Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for March, 2009

“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

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*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.

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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.”

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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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