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greenhouse by joost

On Saturday, we went to Greenhouse by Joost. It’s a pop-up bar right on Sydney Harbour, at Campbells Cove in The Rocks.

What the heck is a pop-up bar? That’s what I asked my wife when she suggested we go. Apparently it’s a new trend of temporary drinking establishments, the latest hottest thing in our fly-by-night global economy. Constructed with temporary (or reusable) materials, shaped any which way their creators see fit, they spring out of nowhere in hip and convenient locations and stick around for a couple of months or even just a couple of weeks. The owners are thus freed of many of the hassles and overhead of running a business. The point is to make a splash, make some cash, and then fold up and go on to the next thing.

The concept might be familiar to you – temporary venues are now a common sight at arts festivals and in urban parks during the summer. Many of them are sponsored by large corporations. If you’re familiar with the the Beck’s Festival Bar here in Sydney, or the Spiegel Tent in any number of major cities, you get the idea. They can be quite well-appointed, and feel more permanent than they are. My colleagues from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival will probably never forget the impossibly lavish Festival Tent at Emirates Palace.

Greenhouse by Joost is both pop-up business and green art project. It was designed by Joost Bakker, a Dutch-Australian artist, painter, florist and entrepreneur. He built his first Greenhouse in Melbourne in 2006, and since then has done a few of them around Oz. There’s a permanent one in Perth. The one here in Sydney (which is a restaurant as well as a bar) will be up until the end of this month.

The Greenhouse is built entirely of recycled and recyclable materials, it’s carbon neutral, and it’s waste free. But you probably could have guessed all that. The concept of sustainability is becoming a common one. Which is a good thing.

The place feels nice – it’s colorful and inviting; the exterior walls are a vertical strawberry garden. Inside, it’s clean and well-lit. The windows facing the Harbour are huge. As is often the case when green materials are put to good use in building, it’s attractive, with lots of interesting shapes and rough textures in the design. There’s bold visual art and text everywhere you look.

The roof is a great space. The deck is made of unfinished wood. There’s more color, more art, another bar. Most strikingly, there’s a long, long container garden planted with basil and parsley that runs around the whole thing. (The herbs are used in the kitchen. I read that other vegetables are grown there too, but I didn’t see them.) And you simply can’t beat the temporary world-class view. It was unseasonably chilly and wet on Saturday, and we had the roof largely to ourselves. I’m sure it would be hard to find a seat up there in nice weather. We chatted, enjoyed the drizzle, and watched a massive cruise ship depart Circular Quay.

I didn’t eat the food, so I can’t comment on that. I did drink a good amount of ale, and that’s my one complaint: the beers were $10 each. I guess it’s all to support the cause.

Here’s the review in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Notes on the sustainable restrooms: The toilet and sink are designed to work together – to save water I think. When you wash your hands after using the toilet, it flushes. But this backfired when I stepped into the restroom at one point just to wash my hands – I ended up flushing the toilet too, and thus wasting water. Also, the men’s toilet I used did not have a light. I guess this saves a bit of electricity, but using a toilet in the dark is not a practice I’d want to sustain for very long.

the montgomery method

Recently I posted a piece about Martin Luther King Jr’s global legacy, and later another one about religious unity during the protests in Egypt. Those two strands are tied together in this story on Comics Alliance:

Egyptian Activists Inspired by Forgotten Martin Luther King Comic

(Thanks to my friend Steven, who posted it on Facebook.)

The article details how The Montgomery Story, a comic book about King originally published in 1958 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by the American Islamic Congress and distributed in the Middle East – including Egypt. The comic is an account of the historic bus boycott led by King in Montgomery, Alabama, and includes a primer on “the Montgomery method” – the program of nonviolent action that King initiated in the American civil rights movement and which proved so crucial in the struggle. The article hints the comic may have had an influence on some Egyptian activists during the resent uprising, and helped shape its largely peaceful nature.

Look, The Montgomery Story probably won’t ever win any artistic awards, but for a comic it is remarkably thorough and insightful in disseminating the spiritual values of nonviolent resistance and… well, love. It even includes a thoughtful recap of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India.

The translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story‘s Arabic edition was spearheaded by activist Diala Ziada, director of the AIC’s Egypt office. Ziada tirelessly promotes peace, civil rights and nonviolent change in the region with various media projects and sheer determination. Among her noteworthy projects is the Cairo Human Rights Film Festival, now in its third year.

It’s fascinating to read this Time Magazine profile, published in 2009, identifying Ziada as part of a “soft revolution” of Middle Eastern women pushing for change within Islam. It really highlights how the earthshaking events in Cairo this month have changed the paradigms completely – the story is so right and prescient about some things, and so completely wrong and outdated about others. How quickly our perspective has changed. Note the description of the trouble the first edition of the film festival encountered from the government authorities, and Ziada’s heroic efforts to keep it going:

The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night – waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

I hadn’t heard of this woman until I read this article, and I have to say I’m seriously impressed with her courage and energy and her commitment to nonviolent principles. (And she’s only 28. Ever feel like you’re not doing enough with your life?) In covering the Middle East, the mainstream media has generally focused primarily on victims and bad guys, giving us impressions of violence and pathos and little else. That’s why so many of us were caught off guard with the uprising, a genuine people’s movement defying lines of class, gender and religion, and not dictated by the agendas of elites and foreigners.

The Comics Alliance article admits that since only 2000 translated copies of The Mongomery Story were distributed, its influence on the events in Egypt could not have been widespread. But righteous seeds have a way of germinating at just the right time, and having an impact far greater than it may seem at first. In this letter, Zadia insists the book has had an important effect on those it reaches:

When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print, and then asked: “Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?”

The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region… Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.

