Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

The Obligations that Giving Entails: Europe’s Infrastructure, Haiti’s Disaster, Sticky-Fingered “NGO”s, Reining-In Israel, and My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2011

Some year-end notes that I have just gotten around to posting …

Christmas — or at least so says the advertising business — is the season of giving.  Thus, in the spirit of the season, a blog post about giving, not about the obligation to give but rather about the obligations that giving entails.   To start, I’ll jump from a Christian holiday to a Jewish text. In the two-millenia-old book of aphorisms, Pirkei Avos, a sage is quoted as saying that the highest form of giving is that in which “the giver does not know the recipient nor the recipient the giver.”  While this might work as a prescription against hubris on one side and embarrassment on the other, I’d suggest there is an even higher form of giving, one in which the giver takes responsibility for all that his/her generosity enables and entails.

Europe’s Infrastructure

By chance, the obligations of giving became clearer to me in my recent work for a European-Commission-sponsored lending institution, a funder of infrastructural development within the EU and adjacent lands.  The institution is divided into two main divisions, one with the mission to dish money out and the second with the mission to ensure the integrity and intended outcomes of the projects it funds.  Not infrequently, the politically-driven mission and budgets of the lending side outpace the real-world tasks of the project side, thus giving primacy to the act and volume of lending rather than to the effective realization of the objectives thereof.  Once politics are pandered to and bureaucrats fulfill their mandates, real world impact is an afterthought.

Haiti’s Disaster

Last year’s disaster in Haiti underscored the dangers of giving without taking responsibility for outcomes.  Over the years, foreign aid to Haiti, and the presence in the country of foreign-funded NGOs (“Non-Governmental Organizations”), created much work for foreign-aid- and NGO-types but contributed far less to the development of physical and service delivery infrastructure within Haiti that could  survive and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.  During the hellish weeks that followed the earthquake, an estimated 10,000 NGOs were active in Haiti, adding little and squandering much on small, overlapping, and, in the end, uncompleted projects.  The presence of NGOs served their own consciences, organizational agendas, project designs, and pocketbooks but little more.  Last May, the NPR radio program “This American Life” dug into the ineffectiveness of aid before and after the disaster in a special broadcast entitled Island Time.

Sticky-Fingered NGOs

I was first exposed to NGOs in the Balkans following the collapse of Soviet Bloc regimes.  At the time, American and European embassies, government agencies, and foundations tripped over one another in their haste to fund “non-governmental organizations” in order to kick-start “civil society” and/or “minority rights”  (the latter something that, in belief and practice, I usually am far from cynical about).  The name “NGO” itself seemed a misnomer in that most of such organizations were directly funded by agencies of foreign governments, invariably to propagate their country’s interests, ideologies, and visions of what formerly-Communist societies should now be.  Many NGOs lacked any semblance of grass-roots constituencies but provided launch-pads for political, business, and overseas careers of local privileged English-speaking academics and administrative types who founded and ran them.  Indeed, no small number of NGOs were set up and run by the savvy children of parents well-positioned under Communist regimes specifically to mirror the objectives and criteria to which the cornucopia of donors were linked.  In turn, foreign institutions that funded NGOs often were evaluated by their own financers according to the quantities of money they gave out rather than by what their beneficiaries achieved.  Even when productive and successful, the impact of NGOs backfired by taking pressure off of governments and elected officials in the region to govern comprehensively, openly, and effectively.

My favorite NGO of the period, the recipient of multiple “NGO of The Year” awards from foreign embassies, was founded by a relatively dark-complected ethnic-Bulgarian who spuriously passed herself off as a Gypsy so as to cash in on European and American funding for minorities.  As often as not, the failed well-funded projects of this particular NGO were followed-up by equally lucrative grants for evaluation studies.  Thus, the NGO was covered, their funders were covered, but society-at-large and, in this case, Gypsies in particular, were no better off than before. Like many NGOs of that time, almost half of this one’s revenues went to “administrative functions”, i.e. salaries, equipment, travel, pin money, and perquisites for its management and staff, a figure absurdly out of line with international guidelines.  Eventually, the NGO was exposed and taken to task by a European parliamentarian with the rare courage and integrity to see through the NGO game.

Reining-In Israel

The State of Israel is supported in large part by subventions from the US government and from private Jewish organizations in the US.  Increasingly, a fair proportion of American Jews have grown tired of Israel’s rightward drift, heavy-handed military misadventures, and waffling on the peace process.  This trend and the increasing decline in identification with Israel amongst America’s younger secular Jews were documented in May in Peter Beinert’s now influential article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, a compulsory read for anyone with an interest in Jewish or Middle Eastern affairs.  Organizations like J-Street or far smaller ones such as Jewish Voice for Peace are trying to harness the clout of those who give to and do business with Israel in order to bring the country’s actions in line with politics and morality rooted in Jewish history and ethics rather than in revanchism, braggadocio, and messianism of the Israeli right.  As such, J-Street and its like pose frontal challenges to big lobbying organizations such as AIPAC that push unquestioning loyalty to the politics and actions of the present Israeli government.  The responses of the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations to such upstart attempts have been confrontational, acrimonious, and ad hominem.  Jews who attempt to tighten the reins on Israel are labelled “self-hating Jews”, “not really Jews”, or “agents of Hamas and Hezbollah.”  The strategy of the Israeli government and mainstream US Jewish organizations is to push their new opponents outside of the pale.  And, in the case of this writer, they are having exactly the effect they desire … and it’s their loss.

My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

My own misadventures in the realm of Jewish philanthropy helped prolong the legacy of Stalinism (or, maybe better said, Lazar-Kaganovich-ism).  In 1990, in Sofia, I attended a meeting on the future of a Jewish community newspaper inherited from the Communist period.  I was impressed by the debate. A few hundred local Jews (and people of part-Jewish origin) of all stripe — secular and religious, pro-Communist and anti-, young and old, influential and powerless, reasonable and apoplectic — hammered together compromises in order to keep the newspaper going.  In the end, all they needed was funds for paper, printing, and distribution.  I took it upon myself to make contact with and push their case amongst Jewish charitable organizations in the West and, in the end, got them a grant large enough to keep the paper going for three years.

