Friday, January 19, 2007

Hazards of contrarianism

Anyone who has had the pleasure of my company for any extended period of time knows that I am at heart a contrarian. Whenever I hear a statement of opinion (especially something that seems to represent conventional wisdom or accepted taste) my automatic reaction is to take the opposing side and try to poke a hole in the argument through whatever methods possible. Which means that I tend to get into pointlessly detailed and niggling arguments over points of questionable importance. Some people indulge me in this, and we have loads of fun. Most other (sane?) people just get annoyed by it.

This habit drives me towards sometimes controversial opinions on pop culture (Kill Bill is a boring movie, dammit), and makes me prone to reviews phrased in the form of "It's a good movie, despite all the people who say it's a good movie" (specific phrasing courtesy of The Hired Tongue, but I've had the approach for eons).

All of which is by way of mentioning that I recently read "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" by David Eggers, which is a book that is intentionally designed to drive people like me crazy. I mean, it's a good book, but as I read it I can't help but think "Well, that was sad, sure, but hardly heartbreaking," or "Genius is such a strong word...". It was compounded by the fact that Mr. Eggers goes out of his way to discuss this very point in his acknowledgments section (which is by far the most awesome part of the book). So now I can't figure out how far to recurse -- do I take the title at its word and form my opinion around how the book isn't as great as it says it is? Or do I take the self-mocking introduction at its word and think that it's actually a really decent book? Or do I take the fact that he says he's only pretending to be self-mocking and actually sort of feels that way and...

OK, so it's not really a big deal, and I feel maybe a little bit silly about it, but it was on my mind. I didn't get to the end of Infinite Jest and say "Hey, this book had an ending! What a ripoff!" I know people who seem to totally lack the irony gene, though; people who can drink a bottle of Arrogant Bastard beer and say that they don't like it, even though the back of the bottle says that they probably won't like it! What's up with that? How can people do that? I just don't get it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Well, we made it home, all in one piece. Actually, we made it home a few days ago, but I haven't felt up to posting until right about now. I'm lazy.

We've recovered one of our bags, and hopefully the second one will be showing up Tuesday. Everything seems to be intact, even! Although the contents were damp, mandating a fresh cleaning of all the clothes and some drying out of books. Grr.

And, to top it all off, I appear to be sick. I'd give good odds it's not malaria (I've been pretty good with the Doxycicline), but it still doesn't make me happy. Might make finishing my last grad-school app a little more unpleasant, but I can handle that. Grr! Me tough!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fuck Heathrow

Argh! So, on our way to Sudan, our bags get stuck at Heathrow airport for a week and a half. On our way back, we land in Heathrow a half-hour late due to congestion. Then we sit on the ground for a half-hour because they don't have the buses to take us to the gate. Then they don't have the stairs. Then they don't have the buses again. By the time we get off the airplane, the next leg of our trip had already flown off.

So then we have to wait at the reticketing desk for a half-hour as we're rerouted through Vancouver (where I am right now) to arrive 12 hours later then originally planned. We get on the plane in Heathrow, which promptly leaves an hour-and-a-half late due to congestion problems (we spent ~45 minutes taxiing).

And then we show up in Vancouver, and our bags aren't here. Yes, that's right, our bags got lost again. Happy happy joy joy!

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Rambling thoughts

So this may be my last post before we leave, I'm not sure. Tomorrow's our last full day here, and we leave early the next morning. It's been a good trip.

Bill Richardson is in town right now to work on resolving the Darfur situation, and the US Embassy hosted a dinner tonight with him that my dad just got back from. Which is cool, I guess, but it made me realize how little attention I've paid to the conflict while I've been here. It's something I've thought about, of course, but it's really surprising how remote it feels, even here. There are a few token propaganda posters around town, proclaiming that "We are all supporting the peace", but if you were dropped in this city without any outside knowledge, you would probably not realize that anything was amiss.

That's one of the most prominent violations of human rights happening today, only a few hundred miles from where I am right now, and I barely realize it's happening. Maybe I would know more if I could understand the Arabic radio news, and maybe people around me are talking about it and I just don't realize. Or maybe the government does a good job of managing the flow of information in Khartoum, I don't know. It's situations like these that make me wonder about myself, and how much I really know about what's going on in my own country. I think I have a pretty good, accurate handle on US foreign policy, but every so often I realize that I've forgotten what exactly it was that Jose Padilla was accused of doing, or what we know about the CIA's black prisons, or whatever happened to John Walker Lindh (remember him?), or who the Canadian guy was that we mistakenly sent overseas to be tortured, since he happened to have a similar name to someone on our terrorist watchlist. And it bothers me to think that I form fairly strong opinions on the state of the world with such frequently spotty knowledge.

