Pop Omnivore
Casting a critical eye on the way popular culture deals with National Geographic’s interests, from global warming to mayfly swarming.
Posted Mar 5,2009

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Posted Mar 2,2009

The Amazing Race has been having an amazing season … until last night. No, we’re not talking about the unfortunate elimination of the middle-age couple—he’s a recovering addict, she’s as solid as a rock. 

We’re talking about a word.

It popped up in the name of one of the challenges posed to the globe-trotting teams of Americans.

Here’s how CBS sums it up: “In Gypsy Moves, teams had to travel to a gypsy settlement where they needed to load all of a family’s belongings onto a horse-drawn cart. Then, they had to navigate the cart to the family’s new encampment where they had to unload the belongings.”

Ian Hancock told us why he does not use the word gypsy to describe his origins. He is a professor of Romani studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of We Are the Romani People.

What is wrong with the word gypsy?

There are two problems. One is that it’s like calling Native Americans “Indians.” It’s based on a mistake. It comes from Egyptian. Our ancestors didn’t come from Egypt. They came from India.

Secondly, the word comes fully loaded. If you look it up in the dictionary or stop anybody and ask, “What is a gypsy,” you get a very stereotypical response. Most people associate it not with an ethnic population but with a behavior: footloose and fancy free, maybe stealing, mostly movement.

Is Roma an acceptable alternative?

The word “Roma” is creeping in. It’s a legitimate word. But in our language, it is a plural masculine noun. It’s not an adjective. It’s in the subjective, not the objective case. You cannot talk about the Roma language, a Roma woman.

What term should be used?

The best thing is to say “Romani. The Romani people. She is a Romani woman. They speak the Romani language.

And the language comes from India, like your ancestors?

It’s akin to Hindi. It’s very much like Hindi.

In other words, it has nothing to do with the country Romania.

I just got a rather rude e-mail from a Romanian from Buffalo, New York, this morning. He was telling us to stop calling ourselves Roma, that we stole the name from Romania.

How did the word “Gypsy,” as a shortened form of Egyptian, take root?

When the first Romani showed up in Europe, it was where Turkey is, around 1300, the Europeans had a pretty vague idea of who was who in Asia. They tended to apply the word Egyptian to various groups.

How did so many negative traits get attached to the term “gypsy?”

In the literature of the 1800s, the gypsies came to represent the unspoiled children of nature: living in the forest, stealing rabbits and chickens to stay alive, telling fortunes. Of course, the actual Romani population had no idea that this image was being created. And it’s really replaced reality in people’s minds.

Has this image caused problems for the Romani people?

It’s done an awful lot of harm. We are not taken seriously as a people, and because we’re not taken seriously, our problems aren’t taken seriously.

What kind of problems?

The Romani people in Europe are facing a hard time. There are murders, attacks, calls for expulsion. The website errc.org has more information.

Does it surprise you that CBS did not bother to check and see if “gypsy” was a problematic term?

I’m not surprised. I’m hurt and disappointed, but I’m not surprised.

And the image on the show – Romanis living in a seemingly rootless, roadside settlement – that doesn’t reflect your life!

I’m a university professor, a United Nations representative, a presidential appointee to the Holocaust Museum. I’m not unique by any means. But it’s a fact that most of us are not educated. Most of us don’t have the means to fight back. There’s nothing we can do to stop [the use of the term “gypsy” and the stereotyping] and the producers of these TV shows know this. They know that any protests we make can be ignored.

-Marc Silver







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Posted Feb 25,2009

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Posted Feb 20,2009

Come Oscar night, Pop Omnivore confesses a special interest in the acclaimed indie film that just about every studio in Hollywood passed on: Frozen River, the story of two hard-luck women who smuggle immigrants from Canada to the U.S. by driving them across the ice-covered St. Lawrence River. The movie scored Oscar nominations for best actress and best adapted screenplay.