The grant opened a trickle of funding from the US Jewish organizations that eventually turned into a river of support that financed social services, community activities, educational and health programs, and junkets to Israel that few American Jews have access to or can afford.  Worse, the control of community institutions and the control of incoming funds were placed the hands of a very few unelected communal officials who, as long as their books were balanced and foreign visitors were treated personably, could solidify their positions, run their own shows, vet community membership, and grant or deny services and “pieces of the pie” as they wished.  Nepotism became rife and, as per the NGO mentioned above, “administrative” budgets rose far above international norms. If a person spoke out against the community’s powers-that-be the price could be denial of a patronage job, healthcare, or even a future place in the community’s old age home.  Independent rabbis, home-grown and foreign, who gained the loyalty of young people were chased out of town; fledgeling competing organizations were crushed.  Innuendo, denunciations to the police and the country’s office of religious affairs, and even fisticuffs were and continued to be the order of the day in maintaining a monopoly over incoming funds.

Some members of this now-monolithic community grumble about the state of affairs but none do more than complain.  Sadly, they’ve chosen a free-ride over self-determination and self-reliance, in no small part out of fear of having to support their community our of their own pockets.  The tragedy is that flamboyant fulfillment by foreign donors of the obligation to give but side-stepping of the less-glamorous obligations that giving entails brought into being what is at best old-school club-house cronyism and at worse neo-Stalinist totalitarianism.  And, it has also deprived members of the community in question of the richness of experiencing and fulfilling the obligation of selfless giving that is the core of righteousness not only for Jews but for Muslims and many Christians alike.  I apologize, thus, for my part in depriving them of the opportunity to give and to take responsibility for their own affairs.

(Note:  It was recently reported to me that in Serbia, a former bonz of the Jewish communal organization in Bulgaria now charged with distributing American Jewish funds to Serbian Jews, threatens local Jews who patronize competing Jewish institutions with cancellation of whatever social services they receive through the budgets he controls.)

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Europe’s Babel, America’s Moral Divide

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 16, 2011

Coverage of European economic news in The Wall Street Journal is usually tinged with schadenfreude and tinted by its right-of-center ideology.  Crises in Greece, Spain, and Ireland, pressures on the banking systems of France and Germany, and the lose administration of the Euro are portrayed by the Journal as signs of the naivete of Europe’s commitment to community and the inappropriateness of its ongoing adherence to social democracy.  Yet a quick look at the daily lives of ordinary Europeans — in terms of health care, housing, education, and even vacations — reveals living standards and levels of security and opportunity beyond the horizons of most people living in the inequitable neo-liberal society America has become. More important, the Journal and other critics of the European Union always overlook the most obvious of all successes of Europe’s seemingly bumbling policies and jerry-built institutions. For 66 years, there have been no violent confrontations between France and Germany nor between any other EU member states — a revolutionary change in a continent whose history was one of near continuous warfare between its major powers.

Occasionally, however, the Wall Street Journal does “get it right.”  In an article entitled Better Communications tops Europe’s 2011 Resolutions, the Journal pointed to a tendency of European politicians to say one thing in their native languages when speaking to their local and national constituencies and another in English when speaking within the context of the EU at large.  This may involve duplicity and the balancing of local and collective interests, but it is also in part linguistic.

Transcending Babel

Over the course of 2010, I took on a series of small assignments aimed at improving operational processes at a major EU institution through bettering the articulation and communication of organizational know-how and experience.  European institutions are managed and staffed by people drawn from all of the EU’s member states.  Increasingly, the only language this diverse bunch share is English — of a sort.  While many EU functionaries speak English extremely well, others speak it more as re-lexified versions of their native tongues. (Admission: I confess to doing the same in at least three of the languages I speak).  Adding to the confusion, very few people (including native speakers) write English as well as they speak it.  This subverts organizational memory and causes policies and projects to wobble on foundations of imprecise language and resultant degrees of misunderstanding.  Such dangers are relatively easy to rectify when working face to face, but in interactions between departments and institutions and over the course of projects the impact of linguistic ambiguity is magnified.

Going on “Mission” and “Subtracting Added Value-Added”

One European organization for which I have worked has seen the rise of two Towers of Babels in its near-60-year history.  From its founding early in the post-war period until the accelerated enlargement of the EU that began a decade ago, the official and defacto language of the institution was French.  To accommodate new member states, however, at the turn of the present millennium the institution switched its language from French to English.  At its worse, this created and perpetuates operational inefficiencies and crises in project implementation.  At its most innocuous, it is the source of an occasional chuckle.  My own favorite is the carry-over  from the organization’s francophone past into its anglophone present of the word “mission” (assignment in the field).  This lends a James Bond-like cachet of adventure to the dispatch of accountants to the offices of grant recipients and 1930s-cinema-like imagery of European friars navigating crocodile infested African or South American rivers to routine inspection visits at project sites.  In the same organization, linguistic imprecision creates referents that have no existence and  infuses work processes with an atmosphere reminsicent of Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  A misuse of the tired back-formation “value-added” is an example.  Employees at the institution are routinely evaluated according to whether and to what degree they contribute to the achievement of the organization’s objectives.  In the parlance of the organization such contribution is mis-labled as “value-added,” thus turning monthly and quarterly evaluation sessions into discussions of whether an individual has “added value-added” or “subtracted value-added” or “added negative value-added” rather than “adding positive value-added.”  The result is confusion as to how objectives are achieved and what the roles and efficacy of individuals are in expediting the processes their work supposedly comprises parts of.

Me vs. Us

The Wall Street Journal dislikes Europe as much because of what it accomplishes as for its inefficiencies.  America mumbles about improving infrastructure, Europe invests in it massively and redevelops infrastructure to transcend (and remove as sources of discord) national and regional boundaries.  America turns to off-shore drilling to ensure energy security, Europe turns to energy efficiency.  America talks about being a land of opportunity, Europe ensures equal access to education, housing, and health, the real basis for meritocracy.  The US bails out banks, Europe bails out entire countries so as not to abandon the security of multi-national community.

Fortunately there are other voices in the US mainstream press than the Wall Street Journal.  In A Tale of Two Moralities, Paul Krugman sketches the lines of a chasm that divides America — and, by extension, articulates a societal chasm between America and Europe that the Wall Street Journal overlooks — i.e. the divide between those who willingly invest in the societies that sustain them and those who see their gains as theirs and theirs alone and to be defended even with violence. In the wake of the attempted assassination and murders in Arizona last week, Krugman promises to continue on this theme: “I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the ‘I earned it and I have the right to keep it’ crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”  In my own way, I hope to explore in subsequent posts manifestations and implications of this theme in the realms of cities and infrastructure.

