Sometimes there is a remarkable serendipity in the way books come into our lives, perhaps at the right time, the right place or in the right company. I tucked Noor Al Samarrai’s El Cerrito into my bag as I headed to San Francisco last month. As a rambling poetic odyssey that slips in and out of the Bay Area, especially in its earlier—chapters? poems?—let’s say episodes, there was a certain geographic kismet in this selection. But even more surprising was the way this small, spare experimental volume paired so neatly with my other read throughout the same period—Esther Kinsky’s multi-layered, evocative novel, River.
On the surface, this might seem an unlikely confluence. Kinsky is only a few years older than I am whereas Al Samarrai is my daughter’s age (born in 1992). But I was swept away by both works which, at times, seemed to echo and reverberate against one another. Both women are poets and both gravitate toward a lyrical appreciation of the ordinary, everyday elements of their surroundings, at home and abroad. Both Al Samarrai and Kinsky, via her narrator, are restless wanderers, although the latter is a loner while the former typically travels with friends. They take regular excursions through familiar environments close to home—the suburban fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area and London respectively—and pilgrimages afar. Both take photographs. And both offer a thoughtful, often quirky, take on the world and what it means to be alive in it.
El Cerrito, from the inexhaustibly original indie press Inside the Castle, is a pocket-sized volume, designed with a lot of open space. What began with a couple of shorter, more confined excursions through the town of El Cerrito, California in 2012 and 2013, was expanded, over time, to encompass a broader area, within California and abroad, reaching into Sweden, Lebanon, Bosnia, Turkey and beyond to finally wind to a close in North Berkely. The journey is not exactly chronological, nor is it heavily orchestrated or forced. There is a casual, curious, yet introspective feel to the entries which are themselves generously footnoted with historical, biographical, literary, and linguistic references. Combined with occasional black and white photographs, these poetic musings become geographically defined intertextual weavings with layers of meaning that can be wrapped and unwrapped along the way.
Al Samarrai is a contemporary suburban flaneuse, another commonality she shares with Kinsky’s narrator. Both are drawn to those liminal spaces where the suburban meets natural environments. A series of poems trace repeated visits over several years to an area christened TEPCO beach for the fragments from a long since destroyed porcelain factory littering a stretch of waterfront. Sometimes it appears elusive, impossible to relocate. On the poet’s last visit, in 2016, the romance is gone:
Love wasn’t there.
May as well have been alone.
This place in my language: a kanji symbol
to tell someone you’re special,
dear to me. Meaning instilled
by visits spanning a season.
A season drawn out
into years, coated
in alternate weathers.
Connecting to others turned me inward, ultimately
an appreciation of beauty’s just not enough.
For me, one of the most illuminating qualities of El Cerrito, comes from the insights afforded by Al Samarrai’s Muslim-American background. A US-born child of immigrants who grows up to discover The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in grade school, her assured comfort in the country of her birth is altered at an early age:
One of the first few days of fourth grade was September 11, 2001. Mama touched my elbow before I clambered from her car that morning. Don’t tell anyone you’re Iraqi, okay? I didn’t understand why anyone would ask where I was from. What am I supposed to say? Tell them you’re Lebanese. Nodded empty assent.
that day, green knit jacket,
tag “MADE IN IRAQ”
scratched at my neck.
Sprinkled throughout this book are references to Arabic expressions and traditional foods. Her visits to Bosnia and Turkey in particular are enriched with footnotes that add interesting historical and cultural background. She carries a singular fascination with cemeteries and burial practices on her wanderings at home and abroad, and yet there is a youthful spirit and sense of adventure that speaks to equal measures of innocence and irreverence. Early episodes bring in friends, social gatherings, and love affairs, all tinged with the aroma of late adolescence, spiked with a thoughtful undertone that, at least for me as an older reader, brings back memories of the slow, sobering transition toward adulthood that takes place as you venture further from home in your early twenties. You think you are grown up.
And then you grow up some more.
The night we left there was a pink moon on a dusky turquoise sky, verging into purple (could I carry these colors in a suitcase?). At a Syrian-owned restaurant near the bus station, they gave us free hummus, salad, baklava. We gave our bread to beggars, and were given more. Nalini said it was because I spoke Arabic, but they didn’t seem to recognize me as an Arab. Or maybe true recognition’s casual. I didn’t then recognize the extent of the refugee crisis,* really, though I would come to that little by little, and then in deep gasps.
On the bus we were shushed for speaking loudly, giggled and felt very American.
. —“Road to Ephesus”
There is something slightly haphazard to the way El Cerrito unfolds. A series of geographically or thematically linked entries will be set apart by episodes that seem to fit nowhere. Brief reflections, set in a country or location that is never mentioned again, appear like random notes or a postcard tucked in here and there. This creates the effect of a book that happens as you open it. You can read it end to end, but you don’t have to. The empty pages invite a little doodling or random thoughts along the way. Because the greatest gift of a book like this—and this can be said equally of a longer, more complex and yet not entirely dissimilar work like River—is that it invites you to take note of your own environment, the people you meet, and the places you visit, and how they change and change you, over time.
* This was September, 2015. By August, 2015, the number of asylum seeks crossing into Europe illegally through Greece and Turkey had more than quintupled since 2014 according to a study by the European Stability Initiative.