The movie is incredibly moving. But there's another reason that we are Frozen River fans. The movie’s producer, Heather Rae, has a past connection with the National Geographic Society—one she says she’s “very grateful for.” Her 2005 film, Trudell, received funding from the Society’s All Roads Film Project, which gives grants to “film projects by and about indigenous and underrepresented minority-culture filmmakers.”

As for Frozen River, nearly every studio in Hollywood turned the project down. But Rae says she isn’t bitter about the tough road to getting it made. “We don’t take it personally,” she tells us. “That’s the independent game. It’s such a risk to make these kinds of films.”

In the end, the movie cost less than a million dollars to make—what a bargain! And it’s yielded great results: Oscar nominations, a Sundance Film Festival prize, and nominations for seven Spirit Awards, including one for Rae for the "Piaget Producers Award." (The indie awards ceremony airs live on Saturday, February 21, at 5 p.m. EST on IFC, then repeats on AMC at 10 p.m.)

Any Oscar predictions for Frozen River? “Our party line is, ‘We’re just grateful to be [nominated],’” Rae says. “There are a lot of movies that deserve support that aren’t recognized.”

She’s also been moved by the warm response from audiences, who’ve been touched by the story of two struggling women—a white woman who can't afford to buy a bigger trailer-home for her two sons after her husband disappears, and a Mohawk woman who suggests the unlikely smuggling operation.

In today’s hard times, a movie about “families [that] are disenfranchised is very timely,” Rae notes.

NG Live will show the movie at the National Geographic building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m. Below: the two "smugglers":
Frozen river

One burning question Pop Omnivore has about Frozen River: Are the scenes of a car driving across the St. Lawrence really real? The answer: Yes!

“Ice scientists tested more than once to make sure it’s safe,” says Rae.

After the weekend of award ceremonies, Rae will focus on her next project: a movie starring Leo of Frozen River, America Ferrara of Ugly Betty, and Wilmer Valderrama of That ’70s Show. It’s the story of a young man coming home from the Iraq War “to contend with his family and his young wife.” There will be no battle flashbacks, Rae says. Rather, her new film will tell the intimate story of an emotional journey home.

-Marc Silver

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (0)
Posted Feb 18,2009

Perhaps you have grown tired of this year's burning Oscar questions: Did anyone actually stay awake for all of Benjamin Button?

Is Kate Winslet "self-deprecating and ordinary" or "drippy" and "vain"?

Will Hollywood slobber all over Mickey Rourke or are his Chihuahuas still his biggest fan? (And R.I.P. to the one who passed away this week).

Why not switch topics? NG Live showed all the foreign film nominees last weekend at National Geographic headquarters as part of its All Roads Film Project. In case you missed them, here's what you need to know to weigh in on contenders for the foreign film statue:

The Baader Meinhof Complex
In a nutshell:
This two-and-a-half hour bloodbath chronicles the heyday of the West German terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF), which the German media dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Gang after founding members Andreas Baader and journalist Urlike Meinhof.
Origins: Adapted from a book by Stefan Aust, former editor-in-chief of the German news mag, Der Spiegel.
Opening scene: Meinhof's children frolic on a nudist beach. It's a moment of symbolic innocence before a decade of riots, bombings, and assassinations consumes West Germany.
Local reaction: Many German critics fear the film glamorizes the terrorists; others laud its courage to eschew the good-versus-evil paradigm.
Foreign flavor: German radical fashion in the ‘70s consisted of boots, skirts and Kalashnikovs.
Weird fact: The Baader-Meinhof Complex steals its title from the so-called "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon"—a person hears a weird fact for the first time, then encounters the same fact again and again. A Minnesota man allegedly coined the term when he wrote to a "Bulletin Board" column in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Pioneer Press and told how he first learned about the Baader-Meinhof gang and then what should happen soonafter but a second mention of ... the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Oscar odds: The violence might be too much for voters, but the film serves scenes to savor and epic themes to digest.
–Oliver Uberti

