Thursday, June 29, 2006

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (32)

Running on the surface of a swimming pool is not as easy as it looks.

The man from BT had a soft scottish accent.
So, you're a home-mover, he said.
Yes, I confessed.
A serial one.

There is a common misconception of nomads that they roam the earth freely, with no fixed place to call home. But in fact nomads all over the world usually have very specific routes which they follow and locations that they stick to. These might alternate according to season and rainfall but the possibilities are limited and constrained by the social and natural elements.

Anyway, the nomad mink has recently quitted the grazing areas of Brixton, where we had spent the months of the spring. Gathering our herd and using the services of friendly tribesmen we have moved northwards towards the Elephant and Castle, where (cold) water is plentiful and the Turkish shop has nice Mediterranean cucumbers. A good location for summery slumbers, bus connections and the gathering of thoughts

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Amman / London / Solstice

Less than 15 minutes after take off from Amman airport, Jerusalem comes into view. The Dome of the Rock looks like an exquisite candy, wrapped in golden cellophane and presented on a huge rectangular trey. The expansive austerity of the Haram/Temple Mount, compared to the rest of the city, is striking even from this height. The passenger behind me observed closely for long minutes, glued to the window . I wondered if he had ever had the chance to see it from ground level.

* * *

The first thing I noticed in London was how unlike in Jordan, images of the Royals are missing from the streets: no charming Queen in suit and hat, no serious Queen in Military uniform, no smiling Queen and Philip at home with the grandchildren; and certainly no Prince of Wales (thank god). Is the reason aesthetic? One has to admit that when it comes to photogenity, the Hashemites are far better endowed than the Windsors.

In Israel the culture of State worship does not entail huge street-posters of the current leaders, but rather smaller size (A3 I believe) full-colour posters of the current President, Prime minister and Army Chief of Staff. The main tabloids produce these posters and distribute them when one of the three is appointed, or maybe for the High Holidays? can't remember. In any case, people actually put them up, and in this sense it is not much different from the King's picture in shops in Amman, although not as prevalent. Most common at hairdressers, restaurants etc is the President's picture; the Prime-Minister's is more a matter of political taste, although people make allowences. The whole thing seems quite bizarre to me now, but when I first came to the UK, I was surprised not to find similar posters of Princess Di at Laundry places and Fish and Chip shops. After the emotional outburst that her death caused, I expected to find her picture around as a kind of tribute. When I asked people here about it they were genuinely appalled by the thought.

* * *

They said we were approaching landing at Heathrow, but surprisingly we were flying eastwards, towards the Isle of Dogs. The blinking of the Evil Towers could be seen faintly through the mist below us. The plane finally u-turned, revealing the swathes of South London. I tried in vain to make out the places which have been my home for the last four years: One Tree Hill, Brixton, Vauxhall. All I could see, however, were rows and rows of identical terrace houses, and railway lines cutting through them like scarrs. I realized that my ability to think of this place as home came only at the price of a long struggle with the landscape - whose basic features remain strange and foreign, even after almost five years.
The anxiety of the flight was behind me; that of the return to London was still ahead. The Thames was growing near. A last attempt to spot Kew Bridge failed. Crew get ready for landing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

We told the taxi driver where we wanted to go.
Ah, he said, but it's a guys (shabab) place.
I didn't quite understand. R took me there last year and it was very westernized cozy hangout. I
couldn't quite imagine it as a men-dominated middle eastern cafe . Maybe in the evenings? or maybe he had some other place in mind? it didn't make sense.
Is it not a good place for a woman? asked K from the back seat of the taxi.
No, there's no problem, he assured her. it's just a shabab place.
When we got there - I recognized the huge balcony with wall painted blue - I was about to leave the taxi, as he whispered to me, cheerfuly: hada gay place!
now it clicked.

and certainly the vibe was there, although it wasn't not exactly Soho, or the Vauxhall Tavern.

* * *

Where am I from? the taxi drivers ask me and I say London. But then I usually add (depends how comfortable I feel) - originally from alquds.
Israeli yaani?

Most of them - actually all of them I think - are Palestinians, so I ask where exactly. Many Jerusalemites, some Nablusi. One Nablusi guy told me he can't go to visit anymore - since Sharon went to the Haram - but the family sends them olive oil from their grove.
Is it better from local Jordanian oil?
He looked at me reproachfully.
Are you joking? a thousand times better.

