Zingaro. Gypsy. Sinti. My maternal bloodline grows from a long line of travelers; forced from their homes through slavery; refused settlement, citizenship, or even human status. In fact, I had no idea we descended from the Hindu Kush and anyone with any information has long since passed; the family story long lost to the winds of war and family secrets. I’ve decided to find what family still exists and document my process of finding the bloodline Bruno, last European location: Baveno, province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, part of Piedmont, Italy, on the west shore of Lago Maggiore. Let's say these words written here serve as a contract with my ancestors.
The path that brought me here has been in the making for more than 20 years, based in portrait photography and oral history and guided by a solid foundation in research and collaborative methodology. This path has been a circuitous one, lost and then found again through my paternal bloodline and the process of working through the very long path of obtaining my dual citizenship with Italy.
The bloodline Stellavato (my paternal name) left Italy in about 1903, as part of the waning great wave of immigrants from Italy. The Italian government recognizes descendants four generations back, provided said immigrant never naturalized as a U.S. citizen, thus renouncing their Italian citizenship. Or if they did, they did so after the birth of the next generational link (meaning: your great grandfather became a U.S. citizen after your grandfather was born). In my case, my great grandfather never naturalized. I found this out after an extensive paper trail that awarded me the hallowed HQORM-70/42.4-C Certificate of Nonexistence Record from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stating no record of his naturalization exists. Giuseppinicola Stellavato died in 1961 as an Italian citizen. The path to dual citizenship is expensive and has taken me roughly fifteen years (and counting). I understand why so few tend to pursue this process as it is much easier to pay someone else to gather and organize all the paperwork needed for this research--particularly when dealing with early 20th-century immigration.
This branch of my family tree was comprised mainly of farmers from a beautiful village in the Salerno provence of Campania called Controne, which sits in the hills of The Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Why they left is now lost to their descendants. If I am successful in my search, perhaps I can piece together the story that led them to eventually settle in the hilly region of Washington, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, where, in the year of his death, 1961, Giuseppinicola's great-granddaughter would be born who would, in due course, trek back to his homeland. Strange how things go, no?
But this story is about the other branch of my family tree, my maternal bloodline, the one shrouded in mystery to all but me. Well, it's still a mystery to me, but I am the sole descendent who was told of our Sinti roots, the one chosen to receive the family "secret." In 1992, amidst loud music, with happy, inter-generational dancing, and beer, wine, and plates piled high with food, my aunt grabbed my arm as I walked by and pulled me down to sit next to her. My aunt Elizabeth was quite a force to be reckoned with. Standing at a whopping 4'10 (although shorter at this point in her life due to osteoporosis), she packed a punch until her death at 99. What little I know of her life could be made into a film to rival the best stories of immigrant families and women's lack of efficacy. She was an intelligent and wild young woman, who ran away to New York and fell in love with an actor and the roaring 20s' flapper scene. The young couple wanted to marry but her mother (a widow) refused and, in fact, sent "someone" to retrieve her from her happy life, forcing her into a marriage with a much older man of means. The story stops there as far as family history goes and she lived a life of relative comfort, wanting for nothing material; no one ever talked about her New York chapter except my mother and my aunt at rare moments and this was only done through whispers and brief snippets of a wildness lost. As I grew, I returned to her story, asking over and over again to hear what happened. I don't think anyone knew how much I could relate to that impulse, perhaps due to my own time in New York. In any event, after a brief discussion about the party and how nice it all was, my aunt leaned in close and gave me a serious look, stating:
"Mickey D (my family nickname), I need to tell you the family secret." I looked at her, possibilities rushing through my mind..." A Secret?!" After a pause, creating a bubble of time I will never forget, she said in a solemn voice, "You need to know. Our family...we're Gypsies." She scanned my face for a reaction, dire seriousness in her eyes and pulled me closer saying, "Shhhhh! We don't talk about it! It's a secret and you can't let people know." After some time of silence between us, eyes glued to each other, she patted me on the hand and after a while, sent me on my way.