The Class
In a nutshell: A youngish French junior high school teacher in a "difficult" city school struggles to teach—and control--a class of often insolent students, many from immigrant families. There are clashes, there is frustration, there is wry humor at year's end when one student says she learned nothing, and the teacher says, "That's impossible," and she replies, "I'm the living proof."
Origins: Adapted from a semi-autobiographical book by a French teacher, who plays a version of himself in the movie.
Opening scene: The back of a man's head – it is the teacher, in a café, downing a fast coffee before going to a teacher orientation for the new school year.
Foreign flavor: You know it's France if students play soccer during lunch. Also: In a café, the teacher smokes a cigarette. A cleaning woman tells him to snuff it out but he persists and no one stops him! Seulement en Paree!
Local reaction: "Exciting from start to finish," said one French reviewer. They loved it at the Cannes film festival: In 2008, it became the first French film to win the top prize in 20 years.
Weird fact: If the movie is to be believed, student representatives sit in on frank faculty discussions of student behavior and academic performance.
Oscar odds: Said to be a front-runner because of its ultra-realism. Then again: the movie's two hours are spent largely in the teacher's confining classroom, highlighting adolescent ennui. Maybe some voters will look for a movie with a plot instead of vignettes highlighting the inability of the modern education system to reach unmotivated students.
–Marc Silver

In a nutshell: An out-of-work cellist and his young wife move from Tokyo to his hometown of Yamagata, where he finds a new career as a nokanshi --someone who prepares the dead for cremation.
Origins: Inspired by the 1993 novel Coffinman, an autobiographical account of Japanese writer Shinmon Aoki's career as a Buddhist mortician. 
Opening scene: "It's been two months since I left Tokyo to come back home," a narrator intones as a car glides along a snow-swept road. "It's been an awkward time." At their destination, two men in somber suits find a family mourning the loss of an attractive young woman. Midway through the formal rite of washing the body, the younger suit pauses, quizzical. The sorrowful onlookers suddenly look uncomfortable. The mortician's mentor steps in and confirms the discovery: The dead woman was a man.
Foreign flavor: Most audiences will relate to the young couple as just an ordinary pair. But subtle details -- an octopus writhing on the kitchen floor, locals socializing in a sento (communal bathhouse), incense burning in tatami-matted rooms -- are very Japanese.
Local reaction: Japanese critics have called Departures one of the best films of the year, and it has pulled in more than 3 billion yen ($33 million U.S.) so far at the Japanese box office.
Weird fact: In addition to a ritual cleansing, the nokanshi must shave a man's full face and wedge cotton plugs deep into a person's backside to control, uh, seepage.
Oscar odds: It may not have the high profile of The Class or Waltz with Bashir, but Departures is being praised as a simply shot film that offers a candid take on the life of an undertaker. Even if it doesn't win an Oscar, it does offer career possibilities in an era of job woes.
-Victoria Jaggard

In a nutshell: This thriller starts off as an unlikely bank caper plotted by Alex, an ex-con who’s a little soft around the edges, and his prostitute girlfriend. As soon as Alex utters the words, “Nothing can go wrong,” be assured that things neither unfold as planned nor as the audience might expect. While trying to escape Vienna’s red-light district they end up in the Austrian countryside altering the mundane lives of an old man and an ordinary couple.
Origins: Written and directed by acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Gotz Speilmann.
Opening scene: A cryptic object unexpectedly drops into the tranquil reflection of trees in a lake. The audience jumped a little. And about two hours into the movie there was a collective a-ha moment when the cause of the placid disturbance is revealed.
Foreign flavor: What’s for dinner: loaf of bread, hunk of cheese, cured meats. How Austrian!
Local reaction: “A meandering first half gives way to a spectacular psychological portrait of the deafening silence of pain and loneliness,” wrote a European film reviewer.
Weird fact: The German word “revanche” can mean either revenge or a second chance. Very apropos.
Oscar odds: Last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film was Austria’s The Counterfeiters.  Although Revanche has received numerous awards and critical acclaim, a repeat Austrian win is unlikely.
-J.M. McCord