* * *

H is a friend of the friend I'm staying with. He gave me a lift back home; I found him soft spoken, pleasant to talk with, and extremely cynical. He's into real estate and construction here
, which is the right place to be: Amman property market is booming, construction work is everywhere. 'It's Iraqi money' he told me. 'They come here with suitcases full of banknotes'.
Where's the money from?
The war, he shrugged. They're stealing everything. You can see them here on the roads, always driving the most expensive cars.
And aren't you afraid that the troubles in Iraq will spill over to Jordan?
The more troubles our neighbours have, the better off we are, he said. Jordan is prospering on Iraqi money. Problems in Lebanon, Palestine? they'll all come here. I'm waiting to see how it works with Syria, or Iran. We'll make a profit. It's good for us. We're the only safe place in this region.

Perhaps he was being deliberately cynical, but as far as I could see he meant it. I didn't know how to react, and I was relieved to see that we had reached my host's house. There was something about him I liked, as much as I was appalled. He made no claim to be morally justified: he made it clear he was taking advantage of the world as it was. A line from Monkey Grip came to my mind: 'you're the emeny, mate, the ruling class. What are we going to do about it?'

It's stupid and simplistic, I know. But what do you do with people who have benefited enormously from globablization and its discontents - here, everywhere - and are unwilling to face the consquences for the much larger number of people whose lives have become much more difficult? Here in Jordan it is extremely visible: the gap between the poor and the rich is visible, but also the desperation of Palestine on one side, and the even worse devastation of Iraq on the other.

Visiblity is a key word. Living in the West, we do not see the consequences of our way of life, we do not see our slaves, our servants: the people on whose backs we are living. The agricultural labourers in Banana plantations, the hifi factory workers in Malaysia, the people making our clothes in Chinese sweatshops. What one doesn't see, doesn't exist. Perphas we are less ostentatious than the splurdging nouveaux-super-rich of "developing" countries. But can we claim to be morally different? The fact that I - personally - hardly paticipate in this economy, that I live on waste (my clothes found, my food skipped) - does not exempt me. I know well my current way of life is not much more than a fluc, a temporary arrangment.

* * *

Sorry. Didn't meant to be so serious and gloomy. It is a sunny day, and the air in Amman is amazingly fresh sweet. It's even better from the air in Jerusalem air.

I enjoyed the conference. Met some sisters and brothers-in-arms (or in-laptops). Exchanged emails and bibliographies. Practiced my rusty arabic - the drivers must find my accent strange. Since the last time I properly spoke Arabic was with Sinai Beduins, I keep saying Han and Hanak instead of Hon and Honak (for 'Here' and 'There). Heard good presentations which got my intellectual andernaline going (a good paper is better than drugs). Met my most admired social historian of Modern Palestine, Salim Tamari from Beir Zeit. Going home Sunday, to the Elephant and Castle.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

So what is your research about?

What is the first question you ask someone you just met? in many places it's 'Where do you come from?" or "what do you do?" or "where do you live?". In academic conferences, however, the first question is "so what is your field of research?" and then "what period exactly?". I was asked this question dozens of times the last few days, and of course I asked them. People often find my speciality obscure or strange, which I actually find beneficial. But I thought I can start making up themes, just to make it more interesting:

I am researching camel castration practices in Fatimid Egypt.

My study is on pre-Islamic Iraqi transvestites.

I'm looking at proverbs regarding belly-buttons in non-Muslim communities of the levant.


Today there was an interesting envrionemental panel on Egypt, on water problems and the reclamation of the desert. And it reminded me that the real issues are waiting behind the corner. Within twenty years - or forty, or ten - all the issues we discuss today will be largely irrelevant. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not interest anyone in a world without oil, without water and with a serious climate change.

But in the meantime, why not pass the time and have some fun. So what did you say your research is about?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Amman, Jordan

I'm in Amman for a week long academic conference. I was a bit concerned about coming here. It's not that I was worried about visiting an Arab country and staying a week in an arab city. I was worried about spending a whole week with academics.

Yesterday, I boarded a bus that took us to the official opening of the conference. I sat in the last free space, next to a seemingly normal and boring looking elderly white man, who was dressed conservatively in blue trousers and shirt. When I looked at him again I saw that he was laughing continuously, a freaky silent laughter, without making any noise, while clutching his white hat feverishly. Then he started bending his fingers one by one very forcibly, apparently much to his delight. I felt like in a horror movie. I tried not to look again. Later I saw him waiting - very patiently - on the women queue for security check.

I always feel that there is something obscene about making a nice livelihood from the detached analysis of a region suffering so much bloodshed, poverty, oppression and misery. Living in a Western or Westernized enviornments, relatively free and safe from poverty and persucation, one can make clever comments on the state of the world. I include myself of course in this privelged class.