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Three Blogs, Small Words, Big Spoon

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 26, 2010

Long-form writing, consultancy assignments, and the efforts of making my way through the “crisis” have turned my energies away from blogging.  I will try to change this in 2011.  Over the next weeks I intend to resume posting to HakPakSak, revivify my photo-based weblog Bubkes.Org — presently off-server — this time with an urbanism thrust, and begin posting to an academically-hosted blog ostensibly treating “infrastructure.”  I also am considering a change in layout and and a redirect to a custom URL here at HakPakSak.  But enough promised; as they say in Bulgarian and in Turkish: “It is better to speak with small words and eat with a big spoon.”

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146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.


On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

“Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 29, 2010

Much of whatever wisdom I have, like much of  the world”s, comes from the observations of taxi drivers and barbers.  Just like the disfigured First World War veteran barfly in the opening and closing scenes of Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film masterpiece “Grand Hotel,”  taxi drivers and barbers see streams of people come and go and  little if anything surprises them.

My Barber’s Wisdom

The barber I visit  when in Istanbul speaks even less English than I speak Turkish, but he is a keen observer and knows how to score political points across linguistic lines.  His shop is in one of the commercial galleries that line the one-time carriage-ways of  late-Ottoman-era mansions and the grand inner passageways of turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial structures along Istanbul’s most popular  promenade, Istiklal Caddesi.  The shop itself has been in business for decades, but my barber and his brother took it over only five years ago, thus bringing them to the pinnacle of popular Istiklal from their tightly-packed, religiously-conservative, working-class  neighborhood only a mile northward and downhill towards the Golden Horn — the very part of the city  from which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s present Prime Minister and driving force behind Turkey’s Islamic AK Party,  hails and the  type of constituency that comprises the backbone of his support.

During my biweekly visits for a haircut and shave, my barber always chooses the most advantageous time to turn the conversation to politics.  “And, so, what do you think of our  Tayyip?”  he asks, always at the exact moment that he quickly and firmly draws his straight razor upward against the grain of the two-week stubble on my neck.  My response is dictated more by context than truth-function:  “One  excellent  prime minister,” I always reply with uncharacteristic speed and momentary fluency in Turkish, “… one very excellent prime minister, indeed.”

The television that blares in the barbershop has brought  both the English language and the words of leaders other than Tayyip — Barack Obama among them — into the lives and speech of my barber and his family.  A few weeks ago, my barber made a slight change the cut of my hair, razoring away some sparse, lonely hairs, hold-outs from the former expanse of my once lush hairline.  “Well, do you like it?”  he asked.  As I contemplated my newly high forehead, my barber’s eight-year-old son, visiting the shop on a day off from school, expressed his judgment before I could form a verdict of my own.  “Number One!,” he shouted in self-consciously American-accented English, “Number One … ‘Yes We  Can’, ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Yes We Can!’.”

Although my barber does not speak English as well as his son does, his ear for the language is no less refined.  On my most  recent visit to his shop,  the voices of a group of  American women enthusiastically eying goods in a third-world market blared  from a Discovery Channel documentary.  Cringing at the sound, my barber raised his voice a few octaves, adopted a nasal tone, and screeched: “Quack,quack, quack,  Oh-My-God … Oh-My-God, quack, quack, quack.”

An American Penchant

My barber’s imitation of American speech was no surprise.  Go anywhere in the world and the nasal screech of  American female (and sometimes male) voices will cut through the softer tones and relatively low murmur of local speech.  Strangely, a third of a century ago, American voices sounded quite different.  In the years since, flat Boston accents and rounded New York ones, crisp mid-western twangs, and lilting southern drawls somehow have all mutated into a uniform high-pitched, high-speed nasal buzz.  And, sometime during the same period,  “Oh-My-God” and the feigned tone of surprise with which it is blurted emerged as even more stereotypical of  the limits of American vocabularies than the overuse of the stop-word “like” and repeated interjections of  “cool” and  “awesome”.

The rise of “Oh-My-God” represents a flattening of emotions as well as of language.  Repeated screams of “Oh-My-God” — as often as not underscored by spastic body movements and flailing  arms — have become Americans’ stock responses, positive and negative, to unexpected  events from the banal, to the awe-inspiring, to the tragic.  Office gossip, sunsets, double-entendres, items on sale, moments of erotic ecstasy, deaths in the family,  unexpected appearances of rock stars, and tragedies as immense as the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the current disaster and suffering in Haiti all elicit the same response —  “Oh-My-God,” indeed.  Could it be that the biblical prohibition against taking the name of God in vain was offered in part to yield the secular benefit of ensuring that we match our responses and emotions to the significance and worth of what conjures them forth?  And what about the deity or deities that screamers of “Oh-My-God” claim as their own?  Is it not unwise and unkind  to distract him/her/it?them from higher concerns with repeated screams for attention?

Still, “Oh-My-God,” represents but a humorous sideshow in the misuse of the divine name.  During World War I, Allied propaganda made grist of German artillery shells  stamped with the words “Gott ist mit Uns,” (God is with Us). (And, by the way, look at how far Imperial Germany’s divinely sanctioned munitions got them.) . To use another example from the same conflict, those who know theater history (New York’s “Group Theatre,” specifically) might remember the haunting scene from the Kurt Weil musical  Johnny Johnson (an absurdist take-off on Jaroslav Hasek”s satire of war Good Soldier Schweik) in which identically dressed priests simultaneously bless and invoke God’s name in English and German on behalf of the troops massed for battle on their respective sides of the front lines.  Even in the course of my my own lifetime, I remember, from the hottest days of the Cold War,  the mandatory insertion, as a talisman against the specter of nuclear attack, of the words “(one nation) under God”  into the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States once recited each morning by public school students throughout the country.

