Monday, August 31, 2009

A Ramadan Scene

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and then break the fast each day with an iftar meal. In Cairo, about an hour before iftar, the streets get very quiet. Most folks are headed home, or somewhere else, to eat.

One of the principles of Ramadan is charity, so food is offered to the needy. One form this takes is tents which are set up around the city—often organized by mosques, business, or private citizens—to provide iftar to anyone in need.

There is another scene that particularly moves me. If you are out at the time the sun sets, currently around 6:20pm, there are groups of young men who hand out food and drink to people on the street or in taxis. Cups of juice, bottles of water, bags of fresh dates. You see them throughout the neighborhood—in the streets in front of mosques or just hanging out in the midans (squares). It is a great scene.

Yesterday, shortly before sunset, I was in a taxi with some friends for a short ride from the metro station, little more than a mile. By the time we got to my apartment—less than a five minute ride, the driver’s car was filled with about 10 bags or cups of dates, some nuts, and a bottle of water. Since I was in the front seat, I got to receive most of it for him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Art from Congo

I don't know what it says that I am back in Cairo and writing on my Cairo blog about Democratic Republic of Congo. These pictures, however, are about both places, I think. Art from Congo that are now part of my life in Cairo.

First, this is a picture of a handbag made by an artist friend of mine, Veronique, from Kuba cloth. She is a fabric artist that I met four years ago, who works with various sorts of raffia. I have a lots of things she has done, including a marionette. She is not herself Mukuba; she is from Bandundu and works in Kinshasa. This bag is pieced from some fabric that she bought from Kuba artists. I gave it to my wife as a gift.
This here is my home office, or my soon-to-be office. This is a piece I bought from Kuba artists, a brother and sister (Bope and Henriette) who I met this summer through Vero. This is a huge piece about 3 meters (or 10 feet long).
These are two smaller pieces that I purchased from the same artists. The first is hanging in my home office area, on the wall directly across from the one pictured above.
This one is in the hallway in our apartment. So I guess this blog entry is about our Cairo apartment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Né dans la rue + Pixo!

So, the good art exhibit I saw was a graffiti show “Né dans la rue” (Born in the Street) at the Fondation Cartier in Montparnasse. There was no photography allowed inside (and the fact that I was using my sweet new Canon HD video camera for my stills made me kind of conspicuous) but they did hae some nice pieces on the exterior which I photographed and posted via Facebook.

I thought the show was excellent. The entry room included large new pieces commissioned for the show from artists from Europe, the US, and South America. Then, downstairs, in the first room, they had historical pieces, mostly from the 1970s, which included piece books, video footage, oral histories, and photographs. They even brought in P.H.A.S.E. 2 and SEEN to recreate some of their classic pieces. Next, as the show moved into the 1980s, they were showing Wild Style (they had Lady Pink’s airbrushed jacket too) and videos by Blondie and The Clash. Plus they had record artwork (Ramelzee!) and paintings by Basquiat and Haring. The website for the show is nice and has a lot of material available for those of you not able to make it to Paris.

For me the biggest revelation was Pixo, a film about pixação (aka “pixo”) a form of tagging that has taken off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. These are writers who work in very dangerous spots on the sides of public buildings, climbing up spiderman-style. (You can check it out some more in the video below.) Its roots are hard to determine—a lot of writers cite the influence of heavy metal album covers---but it goes back at least to the 1980s. It is illegal and has been the foundation for an entire outlaw culture. In the way that graffiti has become increasingly astheticized, and therefore commercialized, pixo is deliberately avoiding that route. (An Audi parked in front of the Cartier Foundation exhibition seems seems suggestive of graffiti's entrance to the galleries.)
I think we have reached a point, for example, where it is not too hard to recognize the artistic value of many graffiti artists (like those photos posted on my fb page). (Example: Part of KET’s sentence in NYC for tagging trains was to paint a mural at a school.) The case becomes a lot harder with pixo, which is all about creating a font to make a tag and a message. This has two effects, as I see it. First, their work becomes much harder to co-opt for commercial purposes. There is little to no premium placed on what we might call the artistic quality of the tag; the premium is placed on its placement and visibility. Second, the focus stays on the words and the message, thereby lending itself to particular form of political protest for young people (mostly, but not entirely, men) in Sao Paulo who have no other way of being heard. The video I am posting below includes a pixo action at the fine arts school in Sao Paulo, where a student, also a pixo writer, got a group of other writers together and bombed the school.

I am not sure when and where you will have a chance to see the full film by João Wainer and Alexandre Orion, but here is a shorter versions online. It is in Portuguese with French subtitles, but the images of the writers climbing the buildings is amazing whether or not you understand either of the languages. It is definitely worth 11 minutes.