Today we were given a presentation on some new online database on the Israeli-Arab conflict. It was accompanied with a light buffet lunch. Unfortunately the organisers did not estimate properly the academic hunger. The scramble for sandwiches showed the wonderful subtle elbowing abilities necessary for the academic profession. I managed to get two: maybe I'll be good enough to get tenure one day.

Inside the overly airconditioned hall (with soft carpet-to-carpet) the organisers explained the benefits of the new database to the sound of munching. The database has thousands of documents on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and provides many delightful possibilities to learn more about a history of devastation; these were demonstrated through a search on the "King David Bombing" - a search which yielded 15 "hits". I thought I could hear them in my mind. And don't forget you can press all these hotlinks on the sidebar! though I thought maybe better not to press on anything.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Flat 19

Flat 19, in which I've lived in the last three months and which I am leaving today, was the first squat I ever visited. In November 2001 we stayed here for four days, with Tanya. This is how I wrote about it at the time.

London, Brixton. 22.11.2001
Somebody outside is shouting Robert, Ro----bert, and it's sounds Israeli. The R is light, throatal, purposefull, and the emphasis so different from English, the stress is different. Not the French Ro-ber, nor the quick English Ro-bert. Tanya says she's French, she thinks, she's shouting for the key, can you throw it from the window, I forgot it somewhere. A window opens, a key is thrown, it doesnt' open, Danielle, can you hear me. Now it does; maybe Danielle went down to help her.

A London squat. Bars on the window, opens to a courtyard, and above a strip of sky, pale, soon it will darken. The courtyard itself is grey, and everything a little stifled, working-class melancholy. This is London; this is how I imagined it, this is how it is. The flat itself is full of charm, the poetics of abandoned houses, a bare brick wall, slashed and torn, its lower half painted red. Two small rooms, one opens to the other, a small kitchen, toilets, there's no shower and no fridge, but that's ok, it's cold enough here. There was no floor when she moved in, she and dave built the floor, padded a 40cm hole with stones, concrete, wooden boards and more boards, so today you enter on a collage of wood boards brown, sparkling varnished boards, and a few doors. This is her floor. In the living room, or the study, there is an architect working desk, and a mirror shaped like an elephant head, very abstract. Two big ears, one fat head.

It was left abandoned for a long time, before she moved in. Myabe nine years. Em opened it, sorted it a bit, but couldn't really be fucked, passed it over to Tanya on a tripped-out New Year's eve party. She went in, got very excited by it, worked on it a lot, but the winter is so dark in here and even in summer there's not direct sun light and it makes it sad. EM just passed through, sorting stuff out on the way to his trip in New Zealand. Red-painted dreadlocks and piercing, he scared me a bit, till I remembered my earrings look the same. He spoke of the Council evicting people, and how Section 6 is just bullshit, it doesn't protect you from anything. They're hiring private bailiffs, and if they come and you're not at home they drill the lock, confiscate your stuff, lock and seal the flat, he knows a guy that lost his Playstation like this, he had to break in through the balcony to get his stuff back. It's bullocks, because the Law protects you only if you're inside the house, if you're out than you're fucked baby. So why don't they evict everybody this way, wondered Tanya, EM didn't know. People think that once they're in for thirty days theyr'e protected, but it's actually thirty days after the landlords know you're inside, so it can be even after six years.

The people in the flat upstairs got evicted last week. At the end of a long legal process the Council won possession, so the squatters moved their stuff out the night before, waited until the Council changed the lock, and then moved back in again. Or maybe that's what they're planning to do, I didn't quite understand. A bizzare bureaucratic world, the Council rents out buildings, and then forgets about them, and suddently decides to get them back, wastes time and money in legal battles that last for years, instead of getting possession on whole buildings they fight it flat-by-flat, it doesn't make any sense, however you look at it. Why do they suddenly evict people, who do they suddenly give up or forget, the answers are hidden in the drawrs of the Council's archives.

* * *
A postcard on Tanya's wall:
People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth. Raoul Vaneigem
. The image above the quote shows a building covered by scaffoldings, and half of it is hidden behind corrugated iron. Two persons are standing on a crane, one of them is looking upwards, the other is holding one of the iron boards diagonally, a board that has covered, or will cover, one of the windows. One of the windows is open, you can even see a pot plant, the building is not deserted. They are wrapping it. They are covering it, corrugating it, they choke it, they impose conformity, grey unformity that leaves no space for immagination.

