musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shaarif the Artist

My girlfriend recently showed me an article her boss wrote. It is a simple piece about one woman's taxi cab journeys in DC, and how short discussions with drivers were symbolic microcosms of the larger world events arena. Whether Somali, Pakistani or Bolivian, each cab driver in our city has a unique story and an opinion on most everything. Maybe it's because they listen to NPR 24/7, but I would venture to say that DC cabs, albeit terrible drivers, are some of the most learned and cultured I have ever encountered.

I have been in countless cabs like the ones she describes in the article, yet it never crossed my mind to document them. Indeed, if it weren't for that article I would not even be writing about my new friend, Shaarif the Artist...

Sitting at lunch, minding my own business while devouring a Cosi Cobb, a heavily accented voice simply states that "Cosi has the best salads in town." After casually looking around to see if anyone else around was eating a salad, I realize that the comment was directed at me.

"I agree, Cosi has great salads..." I respond awkwardly, still not fully turning around to see the initiator.

"How would this look on a 2 meter canvas?" inquires the mystery man, at which point I put down my fork and turn around. Sitting behind me is a short African man with dreads, several necklaces, and an all around Bob Marley-esque aura. No one else in the restaurant seems to notice him there. Not an islander, he probably hails from somewhere I know very little about. His speech, gruff yet seemingly educated, is a convoluted mixture of French and English, all heavily influenced by an African dialect that I can not understand.

I look at the sketch. A human form is slouched on the ground, one leg bent, the other straight, arms folded on the bent leg just high enough to mostly cover an indistinct face. The sketch is deliberately washed out... haunting, yet strangely beautiful. "What colors would you use on your canvas?"

This seems to have thrown him off a bit. "I don't know actually, I haven't thought about it."

"I think you should make the background dark, almost like a shadow, with the body slightly illuminated by a dull light."

"Hmm. I agree. You are an artist..." The last comment was a question.

"No. But I do take a photograph here and there."

"Then, my friend, you are an artist."

"If you say so."

After a few quick attempts to show me his other work, perhaps in hopes that I would purchase one, he realized that I was not interested in any sort of business arrangement. "My grandfather is a painter," I say to assuage his disappointment.

"Ah, so it is in your blood. Where is he from?"


"Ah, he is a great artist. Turkey was a stop on the silk road, full of art. Yes, your grandfather is a great artist." After agreeing with him and having just finished my salad, I stood up and prepared to re-enter the bustling reality of Connecticut Avenue. "What is your passion young businessman? What is your art?"

"Writing. I like to write."

"Then, my friend, you will be a great writer. What is your name?"

After giving him my name, he responded with "My name is Shaarif. I will see you again. You are a great artist."

As I walked out, back into the chilly afternoon sun, I couldn't help but feel as though I had just been transported directly into Paolo Coelho's latest philosophical masterpiece. Shaarif, the oddly-dressed roamer with rough hands and a wispy beard, did not know me from Adam. He had no idea the inner turbulence going on in my head, not about art per se, but about life, direction, and purpose. He did not know me, yet he told me exactly what I needed to hear. Art is a beautiful thing, but more important than art is the inspiration one receives from doing what one loves to do. This man probably had very little earthly possessions to his name, but by painting, sculpting, and sketching, Shaarif was a happy man. Art is what he is most passionate about. It is what inspires him to wake up and pay attention to life everyday.

I turned at the front door, hoping to catch his eye once again. He was gone. Or perhaps he was never there...


So maybe Texas was the wrong place for me, at least meteorologically speaking. I love the snow, the biting cold on your nose, the beauty of freshly fallen flakes on a tree. Snow makes home feel all that much better. If at all possible, fires in the fireplace are much more cozy during a soft snow shower. Hot chocolate becomes tastier, salt takes on a new role in life, and for once (although only for a little while) the city looks clean. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to live in a place where it snows 8 months out of the year (i.e. Canada), but I love the fact that DC gets cold enough to allow the snow to stick around for a while.

I know my love is not shared, particularly by my southern brethren, but also not by those less fortunate than I. My views on the homeless are a confusing mixture of contempt, pity, and apathy on any given day; that all changes when it snows. Why? Because it's cold, plain and simple. I am fortunate enough to have waterproof boots, a warm jacket, gloves, scarves, etc. What about the guy with bags over his shoes who used to say TJ looked like Steve Blake? The business in front of which he plants himself every afternoon gave him a shoe shine kit for Christmas last year in hopes that he could "earn" a living. I have seen the kit out three times in the past year. As frustrating as this is, I hope he has somewhere warm to call home when it snows.

What spawned this random snow post turned paradoxical discussion on the homeless? In short: West Wing, Season 1, "In Excelsis Deo." If you haven't seen it, drop what you are doing and find it. I found it on iTunes as part of building my iPod Christmas video collection. The other thing is this: every day that passes with me working in the defense sector is another day I long to be far away from it. As I so often surmise, I would much rather give an Iraqi a market to trade his goods than a gun with which to attack his enemy (not that I am doing the latter at all, but you get the idea). Oversimplified... I know, but the thought haunts me every time I see someone in need.

I started out by talking about how much I love snow and ended by bitching about the defense sector... I need a new job.

Monday, December 3, 2007


... silence speaks louder than words. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims of AtlasJet tragedy.

So the roller coaster weekend began with news early Friday morning that a good friend of mine's mother died in a tragic plane crash in a remote part of Turkey. She was scheduled to speak at a Physics conference with 5 of her colleagues. I can't even imagine the pain and emptiness my friend is feeling right now and although I did not know his mother, I can't help but think about how alone and confused he must be. I saw him on Friday and honestly, I had no idea what to say. I don't think there is anything I could've said that could've done much more than make the situation worse.

He is a strong human being; loyal, introspective, astute, compassionate, minimalistic... and surprisingly clear-headed. I'm assuming the gravity of the situation had yet to sink in. Over lunch and beer, we spoke about the importance of friendship and family. It is never inopportune or inappropriate to tell someone you love and care about them. Never. We discussed the lessons we have learned from our parents and the impact they have had on who we have become. We talked about career and life aspirations, about how we were going to change the world, and about how good the Tex/Mex egg rolls (I know, sounds disgusting, but it wasn't... trust me) were.

He and I then went to the airport and waited for my Danish/Dutch friends to arrive from London. Airports are funny places, full of diverse crowds, wandering kids, anxious dads, and aspiring cougars. We both agreed that being nomads, we were strangely comfortable in them. On some level, it's almost like home. My friends arrived bubbly, excited, and full of questions, making for a strange and awkward goodbye with my grieving friend. As he turned his back while gliding up the escalator, I watched as his shoulders sunk just the slightest bit, his emotional armor weakened by the thoughts in his head.

Call your close friends. Tell them how much you miss them. Call your parents. Tell them how much you love them.