Thursday, April 28, 2011

My bubble

In red ink, my father marked a sentence in The Early Asimov, Volume I
About a year ago, I climbed an active volcano. A week later, it erupted. What felt like two days after that, a hurricane hit that very spot. Calamity follows in my wake and coincidences like these that have prompted many a friend to suggest a bubble wrap bodysuit would be an appropriate birthday present for me. 

Lately, I have learned to revel in a different kind of bubble wrap. It is a bubble that forms at night, in the absence of conflict, fear or worry. It is a bubble of joy and it tastes like scrambled eggs.

It usually starts with leggings. When I was living in the United States, websites instructed women that, in so many words, "leggings are not pants, please cover your rear end." In my bubble, away from sartorially-trained eyes, leggings are pants enough. 

My bubble involves pages of Zadie Smith and Mary Oliver, read on the couch, in leggings, while waving away mosquitoes with the hand that is not holding the book. 

I interrupt Elijah's reading to point out we have only each had cereal for dinner. The cereal was packaged in Greece, rendering it the only item in the grocery store I can read with utter certainty. Somehow, that made it tastier. No matter where cereal was packaged, it will never count as enough dinner in Elijah's eyes. This is a recurrent theme: When I am wrapped up in work, or writing, or Zadie Smith's words, my stomach does not grumble. The rest of the world melts away and hunger does not register. And when it does, cereal or celery sticks or popcorn will do. There was one summer during my college years when I lived in a room with no air-conditioning or kitchen. I credit that summer for my tolerance of heat and blame it for instilling in me the skewed sense that baby carrots and canned baby corn count as dinner.

After too much time in opposite corners of the world, and after I got hit by a truck, Elijah and I found ourselves sharing a closet, a kitchen and a life this fall. Elijah was repeatedly exasperated with my inability to ask for help while I recovered form my injuries, while I slowly found glimmers of joy in lying in bed in my nightgown at two in the afternoon, eating the omelets Elijah made for me. And the pasta. And the schnitzel. And, and, and. Elijah's food became part of my bubble. 

My ribcage is no longer shattered, but Elijah remains the cook between us. Culinary talent somehow did not squeeze into my Greek chromosomes. I make tasty coffee, and cereal, and popcorn, and I can put cilantro on almost anything and call it "flavor". So when I asked Elijah tonight if he'd like some scrambled eggs, he put his book down and earnestly asked,"you can make scrambled eggs...yes?" 

Luckily for both of us, I do. My bubble today involved scrambled eggs consumed in bed at midnight, with some sauteed onions, garlic and mushrooms... and a dash of cilantro. You know, for flavor. 

My bubble involves comfort, and laughter, and love, and a pinch of nostalgia. Elijah is reading a book he picked up at the house in which I grew up. The Early Asimov: Volume I belonged to my father. My father was a chemical engineer, a lover of astronomy and the cosmos and science fiction; naturally, Asimov was his guilty pleasure. The book was purchased in the 1970s in Kozani, in the periphery of Greece. Reading it in Beer Shevah in 2011, Elijah found a mark on page 112. The phrase my father had underlined read: "nothing is so weak that it cannot be strengthened."

The scrambled eggs in bed at midnight, the can-do optimism of the sentence in the Asimov book, the remembrance of my father and the recognition that of all sentences, that would be the one that stayed with him -- that is the stuff of love and comfort and nostalgia that makes up my bubble today. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

From Mortenson to Hetherington

Every Easter I spend away from Greece is a nostalgic one. These are the links that have kept me company through this one.

1. Last week I shared Lynsey Addario's interview on the joys and perils of photojournalism. This week, I am mourning the loss of two individuals who were dedicated to bringing us honest and direct stories from Libya. Director and photographer Tim Hetherington and photojournalist Chris Hondros lost their lives while covering this conflict. The Wall Street Journal has shared a beautiful array of Hondros' work in Afghanistan, Egypt, Haiti, Serbia, Iraq and beyond. In 2010, Hondros compiled a 20-minute series of images from his life and work. He titled it Diary and said about it:
"Diary is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It's a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media."
2.  Lots has been said about the controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson. Marianne Elliott lets her experiences as both a peacekeeper in Afghanistan and a memoir writer inform her perspective on the issue,  thus creating a critical and compassionate piece titled Three Cups of Humble Pie. It is also worth reading the comments; I particularly love how she draws the distinction between sympathy and compassion and still manages to extend the latter in a difficult situation.

