Friday, July 29, 2005

Lebanese adventures

BEIRUT--Visited the Jeita Grotto yesterday with my wife and beheld the astounding caves via a walk-through and a boat ride. Dazzling. All of my comparisons are genre-inspired: I was looking inside the Genesis Cave inside Regula, into the apertures and cloud-organelles of V'Ger, inside the depths of the Misty Mountains... hell, inside the belly of Monstro the Whale. The puddling asymmetrical sculpture of stalactite into stalagmite made for billions of angles of beauty, a gothic cathedral of infinite detail and inspiration.

As part of my work here with an NGO helping Palestinian refugees, I've been sitting in on meetings with partnered on-the-ground organisations, hearing from officials, aid-workers and even Canadian embassy staff about the obstacles the refugees face in getting decent treatment, facilities and conditions. Such a tragedy--all these people want is to go home. More later.

Beirut is, in surface area, perhaps smaller than Edmonton, and not much larger in population--maybe around a million people (the whole country is only around 3 million people). Population density is far higher, and history far longer, obviously. As in Vancouver, it seems as if everyone here dresses up no matter what time of day--not my thing, but it does make for a highly photogenic citizenry. More to my taste is the beautiful architecture and stunning downtown.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Beirut the Beautiful

BEIRUT--My wife and I arrived in Beirut this morning and were delighted from the start. Nice officials at the airport, nice people, NICE weather, and delicious food. We were met by our friend Nizar who's showing us around before Nizar and I begin our work here with partner NGOs rendering aid to Palestinian refugees.

Neither my wife nor I had much previous knowledge of Lebanon, yet somehow we've still managed to be surprised. Beirut is a beautiful city, and it stuns us both to imagine that this city emerged from a horrifying, generation-long, multifactional (72 militia) civil war only within the last 15 years. What we've seen of this city is as beautiful as Montreal.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Red Sea to Cairo--Moses's route remixed

CAIRO--We're back, away from the fire zone of the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula. Some heavy security checks yesterday on the way here. We took a mini-bus from Dahab, a ride that should have taken 5.5 hours, but which actually took around 8 (the main checkpoint was a 45 minute delay). Obviously these are minor irritations given the misery inflicted upon innocent people in Sharm el-Sheikh (most of whom were Egyptians, if what I'm told is correct), but I wanted to keep friends and family informed.

Cairo's big, man. Something like 15 million people here. Makes NYC seem like an also-ran. We're staying in the refurbished seventh floor of a downtown office building that is now a hostel, overlooking Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square--more like a plaza or traffic circle) and the Egyptian Museum. Today my wife and I are going to see the Great Pyramids of Giza, our final ancient monuments destination (and, arguably, the greatest ancient monuments anywhere in the known universe).

Just finished Robert J. Sawyer's book Hominids, positing a quantum-alternate Earth in which Neanderthals, not humans, ascended to civilisation and escaped extinction. Raises some intruiging questions about human development, violence, quantum physics and what is actually knowable from paleoanthropology. I met Sawyer at Seattle's Norwescon in March; he's an extremely nice fellow and certainly one of Canada's (and SF's) most successful authors, ever. It's always intriguing to read a fella's work after you've met him--you tend to reevaluate conversation and personality in light of the world-view and ethics he's espoused in his work. By all means, check out Rob Sawyer's excellent website, full of fascinating discussion and helpful advice for writers.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

My wife and I are fine; far too many others, sadly, are not

DAHAB, SINAI PENINSULA--Thanks to everyone who expressed concern about our safety. I heard about the terrorist bombings in neighbouring Sharm el-Sheikh only a few minutes ago. The attacks, denounced by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, occurred on the country's Revolution Day; at least 76 people of various nationalities, including Egyptians, are confirmed dead so far.

My wife and I are very far from the zone--80 km away--we'll be out of the country in a few days and headed to safe, safe Lebanon. In the meantime, please pray for the dead and injured and their families, and if you can donate to the Red Crescent/Red Cross, please do so.

A favour to ask: I can't access my main email from here, so if you're a friend or relative, please let folks back home know we're okay.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Conservative Party of Canada

At my wedding reception, one of my best friends, Carlo, told the false story that he and I worked for the PC party in Ottawa in 1988. This is completely untrue.

