John F. Kennedy, or On American Prestige

I’ve written before about what it’s like to be an American traveling in the Muslim world (see posts of 4.9 and 6.6), but in this post I thought I would share some more thoughts on what it means to be an American in the world today, especially after the election of Barack Obama (also see posts of 10.25 and 12.15).

This topic has come to mind yet again because we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Why, you may ask? Nouakchott is a fairly small city, being the capital of a country of only 3 million or so inhabitants, and its city center, however sprawling, is built on a fairly small number of avenues–but one of them is named for U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

This is one of many, many JFK roads throughout the world. Off of the top of my head alone, I can think of roads named after Kennedy in Paris, Buenos Aires and Istanbul, and I have no doubt that there are dozens of other cities around the world. Why is JFK so popular? Part of it no doubt has to do with the heroic stature given to him by his assassination, but it is also because of the hope that Kennedy represented to the world, how he presented America in its most flattering aspects and facets.

It is hard to imagine any country naming any street for the current U.S. President (although the San Francisco sewage plant would have been a good start–link). He is so reviled that reaction to his reign has gone from opposition to sheer bewilderment, a wonder that one person could be so ineffective, his actions at times so seemingly aimless and at others so incredibly hostile to global peace and prosperity. Before the November election, people would often respond with a one word question/statment/accusation when we said that we were American, “Bush?” They wanted an explanation, maybe even an apology. They wanted to know if we as Americans approved of the actions taken by our elected leader. We have had to answer for his actions, apologize for the state of our government, in such enlightened regimes as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, China and Iran. Imagine our position! People whose own countries torture, imprison citizens without a right to trial, push a very particular religious agenda, restrict all sorts of freedoms, people from autocracies and theocracies, were telling us how bad our government was–but, see, the thing is, they were right; the U.S. had fallen so far from it purports to be.

Yet we are happy to report, as I have explained in previous posts, that there are incredible reserves of goodwill built up for America and Americans, all over the world. Almost everyone reacts positively to us when we identify ourselves as coming from New York, not only with general politeness but with genuine enthusiasm for America and things American. It is just bewildering how often the stars and stripes is used as decoration in West Africa–the motif recurs at least a hundred times more often than the tricolore of the Republique Francaise and at least as often as the colors of the local national flag. (I’m not sure who we have to think for this goodwill–Peace Corps volunteers?)

In a Dakar taxi

A Malian truck

And, for all of the horribleness of the last eight years, I think that Bush’s reign has in some ways strengthened American prestige. The truth is that, in recent years, there has been much to challenge American hegemony. The nuclear rise of India and Pakistan, and the efforts of North Korea and Iran, challenged American control over non-proliferation. The economic rise of China put into doubt American commercial dominance. The rise of the price of oil and the fabulous accumulation of wealth in the Gulf created an entire class of super-rich well outside of the western Christian world sphere. The creation and rise of the euro created a currency to seriously rival the U.S. dollar. What have Bush’s disasters taught us? America may not have the strategic and political acumen to win wars and build strong and sympathetic regimes in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it sure has the resources and military power to create chaos all over the world. America may no longer lead the world economy in its growth but miscalculations by America’s greedy/idiot barons of finance can bring the global financial system to its knees, and reduced spending by American consumers can close factories across the world. The euro may be more valuable than the dollar but, in a time of true crisis, the dollar is still the ultimate safe haven.

In short, there is a new recognition of America’s significance in the world–that things have to go right in America for things to go well elsewhere. Currently, it seems that almost everyone in the world wishes America and its new President well–Bush may still be President, but we are now met by “Obama!” in a congratulatory or approving tone–and hopes that America can succeed, so that instead of dragging the world down with it, it can lift the world up. Maybe, hopefully, Obama will prove so popular that Obama rues and avenidas and strasses and sharias and margs and daos sprout up all over the world. Hopefully, he’ll be able to realize the dreams he currently represents not only for Americans but for so many around the world.


Obama in Africa

Dakar, Senegal

As everyone knows, Barack Obama is popular all over the world. He is popular because he is not George Bush and repudiates Bush’s failed policies, because he gives everyone new hope for America and the world, and because his victory itself seemed to restore a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, to set something straight that was so gravely out of kilter. Part of Obama’s mystique is, of course, his skin color and biography. Even without understanding the details of his domestic or foreign policy, one knows right away that Obama represents a different kind of America, is from an ethnic/racial background and generation that has not yet been represented in the highest seats of power. He is black, he is biracial, his father was a Muslim, and he grew up in Hawaii and also in Indonesia. So many things about Obama seem fresh and different, to offer new perspective and hope.

The whole world is excited, yes, but Africa particularly so. When we mention these days that we are American, we are often met with “Obama” as a response. We’ve seen Obama stickers on shop signs and one Obama t-shirt. One American living in Mali told us that there is even a hair salon named after Obama in Bamako; the hand-painted business sign, characteristic of such signs all over West Africa, went up just days after the election.

Dogon Country, Mali

Ile de Goree, Senegal

Why the excitement? For one, Africans can with some justification claim Obama as one of their own. Obama is not only black, but far closer to Africa than the typical African-American, whose ancestors came to the American continent centuries ago as slaves and lived through the horrific and heroic African-American experience; Obama’s father was himself a Kenyan, a true African and citizen of Kenya, and essentially all of Obama’s father’s family (however poorly he may know them, given that his father left Obama and his mother when he was a baby) still lives in Kenya. For Africans, even Obama’s name is a very tangible reminder that he is just one generation away from the continent, that he is almost one of their own. Religion also serves as a common link. So many in the Muslim world seem to know that Obama’s father was a Muslim, and many even erroneously believe that Obama himself is a Muslim (as some Republicans so badly wanted Americans to believe). As Muslims themselves, the West Africans of Senegal and Mali seem to find it easier to identify with Barack Obama, and hope that Obama will usher in foreign policy that is not as anti-Islam as Bush’s appears.

But, perhaps more powerfully, Africans’ identification with Obama comes not only because of Obama’s specific ties to the continent but for similar reasons as African-Americans’ exaltation. For African-Americans, Obama’s election was tangible evidence that black Americans can make it to the very top of American society, that racism, while still alive, did not stop a clear majority of Americans from voting for a black man as President of the United States. Obama’s election was tangible evidence that anything is possible, despite race. This sort of affirmation was likely necessary in part because African-Americans have had a long-held suspicion that it was not possible, or almost impossibly difficult, for a black man to succeed in America, because there were too many barriers, including possibly race-motivated violence, in the way. To a population that is often made to feel downtrodden, Obama’s election was an event for great jubilation.

Africans recognize that they live in a continent that is, economically and politically, well behind the rest of the world. They recognize that Africans make up a significant percentage of the world’s most poor and that many African governments are among the world’s most corrupt and oppressive. This mild sense of shame is tangible–a hotelier showing us the relatively primitive plumbing of his bathroom described it as “toutes africaines” and a taxi driver described his nearly-falling-apart car as “une voiture africaine.” There is some pan-African pride, too, yes, but more often there is a sense that Africa, unlike North America or Europe or Asia, is a place that is backward and dysfunctional.

And so, just as an African-American may be sorrowful for all of the problems blacks face in America, and take pride and comfort in knowing that, despite it all, blacks can still rise to the very top of American society, some Africans we have met see in Obama proof that an African or a near-African, despite all of the problems the continent faces, can become the most powerful man in the world. As a young man in Dakar explained to us, now anything is possible, not only for African-Americans and other minorities in America, but also for Africans from Africa.

Will people be disappointed? Perhaps. Obama can’t be everything that the American left expects and desires, and everything that Europeans want of America, and everything that the Muslim world and the developing world think may come from a black President whose father was an African Muslim. He simply can’t please everybody. But as we keep telling people, everything may not be good after 4 or 8 years with Obama as our President, but everything will be better. Given the fiascos and disasters of the last eight years, everyone seems to be content with this expectation, with much nodding of heads, heartfelt pats on the back and even a few inshallahs. The African people, like the rest of us, are tired. They need what we all need, for America to lead again.

One funny story. We met a couple of Peace Corps volunteers who are working in a small village in Niger. Early morning on November 5, they woke up to the sound of great cheering as the villagers heard on the radio that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States. The Americans, too, were overjoyed. Also living in their village was an American Christian missionary, who was apparently, as evangelical Christians were likely to be, a McCain supporter. Later that day, one of the villagers approached the Peace Corps volunteer, confused because Missionary Mark wasn’t excited and happy for Barack Obama. The villager just assumed that everybody wanted Obama to win, and couldn’t understand why one of the actual Americans among them wouldn’t be celebrating. Grinning broadly, the Peace Corps volunteer answered simply, “Because he’s dumb.”

Djenne, Mali

Secondary Cuisines

Traveling through the world, one gets to taste some terrific (and some not-so-terrific) food. Considering the wide availability of many of the same ingredients all over the world, it’s astonishing how much cuisines vary, from East to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to India, India to Iran, Iran to the Levant to Turkey, Turkey to Europe. The food, and the types and availability of restaurants, tell you a great deal about a place–the level of economic development, historical trading patterns and contacts, maybe even the character of a people. This post is, however, limited to one small category of food, which I call “secondary cuisines.”

A secondary cuisine is a cuisine once removed. Not Italian food as served in Italy, for example, but American Italian food. Not Chinese food as served in China, but Korean Chinese food. Not Indian food as served in India, but British Indian food. Secondary cuisines have interesting histories. Sometimes, they are just adaptations of an immigrant class, perhaps modified for broader consumption in the country of immigration. Other times, they are local visions of what a foreign cuisine is, or attempts to create such cuisines without proper training or ingredients. However they originate, some secondary cuisines develop lives of their own, perhaps not exceeding in quality and variety the primary cuisine, but differentiating itself sufficiently that even the primary cuisine would not serve as a substitute for someone looking for that particular secondary cuisine dish. An American tourist could easily be disappointed by pizza the way it is served in Italy, and I have heard from many who prefer American Chinese food over food in China. There have even been cases of transplantation of secondary cuisine dishes into the country of the primary cuisine, whether for consumption by locals or foreigners. Lest this sound rather abstract, let us move on to concrete examples.

The country in which the widest range of secondary cuisines exists is probably the United States, a country of immigrants. Chief among these is probably American Chinese food. Ever since Chinese workers first arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they have been cooking food (as Chinese emigrants do all over the world–see below), and a unique cuisine developed. The greatest concentration of American Chinese food restaurants is probably in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese community in the United States, where restaurants have big signs advertising that most American Chinese dish, Chop Suey. But not far behind are restaurants in big cities all over the U.S., and even in rural areas–Chinese food is omnipresent. Other dishes of American Chinese cuisine include such classics as General Tso’s and Sesame Chicken, and an entire range of American Chinese food is often available in cheap buffet or fast food restaurants in strip malls across America. I read that General Tso’s Chicken, originally a Taiwanese-American invention, has made it back to Taiwan–but I have not seen it on a menu in the Mainland… yet.

There are numerous other American-XXX cuisines. After American Chinese food, American Italian probably comes a close second. Indeed, Italian food served outside of Italy is often not an adaptation of Italian food from Italy, but of American Italian food. Whether served at Pizza Hut or numerous smaller local restaurants, American-style pizza is perhaps the single most popular food in the world. Pizza by the slice being sold in Venice looked and tasted suspiciously like New York pizza, leaving me to wonder whether pizza-by-the-slice is an American invention that has traveled back to Italy, together with the recipe for American pizza. American Japanese food also exists, to a small extent, in the form of newly invented sushi. I’ve read that the California, Philadelphia and Alaska rolls have all, to some extent, traveled across the Pacific to be served in sushi restaurants in Japan. Similarly, a cut of rib grilled for Korean barbeque is known even in Korea as “L.A. Galbi,” after its place of innovation, and I know of a pho restaurant in Saigon that imports “rooster sauce” (Sriracha Sauce), a tomato and chili condiment made by Vietnamese Americans and ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

America may be home to the the largest number of secondary cuisines, but the country responsible for seeding the largest number of secondary cuisines is, no doubt, China. “Chinese” food is among the most varied in the world (it is probably silly to call it a single cuisine, although of course regional differences are largely lost when exported to other countries), and among the most adopted in the world, not only by Chinese emigrant communities but by non-Chinese locals. We have eaten (some sort of) Chinese food in the U.S. (of course), Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Levant, Mali and Madagascar.

Of secondary Chinese cuisines, the two most distinctive, from my perspective, are Korean Chinese food and Indian Chinese food. I am not sure how Korean Chinese food originated, but I believe it was created by Chinese immigrants to Korea (from Shandong Province?) who opened restaurants and modified existing Chinese dishes to suit local palates. Now, it forms a cuisine on its own, its dishes recognizably Chinese but prepared in a distinct style. Every Korean child’s favorite food is Jiajiangmyeon, similar to but different from the Beijing-style noodles, and anybody could tell Korean-style Sweet and Sour apart from its Chinese original. Given the lack of a significant Chinese population in India or Sri Lanka, I am inclined to think that Indian Chinese food is a local creation, a vision of Chinese food by (evidently skilled) South Asian cooks. I am told that some of the dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, etc., are available in Indian restaurants in New York. In Madras we went to the restaurant that supposedly invented Chicken 55, another popular (and delicious) Indian Chinese dish. There are numerous other secondary Chinese cuisines–we were unsurprised to find at a restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria an entire page of Chinese dishes, some more recognizably Chinese in inspiration than others. I should also note that Chinese is often a premium cuisine in many parts of the world, surprising to big city Americans to whom some kind of Chinese food is available at highly competitive prices.

