Forgotten Schools, Limited Vision

schoolWhile spending some days in Portugal this month I got to enjoy the beauty of spring in the small agricultural villages of my ancestors. Places where social and economic life has slowed down over the past few decades, as tens of thousands emigrate in search of steady income and a more certain future. Those that don’t leave the country, choose instead to move to bigger towns and cities where urban life may bring them the future their home town could not.  Despite the mass exodus, these villages remain standing, all be it with more empty houses and quiet streets than ever before.

Among the growing list of institutions and concepts of the small village that have been discarded over time is the iconic school house.  Built during the dictatorship as part of the plan that all Portuguese children should attend primary school (between 1940 and 1970), you can find this school in the heart of most any village.  Prominently located with its simple style, these traditional buildings are increasingly being abandoned in favor of centralized urban schools where the few remaining children in villages are sent. A more modern and cost-effective approach to education in an era where the government tries everything it can do to cut costs and services.

EscolaSomewhere in the plan to have modern centralized schools, the fate of the old fashioned school house never received much consideration. Locking them up and letting time or the elements wear them down seems to be the only idea being carried out.  This is despite a few exceptions where villages have found a way to re-purpose their school house as a community center.  Rare examples of some proactive thinking that will allow a main stay of the community to have new life. (assuming there is a community in the area still)

For the most part, in the villages where my ancestors grew up, the very school houses they sent their children to, lay empty and forgotten.  They don’t fit into the new Portugal (and world) where small and old has little value, while bigger and cheaper is considered the best path to take. And regardless of what photos are taken and what comments are made for a few corners of the internet, they will remain shuttered, a beautiful relic of a bygone era.

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Boutros Boutros-Ghali: Population Explosion and Water in Egypt

avatar Boutros-Boutros Ghali Guest

As part of the Arab Artists in a Revolution series, during our three weeks in Cairo, we had the pleasure of meeting up with the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He may not be an artist but at 90 years of age, he is an extremely experienced observer of Egypt and the world, who is passionate about humanity and its problems. In this interview we meet in his living room over looking the Nile, the river that is “like a god” to him and who’s present and future crisis he see’s as 100% tied to that of Egypt.

On the occasion of his 90th Birthday, Dr. Boutros and I in Cairo.  November 2012.
On the occasion of his 90th Birthday, Dr. Boutros and I in Cairo. November 2012.

Unlike previous interviews in this series, you may find (as we did) that this one does not go smoothly. Dr. Boutros doesn’t always like the kind of questions where you have to use your imagination, the “Academic questions” as he calls them, “that help fill pages of the newspaper”.  Yet despite his frustration with the media, he lays out the state of Egypt on the global scale; what is happening, why it is happening, and the key questions that people inside and outside the country should be – but are not- asking.

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Family That Doesn’t Recognize One Another

220 BCIn the conclusion of our last major podcast of the Arab Artists Series on Radio Open Source, I told my podcasting partner Chris Lydon that throughout our experience in North Africa, including in Egypt, I felt like I was amongst family. That statement was no exaggeration or attempt to prove to the world that I was comfortable in a place that is now so notorious for its difficulties; that was a statement directly from my heart.  It is also a statement that historically makes sense, as my heritage – Portuguese – is part of the larger story of the Mediterranean, where people, goods and culture have been circulating for over 2,000 years.

It is amazing to me, to recognize so many commonalities: in language, expressions, traditions, food, work, and attitudes that Portugal shares with Tunisia, or that Egypt shares with Portugal.  Though any student of history would laugh knowing full well that the story of this region has, at different periods, tied these cultures together in one way or another.

That is until this present era. The era of intolerance, apathy, and the sadly misguided belief that people around the world, especially those originating from the Mediterranean, share nothing in common with the people in Egypt. Lets set aside the shared desire for democracy and justice that is almost universal on this planet.  (though that alone should be enough)  Consider that many people on the modern day Iberian peninsula, in southern France, and  Italy in general,  may actually look at the media and see the struggle taking place in Cairo and Tunis, and conclude that they have no connection to these people or their issues.  Then consider again the amount of Americans, Canadians, decedents of immigrants now living throughout the globe, who’s ancestors came from this very region, yet today look and claim see no reason to care and no connection to that place and its people.

Somewhere, somehow, a mix of time, poor education, cowardice, and perhaps affluence, led people who surely believe themselves to be honest and good to the conclusion that whats going on over there has nothing to do with them.  They replaced what are very real and incredible connections from perhaps not all that long ago, with the story that they are a different people, who don’t think the same way or want the same things.

Me, I know what I know and I know what I felt.  A feeling that grew stronger everyday based on big and small conversations, gestures, and actions I will tell stories of for the rest of my life. A feeling that when I open a book and read the rich history of this region, is confirmed: I felt like I was amongst family, because when it comes to culture, history, and -yes- basic life wishes, I was among family. And if you really look at the history of this planet, there’s a good chance you’d notice that same connection.

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Sounds of the Sultan Hassan Mosque

During our time in Cairo, in between the steady stream of interviews and journeys to different neighborhoods, there were also the moments when we managed to do a little tourism and visit magnificent sights of the ancient city. On one such afternoon, under the guidance of our excellent friend and Egyptologist Shereif Nasr, we visited the Sultan Hassan Mosque, a beautiful Mamluk era structure completed in 1359.

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