Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sudanese Hug Revisited

In January, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about my friendship with Mahmoud, a Sudanese archaeologist, and a greeting I had never seen before, the Sudanese Hug.

The basic gesture is a right handed pat on another person’s left shoulder while they do the same to you. The Sudanese Hug is more formal than an embrace, but conveys more warmth than a handshake. In fact, with good friends you might start with an embrace, greet each other while giving the Sudanese Hug, and end with a handshake.

I went back to Sudan this spring for an archaeological project and it was fun to revisit The Hug.

I watched families greet one another with it at the airport, and kept my eye out for it on the journey north to the dig site.

At the site, a Sudanese archaeologist friend named Mortada sauntered up to me and gave a stylish side glancing brush to my shoulder, rather than the squarely vertical downward pat that is the norm. “You remember the Sudanese hug, don’t you?” he asked me. Sure I did, but I had never seen it delivered in such a suave, cool way.

After our dig season was over, we went to visit Mahmoud at his home in Khartoum. I was happy to be able to give him a paper copy of the magazine so he could see the article in print.

“You know,” he told me, “a lot of Sudanese have seen this article online.” Apparently, English speaking Sudanese had passed the link around to their friends. What prompted this popularity? “It’s not often that the international news has something about Sudan that is positive, instead of bad news.”

Mahmoud’s sister, the matriarch of his family, came in. Mahmoud introduced each of us in turn, and then pointing at me, he said, “I introduce Jack with just two words: ‘Sudanese Hug.’”

A huge smile spread across her face and she raised her hands in astonishment. “Mashallah! You wrote that? It’s special to Sudan!” Another Sudanese woman I know in the United States had made the same point: the hug was such a natural part of her physical vocabulary that she didn’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon from her home country.

In fact, I had contacted a few anthropologists who work in Sudan and neighboring countries in northern and eastern Africa and they all commented that The Hug was a uniquely Sudanese phenomenon.

Mahmoud told me that he had heard from strangers who read the article and used some internet sleuthing to piece together that he was the archaeologist I had written about. They wanted to know that the story was true and that he was a real person. Old friends and family also wrote to confirm his identity -- “This is about you, right?” His favorite response came from a cousin who was working in the Persian Gulf. “This must be you. Now I know that you must be doing drugs or something with the foreigners you work with -- you are having too much fun.”

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smart People by Lydia Diamond

My wife thought Smart People by Lydia Diamond was going to be one of those plays where four people sit around and talk. According to the ads, they would be talking about privilege and ambition and race. She was right for about 5 minutes.

The opening four person dinner party ended mid-scene. Then we were transported back a year to meet all the characters. Brian White is a white professor at Harvard who seems to have found a biological reason for racism. Ginny Yang is a MacArthur Fellow at the university who practices as a clinical psychologist and is doing research on young Asian women. Jackson Moore is Brian's best (only?) friend, a black doctor still in training. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring African-American actress.

They meet, they mate, they talk.

The play is structured very cinematically with lots of quick cuts between scenes, sometimes alternating between scenes that are staged on different areas of the versatile set. Much of the play is written as dialogues, between characters or, in many cases between one of the quartet and an unseen other. Jackson has an argument with his supervisor, for example, but we only hear his side of the story; similarly we hear Ginny's part of a discussion with a shopkeeper about honoring a coupon. Eventually we get back to the dinner party and see what happens afterwards.

The central subject of the play is race, and there are lots of interesting permutations and observations throughout. Ginny complains when the others think of race as "black and white" and excludes myriad others. Brian, studying race, does not use Asian subjects because they're complicated. (Agreed; I just got a Federal form and under race, the "Asian" menu included: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Pacific Islander... and a Chinese-American whose ancestors worked the laundries in San Francisco is very different from the guy who moved here from Shanghai 5 years ago.)

There's pushback on Brian from the university and his friends. Brian thinks his research will force people to confront and deal with their inherent racism. But does proving racism is biological excuse people for being racist? What sort of racial feeling does a parent with an adopted child of another race have? 

The acting was all very good, and I thought Miranda Craigwell as Valerie was a standout. It may be that she had some of the best lines and a broad range to play: comic, romantic, provocateur and as an actor on an audition trying some different ways to play a character.

The characters find themselves in situations that force the audience to reconcile with their racial context. Jackson loses his temper at work: angry black man or just an angry guy? Ginny has a weird shopping addiction (Imelda Marcos-like?). In the situations where we hear only their side of a conversation, the audience is co-opted into playing the part of hospital administrator, or clothing store clerk. We judge them, and it's clear from how they respond that they feel judged. 

I found the play a bit too ambitious. I respect the endeavor, but I think the subject matter is so vast that many of the intriguing observations got short shrift and ended up being fairly shallow. That said, the story is entertaining and the play will likely start lots of conversations as viewers pick up the threads left dangling by the characters.