To return to the present, all US currency, paper and coin, bears the words “In God We Trust,”  an apt statement of the hiving off of human responsibility and avoidance of  intervention that could have staved off fiscal and economic calamity and prevented the dollar’s nose-dive fall against the non-divinely-protected Euro.  During American political campaigns, candidates from  “both sides of the aisle” refer to and invoke God just about as often as do the leaders of countries that America  labels “fundamentalist.”  Could it be that the mealy-mouthed piety of American politicians and the collective din of millions upon millions of needless “Oh-My-Gods” constituted a sufficient violation of “…not taking the name of God in vain” as to prompt a divinely-afflicted plague of financial disasters, mortgage defaults, and unemployment? Sound absurd? It is no less absurd than what follows …

A Nation Without Infrastructure

A recent “Op Ed” article in the New York Times by author James Wood described the patent danger of Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncement that the recent  earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution for its people’s history of “idolatry.” However, the article also treats the less obvious dangers of Americans’ smug pronouncements of “… there but for the grace of God go we.”   Better to leave the deity alone and to look first at tectonics and geophysics and then, as odd as it may first sound, turn to a topic I’ve posted on extensively in the past on this site  and hope to return to in the weeks to come:  Infrastructure.   Stronger earthquakes than the one in Haiti have struck locales in the “developed” world and occasioned far less destruction, carnage,and suffering.  In such cases, the infrastructure of urban and regional life could far better withstand the shock, and the infrastructures of  transportation, medical, and social service could were sufficient to handle the aftermath.  As a poor country in the shadow of a rich neighbor, Haiti is infrastructurally weak on all counts.  Where could the money come from to finally begin to boost Haiti’s economy and bring its infrastructure  up to snuff?  In a recent Facebook post, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer noted that the annual gross national product of Haiti is but 20% of the bonus pool of one of the major investment banks!  And to that even I, albeit with an old-fashioned Lower East Side accented growl rather than a nasal whine, am almost tempted to say:  “O-My-God!”  But, rather than “take the name in vain,” I’ll simply quote the words of an old-fashioned Harlem heavy in Gordon Parks’s original version of “Shaft” as he described his partner having been tossed out of a window by the film’s hero. “That’s some cold s*#@,” he said slowly; some very cold s*#@, indeed.

Posted in Infrastructure, Istanbul, Language, Religion | 3 Comments »

Bubkes in Purgatory and an Upcoming Change in this URL

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 27, 2010

Bubkes.Org — my long-running photo-based weblog treating urban and historical oddities and my on-and-off involvement in Balkan architectural, urban, and religious history — is no longer online.  The server on which Bubkes was hosted has closed and the format on which it was based — Manila, one of the original, pioneering weblog formats — has gone the way of the eight-track tape and the 5-inch floppy.  I hope to have Bubkes.Org up and running again, this time on WordPress, sometime in the next month or so and, possibly, at the same URL. More on this to follow.  The redeemed site will feature new articles in the same spirit and style and from time to time will recycle some of the more popular (among the site’s small readership, that is) stories and medium-format analogue photography from the past.  By the way, if anyone out there knows a competent, reasonably-priced service for converting a Manila-format archive to WordPress or another non-dinosaur platform, do let me know.

Note: As of this writing, a Google cached “snapshot” of Bubkes.Org can still be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/yaksr9c .

Also in the next weeks …  I plan to change the URL of HakPakSak to http://hakpaksak.org and/or http://www.hakpaksak.org.  Thus, should this site is no longer be available via its present url (https://hakpaksak.wordpress.com), please look for it under either of the two planned new addresses.

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HakPakSak Resumed: Four Months, Four Books, Four Subjects, and the Fight for Energy Efficiency

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 17, 2010

Since late August, I’ve neglected to post to this site and to my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org (which has been offline intermittently while I search for a new server to host it).  The cause : a constitutional inability to take the keyboard equivalent of a “bus-driver’s vacation,” i.e. to write for pleasure while also editing, translating, and re-writing long-copy texts embodying the thoughts, intents, and foibles of others rather than my own. Thus, as a first step towards reviving both weblogs, I’ll mention the publication of two new volumes in the realization of which I played peripheral but work-intensive roles as well as the surprise republication of a third volume and the rediscovery of a fourth. For those who follow the “professional” (i.e. corporate and institutional, consultancy and communications) sides of my work, I should also write that I spent much of October editing and revising the presentation of a major financing agency of the European Commission for the Copenhagen climate change conference. A good part of the presentation focused on opportunities and strategies for cutting energy consumption and improving energy efficiency in urban contexts and the movement of people and goods, matters relevant to other research I am doing while attempting to navigate my way through the present “crisis.”

Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed

The first of the four volumes alluded to in the title of this entry is Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed, published by Editions Hazan and edited by Jelka Kröger of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. The book gives an illustrated overview of the life and work of De Haan, a minor impressionist painter best remembered, if at all, as a pupil of Paul Gauguin and a friend and correspondent of Theo van Gogh, the brother of the famed painter Vincent. De Haan, born and raised in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, was one of the first Jews to enter the mainstream of Dutch art and one of the first Dutch painters to follow Vincent van Gogh into the avant garde of European art. My own role in the project was that of Dutch-to-English translator/editor of most of the essays comprising the volume, a task valued by the better contributors but stubbornly resisted and resented  by authors of contributions in need of serious fixing. More rewarding was the opportunity to recast into English De Haan’s letters to Theo van Gogh and selected correspondence between Theo and Vincent. Most upsetting was to trace the stories of all of De Haan’s Dutch-Jewish associates and pupils up to their deportation and murder by the Germans and their willing Dutch sycophants during the Second World War. In all, it was a pleasure to work with Jelka Kröger and her indefatigable understudy Sara Tas to articulate the story of De Haan and lend background to his work. The volume was compiled and published to accompany the first-ever major exhibition of De Haan’s work. The exhibition has been on view at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and will move to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris sometime early in 2010. Selected pages of the book can be seen in Issuu format on the website of the volume’s designers.

Mapping Istanbul

Last October I had the pleasure of joining the staff of Garanti Gallery (an art foundation supported by Turkey’s Garanti Bank) in Istanbul for several days of marathon work sessions evaluating and revising sections of text for the gallery’s latest publication, Mapping Istanbul, a cartographic translation of a range of socio-economic data attempting to give overview, shape, and updated definition to the ever-growing and increasingly amorphous megalopolis that Istanbul has become. The maps themselves embody  the input of a score of contributors including the decade-long research, data-crunching, and mapping  efforts of social geographer Murat Güvenç of Bilgi University, Istanbul (more on Prof. Güvenç and his work, including his upcoming exhibition presenting in cartographic form the demographic, economic, cultural, and physical transformation of Istanbul over the last 100 years in a subsequent entry). Maps for the present volume were designed and produced by the Istanbul-based architectural and design practice Superpool, with whom I am happy to be collaborating on other studies related to urban growth and change. Texts accompanying the maps were written by a host of contributors (me amongst them) and range from the explanatory to the highly subjective. Mapping Istanbul is the third in a series of books portraying and redefining Istanbul conceived and published by Garanti Gallery. The first, Becoming Istanbul, is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-serious, and all too often erroneous glossary of things, places, concepts, and impressions that comprise Istanbul– from the rings and tweets of the akbil (electronic bus, ferry, tram, and metro token), to the customs of the hamam (traditional turkish bath), to the one-time cluster of popular film production companies along a street call Yeşilçam, and the long-ago and very brief flight of a Zeppelin over the city’s historical peninsula; the second, Tracing Istanbul, portrays the changing, sprawling, and ever-expanding city through aerial photography.