He and I worked for the Government of Canada, External Affairs, as students hired on a summer employment programme. He also claimed that I snubbed then-PM Brian Mulroney. Also untrue. I have never met the "esteemed" former PM.

However, all of us students were invited to have our pictures taken with Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clarke, which I did--at a distance. We were also asked to do the work of the PC party itself--an entirely unethical request, and I think illegal--by a senior member of the Minister's staff. We were to participate in envelope stuffing of some sort and to be paid in pizza, after hours.

I told Carlo something to the effect that "I'm not going to work for those pigs," and I meant it. Whether he went or not, I cannot recall--but within five years the PC party was reduced to two seats in our federal parliament. Connection? You be the judge.

From Dahab, with love

DAHAB, SINAI PENINSULA--So I've never been a lie-on-the-beach kind of guy, and I'm still not. Nevertheless, the view from Dahab is pretty amazing. Looking out across the waters, I find myself staring at the mountains of Saudi Arabia. They're ghostly here, like half-forgotten memories. Below me from the window of this internet cafe, a local youth leads a tourist. They're both on horses. Some folks are wearing swimsuits, others hijab. It's a melange, to be sure.

Before arriving here, my wife and I spent several days in Hurghada, which had changed drastically from when I was tere twelve years ago. No longer the sleepy little sun-scrubbed town, it was now a miniature Cancun, more's the pity--glitz, glass, mirrors, and tourists thronging and dressed inapppropriately (Memo to Europe: Do not wear Speedo).

Nevertheless, the owners Hussein and Warda of the Sea Waves hostel and the staff including Nasser, Abdel-Nasser and Tariq were real highlights of our stay--extremely welcoming, hospitable and gentle. Combine that with snorkelling around Red Sea corral and some excellent meals, and I'd call it all grand.

One very weird event worth noting was eating at a small place on the waterfront. The owner almost begged us to come inside to eat, yet while none of the other customers was dining (only drinking), the restaurant took an hour to get us our food (after my having to issue an ultimatum). The food was, shall I say, experiencing irreconcilable differences with flavour. Mostly odd was my wife's and my realisation that the place seemed to be serving female companionship (no quotation marks)--I'm not saying it was prostitution, but three or four waitresses playing pool and not delivering food doesn't seem like a restaurant to me.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Nice guys Finnish last (and other tales of non-ironic joys)

THE NILE--Sailing away from Aswan (yes, this post is out of order) turned out to be a spectacular experience, despite saying goodbye to the wonderful people at the Memnon Hotel on Aswan's corniche. Those folks included Ahmed, kind of a Sudanese Radar O'Reilly and his aunt Senna who'll be moving to Washington DC to join her husband soon. Michelle and I already miss these fine folks; Senna bought some fruit for me, a Nubian kufi (skullcap) and made mango juice. Wow.

Anyway, our "Aswan coordinator" Ayoub hooked Michelle and me up with a felucca (sailboat) trek from Aswan to Esna (?) further north. I was nervous about who else would be riding with us--being trapped on a sailboat with strangers for two days could be nightmarish. Instead it was phenomenal. Joining us were joker, electrical engineer and devil's advocate Jeff (Geoff?) from Australia; architectural student Nika and air-traffic control student Frank from Norway; G.P. Jenni and self-proclaimed nihilist but actually super nice guy Rami from Finland supplied thought-provoking conversation, jokes and genuine, kind friendship. Poor Frank got sick--the trots--but by then so had I and Michelle and probably the others, too. He handled it like a champ (whatever that means). Like Finnish Rami, Frank is ex-military--compulsory for young men in their homelands. Yet despite his illness he was always concerned about others and their well-being.

Our boat captain Muhammad and his crew were wonderful; Captain Muhammad was an excellent chef cooked far better food than I had on the felucca in 1993, and provided a flatbread kind of like a massive, disk-shaped English muffin (which Michelle grew to like despite initial reservations).

