Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good Friends

Dan Yashinsky shared the following story with many years ago. Not long after the first Gulf War, as matter of fact. A woman he had met in the airport in Tel Aviv had learned the story in Baghdad and had written it down on some very wrinkled loose leaf paper. I volunteered to decipher the tale. And now, after so many years of Baghdad dominating the news and as the US occupation continures, I feel it’s worth remembering that this ancient city has been a centre of culture and learning for many centuries.

Once upon a time, in the city of Baghdad, there lived two friends and their names were Eliezer and Abdalla. They had grown up together since childhood, gone to the same school and they loved each other very much. Their souls were close and their friendship knew no borders.

When they finished their studies, they both decided to go into business. Eliezer opened a carpet store in Baghdad and Abdalla went to Bocara in the south where he opened a shop to sell goods. Now, in those days, long-distance communication was difficult and even the closest friendship was hard-pressed to thrive. The separation was hard on Eliezer and Abdalla and, as the saying goes, "far from the eyes - so, far from the heart." And that is how each of them forgot the other.

Time passed, the years went on and Eliezer's business prospered. He became more and more wealthy until he had much gold and money, buildings and land. Eliezer's name was renowned and, in Baghdad, they called him "Eliezer Effendi." Fate was not so kind to Abdalla, and his situation worsened. In time he lost all his money and before long he had to return to his own city of Baghdad with nothing in his hands.

One day Abdalla's wife told her husband, "listen to me, and God will listen too. You know, God helped your good friend, Eliezer, and gave him all that is good. Go to his place, tell him what you have gone through all these years from the time you separated until today and he will see you and he will be happy. He will help you with good heart."

At first Abdalla was unsure about taking his wife's advice because 'the full belly doesn't know how the hungry belly feels.' Because that is the way of human beings - when you become rich you are far from the poor. But finally, when hunger knocked at his door, Abdalla decided to visit his old friend. Abdalla went to Eliezer's palace and requested permission from the doorman to enter and speak with the owner of the palace. The doorman passed the message to his master and when Eliezer heard that his best friend from childhood had come to visit him he went himself to open the door and give welcome.

From across the courtyard Eliezer could see Abdalla's face and he realized that face was not the face of their youth - Abdalla's clothes were ragged; his skin was bruised and reddened; he looked like a poor man in a desperate situation. Eliezer retreated and told the doorman to send the visitor away and to say that he wasn't in the palace.

But Abdalla had seen his friend from the distance, and he understood the meaning of this answer all too well. He returned home feeling ashamed and he was angry with his wife whom he blamed for suggesting that he go to the palace where he only suffered great humiliation. In his heart he felt the truth of the saying: 'one day honey, one day vinegar, don't ask anything from men.'

This episode weighed heavily on him and he took all his hurt and humiliation and he put it all in his heart. After a few more days Abdalla had still found no work and his family was hungry. He had only a few coins in his pockets and he couldn't decide what to do with this bit of money. Buy food or buy clothes? Abdalla sat, read from a book and prayed day and night asking for God's mercy.

One day a young lady knocked on Abdalla's door and said to him, "Oh righteous man, I am a widow. Since my husband died I have been lonely and abandoned. My husband, may he be remembered and blessed, left nothing except this brilliant stone. But what can I do with it? Eat it? Put it in water and drink the water? Have mercy upon me and buy this stone and you will save my soul from death."

Abdalla looked at the stone and could see that it was a good one, likely worth a great deal of money. He thought that God must have sent this woman to him so that he might make a bit of money. He said to the woman, "all I have is a few coins, not enough to buy the stone."

The young woman looked desperate.

Abdalla said, "I will give you these few coins now and take the stone to the market place to sell. Come back tomorrow and I will give you the profit from this."

The young woman looked relieved and thanked him for his good heart and went her own way. Abdalla sold the stone and waited the next day for the young woman's return. When she failed to appear he went in search of her but could neither find her nor find anyone who had ever heard of her. The next day, another young woman came to Abdalla's house and she had with her all her jewelery. She said, "I have heard that you are an honest man. Have mercy upon me for once I was very rich; but now I do not have enough money even to support my children. My husband sailed to the ocean countries and now many years have passed and I have received no message. Help me and buy my jewelery so I will have something to feed my children."

