Published: The World’s Oldest Paved Road (Widan al-Faras)

Yesterday, an article of mine about the world’s oldest surviving paved road was published by Ahram Online.

A couple of months ago, I ventured into the desert with a friend in search of this road, namely a quarry road called Widan al-Faras in Egypt’s Lake Qarun area. The road, some 4500 years old, is around 11 Km long. It was built by the Ancient Egyptians during the Old Kingdom era, and more specifically, during the reign of the Pyramid Builders. Here is the full article:

The Quarry Road 2

Artist smashes $1m vase by Ai Weiwei

The following was reported by The Guardian today:

Miami police have arrested a local artist who they say destroyed a $1 million vase by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei to protest that the city’s newly opened museum is only displaying international art.

Dominican-born Maximo Caminero, 51, was arrested and charged on Sunday with criminal mischief after picking up one of 16 brightly painted vases at the Perez Art Museum Miami and throwing it to the ground when confronted by security, according to a police report.
He told police he broke the vase to protest that the museum “only displayed international artists,” according to the police report.
Caminero, reached by telephone, told Reuters he is a painter and lives in Miami. He said he planned to host a news conference on Tuesday to explain his actions and declined to comment further.
He told the Miami New Times he had no idea the vase was so valuable, and said he was a fan of Ai.
“I didn’t know that it was that amount,” he told the paper’s online edition, saying he thought it was “a common clay pot like you would find at Home Depot, frankly.”

Now, isn’t this interesting? I say interesting because the ‘act’of Caminero involved an artwork by Ai Weiwei, who himself featured in a famous ‘act’ destroying a Han Dynasty vase. It was a metaphor –in part- on art as a cycle of creation-destruction and a reflection on breaking the taboos, as well as a criticism of an oppressive regime that almost enslaved workers into mass production. In other words, it was an outcry against a power structure.

If Caminero destroyed the vase to protest the museum’s discrimination against local artists, isn’t this –in a way- what Ai Weiwei himself had done before? Aren’t museums a perfect example of a power structure that decides the ‘fate’ and shapes the ‘taste’ of entire generations?

Of course there is the initial rejection to the idea of destroying a work of art to get your message across, but in this specific case, if I were Ai Weiwei, I would bless the act and forgive the damage.


Masters of the Deep: Silencing the Planet

“For tens of millions of years, whales (these enormous, intelligent, communicative creatures) evolved with essentially no natural enemies.
Then the development of the steamship in the nineteenth century introduced an ominous source of noise pollution. As commercial and military vessels became more abundant, the noise background in the oceans (…) became noticeable.

Whales communicating across the oceans must have experienced increasingly greater difficulties. The distance over which they could communicate must have decreased steadily. Two hundred years ago, a typical distance across which two finback whales could communicate was perhaps 10,000 kilometers. Today, the corresponding number is perhaps a few hundred kilometers. Do whales know each other’s names? Can they recognize each other as individuals by sounds alone? We have cut the whales off from themselves. Creatures that communicated for tens of millions of years have now effectively been silenced.

And we have done worse than that, because there persists to this day a traffic in the dead bodies of whales. There are humans who hunt and slaughter whales and market the products for lipstick or industrial lubricant. Many nations understand that the systematic murder of such intelligent creatures is monstrous, but the traffic continues, promoted chiefly by Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union.

We humans, as a species, are interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Would not a good beginning be improved communication with terrestrial intelligence, with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the great whales?”

Excerpt from Cosmos by Carl Sagan – 1980.


Nymphomaniac: Of Sexuality and Hypocrisy

Is sexuality agonizing or liberating?
What defines the line between eroticism and pornography in art?
Should we be true to ourselves even if we hurt ourselves and others in process?
Can we turn our moral lens into a moral compass guided by our hearts rather than our norms?

Spoiler Warning
Lars von Trier ‘used’ the nymphomaniac theme to get several messages across (at times, in a condescending manner, overtly clear), which makes the movie fall short of being an otherwise masterful metaphor. It is charged with political and cultural ideologies emphasized through the words of its protagonists, explaining what we already know all too well: that the society is plagued with hypocrisy, that you’ll be judged and hurt if you’re different, that women cannot ‘get away’ with actions that men would actually brag about, to the end of the list. So, where is the twist?

Before talking about the twist, the context is worth a couple of paragraphs. The ability of Lars von Trier to play around the fine line between pornographic material and erotic content is phenomenal. In Part I, we watch a cascade of erotic scenes that, eventually, gives way to a more profound moments of truth, as Christian Slater experiences delirium and falls apart, and as Uma Thurman thrashes the ‘whore’ that stole away her husband. In Part II, the intensity is realized through sexuality, as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experiments with a full spectrum of sexual practices, in a ‘sincere’ attempt to recover her ability to orgasm and realize her full fantasy, which she did through assuming uncalculated (and even absurd) risks and painful encounters: a baptism of fire, as she finally ‘comes’ while being sodomized (the age-old pleasure-and-pain thing).

Throughout the two parts, she never lied to herself, never got ‘off her way’ for anyone or anything, never restrained herself from fulfilling her desire, and not because she was a ‘whore’ (to use the language of some viewers), but because she was being herself: a nymphomaniac.

