Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization by Emanuela Guano
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016; review by Cristina Moretti
Creative Urbanity is an in-depth examination of some of the recent changes in the North Italian port city Genoa, and of the lives, roles, and strategies of its middle class inhabitants. Taking the historic city centre as her key ethnographic locale, Guano follows city guides who organize walking tours, vendors who sell antiques at a street fair, small business owners, organizers of a multicultural festival, and “marginal gentrifiers” (Guano, 2017: 85). Precariously situated between the promises of an urban revitalization aimed at transforming Genoa into a city of culture and the disillusionment brought by recurring cycles of political and economic crisis, these creative actors and “bricoleuses” (Guano, 2017: 114) are able to profit from Genoa’s partial renewal, while at the same time remaining in a relatively marginal position. Through her work Guano invites scholars to pay attention to the complex, often contradictory effects of neoliberalism on middle class inhabitants who are “rich in cultural capital but little else” (Guano, 2017: 85) and to the ways in which they participate in local revitalization projects.
A particularly interesting aspect of Guano’s ethnography is her attention to the gender roles of some of her interlocutors, as the walking guides and the antique sellers are usually women. Both groups are able to use their supposedly feminine disposition and skills – such as an aptitude for relationships and a sensibility to beauty and art – to create a job for themselves in a context where female employment is hard to obtain and often frowned upon. The gendered nature of their occupation is what allows the guides and the street sellers to market their skills and wares in the public spaces of Genoa; this very “domesticity” (Guano, 2017: 122), however, can also constraint their choices and render them easy targets of critiques. Antique sellers, for example, are expected to work “for fun” and “not for the money” and thus to shy away from bargaining prices (Guano, 2016: 124), as their husbands are the ones who are supposed to support the family. Scholars investigating the dichotomies and relations between public and private realms will also find interesting how the antique fair dealers negotiate these boundaries – for example when bringing private heirlooms into the streets, as in the case of a vendor who sold valuable items from the home of a relative who had passed away (Guano, 2016: 125).
A keen and inspiring observer of the spatial dimension of culture and the politics of public space, Guano’s ethnography examines how Genoese inhabitants use and negotiate the terrain of their city – from their ambivalent relation to the centre’s narrow and supposedly dangerous allies, to alternative understandings of local urban forms, to the street battles between the police and demonstrators during the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa. In particular, Guano’s book portrays very effectively some of the ways in which Genoa’s historic centre figures in the city’s everyday life and imaginary, and some of the changes it has witnessed. One of the latter is its partial gentrification, which resulted in refurbished apartments and buildings coexisting with significantly less valuable housing, and with degraded streets and allies. By highlighting the specificities of Genoa’s centre, Guano’s elegant analysis shows that North American studies of gentrification are not necessarily relevant to the Italian context, and urges urban anthropologists to pay attention to the different ways in which urban renewal processes are experienced and carried out in cities with which have very different structures and histories than North American ones. A peculiarity of Genoa’s historic centre, for example, is its vertical differentiation and its layered inequality, a pattern derived from the way the aristocratic class and its servants used the space of a building. As Guano describes (Guano, 2017: 91-92), apartment on the different floors of the same house can range widely in their ceiling height, their size, the light they receive, and their views – with some of the apartments being dark and narrow, and others featuring frescos and/or views of the sea. This vertical hierarchy (which exists in the Italian city of Milan as well, see Monteleone and Manzi, 2010) has limited the renewal of the centre and the effects of gentrification, resulting in a complex “assemblage” (Guano, 2017: 86) and a diverse population. The latter includes marginalized inhabitants and middle-class individuals on a tight budget who have started to look at the historic centre as a source of cultural and historical attractions.
Guano highlights Italian cultural and social specificities also when discussing local efforts at promoting multiculturalism and immigrants’ rights. The Genoa’s Suq is a yearly festival that showcases artisanal objects, foods, and recipes by immigrant communities, and hosts talks aimed at recasting Italy’s ‘others’ as active and integral parts of its social landscape. One of the central goals of the Suq is to invite its audience to experience cultural alterity through the senses. While this can easily become a way of commodifying and consuming difference without changing the disadvantaged positions of immigrant Italians, Guano argues that this strategy has to be understood in the light of Italy’s own marginality within the global economy and its difficult position as a “semi-peripheral (…) theme park where one may satisfy one’s desire for aesthetic and sensous pleasures” (Guano, 2017: 171). In the Italian context, where food and the senses have been key elements in the fashioning of regional and/or local identities, “learning to appreciate the food of the Others (…) is regarded to be akin to accepting them as part of a shared national imaginary” (Guano, 2017: 172). Guano’s interrogations on the practices and strategies aimed at creating a more progressive understanding of multiculturalism and migrant’s rights in Italy are a valuable contribution to current debates on immigration in Italy and Europe, and spark interesting questions on the meanings and roles of “culture” in Italian society (see also Muehlebach, 2012: 213).
Guano’s keen attention to the senses and performance also comes to the fore in her analysis of walking guides, and the ways in which they negotiate their presence and public personae in Genoa’s historic city core. The guides have to act as skilled leaders, knowledgeable researchers, sensitive commentators, and clever improvisers. While showing their clients that they can master the dangers represented by the centre, – a feat accomplished by “a topographical knowledge that is embodied and displayed through one’s confidence” (Guano, 2017: 143) – they must continue to portray the centre as at least partly inaccessible, mysterious and needing interpretation. Significantly, the guide’s movements, commentaries, and performance have to be understood in the context of neoliberal urban renewal efforts. As Guano poignantly remarks, the women’s emphasis on a “hidden” and “mysterious” Genoa (Guano, 2017: 136) is strategically aligned with the trope of urban change which sees in these concealed or under-appreciated resources “a potential that can be profitably tapped through revitalization” (Guano, 2017: 137).
By attending to the ways in which the guides participate in local urban projects and imaginaries, fashion their identities, and negotiate relations with Genoa’s pasts, with local history, and with lived city spaces, Guano makes an important contribution to studies of walking and city tours (Irving, 2010; Ingold and Vergunst 2008; Pink 2008; Richardson 2008). Creative Urbanity also contributes to studies of precarity, temporality, and hope in Italy and in urban settings (Knight and Stewart, 2016; Pipyrou, 2016; Schielke, 2012; Muehlebach, 2012; Mole, 2012; Doninelli 2010; Harms, 2010). Genoa is a city characterized by recurring cycles of hope, disillusionment, and loss (Guano, 2017: 25-27). As the author is researching her home city, and she can thus rely on her knowledge of Genoa spanning several decades, she is able to bring these alternating affects and realities to the fore. The author’s critical attention to the complex ways in which middle class inhabitants with limited resources engage with city spaces and histories and participate from the ground up in wider urban projects shows that ethnography can offer very valuable insights to studies of urban revitalization and change.
Doninelli, Luca. 2010. L’Alba Del Degrado. In Milano é una Cozza. Doninelli, Luca, ed. Pp. 161-171. Milano: Guerini e Associati.
Harms, Erik. 2010. Saigon’s Edge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Knight, Daniel and Charles Stewart. 2016. Ethnographies of Austerity: Temporality, Crisis and Affect in Southern Europe. History and Anthropology, 27(1): 1-18.
Ingold, Tim and Jo L. Vergunst (eds.) 2008. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate
Irving, Andrew. 2010. Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood, Alcohol, Pills. Visual Studies 25(1): 24-35.
Monteleone, Raffaele, and Lidia Manzo. 2010. Canonica-Sarpi: un Quartiere Storico in Fuga dal Presente. In Milano Downtown: Azione Pubblica e Luoghi dell’Abitare, Massimo Brococoli and Paola Savoldi, eds. Pp. 133-161. Milano: Et al. Edizioni
Mole, Noelle. 2012. Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy: Mobbing, Well-Being, and the Workplace. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Muehlebach, Andrea. 2012. The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press
Pink, Sarah. 2008. An Urban Tour. Ethnography 9(2):175-196.
Pipyrou, Stavroula. 2016. Adrift in Time: Lived and Silenced Pasts in Calabria, South Italy. History and Anthropology 27:1, 45-59
Richardson, Tanya. 2008. Kaleidoscopic Odessa: History and Place in Contemporary Ukraine. University of Toronto Press
Schielke, Samuli. 2012. Surfaces of Longing. Cosmopolitan Aspiration and Frustration in Egypt. City & Society 24(1), 29-37.
Conclusive Remarks on Islam in France and the USA
My relationship with Famoro, in fact my relationship with all my West African friends and mentors, has been complicated, to say the least. There are several major cross-cultural obstacles that recur to throw wrenches in an otherwise inspirational bond, obstacles that usually boil down to ways of handling and exchanging time and money. In all our troubles, however, Islam has been, if anything, a smoothing factor, a prayer-time, a recalibration, a recollection of our finer qualities—patience, humility, modesty—calling us back from whatever stresses of daily life have put our feathers in a ruffle. I find similarity with my own daily practice of morning yoga and meditation, with a prayer that all beings may be happy and that to each one I meet, I vow to treat him or her with compassion.
I call Famoro from Paris to ask his thoughts on the current burkini debate that has brewed in France in the months since the Nice attack of July 14, 2016 when 86 people were killed by a cargo truck deliberately driven into a crowd celebrating the national holiday. He says that women generally wear bathing suits on the beach in Guinea. He seems undecided. Then he concludes by telling me that the French are right: In a non-Muslim country, people should respect the norm of that culture. If women want to be modest on French beaches, they should have a private beach for themselves. This was not the answer I was expecting. I would have to sum up Famoro’s opinions as moderate and respectful of the relative cultural milieu in which he lives.
