Beginnings are always very difficult for me. Perhaps I was marked for this fate by way I was born. My mother was in labor for two lays and two nights. To this day she describes in vivid detail the horror of my birth. There was a knife next to her bed; they had to wrestle it away from her. She wanted to kill herself.... Finally I came into the world, feet first.
When I gave birth to Angelica, it also took me two days and two nights of primal pain. I could not deliver. Way past the deadline, I was weeks overdue. In the end the birth was not at all natural; helped along by the doctors, it was anticlimactic. Angelica's appearance, however, absolved all the guilt I had carried around for years; I was overwhelmed with a beautiful feeling of relief.
Men in America give
out cigars to celebrate the birth of their sons. I participate in this peculiar
custom by presenting this cigar story to celebrate my daughter, born in the
midst of this project.
Tobacco originated in the American continent, and smoking is an American phenomenon. Tobacco was considered a sacred plant by the American Indians. Smoking the weed was part of their religious rituals from the time of the discovery of fire, from the time the fire was stolen from the Gods and given to the people. The smoke functioned in much the same fashion as the burning of sandalwood and various other spices in Asia. It was a ladder to the realm of the Gods, the direct connection to the Divine powers.
Whether smoked in a peace pipe by the Indians or in cigarettes by Hollywood stars, tobacco is intertwined with the history of this continent. Even now, in the midst of the anti-smoking campaign, it is no less a preoccupation: nowhere in the world are people so adamantly and passionately against smoking. From a pure ritual of the Indians, smoking was transformed into a commercial, addictive, cancerous industry. Hopefully one day we will again discover the ritual...
Several years ago I had to pass through a cigar factory regularly on the way to my workspace. Seeing the women making cigars made me curious about tobacco, smoke and fire. I am not a smoker and yet, as if drawn by a magnet, I went further and further into the symbolism of the cigar and tobacco leaf. With this unlikely subject to consume me, I got in touch with a memory deep inside each one of us: when the first spark produced the first flame. I went far from my background in Yugoslavia, to a culture entirely different, in Africa, only to discover this same memory.
The spirit of lightning and fire is everywhere, and as this natural force traveled, it was colored by the different cultures it touched, given a variety of names and forms by the minds it inspired, the hearts it penetrated: the energy with which the World began, with which it will end, the energy of Fire, the Creator and the Destroyer.
The first memory I have of tobacco is from my childhood in Indonesia. I remember rice fields, tea fields and tobacco fields. I remember men and women not only smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, but chewing tobacco. Their teeth would rot from it, and when they smiled, a bright Red stain flashed. Another strong memory from this period surfaced many times as I delved into the tobacco smoking story
My parents took us to a funeral rite in Bali. It was twilight. There were many dressed-up people, dancing and feasting; it was a great celebration. When the funeral procession finally emerged, everyone was so excited. A group of men came out carrying the corpse, which was wrapped in a huge banana leaf and covered with lotus flowers. The structure upon which the corpse was placed was built from bamboo sticks, and to me it seemed endless in height. When they brought out his wife, the crowd went into a frenzy. She was dressed in the finest embroidered silks, covered head to toe in jewels and wore a gold crown on her head, with flowers all over. She climbed onto a tall ladder and sat next to her late husband. At this point my memory blurs. They proceeded to light the structure on fire. It became my nightmare. Someone said that the bride goes to the heavenly abode with the husband. My father assured me that this is not the case anymore; there is a law against it. I don't know to this day what happened.
I had nightmares for years after. Did she scream in the flame? Did she die with the man wrapped in the banana leaf? Twenty years later, while traveling through India, I saw a TV show about Sati, the practice of putting to death the bride of the dead man. Apparently, to this day it goes on. In fact the subject of the show was a sixteen-year-old bride who was put to death that year in a village. In Sati, a woman is drugged, then a group of men come to the home and start dancing around her, chanting a death song, and then they kill her. This is a way to ensure that the inheritance stays in the husband's family and is not passed over to the wife. If somehow the woman manages to escape this dreadful fate, she is doomed in the community and may end up killing herself in despair or turning to prostitution to survive. One of the images from this show that stuck in my mind was a rally of villagers protesting the law which forbade the custom of bride burning. Behind the main speaker was a picture of a beautiful woman enveloped in flames. The audience was composed of angry chanting men. It sends a shiver through my spine.
Raised in an atheistic environment, I've never been taught a religion. This made me free to enter temples, churches, mosques and synagogues and marvel at the spiritual source in much the same way. The theatrical quality of religious rituals moves me. I especially feel close to the ancient nature religions, particularly Zoroastrianism, because there the element of fire is central to worship. In Zoroastrianism, fire is believed to be the son of God and is called on as a Warrior. The most sacred of fires, the Bahram fire, is required in order to do battle with the spiritual demons of darkness.
Millennia of millennia ago, my ancestors migrated from the Himalayas. This warrior tribe walked for miles, making rest stops of a few days, then continuing on to look for their new home. They needed a sign in order to settle down. The sacred fire was carried in golden pots and was never allowed to die out. Not only was it a source of spiritual strength, warmth and light, it was also a protection against wild beasts at night. When they reached the river Danube, they were very impressed and decided to rest awhile on this fertile soil. That very night a bolt of lightning struck at the center of the river and a two-headed bird came out with a loud thunderclap. At its stomach was a Red and blue spiral which revolved with great speed and emanated tremendous heat. Then the bird turned into a puff of smoke and disappeared. Since the tribe worshiped Perun, the God of Thunder, they knew that this was the auspicious sign they were looking for, and made this land their home. Somewhere in my genetic makeup, the memory of this story is encoded.