On our second night, I did a variation of Chani of Arrakis saying to Paul Muad'Dib, "Tell me of your homeworld, Usul." I asked everyone to sing a song--any song--from their country. Most folks chose kids' songs. Frank and Nika led the charge by singing in rounds "coo-coo, coo-coo" for some type of bird song (freakin WOW), followed by Jenni and Rami singing a sad lullabye about gates (?)--a memory song, I think, along the lines of "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza". Michelle and I followed that with "The Log Driver's Waltz" from the NFB vignette, but we forgot the second line of the chorus and then couldn't remember the rest--I felt ashamed by my lack of cultural nationalism. Then Captain Muhammad and his friend from another felucca entertained us with Nubian songs, Nubian drumming and even dancing. I shared the audio I recorded with the captain; he had tears in his eyes.

When I return to E-Town I will be posting the audio and photos of this experience on www.ministerfaust.com.

Earlier that day, to escape the heat, our captain docked so we could take an excursion into a small town to buy fruit, pop, water and snacks. I have rarely been so excited. You can't guess how amazing it is to buy cold fruit and drinks when you are playing anvil to the hammer of 45 or 50 degree sunlight. I was like a small town kid going to the circus. Who needs drugs when you've got mango?

When we sad goodbye the next day to crew and fellow passengers, I was truly sad. It's a common/uncommon experience for travellers, to form bond so quickly, to laugh together, share meals together, take care of each other, even sleep only centimetres from each other, to feel intensely bonded, and then--poof--have it all disappear. Since Michelle and I were getting off the minivan and weighed down, we didn't even get the chance to give goodbye hugs. I hope to stay in touch with all these excellent folks--not only was it a highlight of our honeymoon, it was one of the nicest experiences I've had in the last year.

The Red Sea (but where are all the Reds?)

AL GHARDAKA (Hurghada)--I think it's Sunday. You lose track of these things when you're away from your home long enough, away from daily news, away from your first language or even text you can (easily) read. The Red Sea coastal town of Al Ghardaka is far more developed than it was when I was here in 1993--kind of like South Edmonton Commons on meets the Aquarius Complex from Frank Miller's Ronin, if you can dig it. Still, when you wander in front of the sea itself, you find your breath taken away.

My wife and I arrived last night from Al Uqsor (Luxor, or to use its proper ancient name, Waset). The bus ride was unpleasant, though not anyway near the unpleasantness of Kenyan buses. The wind makes up for the high temperature here--windy like Lethbridge. Cools you down a good 15 degrees, easily. We've been met by the good fortune of a host named Hussein and his Finnish wife Warda who took us to their hotel and have been treating us with tremendous hospitality. They've been showing us around, feeding us and generally treating us like family.

I'm driving my wife crazy--and please don't tell the stereotype police--but I've been buying watermelon on a daily basis (but I've only eaten fried chicken once and have neither shot hoops nor buckdanced a single time). In this heat, what's a M-F (Minister Faust) supposed to do? Watermelon is a major release, and it's cheap, say, 7-10 Egyptian pounds (about $2 Canadian).

Monday, July 11, 2005

Aswan, the heart of Nubian Egypt

ASWAN--Weather report: "Hot with occasional Damn, it's hot!" I'd dreamed of coming back here, and this lovely, relatively small city (certainly smaller than Cairo's 15 million) is peaceful and on a human scale. There are as many touts (men who drum up business) as in Cairo, but at a higher density. The corniche (road on the east bank of the Nile) is a terrific place for a romantic supper, with a superb view.

The Nubian Museum, new since I was last here in 1993, is a spectacular building housing some of the few antiquities saved when construction of the dam flooded the valley for hundreds of kilometres and destroyed untold millions of archeological objects and treasures.

My wife and I visited Philae Temple today, a chapel for Aset (called by the Greek name "Isis"), the Afrikan deity who when holding her son Heru (Horus) was the icon whom art historians acknowledge as the archetype for the Madonna-and-Child image. Philae is beautiful, no question, although it is a Greek-era temple extremely late in the civilisation of Kemet, and as such is of limited interest from an Africentric perspective. Its aesthetic beauty cannot be denied, though, and its importance as a holdover of respect for women (typical of Kemet in the ancient world, and absolutely not typical of Greece) is fascinating from a feminist perspective.

Earlier we visited Abu Simbel, the great temple of Ramses--here's an image of it prior to its relocation to avoid be swallowed by the rising waters. I was there in 1993; the site has changed somewhat since I visited, with a mud-brick wall more clearly separating the temple of Ramses from that of Nefertare. Also, one can no longer take photos inside either temple, especially sad since many digitial cameras are far, far more light sensitive than ordinary film cameras. If memory serves, the once-sand-choked and almost entirely obscured site was the source for Shelley's "Ozymandias," not to be confused with Alan Moore's Ozymandias, although the two are thematically linked, obviously.

