Above is my letter to the editor of The Economist published in the July 26th-August 1st, 2014 print edition in response to a recent issue on the Arab world.
Three years ago, I wrote about Tomás Atencio and tried to describe his work in as succinct a manner as is possible in the short space of a blog post. This is what I published then. Please click on this line and read it again.
Last week, while having dinner in a restaurant in Turin, Italy, my friend Michael Morris called me from Albuquerque, New Mexico to let me know that Tomás had died the day before.
To me, it seems only like yesterday since he and I were at a party in Michael’s house back in 2005. But that was only one of many encounters over the decades. Tomás was a man of big ideas and strong principle, a visionary deeply rooted in his tierra and rich cultural heritage. Mestizaje was his natural method. As I go over a manuscript he shared with me in 2006, I find words and expressions such as “El oro del Barrio in the Cyber Age,” “Indohispano,” “community as dialogue” and “the future may be yesterday.” His concept of the Resolana as a space for intelligent survival will endure, I am sure.
He wasn’t a big man, but he was fiercely loyal to his friends. And his house was always open, a Resolana of sorts where he and his beautiful wife Consuelo never tired of thinking, debating, and exploring.
Un abrazo, Tomás!
My first visit to Italy has triggered so many reflections that writing about them should belong in a longer article, or even a book, not a blog post. This blog itself is given a Roman name, the name Rome once gave to the city of Tangier and, in fact, to the whole of Morocco—Mauretania Tingitana. North Africa at that time was the southern shore of what Rome called the mare nostrum, a sea-lake that brought together many nations under the dominance of Rome. The rise of Islam in the 7th century disrupted this world order and the Mediterranean became a contested space, leading each shore to follow its destiny. Both shores went through complex tumultuous histories, but there is no doubt that the balance sheet is largely in favor of the North.
The days I spent in Turin exposed me to a nation whose people are industrious, creative, and, most importantly, culturally flexible. The country, after all, is known for its high fashion, exquisite food, great wines, excellent coffee, inspiring architecture, robust industry, world-class services, powerful soccer teams and the list goes on. I was only in Turin—not Rome—but the museums, cultural centers, parks, and universities abound. I talked about Turin being the birthplace of Italian cinema and cars in my previous posts, but the city is also home to the “world’s oldest Egyptian museum,” which is currently undergoing a renovation that would make it even more of a dazzling experience when completed next year. Walking through the museum I understood perfectly why Italians, heirs to the Roman civilization, would be fascinated by Ancient Egypt and not by contemporary North Africa and its constantly squabbling people. The latter have very little to offer compared to the splendors left behind by the pagan Egyptians.
This was the cause of my discomfort. As I contemplated Italy, a nation that is ancient and modern, traditional and innovative, I realized, once again, why its Muslim neighbors around the Mediterranean have a long and painful journey ahead of them, if they wish to have a decent place among nations. Italians, whose civilization had a huge impact on the world, are not looking back, even though they have a glorious past that dwarfs the legacies of most other nations. Muslims, on the other hand, continue to brag about transmitting Greek knowledge, with a few original touches, to the West. This is the tragic irony.
When we were kids, my brother and I argued constantly about which car was better: the Italian Fiat or the French Renault. Both were ubiquitous in Morocco. My brother favored Fiat and I was for Renault. Both, it turns out, are pioneers in the automotive industry, some of the first car companies to be established. In Turin’s cutting-edge National Automobile Museum, Fiat and Renault’s 1899 models stand side by side as if to proclaim a truce. As with cinema, these two cars are built on older attempts by tinkerers to invent self-propelled vehicles. The first car was actually designed by a Frenchman in 1769, but there is no end in sight for what the car of the future would look or be like. The museum shows a few models …
but such a display may already be immature since it’s almost certain—at least to Google—that people would no longer be required to drive. If this were to happen, the idea of an “auto” (self in Greek) “mobile” (motivus, or motion, in Latin) will finally become a literal thing.
The science and technology that go into making cars are even more formidable than those that go into making films, and the effects of the automotive industry are so wide-ranging that they have transformed the ways we socialize, work, and entertain ourselves radically. A whole language was created for homo automobilus,a species that is proliferating dangerously, choking off the arteries of our living systems with so many air-polluting wheeled creatures.
Despite these signs, we are increasingly lost. We can’t seem to imagine life without cars, even though we are spending time on roads that lead nowhere.
To visit Turin’s National Cinema Museum is to be reminded that science is, in the end, like magic—it amplifies wonder even as it demystifies ancient beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than in this museum, located at the Mole Antonelliana, another magical structure that reflects human ingenuity at its best. Turin’s film museum wouldn’t be what it is without a sort of subterranean section, if you will—the floor devoted to the “Archaeology of Cinema.” It is here that one traces the journey from the ancient art of making shadows to the invention of photography and the birth of cinema. Research into optics and the use of light enhanced the magical experience of everyday life, allowing all forms of images to be projected, simultaneously enchanting and frightening generations of viewers. When the Lumière bothers Louis and Auguste hosted their first public screening at the Grand Café of Paris on December 28, 1895, they apparently had no idea (as the quote above inscribed on the museum wall shows) that the 20th century would be the century of film.
Other sections in this unique museum are dedicated to the various facets of filmmaking, from what goes into making a film (such as writing scripts, producing, directing, and advertizing) to the role of stars and the cult of celebrities. Film is a genuine industry at the service of our perennial quest for entertainment.
Obviously, the story of cinema continues to be transformed by new inventions, even though the thrill of being in a dark theater, alone with one’s shadows, may very well remain unchanged.
