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     Volume 7 Issue 39 | September 26, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

Angels on Highways

Sharbari Ahmed

Somewhere down the line, while my paperwork was being processed in the hall of souls, I believe Jews call it The Guff, some lackey (in this case an angel who is overworked and under appreciated, possibly Gabriel, though he got some good press in the new testament) took a look at my coordinates and said, “Okay, make this one a masochist. No, no, too general, give this one the compulsion to be an artist…no, no, even better! Give this one the need, the pure unadulterated need to be a filmmaker.” They're nothing if not specific in the hall of souls. I bet they all sat back and had a good laugh.

“This is going to be fun to watch,” Gabriel said, but then I think, got distracted because his in-box was jammed full of Spam e-mails. Yes, they had the Internet up there, even before Al Gore invented it.

I know for a fact that God has a sense of humour, and enjoys a laugh at our expense every now and again bell-bottoms and Sarah Palin are evidence enough. At any rate, we fools certainly provide enough material to keep the Almighty in stitches for eternity. I, alone, have done enough stupid things and merrily courted disaster enough times to keep them laughing up there, so imagine the collective stupidity of the human race and how much fodder that supplies. It is only in the past ten years that I have learned to join them and laugh at myself properly. I mean it took ten years for me to learn how to observe what it was I was doing in an almost detached way and say, wow, Sharbari, you are a moron of epic proportions! But then giggle and continue doing what I was doing anyway. That is the odd thing about human nature, and I believe, still more evidence that God is a cut-up, people know (usually) instinctively that what they are about to do is foolhardy, and possibly painful, but they do it anyway. I believe in matters of the heart and love.

But also where filmmaking, and story telling are concerned, it has been all love and all heart for me and really, at times, seems too quixotic. If I did not love the art, love the process, I would have abandoned it a long time ago, let me tell you. And those comedians up there know that.

This past weekend I attended a small film festival in New Jersey, the only state, as I have said many times, that appears to recognise my genius. When one looks past the smell of sulphur wafting up from the swamps; the huge factories spewing black smoke on the New Jersey Turnpike, as well as the right-wing policies of ex-governor Christie Todd Whitman, it's a lovely, lovely state.

A short film of mine was selected to be screened at the festival. It was my first festival as a director. I was not as excited as I should have been, as lately I had not been focusing enough on my film work my supposed raison de'etre. But I also realised that I do not normally get excited about sharing my work with the public. I get scared. This film I made last November was an experiment, a test of my abilities as a director of actors and as a storyteller who has to use a camera to tell the story and cannot rely on the written word. I think I might have just passed the test by the skin of my teeth. As I sat in the darkened theatre, dreading the Q and A that was to follow the screening, I really started thinking about what I was doing with my life. (While I was cracking inappropriate jokes about being born during a Pakistani imposed curfew in 1971 to my friend, who started laughing so loudly, people glared at us. And then I wake up in the morning to hear that a bomb tore through the Mariott in Islamabad.) This is what I thought: I must be insane. I am smart. I could have gone to law school and changed the world that way. I should not have listened to my girlfriends in college who convinced me not to go to law school or that Puerto Rican Santeria in Brooklyn who insisted that I would win an Oscar by the time I was 45. “Get through your thirties, darling,” he said, his arms akimbo. “And then get ready for greatness.” He was flamboyant; I had just given birth and feeling lumpen and inadequate as my kid was refusing to breastfeed properly, so I bought it. I thought to myself: winning an Oscar has to be easier than twenty hours of labour and an emergency c-section. I must qualify, however, winning something like that is really more of a metaphor, at least for me, of achieving a certain level of freedom to express myself in the way I want to. On a mass scale, with millions of dollars and tremendous adulation involved. Ahem.

I am still in my thirties, though that is rapidly winding down, and lately I do not feel I am getting through them effectively and setting the stage for greatness properly. I am not even sure what that means. I am not sure what it is I am supposed to be doing.