Talking to people in the US about Darfur has brought to light some rather distressing latent racism, which bothers me. More than a number of people I've talked to have framed it as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, with the Muslim government slaughtering the Christian villagers. I don't know where this perception comes from; both sides in the conflict are predominantly Muslim. You could frame it as a conflict between Arabs and Blacks, if you wanted to fit it into some sort of pre-existing racist mold, but I think that even that model doesn't fit very well. Maybe people are confusing it with the earlier civil war, which was fought between a predominantly Muslim north and Christian (and animast) south. But I really don't think that's it; I think that a lot of people just assume that if killing is happening in an Arab country, it must be Muslims killing infidels.

Which makes me sad. The people I've talked to who've said things like that are genuinely well-meaning people, who certainly try to avoid stereotyping and wouldn't intentionally misconstrue the issues. Maybe it's just a scary example of the creeping influence that the Ann Coulters and the Rush Limbaughs and the Bill O'Reillys have on our discourse. Sure, we pay lipservice to the idea that not all Muslims are evil terrorists, but you hear enough people -- even people that you virulently disagree with -- say it and it starts to color your thoughts, whether you want it to or not. Or maybe I'm just scapegoating the popular liberal bogeymen because I can't think of a more reasonable explanation.

How egotistical. I wanted to spend this post talking about Darfur and what I think about it, but I ended up using it as an excuse to discuss Americans and their political and racial foibles. I don't think that I've really learned anything here to discuss, though, as sad as that is, and maybe that's all I really have to contribute.

One final note. A lot of Americans I know, including my parents and kori the tomorrow lady have a tendency to lie about their country of origin, either out of embarrassment or to avoid social reproach. I urge people not to do this. Ideologically, I think you shouldn't concern yourself with the opinions of those who would look down upon you solely for being an American, no more than you should with someone who would expect you to be stupid if you said you were Polish. And pragmatically, the tactic results in people perceiving all Americans they meet as boorish and unpleasant, because those of us who are more culturally sensitive and politically sane run around calling ourselves Canadian. And I think that's a bad thing.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Random stuff

[EDIT: Fixed Rip's name, and the word is "transcribed", not "transliterated"]

So, first things first. I had a dumb AIM conversation with Rip Tatermen this morning. Nothing else to say about that, really. He was just dreading that that was going to be the high point of my day today and that I would post about it on my blog. Ensuring, of course, that I would in fact do so. Also, he suggested that everyone should call him a "fuckwad". That seems crude and not like something that I (or any of my friends) would do, but it was his idea.

So, this is a silly thing to get worked up about, but I just thought it was so cool. I assume y'all are familiar with the Seven Up logo. So, in Arabic, Seven Up is transcribed "سغن اب", and can't be spelled "7Up", as is in the logo (the actual translation would be "٧ متابعة"). To get around this, and keep the same design, they reworked the logo as at right, making the standard 7Up shape with the transcribed letters (look at the larger picture if it's not clear). It's brilliant! Keeping the seven shape (although that's obviously not what a 7 looks like in Arabic) and everything. As an aside, Pepsi products seem to be the only products that get past the US embargo on Sudan (did you know we had one? I didn't), since they're "food or drink" products. No McDonalds, although there is a restaurant called "Lucky Meal" that uses the golden arches.

Other minor note. We walked around bookstores earlier today, and I came across a book written by "غبرييل غرسيه مركز" (or something like that -- I don't remember exactly). I started reading it out in my head (I often find myself sounding out Arabic aloud when I read it, which makes me feel somewhat unjustifiably silly), and realized that it was "Gabriel Garcia Marquez", and the book was "100 Years of Solitude" (OK, so my sister translated the second part for me). I thought it was nifty; it was not a book I would have expected to see there. And that's that.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Sufi Dancing! (With Pictures)

Here are some pictures. Read on for context.

So, if God ever comes down and says "Joseph, you must change your religious beliefs. Pick from the following menu of pre-approved religious doctrines," I now know exactly what my decision would be (yes, I know that the premise of the question pre-necessitates some changes in my theological outlook. Bear with me here). I'd pick Sufism in a heartbeat. I know next-to-nothing about Sufism (other than that it's a mystical branch of Islam that believes that love is God's reflection on the universe. And truth be told, I had to search the Interweb to figure out that last little detail). But their religious practices look like so much fun!

