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THE GOOD NEWS!

THE GOOD NEWS!!

Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains.  

Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me.  I decided to persevere.  Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned.

Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News yet, it may prove the beginning of the end of 45’s reign.

For Genuine Good News, vetted by the UNHCR, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Wim Wenders,  please consider the following:

RIACE:  ITALIAN VILLAGE ABANDONED BY LOCALS, ADOPTED BY MIGRANTS

 

This southern Italian village saw its population plummet from 2,500 to 400 by 1998.  It’s a familiar pattern, locals moving north in hopes of better jobs.

Riace mayor Domenico Lucano saw the international flood of refugees into Italy as an opportunity rather than a blight. When a boatload of Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s beach, Lucano proposed that they remain in the village and occupy some of the hundreds of empty houses and apartments— while making themselves useful around town, in construction and gardening, learning Italian, and sending their children to school.

This they did, and before long Riace was becoming the model for other depopulated towns. Each asylum seeker receives ca. $39 a day from Rome to cover housing, food, clothing, and medical care. Much of this funding is recycled right into rentals and local shops—which have revived thanks to renewed needs..  

Obviously the welcoming policy is more economically and socially sound than financing massive refugee camps outside the big cities.  Riace is now inhabited by people from 20 countries.  

The mayor of a nearby town, Gioiosa Ionica, notes that aside from the economic benefits, the presence of refugees also brings a certain cosmopolitanism to local children, who learn that people of another color or religion may play cricket, not football. But they can all play foosball.

In Germany a couple of enterprising mayors have also welcomed migrants into their dying towns, with mixed success. On the whole, European countries are notoriously unwilling to absorb more than a tiny number of  refugees.

The question of admitting and resettling refugees has brought down governments across the world.  Domenico Lucano of Riace certainly deserved his prize in the Mayors of the World competition, but the big picture is still dark.

The first group of migrants to accept Lucano’s invitation to settle in Riace happened to be those two (or three) hundred Kurds. The Kurds do have a distinctive history, relatively unknown in the West these days—though they are increasingly viewed as the most effective military force against ISIS in the Levant.  

En route to China, Marco Polo met Kurds in Mosul, and had little good (or reliable) to say of them. The high point of Kurdish history seems to have been the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century.

 Saladin was a swashbuckling Sunni of Kurdish origin, lord of several Crusader castles.

Krac de Chevaliers, which I saw just before the outbreak of the civil war, has been many times threatened, destroyed and restored.  Saladin was defeated by Richard I of England (the Lionhearted) in the battle of Arsuf in Palestine. Arsuf had been Appollonia in the Classical Age; such are the layerings common in the Levant.)    

The Janpulat clan were Kurdish feudal lords in the north for almost a century before the Ottoman conquest of Syria. One was appointed governor of Aleppo in 1604, but that ended badly, as so many campaigns have in that ancient city.

 

A thousand years after Saladin, the United States believes that the Kurds of Syria are the most powerful indigenous force against ISIS.  Certainly the Kurds would like to reunite their fragmented holdings in northern Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

For many years Turkey has feared establishment of a Kurdish state and would like to insert the Turkish army into the battle for the ISIS capital of Raqqa.

“Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s [IS] grave,” Erdogan said recently.  He could have added, “Without the Kurds!”

Raqqa is not so interesting, said our guide, driving us quickly into and out of the nondescript town in October 2010, shortly before Syria began to implode. In fact Raqqa was once a major capital, competing with Baghdad along the Euphrates River, until its definitive destruction by the Mongols in the 12th century.     

Erdogan and Trump will meet in Washington on May 16. It will be the first meeting between the two authoritarian heads of two NATO countries.

Trump said early on that he planned to stay out of Syria, but then changed his mind.  Mysteriously, the badly targeted bombs raised his approval ratings both at home and abroad.  

Now what?  Trump holding hands with Putin over the smoking remains of Syria.  Though the present nation of Syria was of course only a convenient figment of western imperialism. The Kurds have at least as much historical claim to a homeland as today’s Syrians.

Those Kurdish refugees who chose to settle in the little town of Riace are not only out of the line of fire, they are in a grand tradition.  In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.  

The reasons for the ancient exodus have never been clear:  war, famine, expulsion, plague, simple overcrowding or a whim of the oracle at Delphi.

In 1972 a scuba diver discovered two bronze statues buried in the sand not far from the Riace beach.

They turned out to be splendid life-size warriors from the 5th century BCE.  Probably they were part of an ancient coastal settlement now underwater on this “subsiding coast.”  

But that’s another story, and definitely not Good News.    

POTUS FULFILLS CAMPAIGN PLEDGES AND MORE

 

I was  in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.  

Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.

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Social media will soon feature these scenes of the conflagration from scores of phones, in a technique pioneered in the Arab revolutions.

Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur  invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.

Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS.  Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified:  there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.  

In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels.  The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.)  Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.

Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria.  Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…)   Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.

Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times. 

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”

While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.  

Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week.  When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.

Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.  In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Note:  Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands:  Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.

Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee.  Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.

Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.

A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.    

The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000.  But no more.  Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.  

In any event, this is no time for comedy.  Or is it?

 

 

The Panama Papers, Now Playing

Screen-Shot-2016-04-17-at-11.29.48             Map from  ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

 

“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)

                                               Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca

 

Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad.  There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of  follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.  

Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?  

The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War?  If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted?  It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.

During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism.  And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.

 Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.

The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler  (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.

 

David-Petraeus-L-and-Hillary-Clinton-Paul-J.-Richards-AFPGetty-Images-640x480

Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role  in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.”  Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region.  Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.

However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.

Early Postcards from Aleppo, Belated Cease-fires from Munich, and Picking Up the Pieces

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Ancient Phoenician city, Amrit, founded 3000 b.c. Near Tartous, a fishing town on the eastern Mediterranean, of doubtful strategic value.

 

And more recently……

 

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Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.

Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.

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In 2010, near the so-called Dead Cities, left over from Roman settlement; probably by by February 2016 reduced to gravel

 Perhaps the Bedouins will survive, with their camels. th

 

And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.

 

Assad on guardian's door of Tartous museum 2011

Assad poster on door of Tartous museum in 2010

 

Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.

Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only.  This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.

An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up.  It appears much better preserved now, even after the most  recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.

640px-Citadel_of_Aleppo

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The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C..  Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.

In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel.  But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began.  The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria.  The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began.  The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.

Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.

After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage.  (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966. 

There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture.  In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.

A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion.  Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.

Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.

In any event,  the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last.   The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.)  I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.

“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections.  How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.

JF_deLaperouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.

Comte Jean-Francois de la Perouse

Comte Jean-Francois de Laperouse

 

 

I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.

Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.

My Other Aunt, Susan Sontag, and Poverty Porn

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“Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag” recently finished a short run in a basement theater deep in downtown New York.   Aside from the sly title, who could resist a play about a family of sharecroppers who are interviewed and photographed by two live-in reporters from the “Big City”? Also on offer: an ancient Mesopotamian sage, James Agee, Walker Evans,  Sontag, and rampant spoofing of Broadway musicals.  The whole farrago aims to expose the ethical pitfalls and philosophical limitations of so-called “poverty porn,” a baggy category of poignant images of abject conditions that capture attention without actually moving viewers to action.

A hog killing, staged, because family too poor to afford a pig.

A hog killing, staged, because family too poor to afford a pig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

imagesHere we might point out Emoya Estates, a tourist resort where rich folk can rent shanties and pretend to be poor.This stunningly original enterprise is run by a corporation which also has a luxury hotel, game reserve and spa, and perhaps the shanties’ authenticity is somewhat compromised by the presence in each unit of hot and cold running water, radiant heating, and wifi, with the option of using a “long-drop” outdoor toilet.  The cost of a night’s stay is close to the monthly income of the average local worker.

panoramic view of emoya estates

Panoramic view of Emoya Estates shanty town

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Berkeley, having written about a local program for the homeless (advocacy journalism rather than poverty porn, I hope) I was moved to volunteer. As part of our training, we had to live out of a suitcase and find, without cash, credit, or a phone, a place to spend the night; we had to beg for money on the street; we had to apply for food stamp benefits in the local office.  These were memorable exercises, whether or not they made me a more effective counsellor.

Santa Monica, California, like Berkeley, has a benign climate, a relatively tolerant community, and a sizeable population of street people. Living  in Santa Monica for a stretch, and trying to write about the two towns’ responses to issues with their homeless, I realized before long that finding parallels was not the same as finding solutions.

homeless in berkeley

Homeless in Berkeley

 

 

 

homeless in santa monica

Homeless in Ssnta Monica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the streets of Santa Monica you hear languages and accents from all over, but especially from Eastern Europe, on every street corner.  This must have been true for decades before the Getty Foundation made any cultural (and/or economic) waves in this seaside community.

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In Santa Monica, the Embassy hotel apartments, corporately renamed as the Palihouse

Somewhere between her stints in Sarajevo, Susan Sontag lived downstairs from us in Santa Monica, at the Embassy, a Moorish-Mediterranean apartment hotel that housed Getty fellows and visitors during the construction of the Brentwood acropolis.

Walking home with her one evening from the research center, temporarily in a bank building around the corner, I mentioned another denizen of the Embassy, an aged Czech director who had fled Prague in 1968. After decades on the fringes of Hollywood, he had just managed to get another movie produced and noticed.  It was set in Communist Czechoslovakia and featured a famous French actor, with an Italian name, as the director’s uncle. Michel Piccoli, it was.

The director hadn’t, beyond first blush, had much use for me and my Czech involvements, although he was happy enough to meet Sontag for a glass of wine at our apartment. (And a glass it was: we had just returned from a desert trek and had only one bottle of red in the Moorish fretwork cupboard.)

After Sontag departed, I couldn’t resist mentioning her remarkable resemblance to my aunt. He snorted.  “Nonsense:  she is a witch, and you. . . and your. . .aunt. . .”   Words failed him: he must have meant “sorceress”.

