He seemed to have decided I could go to hell my own way. ‘Then we should get you to one of the companies at Istalquaal.’
‘Istalquaal,’ I said, trying out the sound of the word, eager to get it right.
‘I think that’s how you say it,’ Bob said. ‘It means freedom. Or liberation. Or something.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said.
‘They didn’t name it,’ he said. ‘We did.’
'Istalquaal,' I finally said, trying to draw him out. 'Does it mean freedom, or liberation?'
He opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong. ‘Istalquaal? Istiqlal means independence,’ he said. ‘Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.’
– Phil Klay, “Money as a Weapons System”
A dark, hilarious story that would be funnier if it didn’t feel so deeply, fundamentally true. (There’s a subplot about teaching widows to keep bees that gave me flashbacks to grant-proposal-writing in Kabul.)
(or, discovering the ecstatic in live music)
It was an early morning, and a long week. There’s a scratch at the back of your throat that suddenly feels more ominous than mere pollen sniffles. It’s an hour’s subway ride from your office to Harlem–but at the last, sanity regains its hold and you hustle off to catch the F anyway.
You shuffle along with the herd of hundreds toward the single open doorway into an unremarkable auditorium. A father-son pair welcomes you to the next empty seat in their row, and in a moment of bold extroversion, you strike up small talk with the fellow singleton who stepped in just behind. Andrew’s a Londoner visiting the city for the first time, and he’s blessedly happy to talk on about the Brad Mehldau Trio at Village Vanguard, his stops at the MoMA and the galleries, and recommendations for clubs and acts to catch in London, easily filling the space.
Iyer strikes the first notes: soft and tinkling, not immediately familiar. As Crump and Gilmore join in, the song takes the shape of a Segment for Sentiment #2, then picks up steam and builds along into a cerebral sort of riff, weaving in and out of the recognizable lines of its core. Somewhere amid Historicity, a sort of uncanny valley pricks at your ears. Watching each one of the trio, you’d swear he was off in his own private reverie, totally unaware of the others, and yet the whole still hangs together in a seemingly accidental fit. You flash back to the moment in Cloud Atlas when that goddamn comet birthmark cropped up again, when you realized the not-quite-reincarnate thread linking together all the stories in some maddening pattern not sufficiently explained to your literalist’s liking. These three have some invisible, super-aural synchronicity happening and it’s fucking maddening to witness but not actually get.
Somewhere they slip back into recognizable rhythm and harmony and lull you back from your furious detective listening, and then suddenly it’s the end of Break Things and Iyer finally pauses to let the audience register their joy. Our Lives provides a collective breather–the lights go blue, the tempo drops, and you finally slip exclusively into the song. The lists you’d been compiling during Lude, the hyper-consciousness of Andrew beside you and un-idle wondering at whether he yet appreciates how utterly fantastic this is or if he’s judging your uncool enthusiasm, the ‘oh God, what’s the name of this one again?’ all fall to silent.
The segue into Pocket-Sized Demons tugs you conscious again, aware at least of your swaying head and dancing fingertips as you wrap your mind back around a music that’s impenetrable once again to pure reverie. Crump pulls truly haunted sounds from the bass one moment, then sings along while plucking away furiously the next. He’s distractingly fun to watch, such an obvious counterpoint to Gilmore’s reserved cool.
Iyer rewards another break for massive applause with “something you might recognize,” and you fall utterly into Human Nature and let it restore your soul. As it segues into Bode and then Optimism, the spooky-action effect linking together the wandering riffs sneaks back into play. Just as you begin to form the question of how, they hit a perfect unison so startling the room bursts into a cheer and you feel linked to each and every one of them by a shared wonder.
You’re half-aware of the final remarks and wind-down, and caught up entirely in the standing ovation that follows. A mild echo of that pure, single-track high reverberates through cheap earbuds playing Mutations on the train ride home.
The list-writing impulse stays quiet until morning.