I could see that to her, being zingara, was something to be hidden, locked away in a family chest, only shared with one member of a future generation. I rode that knowledge for many years, feeling it in my blood and locating it in my bones. I hope to learn just what that meant to her--beyond the things I've read--by locating and contacting (maybe not-so-distant) relatives and piecing together the family story through photos and oral history, library archives and church records.
Whatever the story turns out to be, her fear was palpable. I consider it my responsibility to connect the dots, so to speak, for future generations. So much history was lost in the 20th-century due to war, immigration ("we're in American now, we speak English" my father was told), and simple lack of interest or time. I don't know how successful I'll be, but I'm compelled to follow this path. Through camera and audio, the written word and a little bit of luck I may have a hell of a story to tell.
Sitting on the front porch this morning, surrounded by rain and warmed with my first cup of coffee, a friend of my daughter walked through our gate obviously upset. I asked her, "is everything ok?" She sat down in the chair opposite me and proceeded to tell me about her recent experiences with the (almost) men in her life. I say "almost" because although they may be men legally, they are, for all intents and purposes, still boys. Or they are very young men who haven't yet moved fully into their male adulthood. Like her, they are in that threshold place, where their bodies are fully developed but their minds and emotional intelligence are still developing. You know, the early twenties. As I talked to her about the challenges of being in a small town, the mating dance, and political history (yes, I'm that kind of mom) she visibly brightened and the conversation ended with her on the couch with one of our cats curled up on her belly. She's falling into sleep that will undoubtedly take her to places where she will do battle with the demons of heartbreak. We've all fought this battle in the dreamworld and lived to tell the tale, but I don't think that makes it any easier in the daily scheme of things.
As I sit here in reflection, I drift back to my own twenties and early thirties, remembering the mating dance we all learn through trial and error, metaphorically stepping on the toes of our partners and sometimes (well, maybe more often than that), tripping and falling flat on our face in front of a large crowd. I never did do anything small and inconspicuously although I've often dreamed of it...now I sit on the other side of that dance, not watching from the sidelines, but no longer strapped to the need to breed. Does this feel like freedom? Damn straight it does and it reminds me of a passage from Plato's “The Republic” (1852 translation), which quotes Cephalus:
"…I may mention Sophocles the poet, who was once asked in my presence, ‘How do you feel about love, Sophocles? are you still capable of it?’ to which he replied, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and feel as if I had escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ " (1)
It's important to keep in mind that "love" means "sex" in the ancient wording and although I don't agree with the notion that sex (or love for that matter) are to be escaped but rather enjoyed, I do understand the underlying message: when we are of prime breeding age, we are as if chained to a raging tiger that determines our actions whether we like it or not. And I am so very happy to ride freely when I want, rather than never getting off the damn ride. For thirty-odd years (10,000 days) I was bound to that wildcat and now I can ride when I want and walk alongside her when I feel like placing my feet firmly on the ground.
I've actually spent a fair amount of time analyzing the phenomenon of mating and breeding. It really began with my nascent deconstruction of social mores, such as religion and law. In those early analyses I saw clearly that to control the body and its most basic drives--the need for food, affection and other body expressions, the drive to procreate--is to control the individual, lock, stock, and barrel, which is what most religions and laws attempt to do. We are told what is acceptable, what is not, and what you might burn in the eternal flames of hell for doing (as a recovering Catholic, this last possibility was a particularly strong impetus for not questioning the rules and regs. I mean, who wants to be tortured and raped for all eternity like one of Hieronymus Bosch's horrific paintings?).
I suppose those early patriarchs needed to make resistance seem really bad, I mean horrific, in order to convince those who had embraced equality and pleasure for ten thousand years that they needed to forget all that and join up with this new misogynist worldview. If we didn't go willingly to our mutual demise, then by god we'd burn, either to death, or in the eternal afterworld. The unfortunate individuals who lived about 6,000 years ago were thrust into a world where women were forced to give up their rightful place as equals and carry the burden of responsibility for everyone's suffering because of their biological make-up. Naturally, they refused to submit to this insanity and the ones who got away fled to distant shores, bringing the ancient wisdom with them, which they passed on from generation to generation for millennia, one that was represented as a snake. The Canaanites/Phoenicians worshipped many gods and goddesses, but premier among them was Astarte/Ishtar, the fertility mother of the fertile crescent. She was depicted holding a snake in each hand. So, naturally, this new "devil" named lucifer had to take the shape of a snake. This story has repeated itself for almost 6,000 years and each time the goddess was forced into submission, the hatred of the sacred feminine morphed into self-hatred and torment. The one male god is egotistical, if not downright narcissistic, and requires absolute submission. How in the hell else do you force people to deny their very natures? Their very DNA?
