Tuesday, March 29, 2011

abydos, or if an expedition was a goose

Abydos, Egypt - morning on site, February 2011
If not for a revolution in Egypt the NYU IFA Expedition to Abydos would have wrapped up excavation and survey this past week. We would now be on our way toward Cairo, probably by train, and then off to our homes or on other travels. I had planned for Turkey. Perhaps by next season (2012) this will be possible. There will be a future a season, but after the events of this February and March it’s hard to know what that research plan will look like. It seems that looting Egypt's archaeological sites including Abydos, was heavy immediately following the ousting of Mubarak. 

Before Tahir Square filled with peaceful protesters, we were set to survey great swaths of desert – at least, that’s how I had prepared myself, mentally to think about that time. I expected to be away from home. I’m staying in Abydos to do two jobs, I thought – I’ll spend 4 months. The time period seemed daunting. My jobs were to excavate for Brown University, then work as a surveyor for NYU's IFA expedition. The survey and mapping project is, like the excavation, a longstanding one with many contributors. I was excited to add my own small effort to helping record the vestiges of history! I would think of it that way when I felt especially homesick. I’d remember the larger picture, our efforts in context of what we were all contributing to – a greater understanding, a mission for science and humanity! The drama helped. But then, after only about two weeks into this survey – it all came to an end.  We were very depressed. The archaeologist, the Egyptians we worked with – all of us sad to give it up.

Alex Makovics - readying the scarf. 
Christina Chavez - morning, on site
I was working with two surveyors who had experience with the site. There were a few Egyptian guys that helped us regularly – we had our roles, our plans. And then, one morning, we did not. The end. Before that came I was going to tell you the story of surveying Abydos. Along with my survey partner, Christina Chavez, we created a plan to relate the story of our work in Abydos to our DACC students in New Mexico, who were, in theory, going to follow along virtually.  We made a funny movie preview to set the tone.

Then the tone shifted – considerably. Almost too radically. I no longer know what to say. After leaving Egypt by way of extraction, and being informed by our director that the site has undergone heavy looting, I wonder what is left. Of course a lot is left. But the nature of archaeology (though destructive) is part tedium, to equal parts minutia, and precision. It is patient, detailed documentation (when done right) – it’s an intensely concentrated level of energy and effort, which is why you cannot excavate or survey without pause, thus the need for expeditionary seasons. The sad news is this coming season may or may not exist. And the archaeological record of Abydos is surely changed. The nature of looting is simply destructive – fast-paced, dangerous, and possibly driven by desperation, or greed. Inherent to the act is a deep miscalculation of what exactly is being gained and what is being lost.
That fable about the goose that laid the golden egg might apply here  . . .  if you can imagine an archaeological site and the associated long-term effort of an expedition - as a goose. Here it is all plump, ancient, surly (typical goose) and stretched across a finite expanse, and stretched too are it’s finite resources (funding, etc.). Sites expand, like a goose, in three dimensions – and maybe, like an ice burg now, a lot more of what's there extends into places you cannot see – the sands underfoot.  And what animates this operation – goose or otherwise – is multifaceted. Gathering the eggheads, gaining the permits, finding the funding, then there’s the interaction between institutions in Egypt and universities abroad.  And there are the inherent benefits to the locale – jobs, yes, for Egyptians, cultural tourism, and questions of history . . . well, made less murky. It’s the intrinsic nature of all of this that is hard to communicate across cultural and economic divides. If everything is looted - the goose is plundered, plucked.  What motive is left for the archaeologist to return?

To get to those layers you must peel back – but with care! Each deed considered; each find recorded. A goose cannot be understood otherwise. There are hours and days – sometimes wearisome amounts of time - without discovery and then, a golden egg! You can't reach inside a goose and find all its eggs. The value is in the living, continuing nature of the thing, not in the innards.
That last day on site there was a terrible wind. It was strong and made it hard to hold the survey pole steady. I was trying to find the prism, attached to the top of that pole, through the total station's scope. I glared into it – and squinted out the grains of sand that encroached my singular vision. One eye sacrificed, I worked as well as I could to relieve my stalwart companion out across the desert, holding a pole and waiting from some data to enter, by laser and trigonometry, into our devices. Everyone wears scarves as a matter fashion and practicality and ours surrendered on our behalves, fraying in the wind, relinquishing the desert to looters who would come. Only that day we hoped, we imagined, that they wouldn’t. We had to think this I suppose.
I don’t know how to endear the goose, or engender a desire to protect it, or ensure that it survives – as site, expedition, and research base. When we left Abydos we could imagine that there was work enough for hundreds of seasons. And there still will be, but will it be mitigating the damage left by looters?  