The French government prohibited the wearing of the burqa in 2010, which meant that women could not conceal their faces in public spheres. A burqa is a full-length robe with veil that covers part or all of the face. It is rather unfortunate that the burkini, misleadingly, sounds like a burqa. The burkini is in fact much closer to a hijab-style dress that exposes the entire face. Women who wear hijabs often choose beautiful colorful scarves, marking their fashion sense and identity, and they (by French law) expose the entire face. In September 2016, Le Monde du Religion devoted their monthly magazine entirely to the history of the voile, or veil, meaning in this case, any piece of clothing that wraps around the head and not necessarily but possibly the face, tracing it back to ancient Greece, long before Islam, and stating its presence in many religions including paganism. The magazine also noted that the veil is worn by men. It seems that the French Le Monde editor hoped to quell the outcry against the burkini. The ban on the burkini was rejected by the French high court earlier this month. Women can wear them next summer in Nice and Marseilles.
Burkinis, modest bathing suits, come in bright colors like turquoise and royal blue. They are akin to stretch pants with a long-sleeve, long-length rash-guard shirt. They cover the neck and head, expose the face, and have a thin miniskirt to cover the bifurcation of the legs. One French (mid-aged artist) friend responded, “Hmm, sexy!” when I showed him a photo. He meant it. Another bright young French musician friend shed light on another French perspective for me. He agreed that it is a form of oppression against women but that it is not that simple. “We shouldn’t ban them from wearing burkinis,” he explained, “and I hope that they will feel free to stop wearing them in France, one day. But it is more complicated than that. It is their culture, too. How can you stop them from something they were born with? ” In fact, they look a lot more attractive, I’m sure, than me, when I kite-surf in the late Fall in the Atlantic in a full (black) wetsuit with a hoodie. Should I be banned from the beach?
My French Facebook friend who started the burkini comments (a few blogs ago) compared both the burqa and the burkini to an SS officer uniform to which he would take equal offense. Are we confusing our terms here? Or is it a gross difference of opinion based on our experiences and cultural milieu (French vs. American)? I’ve seen women wearing burqas when I pass through the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Black burqas with an inch-wide slit for the eyes, and dark blue burqas that covered the body entirely, including the face. Downright bone-chilling. They look like phantoms, not people. They are spooky. What are they hiding under there? I’m okay with France’s ban on the burqa, the concealment of the face. Alas, I do not know any burqa-wearing women, nor I am not invited to know them. I should not judge, but I cannot believe that any woman would choose this for herself. It must be mandated from powerful men who want to control their women.
Do I sound like my French friends in their opinion of the burkini in my own view of the burqa? Is it because I have lived temporarily in a modestly Muslim West Africa culture and have modest Muslim friends that I find the burkini entirely acceptable? Am I justified in my judgment of women wearing a full burqa, or am I intolerant? My Israeli friend reminds me that they do not have the freedom to decide, and that makes all the difference.
I think of smart, beautiful, multicultural, multilingual sixteen-year old Sona back in the Bronx. I think of her family, a family that has expressed not just tolerance but matter-of-course respect of multicultural diversity. I consider all of the cross-cultural lessons as wisdom that I have learned by virtue of apprenticing and spending time with Famoro and with Muslim communities in both New York and West Africa. This wisdom encompasses patience, generosity, and choosing to put human-to-human interaction over rushing to fit everything into the day. Certainly these experiences have made me a better person and have reinforced my own spiritual practice.
Famoro’s daughter Sona and many other children born to immigrants straddle two worlds, one that is predominantly West African Muslim and one that is secular and diverse American; one that functions on African Maybe Time (AMT) and one that functions on New York Time (NYT); one that privileges human relationships over being on time; one that has a place for negotiating the exchange of money based on personal values and not on a fixed rate. Maybe Sona’s decision to wear a hijab after marriage relates to a preference for the West African value system, for her father to show up unannounced on a weekend rather than for him to call and plan ahead. Either way, to me she is entirely tolerant and respectful for both modalities, while she herself leans toward a more devout persuasion. We have a lot to learn from her. I worry, if Americans are to judge Sona for her decisions, will she start to feel that she does not have the freedom to decide? And will that make her want to judge them back?
West African culture is undoubtedly different from cultures that practice Islam in many other parts of the world. The point is that Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, and we cannot judge a person by her or his religion. In this blog series, I try to illustrate through my experiences that many positive attributes come with West African (Muslim) immigrant culture, practices like jeliya, like respect for elders, like prayer time. These rituals and customs carry with them important values, wisdom that we may have lost sight of in our fast-paced democratic society suffering from issues of self-esteem, of racism, of efficiency of time over people, of greed, of money hoarding. If we open our minds to the cultures that we fear, we might find that we have something they can teach us as well. We are not giving up our democracy, our freedom to dress as we choose. Certainly more Muslims can stand up and fight for the reformation of their religion as well, against the extremists that call themselves Muslim but who misinterpret the principles of the religion for their own use. Christians have done it. Jews have done it. But what motivation do Muslims have to join the world in the fight against terrorism if we are prejudging them as a whole? We need to take a proactive stance in creating more cross-cultural, cross-religious experiences lest we make a vital mistake that thrusts us farther apart rather than bringing us together. The moment is now.
I consider my fear and dislike of women in burqas on the one hand, and total acceptance of both hijabs and burkinis on the other. This is part of a contemplative anthropology, reflection on why and how we create our boundaries. I try to open my mind, aware of the fact that my opinions have been formed because of my cultural upbringing and based on my experiences. I intend to create a cross-cultural space in which people from seemingly opposing customs and social norms can come together around mutually shared activities like art and music, so that cultural constructions feeding discrimination may crumble. But I have to wonder, will the women in burqas be open to such an experience? Or is it not even their decision to make? At any rate, I can invite them if I can find them. I feel it my responsibility to do so, not only as an anthropologist but also as a human being.
Lisa Feder is an American post-academic cultural anthropologist based in Paris France. She engages in her own style fieldwork, a combined contemplative anthropology and embodied musical practice which she expresses through blogging, ethnographic film without narration, and oil paintings. Lisa develops alternative cross-cultural immersion programs for American and Canadian professors and students in France and other locations catering to creative and imaginative ethnography. See her website at http://www.lisafeder.com.
A Conversation with Famoro
Harlem, December 6, 2015
I am sitting in Famoro’s apartment again. We are talking about Jeliya, his profession of spiritual musicians. I am in the process of moving to Paris, France and the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015 just occurred. I turn the conversation toward terrorism to get his opinion. My words are in italics.
Famoro: Me, I don’t want to hurt, I don’t want to hurt anybody. Because it is not on me to hurt. Jeliya is just peace and love. Peace and Love. In this world, when people see you? Respect. Before I make you mad, what’s gonna make you mad? I’m gonna start in on myself before I’m going to do that to you. If I’m gonna do something to make you mad, before I do that thing to you I have to think, what I do to Lisa, I do to myself. If Lisa do it to me, is it going to be good for me? Nah, it is not going to be good. So why am I gonna do that to Lisa?
Lisa: What is up with ISIS? How do they convince these kids to put bombs on themselves and blow people up? What are they thinking? These kids are twenty years old!
Famoro: They’re just going to say, Get Courage. Here (points to ground) is nothing. You die? It’s paradise. Everything is waiting for you there.
Lisa: And the kids believe ISIS leaders? Why do they believe them?
Famoro: Yah! They’re not Muslim! They are not Muslim. I see on Facebook, they got one guy, twenty years old. They put everything on him, everything was a bomb, then they cover him like he is going to prayer with a long boubou. And they go to pray, Allah, la la la, whatever they do, then the guy goes. He goes to a public place. The guy comes and he wants to explode [the bombs], and he do like this [Famoro stops and looks around]. There is one sick guy, lying down, and he [sees him there]. Then he looks at the little boys, they are playing, and run! The guy was like, when I do this here, they’re all gonna die! So when he do like this (Famoro looks around) he sees an old man, you know. People sitting, they need food, he stopped and he didn’t do it.
Lisa: He didn’t do it?
Famoro: He was feeling people now! So he left, he went to another place, a big place again, the same day. He takes the button, and he wants to press it, and he sees a little girl [coming toward him] like that. He didn’t do it. He waited. The little kids play. He looks (Famoro looks around him, mimicking the guy), a big hospital. People sick inside there. The guy is confused now about what he’s gonna do. He’s like this now [confused] and goes down the street and falls down. One guy helps him to stand up. And then the guy, he just sits. He thinks about what to do, and the people [who] prepared him to do that. Because if he doesn’t do it now, they are going to kill him. So he goes straight to them. He comes back to them, yeah! He comes back and when they open the gate, he: BOOM!
The kids, when people fighting, the refugee people, the young kids, they [ISIS] get them. They grow them up, school them, they learn only criminality. They learn that. Only criminality. Kill. Kill. Kill. They have that school. So those terrorist people, they grow up there. They are there conditioned, everything, money, boof! Everything. So, missions? Nineteen, twenty years old. Like that, they prepare. So anything they say to them, they’re like: Boom (Famoro sits up straight, like an attentive listener). Teleguidé! [Brainwashed].
* * *
Having analyzed this story that Famoro heard on Facebook, I have found, as you may have also, that it seems improbable. If the man blew himself and ISIS leaders up with the bombs, then who would be able to tell the story from his point of view? Nevertheless, I find it so inspirational that someone might have a prise de conscience like this that I dreamed of spreading the story so far that would-be ISIS joiners would hear it and that it would weigh on their consciousness.
On August 4, 2016, the New York Times published an interview with Harry Sarfo, a German man who joined, and subsequently fled, the Islamic State. On November 21, 2015, the New York Times published “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish, and Escape.” There are countless stories in the news, if one searches the web, about Muslims who have backed out and escaped from terrorist organizations. Aayan Hersi Ali’s book, Infidel, certainly gave chilling accounts of a Somali-Islam immigrant population who came to Holland with their extreme beliefs mostly against women’s rights, which made her turn against the religion altogether while still calling on Muslims to reform it. At this current moment in time, I agree that there is a problem within Islam, like there was a problem of violence during the crusades, and there are still problems within Christianity today. Islam is being used too often to support violence against the supposed infidel, which can even be other Muslims, especially women. We, who are free countries of the Western World find ourselves in a difficult position: How do we take a strong stance against terrorist acts while simultaneously remaining aware that the problem lies in the misinterpretations of the Qur’an, not in the religion itself? For one, we must educate ourselves in Islam so that we can discredit so-called Muslims who condone violence on their own terms.