It’s quite an image, a young Muslim woman handing out copies of a 60-year-old comic book about the revolutionary vision of an American Baptist minister, right in the middle of her country’s greatest crisis. As the writer of the Comics Alliance article says, “It’s certainly cool that a comic book starring one of America’s greatest real-life heroes has inspired even one person to take to the streets in the way we’ve seen over the last several weeks.”

Click here for complete PDF versions of The Montgomery Story in Arabic, Farsi and English.

singing bridge pelicans

My friend Jackie got these photos of pelicans feeding at night on the Myall River from the Singing Bridge. Jackie, my wife and I were walking from the beach at Hawks Nest across the bridge to Tea Gardens, where my wife’s parents live in a house right on the river.

The Singing Bridge is so named because it makes a humming sound in the wind. I’ve not heard this phenomenon, but I do like to walk on the bridge as often as possible. It offers terrific views of the Myall estuary, with Port Stephens and Yaccaba head in the distance, and it’s a great place to watch pelicans, black swans, egrets – and with any luck, dolphins, which come up the river to fish in the morning.

As we crossed, I saw the pelicans feeding in the calm, glassy water and tried a few snapshots, but I had a hard time finding a good setting and did not get anything of value. Jackie joined me in shooting almost as an afterthought, did not adjust her camera at all, and the results are really interesting.

I love the way the pelicans are reduced to mere sketches or figures, but very much identifiable as pelicans. No water is discernible; the bird-figures swim in a black field. Perspective is lost completely – the photos almost look like printed patterns – but still the pelicans’ characteristic lazy, contented movements as they feed are apparent, especially in the repetitions between frames.

The plan is to go back to the bridge to recreate this setup, but shoot with video instead, and make a short film with the same aesthetic: pelicans floating on black, nothing else. We’ll see if it can be as serendipitous and oddly perfect as these snapshots.

reverse garbage

Last Sunday I visited Reverse Garbage, a non-profit organization that collects all kinds of junk and secondhand goods – especially industrial discards – and sells it to the public out of a warehouse in Marrickville. The concept is sound enough; it’s the type of thing I think we can all agree we need more of. But the experience of the place itself was unexpectedly inspiring and fun.

The first thing you see in the unkempt lot outside Reverse Garbage is a huge sculpture, welded together out of scrap metal, imposingly postapocalyptic, roughly the shape of some sort of larger-than-life toy mobile. Suspended from one of the arms of the mobile is a scrap-metal creature that’s part giant spider, part praying mantis, with the lithe torso and head of a bare-breasted mannequin. You know, I’ve seen a lot of found-object installations in my life, and a lot of them really lame, but something as well-executed as this still has the power to amuse and disturb. The only way it could get any better is if this she-monster were robotically animated and did battle with a cyber-scrap giant wasp.

Behind this attraction is a junk yard-cum-art garden, featuring an ugly foam sculpture of the Sydney waterfront and a bicycle graveyard, leading you to the warehouse. Inside is the largest collection of used stuff I’ve ever seen. In the front it looks like a garage sale or a vintage shop, except it goes on and on and on, tables and shelves full of decor, toys, jewelry, stationery, lighting, kitchenware, pottery, knickknacks, bric-a-brack, sundries, hand-me-downs, flotsam and jetsam and whatnot stretching for what seems like hundreds of yards into a haze in the far reaches of the building.

It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an entire shelf full of sheets of stickers, the kind that are used to decorate kids’ schoolpapers and notebooks. Honestly, I get lost just with those. There’s some nice furniture here. Over there are plastic flowers, and some weird old VHS tapes. Further back are heaps of used speakers and other audio equipment, some of it unidentifiable.

Moving into the far corners of the warehouse, you find the purely industrial detritus, some of it hilariously, almost childishly alluring, stuff you just wanna play with: rectangular portions of pink foam stored in clear plastic bags bigger than I am, vast shelves loaded with cardboard tubes. Out back is the hardware, the unclaimed makings of infrastructure: metal pipes, lumber, restaurant equipment, PVC tubes.

Out of everything here, what draws me in the most are the loose ceramic tiles. They come in many forms and colors, the loose and haphazard stacks defying the geometric order we naturally associate with them. The cool feel of the tiles, their surprising weight as I pick them up, the earthy scraping sound they make, is strangely appealing. Especially as I was recently in İstanbul (tile central), I’m seized by the urge to take a bunch of them home, break them into pieces, and teach myself to make mosaic art. But I reckon I don’t have time for a new hobby – I have too much on my plate as it is.

Obviously the main clientele here will be artists. I see a couple of them milling about, with their piercings and boots and torn stockings, longingly touching the cardboard tubes. The pink foam alone would be enough raw material for an entire group show. And, perhaps to make them feel at home, there are more of the found-object sculptures here – a life-sized T-rex skull, and a smiling robot towering overhead, its readout saying WOMEN NEED TECHNICAL JOBS NEED WOMEN.

Often secondhand shops depress me. This is particularly true with records. As much as I love music, sometimes sifting through bin after bin of beat-up old records and CDs gives me a terrible sense of how much bad music has been mass produced. Reverse Garbage, on the other hand, makes me feel lighthearted. I think it’s because it’s not just an inert pile of trash, but a living collection of quality goods, lovingly tended and promoted with activism and a definite aesthetic. Like an enormous punk-industrial antique shop.

But honestly this place also makes me feel a little guilty. Yeah, I’ve spent money at Ikea recently. And, why, why, WHY? Considering the cheap fiberboard and plastic crap they trade in will crumble to dust before any of the great old furniture on display here, or anything I could fashion for myself with the lumber and PVC in the back if I was halfway clever enough to learn how. (I’m so damned unhandy it’s not funny.) If there’s one lesson to be learned at Reverse Garbage, it’s that we as a society probably can probably just stop manufacturing things right now. There’s enough material and resources in all of the mountains of stuff that’s already out there in the world to get by just fine. The indictment of our consumer addiction and our environmental crisis is too obvious to go on about in depth, even for me.