Abdalla bought the jewelery and explained that the jewels were worth much more than he had to offer but that if the woman would return tomorrow he would give her the profit he could make. The woman thanked Abdalla and went her way.

Abdalla waited the next day in vain to share the profit with the woman for she never showed up. And, as before, he sought her with no success. The next day Abdalla met a good-looking young man who offered to sell him 50 robes for a very good price. Abdalla knew this was an unusually good deal and the young man explained that he had to sell his wares quickly because he had far to travel and little time. Abdalla bought the robes.

These opportunities encouraged Abdalla's spirit, he sold everything and began a thriving business. Fortune looked favourably upon him and he opened more stores and became wealthy. And one day Abdalla's wife said to her husband, "The time has come for you to go to Eliezer, your friend who betrayed you. You must scold him for his behaviour towards you in our days of poverty."

These words entered his heart and Abdalla went to Eliezer's palace and requested entry. This time Eliezer came out himself to receive his childhood friend. He hugged and kissed him, and invited him to enter the palace and be served special food and drink. But Abdalla said to Eliezer, "not for your love have I come to you this time, but to scold you for how you treated me the first time I came to see you. Now I know that you do not love me. You love my money. When I needed your help you avoided me."

Eliezer said: "Forgive me, my good friend, but please do not judge me so fast."

"You are not my friend," said Abdalla with pain and anger. "You are not my true friend and this is the last time I will be in your home. From now I have no intention to see you again, ever!"

Eliezer said "Wait, I want you to meet someone." Eliezer spoke to a servant who went out of the hall and returned with two young women and a young man. "I wish you to meet my children," Eliezer said to Abdalla.

When Abdalla saw them, he fainted and fell on the floor for he recognized them immediately. They were the ones who had come to him to sell the precious stone, the jewelery and the robes. When Abdalla's spirit came back to him, he bowed to his friend and asked for forgiveness. He apologized for his rude words and the favours he didn't return. He asked, "But if you wanted to help me, why did you hide this from me, and why didn't you offer your help on my first visit?"

Eliezer said, "My dear friend and soulmate, Abdalla. The first time you came here I saw your face from a distance and I knew immediately what had happened to you. I said in my heart, 'If I help him openly, he will feel inferior in front of me, and he will surrender to me.' You would always see that money as charity. But that is not true now. You took the money, not as a beggar but to help others and you made a profit from it. These miracles strengthened your spirit to live again with ambition. Believe me, my dear friend," continued Eliezer, "from the first day I saw you until today all my thoughts have been with you. I made all the effort I could to help you. It pained me to see you in your poverty and I rejoice now to see you in your wealth."

Abdalla put his head in his hands with shame. The two friends embraced with love in their hearts for each other.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Political art and Mayworks Workshop with Favianna Rodriguez

On Monday evening i participated in an art workshop given by Favianna Rodriguez as part of Mayworks: Festival of Working People and the Arts which runs until May 3 here in Toronto. It's not often that i'm a participant in a workshop given that i am, so often, the one giving them. It was great to kick back and learn about Favianna's work as a printmaker and digital artist. Amongst other things (about which you can read on her website) she has collborated on a new book royalty-free political graphics: Reproduce and Revolt - which includes work by many artists including Eric Drooker and Rini Templeton - both of whose work i've used a great deal over the years. I was pleased to learn from Favianna that it was she who originally set up the Riniart website. Favianna began the workshop with a slide show of some of her work and a description of some of her design practices. Much of this is in included in a sixteen-page section of Reproduce and Revolt called "Design for Social Change: A Step by Step Guide for Designing Political Graphics" in English and Spanish. Most of the workshop time was devoted to producing posters using artwork that avianna had photocopied on various colours of paper. Above is what i produced. I was really pleased to learn a new form of lettering: Favianna described how you could cut a strip of paper the height of the letters, then cut the strip into the number of letters of your word and, finally, cut each block into its appropriate letter. Pretty cool!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