I have purposely used the work jihad once in this blog series that referred to an internal struggle in my heart and mind several times. To me, and many Muslims, the jihad is an internal struggle to do the right thing against our ego’s whimsical desires. I’ve also used Insha’allah and Alhumdililah to make a point. In the Western world, things generally work well. Buses, planes, trains are usually on time, or people complain. We make appointments months and years in advance, and not showing up is an example of irresponsibility. We pay the marked price for items, and there is little or no room for negotiation. This is fine and well, and I am grateful to live in a country in which things are clear, and life runs fairly smoothly. On the down side, we tend to be intolerant at worst, or not conscious enough at best, of the role that fate, or God, or nature, or in particular our own state of mind affects the-way-things-roll. Saying “insha’allah,” (may things work well for us) reminds us that we cannot just will things to happen our way, that we have to take God, nature, other humans into consideration; and invoking “alhumdililah,” (gratefulness, humbleness) makes us acknowledge and offer thanks when things do work out to our satisfaction.
Lastly, the permission to use violence against the infidels in the Qur’an was made in a specific context in which Prophet Mohammed’s followers were given the right to defend themselves against those who persecuted them. The infidels were polytheists warring tribes that violently fought one another and also opposed the equalist and socialist message of the Prophet, which they found threatening to maintaining the status quo power hierarchies. Some five hundred years earlier, Jesus and his followers were also deemed a threat to the Romans and others in power because Jesus’ teachings undermined status quo positions of authority. In the version translated by M.A.S Abdel Haleem, the author clarifies this in his introductory explanatory notes, “In fact, the only situations where the Qur’an allows Muslims to fight are in self-defense and to defend the oppressed who call for help,” (Haleem xxii) and he refers us to line 4: 75, in The Qur’an. Like the bible, which can be misinterpreted to condone violence or oppression of women, fundamentalists misinterpret the Qu’ran to justify killing democratic and secular people, infidels. Haleem reminds us that “God does not love those who overstep the limits,” concluding that “the prevalent message of the Qur’an is one of peace and tolerance but it allows self-defense.” (Haleem xxii.)
Islam can be practiced in a reformed way and can lead practitioners to a kinder, more compassionate, more balanced state of mind, as all religions are meant to do. We had better distinguish between people based on their individual actions and not discriminate against them based on a religious group. Famoro deplores the practices of any violent movements, and particularly one that gives his religion a bad name. “They are not Muslims,” he says. Meanwhile, Famoro points out behavior that he considers inappropriate such as immodest clothing, abuse of alcohol, as well as those who run on “New York Time” (NYT), a sensibility that weighs efficiency over human-to-human relationships. Although we may or may not agree, and our positions change over time, his beliefs do not make him a terrorist.
The Bronx, Summer 2016
Famoro has two daughters. Fatimata, who is nineteen, lives in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. She hasn’t seen her father for seventeen years. Yet, they remain close through phone calls. Lately on Facebook, Fatimata posts photos of herself in skinny jeans and tanks, long braids flowing down her back, her boyfriend leaning on her shoulder. Last time I saw her she was seven. Through her recent posted images, both Famoro and I have raised our eyebrows. Famoro does his best to impart his wisdom on her life from afar. He urges me to write to her as well. Then there is Sona, sixteen, born to Famoro and a Guinean jelimuso mother, in the United States. She is American, polylingual, bicultural, and a top-notch student. No boyfriends, yet.
Famoro and I take the 4 train all the way from 125th street to Bedford Park Boulevard in the Bronx to visit Sona at her aunt’s house where she lives. Just before leaving, Famoro has a prise de conscience. He asks me whether he should put a white tank under his vest that lays over his shoulders, open on the sides. It is hot today, but we agree, modesty in front of the kids. He puts the tank on, lays the vest over it, and we are off.
We hear a lot of Spanish on the train, and a lot of panhandling. Famoro makes a noise of disapproval, like a click. I ask him what? He nods over to a woman who just boarded the train in a skin-tight, short mini-dress. “That’s not good,” he tells me. “She is not modest.” He explains that a woman has to cover her legs a little or she is purposely attracting men’s attention. If she is walking around flaunting her privates, then men are going to look at her and think about sex, no way around it. Famoro says, “You have to keep some things private, only for your man.” I look down at my white linen baggy shorts and blue tank top. I’m not exactly modest, but I certainly don’t flaunt my body either. I tend toward the non-revealing, at least in my cultural milieu. As far as New York City is concerned, I am dressed in an unremarkable way. If I were in the Gambia, however, things would be different.
The first time that I went to West Africa in 2000, I spent two months in the Gambia, a smaller and comparatively more conservative country than neighboring Guinea and Senegal, yet equally Muslim. The American well-seasoned couple who accompanied me explained some guidelines on dressing modestly. No, I didn’t have to cover my hair with a scarf, but it meant that men would think I was available. Like wearing a wedding ring, covering the head happens after marriage. More importantly, I should cover the bifurcation of the legs. In other words, don’t wear tighter pants, or pants at all. Longer skirts are preferred. Modesty says skirts to the ankle, just like the olden days when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Be reasonable. Blend in.
I certainly did not want to be a bad influence on my host family’s children, and I found that once I got the gist, it was quite easy to recognize and follow suit on acceptable dress for a woman my age. I did not find it difficult. In fact, I learned that the rare occasions that I did venture from the family compound alone, it was quite helpful to wrap a scarf around my head. Men did not approach me when I did this. If I went without the scarf, I was constantly accompanied, and if I lost one guy following me, another would come within seconds or minutes. It was easier just to choose a companion for the errands I had to make, but often I opted for the headscarf and was left alone.
Conakry, however, is altogether different, much to my surprise when I visited in 2004. Some women are much more modern in the capital city of Guinea, wearing tight jeans and no headscarves. I likened it to Casablanca where you might find a wide degree of difference. Famoro’s new wife, Jelimuso Missia Saran, for example, isn’t a modest dresser at all, neither in Conakry nor in New York, unless she is taking part in a religious event. She wears tight pants, shirts, and no head wrap on a regular basis.
Finally Famoro and I get off the train and walk to 199th Street to visit his daughter, Sona. By the time we arrive it is high noon and the sun is hot. Sona, Miriam, and Fantabe are there, as well as Fantabe’s mother who is carrying an eight-month-old baby on her waste. Miriam is about ten and is Sona’s cousin. Fantabe, twelve, is Sona’s half sister and lives in Paris. She speaks French and Malinké. Aziz, six, is still sleeping. All the kids but Fantabe are Guinean-American. A mom appears from the bedroom with a baby. Malinké is the common language, but often the American kids speak English to each other and to Famoro and me.
Miriam tells Famoro that she woke up just five minutes before we came. It’s around noon. I figure that they must stay up late because it is cool in the evenings; that is what we do in Guinea. At this moment, two fans are blowing on us and it is still screaming hot, characteristic of July in the city. Famoro asks her why she just woke up. Miraim retorts that he never tells her what time he is coming. He asks, “Why do I have to tell you the time? I say I’m coming today, I don’t have to say what time.” But Miriam is already thinking American. “If you tell me what time you come, then I can know when to wake up and get ready!” They start a lengthy discussion about who is giving whom a hard time. It is a battle of cultural systems, of mind or heart. It is the perennial discussion I have written about in my thesis that I call Africa Maybe Time (AMT) vs. NYC time, or so my American friends and I call it from our ethnocentric perspective.
Famoro is teaching his Guinean-American children the West African way. You visit people when you feel the inspiration to do so. He goes through his day like a soft breeze. He never rushes. He takes his time with people. He goes where he needs to go when he is ready, and not before. If people miss him, tant pis (too bad). “I come when I want to come, and you know, I always come!” Miriam retorts, “Yeah, but you gotta call us and tell us when!” “I don’t gotta call you,” Famoro teases. “You, be ready!” They are having fun, but the argument is strong too.
Famoro gets up, unannounced, goes to the bathroom, and washes for prayer. He comes back to the living room, chooses his spot, and goes about his business of praying. Everyone is moving around the living room and talking while he does it. He is in his own zone. After Famoro rises from prayer, Sona emerges from the kitchen where she had been making us scrambled eggs and sardines on a loaf. Famoro and I split one and it is tasty. Sona is proud of the culinary abilities she is cultivating.
While we eat, Sona goes into the bedroom in her lapa, a colorful wrap skirt widely worn by women in West Africa, with a non-matching tee on top, typical for house wear. She re-emerges in an all black embroidered full length boubou, a full-length gown, and a black head wrap. Over the wrap she drapes a silky white headscarf with lime green trim. She washes and returns to the living room, unfolds a lime-green and black prayer rug that matches her dress. She bends over, hands on her knees, then kneels down and puts her forehead to the floor. She has a red pearly rosary in front of her. After a few bows, she sits, legs folded to one side, and she picks up the beads. The kids are talking around her, and when it gets loud between Famoro and Aziz, who has now woken up and is playing with Famoro, it is Miriam who shushes them, reprimanding them to pipe down while Sona prays. The room returns to normal conversation level. Sona looks to the right and then to the left. She looks directly at a kid to her left. At first I think that she is distracted but then I realize that she is still praying, and possibly incorporating the image of her half-sister into her prayer; or Sona is looking right through her.