So, a little background. There is a tomb West of Khartoum (in a town called Omderman) for a 19th century Sufi leader named Sheikh Hamed al-Nil. The tomb is in the middle of a large cemetery, and every Friday the local Sufis have a religious ceremony known as the dhikr, where people try to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy to better commune with God. There's a little opening act with a band, playing for tips (presumably for upkeep of the tomb, but I don't really know). The real meat of the evening is the chanting and dancing, though.

It's really quite impressive. There were probably around 50-100 people participating. Most of them were chanting ("La illaha illallah", which means "There is no god but Allah"), some were playing drums, which evoked a very hypnotic atmosphere. Many people formed processions that marched around inside this circle of onlookers, chanting and shaking staffs in the air and dancing. The most fascinating to watch, though, was by far the people who would throw themselves into ecstatic motion in the middle of the circle. They would spin in circles (the "Whirling Dervishes" of which you might have heard), run around the audience, throw themselves onto the ground, and basically just try to lose themselves in physical action and activity. One man in particular spun himself throughout the entire evening (which was a good 45 minutes, I'd guess -- maybe more). He was going fast, too -- I'd guess a good 1RPS was the slowest he ever went.

It was amazing to watch how involved everyone got. It reminded me in a way of being young, six or so, and going onto playgrounds, jumping off swings, trying to hold onto the merry-go-round as you spun it as fast as you could, hanging up-side-down from the monkeybars, running around in circles trying to make yourself dizzy. That kind of wild abandon, where you're trying to overload your brain through the shear overwhelming sense of activity and adrenaline overload, using disorientation and movement to clear your mind and disconnect yourself from the outside world. So many people were in these amazing, brightly colored Jellabiyas as well, which is an interesting change from the much more conservative and plain clothing that you generally see on the streets. The man who walked around in the particolored robes with the pointy hat, sharing incense with the crowd, was a particularly eye-catching sight.

I don't much go in for religious ceremonies. I've been to a fair number of them in my life (I was raised Quaker, if you didn't know, so even most Christian ceremonies are a novelty to me), and by and large the ones I've enjoyed have been in spite of their format and traditions (because of a well-written sermon, say, or some nice music). So often it feels like any sort of meaning that I might get out of it is needlessly hidden behind these arcane rituals that exist for no real compelling reason, other than "hey, that's the way we've always done it." (By far the least pleasant experience I've had with this is at the Temple of the Tooth, in Sri Lanka, where every evening they have a ceremony to unveil the tooth of the Buddha that they safeguard. We went to see the ceremony once, which consisted of droning, hypnotic music with no variation for at least a half-hour, which is when we decided to leave.) The dhikr was awesome 'cause it was just so joyously unstructured, leaving it up to everyone to participate in the way they chose. I can't imagine I would really get any more sense of meaning or religious value out of it than from any of the other options. But it'd be so much more fun to try!

Thursday, January 4, 2007


The bags are here! The bags are here! We have only three days left, and the contents of the bags are all damp. But they're here. Yaaaaaaaaay!


First things first, I've got my image gallery all set up, and I've uploaded a bunch of pictures of the trip so far. Check it out at Of course, all the galleries are fascinating and excellent, but if you're in a rush, I would check out "Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra" and "Pyramids at Meroe". Those are the ones with ancient ruins and pyramids and hieroglyphics and cool things like that. Check 'em out, let me know what you think. I've got more pictures that I'll be putting up in the days to come.

Exploring the ruins and checking out local museums has been really cool, more so than on most trips. I love going to history museums; I could spend hours upon hours just walking through exhibits, trying to get a sense of time and contemporary historical events. I really don't know why. I get this way every time a historical article goes on to the front page of Wikipedia, as well; I'll spend hours (yes, sometimes literally) following down link after link, trying to get as much of the historical context as I possibly can. I have, of course, no interest in being a historian or the like, 'cause that smacks of actual work and sounds much more boring. But reaping the rewards of their labor is fun.