Then comes what would be the twist, as her story (or rather stories) fall upon the ears of an older man, a well-read man who admits towards the end that he is a virgin and who refers to himself as ‘asexual’. He seems to live on the margin of society, and that’s why he does not share the disturbed views commonly held by its members. He relates to all what she says in literary and cultural terms (his mindset belongs to another realm), and he helps her put things in perspective, accepting her and reassuring her, before finally switching roles! At the end of it all, his entire lifetime of learning and theorizing gives way to the most powerful instinct as he tries to have sex with her, only to prove her point. The man who had told her that he ‘would not get on his knees for religion or sex’ finally loses it, getting on his knees.

She shoots him in the dark, and the movie ends to the tunes of a variation on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’: Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?

The real twist, at least to my way of understanding, is one that involves the viewer and how he/she would isolate himself/herself from the traditional norms and natural leniency to judge as he/she sees his/her own nakedness (morally and physically) in the most extreme of contexts.

I personally liked the movie a lot, not for its over-worn messages (even if they have been clothed in a feminist attire), but rather for being a profound satire on the human condition, having –literally- stripped it to the saddening core.


A Walk in Masonic Barcelona

A few days ago, I went on a guided tour in Barcelona’s historic center to visit some of the city’s most well-hidden treasures, namely buildings with masonic symbols. In this post, I will share some info about the walk without revealing the exact itinerary, because those of you in Barcelona might like to do it, and because I think it would be better to do it with the guide (Alexandre Lloreda, Literat Tours) rather than on your own, given his excellent knowledge and his passion for the theme: Check the website of his agency here.

The tour (Masonic Barcelona) started with an introduction to Freemasonry, its history (from the XIV c. onwards), its symbols, its values, etc. A fair share was given to Freemasonry in Spain, which has around 170 Masonic lodges, with the central one being in Barcelona. It is interesting how Freemasonry was demonized by Franco who associated it with Jewish conspiracies. It comes as no surprise though, bearing in mind that most of the liberators of the ex-Spanish colonies in the Americas were Freemasons, and so were most of the figures of the Second Republic in Spain. One of the participants, himself a mason, emphasized how the Freemasonry in Spain until the Civil War was largely a French influence, and hence the rejection for it on part of those who associated France with all the evils imaginable (cherchez the Church vs. the French Illustration!).

The guide also talked about the ranks of masons, their division into two currents, and the symbols they use. In addition to obvious symbols like the compass and the square, other symbols include the 7-pointed star and the acacia tree, reminiscent of Hiram Abiff, the Phoenician architect of King Solomon’s Temple. God is the master geometrician and architect (and hence the G in their symbol), and it’s only logical for a ‘mason’ to venerate Him as such.

The itinerary took us to places like Portaferrissa Street and the Cathedral of Barcelona, where we could admire plaques and friezes with Masonic symbols that seem to elude the viewer. As I said, I will not mention building numbers or exact places, but I’ll attach some photos (scroll down). Among the interesting things that we saw were marks left by groups of masons in the façade of a medieval church. The marks might have served as a quality control mechanism (to see which stones erode first and which are more resilient), and also as a ‘count’ in order to pay different groups of masons according to how much they contributed to work. Then came a building with a huge clock on top, and a goddess holding what seemed to be the arms of the clock, but on a more careful examination appears to be nothing but a compass. The marks on the clock (12, 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9) sum up to 33, the age of Christ when he supposedly died on the cross.

Enough for now, but here are some interesting short facts:
Did you know that Freemasonry has no ‘ideology’?
Did you know Freemasonry did not accept atheists into its circles?
Did you know that Freemasons played a massive role in the French & American Revolutions?
Did you know that Mozart was a Freemason and that his Magic Flute is almost a masonic manifesto?
Did you know freemasons can recognize each other’s rank (apprentice, fellow or master) through special handshakes?
Did you know that black and white chessboard floors are typically used in many masonic meeting places?
Enjoy the photos.

Renaissance Tales – IV: Filippo & Filippino Lippi

Filippo Lippi is not a name that rings a bell for those who are not familiar with Renaissance Art. The young Filippo who became a friar was definitely not the kind of ‘friar’ that the Church would hope for. More interested in painting than in his religion classes, he finally left the monastery, but kept his religious vows. One adventure after another, it was his artistic wizardry that saved him from the pirates that had kidnapped him and took him to North Africa for sale.

Back to Italy, his talent did not go unnoticed. The Medici took him under their patronage, and would save him later on when he did the unthinkable (and the unforgivable). It was while painting a picture for a monastery that he first met the charming Lucrezia Buti, a young nun (some say a girl in the custody of the nuns) that bewitched him. He convinced the nuns to let Lucrezia pose for the figure of the Madonna, and before they knew it, he had kidnapped her, had his way with her, and refused to give her back.

The scandal was assured, and so was the reaction of the Pope, if it was not for the intervention of the Medici, thanks to whom the Pope settled for a milder measure: a pardon for marrying Lucrezia, who bore him a child no less talented than his father: Filippino Lippi.

Unlike his father, Filippino gained the respect and appreciation of his fellows. Following an initial apprenticeship with Botticelli, he started receiving one commission after another, cementing his fame and his status among his contemporaries. His art had more ‘content’ than his father’s, and it hid many messages alluding to his intellectual activity. The day Filippino died, all the workshops in Florence closed in grief. Lippi the son was nothing like Lippo the father, but they both share the holy spirit (of artistic mastery).

Filippino Lippi Self-Portrait