We all went to his movie, which had mixed reviews. As did “Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag”, which in the end I never got to see.

But Susan Sontag really did resemble my aunt Myra, my father’s older sister (not my aunt Kate, with the pistol).

For several wartime years, we lived in or near Myra’s household in San Francisco, in the upper Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, then solidly middle class. Aunt Myra imported bohemian friends from the art institute downtown, some of them European refugees. They hung around the house, drinking, smoking, talking, munching on pungent cheeses and kippered salmon.  I suppose that Myra considered her hospitality part of the war effort.   In any case, her friends were not forbears of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury’s drug-lit New Age future.

Heinz was a painter, tall and pallid, all skin and bones and eyes bulging behind thick glasses, a half-Jewish refugee from Berlin.  His wife Hanne’s parents were Viennese Jews who had died in in Theresienstadt. The two had met in wartime  Shanghai, where they avoided starvation by mounting a nightclub act—Heinz accompanying Hanne, a sad-eyed waif who sang ballads with a hoarse Marlene Dietrich accent. In San Francisco Heinz soon found a job as an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle.  Hanne clerked at a big department store while working for a degree in social work at Berkeley.

Sometimes, in Myra’s Belvedere Street living room, Heinz would bring out his guitar and play unlikely American melodies like “Erie Canal” and “Blue Tail Fly” while the rest of us sang chorus.

My aunt Myra had large, dark eyes, white-streaked dark hair, and a resonant, sardonic laugh.  I doubt that she knew much about Gertrude Stein, but she had a similar gift for presenting herself as wise and original, without much supporting evidence. Her provocative pronouncements tended to trail off into vague chortles.

In those years, children seemed oddly safer in cities, and Myra’s younger daughter, gentle Jenny, looked out for me when we played on the street.  On the other hand, Jenny’s sister, Rose, was beautiful and willful, and in high school took up with a boy from an Italian gangster family. When he was arrested, a photo appeared in the Chronicle of him with Rose, swathed in fur, on his arm.

All the cousins lined up every Saturday for the matinee at the Haight Theater—or the Castro. Movietone News showed flat gray pans of planes shooting off into the sky from aircraft carriers, and then cartoons, Flash Gordon, the much-despised Three Stooges, and finally, unsuitable noir features such as Sorry, Wrong Number. A real-life noir, starring cousin Rose, followed, decades after those Saturday matinees, and lovely Rose was excised from the family albums.

Aunt Myra didn’t come across the bay to visit us very often after we had settled in Berkeley.  Once I did take her on a walk around the campus, and when we came to Wheeler Hall, she said that she had gone there as a girl to take the college admissions exam.

“I got in.  Your father didn’t. . .” she said, trailing off with the wicked chuckle. She had gone to work for the telephone company until, said my father, snidely, she married a meal ticket.  There wasn’t always money then for smart girls wanting an education.

After my first trip to Europe, I wanted to tell her about paintings I had liked, and she said, “I may not have been to Stanford, but you pronounce it ‘Van Gokh’”. Somewhat later, she gave me a thick paperback about Paul Klee.  “It’s ‘Clay,’” she said. (In order to find corroborative photos of Aunt Myra’s resemblance, I would have to go deep into the closet where I found Aunt Kate’s pistol. Maybe later.)

Handsome as she was, Myra was not vain, kept her white-streaked hair rather short, and wore camp shirts and tired cardigans, even to our daughter’s (first) wedding.  I remember Susan S. arriving a bit late to a Getty lecture, sitting just in front of us, loosening her ponytail, and spreading her hair tenderly over her shoulders.  I remember that Mike Davis was lecturing, noting that the cost of one marble bathroom partition in the new Getty Center would feed a family of four in Watts for at least a year.

Viennese refugee Hanne, as a social worker in (I think) the county office in postwar Richmond, California, was repeatedly horrified by the facts and frauds of the largely black poor in her jurisdiction.  I wouldn’t have wanted her as my caseworker.

A young Harvard scholar suggests, based partly on a 1946 Minnesota study, where 36 students essentially starved themselves in order to see how best to restore famished postwar populations in Europe, that the poor make bad decisions because their “bandwidth” is impaired by the implicit pressures of poverty, of scarcity. This may not seem a revolutionary conclusion, but the resulting behavioral applications might be.  Starving people, the study suggested, lose mental as well as physical capacities.

Syrian children at a refugee camp near the Turkish border

The U.N. estimates that there are now three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war, and six and a half million internally displaced throughout Syria. The Islamic State often gains converts by simply providing bread to the inhabitants of towns it has captured, most recently in Palmyra, where the architectural sites appear to be spared. 

 

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In Raqqa, a young man mourns the loss of six family members in one barrel bomb attack

 ‘The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some sort of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will always be a knowledge at bargain prices- a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom: as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.” (Susan Sontag )

Perhaps, but photos could very well have been the only remainder of ancient Palmyra.

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