terrorism services with GeoScope Group, told AFP that the terrorism threat confronted mostly Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait and then Qatar.

The UAE government "has been very discreet in its counter-terrorism fight," said Newman.

Who's next? Could be you. Could be me.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Global Warming

After reading at least 2 entries in Google News Sci/Tech section about new reports on global warming almost everyday, I suppose it was about time the Daily Star finally caught up. In this rather well-written report, Md. Asadullah Khan of BUET puts it very aptly:

"Sooner or later, the Earth's human inhabitants so used to adapting the environment to suit their needs will be forced to adapt themselves to the environment's demands."

As more reports come out, it seems that global warming is no longer an academic issue as some people will have you believe. Whether or not there is any warming isn't academic; the real issue is how much. If I may quote the halfwits in Washington and Downing Street on this, "It's not a question of whether we will attack Iraq, it's a question of when." The same goes for global warming now: "It's not a question of whether there is global warming, it's a question of when we will begin to feel its effects full-swing."

Of course, Bangladesh is on the frontlines on this one as well. We will be the first to go, and we have already begun feeling the effects of global warming.

"The water in most of the ponds in villages of Satkhira, Bagerhat, Khulna, and Barisal has turned into saline, while tubewells now fail to yield drinkable water. The saline water has affected cultivation of vegetables, crops, and sweet-water fish. [...] Traditional sweet-water fish are almost extinct due to inundation and saline intrusion in local ponds and wet lands."

This, of course, doesn't mean we're the only one facing the music. Heat waves in Europe are killing people, the United States is experiencing record numbers of twisters, flooding in New Zealand (if you've seen the making-of documentaries of Lord of the Rings) and Europe. It's everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping it.

In any case. Whether the halfwits realise this or not, all the reports share one thing in common now: global warming is inevitable now, even if we stop dead in our tracks tomorrow. But everyone knows we won't.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

What a Coincidence

Sidi Faraz Rabbani, in his blog Seeker's Digest posted up the link on Stephen King's writing advice today, the one I blogged about last month! Nice.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Underaged Camel Jockeys

UAE bans camel jockeys under 16 years of age, 14/2/2005

The hideous affair of the use of underaged, foreign children in the terribly dangerous sport of camel racing has finally been addressed by the apparently reforming UAE government, that's putting a lid, bit by bit, on the gross human rights violations that go on within its borders.

Stories of such a trade have been disseminating in the unofficial media for a long time. Even when I was young, we would hear of stories of young children, usually from Bangladesh, dying in camel races by falling off their animals. Apparently, Bangladeshi children make better jockeys because of their light, malnourished physiques and tendency toward short statures.

I have clear memories of such stories in the middle of the 90s. 10 years. As helpless observers of the policies of the UAE, having been viciously subject to them myself not too long ago, all I can say is, better late than never.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Old Souq

The Old Souq in Abu Dhabi was a place we visited often. In fact, as I type this, I can still smell the small walkways and paths between the shops in the Old Souq. It was a smell of plastic packaging material mixed with that of sunflower seeds, nuts and roasted chicken and lamb from the shawarma stalls. The tiles of the floor were coated with a dark layer of black grit, now chemically united with the brick itself by the pressure of countless shoes of young and old.

Young and old. That was a thing to notice about the Old Souq. It was usually a family gathering, contrasted from the bachelors selling their wares, and the most common sight there would be a woman, clad in a dark-coloured jilbab and a contrasting white scarf walking, her husband pushing a troller with a baby in it. Every once in a while a couple came with a troller with a year-old baby in it being pushed by the father, a baby in the arms of the mother and a 4-year-old toddler trying to keep up.

The shawarmas from the Old Souq were the best I've ever had anywhere. I've had them from Al Ibrahimi Restaurant, the kind Pakistani establishment near Madinat Zayed, I've had them from the school canteen, I've had them from Marroush in Hamdan, from everywhere. Nothing compares to those from the Old Souq. They came with some special vegetables and pickles which I think were not available anywhere else, or were hand-made by some old man who had been doing it his whole life, probably.

Most of the sellers were Irani. Short, stocky men with hairy chests and bushy moustaches, shouting an entire conversation across the central square, bargaining, yelling "do riyal, do riyal, do riyal," meaning "2 riyals," too used to trading in Saudi Arabia that they didn't bother with the currency change from Riyal to Dirham between the Kingdom and the Emirates. Some were skinny, small, dark Indian men, clad in the classic post-colonialist, watered down English-ware, the dark trousers and plain-coloured full-sleeved shirt, untucked, sleeves rolled up to the forearms. They would speed up and down the paths, going from store to store, or sit on a stool, one leg propped up on an object, sipping their tea, trying their best to reel in any human that came within 20 feet of their store.

Loud, tacky, Chinese toys would render the "Lambada" or "It's a Small World" in some mass-produced digital synthesizer, and planes hanging from neon signboards would spin round and round, spilling colors and sounds, attracting the attention of children. Yells of crying children, held on a parent's hip, reaching out to a toy that the parent is trying very hard to bargain over carry across the central square. The parent, distressed by the fact that the shopkeeper obviously perceives the leverage he has in the fact that his child would be in hysterics for the rest of the evening without this toy, tries his best to get a good deal on it, pulling every trick in the bargaining hat to get a deal which he knows will be exorbitantly profitable to the seller.