I find myself thinking again about İstanbul. There you see men pulling big wooden carts through the narrow streets, calling for people to bring them their junk and scraps – dead appliances, bits of metal, anything. And people do; the carts get filled up, the stuff gets re-used. You get the feeling that nothing there is wasted. It points to an economy of conservation that we’ve almost forgotten about in the West, where we’re taught to feel self-conscious about a faded polo shirt or a TV that isn’t brand-new and perfectly flat.

What’s even more impressive about Reverse Garbage is that the secondhand wealth on display isn’t limited to the one facility. Stretching around the property are a number of other storage buildings open to the public, inviting us in to survey more collections of junk and ceramic tiles and used speakers and tubes. And out in the grassy, tree-lined area between the buildings is a big Sunday market: dozens of stalls offering local and organic produce, wine, the inevitable jams and chutneys – and more used stuff, much more.

Taken all together it’s a zone covering a few city blocks in which everything is used or handmade or locally grown or DIY. It’s like a castoff carnival. Rejects rule. You could come here every Sunday, shop for the apocalypse, and never go to Coles or Ikea or Target again.

we’re all egyptians

Last Friday brought an incredible story among all of the other incredible stories from Cairo. In the middle of the massive protests that have rocked the nation of Egypt, Muslim protesters took time on their holy day to pray – and in many instances Coptic Christians (who make up 15% of the population) stood close by, protecting them from the police. The breathtaking images of these incidents have been circulated around the world ever since.

I also saw a couple of accounts of Muslim youth helping to guard an Anglican church when the police stopped their patrols and looting began. And I read more than once that during the protests a Muslim Brotherhood chant of “Allahu Akbar!” was overwhelmed by a larger crowd chanting, “Muslameen Mesiheen Kolina Masreen!” which means “Muslims, Christians, we’re all Egyptians!” (I love the way it rhymes in both Arabic and English.)

A lot of people are experiencing uncertainty about this turn of the tide in Egypt. I admit it, so am I. The agenda has shifted so fast. For a long time our main concern about Egypt was the possibility of sectarian violence, especially after the bombing of a church on New Year’s Day. But sudddenly, before we knew what was really happening, there was a mass uprising of Egyptians of every faith and economic class demanding justice and basic human rights. We aren’t sure what to make of it. We need Jon Stewart or Banksy to come along and clarify things for us, give us a reassuring summary of the situation so that we can go back to having an opinion.

Are we afraid this turmoil is going to permanently de-stabilize Egypt? Or even the whole region, especially if the aftershocks continue spreading (as they did from Tunisia to Egypt)? Or are we just afraid on general principle? It’s an unfortunate human tendency to value order above freedom most of the time. That’s what repressive governments count on. Revolution is a scary thing.

We’re used to thinking of the Middle East as a battleground in a quasi-medieval religious war, a divisive and hopeless place. Did anyone ever think we’d see anything like these Muslims and Christians struggling together and looking after each other any time soon?

First of all, we might want to question where we get our ideas from in the first place. We hear all about terror, everyone’s favorite flavor of bad news, but we haven’t heard much about the Mubarek regime’s human rights abuses, have we? And beyond that, how do we let ourselves get convinced that there’s no hope for reconciliation between faiths, that no change will ever come? What takes away our hope?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley lately. His music always resonates during a crisis. (It’s all I could listen to for weeks after 9/11.) The lyric that spoke to me when I saw these pictures is this one from “Coming in from the Cold”:

Would you let the system get inside your head again?
Would you let the system make you kill your brotherman?
No, dread, no!

If these images, which almost bring tears to my eyes even as I look at them now, prove one thing, it’s that new paradigms are possible, and can spring to life after decades – centuries – of hate and despair. Indeed, I think the potential for unity, peace and goodwill is always present, always just around the corner, even – or especially – in the most dire circumstances. Love is always stronger than hate.

All of our highest spiritual wisdom demands that we love one another. Maybe in the middle of this emergency in Egypt, we see here a glimpse of a new kind of interfaith connection, arising exactly when it’s needed most.

I think this should be one of our keys to understanding this situation. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know where these events will lead Egypt, or where they will lead us, which is probably how we should look at it. But I trust what I see here.

urban farmers

My wife and I recently started an organic vegetable garden in one of the communal flower beds of our suburban North Shore apartment building. We’d been talking about growing vegetables for years – owning a bit of land one of these days and producing food with it is a key goal for us. When we got back from Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago, we finally had the will and the downtime to give it a test run. The flower bed was full of compost. Summer was approaching.

There were a couple of harbingers that the garden was meant to be. A cherry tomato vine had taken over much of the flower bed during the four months we were out of town. Though it had nothing to climb on, and was just sprawling on the ground, still it had produced lots of fruit – some of it harvested by my mother-in-law, some of it still on the vine, or falling off into the flower bed. I was sorry to have to pull it out to make room for new seedlings. And among the weeds I also pulled out, I found a little nondescript cucurbit seedling right at the edge of the bed. I wasn’t sure if it was a cucumber, a melon or a squash. But any of those possibilities were welcome. I left that one, carefully clearing away the long grass around it, to be the flagship seedling of our new garden. Both of these plants were volunteers – the seeds had come from the composted vegetable scraps we’d been systematically burying in the flower bed earlier in the year.

I was so happy to see with my own eyes that winter in New South Wales is mild enough that a tomato plant can grow and produce by itself. That’s totally alien to my experience in New York, where the growing season runs from April to November at the latest, and there’s not much for farmers to do over the winter but catch up on TV watching and go through seed catalogs. The mild climate here is one of the many reasons I migrated of course. You really can grow veggies right round the calendar here if you know what you’re doing.

Which we don’t, really. Neither of us have ever done this before. We both spent formative seasons working on organic farms when we were younger, and I spent ten years working in the organic produce business, but it’s very different when you’re growing your own.