Waltz with Bashir
In a nutshell: Depicted in mesmerizing animation, an Israeli soldier turned filmmaker seeks out compatriots to bridge gaps in his memory about the army's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Origins: A documentary of the director's own quest with a few actors filling in for reluctant interviewees.
Opening scene: Snarling dogs race along a rainy city street, snapping directly into the camera under a haunting yellow sky. A friend's recurring dream about the war, it spurs the director's search for answers.
Foreign flavor: Military service and war stories are part of everyone's life experience.
Local reaction: The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote "It has to do with everyone who has been in a war here, which is everyone here." In Lebanon, where the movie is technically banned but available via bootleggers and back channels, the film drew one activist's praise for Israeli "courage to revisit events in which they were involved." Others thought it shirked blame for wartime atrocities.
Weird fact: It took nine hours to draw 37 frames—a second and a half of the film.
Oscar odds: Seriously stunning and stunningly serious. Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus won a Pulitzer. Bashir can win an Oscar.
-Brad Scriber

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (0)
Filed Under: Film
Posted Feb 9,2009

Eel picture

Last week on Top Chef, contestants broke out their filleting knives for a Quickfire challenge judged by guest Eric Ripert, chef and part owner of the world famous French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City.

First up to fillet were sardines—-hard to debone because of their small size but pretty standard fare. Next came arctic char—-much bigger, still fairly familiar. Then came something rarely seen on dinner menus, much less in home kitchens—-freshwater eel.

We at Pop Omnivore wondered why we knew so little about eel as food. So we decided to investigate.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, eels are “snakelike fish with a smooth slippery skin." The culinary encyclopedia then goes on to say, "Eels are sold alive. They are killed and skinned at the last moment as the flesh deteriorates rapidly, and the raw blood is poisonous if it enters a cut – for example, on one’s finger.” Cooking the eel detoxifies its blood.

On the show, Chef Ripert told contestants that the eels had just been killed and were definitely dead, even though they continued to move. Though the movement is strictly nerve-related and not a sign of life, it can be, well, unnerving. Says Ripert, “They will move for hours. Seriously, for hours.” Indeed, many of the chefs looked squeamish as they dealt with the rather gruesome process of peeling and filleting their challenge.

In America, we don’t see much eel for sale. “I think a lot of people are scared by the fact that they look like a snake, and I don’t know too many chefs that enjoy receiving eels at the restaurant,” says Ripert. We’ll spare you the details about the killing of the slithery fish, but Ripert puts it rather succinctly: “It’s a very unpleasant process.”

In parts of Europe and Asia, however, eel is a more common sight on the plate. The French like to braise it with red wine and garlic. In Japan, where it’s believed that eel can boost stamina in hot weather, the fish is often glazed with miso and grilled. Scandinavians and Germans smoke their eel and serve it with rye bread, while the British put it in a savory pie.

So what does it taste like? “It’s not a very refined fish, and many times, they taste like mud,” says Ripert. Um, they taste like mud? “Yes, they live on the bottom, in the mud, and many times they acquire that taste. It’s a very earthy fish.” He explains that this is why strong ingredients, like wine, are often used when cooking eel—which is on the fatty side--to help mask that muddy flavor. On the show, the contestants did not have to cook their eel once it was filleted, but Ripert says he would have had them make a stew if the challenge had gone further.

Eels aren’t widely available in the U.S. but they can be found at some Asian markets. If you’re not interested in dealing with them live, just ask the fishmonger to do the “processing” for you. Remember, though, that they do continue to move for quite a while after they’ve been offed. If you’d prefer to prepare your eels sans the residual muscle movement, Ripert suggests keeping them in the refrigerator a day or two before cooking.

Finally, we asked the master seafood chef-- who will soon be starring in a PBS cooking show of his own--for a recipe, should any Pop Omnivore readers feel inclined to cook up some eel. We want to know who’s up for the challenge! P.S. If you can’t find eel, monkfish will be a fine substitute.