It is in the goose – stubborn, itinerant, gritty – and its return, that we hope.      

Saturday, March 5, 2011

rally In santa fe - mulled and photo-ed

I road the Railrunner north to Santa Fe last Saturday (February 26th) to see what was shaking (that's a $7 round-trip ticket - Albuquerque to Santa Fe and back). I found folks at the Roundhouse with signs, and chants, and songs, sporting their red and white (Badger colors) garments. During the hour of official rally time speakers, including legislators, teachers, and folks from Wisconsin, addressed the crowd of about 750.
(Rally host - Linda F., addressing the crowd) 
The Christian Science Monitor reports that people were gathered in Santa Fe, and at other capitols across the nation, standing in solidarity with the protestors in Madison, Wisconsin. Local coverage from krqe.com highlights one worry I heard; New Mexico unions might be next to have their collective bargaining rights challenged. 

Calling ourselves after the foods we love helps connect those in sunny Santa Fe to folks in snowy Madison. Food is essential. Freedom is essential. We're dealing with essential, relatable things.

You may watch what went on in Madison last Saturday, including a speech delivered by Jeff Skiles - the "Miracle on the Hudson" co-piolet - from this Democracy Now coverage. What follows is a bit of a photo tour of those gathered at the Roundhouse, all from my perspective, of course.
Labor Organizers in Madison are at an epic impasse with their governor, Scott Walker, and the negotiations sit, stalled, over some serious Anti-Union legislation. Frank Emspak, founder and producer of Workers Independent News, spoke in Madison and offered some strong suggestions for why he believes deflating the power of Unions, and not the state budget, is what the battle is really about.

The message - listen to people, workers, human voices. And, also, corporations are not people, actually.
In case you wonder why there's confusion over how the line between human beings and corporations ever go so blurred, I recommend some reading - Corporations Are Only Human - At Least In Law by Brian Landers (Open Economy Dec 2 2010). And, we know that corporations spend money to influence elections.

 "The US Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend whatever they like on influencing elections . . . as courts insist that corporations have “human” rights (Landers)." 

"The Court held that the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain–Feingold Act, which had tried to limit such funding, infringed corporations' rights to free speech." How loud can they, corporate entities, speak? Louder than one human voice. Do corporations have the right to privacy? It's being debated - Court Weighs Whether Corporations Have Personal Privacy Rights (New York Times, January 20th, 2011). 