3. The Mortenson controversy has not only prompted the aid and development community to reflect, but also sparked some engaging writing on literary portals. The Rumpus published an excellent piece by Steve Almond on "The Heroic Life: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir." I especially appreciated Almond's definition of creative non-fiction as a "radically subjective account of events that objectively took place", as well as his observation that "fake memoirs are a symptom of the basic insecurity that plagues all writers: is my story worth telling?".

4. The Guardian is featuring a "Rules for Writers" series. Zadie Smith advises: "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied." And Margaret Atwood counsels, "take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils." For more insight into the craft of writing, I particularly enjoyed an essay in Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays in which she adapted a speech she gave to Columbia University creative writing students.

5. Francis Fukuyama penned a stunning, thought-provoking piece on the effect of modernization and development policies in Egypt. He offers: "Ideas precede action. Before we can hope to generate a coherent set of policies for Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter, we need a better understanding of development—that is, how changes in economy, politics and society over time constitute a set of discrete yet interlinked processes"

Bonus: Terge Sorgjerd's time-lapse photography moves me. I first fell in love with his images of the Northern Lights and the story of how he compiled them. For his latest work of beauty, he spent a week at the top of Spain's highest mountain, photographing the sky and his surroundings. Read the story behind The Mountain and enjoy it below:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A decade ago, a year ago, yesterday: Food and memories

A decade ago
I grew up in a house of celebrations. My mother, ever fond of decorating, was appalled when baby Roxanne was afraid of the Christmas tree. Five-year-old Roxanne learned to love how the house reflected the seasons. For Apokries, the Greek Halloween, streamers and costume hats would adorn the staircase. Greek Independence Day, Easter and the advent of spring arrive intertwined in my homeland, so my mother always took care to fill the house with bird's nests and dyed eggs. Decor-induced injuries were not uncommon in that house. My uncle notoriously emerged from the bathroom massaging his bald head one Christmas: not even the bathroom was exempt from my mother's love of celebrations and a part of the tree (yes, in the bathroom) collided with my uncle's head while he was flushing.

It was my father, however, who taught me the quintessential ritual of Greek Easters: roasting lamb on a spit. As a college student in America, I noticed that one did not happen to walk past butchers that had full lambs hanging from hooks on the sidewalk. While I was living in Cairo or traveling through India, I further observed the squeamishness of tourists as they walked past the animal carcases. To me, it was normal. You buy a whole lamb for Easter and it still looks like a dead lamb, not like sliced fillet. My father was determined to teach me the art of turning said dead-lamb-that-looks-like-lamb into a delicacy one might like to eat as an informal pledge of allegiance to all things Greek and mighty.

My father had glaucoma, so the entire teaching process involved his giving me directions without actually being able to demonstrate or check on my progress. As anyone who has been in a kitchen with me knows, I have no culinary instinct. None of this "keep adding flour until the mixture needs no more flour" suffices for me. I need instructions, demonstrations, pictures, supervision, and a YouTube video to boot. What I got was a basement, a lamb, a spit, thread, wire, and a dumbfounded father who could not understand what was so strange about the process.

Here is what I learned: First you secure the neck and the legs onto the spit using the wire. Then you stuff the tummy with tomatoes, cheese, oregano, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Then you stitch it. Then you check the alignment - you do not want your lamb falling off the spit mid-roast. Then you leave it like that until the next morning. And you do not go to the bathroom at night because, really, who wants to pass a lamb on a spit prostrate in the hallway?

That was one of my father's last Easters. We all took turns roasting the lamb, dabbing it with butter, fanning the wood fire, feasting on the tzatziki while we waited for the lamb to cook. My cousin Neni tried to pick some meat off the lamb while it was still roasting, my mother yelled at all of us to put on sunscreen because "the ozon layer degradation is a real thing!", and my uncle tried to use the bathroom without getting attacked by the Easter bunny.