-Catherine Barker

Matelote of Eel

Serves 4
2 pounds eel, peeled and filleted, reserving the bones
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 small shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups red wine, preferably Merlot
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup button mushrooms, washed and quartered
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2 tablespoons butter
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut the eel bones into 3 inch pieces.  Heat a large sauce pan with the canola oil over medium high heat; when the pan is hot, add the eel bones and sear lightly.  About 3 minutes.

Add the shallots and garlic and cook until soft. Add the red wine and reduce by half.  Add the chicken stock; bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
After the sauce has cooked for 10 minutes, remove and discard the eel bones.  Season the eel on both sides with salt and pepper and add the eel, mushrooms, bay leaf and thyme to the sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

Finish the braised eel by stirring in the butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Posted by Catherine Barker | Comments (5)
Filed Under: Food and Drink, Television
Posted Feb 9,2009

There’s a chance you’ve never heard of the Jonas Brothers, and if you’re younger than 15, there’s a chance you don’t have a Jonas Brothers poster hanging in your bedroom. But the chances of either are slim.

The teen pop trio from New Jersey have released three chart-topping albums in the last three years and inspire the sort of lust, obsession, and mass fainting spells that make comparisons to the Beatles inevitable.

While the dreamy sibs have certainly achieved success overseas, we wondered if the boy band equation (cute young guys + catchy tunes = $) holds true in other regions of the world. The answer? Definitely.

Here’s a sampling from around the globe:

Band Name: Jal

Bio: These three Jonas Brothers look-alikes hail from Pakistan. Their style is modern rock with Urdu lyrics and a touch of traditional melodies.

Backstory: In Urdu, “Jal” means water. According to the band, “The name affirms the intimate connection of water to the rhythm of our lives.”

Bigness: They were named Best Rock Band in Pakistan at the 2006 Indus Music Awards and have found enormous crossover success in India.

Beliefs: “Seeing the kind of love we get in India, we are just left wondering who makes all this fuss about [the] India-Pakistan relationship,” says lead singer Farhan Saeed Butt.     

Band Name: Camila

Bio: Based in Mexico City, the trio brings American rock and R&B influences to their highly personal ballads.

Backstory: Leader Mario Domm is a producing prodigy who decided to form his own band. As for the moniker: “We liked the contrast of having a female name with three dudes on the stage,” says band member Samo.

Bigness: The three landed a contract with Sony BMG and have sold over a million records. They embarked on their first U.S. tour last summer and sang on a Kenny G album.

Beliefs: Domm said recently, “I think Mexico is in a moment of musical evolution. The record companies in Mexico are supporting artists that are doing original songs that aren’t prefabricated, and this helps a lot for a singer-songwriter who has something to say and gets up on stage and says it.”

Band Name: Sonohra

Bio: This Italian duo—two brothers, Luca and Diego— write their own music and lyrics, wrapped up in a pleasing package of flat-ironed hair and skinny ties.

Backstory: Sonohra is obsessed with the U.K., setting songs in England and Ireland and counting Brit bands (the Beatles, Coldplay) among their musical idols. The name comes from “suono ora," or "sound now." If you really want to know, their official site says: "The name of the duo, Sonohra, itself contains many meanings: it is called the Sonora desert which borders the state of California, [it] refers to the concept of music without discrimination, and [it means] "sound now."

Bigness: The boys won the Youth category at the 2008 San Remo Song Festival and were nominated for Best Italian Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards.

Beliefs: Their hit song "I Believe" reflects hope for the environment. "The subject is the man's greed that is destroying nature," says the duo. "But we 'believe' that man will be able to repent in time to avoid such a disaster."

Band Name: Big Bang

Bio: This five-member boy band is hugely popular in Korea, where young fans worship their R&B sound and edgy fashion sense.

Backstory: The guys were part of a “Making the Band”-style TV show that chronicled the group’s preparation for their debut.

Bigness: Tickets for their second concert tour, “Big Bang Is Great,” sold out in ten minutes, and the single “Lies" is so popular that Korean students sing it to their teachers when they forget their homework.