The End of a Love that Never Began

On a recent visit to Sofia, I discovered that Krayat Na Edna Nezapochnata Lyubov (The End of a Love that Never Began), a volume of autobiographic reflections by Bulgarian acoustical scientist, cinema sound-man, and humorist Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, has been republished. The book first appeared in 2001 and contains amongst its many illustrations masterful photographs of Sofia and its inhabitants taken in the 1920s and 30s by Johnny’s father and a number of somewhat less masterful candid and posed portraits I took of Johnny and associates at Johnny’s 60th birthday celebration in 1993 — a memorable event that Johnny has promised to reprise in 2053 and again in 2113 — and during Bulgaria’s winter crisis of 1996-7. The book also contains a reproduction of a 1950s Bulgarian secret police report on Johnny, obtained years later under what passes as Bulgaria’s version of the U.S. “Freedom of Information Act.”  The report, by the way, concluded that Johnny posed no dangers to the Bulgarian state and society.  Soon after the initial publication of Johnny’s book, a friend, R., skimmed through my autographed copy. R.’s father had entered Bulgaria’s secret police at the top of its hierarchy at the founding of Communist Bulgaria in 1944 but, due in part to his pride in his Jewish identity and his discomfort at obligatory participation in ritual denunciations of Israel and Zionism, later fell through the ranks and out of the police and ended his work life as a porter at the metal smelting plant at Kremikovski just outside of Sofia. (Kremikovski, a relic of the application of Stalinist-style shock industrialization to the traditional agricultural- and food processing-based economy of Bulgaria, now stands idle if I am correct). R. paused when he came to the photo of the secret police report in Johnny’s book . He pointed to the signature at the end of document and said of its author: “Ah, Uncle X., a dear man, he always brought us gifts and helped when my father was in trouble.” Might Johnny’s seeming persecutor really have been his angel?

The Macedonian Dialects of Western Sofia

When in Sofia, I rarely have to phone people. Sofia has more than doubled in population over the last 20 years (from one million to about two and a half) and much of its economic life has moved to its periphery but, nevertheless, the center of the city is sufficiently frequented and sufficiently compact for one inevitably to encounter acquaintances, whether one wants to or not. One long-time acquaintance who I inevitably (and gladly) bump into within days of my arrival  is Angel Angelov, a present-day professor of linguistics at Sofia University and a popular underground folk and protest-singer during the last years of communism and the first chaotic years that followed. Long ago, when I first applied for a Fulbright grant to Bulgaria, Angel went far out on a limb to officially vouch for my competence in spoken Bulgarian. In the late 1990s, Angel published a study on the lingering of linguistic influences of the early-20th century Macedonian refugees who settled at the western edge of Sofia (Pravilata na Ezika v Stolichniya Kvartal) and, for some reason, chose as its cover illustration a photo of an oddly windowless and door-less balcony of an early 20th century Sofia residential building that he had seen at an exhibition of my photographs (Note: The photo is a sufficiently worthy metaphor for Bulgaria that I submitted it — tongue in cheek — to the competition for a new national symbol and coat-of-arms prior to the country’s entry into the European Union. Needless to say, my entry was not accepted. The winning design? A traditional comic-opera imperial lion and shield affair, the stock symbol of 19th-century contrived nation states in search of a pedigree and European identity.).  Coincidentally, I had come across my copy of Angel’s book only days before running into him during my most recent visit to Sofia. Also coincidentally, Angel and I encountered each other in the Sofia University station of the Sofia Metro, which now unites the traditionally disparate eastern and western sides of the city. The very same Metro and its transcendence of a more than century-old invisible barrier between two halves of a city is one of the subjects I have been writing and photographing about in my spare time these last months. An attempt at a humorous precis will appear in an upcoming post here or at Bubkes.Org.

Posted in Books, Bulgaria, Cities, Environment, Istanbul, Jewish History, Sofia | 8 Comments »

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Transparency, Backgammon, and the Imperialism of Poker

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 18, 2009


Late in July, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC  (New York  Public Radio)  featured an interview with John Palfrey, a law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School.  The subject: Transparency in government.  The central issue: Is the Obama administration living up to its promises of full transparency in policy making and governing?

Mr. Palfrey’s interest in transparency reminded me of a telephone conversation I had two years ago with a colleague of his at the the Berkman Center, Charlie Nesson.  Mr. Nesson tracked me down in Sofia, Bulgaria to ask my opinion on the topic of a paper he was about to give at a conference in Croatia.  His thesis: That the  teaching of the game of poker in the Middle East would be a way of inculcating American values in the region, an easy task, he proposed, since the Middle East had no games of its own.  I asked myself what these values were and asked Mr. Nesson whether he had ever heard of backgammon.

My conversation with Mr. Nesson stuck with me.  Over the time since,  I realized that his idea provides a wonderful analogy for the causes of the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the domestic and international economic disasters that American values and Americans’ ways of spreading them have created.

First, the idea of “teaching,” an core element of the colonialist and missionary mindset, and of class division and failed noblesse oblige at home. “Teaching,” in this sense, is based on the idea that “they” are inferior or incomplete and that “we” have the answer, and that if  they would only, in so far as their imperfect natures permit,  be like us and know what we know, they would acknowledge our superiority, accept their places, and all would be well.   From the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia to Rumsfeld’s loopy analogy of teaching Iraq to be democrat and self-governing like a father running alongside a child learning to ride a bicycle, such “teaching” dehumanizes “them” and (self-) deludes and eventually undermines “us.”