It’s not easy. The host of problems we’ve experienced comes across like the lyrics to a bad folk song about hard times. The roma tomatoes have blossom-end rot. The summer squash have downey mildew, and they’re not pollinating. The habañero pepper plants aren’t producing at all. The jalapeño plant produced one lonely pepper, now it’s just sitting there. The yellow beans were attacked by slugs. The onion seedlings died a miserable death. The radishes are being eaten by… something. Seriously, I wanted to take some more snapshots to post here, but so far the outlook is pretty grim.

But some things are going well. The heirloom tomatoes (pictured) are looking great now – big green things that will theoretically be blackish-purple and juicy in a couple of weeks. A new crop of beans is growing. The herbs – basil, thyme, sage, marjoram and parsley – are really thriving in the hot weather and regularly contribute to our kitchen. Same with the rocket, mizuna and rainbow chard. And the little volunteer cucurbit has grown into an enormous vine that’s taking over our front lawn. Turns out it’s a butternut squash, and the fruit on it is getting bigger all the time. We’ll have plenty of squash this year if nothing else. (Figures the volunteer is the one that’s really producing. There’s a lot to be said for just letting things happen.)

It’s going to take years to get good at this – that’s what everyone who knows tells us. I have such great memories of helping my grandpa with his garden on long summer days in Oregon when I was a kid. I’m not sure if it’s the haze of nostalgia, but it seems the beans and tomatoes formed perfect rows of ten-foot-tall plants, and the crookneck squash and cucumbers exploded out of the ground. My grandpa had been doing it all his life. It’s not going like that in our small, overcrowded garden. There are a hundred mistakes we’ve made, a hundred tricks we haven’t learned yet.

But it’s amazing how satisfying it is, how it makes me feel like myself, how quickly the stress melts away and I get into my right mind when I’m down near ground level with the skinks and the ladybirds, weeding or mulching or just observing the plants. I mean to spend the rest of my life doing this. Even if it has to be part-time.

Once I thought I wanted to move to the country and become a farmer – get back to the land and get off the grid. It didn’t take me long to realize I have a lot more city in me than that. I just don’t want to be that far away from all the fun and the danger and the film festivals. Not yet anyway. At this point I think I’d be happy with a kitchen garden on a half acre. And maybe some chickens, like my mate who lives in downtown Denver. But this is the point I’m coming to: you can do a lot with that – you can grow a lot of food on a little bit of land.

I’ve always struggled to incorporate the different elements in my life: music, writing, film, a love of history, a love of everything nautical, a strong belief in organics and sustainable living, vegetarianism, a commitment to spiritual living, a passion for baseball. At times I think I just have too many influences. Sometimes the lifestyles that spring from these interests seem to contradict each other. How does playing funky urban beats fit in with growing food?

Well, the phrase I had stuck in my head as I was thinking about this entry was urban farmers. That happens to be the name of a house music production and remix crew from England; they released a couple of my favorite late-90s jams on the 20:20 Vision label, including this one:

I have no idea why those guys chose the name Urban Farmers. Might’ve just been random. But the point is it inspires me.

Then there’s the Rurals, a house-music collective from Devon, England led by a husband-and-wife team who live and produce music in a farmhouse in the country. They’ve made a career of incorporating pastoral concepts and imagery into their projects (contrary to the hyper-urban or futuristic motifs that are the hallmark of electronic music), naming albums Farmyard FlavoursNettle Soul and Farming Grooves. The sleeve design of Messages, with its birds and bees and floral patterns in a tribute to old-school printmaking, is one of my favorites. (It was done by Studio NMO.)

So it doesn’t have to be either/or. Anyway I’m starting to realize that the so-called contradiction between urban and pastoral urges in my life could represent possibilities for integration, mapping the way my life can fit into a sustainable future. I can take what I’ve learned about organic growing and apply it to city living. You could say this is a necessity. The world’s population is urbanizing at a crazy pace; farming is going to have to become more urban to keep up with it. This is the crucial next step in the local food movement.

Take a walk around the neighborhoods of the North Shore and you’ll see plenty of gardens, some of them pretty ambitious – beanstalks or cornstalks towering over the fences. It’s not a new idea. People have always loved growing a couple of tomatoes and some basil with their extra garden space. But I think more systematic, widespread and large-scale food growing in the city and suburbs should be considered. The population density of greater Sydney is skyrocketing. Suburban living as we think of it, with its wasteful and selfish tendencies, won’t work anymore. Nor is crowded urban living desirable for anyone. Medium density is the way forward. We’re already seeing it in classically suburban Lindfield: apartment blocks are replacing detached houses in some places. The paradigm is shifting.

Integrating urban food production into the region’s economy seems to me a great solution for this medium-density, mixed-use future. Increasing the land’s productivity, reducing supply lines while decreasing fossil-fuel use, making food a more immediate and involved experience for more people: win, win and win. It will be especially important here in Australia, the nation with the most urbanized population on earth. Much of this continent is not suitable for growing food, and the little that is has often been mismanaged and damaged. (This issue is tackled in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I just finished reading.)

But think of all the fertile land that exists in the suburbs. It’s like a huge untapped growing region made up individual plots of land. Most of it being used to grow lawns. But there are alternatives. Recently my wife visited a home not far away in posh, über-suburban Killara that had a huge and very productive garden taking up the entire backyard, with a chicken coop on the side.

And growing food is something everyone can do. As much as I’m going on about the problems I’ve had, it’s not something you need a degree or a certificate in. It’s part of everyone’s heritage. And it’s something you can do while also having a job and having a life. We just have to find the collective will to make it practical and desirable for more city and suburban people to do it – in backyards, in containers, on rooftops, in little flower beds like ours.