We share 98.7% of the same genetic make-up with our closest cousins, the bonobos (Pan paniscus) and the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes); according to some studies we have more in common with our bonobo cousins. From the Primate Fieldnotes (2):
"Based on 54 gene regions, Homo-Pan genetic distance range from 6.92 to 7.90×10−3 substitutions/site (P. paniscus and P. troglodytes, respectively), which is less than previous estimates based on large scale sequencing of specific regions such as chromosome 7. In other words, bonobos appear to share 12.4% more DNA in common with humans than chimpanzees do. This is more than twice the genetic divergence in squirrel monkeys (genusSaimiri) and adds further evidence suggesting that bonobos are a better model for understanding our common ancestor than chimpanzees are."
The primary differences between our two closest cousins are that bonobo communities are matriarchal where sex is free and open to all; chimps use warfare to settle conflict and only the alpha male can mate; female bonobos create strong emotional bonds, which they use to maintain social dominance over the males and have generally peaceful communities. Chimps keep rigid boundaries over their areas and will kill other chimps to uphold these boundaries, where bonobos will mate, even across borders, to keep the peace. Chimps use tools and bonobos don't (at least not in captivity). Taking these differences--and our genetic similarities--into consideration is a compelling thought game, don't you think? If we combine this biological trajectory with, for example religion, we can see the chimp and the bonobo behaviors play out historically. This is particularly appropriate for the patriarchal monotheisms, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and their stories of war and male dominance. It's as if they are the human evolution of the chimp, whereas those religions and cultures, both current and historical, that recognize the goddess or some other form of the sacred feminine could be seen as descendants of the bonobo. Let's keep in mind that this is my attempt at understanding just how we could have evolved into a world of war, male dominance, and militarization on a biological level.
Obviously capitalism and a hoarding mentality play into this equation, but personally, I see these two things as simply other expressions of the original quandary: why do we ignore our biological nature? First answer: because male dominated religions have forced us to ignore our primal urges and needs in the name of piety. Second answer: perhaps our split off the evolutionary branch from our closest cousins, the bonobos (this happened about 2.5 million years ago, they then diverged from the chimpanzees around a half million years after that (3)), included enough genetic material that humans brought a predisposition for one or the other with them...
So, I figure some of you are thinking, what the hell is she talking about right about now, I thought we were talking about love and mating, but ride this mind wave with me because I just know it's leading somewhere that might give us a way to deal with heartbreak.
The way I see it is like this: we are animals, primates to be specific. We send out pheromones when we are of breeding age, we breed to carry on the species, it's like a built-in, biological imperative. Not all humans need or have a desire to breed, but about 75% of the world does so on a regular basis. Those who have seed to share, often do so generously, or feel compelled to, and some do not. Let's keep in mind that those little swimmers aren't the most resilient human, albeit infinite, product, so it seems an evolutionary step to manufacture and release as much as possible, "knowing" that their survival rate is pretty slim. Those who are born with a finite number of repositories (about 1-2 million) for that never-ending supply of swimming genetic code, can generally only make one at a time (sometimes two or three). In addition, once born, the small baby humans require constant care as they are utterly incapable of survival without it. This basic biological process has been twisted and humans made to suffer at the hands of a warped worldview that is hell-bent on controlling this simple biological process in the name of power and greed.
If I consider my own history as a sexual being, particularly in my 20s, I had absolutely no desire to breed and often "broke hearts" because of it. But I honestly believe part of my strong libido was tied to an unconscious desire to do just that. I can only say this now that my body's breeding phase is complete. I watch others and I feel as if I'm reading a book I've read a hundred times before. How many times have I heard individuals say, "I thought it was more than just sex" when it felt that way for a brief period and their partners saw it as "just sex." How much of that dynamic is socially constructed and how much is a biological drive? How would we react if we hadn't been convinced very early on that lifelong monogamy is natural? Perhaps the breeding drive would run its course and then we would move on, sharing a safer, warmer, and stronger community for having shared the process--like our bonobo cousins.