When Sona finishes she pushes the white and green scarf off her head and sits next to me on the couch. We chat about school and then she asks me my religion. Aziz takes an interest, puts a hand on my knee and leans in. “Yeah, are you Christian?” he asks. They are both surprised when I tell them no. “My father is Jewish, but I study Buddhism,” which I liken to their version of Islam. I compare Muslim ways to Buddhist ways of taking moments to meditate, of treating people with dignity and respect, of wishing all people well, of being patient and understanding with people who are suffering. Sona asks me if Buddhism is like worshiping many gods or animals, and she wonders if she is confusing it with Hinduism. I explain that the religions are similar and recall Ganesha with her, the elephant-looking deity and remover of obstacles, and then try to explain the many manifestations of Buddha—the Buddha of compassion, of discriminating wisdom, of purification, and more. I explain that they are all different faces, or intentions, of one being, and we apply the skills of whichever one is relevant to the situation. My own explanation reminds me of jeliya, and the ways in which the musicians can muster up a kind of energy to inspire us to act in appropriate ways. Sona is learning about religion in her school and she is as curious as I am, but in a small apartment with many children, we get distracted.
The conversation shifts to Ramadan, and I ask her about fasting during the holiday. Now widely known, Ramadan is a spiritual practice in Islam in which practitioners fast or abstain from food, drink, intimate relations, and smoking between sunrise and sunset during the entire ninth month of the Muslim calendar. I knew that Sona fasted this year because Famoro had told me so. When I asked him why Sona did and the other kids did not, he said “because she loves God and wants to show her respect.” She is also the oldest of the group and kids don’t fast when they are young.
I tell Sona that I am impressed with her reverence. “Was it hard,” I ask? “Did you ever cheat at all?” Not only is Ramadan hard, but it took place this year in the summer months, long days of sunlight, little time to cook and break fast after sunlight hours, and it was hot. “Sometimes, when I brush my teeth I let a little water go down. Sometimes I even drink a few sips, but I can’t help it!” she confides in me. We giggle. But yes, she did it and I tell her I am proud of her. I make comparisons in my head to other practices with which I am familiar: the Yom Kippur fast of twenty-four hours, the eight days of no leavened bread during Passover, and the forty days of partial fasting during Lent. I, myself, spend many an eight-day session in meditation and absolute silence, but fasting the month of Ramadan is hard-core. I am filled with respect and admiration for this young teenager. Any test of determination like that in any culture has got to teach a certain wisdom.
Famoro is surrounded by the four children the entire time he is there. They are draped over him on the two-seater couch. Each one wants his attention and he gives it lavishly. Fantabe walks by, a little somber, and Famoro grabs her and pulls her to him. She laughs and falls onto his lap. Miriam engages him in serious conversation, challenging him at every chance, but there is humor laden in the debates, and Sona offers her dad huge bear hugs on a regular basis. When Famoro decides that it is time to go, all four of the kids from six to sixteen throw themselves around our legs, imploring us not to leave. Aziz asks me again where I live. I tell him, Paris, like Fantabe. “Paris? Why not New York?” I assure him that I will see him again soon. We will go to the beach together next week.
On the train ride home, Famoro tells me that Sona wants to where a hijab once she gets married. The hijab is a Muslim headwrap that covers the hair, neck, and chest, but not the face. We are both a little surprised at her declaration. West African women who are married often choose to wear an African headwrap when they go out of their home to shop, covering the tops of their heads with a colorful piece of wrapped cloth, but they don’t cover their necks or even most of their hair unless, perhaps, during a religious event like a funeral. Elderly women may wrap their hair and necks with a scarf more regularly. But the custom isn’t tightly observed, and many West African women in New York City and in Conakry do not wear headwraps at all. Sona’s mother, a famous singer like Missia, does not wear a headscarf on a regular basis. Her aunt with whom she lives does not wear one either. No one has pushed this on her; it is her own decision.
Sona is strikingly different than Abi’s thirteen-year old bicultural daughter we encountered in the “Manding Baptisme” blog. For one, Sona exudes love and kindness whereas Abi’s daughter has seemingly turned against her Guinean cultural roots of respect toward a crass and flippant American attitude that many teenagers have. What would motivate Sona to wear a hijab in the future? Does she find that wearing one will tie her to values of Guinean culture? To a peaceful, respectful way to be? Does it indicate a stronger reverence to God whereas many have lost their way? Is Sona experimenting with religion as many kids do at her age?
In light of the burkini debates in France, I wonder whether Sona will want to keep her head and neck covered in a few years when she goes to the beach and what other Americans will think of her if she does. Suddenly and unknowingly she may implicate herself in a political situation, although when I am quite sure that her original intentions came naturally around feelings of peace, love, and respect. I want to warn her about these things, to tell her to stay open when people misjudge, to educate people when they seem ignorant. But for now, Sona is only sixteen. She will pray at home and wear her one-piece bathing suit on the beach and think nothing of it.
Harlem, New York, November 2014
I’m sitting with about one hundred Guineans and Malians originally from West Africa packed into a small two-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Every single seat is taken, every couch, overstuffed with people. People stand in extra spaces and sit on arms of furniture. The elders occupy the most privileged seats, the softest couches that are closest to the music and an enormous sized flat screen T.V. The children, American born, sit on the floor, get up, run in and out of the living room, sit again. About ten women move around the cove-style kitchen, organizing food on large aluminum trays to bring out to the people. First I am given a plastic bag of the most delicious thing I would never normally eat: fried dough composed of fat, flour, and sugar. A pure carb-ball. What could be tastier? Then I am given a plate of couscous with green slimy mush. It doesn’t look good, and the texture is a bit like snot, but if you know this to be an African dish made with mashed okra, you know that it is healthy and delicious. I eat it up gleefully. It’s biting my mouth with added red-hot pepper. I am given a plastic bottle of homebrew ginger juice, super strength. Next I’m handed a plate of salad and chicken with raw onions with plastic fork and knife. The plate is white Styrofoam and I’m trying to cut the chicken from the bone and the leafs of lettuce, all while balancing the plate on my lap. I crease the plate. Please don’t poke a hole in it, I plead with myself. Be mindful. Then a plate of fishballs arrives. Abundance!
I am at a baby-welcoming party, also known as baby shower, baby-naming, or a baptisme. Famoro and Missia Saran Dioubaté, two jeli musicians from Guinea living in New York have invited me to come along. I cannot be sure why. I have been learning music and culture with Famoro for over ten years and we are friends, but the relationship is never that simple. Maybe they wanted me to drive them. Maybe they know I am interested. Certainly they trust me to fit in and perhaps they think I will be useful somehow. I’m never sure why they make these decisions to take me to all Guinean events but somehow I am sure it serves them as well as me. Perhaps it increases their own cultural capital by bringing the “local” White American born in New York. I go along with it and take it as an honor.
The baby has already been born and named Little Abdoul, son of Abi, a beautiful, young, classy Guinean woman. A young Muslim leader of prayer called an imam and three jeliw (sing. jeli, or griot in French, is an oral historian/musician/spiritual leader/praise-singer) are present. Famoro is the only jeli instrumentalist tonight and he will play balafon all evening. The other two are singers and will bless the baby and the family members who raise it with prayers to Allah in their own respective ways. Famoro’s songs on balafon each represent another family lineage or cultural lesson, laden with proverbs and sayings in the melodies. Missia Saran, a jelimuso or female jeli, is from Guinean, and Abdoulaye “Djoss” Diabaté, is from Mali. They are both talented well respected jeli singers in the ex-Patriot Manding community living in New York. They will sing direct blessings to family members in the name of Allah, summoning each up to stand in front of them while they praise and bless. They will recall the participants’ ancestors, and the good and noble deeds they have done for the community, often making those called out laugh or blush. The young imam will take the microphone at a decisive moment and everyone will grow quiet. Eyes will close and hands will rest on knees while the imam wishes for this baby long life, prosperity, good health, good family, and a clear path with peace only. With each blessing, people will roll fingers into palms and squeeze, securing the blessing and releasing it again to God.
When Abi realized that I have a nice HD camera that can shoot video, she instructs me through Famoro to get in participants’ faces with the camera at all of the most important moments of the party—an anthropologist’s dream. “Make sure you don’t miss anything,” Famoro warns me. “You know what is important!” Indeed, I do. If the jeli starts praise-singing anyone, I had better be sure to have the camera on the scene, on the praised person or the jeli and the praised person, a very intense relationship. I find it fascinating to observe if the praised woman remains cool, distracted, aloof. Or will she smile at the jeli sweetly, shyly? Just how long will the jeli praise her? How much money will the praised person’s friends pass up to the honored woman? How will she collect the wads of cash in her hands this time, and at what precise moment will she decide to release the money to the jeli? Will she throw it all at once, letting it rain down to the floor, or hand it to her, bill by bill? But surely these aren’t the important things for them. For themselves, they want to remember what and how the jeli or jelimuso sang, to whom, and how each one was dressed. The women take enormous pride in how they dress for these events. Sparkles, bling jewelry, and dramatic make-up is the norm. Drag queens “got nothin’” on these ladies.
I recall the many Africa-jeli events that I have attended. I have seen quite well how the Guinean videographers get right in the faces of audience members, shining spotlights on them as they walk up to throw money at the jelis. It is as if the audience members, the patrons, are superstars and they brought their own paparazzi. They love it. The videographers take their job quite seriously. If they miss anything important, there will surely be complaints.
I am, however, not part of the culture and my position as a White American female cannot be overlooked by anyone, no matter how well I think that I can blend in. I feel intimidated to film, even by request. I am sheepish about walking around instead of sitting safely in my chair, scared of facing the elders–respected men of the community–with a camera between them and us. Thoughts of the intrusive anthropologist block me. Can I balance my knowledge of how and what Manding videographers shoot, the closeness of it, and the reality of my position as outsider? I have a battle within myself, a jihad, if you will.
Anthropologists were once seen as the colonizing, elitist, objectifying researchers. Our profession has been fighting this projection since the days of Malinowski, who, stranded with the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific in the Second World War, finally began to understand that their irrational and hokey ceremonies actually made perfect sense when seen from a different system of logic. We fought with ourselves again in the 1970s, after the post-structuralism turn, trying to let “the natives” speak for themselves. But what happens when the natives become experts in speaking for themselves, filming themselves, and posting videos on Youtube and Facebook for themselves, and they ask you, the self-conscious anthropologist to do it for them so they don’t have to worry about it? Do you refuse because of the colonist-tainted history within the field of anthropology that you have fought to overturn for so long? Even if they know about the supposed “oppression of the anthropologist,” they aren’t thinking about it. It is not relevant. This is Here. This is Now. They are asking for my assistance as one who has the technology and the means. Forget the past. Just do it.