That was a tangent. What I was going to say is that it's been fascinating learning about Sudan's history. Most of the places I've gone to recently (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia...), I've had at least some idea of what their history was like. Sudan, though, I had no idea. I'd heard of the Kush empire, but I knew nothing at all about them. Not that the Kush empire ruled Egypt for a while (as the 25th dynasty), not that they had diplomatic dealings and war with the Romans (witness plundered head of Nero at right), nothing of the sort. Let alone history of any of the other civilizations that popped up over the years. Every so often I feel like I get a (very high-level) understanding of the broad sweep of history, and then I find out about all these things that I missed. Oh, well. More to learn later, I guess.

Random incident of the day. Leila (my sister) and Jen were out walking (to buy bread, I believe), and ran into a guy from Northern Sudan. Apparently, he was educated at Dartmouth, lived for a long time in Maryland, and his son is a DJ for UN Radio in southern Sudan. He invited them over for coffee and they spent an hour or so talking. Turns out he knows Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and worked with him on one of his Wonders of the African World episodes (presumably "Black Kingdoms of the Nile"). Weird little run-in; I'm sad I didn't decide to go on the walk.

Final note (am I writing too much? Are you getting bored reading all this? My parents' house is bare (their shipment hasn't arrived yet -- sense a trend?) so all we have to do in the evenings is watch MASH, play Scrabble, and browse the Internets. Also, I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, recently, and have really gotten into prolix verbosity. Like this ridiculously long parenthetical here.). Check out the Ben Hur rickshaw! (There! The wheels!) These crazy little vehicles are suicidal taxis that you see all around town. For some reason many of them have these spiky wheel decorations. I don't know why.

PS Still no bags!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A brief note on the radio offerings in Sudan. I'm sure that if you speak Arabic (which I don't -- at least, not well) there are plenty of interesting opportunities available to you. I could be wrong, of course -- many of them sound like religious stations or perhaps talk radio, and nothing good has ever come of those two.

If you're an English speaker, though, you really have only one choice -- the BBC (well, you could get satellite radio and listen to all the audio ever known to man -- I remember once getting to hear "Bohemian Like You" by the Dandy Warhols in southern Ethiopia, dozens of miles from the nearest source of electricity). The BBC alternates between English and Arabic programming a couple times a day.

Anyway, the point of this story. A few days ago we were driving around, and BBC Arabic was on. I wasn't really paying attention, but it sounded like a standard news broadcast or the like. Nothing too exciting. All of a sudden, for no discernible reason, Ben E. King comes on, singing "Stand By Me" in the full-voiced, heartfelt way that only he can. I'm only vaguely aware of this at first, but the song goes on for a while and I begin to take notice. If that wasn't weird enough, we don't get very far into the song before an Arabic voice interrupts and starts talking over it. We then get an odd medley, alternating between soulful English music and random Arabic conversation. This goes on for several minutes, and I sit and listen with a sort of bewildered, dazed expression on my face (or at least, so I imagine).

I kind of wish it had stayed at that level of surreality, but my mom then informed me that this was an English-language-learning service that the BBC provides. Apparently this time they were teaching the phrase "stand by me", and picked the obvious example song. Since then, I've also heard lessons using "Munich", by the Editors (teaching "you should know by now"), and a British cooking show (teaching I-don't-know-what). Strange world.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Slow day today. The weather was relatively cool (high of 79, I believe), and we spent the day vegging out, doing some shopping and swimming at the International Club (man, had I forgot how much fun swimming is). I'm a little worried that the rest of the trip is going to consist solely of days like this. I'm sure that lazing around doing nothing sounds fun to some people, but it drives me bonkers. As many of my friends can attest. I have the Internet (oh, and my family) to keep me company, which keeps me going. I have also managed to spend a little time working on my juggling and guitar skills, which I had sadly neglected. We're going to travel around and visit some museums tomorrow, hopefully. Stores have been closed for the past couple days for Eid ul-Adha, so we'll see how that works out.

In regards to previously mentioned shopping expedition. We were mostly interested in produce, and so visited (of course) the central bazaar, or "Soukh ul-Markhazi" ("Central Soukh"), which is where you find these kinds of things (if you want them cheap, that is). Mostly uneventful (other than my mom miscommunicating with a stall-keeper and buying an entire box of mangoes...). Except for this one crazy guy (no -- I mean that literally) who kept following us around, yelling at us to "Go! Go!", and that "If someone comes into your country, you will take a gun!" and muttering something about the "CIA" (maybe?). I really can't do justice to how discombobulated and weird his conversation was, or the fact that he spent a good 10 minutes trailing us, like some demented groupie. I wanted to shoo him off, but I got the impression he wasn't the kind of person with whom that would have been effective. Fortunately, most of the shop-keepers seemed to view him as a weird nuisance more than anything, and so he didn't reflect poorly on us (whew!).