Maybe the notion of "love" is a social construction based on the need to breed. Perhaps some humans have a predisposition for behaviors that more resemble our chimpanzee cousins and others like the bonobos. Or maybe some people mate for life, like some animals do. Perhaps it's an individual combination of genetic code and social conditioning that is as unique as each person. But what do I know? Not much really, but I do believe that more sex and more love will get us to a place where we might understand it all better and return us to our original selves. I am absolutely sure the insecurity created by religion (and advertising for that matter, but that's a whole other conversation...) is something that must be deconstructed by each person, male or female, in order to return to a more authentic human experience.
...to be continued
A letter to my kids.
It's hard to let go. At least initially and when trying to live a life that's from the heart. I've been learning about this balancing act, and it's much how I imagine surfing to be. Not that I've ever surfed; I really don't like being limited by finite edges, but how I imagine a liquid floor moving with good force might feel. And this transition is happening at breakneck speed, inclusive of everything around it, washing away all that no longer serves; pulling new and exciting things on to shore with it. Yes it all feels a bit like standing on the beach edge, rather than a nest in a tree, but the elements of water and wind are all at play just the same.
I am nearly what is often called an empty nester. My kids are close in age--17.5 months apart--and both are flying out to meet their individual air currents and ride them with what I hope is vigor and excitement. This is, at least partially, built into the parenting experience from the moment you lock eyes for the first time. Between that moment and the one when they say, (verbally or in action) "I'm ready to fly," time happens faster than anyone can prepare you for. Not that there weren't days between that seemed to last forever. Moments that were so difficult that I was a crumple of tears and exhaustion. Moments when nothing, absolutely nothing, mattered as much as a free minute to simply sit alone. I heard people say that it goes much too fast, but in those moments I didn't believe them. How could I? Breastfeeding two at the same time, having two in diapers, the constant focus on food preparation...well, it was all a little much at times. But there are times now when I would gladly go back and allow myself to just sit and marvel at them, as I did more times than I can count. Watching them create wondrous worlds out of wooden spoons and blankets or laughing with them over something as simple as dust particles floating in the rays of the summer sun. These are the things I think of now. The difficult moments were few in comparison to this rich, sensual world of new wonder. My two have always been forces of nature; each has their own (and often quite disparate) ways of interfacing with the world but both shine with lights so strong, I am left no choice but to love unconditionally and try to guide as best I can.
I'm glad I waited to have my kids. I also wish I had started earlier because I'm not sure I can measure the deep changes the experience of motherhood has instigated. These reveal themselves at odd moments and catch me a bit off-guard with their simplicity. Some of the changes are the result of making the wrong decision or having the wrong reaction in a given situation. I've made mistakes. It is my deepest hope that in those failed moments as a mother I did not cause irreparable harm. I've tried to learn immediately from whatever it was, never repeating them; more often than not I think I was successful at internalizing the lesson. I have also caught fleeting glimpses of their strength and clarity, obvious reflections I have taught my kids and that is a holy mirror no one ever talks about. I see them relaxed and comfortable in a world where fear and competition are commonplace. A world where shame forces people to act in secretive and dividing ways. Rather than create a false image of the world, I have tried to be honest with them. Rather than create a false image of myself, hiding the many-colored cloak I wear, I have worked to help them see we are all a work in progress and to never stop learning because, to quote a much-quoted Dylan, "he not busy being born is busy dying." I have tried to teach moderation because it has been my hardest lesson. Not abstinence, not purity, but responsibility and enjoyment. I've worked to separate social mores and rules from natural impulses and ingrain a deep knowledge that most of what we're expected to do or say is based on a dying paradigm that uses emotional and physical force to get what it wants. I needed for them to know this, to understand that they will be surrounded by those who will try to break their spirit, but not in our house. Our home has always been free of the social constructs that American society bullies its citizens into believing. Not that I haven't had my demons to smite when certain situations came up, but thankfully I had enough years on my own in the world to have fought many of these battles without the trusting and hopeful eyes of my children watching me.
