The Decameron (Penguin Classics)

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A Year in Reading Subtitles: Rabeah Ghaffari

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In February of 2020, just one month before the pandemic reached a global pitch, totally unaware of what was coming, I took off for Merida in the Yucatan region of Mexico for what I thought would be a short visit to my mother who had been living there for some time. Unable to return after the lockdown, I ended up quarantining with her in a grand old colonial home in the historic center of town. Days, weeks, and months bled into one another, and we fell into a routine of cooking, talking, bickering, swimming, doting on the dog, driving to Costco, reading, taking walks, exercising, bickering while swimming, and talking about future meals while eating the one in front of us. When we ran out of topics to argue about, I would say things like, “Mom did you know I was born on the same day as Caligula? Thank God I don’t have any siblings, right?” To which she said, “Honey, thank God you don’t have a horse.” One day, as I walked across the interior courtyard of the house in a bikini top with shorts and a handkerchief wrapped around my head, I muttered to myself, “What if The Decameron but make it Grey Gardens?” I was thankful that we did not have any cats or horses. The world outside had faded into a fiction. Albeit a terrible one that was too real for so many who suffered the worst of it. 

By the end of 2020, it was clear that I would be living in Mexico. And thus began my odyssey of binge watching mostly Spanish language telenovelas to accelerate my language skills. This was not unlike in 1979, when just three months before the revolution in Iran, I came to America with my parents to stay for a year but never left. The chaos and terror that unfolded back there became like a fiction to me. I began my American life with television. It was how I started to learn the language, a language that would become like a first one for me and eventually lead me into a world of literature and finally writing a novel myself, about Iran, a place and language I had left behind. Twice now I had escaped the worst of a global event. It occurred to me that there is a fine line between luck and loss.   

My Mexican telenovela binge began with Rosario Tijeras. A show that at first blush is only a paltry three seasons—but each season has 70 episodes. I watched it in a month. Please don’t do the math.  It takes place in Mexico City. Rosario, a teen when the show starts, lives in a dangerous barrio with her mother and younger brother. She has an older brother, named Brandon for some reason, who doesn’t live at home.  Rosario earns her tijeras (scissors) moniker because she knows her way around some scissors. She lops off the hair of a school principal who insults her and stabs her rapist in the groin with them. She ends up in a love triangle with two rich boys, then in another one with one of the rich boys and a narcotraficante. The brutality of her environment and her fearless street smarts leads her to become a sicaria as she buries family members and seeks vengeance on those who wronged her and those she cares about. She has multiple tearful monologues to gravestones and various statues of the Virgin Mary. The grand finale has her running away from a crowd of worshippers with a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been rigged with a bomb. Rosario Tijeras is a show about all of the wars we wage: in class, in power, for vengeance, and, finally and perhaps most importantly, for love. I learned many colloquial words like chamba (work), carnal (friend or blood relative), chamaco (kid), or phrases like, no manches (really?), no manches wey (no way!), baja tus armas! (lower your weapons), or calle sus ojos! (close your eyes), which is the Spanish equivalent of the sanitized English exclamation, “shut the front door!” I was exhausted by the end of the 197th episode and its highly emotional ending. All the main characters had died. And it made perfect sense for a show whose theme song starts with the words: “An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. This is how this permanent war is lived.”  

Bereft at the loss of my Rosario Tijeras and unwilling to commit to another show with hundreds of episodes (for mental health reasons), I bravely moved onto El Dragon: Return of the Warrior. A modest two seasons with almost 40 episodes each. It tells the story of a Mexican national, Miguel Garza, who is a financier and, for some reason, a samurai warrior in Tokyo. He returns to Mexico (now a ronin) to take over the family drug cartel business when his grandfather falls ill. The samurai businessman-narcotraficante crossover concept is *chef’s kiss*. Besides the high drama of family strife, power struggles, and a budding romance after the loss of a great love, there is the story of Miguel and his childhood friend Hector who is a journalist seeking justice for the senseless murder of his sister caught in the crossfire of the drug war. Miguel believes he can legitimize the cartel business by bringing it into the world of finance (no manches?) and Hector believes he can bring about justice by exposing the corrupt power players involved in it. Everybody dies. 

After El Dragon I had some brief affairs with shorter shows like Monarca, a Salma Hayek produced drama about a tequila family empire, which I like to call Sucesión. And Ingobernable, about the first lady of Mexico accused of murdering her husband, el presidente. She goes on the run and finds unlikely allies in the underworld. It stars the reigning queen of telenovelas (and orginal Queen of the South) Kate del Castillo known Stateside as the woman who introduced Sean Penn to El Chapo. Then there was the Narcos franchise, which has the most beautiful theme song ever written for a TV show: “Tuyo” (Yours) by Rodrigo Amarante, who said he wrote the song with the idea that it was the kind of song Pablo Escobar’s mother might have listened to while raising him. Then came the sleek fair from Spain like La Casa de Papel (popular Stateside by the name Money Heist). For those who watched it dubbed, all I can say is you cowards, reading is fundamental! Also, I began to count the number of times someone yelled ja! (now!). It was a lot. I puttered around the house yelling ja! to myself. Then there was Elite, a high school drama about a murder, a promising young scholarship student, and rich children behaving badly but not as bad as their parents. I followed this with one season wonders like Toy Boy (what if Magic Mike but make it Ibiza?) and White Lines (what if Less Than Zero but make it Ibiza?). At this point I was done binging. It was time to get back to reality. 

One afternoon, my mother was driving back from running errands and asked if there was a parking space in front of my house. I peeked out the front door and saw one. She was only a few blocks away so I stood in the space waiting for her. A woman drove up to take the spot but I shook my head “no.” She rolled down her window and yelled out, “la calle no es tuya pendeja!” (The street is not yours asshole!) and I was so elated that I understood her, I smiled and said “gracias!” Suffice it to say that I’m on my way to becoming a Spanish speaker. It’s a beautiful language. It’s commanding and fraught with a colonialist past. It’s been taken and made into the image of each country that it colonized. No two Spanish speaking countries speak it the same. It is the mother tongue of almost a half billion people. I’ll probably spend the new year working with a tutor (I’m done being at the mercy of that Duolingo owl) and building up the courage to speak it badly. Mexicans are unbelievably gracious, especially when it comes to helping you out with their language. Who knows, maybe this will be the year I can actually attempt to read in Spanish. It would be thrilling to read one of my favorite books Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada in its original language. And maybe down the line I can even tackle Cien Años de Soledad. I’ve certainly ingested enough TV series that I am now writing one myself. Expats but make it Merida. And as for novel writing, I find myself looking back at life in New York City where I lived for 40 years and suddenly its crystalized into a fiction. 

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