The Genetics of Blueberries

By Maniza Naqvi Blueberries_earlyblue

A woman folds her copy of the paper, looks around at all of us and exclaims: “What an evil opportunist! He was virtuous for her when she took the diamonds from him, and now he’s evil because he’s on trial at The Hague?” Then she pauses—“Well, I suppose really—what is good and what is evil are definitions simply determined by survival. It is the story of survival. No?” She shrugs, “The ones who triumph are good, the ones who don’t are evil. Our model picks the Alpha males.”

Several complementary copies of the newspaper lie untouched on the table. The front page carries the story of the war crimes trial in The Hague for Charles Taylor. The accompanying photograph shows—Jemima Goldsmith, Imran Khan, Charles Taylor, Nelson Mandela, Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow after a dinner party thrown for a charity by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Everyone smiling congenially posing together, as though boy toys for the actress, the super model and the heiress. The super model and the actress have made appearances at the War Crimes trial in The Hague for Charles Taylor giving the proceedings glamour and an air of scandal that catches our attention more than war and crimes. And scandal sells papers. It is clear that it has been inconvenient for them to be here. They have provided conflicting testimonies about the size of the dirty diamonds and the terms under which they were gifted by Charles Taylor that evening to Naomi Campbell.

“The South Africans cheered the Dutch team didn’t they?” asks the South Asian probably Indian. I am not sure.

We are seated at a round table, a luncheon meeting beginning. There are at last twenty other tables around us doing the same thing. We will report back at the plenary session after lunch. As an icebreaker, we have been asked, by the facilitator at our table, to tell the group a little about ourselves. One by one we introduce ourselves—I say I wanted to be an actor—I take drama classes on the weekends. The South Asian from Pakistan—says he wanted to be a fighter pilot but eyesight got in the way. A young man from Lao begins and tells us that he wanted to be an opera singer but economics came up; another from Tajikistan was going to be a doctor but a war interrupted his education and he found himself earning his living as an interpreter in refugee camps—- A woman from France talks about wanting to own a bed and breakfast place after she retired. Someone from the United States gave up studying the genetics of blueberries to go teach children English in villages in Guatemala– and someone from Zimbabwe talks about how he wanted to be a fast bowler-but a scholarship to Harvard got in the way.

“It’s interesting—the genetics of blueberries huh? And now Food Aid? What a leap!” I say.

“I am exactly where I wanted to be. I was particularly interested in the ones with 12 chromosomes and the ones with 24 chromosomes. How a species can create a new one—and that new one separates itself out almost as though it….were…..”

“Special?” I ask. “I suppose sooner or later the same old, same old becomes stale no matter how good it is– nothing grows without change—All good, if left unchanged must go bad.”

“Yeah, I guess. The twenty four chromosome blueberries where created in the areas where there was a density of twelve chromosome blueberries. Then those twenty four chromosome blue berries self selected and migrated to isolated places where only 24 chromosome blueberries exist—no twelve chromosome berries there—-further north where it’s cooler.”

“How interesting—I must be one of those! My skin feels happy in this temperature of 25°degree centigrade, perhaps because we are all after all from here,” interjects the Facilitator and brings us back to the task at hand, “So as I was saying earlier before about the relationship between food aid and….” She is interrupted by the waiter:

He asks softly “May I offer you this Nederburg Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Madame? I think you will enjoy it—it is a ruby red color madam—”

“Ah! Lovely the color matches my earrings from Cambodia.” says the woman from France.

“The wine madam—is a delightful commingling of blackberries and currants with dark violets and nuances of oak in the background. A full-bodied wine with ripe fruit and delicate oak spices, firm tannins and a lingering aftertaste. I would suggest madam a goose liver paté and a rare steak and let us start you off with a mature cheese and perhaps some virgin hand pressed olive oil with our own baked bread? While not old madam—it has matured after gentle fermentation in wood for a year.” He pours and leaves.

I raise my glass and laugh, “Aging is not what it used to be.”

“Tell that to Lucy! And didn’t she eat berries? Do we know what kind? No as it turns out her people were predators like the rest of us, big meat eaters.”

The facilitator is satisfied with us—our free association.

