Posts filed under ‘Art/Architecture’

Djenne

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The photo of the mosque at Djenne that I have been showing my class seems to have no context, just a strange and spectacular building set off by itself.

It isn’t set off by itself. It is in the center of an unpaved dirt courtyard, surrounded by children playing, goats sleeping, touts offering guiding services, stalls selling assorted goods, and two foosball tables used by young men.

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It is, without doubt, an imposing structure, built of mud bricks, with poles sticking out at regular intervals to allow people to scale the walls to remud the structure. It was rebuilt in 1906. There was little the French bequeathed their former colony in Mali (baguettes, French language, and remarkably little infrastructure), but, like in Morocco, here too they began refusing non-Muslims entry into mosques. So I was unable to see what the structure looks like inside.

The mosque, a World Heritage site, seems to be what brings people to Djenne. The town lies on the other side of the Bani river, and the crossing requires the use of a four-vehicle car ferry. Our drive up from Segou passed through many more small villages, an 18-wheeler broken down on the side of the road, a collection of overloaded minibuses, motorcycles, goats, cattle, and horses. After passing through miles and miles of wheat fields, then watermelon fields, then mud-brick-making fields, we turned off the main road and encountered flooded rice fields before crossing the river into Djenne.

After seeing the mosque, we set off in search of the mud cloth William had been commissioned to find. There is one famous mud cloth maker, a matriarch who looks to be in her 60s. Her son explained the various motifs, the groups who used them, and the methods still being employed to make the cloth. It is quite impressive stuff. We were invited up onto the balcony to see the view of the city from there, and found mud, cloth, and plant material for dyes awaiting use.

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They tell me Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world, though I don’t know how that is measured, and Djenne is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Along the route today, we passed two villages where signs announced proudly that electricity had come in 2006. . In side the town, There are no paved streets, houses are small, and the sewer system is a series of open trenches in the middle of the streets. Nonetheless, children walk around barefoot. Apparently, the street sewer is a result of well-meaning development projects. Water had been brought into town only for cooking and drinking, while washing and other tasks were done on the riverside. Those who arranged to pipe water into town didn’t consider the greater output, and there was no planning for what to do with the waste. See “How Not to Parachute More Cats.”

January 10, 2008 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Petra

I understand now why Petra is included in the recent list of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Back up the road to Amman for almost 100 kilometers, we got a better look at the mountains, the goats, the donkeys, the intermittent bedouin tents, and the occasional camel-crossing warning sign. The road past Wadi Musa (where some say the biblical Moses brought water from the rock) is quite beautiful, passing through a number of small villages and two huge international hotels before descending, descending down to the visitors station of Petra. This is a national monument that the Jordanian government is clearly interested in both preserving and promoting. Admission is a bit pricy for foreigners ($30 each; Jordanians pay about $1.50).

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The upper plaza is open to the sun, which was still very hot in mid-October. The walking path descends for a while before entering the Siq, a canyon paved by the Nabateans and the Romans after them, whose high walls provide shade and cool. This was the place where the Nabateans processed during religious ceremonies, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. The cliff faces on both sides rise sharply in many colors simultaneously. An open pipe carved into the rock at waist-level all along the Siq provided water to the Napatean capital.

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The narrow Siq ends abruptly directly in front of what appears to be a fabulous classical building. But it wasn’t built, it was carved, carved into the stone faces. The Nabateans were spectacular carvers, and Petra displays an amazing intersection between a spectacular natural rock formation and a creative and skilled human effort. The carved building facades are quite beautiful. In some, the combination of the swirling stone coloring and the carvings made them look like something Dr. Seuss might have consulted on. We didn’t walk all the way to the Temple, but did see a number of tombs and a Nabatean ampitheater that the Romans expanded. We tried to imaging what it might have been like living in this city, what people might have eaten, how they would have used the spaces.

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The Nabateans were a tribe from Arabia, whose empire stretched from Damascus south to the center of Arabia and lasted from the second century BC through the second century AD. Petra, the capital city, remained important well after the empire was assimilated by the Romans in 106 AD . A pre-Islamic Arab tribe whose writing seems to have prefigured early Arabic script, the Nabateans are an important symbol of the kind of identity the Kingdom of Jordan emphasizes.