When the People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow

A long time ago i decided that there was something wrong with the way we made, followed, elevated leaders such that i eschewed ever wanting to be such a thing. I learned the language of "leadership" from the work of Movement for a New Society gang as represented by books like Resource Manual for Living Revolution and Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model. And i reflected (principally through reading everything that Alice Miller ever wrote) on my problems with "authority" that threatened to make me a reactionary anti-leader guy. Learning about Paulo Freire's work, i committed myself to the praxis of popular education and i have followed that path ever since. Popular education, i believe, represents a different paradigm of leadership - one that not only flies "below the radar" of most leadership thinking but moves in a different universe entirely. I have come to believe that popular education is closer to the buddhist notions of mindfulness and right action than to the traditions of western individualism which find their ultimate expression in the American notion of individual liberties (which, oddly enough, the US chooses to extend to corporations under the rubric of corporate personhood).

I think the popular education ethic which i am addressing here is nicely summed up by Ronnie Gilbert, member of the Weavers singing group:
I worry when 'activists' are lionized that people will say, Oh, that is such an extraordinary person - look at all she does - she must be some kind of Superwoman. We all want models and examples to inspire us. But it seems to me that the single mother who campaigns for daycare is the activist, the woman who works for battered women, the ex-battered woman who turns her experience into a teaching project for school children, the precinct worker, leafleter, petition circulator, the person who supports with letters and money and/or physical presence the fight for reproductive rights or divestment from South Africa, who opens her doors or her church's to Central American refugees, who takes whatever small but firm bites out of her small or large resources to end religious, racial or political persecution ANYWHERE, and she who gives of some part of herself to prevent nuclear disaster - she is where the action is. (in HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics # 20Activists, Organizers, Progressives, Heroines, Visionaries..., 1985 )
Angela Davis' October 10, 2006 talk (at UC Davis) titled How Does Change Happen? includes a wonderfully lucid critique of the over-attention given charismatic leaders and which is often at the expense of the often thankless, slogging work of organizing carried out by people who often remain forever unrecognized in social change work - and, of course, many of these people, if not the vast majority, are women. As Angela Davis says: "Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation." I recommend listening to this entire talk - it is rich in critical reflection that remains urgently relevent. You can fast-forward to 15:40 if you wish specifically to listen to Angela Davis' comments on leadership. And following is the transcript of that stretch of the talk:
Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation. And I’d like to use the civil rights movement as an example. Because it’s historical for me – I was quite young, so I have an experience of it but I have to think about it as history as well. And also because everybody in this country knows who Reverend Martin Luther King is. Everybody knows. Can you think of any person in the United States of America who has not heard the name Martin Luther King? I mean, even in places like Arizona where… you know… they really resisted the observance of the birthday.

And I think this is great. This is a change that happened. But it may not have been entirely the change that we wanted because we aren’t really informed about the conditions under which that particular leadership developed. And we assumed that because there was someone called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. … he appeared on the scene in Montgomery, he was the Messiah, and this whole movement developed. I mean that’s what I call the “Messiah Complex” in terms of our notions of leadership. And it seems to me that the greatness of Dr. King resided precisely in his capacity to learn his leadership abilities, to acquire his leadership abilities from the people who had organized that movement… to listen to them. As a matter of fact, most people don’t even know that it was a group of black women who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Most people haven’t heard of the name Jo Ann Robinson even though she wrote a book called The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Because that method was the paradigm, right; you’re supposed to think that it is these great, heroic, male leaders who are the motors of history. And how could you possibly measure up to someone like that? And what you don’t realize is that the real work happened long before Dr. King ever thought of associating himself with those struggles.

As a matter of fact, do you know why he ended up being the spokesperson? Because all the black ministers in Montgomery had been involved in all these confusing debates and there were contradictions and you couldn’t ask this one… And so the idea was to choose this young man who had just arrived in town and who hadn’t had an opportunity to get embroiled in all of the debates and who really didn’t know very much anyway; which isn’t to say that young people don’t know very much, they do, they know a great deal. But he was considered to be the easiest choice.