Second, the “values” of the game:  Poker involves memory and an ability to count cards but at bottom it is a game of bluff.  In poker, cards are held close to the chest and the value of one’s hand is determined less by the cards one holds than by what one can deceive opponents into thinking one holds, i.e. the creation of the illusion of value where there is none, an underlying principle of the finance-, toxic-loan-, and non-earned-bonus-based economy and an axiom of marketing.  The means for such deception?  The identification and exploitation of opponents’ weaknesses and insecurities and a concerted attempt to keep them off-balance, activities also pursued at S&M clubs and the foundations of lopsided relationships, personal, sexual, communal, and economic.  American values indeed.

Third, backgammon: Proposing solutions based on  poorly informed assumptions has been the method and death-knell of American policy making and implementation. The Middle East and bordering regions indeed do have games of their own and backgammon — tavla, shesh-besh, et. al. — is the most ubiquitous.  Unlike  in poker, in backgammon, as in chess, another game of Near and Middle Eastern origin, opponents see each others’ pieces; there is no bluff or room for marked cards.  Moves are based on assessment of situations, envisioning of scenarios, knowledge of the game, and sensing opponents’ styles of play.  The only psychological pressures on opponents’ psyches are the speed and virtuosity of one’s moves and the “kibbitzing” of observers.  And then there is the matter of the dice; Istanbul-based historian of medieval and early-Ottoman Anatolia Sara Nur Yıldız reminds me that the rolls of the dice in backgammon sharpen our readiness and abilities to react quickly and effectively, openly and transparently,  to whatever circumstances life and serendipity may confront us with.  Finally, backgammon is integrated into daily life in a way that poker is not.  Unlike poker, backgammon is also played outside of dark, smoke-filled rooms and for the sheer thrill of the game as much or even more than for the money.  Stroll the streets of Istanbul or Aleppo, Gaza or Tel Aviv, and one will see backgammon played in tea and coffee shops, whether during daytime breaks, or in marathon evening sessions, both as an anchor for sociability and as a cerebral workout.

My counter-proposition to Mr. Nesson”s would have been to send thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of Middle Easterners to the USA, “embedding” them, as it were, in banks and corporations and at the highest levels of government to teach Americans the game and values of backgammon.  But, it seems, John Palfrey may have beaten me to the punch. By advocating for  transparency, he gives the impression that his colleages at the Berkman Center may have put their well-worn decks-of-fifty-two back in their boxes and, in their stead, taken a few backgammon sets off the shelf.

NB. A cautionary note to future lecturers: Speaking in southeast Europe about teaching lessons to the Middle East and, by implication, the Muslim world, can be incendiary.  As those of us who have lived in the region know, the physical and cultural ethnic cleansing of the Turkic and Islamic presence that began in the regaion early in the 19th century with Russia’s “Drang nach Süden” and the concommitant rise of Pan-Slavism and formation of exclusionary, exclusively-Christian nation states, has made any proferred cudgel — literal or figurative — with which to beat the Muslim world, or  Muslims and other minorities locally, most enthusiastically welcome.

Posted in Eclectic, History, National Identity, Politics, Religion | 1 Comment »

Long-Copy Blues … and Reds and Yellows

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2009

A note to those who periodically visit this site …

I have not posted new entries since late in April, in part due to a heavy load of medium- and long-copy writing.  In addition to a backlog of project proposals and two still-overdue articles, I have been working on translations from Dutch to English of a series essays that will constitute the text of an illustrated book that will accompany an upcoming exhibition at a Parisian museum of the works of a minor 19th-century Dutch artist, who, for a time, was a correspondent of Van Gogh and a pupil of Gauguin.  More in detail when the exhibition opens and the book appears.  Regular postings to this site will resume later this month.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Living the News: Health Care Refugee

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 21, 2009

Soon after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama, I posted an entry commenting on Pete Seeger’s  inaugural day performance of Woody Guthrie’s  “This Land is Your Land,” including near-forgotten verses of the song that had gone underground during the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

Since then, another of Guthrie’s songs has been on my mind, “Dust Bowl Refugee.” Dust Bowl Refugee was Guthrie’s ode to the plights of American farmers during 1930s who, driven off their farms by drought, soil erosion, and bank foreclosures, trekked westward, working, when they could find work, as migrant agricultural laborers and casual laborers. (For the lyrics of Dust Bowl Refugee, click here).

My own present-day version of Dust Bowl Refugee has a title of its own, Health Care Refugee. I’ve spent most of the past winter in Istanbul, Turkey, partly out of preference and partly out of necessity. Indeed, you might say that I am a health care refugee.

My Netherlands-based health insurance — a policy I inherited from a job in the Netherlands in the 1970s and that I have maintained throughout my “career” as a peripatetic freelancer over the three decades since — recently stopped covering all but the most critical emergency medical treatment in the US.  Not surprisingly, the insurance company had finally balked at the astronomically over-inflated costs of medical care in the US.  But, niggardliness and tighter strictures on policy claims also mark a shift by Dutch insurers from a culture of dedication to policy-holders to dedication to investors and shareholders instead. Even as far away as the once rigorously social democratic Netherlands, it seems, decades of US prating against “socialism” and in favor of leaving individual and social welfare to the whims of an imagined “market place,” has cast its indelible shadow.

My alternatives were simple: Pay for needed health care out of my own pocket in the US (impossible), go to the Netherlands to seek treatment (this would require renting and maintaining an apartment there), go to Bulgaria (where I already maintain an office), or seek treatment in Turkey (where I had the chance to  “apartment sit” and the opportunity to avail myself of  library and research facilities).  The only two feasible options, thus, were Bulgaria and Turkey. The inadequacy of Bulgarian health care, the state of Bulgarian hospitals, and the characteristic unwillingness of Bulgarian doctors and dentists to admit and honor the limits of their know-how and abilities made the decision easy — I headed to Turkey.  And, thus, I joined the growing ranks of health care refugees.

What state of inequality or desperation would it take for health care refugees (with means and without) to compromise a counter-flow eastward and southward to worldwide flows of economic, human rights, and life-style refugees moving westward and northward?  The subject of flight is finally being broached in the press and in commercially sponsored studies (see, for example, this March article in the New York Times and a few paragraphs buried in this report from an accountancy-consultancy firm).

