Thursday, October 05, 2017

pride in our parks

I received a message on LinkedIn asking me whether I wanted to share a regeneration project I was involved in to be promoted by some online publication. The request didn't appear anything much more than an attempt to aggregate some success stories for a self-proclaimed publisher and their blog/book/magnum opus.

Nonetheless, I tried to come up with something worthy of a mention and moments before I would receive a notification on my Twitter feed of a retweet by RioOnWatch, I reminisced of an emotional moment just about 4 years ago these days from Rio de Janeiro.

At the time, I was in charge of coordinating and running the floor for the Urban Age 2013 Conference -- as Rio was gearing up for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, we were investigating major investments (mainly in transport and regeneration) and whether they related to / tried to alleviate some of the chronic problems facing the city. We wanted to highlight Parque Madureira as one that gifted the city with a public asset in a once redundant / obsolete part of the city.

The architects in charge of the project presented the project at the conference. While prepping for the actual conference, testing A/V and lighting, we've run each presentation to the desired setup and presentation sequence. One of the technicians in charge for the technical desk first erupted to shouts, laughters and excitement which were then slowly left to a mix of emotions and tears. He later told me he grew up in the area of regeneration, and was now using the park and very proud of it being showcased as a prime example of regeneration at the Conference.

This, for us, was a testimony of a story of success and one that probably merits a narrative and a reminder at times when there's little appetite or faith left in mass regeneration. At a time when I've been desperately searching for some inspiration, how I recall the joy and pride in that man's eyes...

Monday, February 20, 2017

as the desert runs into the sea

When you’re left dehydrated for four days in a desert, you begin to lose sense of direction, walk in circles and eventually starve yourself to your inevitable end. US border officials know this too well and are often left collecting corpses beyond recognition of those who desperately try to make it across the ruthless Sonoran Desert. That, or they encounter them during their journeys and take them away, but not all those journey-makers prefer this latter outcome. Exploited by traffickers on the Mexican side of the border, if they can manage to complete their perilous walks, they hope to find a safe haven, and sometimes find themselves knocking on strangers’ doors, only to hope that they’d extend a helping hand rather than turning them to the authorities.

As fatal as they are, deserts can be incredibly inviting geographies; with no end in sight, an infinite depth of field and an offer of wilderness that us humans have long let go of our lives, which immediately draws one’s gaze. Borders on the other hand, especially those with walls, fences or any other invisible apparatus of control are usually repulsive. In the case of Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s “El Mar La Mar”, these attributes are reversed; or rather merged: the Mexican-US border at once draws the pair in to tread a careful and sensitive excursion around it. They were taken by both the landscape and the hard border on a trip from New Orleans to San Francisco and started to storyline what is truly an intense documentary of survival and expulsion.

Shot on a Super 16, the film is a visual feast of landscape imagery, combined with some incredible and innovative sound design. As the southern Arizonian images of nature, wildlife and cowboys blend into whitened- and blackened-out images, uninterrupted testimonial interviews with border officials and journey-makers alike are mixed with field recordings, sometimes in their raw format but most times manipulated with additions of reverb or stretching out of frequencies. Hardly any of this comes as misplaced as they create an environment that is both very impressionistic but also abstracted to such extent that Mexicans' heart-wrenching stories create the incredible tension that the film rests on.

The film is split into three sections titled: “Rio”, “Costas” and “Tormenta”. I had my own interpretations but also went to ask the directors why they did not translate those titles, to which they replied they wanted the audience to keep engaging with the film by researching them if necessary and that they had only finished editing 5 days prior to the screening! But as a contextual point, the film's opening title "Rio" begins with a flickery image recorded from a moving vehicle, which, as the camera zooms out, slowly morphs into a recognisable image of a metal fence. It is one of the most dynamic scenes of the entire film, as the rest is very much made of a static (and stunning) visual language. But, despite that slow pace, the film is anything but stasis. The directors did an incredible job of marrying their audio-visual interpretations with people's testimonials and allowed for these to speak for themselves, and safely stayed away from taking a stance.

The shortest description I could make for the film would be “excruciatingly beautiful”. As I arrived in Berlin on Sunday late afternoon, I was still filled with certain inspirations I had acquired over the weekend. Ending up at strangers’ house late on Friday night, finding myself playing percussion in an impromptu house jam session, and meeting the same incredible people who had put out an exhibition at St Pancras Parish Church’s Crypt Gallery the next evening had already filled me with much anticipation, as if the prospects of going to Berlin, one of the most special places in my life, was not enough.