Famoro looks over at me. “You want Uasuf to film the party,” he asks me. Uasuf, the half-Senegalese half-American, male, younger than I, and somehow more culturally legit. Not a chance! I gather up my courage, try to find my graceful flow, and refuse the suggestion. “I’ll do it,” I declare, making it a test of my ability to act “Manding.”
I have a terrible start. Batteries aren’t charged, cards aren’t in cameras. Electrical outlets have to be found and cords, untangled. Imagine me in this mobbed apartment: I’m sitting in one little folding chair squished among many, untangling and connecting all of my devices, searching for power outlets under people’s feet.
More than twice I stop my frantic movements of setting up gear. I pause. Look up. Watch people for a few minutes. Tune in to the vibe. “Don’t be a New Yorker,” I tell myself. “You are on African time now.” Then, with a deep breath, I start again. Mindfully. More slowly. Relaxed, at least ostensibly. Developing this self-awareness and embodying it in practice is something that makes Famoro trust me. I don’t think he is aware of the internal struggle, but he is aware that I am different, that I am learning from him. It is the reason why he feels comfortable bringing me to this party in the first place.
The participants in this celebration are doing what they please, and yet, somehow everyone is doing what they are “supposed to do.” There is a structure, and within that structure there is a lot of freedom. The structure is in the fact that every one dresses nicely, that the elders get the best seats and the adults get to sit on couches and chairs, that the closest friends of Abi are in the kitchen preparing food. The structure is that the jelis sit front-center stage in the middle of the living room on speakers and monitors, on the drum machine, against the huge TV tuned to the American football championship game. Everyone is moving at a relaxed pace. There is a sense of confidence and composure to the room.
Within this structure things are quite free. One woman whips out a nail file and is having a full conversation while filing her nails. Another lady walks in wearing a man’s blazer over her dress because it is cold outside. MIssia is praising another who has her iphone in front of her face between her and Missia so she can film what is going on. Missia goes right on singing as if nothing is unusual. Women walk into the middle of the scene to pass out plates of food. Even Famoro tells me, “Do whatever you like. You are at home here.” Am I?
So I do it. I have the Lumix camera out, and I press record. I move slowly from patron to patron as they eat their food, in the faces of the elder men who just don’t react at all. I keep myself from reacting to my fears of my annoying or disrespecting them. It’s easier when I pass to the women. They love the camera. They are dressed for it. They sit up taller, smile at the camera, joke with one another, hold hands and sway to the music. They help me out by prompting me to hurry and film! when something important is happening in the jeli circle, for example, when Missia is prasing Abi’s aunt.
I occupy this strange position of child who doesn’t know although I am an American who is African-cultural savvy, an American rich with good technology. Many assumptions run through my head none of which I can reconfirm. If I were an African, rich, with good technology, I would never be asked to perform this service of filming because it would be beneath me. If I were a Manding videographer I would never miss an important moment. I may be resented by some for being the intruding American. I may be permitted because I am American. It is difficult to tell whether this thinking is my own insecurities, or reality.
From what I can fathom in my experience, Americans tend to exude welcoming, happy vibes toward someone who may not belong, who may feel shy. Not so with Guineans. They don’t smile just to assuage your insecurities. I feel they aren’t concerned with how you feel. They are concerned with how they feel, meaning that each one takes care to meet the world in the most righteous way possible. They do not trust others until others prove to be trustworthy, but they also don’t tend to condemn unless proven deserving. In that vein, my filming is accepted or tolerated. They could enjoy it if I come with the right “heart” or condemn me if they deem my behavior to be disrespectful. Mostly, what I am doing is unremarkable.
Then I venture into a side room. It is the children’s bedroom, evident by bunkbeds, and about ten children of various ages are playing on the beds and the floor. When they see the video camera they start to perform, singing and waving arms and yelling out. All, except one. She is older than the rest, about thirteen, and she starts to give me a hard time. “Why are you filming us?” she asks snidely. “Who says you can film in here?” She feels deeply confrontational and I am shocked. Frozen. Heat rises in my body. I drop the camera from my face and click it off. “I’m, I’m just filming the party,” I stammer, caught completely off guard. She lectures me now. “You don’t come into my room and start filming me.” I mutter, “sorry,” and add as an afterthought, “Famoro asked me to.” She snorts, and I turn back down the hall to the living room, feathers ruffled, a bit off-kilter.
Boy, I thought to myself, she didn’t use the respect-your-elders rule with me. We were working on a different cultural schema there, one that rests firmly in the United States. No Guinean child ever dared to speak to me this way. Later, I explain to Famoro what happened. “She doesn’t know anything,” he says. “That girl? She’s got a lot of problems. She do bad things sometimes. Next time she gives you a hard time, you tell her to talk to Uncle Famoro.” He told me of some other unfortunate incidents of immodesty that illustrate what a confused teenager she is. I think it must be difficult to be bicultural. Certainly, she is insecure and not sure of her place in the world. Is she Muslim? Is she African? Is she secular? American? How does she negotiate matters of respect between two very different cultures?
Back in the living room I take a seat to calm down. The microphone gets passed to the young imam; people get quiet for the first time. Totally quiet. Even children stop moving lest they receive the glare of an elder man. People who were serving food stop. Those standing crowd into the living room, hands turned up. I am sitting on my chair in a line of people against the far living room wall, my Lumix sitting on my lap. As if proving my American anthropologist position to myself, I wonder, “Can I film it?”
At this point filming does not seem appropriate. I’ve never seen anyone filming a scene like this as far as I can remember, but I am motivated by the desire to show other non-Muslims how non-threatening the prayers are, how well-intended. I am having another inner tortured battle with myself as the imam’s chant starts to roll. When people respond with their first chorus of Amin in response to the imam’s blessing, hands squeezing with each utterance of amin, I lose control and hit record. My camera is delicately balanced on my knee, the little red light flashing. I’m not sure what I’m filming, hopefully some hands, certainly the building rhythm: “May God bless this child’s life,” Amin. “May this child be healthy and strong, by will of God,” Amin. “May this child have a prosperous future,” Amin. I am anxiously listening, the wide-eyed anthropologist, observing and excited, but not participating. Exoticism? The prayer goes on. And on. And on. Now I worry about how much space this is taking up on my precious 32-bit memory card. I am not in the flow. I am not taking part in this important group prayer. I am wasting this opportunity, I think to myself. I switch off the camera and listen.
The prayer lasts longer than I expect; in fact, it is the longest I’ve ever experienced. I try to allow myself to get swept into the flow of it all. I try to release the recent confrontational event in the bedroom. By the time the imam has wrapped up his prayers, about fifteen minutes later, I am calmer. The young man passes the microphone to an elder man on his left, a small child crawls into the young imam’s lap, and the elder starts another round of prayers.
When the prayers end, noise is restored: children play, adults talk and laugh, jelis make music. All things are restored to a lively, celebratory mode. A sacred time has been carved out of this party. The ritual has an effect. I watch the room come back to life for a few minutes. Then, slowly, I rise and cross the room with camera in hand. A woman beckons to me to sit in front of her, a prime spot to film the musical action. I take her up on the offer, a testimony of confidence from a native, a welcoming back to the fold. Through the viewfinder I frame Missia singing to an aunty of her good deeds, Famoro playing bala in the background, and Djoss sitting to one side on a speaker, preparing to sing his next lines of praise. I rest at a perfect angle to shoot the best of the event.
Once the guests have gone, Famoro, Missia, and I wrap up the equipment and move down the hall to leave. Abi, the host and mother of the baby, is walking us out and thanking us when the thirteen-year-old girl who gave me a hard time appears in the doorway. I am surprised to find out that she is the lovely Abi’s daughter. Her mother asks me how she can get the video from me. “Why don’t you just email it?” asks the teenager. “It is too large,” I tell her. She knows technology better than her mother so she and I discuss it together and make an arrangement. We have reached a détente. I think about the clip where she is yelling at me and make a mental note to erase it before I pass them the footage.
Both for this teenage girl and myself, we straddle two worlds, and it requires constant self-reflection measured against a sense of what is happening around us. She has learned some lessons, undoubtedly from fellow Americans, lessons of survival, to be sure, in which she believes that harsh confrontation is the best response to gain status when one feels disrespected. I am familiar because I am from her culture. Her parents, however, exhibit very different norms, ones that I prefer. Consider all of the children born to immigrant parents who are forced to negotiate their acceptance in a society in which they are not the majority. What role do we, potentially of the majority, play in their formation, if any? In the next blog we will see another young, bicultural teenage woman who is negotiating her position in a very different way.
In my experience, Guineans expect within themselves and of others the “right” balance of wholesome values in order to be accepted, or at least tolerated. I am never sure if I am humble, respectful, and confident enough until I am given access, permission, reassurance, which arrives when all things come together in the right flow and I find myself at ease. Ironically, feeling at ease puts one in that flow where acceptance is superfluous. This graceful state of being exists in any culture, it is just that Guineans recognize it explicitly and wish this flow to come into being with the Arabic term, Insha’allah, which I appreciate very much. When those moments of flowing grace come, like when the woman beckoned me over into a good position, we give thanks. Alhumdililah.
 A jeli is a special title of musician from the Manding region of West Africa. A formidable ex-patriot Manding community lives in the New York City area. Jelis take an active part in this community, preside over Manding ceremonies and events, playing balafon, kora, guitar, ngoni, and singing.