So, yeah. Urban farmers. The other day I was in Hyde Park (in Sydney’s city center) and noticed a container flower bed full of vegetables: kale, chard, lettuce and lavender. Purely for ornamentation you know. But just think of how much food we can produce like this when it comes down to it. It’s gotta be another sign.

now he belongs to the ages

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day back in the States, and there seems to be a current of urgency in the online news services and among my friends and contacts. I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of tributes and reflections on his legacy compared to recent years. King is one of my true heroes; I take inspiration from his life and words all the time, so trust me, I notice these things. Why the extra interest this year?

Is there an increasing sense of emergency on planet Earth? The economic slump grinds on; the endless war grinds on. Judges and little girls shot in the street. Injustice, poverty and violence haunt the entire world. Globalization seems to bless and curse us at once. Terror and hope live with all of us daily.

Do these teachings still hold weight? Can this man’s absolute commitment to peace and the power of nonviolence still apply in practical terms? Do you really have to ask?

Yeah, I think King’s message, like a seed that germinated slowly and is only now pushing above ground, is actually gaining in importance as we go on, as the world gets eerily small. We can’t escape the reality that this planet has become a community. We’re now involved whether we like it or not with what’s happening everywhere else, from drowning polar bears to mass protests in the streets.

King was there ahead of us. It’s only been in the last few years that I realized the extent of his global vision – that I understood how his push for peace and unity on a large scale were embedded in his teachings from quite early on.

Motivated by keen interest in the satyagraha teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta visited India in 1959. All agree that the experience of this trip had a profound influence on his career and ministry. On this post from last January on pan-Indian blog Sepia Mutiny, I found a recently-discovered recording of King speaking on the radio in India. (Note that the writer of the blog post admits he doesn’t think nonviolence necessarily applies to India in the global age. I don’t agree with him, but his argument is thoughtful, and he makes a connection between King’s work and the problems of modern-day Palestine, Sri Lanka and Iraq. This is the kind of discourse we need.) Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: now he belongs to the ages.

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

King draws a parallel between Lincoln and Gandhi, who were both shot and killed, saying they belong to the ages. It’s sad to remember he met the same fate. And belongs to the ages, aye.

Think about all of this for a second. This was 1959. His work in Alabama and Georgia had barely begun. He didn’t even have full civil and human rights under his own government. The situation of his people – the poverty, the social and political forces arrayed against their advancement – was desperate. And yet, there he was in India, talking about interfaith concepts of nonviolence and world peace. Many Americans of the day would not have been able to find India on a map or tell you one thing about it. Yet King was already trying to lift their eyes up, point them away from focusing only on their own problems. To me it’s an illustration of the yogic teaching that we do not apprehend knowledge, we are all born with it instilled within; and we realize it at different rates according to our willingness. I think King was realizing his true nature quite early. He was already a world spiritual leader, but most couldn’t see it yet.

Notice, too, that even then he was speaking out against the nuclear arms race and the potentially deadly paranoia of the Cold War. This would have been a very unpopular and even dangerous stance for the time; I’m sure it contributed to President Kennedy’s authorizing the FBI to spy on King. (In case you need a reminder that Kennedy wasn’t some great champion of the people.)

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, King expounded more on his experiences in India:

Some time ago, it was our good fortune to journey to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience. I never will forget the marvelous experiences that came to Mrs King and I as we met and talked with the great leaders of India, met and talked with hundreds and thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memories shall linger.

But I must also say that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night, no beds to sleep in, no houses to go in? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population – more than 400,000,000 people – some 380,000,000 earn less than $90 a year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist.

As I notice these conditions, something within me cried out, Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? Then an answer came, “Oh no – because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.” I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge – the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children that go to bed hungry at night.

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I just want to highlight a couple of things here. First of all – again – the enormous sympathy for the poor and needy living overseas felt by this man who wasn’t treated as an equal at home. The insight in connecting their struggles to his, and to the economy and well-being of his own nation and the rest of the world. And the advanced and holistic philosophy presented in terms that anyone can understand.

King was an intellectual giant and did not hide it; his practice of weaving his speeches with strands from a number of traditions and schools of thought is on display here. Elsewhere in this same speech he quotes or refers to Lincoln, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Donne, Machiavelli, former British prime minister Harold McMillan, the Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decisions, Margaret Mead, Aristotle, Plato, Bob Hope and Edgar Allan Poe. He explains the Greek concepts of eros, philia and agape, talks about Ghanian independence and the pan-African movement against colonialism and, of course, makes numerous and complex Biblical references. You could spend months reading history, philosophy and theology just to catch up with this one speech.

Sure MLK was one of a kind, but doesn’t this makes you wonder about how stupid our national dialogue has become? Last year, in another manufactured controversy, President Obama was decried for using terminology that was too complex for average people. Are you kidding? What would his accusers think of this speech? But King wasn’t playing politics; he was arming his listeners against injustice. It’s a basic principle of human relations and leadership: if you respect people’s intelligence, no matter how humble they are, they will pay attention to you. King’s mastery of the rare ability to impart knowledge in a natural and dynamic way of speaking is a key reason he became a hero.

But much more than just an inventory of higher learning, the speech is remarkable for the way it ties it all together, the way it reaches out to the poor of Asia and Africa and the rest of the world, expounds on the interrelated nature of all things – even touching on relativity – and reminds Christians of their duty to the poor and their commitment to peace. King’s philosophy had rock-solid foundations – the kind that don’t age – but real vision for the future. He really was on a mountaintop.

If you still have any doubts whether this message has urgency today, any relevance for a global society, listen to this famous speech from 1967. It’s all here. He identifies war, racism and economic injustice as a three-headed monster working to ravage lives all over the world – with America shouldering much of the responsibility. He affirms that his faith is what compels him to stand up and fight. And he calls for a multinational “radical revolution of values.” It’s breathtaking, and as fresh as the day it was spoken. It’s not just a dream.

first night

First time I’ve written anything here for a really long time, and it’s about my first experience of Sydney Festival First Night. Kicking off the sprawling three-week-long Sydney Festival, the event has been a much-celebrated happening since it was inaugurated a few years ago.