There's apparently an interesting loophole in the Sudanese tax system. That being, if your house is currently under construction, you don't have to pay taxes on it. At first blush, that seems relatively reasonable, I guess. The end result, though, is buildings like those at right, in a permanent state of not-quite completion (this particular building is a collection of stores, closed for (as mentioned earlier) Eid). The most common method of indicating that a building isn't finished yet is through the half-sheathed support columns that poke up like strange antennas (or perhaps defense systems against the coming alien landing). This is more common than I would imagine you think; I first really noticed these on a drive out of town a few days ago, where a good three-quarters of the buildings looked like this. They really do look like the construction crew showed up one day, forgot which building they happened to be working on, and said "Hell with it! We're starting a new one right over here!". The building we're living in, fortunately, does not have this feature (which I suppose probably jacks up the rent).

The building I'm in right now has a fairly odd architectural layout, in that it appears to be taller than it is wide (and it's only two stories high). It's got a decently large footprint, but the ceilings are all around 15 feet tall. Apparently this has to do with keeping the temperature down, which is I suppose one of those logical yet unsatisfying answers that you sometimes have to deal with (wouldn't it be cooler if this were a former weapons-research lab, and the living room was this huge 'cause it had to hold the enormous prototype sand submarine?).

Alright, I'm going to bed. More weird and interesting (?) anecdotes in tomorrow's post.

PS No photo gallery, still. Sorry. It's there, I just haven't uploaded any pictures.

PPS Still no bags! Good God! A BA plane arrives tomorrow, apparently, so we may be lucky. The lousy part is that we know where the bags are (at Heathrow airport). All we need is for somebody to look at the damn routing sticker and stick it on an airplane. But we've gone through 3 or 4 of those so far, and no luck. At this point we may end up just picking up the bags on our way back.

Monday, January 1, 2007

So, if you're camping, I have two suggestions for you. If you find yourself sleeping on one of these and it's cold out, you will also be cold unless you happen to have insulation underneath you as well as atop. Also, as soft as you might think sand is to sleep on, it isn't. At least, not if its compacted under your tent.

Day the first: We depart Khartoum in a northerly direction, through much desert, stopping at the sixth cataract. The SC is somewhat smaller than I expected (don't blink!), although the Nile continues to be huge. Apparently flooding last year erased a village that would have been on the left-hand side of the picture (bear in mind that that's an increase in level of maybe 10 ft). We spent the night at a "hotel", under a thatch-roofed awning on the riverbank, wherewithin we slept upon aforementioned cots. It was really quite pretty (the stars were fantastic when I was stumbling around the camp at 4AM). Excitement included refilling the battery cells the next morning and push-starting the car.

Day the second: We veer 30 KM off-road, through desert and... more desert, for to explore Kushite ruins at Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra. Many ruins, lots of carvings and inscriptions, several camels. Some of the architecture is decently-well preserved, which is cool (and there's been some good restoration work, as well). It's also really interesting to see the very Egyptian-style carvings, with our good friends Isis and Ra interacting with characters who have distinctly black-African facial features. Apparently the carvings at right are of interest as the queen (at right, if you can't tell) is portrayed in the same size as her XY-bechromosomed mate. Apparently this is an indication of her relative influence, and should be regarded as some sort of early proto-feminist event. Kewl.

Day the third: New years day. We wake up on the desert sand, sore but warm, to a spectacular sunrise and a decent view of some pyramids (as referenced last post). Also a bunch of camel-riding locals who stick around to watch us break camp and offer us camel rides (for a fee, of course). The pyramids are somewhat smaller than the three I'm familiar with, but they have their own quaint charm. They do get points for quantity -- there are more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt, if'n you didn't know (we saw 20-30 in various states of disrepair). They would also be somewhat more impressive if some asshat archaeologist hadn't decided to get his teehees by knocking the tops off them. As a silver lining, I guess I got to learn a bit more about the inside construction of a pyramid (darker, smaller, less well-hewn rocks, if you were curious).

And then we drove home, stopping only for foul and coffee (Sudanese style, strong, with ginger, cardimum, and lots of sugar) at a roadside restaurant. And now we're at home, having just watched a few episodes of MASH. To bed with me!

PS I've allowed anonymous posting, if anyone cares.

PPS More images forthcoming, as I get my gallery up-to-date on my website.

PPPS Still no bags!