Pixo, un film de João Weiner et Roberto Oliveira (Extraits)

If you have trouble with the embedded video, try the link above or let me know.

Friday, August 21, 2009


During the four days that we spent in Paris en route from the US to Egypt, we saw an exhibit “Tarzan!” at the Musee Quai Branly. This is a new museum--think an updated American Museum of Natural History--devoted to art from the non-Western world. I anticipated a museum exhibit that was somewhat critical of Tarzan—one that attempted to place the development of Tarzan alongside US and European colonial policy toward Africa, which seems to me the obvious backstory of the Tarzan phenomenon. I was not looking for irony necessarily, but I was hoping for something much different than what I found.

The first clue was the ubiquitous little © copyright symbol that reminds you that Edgar Rice Burroughs retains all rights to Tarzan.

The exhibit did do a couple of things well, I thought. The extent of visual documentation—books, films, and ephemera—that was accumulated is a valuable archive. There were other connections that were made clear, such as tracing King Kong to the kind of racial imagery that preceded it in Tarzan films. Also there was a good explanation of the emergence of the leopard print in European fashion as a result of Tarzan. The racial imagery in these action figures is unmistakable.

BUT: There was no discussion of European imperialism in Africa and how that provided a context for the ways that readers and viewers experienced the stories, which began in 1912 with Burroughs’s first novel Tarzan of the Apes. It was just shocking to me. There has been some good serious scholarship on Tarzan that made me expect certain things from the exhibit. In a book I love, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), Gail Bederman concludes with a discussion of Burroughs’s first novel in the context of US ideals of racialized masculinity. So this work on Tarzan does exist. (There is newer book from Univ. of Georgia Press by Alex Vernon called On Tarzan that I have not read.)

Here are a couple of images, which I find offensive. (Keep in mind that the exhibit had no such warnings and was in many ways targetted at children.) The first is from a “view finder” (those kid binoculars).

These here are from comic books, which contribute to the hateful association of black people and crocodiles.
None of these images were accompanied by a substantive critique. Not only was I hurt and offended, but I was also surprised. Perhaps I am naive.

There were many more seemingly innocuous images, such as this one from a recorded storybook of "The Jungle Book." This grabbed my attention because growing up I had the exact same record (in English of course).For more images, the NY Times has a slide show that accompanies Michael Kimmelman’s (also negative) review. I have more thoughts and criticisms, but will leave it there for now.

Postscript: The day afterward, walking along the Seine, I noticed not surprisingly Europe’s endless fascination with Tintin, specifically Tintin in Congo, which, for those not familiar, is a terribly racist Belgian comic. Tintin is being made into a movie (supposedly without the more overt racism) by Spielberg. Two years ago, Borders wisely decided that it would no longer keep Tintin in Congo in their children’s section. Just this week, the Brooklyn Public Library has been receiving coverage for its decision to pull it from their children’s section. (The Brooklyn PL link reproduces some panels from the book.)

I did see a good exhibit in Paris too, so I will write and post some more in the coming days.

Bloody cellphones

Global Witness released a new, major report on mining in Democratic Republic of Congo last month that identifies some of the British firms and their involvement in the country’s ongoing war. The full 110-page report, “Faced with a gun, what can you do?” is available online, as is a more condensed summary.

In discussing this with some friends recently, I was asked about what kinds of actions individual consumers can take. It is easy to feel powerless, but, since US consumption is in many ways responsible for the civil war and grinding poverty in DRC, our role is crucial. Here are some ideas abouts things you can do before you buy your next cell phone or computer:
  • First, research the phone company and their policy on their coltan supply. Many have detailed statements on line. We can do research, encourage other to do the same, and send letters to manufacturers (specifically their departments of corporate responsibility). Even when their policies are posted, send letters asking questions so they know that people care. It is particularly important to encourage rigorous monitoring and enforcement by companies of their supply chains. Just because suppliers sign an agreement that they do not use coltan from DRC is not really enough. For one example, you can see Motorola’s statements on the mining of metals and their suppliers. What is perhaps most amazing to me is that despite their efforts, they report that only 47 of 179 suppliers even responded to their survey. Certainly Motorola can require their suppliers to at least respond to their survey!
  • Second, people can encourage companies to mine coltan elsewhere--Australia and Greenland for example. The latter is suspected of having large untapped reserves and requires some exploratory research. Nokia, for example, has tried to eliminate Congolese coltan from its supply chain. Still, Nokia has to be pushed to provide more rigorous documentation and enforcement. Apple and Samsung also have policies you should be able to find online.
  • Third, we can encourage the development of alternative technologies. I am technically out of my league here, but there needs to be research into affordable ceramic capacitator construction... Given all of the other technological advances in this area in recent years, this should be feasible.
  • Fourth, we can encourage our family, friends, businesses, colleagues, churches, and organizations to do this research and make phone calls and write letters and consume products accordingly. If a university or large business is purchasing a bunch of phones or laptops, I think an inquiry into the supply chain would be taken seriously from a vendor.
  • Finally, of course, we can try to limit our consumption. Recycle. Try to keep our cellphones longer...
Just a few ideas. I am sure there are other good ones out there. Hope this is helpful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to the office...