Beliefs: Big Bang is pro-ocean: In the video for "Sunset Glow," the boys wave signs reading "Let's Go West" and lead mobs of fans to the western beaches of Taean, cleaned up but still neglected by tourists after an oil spill in December 2007.

-Winona Dimeo-Ediger

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Music
Posted Feb 5,2009

It’s not every day that one gets to walk across the international border between two unfriendly countries in the grip of a major bilateral crisis. But that’s what I did late last year when I walked from India into Pakistan. It was Thanksgiving—the day after a wave of terrorist attacks began in Mumbai. I was visiting friends in the region where I had lived and worked for six years as a journalist.

The Wagah border, named for the village that straddles it, is the only official land crossing between India and Pakistan, countries that the 24-hour news networks won’t ever let us forget are “nuclear-armed neighbors.” The village lies in fertile farmland between Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, and Amritsar, the Sikh religion’s hub in northwestern India. The two cities are just about 50 miles apart. When British colonial rule ended in 1947, creating Pakistan as a homeland for Indian Muslims next to independent India, Punjab was split in two, and Wagah, an unremarkable village along the Grand Trunk Road, sat on the dividing line.

Air travel has made the act of crossing boundaries perfunctory, mundane. But on foot, you can’t help but think about how magical it is to walk from one country into another. And this is a storied border. Over the years, its daily flag-lowering ceremony has become such a popular spectacle that bleachers have been set up to accommodate the crowds of Indians and Pakistanis who gather to watch and cheer on each side. The border guards of both nations put on a show-stopping performance at Wagah late every afternoon, full of choreographed stomping and fierce gestures, and the crowd goes wild.

At the end, when the guards shake hands and fling the gates shut, spectators rush from the stands to talk to each other across the few yards of No-Man’s Land separating these two countries. Sometimes they just stare.

Back in 1947, people thought things would be different. They hoped the border would be much like the one between the United States and Canada—easily and frequently crossed by people who speak the same language and share much in common. Instead, India’s 1947 partition sparked perhaps the largest human migration of the last century, with some seven million people leaving one country for the other—and led to a horrific spasm of violence, mostly in Punjab. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all slaughtered each other—a million dead in the end. India and Pakistan ended up fighting three wars and continue to view each other with distrust and suspicion, rattling sabers over the disputed region of Kashmir and other irritations—the most recent being the Mumbai terrorist attacks, for which India blames Pakistan, and Pakistan denies responsibility.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived at Wagah about 15 hours after those attacks began. What I found, to my relief, was a scene of bustling normalcy. After I got out of my taxi on the Indian side of the border, I walked past dozens of huge trucks laden with vegetables, all lined up and waiting to cross over. In the past, they had to hand off their goods to porters, who carried everything across by hand. Now the trucks can rumble right on in after clearing customs. A very tall Indian porter spotted me and grabbed my 50-lb duffle bag, hoisted it on top of his head and loped away, shouting, “Come with me--hurry! The border’s closing!”

I sprinted after him and found myself in a crowded, noisy arrivals hall filled with Indian and Pakistani passengers from the cross-border bus, a service that began in 1999 when relations were in a thaw and has operated in fits and starts since then, subject to diplomatic ups and downs. (Oddly, citizens of these two countries can’t actually walk across. Only foreigners can do that, and I was the last one of the day.)

The porter steered me to the front of the queue where I shoved my passport into a window, among many other arms and hands doing the same, all of us trying to get the attention of a calm-looking immigration official. Once my passport was stamped, the porter guided me back outside. We walked a couple of minutes, and before I knew it, he was bidding me farewell at the painted white line demarcating the narrow No-Man’s Land between the two countries. He handed me and my duffle bag to a plainspoken, white-bearded Pakistani porter. (“You come from a big, powerful country. So you please give me a big, powerful tip.”) He and I walked side by side into the other country. And just like that, I was in Pakistan, where things were so quiet I could hear the birds twittering in the late-afternoon sun. I set my watch half an hour earlier to conform to the local time.

Whenever I’d done this before—and this was my ninth crossing--I’d been ushered into various rooms off the veranda of a colonial-era bungalow where I’d sat and chatted with Pakistani officials to complete the formalities. The entire crossing process could take a couple of hours, what with all the conversing and waiting around. This time there was a much more impersonal arrivals hall with X-ray machines and counters. It was vast and vacant, and built, I suspect, to match the building on the Indian side. But there were still traces of the old hominess. An immigration official walked by wheeling a baby in a stroller—the child of a colleague, he told me with a smile. A money-changer waited nearby, urging me to give him a little business and wondering if there was anyone else coming across after me—he looked relieved when I told him about the busload of passengers. The Pakistani customs official explained apologetically that the X-ray machine wasn’t working, but the main thing he needed to know was did I have any alcoholic beverages in my luggage? I told him no (the truth), and that was that. My passport was stamped and I was on my way. 

The first time I crossed this border, back in 1989, I was headed in the opposite direction. I left Pakistan with a group of American friends and we bounded into India as if we’d just entered the Emerald City, dazzled not by the sign welcoming us to the world’s largest democracy, but by a billboard advertising beer--something we hadn’t seen much of in prohibition-bound Pakistan.

Thirteen years later, in the summer of 2002, a time when India and Pakistan had massed a million troops along their border and fears of war were so serious the U.S. had ordered “non-essential citizens” out of India, I made the crossing again. (It was easier and quicker than going by air, since the two countries had called off all direct flights.) Given the grave state of relations between the two countries, I figured I might be in for some aggressive questioning.

 “Are you coming back?” the polite, middle-aged Pakistani immigration officer asked while he thumbed through my battered passport. I told him I lived in Pakistan and planned to return within a week. “Then please bring me two tubes of Colgate toothpaste from India,” he said.

I pointed out that he could easily get Colgate in Pakistan.

“Please,” he said, exit stamp hovering above my passport.

Fine. Then, in the customs room, “I need medicine from India,” a young employee said sadly, after a perfunctory rummage through my luggage. “Medicine not available in Pakistan.” He wrote down the name of the drug,  Penagra. When I asked what it was for, he raised his elbow and winced. A painkiller, I thought—poor guy, dealing with all these heavy bags.

Returning a week later, I stopped off at a pharmacy in Amritsar. I handed over the slip of paper with “Penagra” written on it. The elderly, long-bearded Sikh pharmacist glanced at me and tossed a few boxes of pills on his table. “These are expensive,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “What’s this medicine for, anyway?”

He looked at me balefully. “Sex!” he growled.

I didn’t spot either of those border officials from 2002 during my most recent crossing. But I hope they eventually found what they were looking for. Clean teeth. Good sex. No matter what side of the border you’re on, the fundamentals still apply.

-Hannah Bloch

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (1)
Filed Under: Culture
Posted Feb 2,2009

Admit it: You watched the Super Bowl ads—and laughed at the one where a bunch of clothed chimps were working on a car in a suburban guy’s home garage. A neighbor asks the guy, “What’s with the chimps?” The guy replies, “They’re grease monkeys. I love ’em.”

Not everyone loves ‘em.

I spoke with critic Robert Shumaker, director of orangutan research at the Great Ape Trust, a research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, that studies the primates.

First of all, chimpanzees are not monkeys, right?

You’re 100 percent correct. Chimpanzees are definitely not monkeys. That’s a common misperception—to call chimps monkeys.

Why does this misperception persist?

Kids grow up being told that chimps are monkeys. Like “Curious George”—a “naughty monkey.”

So what are chimpanzees, then?

Chimps are great apes. The list of great apes is very short: chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, and humans.

Then what are monkeys?

Monkeys are the hugest group in the primate order. [There are] a few hundred types. Generally, monkeys are physically much smaller than great apes. Great apes clearly demonstrate more sophisticated cognitive ability across the board than all monkeys.

Did you see the “grease monkey” ad last night?

I admit that I saw it on the Internet.