Fighting with Bala
Harlem, New York, 2015
Famoro sits on the couch facing his balafon, which lays wooden keys facing down, gourds facing up, exposing its underbelly. My friend of twelve years and the ancient wooden xylophone hail from inner Guinea, West Africa; yet both are comfortably situated in New York City. He is giving the “bala,” suspended on both ends between two chairs, an adjustment at home. He has a piece of white string in his fist, which he wraps around one of the keys, then ties it off. Then he starts “tuning.” Each gourd on the balafon hangs below (when right-side up) a corresponding wooden key. Famoro lifts up a gourd that is tied to the upturned balafon and taps it with the end of his wooden mallet. It clicks. Then he taps the matching key. The tones do not ring out the same note to Famoro’s satisfaction. He adjusts the size of the holes cut into the side of the gourd, scraping them until his taps to the gourd and wooden key match in tone.
I am looking up information on the Internet about immigration status for him. After a few minutes Famoro says, “Hey! I’m gonna win this fight!” I look over my shoulder at him, but I don’t understand. Famoro is engaged in tuning. I turn back to the computer. Click, click, tap, tap. Click, Click, tap tap. “You gotta listen to me!” says Famoro. I look again, inquisitively and he says to me, “This balafon, she don’t want to listen to me. We fight, but I’m gonna win!”
I contemplate this for a moment. Famoro speaks of the balafon like a living being, and the way it comes across in English is humorous and endearing. I wonder if it has the same emotional tone in Malinké as it does in English.
Famoro is a jeli, a specialized profession of musicians of the Manding people, some of whom speak Malinké. Jelis are considered part of the nyamakala, a caste of skilled craftsmen who shape inanimate objects such as animal hyde (like leather) or metal (in the case of smiths), imbuing them with spirit energy. In the case of the jelis, they shape and imbue sound with spirit through their voices or particular instruments such as the balafon—a wooden xylophone—the kora—a 21 stringed lute-like harp made of calabash and stretched goatskin—the ngoni—a stringed instrument with goatskin stretched over a wooden base similar to an early base-guitar—and now, the guitar. They recall old Manding proverbs, lines from the Qur’an, and other nuggets of well-known wisdom in both musical lines and lyrics to inspire people in their society to act with the highest values for the benefit of the community. The contrasting caste is called the horon, the noblemen and statesmen. They take care of money and law and many are patrons of jelis who serve them by singing their praises of encouragement to act well for the good of the society.
We are not alone in Famoro’s apartment. Uasuf, a young American born to a Senegalese father plays the djembe—an hourglass-shaped wooden drum covered with goat skin and played with bare hands—studies balafon with Famoro. Today Uasuf is sitting quietly on the couch. He is Famoro’s apprentice and exercises his knowledge of African-style respect toward Famoro. He doesn’t let Famoro carry his own instrument. He jumps to get things for Famoro. He is eager to learn from Famoro.
For the past fifteen years I have been doing fieldwork, engaged in a relationship with Manding jelis in various capacities, which began through a method I now call an “embodied musical practice.” In short, I found a place within this culture by becoming a student, and then a patron of balafon music in both West Africa and New York City. The rightful name of a student in West African culture is best described as an apprentice. Rather than pay for hourly lessons, the student is expected to spend lots of time with the master, sometimes receiving musical lessons, but more often experiencing life lessons on ways of being. Compensation for the teacher is part of the learning process, as one is expected to give what she feels, both financially and in service.
This runs counter to every culturally inculcated bone in my body. I want to know with certainty how much an hour of someone’s time costs me. Americans do not tend to negotiate or haggle as is customary in many cultures. Learning to give based on how I feel has been a real struggle within myself, a jihad, in the proper sense of the meaning according to my understanding. It is part of the spiritual and cultural lessons that come with jeliya.
Meanwhile, the teacher imparts the wisdom to the student as he feels is appropriate to the situation, according to how the student assimilates the knowledge. The assessment of success includes the attitude, or the heart, that the student puts into the learning, as well as skill in graceful action; the student will not likely pass to the next level before learning to do so gracefully and in good spirit. She may be (harshly) reprimanded for lack of grace or enthusiasm. Ways of service might include: bringing the teacher tools and instruments, carrying his balafon, playing a new part of the music, driving the teacher if one has a car, and sharing anything that might be useful all while demonstrating good spirit in doing so.
Not far into my balafon lessons with Famoro, it was clear that I was not going to excel in the playing of the music, but I did excel in demonstrating a certain “Manding sensibility,” which I might sum up as knowing how to blend into the environment, how to be respectful of others, while going about my business. This blending in is not trivial because it requires a level of understanding the values that Manding people enact through their body and speech toward each other. For example, one listens to their elders’ advice with respect, offers the better seats to the elders, and often, follows their simple household requests. For another example, one is expected to go at a pace that allows one to not be rushed, to do things mindfully. If asked for something that you cannot give with patience and heart, then you are to decline gracefully and delay the request until later. It may be counter-intuitive for a New Yorker like myself who tends to jam everything into as little time as possible, to be “efficient,” which sometimes leaves me with an agitated and annoyed attitude.
The more I was comfortable with myself in this translocal community, the deeper my level of access. In doing so, my teachers and I negotiated a position within a cross-cultural space that made sense to all involved. I became a patron, a promoter, a trusted friend, a “Doctor of Manding Music” according to elder Jeli Mamady Kouyate which is how he announces and honors me, publically. Gely K, short for Jeli Kouyate and Mamady’s nickname, hails from Guinea; he sought asylum in 2000 and is now an American citizen. In practice, my position shifts in various milieu. I spend a lot of time listening to and interpreting the music and culture lessons with jeli friends, giving advice, offering financial and organizational assistance as well as emotional and cross-cultural support. I send money to support various cultural activities that I attend, I chauffer musicians, I give my time in recording studios and at public shows in music cafés throughout New York City, I take videos of the concerts, I serve as liaison between musicians and venue booking agents, and I perform many other tasks. But most of all, Famoro and others invite me into their home life, and sometimes to private house parties for Guineans.
Today Uasuf and I sit in Famoro’s apartment and Uasuf is slumped on the couch. He let’s out a yawn and through it says, “Man I’m tired today.” Famoro asks, “Why you tired? You not sleep good?” Uasuf answers, “Yes, I slept fine.” Famoro responds, “Then you have to ask yourself why you tired if you slept good.” He insinuates that there is something lingering under the surface, some mental anxiety to explore. Western-style psychology akin to Manding wisdom? I think so.
When Famoro takes out a balafon and turns it over to work on it, Uasuf jumps to his feet and asks how he can help. Famoro responds, “No, you are tired, you lay down and relax.” Uasuf isn’t sure if this is a provocation or test of his loyalty. “No, I’m not here to sleep, come on man, let me help you!” It goes back and forth a few times like this. But when Famoro keeps insisting I know that he wants to do this work alone. Finally I chime in and tell Uasuf, “Sometimes Famoro likes to have his own headspace, to concentrate and do as he wants.” Uasuf isn’t sure what to make of my comment. Famoro backs me up. “Hey, you gotta listen to her. Lisa, she knows me a long time. She knows me.” Uasuf slumps back into the couch.
There is a delicate balance between being an attentive apprenice and giving the master his space. Like any of us, sometimes we want to be in our flow. Perhaps we have a practice that recenters us, that gets us into a calm and clear headspace. This is part of what Famoro and any good jeli teaches us to do through playing and listening to Manding jeli music, and it is also what he does for himself. I recognize this based on my own yoga/meditation practice, and, therefore, can see it in Famoro. Knowing when to step in and help and when to give space is a matter of delicately tuning into another person. When making a mistake or being reprimanded, we must learn to back down gracefully.
Hours later, not much has happened in the apartment. Famoro’s partner, Missia Saran, has come home, and she is quietly milling about the apartment taking care of business. Famoro, Missia and Uasuf have musical lines running through their minds in preparation for tonight’s show. Kakande, Famoro’s Manding pop band will play at Shrine World Music Café, a few blocks from their home on W. 132nd Street from ten to midnight. The bass guitar player, drummer, cellist, and Uasuf are all American students of Famoro and talented professional musicians in their own right. The lead guitarist, Abdoulaye “Djoss” Diabaté, and Famoro’s partner, Missia Saran Dioubaté, are star jelis from Mali and Guina, respectively.
Famoro picks up the bala, lays it keys facing up. He stands over her and contemplates for a moment, perhaps waiting for inspiration to come. He picks up the mallets and the sound moves me from slouched on the soft couch to perked up and intent. He plays the intro to a song I know, and then falls into a polyrhythmic pattern. “Kinsanfaré,” I say. Famoro nods his head. He flows freely between several patterns that tease my brain, fully absorbing me in their interweavings, making me forget anything other than this moment, right here, right now, as it unfolds and passes.
The next day, after their show at Shrine World Music Venue, I visit Famoro. Missia Saran is at home as well. I have come to show them the videos and photos I shot. At ten to one, Famoro’s phone starts to sing out Azan, the call to prayer. I pause the video and ask Famoro is he has to pray now. “In a few minutes, not yet.” The entire time we are listening to excerpts from the show, the Azan is playing in the background, somehow blessing our video session. I finish up, and Famoro and Missia take turns, respectively, in the bathroom to do Ablution. It is a NYC bathroom but there is only a small orange tie-dye plastic bucket in the sink filled with water and no toilet paper. Although I’m in my own hometown, in this apartment we are in West Africa
As each have finished washing, they enter Famoro’s bedroom to pray. Uasuf then goes into the bathroom. I don’t know his spiritual practice. I surf the Internet. He reappears from the bathroom and spreads out a prayer mat right alongside the table where I’m perched. He starts to pray.
I now know from being in West Africa that I can go right on doing whatever it is that I’m doing, and that people will pray, undisturbed, around me or anyone else who is not praying at the moment. The mutterings are soothing as I contemplate the potential annoyance of a bright computer screen. I think about the beauty in taking a few minutes, five times in your day, to focus the mind on holiness, spirituality, a greater purpose to life. I turn down my screen and sit, quietly, in my chair. I am willingly swept into the peaceful moment.