I got back to Cairo on Friday night after a few days in Paris. (I will try to write something about that trip in the next week.)

On Sunday morning, I headed to my office and campus is mostly a ghost town. There were very few people there. I went to my office and my computer did not turn on. I tried every outlet in my office. The lights (including a desk lamp that seemed to be on the same circuit as the computer powerstrip) worked fine. I swapped out a cable from a different computer in the office and there was nothing. It is less than a year old too. The problem was that there was nobody around to help me. Almost all of the university staff takes their annual leave in August, which makes sense since there are no classes and few people around. But it doesn’t make sense in that there is almost no technology coverage. I tried to call lots of people, and barely got a human. Full voice mail boxes. Forwards to attendants who never picked up. I reached a department administrator on her cellphone in England! Eventually I went to the Dean’s office who put me in touch with a hardware supervisor in some other building who sent someone down to my office. He kindly figured out, quite quickly, that it was in fact an electricity problem. Then we were able to call someone who dispatched an electrician over who fixed it. I think he replaced a fuse. Whatever it was, he was able to do it without even being in my office. Then as a bonus he was able to complete the unfinished installation of my desk outlet which had never been screwed into the wall and spent all last year lying on the floor with all of the cables exposed. (It was not a repair I ever thought to request.) Anyway, it was not how I had hoped to spend my first day back in the office, but that part of it was a windfall.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I just read this article on BBC about a marriage proposal for Chelsea Clinton from Godwin Kipkemoi Chepkurgor. It involved an offer of cows and goats as the dowry, or bride price. In many places, the family of a daughter will receive a gift from the family of her fiancé. There are lots of variations on how this is done, but my closest friend in Kinshasa was seeing his daughter married while I was visiting so I have been thinking about it.

In this case, his daughter and her fiancé are both from the same ethnic group (Lega), which makes things less complicated than in increasingly common inter-ethnic unions. They had a meeting between the families and agreed on the price which is usually counted in goats. The exchange in goats rarely takes place. The cash value of the goats is figured out—today between $50 and $60 each—and the exchange takes place in cash, which might be around $1,000. There are variations—two Kongo friends of mine got married last year and their exchange included fabric and clothing in addition to cash money.

It is something that may seem very strange or foreign to people in the US, but I am not convinced it is all that unusual. As my friend explained, as the father of the bride, he is responsible for throwing the parties, which in Congo frequently have 400 or 500 people. Plus there are two parties--the wedding and the engagement. Essentially the dowry is the groom’s family contribution to the feast, which in many cases does not even cover half of the expenses. There are similarly gendered customs in the US about who is responsible for paying for what. Of course, there are many variations to this practice in Congo and elsewhere but this is one that I know.

The engagement party is traditionally where the dowry is exchanged. However, recently in Kinshasa, there have been robberies of these exchange-of-dowry parties, because word gets out that a large amount of cash will be on hand. Now, people typically meet a few days before the party and privately exchange the cash. At the party, the bride’s family now gives an empty envelope to the groom’s family.

Other things are discussed at the family meetings as well. In the case of my friend’s daughter, it had to do with her education. She is currently a graduate student in computer science and wanted to delay the marriage until she completed her degree and has long hoped to study abroad. Her fiancé and his family had agreed to this. This was the situation when I left Kinshasa.

Last week, on what I thought was the night before the party, I telephoned to offer my good wishes. But the party was called off. Earlier in the week, my friend’s daughter found out she was going to be able to go to India to complete a Master’s degree (or its equivalent). Her fiancé’s family wanted to schedule the marriage before she traveled. She refused. Her family supported her. The engagement has been called off, at least for now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Photos from Nairobi

It has been a while since I have posted but hope to get my rhythm back once I get back to Cairo at the end of next week. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I have some pictures from the day I spent in Nairobi on layover en route from Kinshasa to Cairo. I am experimenting with new ways of sharing photos, so these are up on Flickr and Facebook. Comments on your preferences for viewing photos are welcome.