And so, basically, the women selected Dr. King as the spokesperson for the work that they were doing. And this isn’t the history that we learn, is it? And we don’t know about Jo Ann Robinson who taught at Alabama State University and was the chair of the Alabama Women’s Political Association - how she and the members of her organization were trying to start a boycott - they had planned that. And they had tried on several occasions; and then, finally, when Rosa Parks got arrested – and Rosa Parks was an organizer; she wasn’t a tired woman, you know – she wasn’t the individual you always see portrayed, especially in the visual portrayals of her: the one black woman who manages to make it to the ranks of the heroic-historical figures – alone. She was an organizer. She was a trained organizer. And when she was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson got a couple of her students, they stayed up all night long … mimeographing … it was hard work. They stayed up all night long making those leaflets. And that’s how the bus boycott got started.

And I say this because that was really unglamorous work. It’s work that we would not necessarily think about as being that significant. But that was what helped to create that movement. If they hadn’t stayed up all night, if they hadn’t worked that mimeograph machine, if they hadn’t gotten people to go out and distribute all of those leaflets at six o’clock in the morning when people – particularly when people who were domestic servants were getting on the bus – it never would have happened. I’m not saying that the struggle for civil rights wouldn’t have happened; but it wouldn’t have happened in the way that it did. And that’s a very different story. It’s a story about people just like you. It is not a story about heroic individualism. And it’s a story about the erasure of women’s contributions.

And so I could talk about other movements as well. I could talk about the Chicano Movement, the Latino Movements, the American Indian Movement, the Asian-American Movements. And I could talk about the contributions that women made to those movements during my time in the late sixties and the seventies that will be lost if we don’t figure out how to rectify the tendency to tell history in this way that privileges heroic individualism. And keep in mind that I’m going to be using “individualism” for the rest of my talk. Because it’s dangerous; it’s really, really dangerous.
(Thanks to Rob Howarth for telling me about Angela Davis talk!)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Attention and Response-ability

Chanda Mama from Playing For Change on Vimeo.

Well, i've got J'net keeping me honest about writing towards one of the many books i fancy gestate within me, and yet are perpetually deferred in favour of innumerable (if always seemingly worthy) endeavors (or distractions?). And i'm reminding myself of advice i learned from writer Alan Garner (a childhood favourite and author of one of my favourite novels ever: Strandloper) about feeding and harnessing the "magpie mind" - that appetite (or capacity?) of the mind to collect "shiny" objects at the expense of focusing on a (shining?) path. While the collecting has its obsessive and distracting side it also can be used to see new connections, new patterns amongst the ocean of information and knowledge in which we swim.

And so it is that my mind has been connecting a variety of pieces about responsibility, reciprocity, music and more. Learning about Playing for Change (see previous post) i am inspired to think about how music does indeed connect us all around the planet, across cultures, across times. I remember discovering WOMAD in 1981-ish - the album and then institution - that Peter Gabriel and others founded and which was a quantum leap in global awareness of non-western music. I had a radio show at McGill University at that time and i used it to teach myself about (and share with others) that world of music that had, until that point, been the purview of anthropologists. And i am forever grateful to Peter Gabriel and his co-founders for helping me to populate my musical life with some of the richness of the world's sounds. (An odd footnote to this is my stint as a music producer when, for the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of South Africa in 1990, i managed a music tour - i was the desk guy and my friend Bruce Burron was the road manager - of a Mozambican group called Eyuphuro. I found enough money - about CDN$10,000 - to cut a dozen tracks here in Toronto which we digitally mastered and then sold to Real World Music, the commercial arm of WOMAD. Later we learned that Billboard Magazine had included the album in it's "top 100 world beat" category. It looks like Real World still sells the album which they called Mama Mozambiki.)