Age-old warped photo of teenage and pink-clad-from-head-to-toe Roxanne with her best friend, roasting lamb on a spit.
A year ago
For the first time since I began designing and implementing programs for women in conflict zones, I was lonely. Not alone - lonely. I had just bid goodbye to a life, community and project I loved in Colombia. I had not had a conversation in two days (Gchat does not count). Sitting at a Guatemalan cafe playfully named "Y Tu Pina Tambien", I wrote that "there is beauty in isolation", but I now know that was just me being an Eternal Optimist who cannot write a story without a positive spin. There was, however, some truth to my sunniness. Every time I had moved to a new place, there was a moment when I knew that I would eventually belong. The moment in Guatemala involved Couchsurfing, the invaluable network for travelers that enables them to find hosts and reciprocate hospitality to those passing through their own city. There was a party for the Couchsurfing community in Guatemala that evening and, armed with cake and rum, I was ready to burst my loneliness bubble.

Lainie and Miro were hosting the party and, little did I know, they would host me for the rest of my time in Guatemala too. Lainie is a firecracker who will dance on tables, unschool her son, and always believe -- in you, humanity and the 'everything happens for a reason' paradigm. Miro, Lainie's son, also a firecracker, was learning card tricks from Chris. Chris had just moved to Guatemala to become involved in a Motorcycle Cafe, giving tours of the country and Central America to fellow lovers of the two-wheel thrill. Jonathon, a writer, worshiped Jack Kerouac, sang the praises of a life on the road, and started talking to me about guys, girls and friendship. Juan Pablo quoted Neruda.

Everyone left and the house grew quiet. The sun came up. Juan Pablo caught me stuffing more cake into my mouth. He asked me, incredulously, if I was going to eat more. Between the cake, the dancing, the Kerouac and Neruda, and the dreaming, I knew I was no longer alone.
I ate a lot of cake in Guatemala. Here: in the living room that started it all. [Photo by Lainie of Raising Miro]
Christians and Jews are celebrating religious holidays at once, as it is simultaneously the Holy Week and Passover. The Israelites' Exodus from Egypt was allegedly so quick that the bread did not even have time to rise. To commemorate this, no leavened bread is consumed during Passover, leading to everyone around me stuffing themselves with cake, dinner rolls and pasta in the past week in a ritual of elimination-by-gorging. Elijah recalled his mother making matzo brei by soaking matzo, cutting it into pieces, soaking them in egg, frying them, and drizzling them with sugar and cinnamon. He recreated this version of 'kosher-for-Passover French Toast' in our kitchen in the Israeli desert. It was not Easter lamb. I had never had it before. Yet, it tasted like avgofetes - the egg-sugar-and-cinnamon bread of my childhood. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Three cups of tea and compassion

Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea came into my life just before my first project "in the field." I - appropriately - read it at Teaism, whose wooden benches I miss on nostalgic days "in the field" now. There was a lot I loved about Mortenson's book: the emphasis on women and girls' education in Afghanistan, his commitment to the significant involvement of the local population in his development projects, his ability to tell a story in a magnificent enough way to attract attention (and donations) to a worthy cause.

60 Minutes recently questioned the veracity of that story. As a reader and storyteller, I was disappointed and felt that if the allegations were true, Mortenson could be discredited. Following the airing of the 60 Minutes segment on Three Cups of Tea, many have drawn attention to the need for more robust Monitoring & Evaluation processes for aid projects, more accountability, more transparency and more funneling of funds/donations directly to projects as opposed to maintaining high overhead expenditures. Saundra of "Good Intentions Are Not Enough" is kindly compiling related links into a single post. I could not disagree with those claims and not only support these practices for the organization in question, but also consider them sound guidelines for any aid project out there.

Yet, it is another aspect of this controversy that has most affected me. Disappointed as I may be in Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) or anyone responsible for the inconsistencies, I am even more saddened by the response the 60 Minutes segment has generated. In my eyes, the recent revelations do not detract from the way in which Mortenson's vision and the CAI initiatives have impacted the lives of women, girls, families and whole communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am saddened by the joy in the tone of some, journalists and colleagues alike, who are celebrating that "it was too good to be true all along" and they had "called it" first. I am troubled by the fact that 60 Minutes chose to investigate these aid projects as opposed to many of the other controversies surrounding the conduct or consequences of the war in Afghanistan or wars elsewhere. Before anyone else says it: I know. I know misconduct occurs in the aid universe, just as it does in the military and in government, and that we should draw attention to it in order to learn. There is, in fact, a wonderful website encouraging organizations to do just that -- head over to "Admitting Failure" and browse some reflections on the shortcomings of aid and development work.

