Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More Pictures

Now that's a shawarma!

Who's Black Label?

Chris McClure

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Antique Land

I went to the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum today. Photography was not allowed in the room of course, ‘out of respect for the dead.’ Anwar Sadat thought the whole concept of displaying dead royalty was blasphemous and closed to room for many years. But we are people of science, and know that the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were just so much silly superstition. So, in the name of science and curiosity about the dead (are these related?), the mummy room is again open to the public. It’s a good thing the religion of these Egyptians has died out, and that science has taught us the truth about these things, or else we might have to respect their beliefs and leave these people in their graves. Just for the record, I am also, despite my agnosticism, a ‘man of science’ in this regard. We should be aware, however, that our so-called respect for diversity and other religions and ‘value systems’ is done from a standpoint of what we believe to be certain knowledge about the truth of these claims and beliefs.

It was still quite early when I left the mummies so I headed to the Tutankhamen room, where it struck me that the works of the human mind are far more impressive than the remains of the human mind…This reminds me of Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” which was in fact inspired by a statue of Ramses II (whose mummy I had just seen):

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Among the many things going on in this poem is the fact that the work of the artist has outlived everything else - even though it too seems destined to perish. So who was greater? Ozymandias who ruled the kingdom and perhaps made it possible for the sculptor to work, or the artist, without whom not even this meager trace of the kingdom would exist? And why should we despair? Clearly this was meant as a warning to potential enemies while the king lived, but is now a warning against the futility of striving to make anything lasting on earth (compare Ecclesiastes 1:11). Part of what distinguishes human beings from other creatures is the awareness of our own mortality, and, more importantly, our reaction to this knowledge. The striving for eternity is what drives poets and artists and what, at the beginning of human civilization, built the pyramids. No wonder so many people are fascinated by mummies.

Chris McClure

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Van Gogh's Shoes

The type of fascination with urban decay that I spoke about last time has something in common with the idealization of rural life that I think is best captured by Heidegger in his essay "On the Origin of the Work of Art." In this essay he describes a painting by Van Gogh of a pair of peasant's shoes:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

There are clear differences between the urban and the rural - one is more isolated and closer to the earth and the direct forces of nature than the other. What connects them is the need for constant hard work to fend off 'the surrounding menace of death,' or, as I put it previously, the lack of insulation from necessity. It's hard to know where one stands with Heidegger, but it seems to me that the point is not that we should spend more time trudging through cold wind-swept fields - this can be an enjoyable activity, but only when we don't have to do it. Rather, we are supposed to become more aware of what it is that these types of lives had that we do not. This may be akin to the sort of thoughtfulness that less Profound (with a capital 'P') thinkers such as Wendall Berry encourage.) We should also think about the connection between this 'disenchantment' and today's lack of truly great art and other works of the mind.

Chris McClure

Urban Decay

In my last post I said there was something to the argument that poorer areas in places like Cairo are somehow more ‘authentic.’ So why exactly do some people (like me) find these sorts of places so interesting? There is something about the winding alleys and cramped spaces that gives a neighborhood more character than the efficient, modern grid-based system of many North American cities. The accumulated wear of countless lives lived out walking up the same stairs, opening the same doors and being confined to the same dark rooms makes these places seem, if not exactly more natural, at least more ‘real.’ People who live here have to make the most of what little they’ve got and have very little choice in how they will live their lives. The more affluent are insulated against these necessities. It seems to me that part of what is impressive about these places is that life persists in them in the face of such adverse conditions – we like to see ‘how they live.’ As I’ve mentioned before, I think this is intriguing for Westerners because of a sort of Romantic attraction for whatever seems more rooted in the earth and closer to necessity. However, much the way some Italians might be irritated when someone identifies the real Italy and real Italians with the backwards and corrupt parts of Sicily rather than with Rome or Milan, this attitude can be quite annoying to people who live in these countries (Egypt in this case). It’s difficult for them to understand why so many people from the West focus on poverty rather than on their country’s achievements and their ore beautiful aspects.

