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Alliance Françaises of the World, pt. 5: Hanoi, Vietnam

The Alliance Française in Hanoi is a fancy place.

It’s in an Art Deco building, and has within it classrooms, an expensive café, an art gallery area, and a TV that plays FRANCE5 MONDE or something similar at all times. Students attempt to do their homework beneath the screen.

The library is on the second floor, and is quite nice– except for the magazine and newspaper section. The newspapers are years old, and often the magazines are as well. If you are aching to read an issue of Le Monde from some random date two years ago, they may have a gently used copy available at this location. Similarly, while the magazines are neatly ordered, the subscriptions for many of them expired years ago. I’m not sure who is super-interested in old copies of Sciences & Vie and prefers a ragged copy to just looking online, but again, this is the place to come.

You will find many Vietnamese students studying French within the library, constantly looking up words and cramming. One young fellow wanted to practice his French with me. I did so, but he couldn’t understand anything I said in French. He was then disappointed to learn that I wasn’t French, and recoiled when I told him my age.

BONUS: Open Saturdays, and the famous rice ice cream shop is a couple blocks over.


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words from syed ahmed khan

Now, will you please decide which of the nations of Europe you would like to rule over India? I ask if you would like Germany, whose subjects weep for heavy taxation and the stringency of their military service? Would you like the rule of France? Stop! I fancy you would, perhaps, like the rule of the Russians, who are very great friends of India and of Mahommedans, and under whom the Hindus will live in great comfort, and who will protect with the tenderest care the wealth and property which they have acquired under English rule? (Laughter.) Everybody knows something or other about these powerful kingdoms of Europe. Everyone will admit that their governments are far worse — nay, beyond comparison worse — than the British Government. It is, therefore, necessary that for the peace of India and for the progress of everything in India, the English Government should remain for many years — in fact for ever!…

– S. A. Khan, from Sir Syed Ahmed on the Present State of Indian Politics, Consisting of Speeches and Letters Reprinted from the “Pioneer” (Allahabad: The Pioneer Press, 1888). Translator unknown.

A view of the time and place (that being Meerut, India, 1888) from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1878). Khan promoted ‘Mohammedan’ unity in India and service to the British Raj; his ideas I don’t find that right on and his legacy is questionable, but he is an interesting fellow who we’ll likely hear more about soon, when I find the time. You can see his whole speech here.

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I see in the paper today that the city of Homs, in Syria, is in the news. I am lucky enough to have been to Homs before- I can’t imagine too many tourists pass through there; it’s Syria’s third-largest city, but there’s not much up there. I had an ice cream, some Polo mints, a lemon soda in some nargile café, and so forth. From something I wrote that mentioned Homs:

It’s Friday and nothing is open and the streets are empty, and  there’s not too much in Homs anyway, though I did see a 54-centimeter bit of rope which was said to be a holy relic, worn as a belt by the Virgin Mary. The belt was carbon dated in 1953 by researchers in both the U.S. and Germany, according to a fellow in a stripey shirt who was standing near the doorway of the church. The results of the test? The belt was “2,000 years old”. Near the altar of this same church, St Mary Om al-Zenar, recognizable by the large year-round display of lights reading ‘Merry Christmas’, one can also find a magic wishing well. There was a story I read some years ago about a magical stream- I can’t recall where exactly, but in India, certainly, perhaps somewhere on the outskirts of Bombay. There the water was said to magically taste ‘sweet’ one day, although this stream was fed straight from the ocean. People flocked to taste this miracle water, later amended to ‘fresh’ rather than ‘sweet’, and last I heard police were looking into charging some fellow promoting the stream with fraud and playing upon the religious feelings of gullible dupes. Well, at St Mary Om al-Zanar, you can find miracle water too; a well plumbed to the depth of 18 meters was found to give fresh water when all the other wells in town returned only salt water (so the story goes): now the water is piped to a faucet just outside the church. I tasted it and it was not noticeably different than regular chalky Syrian tap water…