For now, I know this: I have not built hundreds of schools or educated thousands of students. I have not crafted an eloquent vision, developed an elaborate model for education and community development, or told any story of that magnitude that would generate this extensive an appeal. I understand that the recent revelations suggest the story is problematic and parts of the underlying model may be as well. Mortenson is, rightfully on some counts, getting de-idolized and I find the idolization itself problematic in the first place. In light of the other pieces of the puzzle though - the positive ones, the ones that inspired me and many others - I resolve to extend some compassion to Mortenson. His work and life story still ignite something inside me. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conflict, photojournalism and storytelling

My life is unfolding to the soundtrack of Brandi Carlile. Her voice escorted me as I conducted workshops on post-conflict reintegration of women into peaceful communities. Her songs of nostalgia kept me company when my harpaxophobia robbed me of sleep. Brandi Carlile has a transportive quality: she grabs me by the lapels and forces me to reflect, dream and do. Here are some of the other words and images that have had that effect on me recently:

1. On conflict, photography, and the perils of photojournalism
As revolutions spread around the Middle East, I find the narrative of photojournalists captivating. In late March, forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi captured four NYT journalists in Libya, including Lynsey Addario.  After her release, she spoke to the New York Times about the unique perspective women bring to conflict journalism and the consequences of this profession for one's personal life.

Fellow war photographer Goran Tomasevic talked to the BBC about the logistics of war zone photography. A preview: "I do not believe in running when bombs are dropped."

One of my personal struggles with photojournalism, and conflict photography in particular, is the faintness of the line between insensitive voyeurism and the responsibility to bear witness and tell a story. Nicholas Kristof talked to Facing History about that line, as well as the guidelines photographers and writers keep in mind when covering conflict zones and the role of compassion in this environment.

2. Iman al-Obeidi and Gene Sharp: From violence against women to non-violence
One of the cases that triggered the discussion of journalists standing by versus actively getting involved in events was that of Iman al-Obeidi. She is a Libyan woman who charged into a hotel restaurant on March 26th to tell journalists that she was being abused and threatened by government forces, who also forcibly removed her from this space. Weeks later, Iman al-Obeidi told her story to Lourdes Garcia-Navarro of NPR.

The conflict news pouring in from Libya, Ivory Coast, Yemen and beyond has been heavy on my heart. I found great solace and inspiration in a profile of Gene Sharp and his views on non-violence in The Nation.

3. Photography - this time, without a conflict lens
Human rights advocate, peace-keeper and role model extraordinaire Marianne Elliott devised some useful guidelines for respectful travel photography. Karen Walrond started a series called "Occasionally Technical Tuesdays", in which she demystifies photography techniques and offers advice on topics ranging from purchasing a camera and lenses to understanding aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

My favorite recent photography project is Rania Matar's "A Girl and Her Room." This Lebanese photographer observed her daughter's path from childhood to adulthood and noticed the ways in which her room and space reflected the changes in her life. She then photographed teenage girls' bedrooms in the United States and the Middle East. Her project generated so many questions in my head that interviewing Rania Matar is now solidly at the top of my wish list.

4. On women and writing
Personal essays are a genre dear to my heart. Female essayists I admire have been giving interviews that dispell myths on women and writing. When asked if it is difficult to be taken seriously as a humorist when you are a woman, Sloane Crosley responded:
"The difficulty is when people seem so self-satisfied complimenting a woman for what they perceive to be a man’s domain. They reveal themselves in the surprise. I’ve had men tell me — and this comes from a kind place — that they like that I’m “quick” or “clever.” All I can think is, a) Who the hell have you been dating? and b) How insulting it would be if I told a man how adorable I find his being clever."
Tina Fey, another woman I greatly respect, recently released Bossypants. While her memoir sits on my 'to-read list', I enjoyed Tina Fey's interview and profile in the New York Times. Among her tips for succeeding in male-dominated environments? "Don't eat diet food in meetings."

Capping off the discussion of women, humor, and writing, an article in Contrary asks a question that has been on my own mind: "What does it mean to write like a girl?"

5. Mary Oliver
She has taught me so much that she deserves a category of her own. Maria Shriver's interview with Mary Oliver touches on love, loss, creativity, poetry and memory. One of my favorite excerpts:
Maria Shriver: Mary, you've told me that for you, poetry is and always was a calling. How do you know when something is a calling? Mary Oliver: When you can't help but go there. We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.