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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Amin’s Beautiful Family

Amin Maalouf and I.

The idea was to start our Arab Artists adventure with something extra special, with someone that could get us moving on the right foot, and that person turned out to be celebrated author and journalist Amin Maalouf.  So before flying down to Tunis, Chris and I met up in Paris for 2 days of preparation and conversation. 2 days during which, it turned out, we would get to spend some quality time with a very wise man and his inspiring family.

We were scheduled to meet for a morning session; a long interview covering the middle east in the present, recent past, and much more.  We hoped to talk history, arts, politics, and enjoy the life stories Amin might bring forth.  But instead of waiting for that morning appointment, the night before Chris tells me “we should just go over there, drop by, say hello, and see if we can’t get some ideas out for him to sleep on.”  My immediate reaction, even though I should realize Chris has been doing this very many decades, was to remind him that people are busy on Saturday nights, and he won’t be home (or he doesn’t want to see us until our agreed appointment).

We arrive at the address and sure enough realize we didn’t bring that essential Parisian tool, the door code. We stand at the door, periodically crossing the street and looking up at the window as if someone will look down and yell — “Oh its you guys, come on up!” – Right around then a neighbor opens the door and invites us in, “who are you looking for?” — Mr Maalouf, I explain. The woman doesn’t hesitate as she points me to the appropriate hallway. 30 seconds later, we’re warmly greeted by the sweetest couple that must have been a little shocked at this inter-generational journalist duo that just wandered in off the street. In his relaxed around the house clothes, Amin sat with us in the living room and immediately began to talk about a projects he is working on, people we have in common, and the latest updates about the US election race.

Not 12 hours later we are back in that same living room. This time Mr. Maalouf is sitting in the living room dressed nicely as I’ve often seen on BBC programs where he is interviewed.  He’s been thinking about some of the things we talked about, and just as I figure out the ins and outs of Chris’s recorder, off we go on a 2+ hour journey through time and space. I kept expecting him to run off needing water or to answer a phone, but instead he stays with us and considers every question carefully.  It was both exciting and exhausting as I reviewed in my head, every idea he put forward.

After those hours of holding the microphone and resisting the urges to comment, ask a question, or speak up in any way, Chris grabs the mic and puts me in his seat “Your turn Mark… time for you to let loose.”  To his credit and my surprise, even after such a long discussion, Amin looked at me with interest. As if to say, “yes, you’ve been sitting there nodding and almost talking for a while.. Id like to know what you have to say.”

The whole discussion was already a massive success in my mind. But just when i though it couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Maalouf comes to get us, to make a plate and join the family for lunch. Now we’re launched into conversations and creative back and forth idea sharing, as the rest of the family is just as kind and engaging as the man himself. It was as if I was speaking with old friends who have long been working on similar ideas.  Combine that with the best Lebanese food imaginable, and you get an afternoon that I hoped would never end.

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Today’s Commemoration, Tomorrow’s History

In an effort to save money and increase productivity, Portugal is getting rid of some holidays that people don’t really celebrate anymore.  Among the obsolete days of non-work, the day the nation dumped the monarchy and became a republic, October 5th, 1910.  More than 100 years since that significant moment in history, no one alive remembers it, and few are the voices that think its worth hanging on to as a holiday.

Here in the Netherlands, this past Friday was Remembrance day, which includes the 2 minutes of silence which takes place every May the 4th in memoriam of all the victims of WWII (though more recently it has been expanded to include victims of all military conflicts, its still more famous for WWII victims).  A friend’s grandfather, who lived through the occupation of the country and the war that caused so much pain and destruction, finds the 2 minutes of silence un-necessary – after all, he lived through it. But WWII is much more recent and much more significant in the lives of present day people in the Netherlands that the establishment of the republic is for today’s Portuguese. The reasons probably seem obvious.

But it occurs to me that 100 years from now, WWII remembrance day may also get put aside for economic or social purposes.  At some point enough time passes that these significant moments that some lived through and others know all-to-well from stories and history books, even these seemingly vital rituals will not be seen the same way.  This is not to say it is a good or bad development, these moments in history and the holidays dedicated to them, can fade over time.  It is, if anything, just an odd characteristic of us as a species.  We may record history, but over time, to some degree, it becomes natural to forget.

Imagine that. The era will come where WWII is referred to in the same far-off spirit as today we look at the war of 1812 or the wars during Roman times. September 11th will no longer be remembered as it is today, nothing special will take place at the sight of the World Trade Center, life – like time – just keep moving along.

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The Era When Things Changed

Today marks the 38th anniversary of one of the most inspiring and peaceful revolutions of the 20th century – The Portuguese Carnation Revolution. It was the 25th of April, 1974 when unlikely groups of low ranking soldiers from around the country disobeyed orders and took members of the brutal dictatorial regime prisoner.  The soldiers had carried out and seen horrible acts during brutal colonial wars pursued by the Portuguese fascist state. The country itself was drained of its resources and had become a place characterized by poverty and a constant fear of being arrested, tortured or killed by the authorities.  Despite failed revolution attempts before the 25th, the low ranking officers along with regular people throughout the country, took to the streets, daring to march, speak out for human rights, and defy their government. A gamble that risked everything, but paid off – concepts like social justice, equality, democracy, and peace, seemed to win a wave of victories that day and in the days following. A level of success that few countries have ever known in the wake of revolution, then and now.

Having not been alive in 1974, yet still being surrounded throughout my life by people who were involved or who witnessed this unique moment in history, my understanding of the carnation revolution is shaped by the stories. And as we all know, stories can be inspiring, and yes – even exaggerated at times. But from all the stories I have ever heard of the 25 of April, what I am most left with is a profound awe and jealously for what people in those days lived through.  Awe for obvious reasons; the massive challenge and tremendous risk these soldiers and ordinary people undertook. The outpouring of love and care for one another in the streets, despite all the fear and pain that had so recently been a reality. Jealously; to never have lived in such a fantastic moment of action and initiative. To see and be a part of a movement that ended wars, experience the rebirth of freedom of expression, shaking free of the economic and political structures that held the country hostage for decades.

These days we point to the arab spring as a source of possible inspiration, though even the immediate future for those nations remains cloudy.  Some of us talk about occupy like the beginning of something significant, that could bring real change to a situation that is screaming out to be addressed. One day both of these may be looked back on as the verified beginnings of something great. But right now I would put them on historical probation, pending future developments and historical analysis. Overall I would say the 21st century (so far) is marked more by taking two steps back for every one step forward towards peace, love, and understanding. Perhaps there was a hopeful but cautious independent journalist back in the 70’s who observed the same thing.

Portugal in 1974 remains an era I wish I could have lived through. An era where things actually changed and you could see them change and run down the list of successes and of course failures. In the years and decades that would follow, some hopes and promises never came true. Others have been eroded by new economic and political waves.  Portugal now finds itself with a laundry list of problems that make it hard to cheer or sing about the goals of the past. But if we talk about significant moments in history, where the forces of open mindedness and social justice won the day and got to put policies into practice on a real scale-  for me its April 25th, 1974 that wins every time. What a fantastic time it must have been.

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