On the other hand, it is important to try to understand where these notions come from since they may point to something we lack in modern life. Perhaps a certain lack of awareness of necessity? Perhaps a lack of enchantment?

Wishing for enchantment though is tricky business. I would never want to live in these places - although many who do live there would gladly come live where I do. But there is another side to enchantment that is also largely lacking in the West today. Walking through these crowded dusty alleys in Cairo you come across truly extraordinary mosques and other buildings, some of which are over 1000 years old and on a scale that rivals the large churches of Europe (none of which were built recently). These are examples of mankind’s highest achievements and stand in marked contrast to the squalor surrounding them. What exactly have we lost that prevents us from creating such things?

Chris McClure

Thursday, July 26, 2007


With a name straight from Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmares, the McArabia is available in McDonalds all over the Middle East. It is made with meat patties that taste suspiciously like the breakfast sausages one finds in North America (McDonalds doesn’t do breakfast in this part of the world). It’s also wrapped in ‘Arabic’ bread (since Arabic is a language and not an adjective it’s hard to know what to make of this). This attempt at local cuisine for a local market is amusing but not very authentic. But then, authenticity isn’t very easy to define. The idea of an ‘authentic’ Middle East conjures up visions of simple farmers living in mud brick houses, women in burkas and traditional wedding ceremonies. I’ve been staying in Zamalek, a relatively upscale neighborhood in Cairo, and had a conversation with someone who told me that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Cairo. This real Cairo involves noise, confusion, dirt and poverty. There is something to this point of view – there is an important difference between places with what we could call character and those that have a soulless antiseptic feel. But there’s no doubt that Zamalek has as much character as anywhere else in the country. Saying that this isn’t the real Egypt is like saying that Mobile Alabama is the real America but Manhattan isn’t. So what’s going on here? It seems to me that Westerners have a strange obsession with gawking at poor people in other countries (I’m also guilty of this – see my last post). Perhaps this is the result of a certain line of thought in Western philosophy from Rousseau to Heidegger that is critical of the modern world and which paints a romantic picture of peasant life and its close connection to the earth. Part of this picture is a reaction against progress and a yearning for a time when things didn’t change so much. If there is any truth to this then Osama, in his hatred of the West and praise of the Taliban, might be buying into its thought, or being defined by, it more than he knows. I’m not an expert in Islam but I would be surprised if the religion requires Muslims to be miserably impoverished as those under the Taliban’s regime were. Attempts to stop historical change will always be futile. This does not mean that the whole world must become like the United States though. Japan, which was once highly isolationist, has embraced the modern world, but is no less Japanese for that. The religious and intellectual elite of the Middle East should realize that modernization does not mean that the region will become McArabia.

Chris McClure

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pictures and Pens

Kids in the Egyptian oases love having their pictures taken with digital cameras and seeing themselves on the screen.

For some reason they're also constantly asking for pens...

Chris McClure

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Statue of Liberty?

I wonder how many Americans know this piece of trivia about the famous New York landmark. Everyone knows that the French gave the statue to the United States as a sign of goodwill. But the statue's history is more complicated. Khedive Ismail "The Magnificent," (Egypt's ruler from 1863 to 1879), originally commissioned it to stand at the mouth of the Suez Canal in Port Said. Ismail was on a spending spree after a spike in the price of cotton (which Egypt produced) in the 1860s. This was partly the result of the Confederacy cutting cotton production during the American Civil War in order to increase international pressure to stop the conflict. By the time the canal was completed in 1869, the Civil War was over and Ismail was broke. He couldn't afford to have the statue built and it never made it to Port Said. The plinth it was supposed to stand on (pictured above) was built though. A large statue of Ferdinand Lesseps (who designed the canal) stood on it but was knocked down after Nasser's 1952 Revolution. Now the plinth sits with nothing on it and without even a plaque. This somehow didn't make it into the statueofliberty.org's page on the history of the statue. The statue, after being paid for successfully by the French people has managed to stand for nearly 130 years without being knocked down by civil strife.