The city is spread along a valley and up into the hillside, houses, tombs, and public buildings all carved into the stone. Vendors offer coffee, tea, soda, and souvenirs at various places within the monument. One young man from the neighboring town approached us, his arms full of necklaces, speaking English. Malik explained that he belongs to a local tribe that thrives on the tourist industry, each member knowing how to speak many languages. As we admired his wares, he talked to Malik. Their business is local, he explained. They make their jewelry from local stone, camel bone, and camel teeth. The government was thinking about allowing big firms to take over the souvenir trade in Petra, he told Malik. Why don’t they just provide support to the local craftspeople instead?

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We were tired, and decided to hire another young man with a horse carriage to take us back up, up to the entrance. The horse seemed very tired. At one point he handed Malik the reins, instructing him how to drive, then left briefly to talk with someone. When we got to the Roman road, he took them back–we understand why Romans had big wheels. (We didn’t!)

Suddenly, a rider galloped past us, quite a feat inside the Siq! He called to our driver, who gave up the reins and ran after him. Seems they were both trying to get to a horse that had run off. Our driver disappeared. Malik, and then William, drove the slowest horse at Petra. We must have looked quite cute, as people from a large busloads of Israeli tourists kept stopping to photograph us. I think it was our speed–our horse was apparently used to drawing an Amish-style cart and moved at that rate.

As we approached the end of the road, we began wondering what we would do with this horse, whose driver was nowhere to be seen. He appeared at the last moment, took the payment, and introduced himself as “Dr. Love.”

October 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm 1 comment

Updates

Josh Landis has summarized coverage of the incident.  BBC suggests that the Israeli press is worried about the IDF flight over northern Syria on the sixth.  I found the story but no related news online while looking for information about the military aircraft flying overhead for about 20 minutes this morning.  No news, no reassurance, no alarm.

I still can’t read Katie’s blog, which is blocked by the Syrian government.  She is now in Turkey, and can’t read my blog, which is blocked by the Turkish government

 William put together a wonderful panorama of the leather dyers establishment in the Fez suq.

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September 9, 2007 at 9:01 am Leave a comment

Ahmad’s House

Ahmad is an artist and a designer, who put aside his paintbrushes a few years ago to devote his full energy to restoration, especially of his own house.  I feel like I’m living inside his art. 

From the street, all one can see is a door and two small windows one story above ground level.  Through the door, one enters a small room with a marble-decorated floor and many plants, roofless, from which a set of stairs leads off to the right, and a small doorway beckons straight ahead.  Up those stairs, past a terrace, is a large apartment where a Japanese couple is living for a few months while working in Aleppo. 

Through that next door, one enters the open courtyard, with its white stone floor, beige stone walls, central fountain (Ahmad’s design), dozens of plants, and a grapevine trained over a steel frame above the courtyard to provide summer shade.   

Each time I enter the courtyard, I’m struck by how that anonymous door on the street leads into a private, colorful, quiet space. 

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On the wall opposite that internal doorway, Ahmad has carved poetry, painted shutters, and created a remarkable geometric screen over the upper windows.  Inside is our room, a large functional space (with a bed–also his design, sofa, table, desk, bathroom) in which he has invested an enormous amount of time, painting the wall and ceiling panels and restoring old decorative elements.  Beneath our room, Ahmad has his own. 

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To the right on entering the courtyard, the Japanese couple lives upstairs, and another room at ground level is currently occupied by a graduate student on a summer internship, also from Japan.  Opposite their rooms, the left (west) side of the courtyard, is a high wall. 

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Next to that inner door is the traditional aywan, a space created in Arab houses to provide a shaded area for food and conversation.  Ahmad has restored and installed seating, carved decoration into the stone arch, and painted a remarkable geometric design on the ceiling.  Just past the aywan is the kitchen we share with the student, and above that, The Tower.  The Tower is one small air-conditioned room with a bed, a wooden table, a chair, those two windows onto the street, and my dictionaries, to which I am expected to disappear for most of each day to finish The Book. 

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Ahmad has created a studio in one of the cavernous basement areas, where we get to watch his work in progress.  It’s been fascinating to hear his views on restoration and redesign.  Do old structures have to be restored in ways that rigorously adhere to some absolute sense of past architectural styles?  If all those eras also drew on the work of those who had come before, couldn’t restoration be freed from the arbitrary strictures of an antiquarian outlook?   

At another level, Ahmad is completely practical.  He has created the infrastructure needed to bring a 17th century house up to 21st century standards, installing electricity and plumbing, creating a solar hot water system, and developing a massive steel framework above the courtyard to allow him to alter the courtyard climate with the seasons, a canvas overhang to protect from the summer sun, a plastic sheet to keep off rain and limit cold in winter.

August 8, 2007 at 4:55 pm 2 comments


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