Aswan's back streets form its souk, or old market. You can find some lovely carvings here, and some nice clothes, but also a lot of junk. Here's some advice. If you want an authentic galabeeyah (the long, loose robe worn by men), INSIST on getting one that a) has NO decoration on it, and b) covers your ankles. Anything less is touristy kitsch. The prices should be around 50 - 65 Egyptian pounds, or about $Cdn 10-13. Walking away is the easiest way to bring down the price on anything, but don't be a jerk about it. Your few bucks means much more to these folks than it does to you.

The relaxed atmosphere of Aswan is quite preferable to the NYC-bustle of Cairo; another nice difference from 12 years ago is how much freer public life seems to be for women. Far more women are out, some in hegab, others not, in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. I find fascinating here the seeming absence of colour-tone tension (caste and class difference) so straitjacketing in so many parts of the world; I'm also humbled and delighted by the warm welcome so many people here have given me, telling me that I look like I am Egyptian or Nubian. However, Brothers be warned--if you shave your head, you will throw folks for a loop, here. Apparently no one here does that.

Recommended reading:
Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality? Read up on Diop here.
Richard Poe's Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilise Ancient Europe? Read my review here.

And on a related/unrelated note, check out this discussion of Live-8.

Friday, July 08, 2005

I have entered the Red Pyramid

CAIRO--I spent yesterday with my brand new wife exploring many of the ancient wonders of Kemet (i.e., Egypt). I'd been here before twelve years ago to research a still unpublished novel called The Disharmony of the Sphere, and I've literally dreamed of returning ever since (at least once a month I've had such dreams). Went to Sakkara, the first pyramid and the first vast architectural work in stone, as designed by the genius Imhotep.

Later we went to a site to which I'd never been, the spectacular Red Pyramid and the so-called Bent Pyramid at Dahshur. Twelve years ago I'd gone inside the pyramid of Unas at Sakkara, home to the most ancient religious writings of any faith anywhere in the world, the so-called Pyramid Texts. But the Red Pyramid is not only a far larger building, almost on the scale of Giza's Great Pyramids, its inner chambers form a dazzling, haunting cathedral ceiling of stepped trapezoidal glory. Magnificent. These Brothers knew what they were doing.

We've met many terrific folks since arriving--a wonderful English lady who's become Egyptian (a grandmother and retired accountant in hijab who gave us helpful advice), a philosophy graduate named Khaled who took the time to arrange a cab for us and who's struggling to make a go of things, and a charming waiter at our hotel named Mohammed Abdel-Aziz who always makes sure my wife has enough juice and that my coffee cup is full (I actually hate coffee, but I seem to be allergic to the tea at our hotel).

Tonight we take the sleeper car to Aswan heart of Nubian Egypt, and tomorrow a trip to the glorious temple of Ramses at Abu-Simbel. After that the wonders will continue to unfold.

I don't usually share a lot of information about my personal life either through the Bro-Log or my radio shows, but I had an excellent wedding and reception last Saturday, a real dream come true. I've always thought it melodramatic for people to say that such days were the happiest of their lives, but I was astounded at just how joyful I was, and many people told me they'd never seen me so happy. I guess that's what you get when you've got what they used to call "a good woman" in your life.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

No freaking kidding: kidnapped girl rescued by LIONS, and a baby rescued by a DOG

In Ethiopia, lions rescued a girl kidnapped and beaten by men trying to force her into marriage. Call it a scientific curiosity, call it a miracle--it's bizarre and touching. Read up here.

And elsewhere in animal news, a dog rescues an abandoned baby.

Friday, July 01, 2005

42% Back Impeaching Bush If He Lied Over Iraq

Democracy Now! reports today: "A new Zogby poll shows that 42 percent of [American] voters believe Congress should impeach President Bush if it is found that he did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq." Meanwhile, "nearly 8,200 Iraqis have been killed over the past six months from attacks carried out by the Iraqi resistance. An average of forty-five Iraqis are being killed each day. The minister estimated another twelve thousand Iraqis have been injured." Read, watch or listen to the entire story here.