Playing for Change's video productions are wonderful gifts. Which makes me think about what kind of economy they represent insofar as we share the wealth of beauty and joy that is the product of their labours. The gift economy aspect of all this is an intriguing and, i believe, vital thing to understand better. Nor is it separate from the capitalist economy that is, arguably, what underlies the greater part of the internet (as well as most of the infrastructure of global communications). I'm pleased to see that Playing for Change also has a non-profit (charitable) aspect and they feature three initiatives (in Guguletu and Johannesburg, South Africa; Dharamsala, India and Kathmandu, Nepal) to which they donate support. I do hope they prosper. And it's obvious that the musicians who themselves are donating could receive a positive benefit from this that could help them prosper.

But how will internet fame affect them? For fame is a dangerous condition that seems to offer material wealth for a fatal cost which only begins with an elimination of private life and continues through the slow crushing and making miserable of the soul. (Or perhaps we are seeing the dawn of the new kind of economy imagined by Cory Doctorow in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). Street musicians can make a fine living while also relying on relative obscurity to protect their privacy. And i'm sure some thrive in their chosen medium while others, no doubt, barely scrape by. What will happen now to Grandpa Elliot who has been an established street performer for a long time? I would only hope that he remains in control of his fate. Similarly, what of internet sensation Susan Boyle who has instantly won the affection of millions with her disarming forthrightness and stunning singing. I appreciate Dennis Palumbo's point in The Huffington Post:

But I can't help wondering, what would have been the reaction if Susan Boyle couldn't sing?

What would the judges and the audience have thought, and said, had her voice been a creaky rasp, or an out-of-tune shriek? Would she still possess that "inner beauty?" Would we still acknowledge that the derisive treatment she received before performing was callous, insensitive and cruel?

The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?

Again, i hope that Susan Boyle can maintain some control of her fate which, of course, presumes that she had that control to begin with. But who am i to hope anything for someone i am never likely to meet or know, except through the heavily mediated lenses of the internet and mass media? I guess i just hope that her soul doesn't get stomped by the new attention showering down on her. And i avoid reality TV precisely because i find it so hard to bear watching the indignities people suffer (both those they are put through and those they seem willingly to rush into).

I am reading Martin Buber's work and came across this passage on "responsibility" that has been on my mind as i ponder the connections of global music and internet fame - just how do we "respond" to these moments and the people who are living them:
This fragile life between birth and death can nevertheless be a fulfillment - if it is a dialogue. In our life and experience we are addressed; by thought and speech and action, by producing and by influencing we are able to answer. For the most part we do not listen to the address, or we break into it with chatter. But if the word comes to us and the answer proceeds from us then human life exists, though brokenly, in the world. The kindling of the response, which occurs time and again, to the unexpectedly approaching speech, we term responsibility. We practice responsibility for that realm of life allotted and entrusted to us for which we are able to respond, that is, for which we have a relation of deeds which may count - in all our inadequcy - as a proper response.
in The Way of Response - Martin Buber - Selections from His Writings edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (NY: Schocken Books, 1966) p.19.
I believe that every moment of every day is an opportunity to practice this kind of responsibility. Which isn't to imply that i come anywhere near the implied ideal of doing so. And so, back to J'net's task of keeping me on track with writing ... that's something i have to respond to now.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What the World Could be Like (and already is like, when we know where to look)

A big thank-you to Almira for sharing this. I'd not heard of Playing for Change and as beautiful as is this first gorgeous 20C spring day here in Toronto, it is the more beautiful still for learning of this global collaboration. I've been singing a whole lot of lullabies and gospel and folk songs and shape notes hymns lately (it's great to have the audience of such singular devotion that an infant can be) and i've been marveling at how universal the joy and peace of music seems to be. I'm especially fond of two lullabies - one from Samoa and one from Malta - that i have learned only through their sounds. And, though worlds apart, yet these beautiful melodies and lyrics carry love and joy and peace that can bridge the vast distances of geography and culture. What a marvelous idea to use this internet technology to connect people - not just in artistic collaboration, but also for the sake of world peace. What if we used all our clever industrial and digital technologies in this way? (Check out the Playing for Change website for other videos - click on "The Media" link).