"The idea of corporations as natural entities is now firmly embedded not just in legal theory but in everyday life. News reports can assert that “Google believes” or “ "Exxon's position is" without a second thought. But in reality a legal construct cannot believe anything, only people can believe. To say that a corporation has a position on a political issue merely provides someone's personal opinion with a spurious stamp of authority. For the chief executive of Exxon to say that his corporation has a “view” on energy policy because it processes oil is as meaningless as saying that his car has a “view” for the same reason. That corporations are not humans may be common sense but it is not legal sense . . . (Landers)." 
I realize there are many, many incorporated companies and not all corporations are created equal, and they reflect the values of the people that make them up, and the values of their shareholders, but - so often, the most powerful value reflected in the actions of these entities is the value of the bottom dollar, the profits realized by companies and investors. 
I'm mulling this over when I find a sign advising me that if I don't like them (the corporate entity), don't buy them. Koch Industries - owned by the two Koch brothers supporting Gov. Scott Walker - has its hand in a lot of areas (I need to point out that I'm finding it challenging to not refer to a corporation as an entity - as an it, or a they). 
Koch also produces a lot of toilet paper. I started to think that the protestors could have taken that fact and run with it - all over their clever signs.  Somehow, they refrained.
But they did manage to connect their struggle, a struggle of the people, to uprising people elsewhere. Egypt, for example.
I'm okay with this idea - the concept of solidarity between struggling groups of humans. We all want a fair life, we all want the same things at the end of the day, peace, clean water, enough food. We want other things too, and that may be where our troubles start, or how, in America, our garages get so full of stuff. But, hopefully, recession is teaching us to want less, or to check our desires against our needs. 
It is the suggestion that the Koch brothers are somehow the same as Hosini Mubarak, the ousted Egyptian leader, that I find unsettling. It actually makes me cringe. Is this connection a stretch? Does it discount the struggles of the Egyptian people, living for 30 years under an unjust regime, their lives and actions restricted and hindered by a police state environment? To me it seems like a (harmless, but) rather inaccurate line to draw.       
Food not Bombs, an organization that ". . . shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment" set up at the rally - and served food.
And, thankfully, some levity was served up too. It makes me think that sometimes people just like making something. We enjoy self-expression. We like being free enough to speak our minds on a hunk of cardboard or . . .
. . .  bright green poster board. If we live under regimes too long, we get tired, restless. And some of us, when encouraged by our satirists and humorists, even gather (see - The Rally to Restore Sanity, Oct 30 2011, the brainchild of John Stewart and Steven Colbert, funny, poignant, guys).

The Rally to Restore Sanity might have emboldened this guy to declare that he likes turtles and . .  I think the subtext is - let's  clear away the cacophony and pay attention to each other.  

The divide between American classes is a growing, and sometimes taboo, topic. We're America and we're not supposed to be this divided, right? We don't match the vision of ourselves, a free and a democratic country. That's uncomfortable. You might know this, or feel this. Rolland Merullo, the author of Breakfast with Buddha, allows his character, Otto, to explore our fear - about how we find ourselves in a divided nation and excuse it, but are bothered by our continued, silly justification for how things are. 
We all want a good life for ourselves. Do we want that life for others? How far from ourselves does this circle of well wishing extend? Our husbands and wives, children, family, friends? 

The character Otto seems to carry the same weighty questions on a road trip with a monk; he considers the disparity between his fellow Americans in one scene, saying:

"I realize I am generalizing and tiptoeing along the edge of the territory into which we never venture very far in the American national conversation: The fact that there are whole neighborhoods into which cabdrivers refuse to take a fare; that there are people among us who live in circumstances we are ashamed to talk about, children who live that way; the fact that there are huge quadrants of our cities where people like me - and not just white people like me - simply do not go, places we do not see, do not want to think about as we are sipping our designer martinis in swanky downtown bistros where dinner for two costs what these other Americans earn each week. We excuse it by citing the laws of capital, or by telling ourselves we work harder, or that it is social inequality that serves as the motivation for our national wealth. All good logic, maybe. Still, I've always been ill at ease with the vast distance between my life and the lives of other Americans."  

A ruling class and one that serves them is also the theme of Lewis Lapham's musical documentary "The American Ruling Class" (here's a 10 minute taste of the film).  Is this the good life, a life ill at ease when confronted with certain truths? I got back on the train, and felt overwhelmed, and wanted to take shelter, and wanted to make the world right.

You know, I did not want to leave Egypt in February. I was enjoying my job. I felt safe and liked the work of walking the desert and surveying with my partners. Then I called my mom and dad, perched by their television, in the vastness of southern Utah. I think it was around the 1st of February. The protests had been going strong in Cairo and in other cities. We'd lost the internet and the phone service was intermittent. My mom said she had seen, on the news that day, images of tear gas canisters used against the protestors in Tahir Square with made in the U. S. A. clearly printed on them. She was worried. That night I thought I'd be okay with leaving, if it came to that, which - eventually, it did.

You can see that news here "Made in the U.S.A.: Tear Gas, Tanks, Helicopters, Rifles and Fighter Planes in Egypt Funded and Built Largely by the Pentagon and American Corporations(January 31, 2011).

"The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor." Voltaire