Titled “CAPUT”, that exhibition that displayed works from artists from France, Greece, Italy, Senegal, Turkey, the UK and the US not only responded to its own setting so intelligently, but also portrayed the interplay between life and death, the dynamic and the static. Everything I saw at El Mar La Mar seemed to have this incredible point of reference to works I saw and experienced at the exhibition. Can’s video installation complimented by sound recordings from the materials he used was as genuine as Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s mix of the harsh audio-landscapes, metallic surfaces and the soft human touch of border-gazers. Beyza’s poetry and grainy video footage were almost a response to the filmmakers’ own use of artistic language, through blur and abstraction. Having experienced a monochromatic part of her video, I could not help myself but remember how El Mar La Mar’s brutal black or white backdropped scenes of testimonials merged into the landscape photography. And Merve’s three paintings, with a varying tones of red, green and beige from vivid to pastel had defined my interpretation of the exhibition: although she refers to themes of harvest and blossom, their spatial features and subtle lines gave me an immediate feeling of rugged but tested landscapes and borders. Her painterly abstraction did not give me a feeling of exclusion; on the contrary a sense of invitation and intrigue.

So, it was almost hardly a coincidence when the Berlinale presenter on stage addressed her first question to the filmmakers about the painful beauty of the film and how its poetry-like structure almost made Sonoran Desert an appealing place. My second question was about the two men who walked for 8 days and ended up at knocking at the ranch the filmmakers were staying at. They connected them with humanitarian focussed organisations, while receiving their testimony of the journey. The men were very tired, sleep and water deprived over the final few days of their walk and had almost acquired a totally indifferent feeling to the emotions they were suffering from, except, when they talked about a fellow female traveler who died as they had to leave her behind, one of them started sobbing. I wanted to know how the directors approached these men about a story so traumatic and had just taken place: apparently, the men wanted to put their story out and the filmmakers were, by this point, experienced enough to create the optimal distance that allowed them to investigate deeply with true interest but remain emotionally stable as not to take a subjective stance. That's why this film was so powerful. So human, despite very few humans seen in footage.

Writing this text took me longer than I anticipated. In between the 11 films I saw, friends I met, very different environments I have been in (both physically and spiritually), my initial feelings towards El Mar La Mar stayed the same. If anything, they have been supplemented by various inspirations through the week, culminating with an unexpected approach on the dancefloor at the end of a long clubbing night (and morning) with the statement “can I dance next to you; you look so happy and make others happy” — something you don’t expect to hear much in Berlin, the ultimate individualist capital of hedonism.

But, that was also reminder of how much we seem to strive for these interactions and the need to really understand and communicate what we individually and collectively go through, whether this be with complete strangers or our neighbours. In fact, often is the case that the more we connect, the less rigid those definitional boundaries become. Like the first scene in El Mar La Mar where the fluid image turns into a hard fence, or the weekend in London that prepared me for my journey to Berlin… with gratitude to everyone who keeps inspiring, old and new alike.

Monday, February 06, 2017

cruel sun on a fake spring's day

the sun came out today. when i was least expecting it. and when i was certainly not ready for it. when it came out briefly on saturday, i was again neither expecting or prepared for it. but, it came with warmth, with a hint of smells of flowers, with long walks, hat shops and unexpected pub stops. it came in the form of pale ale and sushi. and when it left, i could do without it for a while. now that it's back, i don't know what do with it.

...because it wasn't real spring, and it turned out it wasn't here to stay.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Here comes the piss truck

“Here comes the piss truck” they were yelling and laughing. I don’t know why they call it that, but its arrival felt like a regular proceeding to the end of another working day for the Columbia Road Flower Market. Street markets are strange, in the sense that they have a single day working week; albeit an intense one at that.

Stranger is the three-sided football league we play in. A single, two-hour endeavour, first Sunday of each month. Less stranger is ‘planned engineering works’ that take place across various public transport infrastructure networks of London. Which is why, I had to cycle on a city bike to Tower Bridge, and run to New Cross thereafter, courtesy of my bike’s broken pedal and the festive period that prevented a quick fix.

That stretch of South London on any given Sunday is primarily home to communities of Afro-Caribbean origin who stroll between their homes and those of their relatives and their local centres of religious affairs. Congregations in front of brickwork, concrete or makeshift churches, Victorian, postwar, or semi-urban houses are celebrations of colour and glamour.