Balkan Medical Corruption and Under-Reporting

Last month, the Times also posted this article on corruption in hospitals in Romania, a situation not unlike that which causes me to do anything to avoid hospitalization in Bulgaria.  The article, however, is characteristic of much of the reporting on the eastern Balkans that appears in the Times, i.e. it treats long-standing problems and developments as freshly discovered news.  This particular story appears about 19 years too late.  Is this because the Times had consider the eastern Balkans to a news backwater or a training ground for reporters with no knowledge of the locale or interest in doing  research.  Or is it because in the 1990s and the Bush years, the US press was so self-satisfied with the “fall of communism” and the “end of history” that anything the “free market” brought with it, including inequities and corruption, seemed laudatory?  Well, better late than never, although…

Lobsters or Lard?  The Times or the old New York Post?

In debates on the relative worth of weblogs and the traditional press, I almost always weigh in in favor of the “mainstream media,” but the Times’s Balkan coverage makes me wonder.  So does this recent piece from Jane Brody’s venerable reporting on personal health.  The thrust: Americans who live on steak and lobster and “creme brulee” now should discover the what she calls the basics that got us through the last depression — potatoes and fruit, she writes, rather than white flour and lard, the diet of the poor today.  Americans who live on steak and lobster? Who is she talking about?  Not people on my planet and not people hurt by the present state of the economy.  And fruit rather than flour and lard in the Great Depression?  In the richest of households maybe.  What readership (or, more probably, advertising demographics) is the Times targeting?  Makes me long for Dorothy Schiff and the old New York Post, let alone the belated Bronx PM and the old National Guardian (all “google-able” for those who don’t know them).

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Health Care, Media | 1 Comment »

“Humbergers” and Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk, Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 13, 2009


Mimas Foods: Flafel, Humberger, Shaourma, Ships Pataos, All Kind Of, Meats

A recent article in the New York Times reported on the opening of a time capsule of early-20th-century recordings of arias found sealed away in the basement of the Paris Opera.  My own time capsules are more prosaic — the surfaces of my desks in Sofia, Istanbul, and Brooklyn.

While tidying up papers during a recent visit to Bulgaria, I found the treasure portrayed above, a mid-1990’s plastic take-away bag from Mimas Foods in Sofia.  The bag is a relic of a turning point in the economic and social history of Bulgaria and much of Eastern Europe. It is also a snapshot of a moment in  the transformation of English from the spoken and literary language of the United Kingdom, North America, India, Australasia, and parts of Africa into the awkward amalgam of  English-language vocabulary and the grammar and styles of a score of languages that has emerged as the lingua franca of trade, administration, news, scholarship, and socializing in the European Union and contiguous lands.


Popular enthusiasm for the collapse of Soviet-communist rule in Eastern Europe twenty-years ago was fueled as much by a hunger for the imagined jujus of western life as by political visions or ideals.  Dreams of big cars, big spending, and fast food — the same mix that now sinks the economies and clogs the arteries of much of the world — were among the drivers.  Not that there was no fast food in Bulgaria under communism.  But the pleasures of local shkembe corba (tripe soup), Bira-Skara (beer halls serving bread- and lard-laden ground meat patties), and breakfast- and lunch-time princessa (open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches strewn with ground pork ) were dimmed by a simmering Balkan sense of  resentment at something missed.

The first generation of Western-inspired fast-food to sweep free-market Bulgaria was based on the hamburger … of sorts.  Local entrepreneurs operating from apartment-house ground-floor garages and from sidewalk-level basement windows sold thick fried slices of domestic mortadella served on chalky white rolls.  The next generation came in the early-1990s with the arrival in Bulgaria of Syrians, Lebanese, and North Africans and the opening of shwarma (döner kebab) stands. Mimas Foods was among the first.  Its location was premier– on a downtown multi-thoroughfare intersection diagonally across from Popa (the priest), a popular meeting place named after a nearby statue of Patriarch Eftimi, an iconic creator of modern Bulgarian language and, through it, Bulgarian national identity.

The iconography of the vintage Mimas take-out bag reveals the aspirations of consumers and proprietors both.  Note the vertical spit overflowing with tidily arranged thick slabs of meat, the dagger-like knife raised ready to carve, and the stereotyped middle-eastern features of the professionally garbed chef.  But it is the use of international English that catapulted the fare of Mimas from the improvised and local into the realm of coveted, truly international, fast-food:








Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk

When I left Sofia two weeks ago, I put the Mimas bag into my computer case next to two books I had brought along to read on the journey: a collection of essays by George Orwell (“Why I Write,” also mentioned in this post, below) and Strunk and White’s famed “Elements of Style,” which I make a point of rereading every several years.  Coincidentally, one of the classic examples of powerful and direct writing style in the latter book is drawn from one of the essays in the former.*  In it, Orwell compares the evocative power of a passage from the King James rendering of  the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes with the substance of the very same passage as it is likely to be expressed in  present-day English as written by international commercial, bureaucratic, and academic types:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.


Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion

Wrıtıng is articulatıon.  Not even meticulous attention to style or choice of words can dısguise incomplete thoughts, lack of clear meaning or intent, or absence of honesty and passion.  In Orwell’s words:

The great enemy of clear language is insıncerity.  When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as ıt were instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

So, let me clear away the ink and get down to a very direct attempt at self-promotion …

As of April 1, I will be back in (forgive me the word) the market-place offering companies, institutions, and individuals the world over — in the private and public sectors and in the sciences, education, broadcasting and the arts — communications consultancy, project support, and writing and editorial services (including selected translation projects from Dutch to English).  I also will be on-call as a personal and organizational advisor specialized in articulating goals, analyzing strategies, charting paths, and achieving change.

Am I mad to be offering such services as we enter “the worst crisis since the Great Depression?”  Not at all.  It is exactly at such times that ideas must be reexamined and refined, operating environments clearly described, and messages communicated clearly and incisively.  To do otherwise courts failure.  Had companies, governments, and “the media” done so over the last years, we might not be in the mess we are now.

For further information, write to me at hak.pak.sak@gmail.com.  For information on related visual and photographic services, contact: bubkes.org@gmail.com

–    –     –

*An additional coincidence:  An article on Orwell and his essays — Such, Such Was Eric Blair — appears in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Non-Violence, The Struggle Against Oppression, and the Passing of Time

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 12, 2009

Via the weblog of Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, these links to Eric Etheridge’s “Breach of Peace” a portrayal of the Freedom Rıders of the Cıvıl Rıghts Movement of the 1960s and  a magnificent exercise in photographıc portraiture and historical documentation:

http://breachofpeace.com/blog/ and http://issuu.com/hudsoneric/docs/small3

The civil rights and economic rıghts struggles of the 1960s seem like yesterday, not least because both struggles still continue and because — for some of us — the exhilaration and dissonances of the period and the prices paid by those who were willıng to go-to-the-lıne in pursuit of social justice and personal ideals still resonate.