Pathaans would sit idly, in the typical wooden shoe shops decorated floor to ceiling with classic Afghan sandles, laces for qameezes and an assortment of kufis, prayer beads and branches of Neem tree used as miswak, a Prophetic tradition of impeccable mouth care. Dressed in a grimy grey shalwar qameez and a majestic but girtty white turban with a long tail, stroking their beards, squatting in their little store, they would argue over one thing or another with a friend in the rough, craggy Pushto that they spoke, occassionally reaching over and pushing his friend in jest, cracking jokes, speaking of things unintelligible, completely ignoring customers who idly fingered their wares before moving on.

Well, all this is going to be history very soon. 3rd March was the last day of the Old Souq, as everyone packed their stuff up and made way for the glittering new multibillion-dirham complex that is to be built in its place. Almost as a harbinger of its fall, a fire destroyed a section of the Souq some time in early 2003, and now the final nail has been hammered onto its coffin.

There's something romantic about the past that we grew up in. There's something fundamentally about us, as humans, that resists change. Attending a tutorial a few days ago regarding information that can be gathered from art pieces and the dubiousness of such sources because of artistic embellishment and even more dangerous, omission, it was apparent that landscape painters exhibit this fundamental desire to resist change very poignantly by leaving out modern structures as much as possible in their works.

It is very true, though. I feel that globalization is ruining all sense of originality from the world; cultures are being consumed. Very little is surviving. Maybe many generations from today, people will look back at this era and look at it as one of mass-homogenization.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Opening Sequence

Most Disney adaptations are eyesores compared to their source materials. Replete with fundamental story differences and childish embellishments, complete with the almost-mandatory comic-relief sidekick, it may have been a good thing they finally dissolved their traditional animation division last year.

However, elements of these adaptations do shine through the commercial money-making machine that Disney animations had become. One such masterpieces was found, I believe, in the opening sequence of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I think it has to be one of the most powerful musical introductions I've ever seen on screen, up there with Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas".

It's not just the style of the telling of the story in music that I enjoyed very much, but the heavy cultural themes they put in. Traditional choral elements rang heavy through the entire sequence, adulterated to good effect by Hollywood-typecast heavy instruments. What I especially liked was the choral Latin lyrics, whose meaning I discovered only after a brief Google.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf mentions such a thing about ancient languages, how they ring in the ear and "feel" more powerful than modern languages. I completely agree, and I find such languages as Latin and Hebrew and Classical Arabic absolutely astounding in their beauty and tremendous ability to resonate with the soul, even when one barely understands what it says.

As such, I paste here, what I believe to be among the best opening musical sequences dedicated to storytelling I have ever seen. It would be through great inspiration and talent that any individual can reproduce such an effect on a listener, should one ever wish to embark upon such a task:

Morning in Paris, the city awakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
The fisherman fishes, the bakerman bakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
To the big bells as loud as the thunder
To the little bells soft as a psalm
And some say the soul of the city's
The toll of the bells
The bells of Notre Dame

Listen, they're beautiful, no?
So many colors of sound, so many changing moods
Because you know, they don't ring all by themselves
- They don't? -
No, silly boy.
Up there, high, high in the dark bell tower
lives the mysterious bell ringer.
Who is this creature - Who? -
What is he? - What? -
How did he come to be there - How? -
Hush, and Clopin will tell you
It is a tale, a tale of a man and a monster.

Dark was the night when our tale was begun
On the docks near Notre Dame

Man #1: 
Shup it up, will you!

Man #2: 
We'll be spotted!

Hush, little one.

Four frightened gypsies slid silently under
The docks near Notre Dame

Man #3: 
Four guilders for safe passage into Paris

But a trap had been laid for the gypsies
And they gazed up in fear and alarm
At a figure whose clutches
Were iron as much as the bells

Man #4: 
Judge Claude Frollo

The bells of Notre Dame

Kyrie Eleison (Latin: Lord have mercy)

Judge Claude Frollo longed
To purge the world
Of vice and sin

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

And he saw corruption
Except within

Bring these gypsy vermin to the palace of justice

You there, what are you hiding?

Stolen goods, no doubt. Take them from her

She ran

Dies irae, dies illa (Day of wrath, that day)
Solvet saeclum in favilla (Shall consume the world in ashes)
Teste David cum sibylla (As prophesied by David and the sibyl)
Quantus tremor est futurus (What trembling is to be)
Quando Judex est venturus (When the Judge is come)

Sanctuary, please give us sanctuary

A baby? A monster!


Cried the Archdeacon

This is an unholy deamon.
I'm sending it back to hell, where it belongs.

See there the innocent blood you have spilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

I am guiltless. She ran, I pursued.

Now you would add this child's blood to your guilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

My conscience is clear

You can lie to yourself and your minions
You can claim that you haven't a qualm
But you never can run from
Nor hide what you've done from the eyes
The very eyes of Notre Dame

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

And for one time in his live
Of power and control

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Frollo felt a twinge of fear
For his immortal soul

What must I do?

Care for the child, and raise it as your own

What? I'd be settled with this misshapen ..?
Very well. Let him live with you, in your church.

Live here? Where?

Just so he's kept locked away
Where no one else can see
The bell tower, perhaps
And who knows, our Lord works in mysterious ways
Even this foul creature may
Yet prove one day to be
Of use to me

And Frollo gave the child a cruel name
A name that means half-formed, Quasimodo
Now here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
Who is the monster and who is the man?

Clopin and Chorus: 
Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells of Notre Dame

A minor note: the voice of the archdeacon is actually David Ogden-Stiers. Don't remember him? Major Charles Emerson Winchester, from M*A*S*H!


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)