Chris McClure

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Closet

I've been staying with my friend Rory for a while in Jerusalem. His roommate - a paratrooper in the Israeli army - has been away so I've been staying in his room. I went into his closet looking for hangers and discovered an interesting assortment of things in there. I suppose it looks a lot like my closet except for all the bullets and the M-16 clip.

Chris McClure

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mercedes in the Middle East

If you get a taxi in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv it’s likely to be a white Mercedes-Benz - and a new one at that. It’s a nice way to travel as a tourist but one can’t help notice how few privately owned luxury cars there are on the road in Israel. Most people drive hatchbacks or other small European cars. This is not because of a lack of space – Israel, as part of its quasi-socialist economic system, imposes a 128% tax on European cars and 144% tax on Japanese cars. So how do cab drivers manage to drive such expensive cars? The rumor is that the German government gives them to the Israeli government as reparations for the holocaust and the Israeli government leases them cheaply as taxis. The taxis in turn are driven mostly by Israeli-Arabs.

On the streets of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Israel’s less affluent neighbor, the proportion of Mercedes, BMWs and Porsche SUVs on the streets rivals that of any North American city. Many of these (especially in Aqaba) have Saudi plates, but who is driving the rest? Don’t get me wrong – I think Mercedes are great and I hope to own one one day. Seeing so many on the roads of Jordan though, I couldn’t help but think of those infamous African dictators who spend a large percentage of their country’s GDP on custom fleets of Mercedes. Everyone seems to say, though, that Jordan is becoming more and more prosperous all the time. Perhaps all those luxury cars are a sign of progress.

Part of this progress might be due to the fact that Aqaba is a tax-free zone. On the other hand, this has created a problem with smuggling. I found out about this from the customs police who wanted to know why we were stopped on the side of the highway. Just as the taxi (a Mazda) I was taking to Petra began climbing the hills outside of Aqaba, smoke started pouring out of the hood and through the dashboard and I had to wait for quite a while before help arrived.

Chris McClure

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Border Crossing

I was in Jordan for a few days and I had no guide book or any
information. Despite this, I tried to cross the border into Israel at
the Jordan River crossing late in the evening not knowing what
I would find on the other side or how I would get to Jerusalem. After
the Jordanian soldiers went through all my stuff (they were fascinated
by my Burt's Beeswax lip balm for some reason) I had to wait around
for a bus to take me (the only Westerner) across the border since you
can't cross on foot. The bus was broken though and it took a while to
fix it. At that point the bus driver came over and asked what my
nationality was - I said Canadian and he said "The border is closed for
you now - you have to try in the morning. I'd already officially exited
Jordan and there was no one around and no taxis or anything so waiting till
morning would mean sleeping outside in some deserted place so I insisted he let
me on the bus so I could try to get across. He let me on and after the
Israeli soldiers checked the bus three security people met me as I got
off (tourists are only allowed through there at certain times and this
wasn't one of them). They were asking me if I'd been to Syria or
Lebanon and all sorts of other questions while closely examining all
the stamps in my passport. Then they said "go inside and we'll try
to let you through but we might have to send you back." After the
Israelis went through all my stuff they reluctantly gave me a visa -
they were very suspicious because I'd just left the country a few days
earlier. So I got through and it was late and no one was around. I
was in the middle of nowhere and there were no buses or taxis or
anything to get me to a town. I asked the security people what I
could do and they said they couldn't help me. This was all a bit
stressful since I didn't know where I was or what to do. Eventually
someone gave me a ride into the next town. I was trying to get to
Rory's place in Jerusalem so I got off at the bus station in Beit
Shean, which was closed. I walked down the highway a bit and eventually
came to a guest house. By coincidence I'd actually stayed there a few years
earlier on a course for my MA so I was happy to stay there for the
night. The next day I got up and went to the bus station but didn't
have enough shekels for the bus to Jerusalem...no one around
spoke English and I couldn't find a bank machine. Eventually I got
to my Rory's place and we went out till 4AM. I got up this morning
and went to a cafe and had some breakfast and read Rory's paper on
Spinoza and Hobbes. I was supposed to see my other friend Alex here
too but he was called up for army reserve duty. After breakfast, I felt pretty good.