Ghosts, Not Quite Ghosts
In Hanoi in 1998, poet Phan Huyen Thu gave me an anthology of the earliest Vietnamese prose, a book that’s now in a box in Moorestown, NJ, at my friend Ian Keenan’s house. Along with all my other books, which constitute my mental terrain, roughly, I won’t see it again. Life is loss, in installments.
Though I read every page with much interest, all its characters have disappeared, except a certain ghost that used to bother people at a Hanoi wet market. Meaning no harm, he was just frustrated, it’s clear, at not being seen and heard properly, like the rest of us, especially now.
In a 15th century account of just over 100 words, this ghost lives, then, an individual with sane, normal needs. Though fleshless, he’s social and keeps no distance, unlike too many of us, entombed, as we are, in a chimeric fear. Snap out of it, fools!
Granted, we had faded into nearly nothing even before this. By consensus, we had agreed to become mostly virtual. Still, handshakes were normal, hugs were OK and we routinely saw each other’s lips, teeth and tongue. Now, with our body’s last exposed orifices concealed, we move singly along, rubbing against nothing.
This regiment of self-erasure hasn’t been followed universally, however. Here and there, as in Sub-Saharan Africa and most of the Balkans until recently, people have maintained their ordinary tics and intercourses. During my 21 months of Covid-enforced wandering, I’ve been lucky to encounter life as it has always been, with people, almost unthinkingly, just being themselves, most gloriously. Let’s meet three.
In downtown Skopje, there’s Ramstone Mall, which bills itself as not just a center of shopping, but of friendship. Filled with anticipation, I barged in and wasn’t disappointed. In a wooden shack, there’s a white haired man drawing portraits under a sign, “ART STUDIO/ SAIGON / SABEDIN EJUPI.”
“Excuse me, Sir, but why is your studio called Saigon? I’m, uh, from Saigon.”
Showing not the least surprise at having such an unlikely visitor, 64-year-old Sabedin Ejupi explained that when he was 11, a chocolate company had a promotion. Each piece of chocolate came with a picture of a national capital. If you could collect the entire set, you’d win a prize.
Sabedin and his friends, then, bought way too many pieces of chocolate. With infinite patience, they gathered, you know, Washington, Paris, Moscow, Peking, Seoul and Cairo, etc., but no one ever came up with Saigon. With the Vietnam War raging, that elusive city was always in the news, like a daily taunt to these frustrated Macedonian boys.
Fate touched Sabedin, however, for he heard there was a place that sold these pictures. He went there and, sure enough, they had the extremely rare Saigon one! What a miraculous snatch!
Winning, Sabedin wasn’t just the envy of all his friends, he became Saigon, that unreachable, ghostlike city now reduced to just one tiny, inaccurate photo. It could have been anywhere, really. More Saigon than me, Sabedin was still Saigon half a century later, and he’ll die as Saigon, of course, without ever seeing his namesake.
My first morning in Cape Town, I walked nearly the
Article from LewRockwell