Did you laugh, and then get mad?

I didn’t laugh. I don’t think it’s funny. I’m just frustrated and sorry to see another company pick up chimps as something to laugh at.

Why are you frustrated? Are apes in entertainment not treated well?

There are different standards among different trainers. But the practices I find really objectionable are that the babies are not properly socialized with their mothers—that affects the mothers, too. And then [there’s] the issue of what happens to them as they get older. They’re only used for a short period for entertainment compared with their lifespan. In general, once they reach adolescence or young adulthood, they’re less easy to work with. And people want to see little cute chimps.

What’s their entertainment lifespan typically like?

Maybe ten years or less, and chimps can live into their 50s or 60s.

What happens when show biz is through with them?

Some chips go to retirement facilities—places that might take them and care for them for the rest of their lives. They’re run by nonprofits. It costs an enormous amount of money to properly care for an adult ape, and these organizations can’t just take an unlimited number of chimps or apes of any kind.

Sometimes they stay with trainers and live at trainers’ facility. Sometimes what have been termed “roadside zoos” end up with those animals.

Historically there’s been concern that chimps like these go to biomedical research. I don’t know of any cases where that’s happening now.

It turns out there’s another insidious impact of chimps in ads.

A study at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo found that people felt great apes were endangered, except for chimpanzees. When the [study authors asked] the reasons why, a large number said, “We see them on TV and ads and whatever, and you couldn’t do that if they’re endangered.” We replicated that study at the Great Ape Trust and found exactly the same result. The entertainment industry would argue that [it raises] awareness about great apes. All great apes are endangered, but the data suggest that people assume chimpanzees can’t be endangered. And that does impact conservation attitudes.

- Marc Silver

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Filed Under: Television
Posted Jan 22,2009

How about that hat!

Some say Aretha Franklin stole the fashion show at the presidential swearing-in with a big, glittery, dove-gray hat, adorned with the biggest bow ever. It’s certainly the talk of the Internet, and the Detroit milliner who made the $179 chapeau is being swamped with requests for a replica.

But this hat was more than a fashion statement.

Playwright Regina Taylor is the author of a musical called Crowns, about the tradition of wearing big, bold, and beautiful hats in the African American church, where such head coverings are indeed referred to as “crowns” and women who have a large collection of them are known as “hat queens.” Hat queens tend to be of an older generation, says Taylor. “But I see more young African American women wearing hats.”

In her research, she learned that these church hats have African roots: “Adorning one’s head for worship crossed the ocean from Africa and survived through slavery.” In West Africa’s Yoruba culture, she adds, a head covering had other roles. People believed that spirits could enter through a person’s head. Women would cover their head to keep out bad spirits—and invite in good ones.

As African slaves in America turned to Christianity, they found additional reason to keep the tradition. A passage in Corinthians states: “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.”

With no resources, slave women improvised. They would wear a wreath of flowers, or decorate a straw hat they used for work.

Eventually, the African American community began to mix fashion and faith with elaborate hats. “Black women tried to take it to a whole other level,” Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, a history professor, has written. “The church was a place where black women's moral character, beauty, [and] style was openly recognized and appreciated. At church a black woman could walk down the aisle holding her head up high topped with a fancy and heavily decorated hat and wearing a style that reflected her African American heritage.”

The hat also reflected the wearer’s personality “It is an expression and celebration of the soul, and of the individual’s spirit,” says Taylor. “Some women may wear a small pillbox hat. People who go big, with bells and whistles—that’s who they are.”

As for Aretha’s bow, she says, “Miss Aretha is a gift, so of course she would have a sparkling bow.”

Photographer Michael Cunningham, coauthor of the book Crowns, which shows off dozens of hats and is the inspiration for Taylor’s play, sums up the Hat That Upstaged Obama: It shows respect to God. It shows that Aretha Franklin is both a prosperous woman and one who’s unafraid to take fashion risks. And it kept her head warm on a very chilly day. “It’s a triple threat.”

- Marc Silver

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