Ultimately the show does a good job of showing how race is a context in every situation while portraying four individuals dealing with those situations. Currently, it's also a bit long at over 2 hours plus intermission. There's lots of good material here and if Diamond edits and shapes it, I think the show will improve.

Smart People is a Huntington Theater production currently playing at the Calderwood Pavillion in the South End

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Barber of Aleppo

I discovered a cool online magazine called The Weeklings. They publish one essay a day about culture, from music to movies and comics, to someone's random musings on the Syrian Civil War. Last Thursday, those random musings were mine:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Arab man who held a sharp razor to my throat. I hope he’s okay. 
My first trip to Syria was in 1998. I had somehow managed to convince the new director of excavations at Tell Brak that I could do all the illustrations, photography and database management he would need. We (that it so say, I) made some mistakes but we cobbled together a successful season that spring.
Read the rest here.

Monday, June 02, 2014

25 Years Ago in Tiananmen Square

Commentators are discussing the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On June 4, 1989, Chinese army troops rolled into the center of Beijing to destroy the nascent democracy movement there. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Beijing, it would be the equivalent of tanks on Washington’s National Mall.

I remember the June 4 very distinctly, as I was in Beijing at the time. In my personal history, that was a day of confusion and packing and evacuation, rumors and speculation. More significant in my memory is the afternoon of June 2, 1989.


I was in high school in 1985 when my dad accepted a job with IBM to help open a Beijing office. When I first went to China to visit my parents, it was still clearly a communist country. Everything was gray, or at best the brown of dirt and the drab olive of the androgynous uniforms everyone wore. I should have felt rich with my pockets full of American dollars, but spending foreign currency was officially limited to a specialized “Friendship Store,” half-stocked with trinkets for tourists.

By 1989, things had improved a little. A door had been cracked open and students and other protesters were seeking a voice in their future. Democracy. Freedom. Abstract concepts in a country so large, geographically and population-wise.

I watched on television as ragged-looking youths camped out in front of Beijing’s government buildings. Their demands seemed noisome and futile and the camera panned over to a crude looking facsimile of the Statue of Liberty that the protesters had christened The Goddess of Democracy.

It all seemed a bit pathetic to be honest.

When my dad suggested we visit Tiananmen Square, I went more for the sake of historic curiosity than real sympathy for the movement. In real life, the camps seemed even more squalid -- the students stayed up late at night chanting and demonstrating and now many of them were napping on flattened cardboard boxes like homeless people -- and the statue struck me as ugly.

We walked around a bit, picking up flyers that I couldn’t read. My parents translated signs and explained Chinese puns that they found clever. My mom laughed at a series of three portraits of Chinese politicians: Hu Yaobang, Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang. What was funny about that? “Wan Li” sounds like the words “ten thousand miles” and the series suggested that the new Party Chairman Zhao Ziyang was ten thousand miles from his liberal predecessor, Hu Yaobang.

Then, as we were readying to leave the square, people started shouting. Rumors were flying. The police were coming! The army was coming! They were coming to take down the statue!

Suddenly, the crowd rose up. They rallied and gathered around the statue. And that lousy Liberty wannabe transformed before my eyes: she became The Goddess of Democracy. In the center of a mass of young people demanding dignity and recognition, she became beautiful, and her protectors heroic. I felt -- perhaps it was just my imagination -- that the students had moved beyond fear and were motivated by a positive energy, by ambition, and righteousness, and hope.

My parents, worried about our safety, shuffled us away, back to their apartment on the outskirts of town. Of course there was no crackdown, no massacre that day. That wouldn’t happen for another 36 hours.


The Tiananmen Massacre was horrific, and more so for being so thoroughly whitewashed within the country. A young Chinese friend told me that when he grew up, he heard that in 1989, violent student protestors had killed a police officer and the students had to be jailed for their offense. It wasn’t until he worked as a tour guide and was constantly asked about Tiananmen that he did some research on English language internet sites and found the truth.

China is very different now. A visit I took in 2007 showed a country that was in motion: colorful, vibrant, full of energy and ambition. Stores were full of international and domestic made goods and they were all happy to accept US dollars. Men and women wore bright, modern fashions that made me feel dowdy. Shanghai seemed to exist five years into our future, with its shiny new skyscrapers, elevated highways and go-getter populace.

(It’s not all good, however. As the government dissolved socialist work groups, they also disbanded the health care system and social safety net that went with them. Rural poverty and urban pollution remain large problems, and political dissent is still far from tolerated.)

Looking at the past 25 years, it’s tempting to see all the progress as having happened despite the June 4 crackdown. I see it another way; that for twenty-five years, the spirit of the demonstrators of Tiananmen, the energy unleashed by the students and ordinary folk who wanted to contribute to mapping out the the future of their country and their own fates has been the engine driving the nation.

There is no democracy in China yet, and certain freedoms are limited. That said, modern China looks a lot less like the Communist forces that crushed the protests and a lot more like the vision of the protestors.