Wednesday, March 7, 2012
From Samarkand, With Love
One of my oldest and dearest friends blew into town, yesterday, on the wild and cold March wind. Marcella Baer Sirhandi is one of those people who is literally here today, gone tomorrow, so I dropped everything to spend an entire, glorious day with her. When you’ve known someone for so many decades, there’s much about which to reminisce, plus all the new stuff from the intervening months since our last visit. We sat in our armchairs, tête-à-tête, and talked for hours over tea.
Marcella has led a life of enviable freedom. As a teenager and young woman, she was a horsy gal who barrel raced, as did her sister Barbara, also one of my oldest and dearest friends and a national barrel racing champion. Then, Marcella did an about-face and returned to school, eventually getting her doctorate in southeast Asian art. One story from that period will give you a hint of the flavor of her life.
She was dating a beautiful, tall, artistic black man named Isaiah, who made fascinating sculptures out of bent wire, and who also happened to be a former Golden Gloves boxing champion. One day in 1974, after a long study session, they came out of the university library to find themselves surrounded by the SWAT team! Apparently, someone had reported that the long-sought Donald DeFreeze and kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, of the Symbionese Liberation Army, had finally been located.
Around this time, Marcella took off for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to see first-hand the art treasures she had studied. She visited Gandara, near Kabul, where Alexander the Great’s culture tinged the Asiatic art with Greek influences, and Marcella somehow managed to wrangle several pieces of this important transitional art for herself. In one of her more hair-raising adventures, she crossed the Kyber Pass over the Spin Ghar Mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and part of the ancient Silk Road, in a bus with no brakes. A young man sat on the hood and threw down a log to stop the wild careen of the bus. She came home from that excursion with her nose pierced, decades before anyone thought that was chic, and she still wears a small gold nose ring.
Marcella became a university professor and has written so many books on her subject that I’ve lost count. Most recently, she wrote one on the royal family of Nepal and I was deeply disappointed not to be able to go to the book launch to which she invited me, as it took place in Nepal and was attended by the royal family. Currently, she’s working on the biography of an important Pakistani artist. She thinks nothing of traveling freely in Pakistan, a place most of us, I’m sure, consider to be a death trap for Western women.
Marcella was briefly married to another professor, a botanist, who discovered a new plant while on a collecting trip in Mexico, and because it has red flowers and Marcella has red hair, he named it after her. “If I’m remembered for nothing else, at least I’ll be in the botany books,” she said, yesterday. Which, I reminded her, is far superior to having a medical condition named after you. For many years now she’s been married to Khalid, a Pakistani, who is a classically trained Indian dancer, a fine cook and an all-around great guy.
Mid-afternoon, we ventured out into the day for a long ramble, with Maclovio, the Chihuahua, in the lead and Sophia, the peripatetic cat, bringing up the rear. It was one of those magnificent March smorgasbord days when a little bit of everything happens: rain, hail, snow, wind, and startlingly blue sky and sunshine. Clouds scudded along, or heaped on the horizon, dark gray and pregnant. We were bundled in berets, scarves over our mouths, dark glasses, jackets and gloves, against the icy wind and the pelting of occasional snow. And still we talked, about what we want to write next, whether we’re really both, once and for all, done with teaching, where we want to travel next. Before we returned to the warmth of the wood stove, we had hatched a plot to go to Nepal together, sometime next year.
As our day wound down, Marcella went to her car and returned with gifts: an embroidered purse from India the color of cinnabar spiced with cinnamon and burgundy; a silk shirt of ravishing peacock blue, with embroidered sleeves that taper to a point in medieval fashion, the tips anointed with hand-wrought brass beads and tassels; and a dress of hand block-printed cotton, in tan, raw Sienna and black, these last purchased in Samarkand.
And where is Samarkand, you may well ask? Well, it’s the second largest city in Uzbekistan, of course! On the ancient Silk Road between China and the West. And where, pray tell, is Uzbekistan? Well, it’s a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia, with Kazakhstan to the west and north, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the south. Still confused? Me, too. Next time she blows through, we’ll have to get clarification from Marcella.