Monday, February 27, 2006

The Case of the Purloined Palm

(or the Hand Job)

This past weekend, armed gunmen stormed the Museu da Chacara do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro and made off with a Picasso, a Matisse, a Monet and a Dali; this is sad news for those of us who must experience art in a communal environment. We working poor rely on museums for this very purpose - although if I could afford my own Matisse (or I could figure out how to steal one), I'd have one & everyone else could go to hell. I could so be one of those squirrelly recluses who nips down to the vault every night to have a snifter of brandy in front of The Art.

But I digress.

This sobering & timely piece of news has both influenced and tempered my musings today, for I too have been a recent victim of a theft, albeit of a slightly lower value - but can you put a price on your most cherished possessions? - obviously no. What about the pieces of crap you accumulate, the nebulous dust bunnies of stuff that litters your life? -of course you can, but is the theft any less galling? Now my little trinket cost me about $2 and it is far from irreplaceable (the word ubiquitous jumps to mine) and is, *ahem* no Matisse, but the fact that someone removed it from my premises pisses me off royally.

But with no further ado, I present

The Case of the Purloined Palm
(or the Hand Job)
I came home Saturday night to find missing the crappy little hand-shaped brass khamsa amulet (the word signifying 5, as in the number of fingers on a hand) that hangs from my apartment door. Now that I think of it, I don't believe that I even paid for it - the vendor, from whom I was buying some pottery, tossed it in gratis. As well he should because it was overpriced at 15 dirhams: the brass was thin enough to make bakhlava out of & the "jewel" which graced the hand can only be described as "red"; it made no claims on authenticity. Think Kool Aid: it was neither cherry nor strawberry, just red.

This little hand adorned my door for 5 months. It wasn't just a thing of rare beauty (okay it wasn't). It had a practical value - it was an all-too necessary mnemonic for me, a visual reminder that I was sticking my key into the right door. It embarrasses me to say that I have been known to get off the elevator on the incorrect floor and, unwittingly, try to break into the apartment above me. If there is such an ailment as juvenile Altzheimer's, I have it. Thus my khamsa hand guided me home every night. At Christmas, I hung jingle bells from my amulet, sowing tinkling seeds of spiritual harmony & religious synchretism every time I opened & closed the door. It is no more. Who would take such an insignificant piece of metal - a cleaning lady? Our concierge? I would prefer to think of it as a stranger to my hallway. Alas, I have no suspects, there is no curious incident of the dog in the night.

Now, not to put too fine a point on it, the khamsa hand is somewhat less of a religious icon than an iconographic symbol employed to ward off the evil eye. Hands representing Mohammed's daughter Fatima, created in metal, wood, paper and plastic, hennaed on bodies and fashioned into doorknockers are commonplace here. If its haram to doodle the prophet, then palming his daughter's hand in the dead of night can't be much better. Stealing my khamsa amulet is tantamount to nicking a crucifix. Call me naive, but I just can't get my head around that. If you're laying waste to a town and there's a well-stocked church to plunder, well go ahead. I believe that's called "retrieving" - there's a political and economic justification to it, not to mention historical precedent, which I can at least appreciate. The Shroud of Turin - that spurious sarong from the questionable crucifixion - has bounced back and forth between the powers that be on a number of occasions. And the Holy Grail - well just ask Dan Brown (the nob).

So my home is no longer safeguarded by Fatima - it'll be interesting to see if my domestic affairs improve or descend into chaos. Nonetheless, as an Infidel living among the Believers, I am somewhat aggrieved to know that such a cretinous, irreligious and/or indifferent villain is roaming apartment hallways snatching the protection vouchesafed by the Prophet's daughter. Is my soul not worth saving too? Is it not the duty of every Muslim to convert me? - well don't start by stealing my khamsa amulet! Stealing from me - nay! stealing from Fatima - isn't a very clever start. Not exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

A footnote: Islam doesn't strike me as the most forgiving of religions: I may refrain from passing judgement, but there's always the Prophet's daughter to contend with. If my amulet is returned with the blue thumbtack unharmed, I promise to ask no questions. But as far as Fatima is concerned, the game's afoot. You guys play for keeps. Good luck with that.

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