Living in New York is terribly distressing for Famoro at times. He wants to maintain himself on his work as a Jeli musician, but the pay is low and the cost of living is high. He cannot see his daughter back in Guinea nor his parents and brothers and sisters very frequently. Many family members have died while he was abroad. He struggles to pay his monthly expenses, to say the least of sending expected financial support to his family in Guinea. When he does return home he is expected to come with plenty of money to help family and friends. It is nearly impossible for him to match those expectations. His spiritual practice soothes him and gives him an optimistic perspective on a fairly difficult life.
If life is a struggle in the United States, why does Famoro stay at all? Because in America, there are financial opportunities whereas in Guinea there are none. Furthermore, Famoro has a large network of West African and American friends whom he loves, and who find his contribution to their lives an invaluable resource. In short, New York is home, despite the fact that there is no structural place for a jeli in American society. I worry that as the Western world grows more fearful of Muslims, things may grow even more difficult for Famoro and his family to go in and out of the U.S.
In Manding society, jelis live off of donations from wealthy patrons to whom jelis provide a necessary spiritual and social service. Americans and other non-Africans have no known need for this service. In Occidental society, Famoro is recognized as a musician, and for that, he is flown all over the States, even as far as Hawaii, to play concerts and to give balafon workshops to eager American students who pay a set fee. Some open-minded people recognize Famoro as more than a musician; they learn the value of a jeli, a spiritual adviser with skills and talents that surpass the modern definition of musician. In these bicultural relationships, Famoro requests donations, jeli-style, on an ongoing basis. The Americans and other non-Manding people who value his talents find themselves in uncharted waters, constantly negotiating a relationship that has no set price, no rules of exchange, and is wrought with legal complications. Our relationship with Famoro is, in part, frustrating, and in part, enlightening; enlightening, because it has to do with following your heart, something we have perhaps let recede far into the background in our daily cosmopolitan interactions.
An up-close look from diverse perspectives on Islam in France and the USA
A Six-Part Series by Lisa Feder
Paris, October 2016
Lisa Feder is an American cultural anthropologist based in Paris France. She engages in her own style fieldwork, a combined contemplative anthropology and embodied musical practice which she expresses through blogging, ethnographic film without narration, and oil paintings. She develops alternative cross-cultural immersion programs for American and Canadian professors and students catering to creative and imaginative ethnography.
Lisa has been studying Manding West African music of the jelis since 2000 in New York and West Africa. Jelis serve as oral historians, praise-singers, and spiritual leaders of their community through their music throughout Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, and now in ex-patriot communities worldwide. Manding people are mostly practicing Muslims. In light of the recent refugee crisis, the surge in terrorism, and growing concern about “Muslims” in Europe and the United States, Lisa invites us into some of her recent experiences with her French friends and with Guinean families living in New York. See more about her films and (imaginative) ethnographic techniques here.
Debating the Burkini
Debating the Burkini Credit: Getti images
France, August 2016
I’ve just dipped into the Mediterranean again wearing my bikini. It is the tail end of summer vacation. I’m swimming with one Israeli and one French friend, both middle-age men, the French, in bathing trunks and the Israeli, in a speedo. We all live in Paris but we are visiting this beach near Marseilles. As we drove through Avignon on this Sunday afternoon, we took advantage of the mostly Muslim neighborhoods surrounding the city center. The stores stay open there, whereas most Catholic French stores are closed. A kindly young man scooped top-quality black olives from a large white plastic bucket for us. We picked out some fresh fruit, found some feta cheese and pita. Grateful to have procured these picnic supplies, we continue on our way.
From where we bathe at the beach, I can see one woman sitting on a towel wearing a hijab, her daily clothing comprised of a pair of pants, a tunic-length shirt, and a headscarf that covers her neck and head, but not her face. I have a simultaneous flash of excitement and fear. Is she allowed to wear that here? Will the police come?
I had just seen the sensationalist photo on Facebook and then on the news of the three French police men standing around a woman being made to remove this kind of clothing a few miles away from where I now swim. After the Nice terrorist attack in July 2016, some French coastal towns temporarily banned women from wearing Muslim modest clothing. I cringed at the humiliation that woman in the photo must have felt. It erupted into a debate in France this summer over the infamous “burkini.” If you haven’t seen one, a burkini is modest bathing attire for women made of spandex and nylon bathing material—pants, a tunic-length top and a hood that covers the hair, but not the face. It looks fairly normal to me, but I am not an average American, myself. First of all, I frequently wear full-length wetsuits, sometimes with a hood when I kite-surf in the Atlantic. The women I saw wearing burkinis looked far more attractive than I do. Secondly, as an anthropologist, I have spent time living in Muslim West Africa. When outside of the city like Banjul, the Gambia or Conakry, Guinea, I wear a full-length skirt, and at times, if I really don’t want to talk to men, I wear a scarf loosely over my head. This indicates that I am a pious married woman and less approachable without good reason. But most women don’t wear head scarves, married or not.
Islam spread to the Malinké region as early as the Eighth century AD through trade routes, but it did not have a strong influence among the people until Mansa Musa came to rule the Malian Empire (1312-1337) as the first devout leader. Islam brought education, literacy, and economic prosperity to the region with well-established trade routes across Africa. Unlike many Middle Eastern Muslim countries, Islam in this region of West Africa is moderate, tolerant of other religions, and largely mixed with Sufism (mystical Islam), as well as with animist folkloric practices. The governments are declared secular, and approximately 90% of the people are of the Muslim religion. Women of a married age generally wear colorful headwraps that tie around the head but do not use veils. The Gambia is a little more traditional than neighboring Mali and Guinea, but even there, as a Western woman, I am expected to follow the customary dress code and behavior.
With the dress codes of West African Muslims in mind, I turn to my French friend on this beach outside of Marseille to ask his views on the burkini. “It should be illegal,” he declares. It makes him feel uncomfortable, he tells me. It’s not French culture and he does not like it. “If we let the burkini pass, this beach will become half burkinis and half bikinis. This is France. We are a laïque country!”
The Israeli thinks that the French are barking up the wrong tree. “Yes, France has problems now,” he notes. “They let in too many immigrants. But we don’t ban clothing styles in Tel Aviv. We are a democracy. You see Arabs and Jews on our beaches fully clothed next to women in bikinis. The burkini is just a symbolic issue.”
Just before the Conseil d’Etat, the French state council and France’s highest court, was to vote on this national issue, another French friend of mine posted on Facebook, “I like my beaches happy and free and I don’t like burkinis.” I must admit I was rather shocked at his declaration. For me, a burkini is just no big deal. This statement erupted into a long Facebook string of supporters with a few dissenters. Several said that a person wearing a burkini shares the same views as people promoting a rigorous, fundamentalist Islam. Another asked, “Why weren’t they wearing it in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and why are they doing it now?” This person concludes it is because of the Saudi Wahhabi mandate to do so, a recent turn toward the conservative by the Sunni Muslims. Many agreed. Another explained that the younger generation born in France to immigrant Muslim parents are making a political statement to their elders that they, the youth, are more religious and therefore, better.
To be fair, some French friends reasoned that if we ban the burkini, then we must ban the habit of religious orders, the yarmulke, and other forms of faith-based dress. “So where is the diversity and tolerance in France, then?” Other non-French friends on Facebook (Japanese, Indian, Swedish living in Paris) commenting in the same thread agreed that banning the burkini is problematic. The most clever, I thought, asked, “Aren’t the French doing the same thing as the Saudis if we are to tell women what to wear? Let them decide for themselves.”
The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls declared that the “full-body swim wear represented the enslavement of women,” and he supported the local bans while rejecting nationwide legislation against them. (See Valls) One could see it that way, but it undermines women’s agency as well as the tenacious hold of cultural norms.
Isn’t it equally possible that some women, generation after generation, didn’t go to the beach and now can because they feel more comfortable in a burkini? Or is it feasible that this younger generation is discovering their religion like the American pop singer Matisyahu who went Hasidic for about ten years then returned to secular clothing and cut his hair? Surely not all women wearing burkinis are listening to a Saudi Arabian Wahabi mandate? Where are my French friends getting these ideas?
My American friends of about the same age and political persuasion as my French cohort generally hold the view that women should be allowed to wear what they want on the beach. “Who cares if they wear a burkini?” On the other hand, some American friends fear “Muslims” in general. Worrying about the burkini is not their primary concern, but some do worry about my living in Paris and walking through Muslim neighborhoods. I don’t share their fears.
The definition of discrimination is to negatively characterize and exclude a people as a whole rather than to judge individuals by their actions. Anthropologists have taken on a responsibility to expose cultural nuances, to problematize overgeneralizations of a group of people, and to aid in diminishing such prejudices: This is where cultural relativism and human rights meet and clash.
In light of the large number of Muslim refugees spreading through Europe with the concurrent rise in terrorist attacks worldwide, we risk distorting and simplifying a religious group that constitutes almost a quarter of the world population. Rather than perpetuate fear and discrimination, non-Muslims had better take a proactive role in educating ourselves and seeking out positive relationships with people of the Muslim faith so that we may steer the planet toward global harmony based on peaceful coexistence, together.
The Muslims I have befriended through ten years of studying West African music through an “embodied musical practice” have taught me much about patience, generosity, modesty, mutual respect, and diversity, values that co-align with and inform my way of meeting the world. These relationships, although not free from misunderstandings, have been extremely rewarding and, I believe, mutually beneficial. I offer a glimpse into these relationships in a series of blogs, not to underestimate the deeply concerning problems that our world faces today, but rather to speak to them from what I feel is an underrepresented perspective.
By Kip Jones
Previously appeared on line in Social Science Space March 3, 2016
“I feel a sense of satisfaction in having written a life-story postcard, a poem and a short story—all very personal.”
– Anne Quinney, Bournemouth University
Recently, 27 academics, some from as far away as upstate New York and Dublin, gathered for the “Creative Writing for Academics with Kip Jones workshop at Bournemouth University. Their goal was two days of experimentation with writing techniques to engender more creative outputs in their academic writing.
The conclusion of one participant reflected the sentiments of many: “The Creative Writing for Academics workshop turned out to be a great experience, more than expected!!”