Or perhaps they're unwrapping it, they're opening it to sunshine, uncovering the open window and the pot plant. There are open windows underneath. Cold and monotone ideology can be undone, the dead skin of the political discourse can be scrubbed.

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (31)

Anarchist pigeons will shit on your paper money
Three and a half years ago, when we just moved to London, I went through my papers from the Master's. I organised them in different folders. On one of those I wrote: PHOTOCOPIES - THROW AWAY in EMERGENCY. I was thinking that if and when we get evicted, there's no point carrying them around, as much as I liked them, they'll just weigh me down.

Now, some seven evictions later and god knows how many house moves, I looked through that folder again. it had my favourite articles from the Historiography class. I flipped through one of them, Joan W. Scott's "The Evidence of Experience". I had marked some words such as 'agency', 'historicizing' and 'essentializing', and had written next to them: 'what is this, some kind of academic jargon?'

Now, hours before another house move, I found the courage to threw them away. I kept only one, another classic Scott article, 'Gender: a useful category of Historical Analysis'. All the rest have to go. It's never too late to give freedom to your beloved possessions.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

urban nomad goes to work

Leave the house late. Forget your diary on one of the book boxes. Never mind the rasta-guy on crack arguing with his friend. Cycle through the open gates. On the turn right to Electric Lane look above your shoulder and catch a view of the Town Hall Clock: 9:00. Will you make it. Cut through the market, overtake the truck unloading animal carcasses: better be vegeterian. Smile. Dead meat stinks. Pass the derelict empty pub, turn left. The Continental food shop put on England and Portugal flags for the World Cup. But what if they play each other? think of divided loyalties when you turn into Brixton road. Don't think of packing, don't think about moving house again. Satruday, Sunday. Third time this year, or is it fourth. Left again. It's sunny, it's beutiful, and you're wearing sandals for the first day this year. People waiting for Brixton Cycles to open.

Cycle fast, cycle quick. Use the wide handlebars to circumvent any trouble, lightning manouvres around open drains in the road. So quick that when you pass the Stockwell round about, forget to look at the clock, forget to look back at the graffiti: At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember / THEM

Next thing you're cycling through Guy and St. Thomas's back gate, in the distance that soothing view of the trees on the other side of the river, green and full of morning light. The shade of the hospital buildings, the tide somewhere in between. Shell building towers aove, but no one to wave to. Waterloo bridge, 9:17. You might just make it. Last exams day. Don't want to be late. Someone calls your name. You think. You charge ahead at the road works. The long busses try to kill you. Don't let them. It's a hill all the way to Bloomsbury, although it doesn't look like one. Thirty minutes from home to the College Basement room. On the bus yesterday it took you a full hour. 9:30. Three exams, 47 students.

Implement QUEST5 for the input m=2 and n=11.

Why does Kant say nothing about the problem of other minds?

Can we justify induction?

You may begin, you have three hours. Read Foucault on hetrotopias:

In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (30)

We're charging our battery
And now we're full of energy
We are the robots
We are the robots
We're functioning automatic
And we are dancing mechanic
We are the robots
We are the robots
Ja tvoi sluga, (I'm your slave)
ja tvoi Rabotnik (I'm your worker.)
we are programmed just to do
anything you want us to
we are the robots
we are the robots

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cycling through Vauxhall this morning I was shocked and appalled to see a van of Daily Bread delivering sandwiches to the MI6 building. Daily Bread are located at New Covent Garden Market, and often in my trips to the Market I find the skip outside Daily Bread full of discarded sandwiches - all (according to the packaging) from the same day. I tried them a couple of times and they are completely disgusting - with the sole excpetion of the Salmon and Cream Cheese Bagel, which was OKish. So I don't bother anymore.

To think that they provide Her Majesty's spymasters' refreshments is really depressing. Just imagine James Bond sitting there munching on low-quality bread, boring cheddar and unhealthy mayonais, all from the plastic package over his computer screen. It might explain the sorry state of things here.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Losing it

"When I lost mine - my first one - it never resurfaced." said the lady behind the reception desk "You know I think I left it on the desk for just ten seconds and then somebody snatched it. But people bring them in from time to time. I had no luck."
And no one brought anything...
"I was here last night and this morning from 6.30am. Nothing".

Looked through the rubbish bin in the PG room, on the window sill in the toilets, under the desk where I supervised an exam yesterday. Nothing.

Myabe I should write an obituary. Like I did for my bike. Only I still stupidly hope to find it. And it feels strange to mourn a sim card.

Walking to the South-Indian takeaway place, I read the white-chalk writing on the brick wall: