Paris of the Middle East

6 Aug

These two images of Beirut are an unbearable punch to my stomach.

I lived in Beirut as a child. My childhood memories of this city, and of Lebanon, are some of the happiest in my life. A most generous of people, a breathtaking countryside full of magnificent ancient ruins, waterfalls, and cedars… the bright colours and smells of all the herbs and spices at the souk… the sulphury, salty smell of the Mediterranean… The mouth-watering Middle Eastern cuisine, its dishes still part of my culinary repertoire. A vivid and fond memory is a dinner at an Indian restaurant in downtown Beirut one Christmas. After a delicious curry meal comprised of endless dishes in engraved copper bowls, we could not believe our eyes as our dessert arrived, topped with generous slivers of gold leaf.

Beirut 5 aug 2020_Anwar Amro : AFP Getty_

photo Anwar Amro / AFP Getty

How much destruction can this city and country bear? How much blood needs to seep into its soil for its ground to become fertile again and provide nourishment and shelter for all its traumatised people? How far does corruption and negligence need to go before a people revolt? How far will the human animal go to trample on its fellow human being? Such little humanity seems to be left in the human species.

Beirut 4 Aug 2020_Hussein Malla:Associated Press

Photo Hussein Malla/Associated Press

The Beirut of my childhood, the Paris of the Middle East, is no more. Beirut hasn’t been a Paris of anything for a long time. It’s a Beirut trampled to death by hate, war, aggression, corruption, greed, and negligence.

My heart goes out to the people of Beirut.

“Death is never in the plural. Let’s not exaggerate its victory. It’s total enough. Let’s not sing about that victory. There are not millions of deaths. It happens millions of times that someone dies.”  — Etel Adnan, writer and artist, of Syrian father and Greek mother, born in Beirut in 1925.

Amsterdam, 6 August 2020 (aka annus horribilis)


CoVid-19: The best of times, the worst of times

20 Mar

A frightening pandemic crisis has hit our planet and has turned our world upside down.
But a frightening crisis can unleash the best in us.
It can give us the power and courage to combat fear by channelling it into helping others.
It can encourage solidarity, creativity and ingenuity, and it can lead to praise-worthy initiatives and innovative solutions.

Supermarkets here are opening up earlier, and are reserving the 7am-8am time-slot exclusively for the elderly (70+) and those with increased risk…

Libraries, cultural institutions and museums are offering free online access to their collections, books, films, music, theatre performances, ballet performances. They bring to our homes the comfort of beauty, and the means to distract ourselves from the chaos outside …

Children have started initiatives to write cards and send beautiful drawings to the elderly and lonely in nursing homes, which nursing homes (as of yesterday) took the heart breaking but unavoidable step to lock down and prohibit all family visits until further notice.

Hot-lines set up by mental health care professionals are offering comfort and advice to those afraid and marooned at home, unable to continue their treatment in person…

Teachers have created online teaching platforms for their pupils. My grandchildren get homework every day from their schools. Classrooms have created Whatsapp groups to encourage their pupils to keep in touch and to post positive videos about how they spend their time at home. They are all endearing and amusing…

University students, quarantined at home, have set up coaching platforms for high school students in their final exam year…

Neighbours are offering to do shopping for those less able, and are posting their availability via social media and old-fashioned poster notices…

Many “Can-I-Help-You?” platforms, solidarity initiatives and websites are sprouting online and on social media, offering all kinds of free services and help to those in need…

Citizens are fighting the hoarding phenomenon through all kinds of initiatives to collect food supplies and deliver them to food banks that are having a hard time providing for those that depend on them for their daily food…

10.000 health care professionals, retired or currently in other jobs, have volunteered their services to fight the CoVid 19 pandemic…

Doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, and all those in other ’vital’ professions, are risking their lives to save our own…

The list goes on…

We cannot see each other, we cannot hug each other, we cannot embrace each other, we cannot kiss each other to offer comfort and love.
But we can offer comfort and love by staying safe, staying healthy, staying optimistic, and staying committed to protecting and helping those at higher risk.
We will all see each other again, hug again, embrace again, kiss again.

We just all have to be a bit more patient than usual, however painful.

[Dedicated to my daughters, Korinna and Laura]

The Human Condition

12 Dec

Today, I came across this photograph from 1999 of a Kosovar-Albanian refugee by Peter Turnley.

It has burnt a hole in my eyes, brain and heart.

All the sorrows of the world reflected in that pair of eyes.
Haunting. Disturbing. Unforgettable. Confronting. Unbearable.

Never have I felt more powerless.

Never have I felt more ashamed of the human race – the most inhumane species of all.


Guest article: The buried statues of war

30 Mar

A few days ago, a deeply moving article by Kostas Paschalidis appeared in the Greek Magazine Lifo.  It told an amazing story I had never heard before, to my surprise, even though I’m Greek. A story that restored my faith in my country and its people, and helped push away more recent, disturbing thoughts I’ve had about Greece.

Two friends and I translated this wonderful article into English.  It deserves to be read and spread far and wide:

The buried statues of war: The hiding of the ancient treasures of the National Archaeological Museum on the eve of the German occupation of Athens, 1941.

Image 1: Preparing to bury the large Sounion Kouros. © National Archaeological Museum

Image 1: Preparing to bury the large Sounion Kouros. © National Archaeological Museum

by Kostas Paschalidis (1)

During a period of six months prior to the German invasion of Greece a group of workers and archaeologists was digging the floors of the National Archeological Museum to bury Athens’s most valuable treasures: its Kouroi and Lekythoi.

On Sunday 27th April 1941 the German troops occupied Athens. Early the next morning, when the German officers hurried up the marble steps of the National Archaeological Museum, they were surprised to discover that they were taking over an empty building. They couldn’t find a trace of the thousands of valuable exhibits that were housed in the country’s largest museum for the past sixty years of its existence. Instead of statues they saw before them the few frozen and expressionless archaeologists and guards who were on duty at the time. To the officers’ persistent questions, the latter answered enigmatically that antiquities are always where everybody knows they are: under the ground. And it was true. The antiquities had in fact returned underground – to the only ark in the world where they would be safe.

Image 2: The empty room that German officers discovered when entering the museum on 27th April 1941. © National Archaeological Museum

Image 2: The empty room that German officers discovered when entering the museum in late April 1941. © National Archaeological Museum

The Greek governments were aware of the fragile European order well before the war started. Since 1937 the Metaxas (2) government had started corresponding with the Archeological Department of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to work out a common plan of how to protect antiquities from potential air raids and street fights. To the state’s demand that they put together catalogues and classify the antiquities according to their importance, the archaeologists of the department insisted that there was no way to make such a choice and that all antiquities (exhibited or stored) would have to be saved in the event of war. As a matter of fact, there were internal recommendations in 1937 to transport the antiquities to new places of storage, safe from fire or bombing, at “archaeological towns” proclaimed sacred and inviolable by international agreements, rather than spending large sums for the construction of shelters for some of them. The area of the Acropolis was to be one of them. Yet reality dissolved any hopes and the few doubts about the impending disaster.


Image 3: Preparing to bury the large Sounion Kouros. © National Archaeological Museum

Preparations against the danger of destruction got more intensive with time. With the declaration of war in October 1940, the Department of Archaeology reacted instantly. With a letter sent out on 11th November 1940 to all local sections, it issued technical instructions “for the protection of antiquities in the various museums from air-raid danger”. These included two ways of protecting bulky and non-transportable exhibits: The first one was “to cover the statue with sandbags after protecting it with wooden scaffolding like the sample” and the second one, which was deemed more effective, was to bury the statues in the floor of the hall or the courtyard of the museum or in protected courtyards and basements of public institutions. The burying method was then described in full detail. The statues were to be placed horizontally (like dead bodies in a grave) at the bottom of the ditch which was to be clad in reinforced cement, then covered by inert materials, after which the ditch was to be sealed with a slab.  As for copper and clay items, they were to be stored in crates covered with waxed or tarred paper in order to resist humidity.

Image 4: Vases were placed in crates and protected by waxed and tarred paper. © National Archaeological Museum

Image 4: Vases were placed in crates and protected by waxed and tarred paper. © National Archaeological Museum

At the National Archaeological Museum the alarm sounded off! By a ministerial decree a committee in charge of hiding and securing the museum’s exhibits was formed, headed by 3 Supreme Court Judges (AEROPAGITES) and including the secretary of the Archaeological Society George Oikonomou, the temporary director of the museum Anastasios Orlandos, and professor Spyridon Marinatos, as well as curators Giannis Miliadis, Semni Karouzou, Ioanna Konstandinou and civil engineers and architects from the ministry. Volunteers subsequently joined the team, such as the director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute Otto Walter, the British archaeologist Allan Wace, and the academician Spyros Iakovidis who was a freshman archaeology student at the time.

“Really early in the morning, even before the moon had set, the people who had undertaken this job would gather at the museum and they would leave for home really late at night”. Semni Karouzou writes. The storing of the statues would take place according to the size and importance of each one. The bulkiest among them would be lined up standing in deep ditches that had been dug in the floors of the North halls of the museum, whose foundations happened to lay on softer underground. Improvised wooden cranes were used in order to lower the statues into the ditches, and were handled incessantly by the museum’s technicians.

Image 5: The ditch that was to house the museum’s exhibits for the years to come. © National Archaeological Museum

Image 5: The ditch that was to house the museum’s exhibits for the years to come. © National Archaeological Museum

The ditches that were reminiscent of mass graves enclosed a dazed multitude of forms, such as the one illustrated in the most valuable of photographs from the museum’s archive (image 6). Amongst the forms of the statues standing awkwardly in their new grave we find one of the anonymous protagonists of this epic of concealment: a technician looking absent-mindedly at the camera lens. As he ponders the uncertain fate of the times, he completely blends in with the surrounding crowd. ‘’If there was no damage done to the marbles despite all the displacements, it is mainly due to the fact that the manager of the workers team at the time was, and remained until the first years after the war, the old experienced and devoted sculptor of the Greek museums, Andreas Panayotakis”, Semni Karouzou recounts.

“In October 1940, when Italy declared war, I had just entered the first year of University” remembers Spyros Iakovides, member of the Athens Academy, in an interview. “The hiding effort had already started and I offered to volunteer. They sent me to one of the storage rooms where there were huge crates. My job was to wrap the Tanagra figurines (3) in old newspapers and then place them carefully in the crates. After that, a special committee took over. We all worked against the clock, in fear of the German invasion, and of course, with utmost care. The Tanagra figurines were easy to wrap. But the vases were very fragile. The work was done in the museum’s basements. The statues were placed like people in a demonstration. Then sand was poured on top, separating the statues from each other yet covering them completely. Finally, a slab of concrete was poured on top. The windows in these basements were sealed with sandbags. This way, nothing could happen during an air raid”.

Image 6: Statues placed standing next to each other before the ditch is filled with sand.  © National Archaeological Museum

Image 6: Statues placed standing next to each other before the ditch is filled with sand. © National Archaeological Museum

The wooden crates with the clay vases, the figurines, as well as the copper items, were placed in the semi-underground extension of the museum, which had just been completed, towards Bouboulinas street. Subsequently, the rooms were filled up to the ceiling with dry sand in order to resist ruptures to the concrete ceiling in the event of bombing. One memento of this boxing-in endeavour was captured in a photo, the only one showing the museum artisans in a moment of rest (image 4). They are looking into the lens without expression – people whose fate during the hard years of the German occupation of Athens is unknown. Semni Karouzou has preserved the name of one of them: “During the whole work of the uprooting and boxing-in of the antiquities of the Collection of Vases and Small Artefacts, a leading role was played by a head artisan, the late Giorgios Kontogiorgis – an architect and one of the artisans who offered so much towards the fame and safety of the antiquities.

Along with the antiquities, the boxing-in included the valuable museum inventory catalogues, i.e. the books documenting and registering its treasures. These crates were handed over to the general treasurer of the Bank of Greece on 29th November 1940 (4). On 17th April 1941 the wooden crates filled with the golden objects and the famous treasures from Mycenae were delivered to the headquarters of said bank. It was the final act of a six-month operation that had succeeded in saving the immeasurable treasures of the largest museum in the country.

“The view of the museum in April 1941, stripped from all its content, was an image of abandonment. Naked walls, dug-up floors in many halls, empty showcases”. This was the view seen by German officers on the morning of Monday 28th April: the first day of the German occupation of Athens.

In the difficult years that followed, the museum did not remain deserted. The State Orchestra was housed in the large Mycenaean Room. The Central Post Office occupied a large area of the west wing, to the right of the entrance. The Ministry of Welfare provided its services via rooms on the first floor, towards Bouboulinas street, while a special Health Service was installed in a room of the old building, off Tositsa street. “Unfortunate women, outcasts of society, were obliged to pay a visit there”, Semni Karouzou wrote. The offices of the museum staff were crammed into a small corner of the new building, together with its now useless equipment, its empty showcases, certain paintings from the National Gallery, and the General State Archives.

In one of the basements of the new wing, communal meals for the guards and museum staff were prepared. The thick smoke stains on certain parts of the ceiling can still be seen today. Despite the loss of its function as a museum, the building remained undamaged until the end of the Occupation. Until “the nightmare riots of December 1944” (between troops of the left resistance and the combined British and governmental forces) that is, when “airplane strikes” totally burnt down a part of the wooden roof, and a section of the first floor was transformed into prisons for the detainees. Some of the bullet-riddled walls have been preserved to this day, forming the backdrop of the museum staff offices today. And despite the long and labourious restoration of the building and its exhibits in the post war years, the hidden surprises that have trickled to the surface since then have been many.  

Even the second, rigorous renovation that was recently completed unearthed more of the Museum’s well-buried secrets.

Is this the last of them? Living and working among these walls, one knows that statements concerning chronological certainty are not admissible.


Translated from Greek by Diana Issidorides, Margarita Ovadia and Ares Kalandides

The article was first published in Greek in the Lifo magazine. (

It appears in English translation simultaneously at and

(1) Kostas Paschalidis is an archaeologist and works as curator of antiquities at the Prehistoric Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

(2) Ioannis Metaxas was dictator in Greece between 1936 and 1941.

(3) The Tanagra figurines were a mold-cast type of Greek terracotta figurines produced from the later fourth century BCE, primarily in the Boeotian town of Tanagra.

(4) Italy declared war on Greece on 28th October 1940.

References (in Greek)

Christopoulou, Α., “National Archaelogical Museum and Modern Greece. Parallel stories”, “Archaeologia kai Technes” 113 (December 2009), 5-10.

Vernardou, Ε., “A hiding different from all others. Operation ‘Hidden Treasures’”, Available at

Kaltsas, Ν., “The National Archaeological Museum”, Athens 2007, 20. Available at

Karouzou, S., “Short History of the National Museum”, in Karouzos, S. National Archaeological Museum, Collection of Sculptures, Descriptive catalogue, Athens 1967, ια’-κ’.

Karouzou, S, “The National Museum after 1941”, To Mouseion 1 (2000), 5-14. (This is the old publication by S. Karouzou which was included in the proceedings of the 1st Conderence of the Associations of Greek Archaeologists, Athens 30th March-3rd April 1967, Athens, 52-63.)

Nikolakea, Ν., “The protection of antiquities during World War II” Tsitopoulou, M. (ed), “…I reported in writing”. Treasures of the Historical Archive of the Archaeological Service, Athens 2008, 57-59.

Paschalidis, K. “The founding, history and adventures of the National Archaeological Museum, 130 years of service in one lecture. Available at:

Petrakos, V. X. “The antiquities in Greece during the war 1940-1944», O Mentor 31 (1994), 73-185.

Salta, M. “National Archaeological Museum” in Garoufalis, D.N. & Konstantinidi-Sybridi, E. (eds.) Archaeology in Greece. The greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and the treasures of the Greek museums, Athens 2002,  116-119 (Series: History of Civilisations No2 by the magazine “Corpus”).

Flessa, V. “At the edge”, interview with the acedemician S. Iakovidis at the New Greek Television (26/10/2012, 23:00 hrs). available at:

Initiative for democracy in Greece

14 Mar

Dear readers of this blog,

I don’t normally do this, but today I am reblogging a petition about democracy in my home country, Greece. I am very worried, not only because of the rise of the extreme (neo-Nazi) right, but also because its main tactics are increasingly  incorporated into the mainstream. I would like to ask you to read the text and if you agree, please go to the petition site, sign, and SHARE it. Whether you are Greek or not, threats to democracy are threats to all of us.

Thank you.

Diana Issidorides

Initiative for Democracy in Greece

A small group of us in London, Greeks of varied affiliations and political persuasions, have come together because we are very concerned about the rise of fascism, racism and the erosion of democracy and civil rights in Greece. Our aim is to raise awareness of the problem internationally, in the hope that this might help to put pressure on Greek politicians to address these issues. We have drafted a statement which we plan to send as an open letter to selected publications, initially in Britain but later also in Greece and the United States. We hope to collect as many signatures as we can from people with a personal or professional interest in Greece and/or human rights and civil liberties. We would be very grateful if you would sign the statement, if you feel you can do so, and also forward it to others who might be interested.


The ongoing economic and social crisis in Greece, together with a lack of confidence in the political system, is now posing serious threats to democracy. We believe that there is now an urgent need to raise international awareness of these threats, and of repeated violations of civil and human rights.

We are particularly concerned by the following:

The government continues to tolerate the violence and hate speech of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, even when it violates existing laws. Though several Golden Dawn members and deputies have been indicted for violent crimes, their cases are repeatedly postponed and remain unresolved. Golden Dawn deputies publicly attack democracy and the parliamentary system and display the symbols of the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974; the party recruits supporters unopposed by the authorities, including in secondary schools.

Members of the Greek police engage in violence against immigrants and political protesters but have not been brought to account, despite repeated calls from international agencies such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UNHCR. Perpetrators of racist attacks are almost never arrested; instead, their victims are often detained. There have been allegations of torture in the Athens police headquarters, and police infiltration by Golden Dawn has been well documented. Greece has no independent police complaints procedure, and the government has failed to investigate these issues.

Refugees and migrants face attacks, sometimes fatal, from supporters of far-right groups on an almost daily basis; the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights recently called such violence “a real threat to democracy” and said that “impunity for the rising number of racist crimes has to end.”

The government’s policy of arbitrarily arresting immigrants – including some born in Greece – and detaining them, often in inhumane conditions, has also been condemned by UNHCR. Though large numbers of the refugees and irregular migrants entering Europe come through Greece, the country lacks a functioning asylum system.

International, European and constitutional law is persistently violated and constitutional safeguards sidelined. Legislation with far reaching consequences is introduced by means of presidential and ministerial decrees, violating the separation of powers and bypassing parliamentary scrutiny and judicial control. The basic constitutional principles of accountability and responsibility have been abandoned and Parliament is asked to approve decisions taken elsewhere.

Independent journalists have been censored or intimidated by the judiciary, media proprietors and businessmen. Greece has now sunk to 84th place in the Reporters Without Borders Annual Press Freedom Index for 2013, the lowest in Europe alongside Bulgaria. The report refers to the disastrous social and professional atmosphere” in which Greek journalists operate. Some privately owned mass media, especially TV channels, have long played an ambiguous role in Greece; with the crisis, that role has become even more manipulative and corrupt.

We are deeply concerned that fundamental rights and freedoms for which the Greek people have fought over many decades are being systematically undermined. Our initiative aims to inform and mobilize international public opinion, and has no party political affiliation.

Please sign here:

Addendum 20 March 2013: The petition was published in the Guardian

Are cats fooled by visual illusions?

9 Mar

The YouTube video below is doing the rounds. It is of a kitten that supposedly is experiencing the illusory motion in Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s beautiful Rotating Snakes illusion.

Perception and the nature of illusions are my passion. So the question of whether animals, like this kitten, might also experience visual illusions is a fascinating one. Moreover, Kitaoka’s Rotating Snakes is one of my favourite illusions and features in the Illusions Gallery that I developed for the science museum I work for.

rotating snake

Rotating Snakes illusion by Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Although several sites (Boingboing, Popsci, io9) have posted this video, encouraging the public to test this illusion on their cats, they have forgotten an important prerequisite for good science: a control condition.

The fact that the kitten in this video interacts, attacks, teases, and plays with the image is not necessarily evidence that it is experiencing the illusory motion inherent in Rotating Snakes. For such a conclusion, you need to compare the cat’s behaviour to a control condition in which the cat views a similar image that contains no such illusory motion. If it seems uninterested and does not interact or play with the control image, you could infer that the cat might indeed be experiencing the illusory motion in the Rotating Snakes illusion.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka was kind enough to provide such a control image, so now we have the ingredients necessary to test whether cats might be experiencing the Rotating Snakes illusion.

 So, cat owners, help collect data on whether cats are fooled by visual illusions. And please share this post and encourage other cat owners to take part in this experiment.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Click on Kitaoka’s link:
  2. Download and print the first two images of his Rotating Snakes illusion: the first one will rotate in front of your eyes (experimental condition), the second one will not (control condition).
  3. Set your camera or smart phone on <record> and get someone to start filming.
  4. Present the non-rotating version to your cat first, flat on the floor: tape it to the floor so that it doesn’t move around when touched.
  5. Allow a minute and a half of experimenting, then stop.
  6. Now tape and present the rotating version to your cat and film for another minute and a half.

Is there a difference in the cat’s behavior when viewing the non-rotating versus rotating version (more clawing, attacking, playing… like the kitten in the original video)?

Please post your comments and observations here, and preferably a link to your video!

Long live crowd-sourced science 😉


Dialogue in the Dark

23 Sep

As an exhibition developer, I’ve often been asked which has been one of my favorite exhibitions. Few exhibitions have left such a lasting impression on me as the one I couldn’t see.

I didn’t see “Dialogue in the Dark” on a late summer’s day in 1997. As I entered the exhibition boat docked at the Amsterdam harbor, I was thrown from bright sunshine into complete darkness. A voice out of the black introduced its owner: “I am blind and today I am your guide to my world”.

Amidst nervous giggling, stumbling about and bumping against each other, our guide proceeded to lead us through a world devoid of visual stimuli. Disorientation does not begin to describe this unique experience of suddenly being robbed of your major sensory organ. The silly giggling soon gave way to feelings of dizziness, light nausea and wholehearted fascination. We were taken down corridors and into different rooms, asked to touch and identify different objects, to describe the space we were in, and how the objects in it were placed, relative to one another. Things I touched did not make sense at first, as my brain struggled with the unfamiliar task of having to piece together discrete touch sensations, felt consecutively, in order to identify the whole: something our brain normally takes in at a single glance.

We were led into a busy street, where the noise of cars whooshing by, of bicycle bells ringing and car horns honking left me feeling insecure and apprehensive. Would the noises have sounded as threatening and as loud if I could see? There were other sounds I couldn’t easily place without clues from our guide. I realized then how much sight contributes to how and what we hear. Another strange sensation was how often I was mistaken in locating the direction sounds were coming from. During our stroll in the park (birds chirping, dogs playfully barking in the distance) I could have sworn that the sound of water clattering onto marble stones came from my left. I was dead wrong. But what personally surprised me the most was the smell illusions I was having while immersed in this world of darkness. I smelt car exhaust in the busy street; I smelt flowers in the park; I smelt the distinct odor of fresh water clattering to the ground… It was as if my senses were ganging up to compensate for the one I had left behind, with no regard for a reality check.

Towards the end of this tour, all of us were exhausted and in dire need of a drink. Our guide thankfully brought us to a bar (pitch black, of course), where we had to fumble for our wallets and the right coins to pay for our drinks, let alone make sure our fingers didn’t mislead us in counting back the change – for those who only had paper bills. On our way out, we were invited to write a text on a Braille typewriter and take it home, as a memento of this extraordinary exploration of life without light.

Dialogue in the Dark is still successfully touring the world. I highly recommend it.

Pandemonium in the Punjab

15 Dec

Today is my father’s birthday. He died last year, one month short of his 90th birthday.

I adored my Dad and very many along with me. I can commemorate him today by talking about how handsome he was, his sense of humor or his character. His favorite quote “Character is doing the right thing when no one is watching” reflects the kind of man he was. Or I could talk about his academic and athletic record-breaking feats in high school; or describe his courageous year in the Greek resistance during WWII; or go into his co-discovery of the internationally acclaimed “The Beirut Reaction” in 1965 – a chemical reaction that has since helped develop hundreds of anti-bacterial and anti-cancerous drugs. Last but not least, I could brag about his being awarded a pure gold medal of honor by the Lebanese Ministry of Education, in recognition of his outstanding services, the back of which was engraved, in Arabic fine font, the wise saying: ”When you open a school you close a prison”. (Dad was Professor of Organic Chemistry at the American University of Beirut for almost 40 years, also throughout the violent Lebanese Civil War).

But it is something else I want to talk about today. One of the fondest memories I have of my Dad is his comical adventures in the kitchen and his secret recipes. He very seldom cooked, but when he did, it was always one of his favorite meals and the only thing he could make: spaghetti.

Over the years, our family now and then would savor Dad’s creative spaghetti sauces whose ingredients he adamantly refused to reveal. “They’re top-secret”, he’d always cajole. Moreover, he would never let us in the kitchen while he was cooking, lest we take a peek at his ingredients. Our attempts to do so always failed. He’d rush up to us the moment he heard footsteps, obscuring our line of vision, and push us gently away with a “leave the chef alone, please”.

His inimitable test of whether the spaghetti was cooked was to throw a strand on the wall. If it stuck, the spaghetti was done. Always the scientist…  But it was the fantastic names Dad gave his pasta sauces that had us in stitches. When dinner was ready he’d put on a posh British accent and solemnly proclaim, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight on the menu…”, and an unforgettable name would follow.

Every time he’d make one of his notorious sauces, a game around the dinner table always ensued. Everyone took turns at guessing the secret ingredients. Dad’s reply was always the same, for as long as I can remember. “Hmmm…perhaps, who knows?” he’d retort with a twinkle in his eye.

While I was going through my father’s papers last year, I burst into tears when I came across an index card in one of the many files in his filing cabinet. Staring right at me were his secret spaghetti sauce recipes, in his characteristic handwriting. My crying briefly turned into laughter, only to revert back to crying for a long while…

Dad, you’ve been busted. Now, every year on your birthday we honor you by cooking one of your not-so-secret-anymore spaghetti sauces. And we love you for that, as for so many other reasons. Tonight on the menu, dearest Dad: your utterly weird but delicious Pandemonium in the Punjab.

But I have to give it to you, Dad. You still have the last laugh. What do you mean “spices”!? Which spices?!

It Gets Better

9 Oct

I’m lucky. I do not know what it feels like to be discriminated against or bullied. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be harassed and tormented to the point of taking my life.

Many, many people out there aren’t as lucky. In 2010, a number of teens in the United States took their own lives, harassed for their sexual orientation and unable to envision a positive future for themselves. In response to that wave of teen suicides, the “It Gets Better” project was launched. It’s goal is to prevent suicide among LGBT youth by having adults in the community show that the teens’ lives will get better.

A few days ago, the staff at the Exploratorium in San Francisco issued a powerful and moving “It Gets Better” group video. From the Exploratorium’s press release:

The video features interviews with thirteen participants, who come from departments across the museum, including the very young and the mature, from the Teen Explainer program to Community and Government Relations to Online Engagement. Each of these individuals tells their stories of their struggles and imparts messages of hope and empowerment.

I take my hat off to you, Exploratorium.

Imagine if the LGBT staff at our schools, universities, government, big corporations, cultural institutions – you name it – were encouraged to come out with such group videos. Imagine the impact such institutional statements could have: Coca Cola’s “It Gets Better” video, Nike’s “It Gets Better” video… the IMF one, the Deutsche Bank one, the Facebook one, the NFL one, the EU one, the WHO one, the NEMO one… to name a few.

This is an appeal to institutions worldwide to follow the Exploratorium’s praiseworthy example. Help end anti-gay harassment once and for all. Give your LGBT staff a voice. Endorse and promote “It Gets Better” videos in the name of your institution, in support of your LGBT staff. Be role models.

So. Which well-known institutions will also take a stand? Who will have the balls– as an institution – to show LGBT teens worldwide that they are not alone, and that there is light at the end of their tunnel?


25 Sep

A few weeks ago, a prominent Dutch psychologist was fired on the spot. A charismatic personality, his quirky press releases had the media hanging on his lips. His latest experiments had shown that meat-eaters are more selfish and antisocial than vegetarians. People who eat that steak are compensating for their insecurity and loneliness, he argued.

The golden boy of social psychology, as it turned out, had cooked up the results.

Let’s, for now, forget that the same media that rushed to publicize his findings without bating a critical eyelid, now couldn’t nail him to the cross fast enough. Media hypocrisy is an appealing topic in its own right, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

It’s about something else. Comments about this scientific fraud, be it in the news, editorials, talk shows, or social media, frequently reverted to the proverbial publish-or-perish catchphrase: the pressure put on university staff to publish work constantly to reel in sponsors, get government grants, impress peers, and (thus) sustain a career in academia.

What astonished me during this tsunami of media coverage was that the publish-or-perish slogan was questioned not once. It was completely taken for granted.

Peter Foucault, Publish or Perish, Installation @ the I Magnin Building, Oakland, CA, 2006

While there is no excuse whatsoever for falsifying or concocting data, however high the publication pressure, this lack of reflection on the publish-or-perish model begs many, many questions.

Do we have our priorities straight in our institutions of higher education? What kind of institutions are we propagating, when we judge university faculty by the number of papers they have published, their citation index, and their media appeal? Serious and complex problems face the world and future generations. What better serves students – our future problem solvers: universities that cherish publishing machines or exceptional educators?

Has the publish-or-perish model in our universities led us astray? Do we need a paradigm shift? Might an Educate-or-Perish model be what puts us back on track?

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