The two-day workshop was organised by Bournemouth ‘s Centre for Qualitative Research, and was promoted thusly:
“This unique event isn’t a typical writing retreat (with trees to hug and lots of time to ruminate), but a very active experience with exercises, suggestions and supportive feedback on participants’ work…”
Instead of taking 30 minutes or more to go round the room and let everyone make an introduction (listing job titles, universities, theses topics, etc. ad infinitum), Jones instead asked attendees to take 15 minutes and write their life story on a postcard. This is an exercise that comes directly from Michael Kimball’s work, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). Kimball is an American novelist whose writing Jones admires. A few examples from Kimball’s postcard book were shared with the group. Each participant then wrote her/his own life story on a postcard; afterwards, some of the attendants shared their stories with the group.
Jones then explained tags, log lines and treatments—copywriting techniques used in advertising and filmmaking.
- The Workshop as a Logline: Participants were challenged to write their “Life on a postcard”, they were introduced to creating tags and log lines; homework was to write a poem based on a dream. Next, they created a story from a photograph. Finally, they shared their stories with others who had used the same photo. (50 words)
- Tag: “Artistic types take their time … in an Italian trattoria.”
Participants then had a go at creating tags and loglines for academic articles that they brought with them. This was an exercise in using simple sentences, reducing content to its essence and creating copy that could be used in titles and the body of articles, in blogs and on Twitter.
Jones used a relaxed and open-ended process throughout the workshop. Extended feedback from Francesca Cavallerio of St. Mary’s University, Twickenham captures the essence of the responses of many to this approach to the workshop:
I enjoyed the freedom that came from writing creatively, without prescriptions. Having no other goal than the story/poem itself was intimidating initially, but then turned into an amazing experience. I think (the workshop) allowed me to discover a few things about myself and the way I write. Also, by listening to what others wrote, and realizing how many different ways of writing exist, and how much I enjoyed each of them, gave me an increased sense of freedom and possibility.
I was expecting more “directions”, tips on “how to use creative writing in academia”. But now that we are at the end of the workshop, I think I can see why it was organised in this way. Yesterday, I would have said, “Yes, I wanted to be guided more”. Today, I am actually very happy of the structure and everything I learned, felt and experienced here.
The last morning of the workshop consisted of reading some of the poems that were written overnight. Attendants then chose from amongst 11 black and white photographs. The brief was to write a story about what the photograph was about. The only instruction was that often a photograph could represent the moment between what led up to the event captured and what might happen next. The group took the rest of the morning to write the photo-based 1,000 word stories. After lunch, they assembled in groups of three (each group having chosen the same photo) and compared stories and outcomes.
The workshop was envisaged as a way to help academics with publishing in the wider world of blogs and online outlets, moving work to mixed media, auto-ethnography, and even fiction, radio and film. Jones gave ideas of the kinds of blogs and even journals that are receptive to creative academic work. He shared experiences with his own outputs and finding like-minded editors with whom to work.
The intellectual exchanges encouraged joint exploration on how academics can engage with principles and tools from the arts in order to expand and extend their possibilities of dissemination of their work. Concepts of creativity itself evolved and were transformed by participants’ outlooks and willingness to engage with unfamiliar territory. These processes comprised a ‘facilitated learning’—in that knowledge was gained as a secondary goal through a process of developing new relationships. This was achieved through individual and small group problem-solving and self-examination, grounded in personal past experience and knowledge.
It has become practice over the last 10-15 years, particularly in British Columbia, to open formal and informal gatherings and events with an acknowledgement that we live and work on Indigenous territories, and to thank Indigenous peoples for their hospitality. Activists, and representatives of governments, corporations, and institutions like universities have adopted this protocol. While offering territorial acknowledgments emerged in response to Indigenous peoples’ struggles for recognition of sovereignty and political rights, as the practice has evolved so too have critical questions about its purpose and effect. Has offering territorial acknowledgments become a token gesture now emptied of its originating political significance? Are there ways to offer acknowledgments that may subvert the depoliticizing effects of repeating standardized gestures?
Please see the links below to access discussions and debates currently underway.
As one of the organizers of “CONVERSATIONS WITH UNUSUAL SUSPECTS,” I am trying to respond to critiques and to participate in the debate by experimenting with “repoliticizing” strategies under discussion. In particular, I want to take up two of the critical directions proposed. First, to accompany acknowledgments by recognizing that the protocol emerged through a long history of Indigenous struggles for recognition as sovereign peoples that have been carried on by generations of people for many centuries, and that these political struggles are ongoing, and unresolved. Second, to work with multiple forms designed to provoke audiences to pay serious attention to the practice of offering territorial acknowledgements, and what responsibilities may be called forth.
At our first session in October, I offered a brief history of the legal/political theory of terra nullius considering the public practice of territorial acknowledgments as marking an Indigenous victory in bringing the Supreme Court of Canada to officially reject the historical legal grounds of British and Canadian colonial settlement. At our next session in November, we will watch and listen to Buffy Ste Marie’s 1966 first performance of her “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dyin’.” This song that has served as an anthem for Indigenous struggles across the Americas, and for solidarity movements around the world. Today, it is being sung by people at Standing Rock, who are facing arrest and more.
Please consider this an invitation to carry on this discussion on this blog, and elsewhere.
Welcome to “Conversations with Unusual Suspects”, a series of events taking place in Vancouver and Toronto. Here you will find a schedule of events, as well as more information and links on the participants and their work. We invite you to post questions and comments; whether you are in the East, in the West or somewhere in between, we would like you to be part of the conversation!
This series emerges from collaborations between CIE West and the IPS (centred at SFU, Vancouver) and CIE East (centred at York University, Toronto). We experiment with creating events where we share our work, learn from, laugh with, and challenge each other in a spirit of ferocious friendliness and sincere curiosity.
(Image: Etienne—La Conversacion (The Conversation). Escultura Donada ala oficiana del historiador de la cuidad de la Habana por Vittario Perrotta, (Plaza San Francisco de Assisi, Havana, Cuba). Photo, Dara Culhane, 2013.)
CONVERSATIONS WITH UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
ON ETHNOGRAPHY, ART, AND THE SENSORIAL
THURSDAY, JANUARY 19, 2017
3:00 –5:30 p.m., Room 7000, Harbour Centre, Vancouver
(Anthropology, University of Victoria)
Visual and Sonic Imaginations: Montage as Illusion
In conversation with Vincent Andrisani
(PhD Candidate, Communication, SFU)
CIE West IPS Unusual Suspects Program
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2016
2:30 – 4:00PM York Lanes 305 – CIE East (York)
Ken Little (York)
“For the Time is at Hand”, Beasttime Somethings in Belize.
In conversation with Lindsay Bell (SUNY-Oswego) and Evadne Kelly (artist-scholar)
CIE East Unusual Suspects
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2016
3:00 – 5:30PM SFU Harbour Centre Room 1315
Eldritch Priest (School for Contemporary Arts, SFU)
“From Lucid to Ludic Dreaming: Listening in Technoculture.”
In conversation with Paul Kingsbury (Geography, SFU)
is Assistant Professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, and writes on sonic culture, experimental aesthetics and the philosophy of experience from a ’pataphysical perspective. His essays have appeared in various journals and he is the author of Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure
(Bloomsbury 2013). Eldritch is also a co-author (with fellow members of the experimental theory group “The Occulture”) of Ludic Dreaming: How To Listen Away from Contemporary Technoculture
oomsbury 2017) and is active as a composer and improviser. He is currently working on a new book about earworms, daydreams, and other lived abstractions. websites: www.strangemonk.com www.theocculture.net
Paul Kingsbury is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University. His research draws on the social and spatial theories of Jacques Lacan and Friedrich Nietzsche to explore the cultural geographies of desire, power, and the sublime. Along with his graduate students, he is currently engaged in a research project (funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant) on the lived (and dead) spaces of paranormal cultures of UFO, ghost, and Sasquatch investigations and conferences. Paul is the co-editor (with Steve Pile) of Psychoanalytic Geographies (2014, Routledge) and coeditor (with Gavin J. Andrews and Robin Kearns) of Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music (2014, Routledge). website
CIE West IPS Unusual Suspects conversation 2
CIE East Unusual Suspects Program
CIE West IPS Unusual Suspects Program
OCTOBER 13, 2016;
3:00 –5:30 p.m., Room 7000, Harbour Centre, Vancouver
Lindsey Freeman—ATOMIC CHILDHOOD AROUND 1980
& Nawal Musleh-Motut
Lindsey A. Freeman is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology & Anthropology Department at Simon Fraser University. She earned her PhD in Sociology and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research. Freeman writes about memory, nostalgia, utopia, space/place, atomic & nuclear culture, and sometimes art. She is the author of ‘Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia’ (UNC Press, 2015) and editor of the forthcoming edited collection ‘The Bohemian South’ (UNC Press 2017). Freeman is now working on a manuscript tentatively titled ‘Atomic Childhood around 1980’. Atomic Childhood is written in the form of sociological poetry, an example of Freeman’s interest in the connections between sociology and art, sociology as an art form, ethnographic surrealism and superrealism, fictocriticism, ethnofiction, and other cyborg and hybrid forms of art and social science. website
Nawal Musleh-Motut is a Doctoral Candidate and Sessional Instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. For her dissertation, ‘Reconciling the Holocaust and the Nakba: Peacebuilding Through the Storying of Postmemory’, she developed a family photograph-based storytelling methodology, which seeks to transcend competing claims of victimhood stemming from contending collective memories of the Holocaust and the Nakba by creating the occasions and conditions necessary for politico-ethical engagement and witnessing between Palestinians and Israelis currently living in their respective Canadian diasporas. Her publications include ‘From Palestine to the Canadian Diaspora: The Multiple Social Biographies of the Musleh Family’s Photographic Archive’ (MJCC 2015) and ‘Negotiating Palestine Through the Familial Gaze: A Photographic (Post)memory Project’ (TOPIA 2012). website
CIE West IPS Unusual Suspects conversation 1