Running on a side street somewhere between South Bermondsey and Surrey Quays, I came across a lady, all dressed in white except for her golden necklace and the grey earphone through which she was euphorically talking to a relative. Her posture could not have been any calmer, though. She was taking small and calculated steps and owned the very pavement we shared for those few seconds. She smelled of summer; the streets smelled of River Thames’s low tide. By the time it reaches London, the river picks up some salt and it was this indistinct trace of smell of salt that was helping my head keep clear.

The game went well; we did a good job. It’s now 3 games without a loss; a straight out win, followed by two winning draws. We jumped on the unreliable Overground on the way back, which was now running a more regular service. I took my usual route from the station but instead of cutting directly across to my street, my feet dragged me across Columbia Road (next street up) to see the market day come to its conclusion. Only few more stalls were up, and there has been carnage of flowers; those that did not make the cut and were not walked home by young couples and aspiring flatmates.
A very loud truck started its engine and started rolling up the street. When it finally stopped before the last stall standing with a loud roar, the driver jumped out to the yells and laughs of the traders. They called it the ‘piss truck’. Another week had just ended with little out of the ordinary. The ‘piss truck’ was about to start its duty of sweeping away the end of the week as I hastily, but calmly, took this picture.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

3 Summers ago, me and my flatmate took a trip down to Congo. We didn't venture out all the way to the actual country; crossing the Thames was good enough. At the Young Vic, we were treated to a 3-hour long drama about the rise and the fall of Patrice Lumumba. At every moment, it felt like, we were in Kinshasa or Kisangani, following the dreams and aspirations of a young and rowdy idealist. Little did we know that the stellar performance was portrayed by none other than Chiwetel Ejiofor, until we saw him on the silver screen a few months later with 12 Years a Slave, earning him a nomination for the Oscars...

If Joe Wright's "A Season in the Congo" at the Old Vic was ( as much an architectural reconstruction of the Congo in the 1950s, Onashile's setup in the tiny Blue Room of the Southbank Centre could not have been any more minimalistic, yet all the same representative of a nondescript, imaginary music club in Glasgow. Yet, the four female actors; Teri Annn Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary, Diana Yekinni, and chieg among them Sabina Cameron took us back and forth between Scotland and Kalakuta, Lagos. Tolu's dreams were made and quashed between the dance floors of The Shrine and the toilets of a Glasgow club. Running just short of an hour, on a stage of a few square feet and a few props; the play, as part of the Africa Utopia weekend at the Southbank Centre, ironically clashed but also complemented the textile and souvenir stalls upstairs and the food market just outside the building. With the actors' final moment of reckoning against the male gaze, the male oppression and an homage to Fela Kuti and his fight against colonialism and corruption, the stage and the spectators were set ablaze. It's almost as though my current flatmate saw it coming when she told me as I was leaving the flat earlier: "I'm sure you're really going to enjoy the performance!"

]This side of the river is home to so much significance and magnificence in my life. I walked to my bicycle which I had locked to my favourite ever cycle rack in the entire universe (the magical story from March 2016 here:
As I was cycling home, felling all inspired and still ablaze, I was confronted by the "Great Fire 350", urban, public installation in front of the St. Paul's Cathedral. Only two days ago I had met a friend here and was telling about how the architectural marvel that is St. Paul's is only over 3 centuries old in its current incarnation, owing to the Great Fire of London (1666), which, among many catastrophes, rewarded to London and cemented the influence of great Sir Christopher Wren. Now, here, an event was taking place to "celebrate" the great fire and its (extremely important) place in the history of London. On the grounds, where, few years ago we were hearing Julian Assange shortly before his captivity at the Ecuadorian Embassy, when "Occupy London" began, where, for months in, months out, tourists to London would share the space with dozens of tents. ... And there I was thinking... just a while earlier, what other city in the world could pull off a Colombian weekend and an African weekend and an X, Y, Z weekend one after another in the same, public space. What other city in the world "celebrates", with a degree of humility, and a big dose of resilience, a major catastrophe that brought its capital city to its knees from 350 years ago?
London. Noone can come between us, not even Theresa May!

Friday, July 29, 2016

After a 5-minute deliberation or a 15-minute drivearound, I parked the car on Esplanade by North Derbigny. It looked safe enough to escape a parking ticket, yet shady enough to warrant an overnight break-in. At this point, I rated the former over the latter. I got out of the car and looked around. The driver of the car behind ours was inside and gestured at us. He was about to rest the case on both parking tickets and safety. He was to be the Damiel, watching over Wim Wenders's Berlin. 

He came out of his car and asked for some change. I gave him the four quarters I had in my pocket and turned to him to add: "I only have four quarters in my pocket." 