So the lights flicker and my little film comes on and I view it with an admirable detachment. For about thirty seconds. People do laugh at the right parts, but the beginning, it occurs to me, seems very slow and I am suddenly gripped with irritation by that. I want to leave the room. I am not happy because I know I can do so much better than what I am seeing up there and that Oscar is really a long ways away. But I cannot leave, I have to wait through another full- length film and then answer questions, which I do, unhappy the whole time.

On the drive home I listen to lame music and have a conversation in my head with God. I would have done it out loud but I was stuck on the road leading up to the George Washington Bridge and the cars were packed so tightly together people would see me talking to myself. I am nuts, but everyone doesn't need to know that. Also lately conversation between Him and I has been strained because apparently, according to several people, I have not been listening, so I was not very enthusiastic to begin with. I accuse Him of dropping the ball. What the hell is going on (I say)? I mean I know You like a good laugh, but Sarah Palin? Not so funny. Also, why in Your name do I not have a movie deal yet? What are You waiting for, the Second Coming? You gave me this compulsion. You gave me some talent. I have been utilising the resources You gave me. I know I am blessed. I have been helping myself, so when are you going to kick in on Your end, huh?

And then it happened. I was idling along at a snail's pace, yelling at Him. There was a huge truck behind me, practically on top of me (when that happens, I sometimes deliberately slow down even more just to mess with them.) and I see an opening to shoot forward and get away from it. I step on the gas and a man darts out in front of me. I slam on the brakes and miss him by inches. He stands in front my car and I am ready to yell at him, but that was the old me. I stop and roll down my window instead and beckon to him to come to the window. He is holding a piece of cardboard on which is written, homeless, hungry, a veteran and a bunch of other things I do not remember.

“You better slow down, young thing,” he says to me. He smiles and he has no teeth. “Okay,” I say, abashed.

“Got some change?”

I nod and pull out three bucks from my purse.

“God bless you, kid,” he says. People are honking angrily at me now, but they can't even skirt around me because he's standing next to the car. “You're an angel,” he adds and walks back into the traffic. And then I remembered something that had happened the night before. I was driving back from the festival late at night alone and I was lost. A young woman was walking on the side of the road, talking on her cell phone. I pull up next to her and ask directions. She says she is going in that direction. She can show me. She gets in the car. After about four miles, I say, “you were going to walk all this way?”

“Yes,' she nods.

“But where were you going? There is nothing here.”
“I was going to a movie theatre, I guess.”

She hesitates and then suddenly says, “My husband and I got into a fight. He drove away and left me and he won't pick up his phone.”

We start talking, about marriage, about babies. Two perfect strangers. She tells me something intensely personal that I cannot share. She is Puerto Rican, young and a Phd candidate who refuses to be a statistic.

“I got married young and of course people thought, oh she's pregnant. But that wasn't it at all,” she said. “Things are bad,” she says to me. “We won't last.”

I have no answer to that but I tell her I know whatever happens, it will be okay. I also believe that. We exchange names as I drop her off and she says to me,

“You know? I was walking and thought, where am I going? And then you show up. Thank you, you're an angel.”

Okay before everyone thinks I am calling myself an angel, I am not. My parents, friends and several high school teachers can attest to the fact that I am no angel. I am a deeply flawed person, I have never denied that and my silly argument with Him on 95 south is evidence of that. In many ways, I am just a fool, but I am not a complete one and I know that sometimes I get sidetracked, and I know that it is simply my ego at work. I just needed a kick in the pants and I got one, well twice in forty-eight hours. There is a lot of pain in the world. Many dreams deferred, many dashed hopes. So maybe I should just slow down, as advised, and look around me a bit more and marvel at the fact that we are all connected, no matter how hard we try to deny that connection. Every single one of us has the chance to connect with a perfect stranger, thus restoring us to being real Human Beings and I am pretty sure you do not have to believe in Him to understand that. Okay, Eid Mubarak.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008