Later, after lunch, I go in search of a fax machine from where to send a message in the absence of blackberries and internet connection. Inside the shoebox sized shop for faxes and internet, as I wait for the fax to go through I take in the items for sale crammed on shelves and inside the glass display counter. There are plugs, condoms, paper notebooks, pens, SIM cards, and porno magazines. Tacked on to the cork bulletin board, are the newspaper cut outs of American presidents and a poster of Osama Bin Laden.

The fax will not go through. I make my way back to the conference for I am to speak on a panel on institutional arrangement for Food Aid. The conference center is huge, sprawling, the only game in town it seems—outside of the game reserves—that we have visited.

I have lost my way—taken the elevators in the B section instead of the D section and now though I have arrived on the right floor I am on the wrong side of the building and am in the section leased by a War Crimes Tribunal.

I have found myself in the part leased out to the War Crimes Tribunals, when I am supposed to be at the conference on Food Aid. The photographs on the walls in the corridor tell me so—they are not of happy faces enjoying our largesse. A woman appears and sends me off towards my destination— over there—in that direction. She assures that I will get there from here—and from there—it is a straight forward path back to right here. She assures, me that I cannot lose my way. A sign on the wall says The Geneva of our Continent: We bring the World to our Country.

“Geneva? Would I see a sign in Geneva that compares Geneva to here?” I ask. And as it is the convention here—she smiles tolerantly and helpfully ushers me along to the path I am supposed to take. Three corridors, two elevators and seven flights of stairs later I arrive where I am supposed to be. And added to my anxiety is the fact that I am half hour late for my speech. I apologize to no one in particular, that I had lost my way, the conference complex is too large and too indifferent to my need to be found—different parts of it lead to different purposes you see and it is easy to get lost here—given that all corridors are connected and can lead one easily astray.

I check my blackberry hoping that now perhaps, miraculously, it will work. It is dead. There is no signal to be had. I know this. I have been told this. I wonder why I keep trying.

I sit next to the Uzbek delegate —Two tables away from us a strapping and tall Macedonian, has fainted I am told—succumbed to the altitude and the pills. The Uzbek remarks: “Alexander the Great was defeated by it in Asia.”

“Yes— Taimur—it is the only defense they have against us—really, malaria.” I reply. “But they are looking for a miracle solution, an eradication of it.” The Uzbek looks at me quizzically and I shiver. It is cold here—I say—I wasn’t expecting it to be.

“Yes” agrees Taimur. “It is cooler here than I too was expecting it to be.”

I am delirious and probably drunk. The pills and the altitude will stand in for the two glasses of wine at lunch. Nothing works here I say-the fax, the internet—my blackberry is useless. And the room is filled with delegates. The panelist before me has just ended to a thundering round of applause. I am confused I don’t understand why they are clapping. We are experts in complicating simple things. In building complexities and confusion where there is clarity and understanding.

Unable to enter my blackberry I flip through the photographs on my camera—for yesterday we have gone on a sightseeing trip. Two hundred and twenty nine of us descending on a game park shooting up everything, capturing it with our Canons and Nikons. Capturing and shooting—looking at them through the lenses of our cameras—we will examine them at our leisure later, or perhaps forget to do so, content in the knowledge that we have been here, done that. Seen it, captured it. Done. Check and check.

And tomorrow, I am told we will go on another trip to the “Field”, our cameras in abundance: To see the content of our charity, visits have been arranged for all two hundred and twenty nine of us—together, for there is strength in numbers, we will go to the places which have been recipients of our outreach. On the way to them—-Our Projects—there has been scant evidence of structure though large churches are in abundance—ready for business or getting ready for it. It seems that they are everywhere: the prevalence of hope and the exclusivity of promise. We cluck and shake our heads in sorrow and indignation as only missionaries can, at the sight of competition and the errors of their ways: when will they realize that reform, as we demand it is the only way?

Two days of journey for fifteen minutes of speech. Someone is just ending his with the words: “We are religiously addicted to poverty reduction”. It is my turn to speak and yet I have forgotten why I am here. I am nauseated. In kinship, I look at the dizzy Macedonian. It is stuffy here. I look at the Uzbek in confusion. What am I here to say?

Perhaps I am here to speak about the genetics of blueberries.

Also By Maniza Naqvi here:

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