He replied, with his thick Southern accent: "I need the cash for the tank, man. I need to get to my job." By this point in the trip, I was able to articulate a fair ratio of the Southern accent thrown at me. By this point in life, I was able to articulate largely how genuine such requests were meant. But I only had four quarters in my pocket and I gave him all.

I knew exactly which direction we needed to be headed. I played dumb to waste time, so I could observe the man's next moves. If he were to break into the car and even if that took place hours later, I had a sense I could be able to tell, if I observed long enough.

I turned to Z. and pretended to check our destination on Google Maps. Damiel came forth and asked if we needed help. We didn't need any help. Not from him, nor from Google Maps. I knew exactly where we were going. 

I turned to him and said: "Sure, we are trying to get to 623 Frenchmen." We were following the advice of S. who was going to host us the next evening, whom I had not seen since we finished Uni. The Spotted Cat was one of his favourite in town!

Damiel knew. He lifted his head, quickly turned his slender body on his feet and walked back towards his car, murmuring: "just hold up, I'll walk you there."

"You don't need to bother man, but as you please" was a redundant British politeness. The Creole kindness swiftly ignored it.

We crossed the street and started walking south. By the next block we were already back in French Quarter keeping our direction until Burgundy, one of the few southeasterly crossing diagonal streets into Frenchmen. He exchanged greetings and handshakes with a few people on the Esplanade. I asked him about the devastation caused by Katrina. He told us everywhere around us flooded except for Bourbon Street: "the rich are always protected!"

He wanted to make sure I knew exactly where we turned left and then right again, so I could find our way back easily. But we weren't walking back to the car at the end of the night. We didn't sleep in our car. He did.

Damiel was a 53-year old man who occasionally did labour work. Whenever he could find one. And whenever he could put together enough money to put gas in his tank to drive there and pay the $10 upfront to secure accommodation and shower for the three days he would spend out there. He had three daughters, aged 31, 29 and... before he could tell us the other's age, he got interrupted by a local. They've had a quick chat.

"Aaahhh, you want to know more about Katrina", he said half jokingly when I asked him another question. He hadn't seen his daughters in many years. They lived in Texas with their mother. Did they now also have a stepfather? He was living to see them again, as soon as he could. He lost them, as he lost all else to the storm.

"If I came to your town, I would want locals like you to show me around. That's why I am walking you to your destination" said he, while pointing out at a few restaurants and bars he said we could check out. We knew exactly where we were going. He knew exactly where we were going. He was sharing his life, and his city with us. 

He didn't mix Turkey with Kentucky when I told him where we were from, unlike that young police officer on the highways of Mississippi who stopped me the day before. That officer had advised me "to watch yourself in New Orleans; it can be a dangerous place." So far, it was nothing but a city watched over by angels.

"Are you Muslims? I turned to Allah one day" he exchanged. He would later leave us with an "alhamdulillah".

15 minutes had passed since we started walking. The mild tunes of jazz had started to mix with the progressive drum beats as the scent of gumbo was merging with the stench of running sewer. We were treading less carefully to avoid the dirt. His large feet were on auto-pilot. His large smile would reveal his missing teeth. His large soul kept us company all the way through.

We exchanged hugs and went on about our dues. As Damiel left us, he noted: "You left your car in a risky spot. But for tonight, it is the safest in town."

A gig followed the dinner. We ran into K. that evening and talked about how New Orleans made us feel. She'd been there for a few weeks, we had, for just over 24 hours. Z. and I shared the mutual feeling of magic. Post-Katrina gentrification had so far taken little out of it.

I made the quick walk next morning to pick up the car. Z. was preparing to check out of the hostel. It was yet another very warm and humid late-May morning. The previous day's long walks through Treme, Bayou St John, the City Park, Mid-City and Algiers would leave way to a very long drive via Alabama coastline and Selma to Atlanta. The city was preparing for the Memorial Day and the long-weekend holidayers were slowly getting ready to hit the roads back. The river breeze washed over the fresh beignets.

Most of the cars parked around ours had seemed to have left long ago. Ours was  intact. Damiel's was behind it. He was sleeping in his car. I hesitated. I struggled to leave without a goodbye, I struggled to decide whether I should wake him up to offer more money; not in return for his company or even guardianship, but because he said he needed it. I thought better of waking him up. How difficult was he finding to fall asleep? 

How little did I know about the sleeping rituals of a man who had to make a habit of living in his car. He was under a blanket and that is when I had realised, in broad light, how crowded inside of his car was. It was as I was leaving him I realised, we never learned each other's names.