This year, as summer began, the holidays passed and the start of the festival approached, there was a current of bubbly excitement about Festival First Night in conversations with friends and strangers alike. Plans were made to attend as a matter of course. I had no idea what to expect. But lately I’m down for anything.

The Saturday afternoon begins with another first: my first time DJing on the radio in Sydney. I’m at the 2SER studios on Broadway, playing a few tunes for a new friend, El Chino, on his long-running mix show, Departure Lounge. Shaking off the rust; feels pretty good. Making things happen on the Sydney scene. No train wrecks.

Leaving the station, I walk up to Hyde Park, headed for a meeting with my wife and our friend. It’s a lovely day. It’s summer in Sydney, I just played on the radio and I’ve got nothing to do but hang out in the park and check out a festival. But I’m tired and hungry. I stop at the first lunch counter I see, a kebab joint. I order falafel – my first Australian one. The counter lady asks me if I want cheese with that. I shouldn’t make fun; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them stuffed with French fries in the UAE.

I park myself on the grass in front of the ANZAC War Memorial, and down the falafel. It’s… interesting. But edible enough. Across the park there’s a commotion that sounds suspiciously like a festival under way. The girls arrive. They explain a bit more about what First Night is. They show me schedules and maps. Turns out Arrested Development and Emmylou Harris are involved. Emmylou, huh? Bigger than I thought.

We get in motion, head for the other side. Across Park Street, up the wide stone steps and under the huge trees that frame the old park’s central walkway. Elaborate decorations are set up on either side. Some of the trees are wrapped with fuchsia cloth. It looks sort of like lingerie. There are huge disco balls hanging in the trees. Soap bubbles, somehow processed to look like snow, whirl all around. We join a parade of people making their way to the center. A sound system blasts “Blue Suede Shoes.” Maybe it’s the atmosphere or maybe just me, but the tune seems to have a glimmer of its original raunch and camp. Other, bigger sound systems beckon in the distance. The parade gets more packed in. I realize there’s a huge stage set up over to the left and there are already thousands gathered.

We want no part of the thousands, for the moment anyway. We break away, out of the park. On our way out I see there’s another setup in another area, this one a big movie screen with a silent film showing on it. Hundreds more watching. Sounds like live musical accompaniment. We’d like to check it out, but drinks are a priority. We cross College Street to the plaza in front of St Mary’s, around a barrier to get to the bar. We elect a two-fisting strategy. Then realize we can’t cross the barrier again. That’s why it’s there, to keep drinks from getting out. OK, fine. We sit in front of the cathedral to skull our two each.

My beer’s not going down very well. Headache coming on; I feel a bit out of it. There’s another screen set up in front of us by the cathedral, this one looking like a big inflatable TV. But there’s only some festival collateral projected onto it. The sound system’s on, giving off a loud power hum that tunes right into my headache.

We take our time. Seems the festival’s going on without us, but it’s a great evening to just sit and drink and talk. Eventually we muster ourselves again and decide to head back across to grab some gözleme and see what’s afoot.

The park’s center is jammed now. There’s a queue just to get into the queue in the food corral. There’s some burlesque musical comedian on the big stage. Apparently his schtick is campy music with humorously violent lyrics. Why a headache now anyway?

Gözleme line’s way too long. Aussies love their gözleme, and for good reason. Line’s not moving at all. I wonder how those poor Turkish ladies can ever work fast enough making the dough and frying them. We settle for wraps (salad sandwich, anyone?), and more drinks. Amo can’t find Panadol in her purse. But this third beer picks up my spirits a bit.

From where we’re sat on the grass in the food corral we can’t really see out into the main area. Catching a glimpse at the big monitor, it seems the performers from the raunchy circus/cabaraet Smoke & Mirrors (which I’ll catch in the Spiegeltent in a few days) are doing acrobatic things on the stage a long way away. Festival’s going on without us. Back into motion, this time up Macquarie Street, headed for Chifley Square. Or maybe the Domain. We’ll know where we’re going when we get there.

Macquarie Street has been pedestrianized for the evening. Listen, pedestrianizing city streets is how to get on my good side. Hundreds of people of all ages, all races fill the street, in good boisterous Aussie spirits. Off to the right a crowd gathers and waits in front of the Mint. There are two dozen or more drummers in formation on both the ground floor and the second-floor balcony. They’re not drumming, they’re waiting for some signal. Arrayed like they are, evenly spaced between the columns of the historic building, all wearing identical black T-shirts, with big drums of several types below and little drums above, it’s apparent they’re very serious about making a lot of noise soon. All kinds of people in their ranks, too, including a couple of older ladies.

Still waiting. We can hear drums thundering from up the street. We’re not sure why those drummers are playing and these ones aren’t. The feeling of being perpetually in between whatever is happening. But while we’re waiting we get some ice cream. It’s been a busy day: the guy’s sold out of everything except drumsticks. (Aussies have another name for drumsticks but I’ve forgotten it.) Is ice cream good for a headache?

We give up on the drummers at the Mint and move up the street. The crowds thicken. The noise from the distant drums increases. Now we’re right in it: I realize there are batteries of drummers all up and down Macquarie, as far as I can see and hear. One battery is even elevated high above us on the balcony of an office tower. And now they’re all at it, pounding away in sequence. Each battery has a conductor with a baton; the conductor in turn has an earpiece. It’s clear they’re remotely coordinating the rhythm and sound. And it’s a huge sound: not so much deafening as all-encompassing. It seems to come out of the ground and occupy the air for miles. It’s electrifying. I’m thinking of how drums make people move – dance – fight. Never experienced anything like this. I’m truly impressed and say so to the girls. (Later I’ll learn the name of the ensemble, or tribe or whatever, is TaikOz.)