I have come to see that the hardest part of letting go is trusting that we have done our job as parents. Trusting that we have loved them enough in the way that nurtures them individually. Trusting that we have taught them enough so that when life steps up with a sucker punch they can bounce back and walk away or fight if necessary. Trusting that their inner fire is strong enough to light their way when they are afraid. I believe that many loving parents simply do not trust themselves or their abilities in the world, but rather than acknowledging their own lack of self-belief, they blame a scary outside world or, more egregiously, their own children for not being good enough or focused enough, or some other tangled web of a thousand fears that drive some parents to control every aspect of their child(ren)'s lives. I'm not saying it's easy. It's fucking hard as hell to let go of the reins. But it must happen and when a child shows the first sign of pulling away. They will fail at times, they will falter and possibly make profound, life-altering mistakes, but such is the nature of free will. I used to say that my parenting style could be compared to having one of those retractable dog leashes. My kids could walk out as far as they liked (metaphorically speaking), but were still attached and I could reel them back in if imminent danger was around. This worked well until they learned to take the collar off altogether. That's when trust in myself became the center point in my internal dialogue. And that's when the tests began in earnest. Both astounding and terrible choices have been made by them and there were days in the recent past when it took all I had to stay the course, or to continually advocate for them in a sea of conformity and mediocrity. And now here we are, all three standing on the edge of the nest looking at the future.
I want them to fly strong and as far as their wings will take them. I also want them to be little kids again, lying all together at bedtime, with me reading aloud to them. My son always fell asleep first (well, he was the youngest), so we would all scrunch in on his bed. But my daughter often asked for, "one more chapter!" And I enjoyed it so much that away we'd go on a train to Hogwarts or observe Paris from behind a giant clock. I did my best to protect them from commercialization and a focus on consumption when they were young so no television at our house, although we rented movies from our local video store that sold bags of popcorn for a quarter. We must have seen every Godzilla movie ever made at least three times. I suppose the scholar in me studies almost everything in my world, so I've conducted informal longitudinal research that has looked at child development and I've observed that the kids who grew up watching television believed they were always being watched and that the world is a scary place. Additionally, these kids have also grown up to very often have body issues. A plain and simple cultivation theory, Mr. Gerbner, in living color. So we all spent as much time as possible outside, playing in the mud or hiking or climbing or making art...things that made them strong and unique. Summer days running around naked, all tan and healthy...yes, those were all-consuming and (mostly) wonderful years that I will carry with me until I go, like they happened just last week.
But that is the past now and today I am here learning how to balance in the act of letting go. I'm moving out into the world on my own again and it's both exhilarating and hard to not wish for a chance to do it all again. I enter this next chapter of my life with a renewed sense of self and an excitement I haven't felt about me, myself, and I--excitement that's not focused specifically on my kids or their successes--since crossing the threshold of motherhood. Not everyone who has shared in this passing chapter are by my side as I move into this new place and I'm thankful for their influences along the way. May my friends who have gone their own way be happy in this next phase and may my kids be filled with love and pleasure as they fly into the great unknown.
I just recently started watching a television show on Netflix, a Revolutionary-era story called Turn. It's not the best show--it's not The Wire or anything--but it has got me to thinking that very little media has been focused on this era of American history. Even when I was a kid, not much information was passed on or talked about, as far as the collective historical archive goes, about this war. Why is that? Why would we spend so precious little time learning about this story when American History (with the capital H) tends to love congratulating ourselves on our war "victories." All thoughts seem to lead to the same conclusion: it would not serve corporate interests to promote the ethos behind this war.