The call to prayer is going off here in Homs, which, by the way, is written some places as “Hims”, but pronounced by the locals as “hummus” (of which a large bowl would not go amiss right now; I seem to never stop being hungry of late, and the very meagre falafel served up regionally seems to tide me over for a maximum of ten minutes). Have you heard of Khaled ibn al-Walid? Me neither. He was from Homs. He was a military general who fought with Mohammed in the invasion of Mecca, and in about 634 he conquered much of Syria in the name of Islam. There’s a mosque here in Homs bearing his name, though it was built 1500-some-odd years after ibn al-Walid died (in bed, reportedly)…

It’s a nice enough place, and has quite a lively Christian Quarter. Here are some photos I took there.

church & mosque next to each other

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what do you want to know

the other day i attended the 6th Annual International Slow Pipe-Smoking Competition. It was on the second floor of some palazzo and up there a bunch of old dudes with numbered bibs were sitting around smoking pipes. The rules were that they were allowed three grams of tobacco and three matches, and they were attempting to break the world record of two hours and twenty-five minutes. A crowd sat in rapt attention and periodically broke out in applause when one of the smokers took a particularly subtle puff. After about three minutes I left, but later on I saw one of the old dudes walking around with a big trophy- an honour indeed.
Man, what a weekend.


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one fine day in palestine

    Who knew that yours truly was such a celebrity in Palestine? You can imagine how excited the Palestinians were when they heard I was giving an impromptu ‘oud concert in benefit of their poor, benighted nation. I was able to convince one particularly rabid fan to part with a few photos taken in the streets of Palestine showing me introducing the locals to my magical music. Take a look


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cairene life

    Egyptians, like Indians, are those sorts of people who believe one makes a good impression on tourists by shouting out nonsense in the language of the tourist. Usually this is gibberish like “Yes please!” or “Excuse me sir hello!” but a fellow the other day in Cairo had some good ones- on finding out I was American, he began doing a little jig with his arms swaying about and shouting: “Yankee Doodle Dandy! American Flavor! Bensylvania!” (sic).

     Then I got a haircut and they did something very strange- near the end, the fellow put some powder on my face and then took a spool of thread and wrapped it through his teeth and round his fingers and then rubbed it on me- moving it in some way that that string ripped small hairs off of me.He ripped out all the hair between my eyebrows, some on my cheeks, and then even on my ears, where I have never even seen any hair. (Yet.)  The whole thing was quite painful and I was just as happy that the hair was there to be honest.

    Also I was on the metro the other day and I saw money on the floor. It was a 25 piastre note (maybe five cents).I put it in my pocket. Then a few seconds later some old dude started yelling at me to come over, and he began asking me questions in Arabic. I just nodded my head and mumbled “aywa” and then I understood he wanted to see the money. So I gave it to him and he told me something and left with it, and I do honestly believe he was going to take it to some sort of lost and found. Egypt is kinda strange that way I have found.


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tsk tsk tut tut in the nice Nile breeze of Cairo

I have had the good fortune to see some wonderful music in Cairo over the past few days. The other day there was an ‘oud player named “Musician Mohamed Absel Wahab” and he was very good. Last night I saw a sixteen-piece band led by Dr Amr Abd el-Moneim. So loud my ears hurt. I had to leave at the intermission as I was dead tired and falling asleep but I want to assure anyone who saw me nodding off in the crowd that it was just sleepiness…

Yesterday I saw a little Egyptian kid hawking phony papyrus-scrolls to tourists and I saw he was wearing a fuzzy dot on his forehead. It was not quite a bindi, but more like one of those felt pads you put under furniture so they don’t scrape up your nice hardwood floors. I asked the kid what his deal was and he said “I’m Indian person!” and pointed to a tour bus full of Indians that was pulling up. It must be very funny for Indians to go abroad and be attacked by touts and hasslers peddling junk for “best price madam!”…


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