We’re moving still, that big sound behind us, down to Chifley Square. More pedestrianized streets. There’s another massive installation down here: images are being projected on the façades of tall buildings, but I can’t make out what they are, there are no screens, it’s all lost in the windows and architectural detail. An overworked sound system is blaring something that sounds like an old radio show. It’s meant to be about the history of Polynesia, but it’s difficult to latch onto. Still impressive though. Another crowd here, watching and listening. I wonder if they get it. But we give up. As we step away, up a side street, the distorted sound echoes off the buildings all around, becoming something ghostly and fascinating. Is this is the whole point of the installation, to be perceived as a huge haunted noise from blocks away?

Martin Place, not far away. A Senegalese reggae band is playing for hundreds more people on yet another stage, yet another sound system. Arrested Development will be on soon. The scope of this thing starts to sink in. They’ve basically shut down the center of the city and turned it into a gigantic party, a carnival, with attractions and distractions in every direction. We still haven’t found anywhere to be, but I’m beginning to love this.

We leave Martin Place and cross over into the Domain. There’s still another stage. Turns out this is the really big one. There are thousands more people here. Emmylou will be on in a little while. We find a spot on the grass. After all the drifting, it feels good to lay down and stretch out. Considering this is prime time, there are some, uh, quaint opening acts. A pair of young women playing old standards on ukeleles (their band name: you guessed it, the Ukeleles) are soon joined by a stout indigenous lady who sings her own regional variation on “Waltzing Matilda” and baas like a sheep, imploring us to baa with her.

Don’t want to make too much fun of the lady and her sheep. She’s happy to be here. So am I; it’s really pleasant. The broad meadows of the Domain stretch out before us, the Botanic Garden and the Harbour somewhere behind. There are people everywhere – laying on the grass, milling about, queueing up for food, working – but it’s a mellow and oddly cozy scene. From over here the big stage looks like a an expensive toy castle, lit from within. Beyond loom the buildings of the CBD, but they too seem far off and unreal. From somewhere over there in the city, searchlights quietly swoop through the glowing overcast sky overhead.

Emmylou comes on. She’s a tiny figure, but her blazing silver hair is an unmistakeable beacon. I’m a fan and have been most of my life. I saw her once before, at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Maybe this is too obvious, but it’s so interesting that life could bring us both, separately, two Americans, from there to this meadow on this night eight years later.

The first part of her set is much more country than we ware expecting, and she doesn’t seem to have written any new songs in eight years. Soon the crowd’s energy dissipates even more. It’s too mellow. I thought Aussies were into their country; but maybe not Sydneysiders. We all agree it probably wasn’t the best programming decision for opening night. I try to fight it, but somehow this musical legend has become a mere soundtrack, just another installation. An exquisite soundtrack it is: but we’re ready to move on.

Back at Hyde Park. One of the movie screens has clips from old Busby Berkely musicals being looped on it. A fedora-sporting DJ on the stage to the right of the screen is playing a set of house and breakbeat tunes that sample old jazz standards. Old movies, jazzy new music, get it? He’s making a performance out of it, bobbing his head, dancing around. The crowd – maybe a couple of hundred in all – is sat on the grass, just watching and listening, as if it was a conventional movie screening. Hanging over the stage is a massive crystal chandelier. Not sure what they are trying to do here. But I’m hypnotized by the impossible formations of dancing girls onscreen. I can’t always tell Berkeley’s wild choreography from the the video artist’s cheeky cutups.

There’s exactly one guy dancing on the lawn in front of the screen: middle-aged, with white chinos, a hot pink T-shirt and a shiny bald head. He’s dancing in place, staring at the screen, oblivious to the stares of others. The soft ambient light from the screen illuminates him like a saint. He’s awkward, he may be on something, but he’s feeling it and who can argue? As many people watch him as are watching the kaleidoscope of dancing girls. I hear a stranger ask another, How long’s he been at it? Oh, about half an hour.

Finally a couple of young girls get up to join him. He breaks into a huge grin and finds new reserves of energy, leaping about, hands in the air. Just like that, more people are up and moving over to dance with them. It took half an hour for anyone to join him, now they’re coming in droves, and it’s a party, something truly interesting, uniting music and film in a way  both new and natural. They all dance, while the girls on the screen looming behind them spin in complex loops, the DJ rocks, the chandelier hangs overhead. And the music is –

– wrapping up? Yep, the last record fades out, and nothing replaces it but power hum. The thing’s over just as it was getting started. Oh, well. This is the kind of night we’re having.

Down the central walkway of Hyde Park again, past a huge illuminated inflatable rabbit selling Chinese New Year to the masses. There are still masses in the park, untold numbers in the semidark, looks even more like a carnival, kids running around shouting and giggling, drunk adults, under the huge trees, under the disco balls, under the artificial fog and lasers.

Yes, there are lasers in the trees, green ones and magenta ones. Bright bold beams, cutting the fog, seeming more real than everything else. But something different happens when they touch the leaves of the trees high overhead. They splinter into thousands of little lights reflected off the leaves, like swarms of colored fireflies. I could stare for a long time. I feel a bit foolish, as if I’m acting like a kid, but I look around and realize a lot of other people, adults and kids, are stopping and staring too, pointing into the trees, getting snapshots. It’s like a celebration of something. Childlike wonder, maybe.

But we’re gone, leaving again, or going home. I’m tired and the headache never went away. Never did find anywhere to be. Quite a first night.

ya zaein & firaiha falafel

Two local eateries here in Abu Dhabi have been on my mind since the film festival changed offices a couple of weeks ago and I no longer have regular access to them. (In fact, I no longer have access to any restaurants or shops.) So this is both my first effort at food blogging and remembrance of things past. Strange to feel nostalgia for something when you’re living in a foreign city for only four months. But that’s the way I feel about this place: displacement, occasional amazement, and this weird comfortable homey feeling as if I’ve been here far longer.