The online previews of “Breach of Peace”  are overwhelming, in part due to “hard cutting” between Etheridge’s  respectful and technically excellent portraits of former Freedom Riders as they are today with the unexpected precision and neutrality of mug-shots taken of them following their arrests a half-century ago.  We see Freedom Riders at the beginnings and twilights of their lives, the decades between become abstractions.

The timing of the publication of the book is significant.  Now that the Obama victory has given the impression that the anti-egalitarian so-called “values” of decades of Republican rule in the U.S. are on the wane, many of us who have always believed in and oft-times struggled for racial, social, and economic justice can come out of the shadows.  Doing so, however, can cause a moment of disorientation and disbelief.  Can one really now gıve voice to one’s political and social beliefs in the worlds of work, government, and public and personal discourse wıthout risks of penalties or opprobrium?  The faces and words of former Freedom Riders as portrayed in “Breach of Peace” give this writer, for one,  added courage and commitment to continue doing so.

Tech Note: The  on-line pdf hosting and display service issuu used in the second link above is well worth “taking for a spin.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Paradoxes: The Serpent and the Eagle, Newspapers and Weblogs, and the Unintelligence of Intelligence

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 4, 2009

There is an image from Nietzsche that sometimes comes to my mind when I think of paradoxes of mutual dependency and mutual destruction: A soaring eagle devouring a poisonous snake that it has plucked from the ground just as the snake entwines itself around and sinks its fangs into the eagle.  A unlikely way of thinking about the relationship of electronic and print media but a useful one, possibly …

One of the best and most succinct statements of the paradoxical relationship between weblogs and newspapers I have encountered recently is My Year of Blogging by Haim Watzman written on the occasion of the first anniversary of his and Gershom Gorenberg’s highly professional South Jerusalem.  The paradox: If blogs erode the readership and economic viability of newspapers and magazines they destroy the very media and institutions that almost all blogs depend on for identification of issues and sources of information.  Indeed, most weblogs, this one included, for the most part rehash and re-serve the news, sometimes adding value and sometimes not.

Watzman also points out that weblogs are even less economically viable than print media, which leads me to a second link, this to an article that has been read and discussed by newspaper people and newspaper readers worldwide over the past month: Steve Coll’s recent piece (Non-Profit Newspapers) in the New Yorker calling for the end of business-models as the bases of newspapers and magazines and the institution of private and public endowments in their place — in my own words, the leveraging of print media from enterprises to elements of the infrastructure of information gathering and exchange, processes that are necessary underpinnings of economic activity, social stability, scientific and cultural advance, and democracy.

Also via South Jerusalem, this succinct critique of Israel’s recent misadventure in Gaza, aptly titled The Futility of Operation Cast Lead, by Stuart A. Cohen of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies.  For decades, I have marveled at the paradox of beliefs held in common by uncritical supporters of Israel and by neanderthal antisemites of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion / International Jewish Conspiracies stripe, in this case that the State of Israel is unique or superior to others in its intelligence gathering, military efficacy, and manipulation of world opinion.  Israel might have come close to this for a brief moment in the late 1960s but it has been a sad slide downhill since then.  “Operation Cast Lead” (the very name shows contempt for public and world opinion and  Jewish ethos) may have displayed something of Israel’s supposed  flair for short-range military tactics (however, Cohen’s piece casts doubt on this as well) but it also demonstrated an inability to think in terms of the human suffering it would create and the compromising of Israel’s image, policy objectives, and own security it would occasion.  Not least, in its hubris, Israel’s misadventure in Gaze showed an immense disregard for the security, status, and opinions of Jews worldwide, especially in the Muslim world and throughout Europe (I have alluded to this in a recent post and will explore it anecdotally in a future piece on Bubkes.Org).

In closing, my apologies for not giving the precise quotation and reference to the image from Neitzsche as recalled above.  Accept it as another proof of the time and capabilities limitations of single-person, part-time blogging.

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In Bulgaria – In Principle

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 25, 2009

Another country, another language, other realities …

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this past Sunday night and quickly made the transition back to the Bulgarian language and to looking at the world through its constructs.

My favorite expression in Bulgarian is “po printsip,” literally “in principle” but actually the foundation for a separate reality in which all is as it should or at least could be. The positing of a parallel realm makes the imperfections of the more immediate world seem illusory and unworthy of thought or attention.

On Monday morning, I ventured out onto the iced-over streets of Sofia (note: Sofiotes do not clear sidewalks of ice; winter is winter and ice is part of it) for chores, a stroll, and an early lunch. My first stop was the dry-cleaner. A sign posted over its entry promised two-hour cleaning but when I asked when my trousers would be ready for pick-up I was told to come back Wednesday. When I mentioned the sign outside, the clerk replied, “Yes, po printsip everything could be ready in two hours but we haven’t done two-hour cleaning in years.” My next stop was an academic bookstore to track down a title on the history and geography of medieval Thrace. “Do you have the book?” I asked the clerk. The response: “Po printsip we do, but we don’t.” “Well, will you have it sometime soon?” “Po printsip we will, but it is out-of-stock and out-of-print.”

Unencumbered by purchases and free of the obligation of reading the book, I walked to a familiar non-fashionable neighborhood restaurant famed amongst local television and radio types for its grilled spiced meat patties and accompanying cabbage and carrot salad, baked beans, and reliably pure grape brandy. I had stopped at the restaurant at 8:30 the night before but had found it empty and closed. I asked the waiter if the restaurant still worked on Sundays. “Yes,” he answered, “we’re open every day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, po printsip.” “Po printsip,” I affirmed, “but you were closed last night. “Yes, we were but, po printsip, we are always open.” I remembered a conversation I had in the same restaurant many years ago with a very beautiful colleague who worked at a nearby film studio. “Well,” I said, observing her wedding-ring, “you are married.” “Yes.” “And,” I added with obligatory Balkan flirtatiousness, “you are faithful to your husband?” “Yes,” she replied,“… po printsip.”

Enough said. It is 4pm and I should finish up the day’s work, po printsip.

Posted in Bulgaria, Language | 13 Comments »