I had just gotten off from a ten-day lecture-dialogue session with a university in Mexico, engaging with students from India, Mexico, Peru. Bolivia, Poland, and the US, on the topic of managing cultural differences and applying the concepts and skills to leadership and learning. That was my 4th. year as International Summer Professor under a US-Mexico faculty collaboration. I got to speak a few phrases in Tamil and Spanish as well as sprinkle in some Russian and Polish I picked up over the years through self-learning. Such a beautiful experience language is.
In the following paragraphs I share the second part of notes of my historical-literary journey over the summer in Italy and Switzerland, to also give an example of how a History educator looks at places, connect them to personal history, and use a memoiristic method of finding meaning in the otherwise dead “historical-facts” method of teaching and learning about the past. An ethnographic-phenomenological-historical approach, as I coin it in a more sophisticated term.
Don Corleone before Roma
Rome, or Roma as the Italians call the city, was my first destination and a literary-historical journey after the ten-day “Cultural Management” teaching session. Delta Airlines I took to get me from New York City to Rome. I do not watch television on any flight. Because I do not watch TV, being on a TV-detox session for the last 37 years. On this flight from John F. Kennedy Airport, New York City to Rome though, I could not resist watching The Godfather, Part II. Because of nostalgia for my high school years, and because I was heading for Italy. A sense of poignancy engulfed me at the end of the movie.
When I was sixteen, I wanted to be Don Michael Corleone. (Who wouldn’t want to?) I had the look and the gangster spirit in me, I thought. Hilarious! But that was what one sees in things at this or that age. Now, more than 40 years later I saw the movie differently. It is a philosophical piece, of human folly and what ought to be done under this and that circumstance. The Machiavellian instinct in us is perfectly set forth as a basis of The Godfather movie which came from a novel by Mario Puzo. I read it five times that year in high school!
That movie on flight brought my mind to imagining Palermo, Sicily, and New York City’s Little Italy. The image of Michael Corleone was exiled in Sicily after killing Police Chief McCloskey. The image of Michael’s new wife Apollonia who died in a car explosion. The image of the transformation of a man from a peace-loving Navy officer American college kid to the most powerful and feared chief amongst New York’s and Las Vegas’s mafia families.
The airplane landed.
Roma greeted me at the airport with an interesting structure of the Vitruvian Man by the great Italian Renaissance artist-inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. Italian words and the cultural semiotics of the nation-state waiting for me to be immersed in.
Essentially, history and memory can be alive in all these instances of my sense-perception experience interacting with the elements of the linear and non-linear narratives presented to me. I have had life’s gift and blessings of letting my neural connections do their job via machine-learning, scanning my brain, firing messages, reaching out to the deepest dungeons and vaults of my memory bank, and offering me what to experience, as how these should be meaningful. Phenomenological inquiry at work in my inner sensibility.
From New York City to The Godfather movie to teenage memory to Leonardo Da Vinci to Rome and its monumentalist history. This is the trajectory of my train of thought as a one-cell connection made in the brain to be stored in a compartment of my long-term memory.
Imagining Christians fed to the lions.
In Roma and at the Coliseum, I asked the question of how and why as I stood in awe and agony as well the thought of Christians thrown into the arena in Roman Times. What was it about the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that made it not only ideologically despicable but also threatening to the idea that threatened the Roman belief in many gods?
The might of the empire made it a spectacle and a great sport to throw human beings to be ravaged by the lions. I found this ancient practice fascinating as a historical-sociological analysis of what power means and what “spiritual truth” entails. The practice of human sacrifice, whether it is of the Aztecs atop the Mayan temple or as how Abraham/Ibrahim challenged by God to sacrifice Isaac/Ishmael in the Biblical-Quranic story of fascinate me, looking at these from a cultural-analysis perspective. What is the cultural logic behind these, I asked.
In the case of the Romans, was it merely a clash of ideas between an emerging monotheism as in Christianity versus polytheism of the monumentalist civilization of the Romans? Did Jesus actually exist, in the records of the Roman Empire? Yes, Nazareth in the province of Judea was part of the empire in which Pontius Pilate was its fifth governor under the emperor Tiberius, so as the story goes.
In the middle part of the Roman Colosseo animals were kept to be released when the sacrifice and the social spectacle was held. Animals and gladiators and sacrificial humans too were housed in the lower part of the Colosseum. The Colosseo is used for such sacrifices, staging plays based on Roman mythology, and gladiator contests, and many other events in the history of the Roman Empire.
Stones too shall tell stories
I wrote this poem a few years ago, for a collection of 300 poems, Rubaiyat of Wall Street: Verses at the Speed of My Memory to be published in 2023.
ODE TO A PAST
i could just walk into the woods
into a hundred years past
structures around me i push away
crumble they shall
as quiet as the clanking of tools of toil
the blood and sweat
brick after brick
layer after layer
out of the eons of what man hath built
into the woods
of the beauty of the darkness of your eyes i shall enter
of the smile carved like a scripture of truth foretold
into the mesmerizing sorrow of your gaze i shall greet you
like arjuna i shall guard you
and my poetry
shall be your fortress
though a hundred years past your heart lies
like the forest i am now entering
in an island
in an ocean
— azly rahman
Concrete jungle as classroom
I have come to believe that the concrete jungle too is our own Jataka Forest where Prince Rama was banished (if you are familiar with the Hindu epic Ramayana) and that if you pay attention to what each building, each structure, each monument, and each installation, you may hear the stories they wish to tell.
Whether I am in Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa or Berne, and Zurich, or in New York City or Paris, or even in Kuala Lumpur and Johore Bahru in Malaysia, I feel that the streets I traversed are pathways of the storytellers embalmed in concrete, steel, marble, wood, bamboo, or even graphite.