Until the move the festival’s offices were located in the Abu Dhabi Film Centre, “opposite the Rosary School,” which is what you would have to tell a taxi driver (or a postman) as there are no numbered addresses here. Most days I would step out for lunch to the nearby shops just off Muroor Road about ten minutes away on foot.

This is not as simple as it sounds — and there’s a reason most of my colleagues didn’t do the same very often. When it’s 116° and humid, such an excursion is more like a workout. But one that I enjoyed — not only do I not mind the insane heat in Abu Dhabi, I kind of love it. Especially after being in an air-conditioned office for hours, I found the blast of heat and light most welcome. There was a sun-baked tranquility to the wide side streets, lined with low-rise schools and media agencies and dusty trees, making me feel I had them all to myself. I would take my time on the long sidewalk by the walled-off boys school, the heat of the sun intensified by the right angles of the sidewalk and wall; it felt like walking in a brick oven. Shards of green broken glass would make a musical sound under my shoes in the quiet of the afternoon. Skinny feral cats would greet me from alcoves. After a few minutes I’d feel like I was evaporating.

Both of my potential destinations were well worth the trouble. In both cases there would be AC, friendly staff, and good Middle Eastern street food waiting for me.

Ya Zaein is a sit-down shop with a big counter and a big oven behind, exactly like a New York pizzeria. They deal in a couple of different kinds of Middle Eastern pastry; I’m not even sure what they’re called. (The English text on the menu simply calls them “pastries.”) These creations are made fresh to order with many different toppings, but being a vegetarian I only considered cheese and vegetables. There are flat ones, resembling soft little pizzas (pizza is a Middle Eastern concept in the first place, of course), and filled pockets that are much like empanadas. I would get the flat pastries with feta, and usually spinach as well. Once I ordered one labelled “mixed vegetables” on the menu, and it came with a dusting of za’atar (the quintessentially Arabic blend of oregano, thyme, and other dried herbs) and fresh mint. You gotta love the Middle East, where mint is a vegetable. Though “mint pizza” is not something that’ll ever top my list, I enjoyed it.

The pocket thingeys are filled with labeneh — the creamy yogurt-cheese that is a staple here and has become one of my favorite things in life. The heat of the oven melts and then cooks the labeneh into something like really soft cream cheese. With tomatoes and spinach added they’re little pockets of heaven, so long as you don’t burn your tongue on the labeneh. I’d let them cool off, and inhale them.

I’d always order a mango juice. Fresh fruit juice is ubiquitous in Abu Dhabi and the quality is stellar across the board — gritty pomegranate juice and pulpy mango nectar that seem gourmet to western palates are made fresh even at humble little eateries like this one. I wasn’t much of a juice drinker until I lived here — but not only is it too good to pass up, I find that in this climate I crave it.

As with most such places in Abu Dhabi the food at Ya Zaein is cheap — two pastries plus a juice comes to AED 25, or about US $6 — and the staff are very accomodating. While waiting for my patries to be baked I’d check out whatever was on the TV. Usually Arabic soap operas or talk shows, but once it was an old black-and-white musical, probably Egyptian; in the scene I caught, a beautiful woman stood at a window facing a river and was serenaded by a man in a boat below. The ballad was lovely and absolutely unclassifiable to me — there’s so much I don’t know about Arabic music.

If there was nothing good on TV, I’d check out the turtle in the shallow tiled fountain out the back (note the Ya Zaein logo in the fountain’s tiles). Another reason to love Abu Dhabi: in New York (and a lot of other places), this turtle — completely open to the elements and passersby — would have been stolen or killed long ago.

My other choice for lunch was a falafel shop around the corner. I didn’t know its name, Firaiha Falafel, until I took this picture of the façade. This place is a little more rundown than Ya Zaein — there’s a small, untidy counter with only one guy working behind it; boxes of supplies are piled haphazardly in every corner; there’s only room for one small table. Invariably the TV hanging in the corner is tuned to a religious channel — I’d always hear a few verses of the Koran recited melodically (with accompanying English subtitles) while I was waiting for my falafel.

And honestly it isn’t the best falafel in Abu Dhabi. But falafel here is like pizza in New York: you really can’t go wrong. And these will do. I would always order one regular and one Arabic falafel. Regular means Lebanese style — note the Cedar of Lebanon on the sign. The falafel balls are smashed up and rolled in soft flatbread like a burrito. (I’ve never seen falafel served whole in a pita here, so I’m not sure if that hails from another Middle Eastern region, or if it’s just a New York thing.) Lettuce, tomato, a bit of tahini sauce, and a bit of hot sauce are the spartan accompaniments. Honestly I found them a bit dry, but I would usually wash them down with laban (buttermilk). The important thing is that the falafel balls, the stars of the show, are served fresh and fresh — often I’d have to wait for the guy to make them — and mixed with sesame seeds, which is something else I never saw until I came here. It makes such a difference.

The Arabic-style falafel (“Arabic” in this case referring to people of the Gulf region, as opposed to Levantine or Mediterranean folk) is pressed flat and fried in something that looks like a Foreman grill. The “Arabic” or Gulf style of anything is to fry it to death. (And serve it with French fries; in fact, I’m pretty sure they serve a French-fry falafel sandwich at this shop). But I like the flat shape and unique texture it gives to the whole package.

Two hearty falafel (with accompanying mixed pickles) and a little carton of laban at Firaiha will run you AED 16 — that’s just over US $4.

Often after I made my order, the counter guy — who didn’t have much English — would smile and offer me a complimentary piece of falafel. This kind of generosity and courtesy is common at Middle Eastern restaurants and cafés in my experience. Along with the bowl of free pickles to munch on while enjoying the oasis of cool air and listening to the ringing, insistent recital on the TV, that’s why I would come here, and that’s what made it so satisfying above and beyond the dry, average falafel. I’ll miss these places.

UAE tilt shift

Fun with the TiltShiftGen app I just got for my iPhone.