The war for independence was part of the Enlightenment wave, a period where individuals rose up and challenged the years of absolute control of the ruling class. Well, they challenged it conditionally, as it really only applied to certain folks of particular shades and with particular genitalia, but the thought process was started and it swept throughout the colonizers' lands. In truth, the treatises and philosophies written during those years (1650-1790ish, although I would go so far as to suggest that November 5, 1605 was the stalled beginning...), earned their name "enlightened" and had they actually been enacted--as written--they could have become the Utopia many wrote of. Unfortunately, as only a portion of the world's population was permitted to live in this enlightened realm, it was doomed to failure. There were, however, a couple of historical moments that stand out as truly challenging the dominant power structure of the day; one of those being the topic of this little missive, the war for independence for the 13 North American colonies (and, for the record, "America" should have stopped there and peace made with the First Nations people for this trajectory to have fulfilled itself, but due to the partial application of its basic tenets it was doomed to recreate the actions that had originally led them to leave their homelands in the first place and, ultimately, to failure). As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In any event, this rumination is not so much about a Revolutionary War lesson as it is a reflection on the strange historical blackout that is that particular war. We have in many ways returned to a similar social place, in a mere 239 years, as those in power tend to control the means of force (and the streams of media that educate the masses). If the Ideological State Apparatus* (ISA: schools, churches, media) doesn't work, those in control will always rely on the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA: government, police, courts). This is precisely what the British brought with them (and please let's remember these British tended toward the Puritanical, thus a certain sadistic pleasure was derived from denial and punishment) and it has been an ingrained part of American Society ever since. But there was a time...a time when the ideals and values of the Enlightenment inspired thousands to fight against tyrannies and strive for a more egalitarian social order. Indeed the television show, Turn, tends to focus clearly on this aspect of the war. And so, since happening upon this program, I have begun to reflect on the absence of education in schools and the media regarding one of the driving forces behind American independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Declaration of Independence (excerpt), 1789 [italics mine]
We have largely forgotten this foundational tenet in our Declaration of Independence and I believe that is more than partially due to the fact that we have returned to a repressive social environment much like the days when Americans-to-be rose up against the king and threw off the shackles of an unhealthy system. Our king is now Citizens United, corporate personhood, and a consumerist mindset that keeps us enslaved to the machine. How will we deal with it this time? And that time is coming quickly, at least growing recognition of the ISA in the social control equation: people are waking up from a long, dark sleep (thank you Assange and Snowden) and the #BlackLivesMatter and the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders are bellweathers for this. What I'm not so sure of, or perhaps where my real fear lies, is in how long till the RSA kicks in on a mass scale. Being of an age so that The Terminator (the first one of course, not the franchise) captured the zeitgeist of my personal root fears, a Skynet-type monster computer in control, crushing human skulls under metal feet...now the machine is captured by iPhones across the globe, exposing what's always been there, was in fact transplanted here along with white supremacy. Strange fruit indeed...this leads me to wondering just how far they'll go to keep control.
A very insidious example lies in the fact that we learn almost nothing about the history of our fight for independence and it serves the interests of those with power to distract us from remembering; pharmaceutically medicated in order to fit into narrower and tighter spaces. Through remembering we might draw connections that would gather us together in common realization that our enemy is not one another, not color, not religion, or gender but is that which seeks to control human impulse and natural order. That which has created seconds and minutes and hours and a notion of time beyond the movements of the sun and moon. It's funny to me how science--the great precursor to the Enlightenment--is working to figure out how time and space do not work in the regimented second-minute-hour-past-moving-to-future framework we've come to function under. Because you can't punch a time clock if you can't measure time in segments, hence you can't count hours or pennies or millions. It's all wrapped up in a notion of profit and ownership and THAT is what must be retaught to the people. By cracking that shell, by speaking up and challenging the things that are so ingrained in our quotidian lives as to have become mythology, by creating open source media that start an internal dialogue and lead to a realization of our roots, we encourage the tide to Turn. Do it now.
*Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," 1970
Of all the things I learned while on my recent all-too-brief 3 week trip to Egypt, one particular factoid stands out. When building the (second) Aswan Dam in 1970, all the crocodiles in the river Nile were herded into Lake Nasser, the massive reservoir of water created by the dam. Some 90,000 Nubians were forced out of their ancestral homes as a result of this construction, as were ancient statues, temples, and monuments.