When you stand on the balcony atop the striking Mole Antonelliana structure—at one time, the tallest masonry building in Europe—you can’t help but agree that real cities never die. Perfectly located by the Po River, protected by the Alps on one side, closer to France than to Rome (the House of Savoy moved its capital from France to Turin in the 16th century), the capital of the Piedmont region is a powerhouse of a city—home to Italy’s main automotive industry (FIAT’s presence on American roads, after the purchase of Chrysler, is becoming more obvious by the day), some of the nation and world’s best universities, and the oldest chocolate factory in the world. It was in this city that modern Italy and Italian cinema were born. Torino—small bull, in Italian—was modern Itay’s first capital.
If you ever visit, make sure you drink from the green bull fountain in the Piazza San Carlo (as the people in the first picture do) or step on the engraved image of the bull by Caffè Torino’s door. If you are not so inclined, a visit to the Chapel of the Holy Shroud—which presumably contains the cloth that covered Jesus after his crucifixion—may be just as interesting.
As a longtime soccer fan who is also interested in the growing nexus of sports and business, I couldn’t resist a visit to Turin’s oldest soccer team’s stadium, recently rebuilt at the cost of approximately 120 million euros and designed to remove barriers between players on the pitch and spectators in the stands. The stadium is nothing less than a cathedral to soccer, a temple to Juventus heroes and their fans around the world.
There is whole lot more to Torino than this brief dispatch.
A chacun son goût.
Growing up with the notion—deeply entrenched in Muslim societies— that honey is the divine remedy for practically all ailments, I am as concerned as anybody else about the reported disappearance of bees from our farms and the consequences to world civilization and the future of food. Besides producing honey, bees are critical for our food supply, since about a third of the latter depends on pollination. I have read reports about the collapse of bee colonies—mostly due to infection and the use of pesticides—but I had no idea about how industrial agriculture has turned bees into migrant pollinators, trucked from farm to farm by commercial beekeepers, until the beekeeper Peter Richardson told me about this. This is not an easy job for anyone, which further adds to the challenges ahead. Clearly, we have more to worry about than the sting of the sweet, (mostly) harmless, and heroic bee.
To have a closer look at human beekeeping, I took three of my children to Freeport in Maine—known for its iconic L.L. Bean store—and headed to the farm of Peter, an investment specialist from Portland, who maintains hives for a hobby. It was a great educational experience for all of us. After the tour, my kids and I were invited to sample the honey right out of a honeycomb. It was heavenly.
Tokyo is the largest “mega-city” in the world right now, home to some 38 million people, more than the population of Morocco, and about the same as the population of California. I can’t begin to imagine what it takes to run, work, and live in such a place. Tokyo is not alone, though. It is one of the world’s 28 “mega-cities” (defined as cities with at least 10 million inhabitants) that, together, add up to some 453 million of the world’s population. By 2030, the world is expected to have 43 such places, although most of them will be located in the emerging economies of Asia and Africa.
These are some of the figures published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2014 edition of World Urbanization Prospects. As the massive demographic shift from country to city continues unabated, city planners and policy makers will have to spend more time thinking about making cities livable and enriching places.
Last night (July 8, 2014), I made a few comments to a small audience that came to Portland’s Space Gallery to watch the film “Return to Homs,” a poetic documentary by Talal Derki about the armed struggle of young men in the city of Homs, led by the charismatic Basset, a famous soccer goalie who erupts in song even amidst the most desolate scenes of destruction. The film inadvertently showcases the futility of armed rebellion against dictators, since the only thing that seems to fill the place of secular despotism is Islamic extremism. The brave young men end up dying or severely injured for God’s sake.
I took with me the recent issue of the Economist, whose main feature is titled “The tragedy of the Arabs: A poisoned history,” to illustrate the futility of violence in the Arab and Muslims worlds. As “Return to Homs” shows all too well, Arab and Muslim societies are poisoned and destroyed by a lack of vision. People fight against despotic leaders, but no one offers credible and exciting alternatives. Ever since a group of people crafted a religion called Islam between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, no Arab or Muslim has been allowed to imagine something outside of the box of religion. Every problem or challenge is read by folks as a lapse of virtue and a return to true faith is prescribed as a remedy. Last month, an Islamic state was declared in Iraq and Syria, with shadowy leaders, displaying medieval-looking flags and sporting long unkempt beards, calling on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to them.
The Economist is right when it says that only Arabs could change their destiny. To do so, they would have to wrestle with the ever-present ghosts of the past and the deceptive angels of religion.
Above is the document that altered the course of human history and gave birth to the modern world, with its unending quest for freedom, independence, and equality. The Declaration of Independence, issued by the thirteen states of America, was a powerful form of protest against the King of Great Britain who consistently refused to address his subjects’ long list of grievances. “A Prince,” the American colonists wrote. “whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Left on their own, without any support from their “British brethren,” the colonists had no option but to seek separation and establish the first modern republic—the United States of America.
Things didn’t have to come to this, if only King George III had listened and acted with good will toward his distant subjects. The Preamble of the Declaration makes this clear when it justifies the need to revolt against rulers but warns against doing so for flimsy reasons. It starts by saying:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
People, in other words, need governments that work best for them.
But, the founders continue:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Changing a government is a decision that should only be considered in extreme situations, when rulers show no sign of attending to their people’s needs.
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Only intolerable despotism justifies revolutions.
A few days ago, I wrote about “Sultanic Democracy" as the best model for Muslims trying to figure a way out of their political impasse. We have grown accustomed to the notion that a monarchy is antithetical to freedom. It is not if people’s rights are guaranteed.
That is what the Declaration of Independence clearly suggests.