Western food has also been adapted. All over Asia there is some variant of adapted western food, such as pizza with corn as a topping (or thousand island dressing in lieu of tomato sauce, as is available at Pizza Hut Hong Kong), “hamburger steak” made of ground meat and various cream soups. The most well-developed, almost sophisticated version, however, is Japanese western. The Japanese adopted certain western dishes from their interactions with the Portuguese in the 16th century and with the British in the 19th, and some of the dishes have grown quite popular, served not only in Japanese restaurants in Japan but all over the world, including especially Korea. Foremost among the dishes of this cuisine are curry and katsu, both foods I grew up with and love. It was fairly late in my life when I recognized that my love of chicken fried steak and wiener schnitzel (and other similar dishes–every country seems to have its own) came down to their resemblance to Japanese katsu.

When I was recently in Milan, I had to try the local milanesa, the namesake of the breaded meat dish in all parts of the Italian- and Spanish-speaking worlds.

Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.

Election Special – What the World Thinks

We just voted! If you can’t guess who I voted for you’re not reading the blog very carefully, but far more interesting than my choice, I thought that you may be interested in hearing what we’ve been hearing, from people we have met in our travels.

People in nearly every country we’ve been in have been intensely curious about the election–almost every time that we mention that we’re American, the election soon comes up. Generally, people ask us either whom we support or who we think will win. People don’t understand the U.S. electoral system completely–many thought Hillary was still running (and often preferred her over Obama), and I imagine few understand the workings of the electoral college–but they are following the election and care deeply about its outcome. People have said to us that they wish they could have some sort of say in the election, because its outcome will have repercussions for the whole world. Media coverage is equally extensive. We’ve seen articles about the election in numerous local newspapers, and see a great deal of footage on local television. Europeans have told us that their local media is covering the election as if it were an election in their own country.

Every single person we’ve spoken to, given the choice between Obama and McCain, hopes that Obama wins. This is in complete agreement with The Economist’s Global Electoral College, which reports only three countries (Georgia, Moldova and Macedonia) in the McCain camp. Why do people have such strong, uniform feelings? What little they know about McCain, their impression is that he will represent nothing new or different from the last eight years. What little they know about Obama seems to offer them hope. It seems the broader themes Obama’s campaign has been trying to hammer home (McCain = Bush, Obama = Hope and Change) have been grasped by the world at large (or at least the parts of it we’ve come across).

Now, there are some in the world who may favor McCain. We met a Kurdish man in Syria who thought George Bush a “brilliant and beautiful man.” We’ve also found, in the past, that some non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries who feel oppressed–Christians in Malay Borneo, Balinese–favor Bush, and may favor McCain, possibly because they view Bush as a foe to all Muslims. Al Qaeda seems to favor McCain. But the desire for Obama to win is nearly universal. As you probably already knew this, let us delve into a few more specific topics.

Many (especially Germans, it seems) are curious whether Americans will really elect a black President. I do not know if I can go as far as Kristof in his recent New York Times column on “rebranding” America, but there is no doubt in my mind that the election of Obama will revive in global consciousness America as the land of opportunity and equality, an America with ideals worth looking up to.

Some Muslims, it turns out, believe that Obama is a Muslim, and Indonesians feel a special connection to him because he used to live in Indonesia. As the media reported during the primaries, no doubt Kenyans are especially excited, although perhaps not the Kenyan spiritual warrior who exorcised Palin.

While people are quite optimistic about an Obama presidency, many are also fairly realistic. As strongly as people favor Obama, and as hopeful they are for change, they recognize that certain things won’t change. Arabs know that we won’t pull out immediately from Iraq. Palestinians know that U.S. support for Israel will continue (and many feel that nothing will change for them no matter who wins). Even if people trust that Obama will make wiser decisions than Bush, they know that the U.S. political system will not allow Obama free rein. The only person who responded hopelessly pessimistically, however, was a young Pakistani man from Karachi who said that Pakistanis didn’t care at all (actually, the phrase used was much cruder) about America or its election (which seems foolish given that we are currently attacking part of their territory).

But generally I think that people view Obama as internationally minded, and Bush’s worldview relatively parochial, one of many reasons that they support him.

Many Americans abroad are also excited; we aren’t the only ones who managed to watch debates that took place in the middle of the night local time.. We met one young woman who said that she had somehow arranged to meet her ballot in Kathmandu, so that she could vote while traveling. If you also are currently traveling abroad, it is still possible to vote, as easily as downloading a blank ballot and mailing it in (or going to a consulate or embassy as we did). Instructions are on this site–no excuses!