Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for January, 2010

“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.

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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 »