Let me backtrack. As I was walking around the smallish area known as Abu Simbel, where Ramses' incredible (yet egomaniacal) homage to himself had been moved before it was flooded by the creation of the lake, I asked our guide for the morning (required part of the ticket cost) why no one was swimming in the gorgeous lake. And it is gorgeous, feeling more like an ocean right in the middle of the desert, it creates a coolish breeze that blows across sun-baked skin that is mostly covered as a courtesy to the women who are fully covered. The guide laughed when I asked why no one was swimming, "No, no, no! No one swims in the lake!" "Why?" I asked. "Too many crocodiles!" Then I laughed, "No!" as I scanned the lake from west to east, not seeing the slightest sign of crocodiles, or of any life really. All I could see were rocks, sand, and water. He then proceeded to tell me that when they built the dam, they forced all the crocodiles from the entire length of the Nile, from the Delta in the North to Lake Nasser in the South (known as "Upper Egypt" as the Nile flows down to the Mediterranean delta) into the giant desert pool known as Lake Nasser. Think about this a little. How long did it take? Just how did they do it? Were there transgressors? Did people put up a stink? Were there deaths involved? I can imagine that it made life easier along the banks of the river, especially for the boy children who are allowed to swim in the river. And what of the Nubians? Forced out of their ancestral homes, much like the Navajo in this country when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1966, the Nubians have adapted to their new communities, but as I spoke with them in the Nubian village of Gharb Sihell where I stayed, there was a very clear upset still quite visible when they talked about how they have less water now and have had to leave their homes.
Why do I relive this conversation and factoid over and over again? I wake early still (4:30 am seems to be my internal Egypt-America alarm) with thoughts of crocodiles being chased and caught and forced into their sterile home of the lake. They are yet another population that has been forced to moved by the whims of men; "We Can So We Will." The implementation of these technologies is always at the expense of someone and for the profit of others. From a child's information site: "The Aswan Dam generates up to 10 billion kilowatts per hour of hydroelectric power. This is enough electricity to run 1 million colour televisions for more than 20 years" (1). Nice to know that this unnatural dam construction can power 1 million TV sets for 20 years, right?
The real issue is that the dam has also stopped the annual flooding of the Nile, and this has prevented the river from depositing nutrient rich silt onto the traditionally flooded areas--and when I say traditionally, I mean thousands of years of traditional stewardship of the land. It takes 40 years to cripple thousands of years of human-land learning and agreement in sharing and prosperity. Mind blowing.
Sitting in the dark as Oum Kalthoum's voice wafted in the soft wind and one of the 3-4 daily blackouts rolled through our El-Souk alley, I asked one of our gracious hosts why Egypt wasn't the leader in solar power, seeing that the entire country is desert and sun. He informed me that the government has begun to look into the infrastructure needed to make this happen. I said that if Germany can do it, Egypt could do it. I see now that the lag in technology, for a country that is born for solar power, lies in the crocodiles and the dams. The dam was designed by the British and constructed by the Russians and it has created hydroelectric power and a steady flow of water to the 97% of the country's population that lives along the banks of the world's longest river. The city folk have adapted to things like rolling blackouts; shops and cafes simply turn on their generators and the people working see it as break time. It's those who work the land who feel the disappearing and much-needed river nutrients.
As is often the case, the colonizers determine what will or will not be and, personally, I see global dam construction as being of an era when white supremacy ruled and all others were at the mercy of these powers. As the dams come down now I wonder how we will talk about them and the lessons learned in the future. While I was in Bahariya, one of the five Oasis villages in the Western Desert of the Sahara, I was told that they hadn't had a drop of rain in 25 years. 25 years. The only reason villages exist there is because the area is a geologic depression that formed an aquifer below the surface. So, in the middle of a 25-year drought, palm and dates, and mangoes and oranges grow all around. The air temperature at the lowest point is downright cool at night. Once the government makes the shift to solar, Egypt could make enough clean energy to support itself for another 10,000 years.
Hapi, the god of the flooding of the Nile. This flooding provided fertile soil in an area that was otherwise desert, and as its patron, symbolized fertility. He had large female breasts because he was said to bring a rich and nourishing harvest. He was considered to be a caring father who helped to maintain the balance of the cosmos, the world or universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious system. This included the crocodiles. Hapi ain't too happy right now.
Who am I to say? I was smitten with a world so very different, yet so much like, my own. Kids are kids wherever you go and so are mothers. I was honored to have spent time--unveiled time--with women living very different lives to me, but when we got down to it (through our wonderful friend Soad who acted as interpreter), mothers have the same concerns and worries no matter what they wear on the outside. The times spent with women were the most relaxed, although it seemed to me that men thoroughly enjoyed socializing with women and I enjoyed these times immensely. Very seldom did socializing involve both men and women, so I was often moving back and forth between the two groups. In some ways, it's easy to comment on a culture of which we are not a part. I find it difficult with Egypt, perhaps because I'm still processing. I guess that part will come later. Today, I think of the Nile and the crocodiles, Hapi and the Nubians. Eka Dolli means "I Love You" in Nubian and was the name of the guesthouse where I stayed in Gharb Sihell. I was very comfortable in this part of Egypt, where it was clean and everyone moved at a pace in keeping with the sun. No forced marches here, although the building of the Aswan Dam in 1970 was one giant march from northern Sudan/southern Egypt and the location of Lake Nasser to their new locations now on the West bank of the Nile from Aswan and Elephantine Island. Those in Power Could So They Did. The whims of men that alter the perfection of nature eventually fall away and then the rivers, crocodiles, and humans might play as they did long long ago.
Eka Dolli Masr.
For the record. Since so many have been teasing me about my "pope romance," I thought I'd take the time to clarify my stance. I do not support the Catholic Church but I do support its demise. If Christ ever blessed the Middle East with his wisdom it is long lost to the men who used him for control and dominance. We--and by we I mean all humanity (although in particular women and people of color)--have been suffering through years of misogyny and the worst kinds of unnatural suppression in the name of enlightenment. It started with the early Roman bishops who decided to create a "church" and it has morphed into different forms since that The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD). This religion (and all subsequent ones that align with "christian" doctrine) has rejected the goddess and her earthly representations and is therefore inherently flawed. This basic lack of balance has wrought unspeakable horrors and suffering upon the world, including a pigheadedness that will kill in the name of this imbalanced "male" god in order to prove righteousness and to silence opposition. When it jumped into bed with with the fledgling mercantile class in the mid-16th century...well, things have been seriously lost ever since.
So. Why I do I like this new pope? Because he is shining a light on some of these things (christian hate, rampant greed, etc.) and, in turn, dismantling many of the largest hypocrisies of the church (like poor=inadequacy of the individual rather than a systemic failure). To someone who considers herself a recovering catholic, having seen this hypocrisy of the institution she was raised in, I welcome anyone or anything that challenges these lies. I see this in the first Franciscan pope who is incorporating liberation theology (long a South American catholic practice) into Roman catholicism. And, c'mon, who doesn't like St. Francis of Assisi and his hippie ways?
Do I think his election as pope is a PR move by the vatican? Probably. I can't imagine that they'd do this if it weren't on the heels of the staggering number of children coming forward as adults in solidarity to name their priest-predators of sexual abuse. The vatican needed a make-over. They picked Francis. Do I think he will make lasting change? Maybe. I do think his moves are in alignment with the wave of awareness washing over people in general.
So, go ahead and tease. I'll laugh, too, since it really does seem out of character for me to say or do anything positive about the church. But I support what I've seen so far...hey, change can come from the strangest of places sometimes...
I've spent many years traveling, sometimes stopping for months, sometimes not, like I was driven by some unseen force to be ever on the move. New York was a good place to let off that steam; always moving and constantly stimulated. I've also been deeply rooted, putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow. All have produced marvelous things as well as challenged me in ways that have nearly broken me. Along the way I've had a rich inner dialogue where I've done battle with vampires and been cradled in the arms of love; I passed through the ring of fire and am forever changed by its ember. Every once in a while I feel a need to process without the pressure to perform verbally. There's also something to be said for the ability to edit what's said--if only living moments could be so controlled. It really can be a salve to an active mind, although it's not something I feel the urge to do all the time.