December 15, 2008

The Art of Rapitecture

I just got home from a day of constantly running around, and now I'm about to pull an all night long homework session.

I met with the guys from VIP today and we started laying the groundwork for their album.  They also introduced me to a French rapper who is living here in Cairo that I will start working with also.   Its amazing, as producing these hip hop records is simply something that I thought would be fun but I didn't really expect much to come from it.  Instead, I am finding a very receptive audience and many excited artists who view this as their chance to make the sort of music that they asprire toward.   So now I have three different albums in production, and this Friday Unigunz will be debuting much of our work in a live performance here in Cairo.  Another glimmer of good news is that a UK radio show called Refugee Radio, which broadcasts on Monday nights in Brighton and Hove, is interested in doing a special on the project.  You can learn more about the radio show at

In other news, school is getting close to ending... so close, but just not close enough.  If getting older doesn't make me lose my hair, I quite sure that continuing my education will.  I started this term totally fried, so at this point I'm beyond crispy.  One more semester... just 3 classes more...

Tonight I need to write a collection of papers, one on Sudanese refugee camps, one on the dynamics of money transfers by migrant communities, and another on the distinctions of refugee vs. general migration policy.  You know, its been nice to learn the intricacies while I've been here, but more than anything it makes me miss doing Development Planning.  I miss creating diagrams and drawings, elaborate presentations to convey the results of my studies and being able to talk about the intercourse between large concepts such as social justice and the particular components of architecture or urban design.  Working with migration, economics, and foreign policy within the context of Planning made it so much easier to grasp while my more recent academic research remains within the abstract.

Speaking of which, I just remembered that I need to submit an abstract to a university in India right now.  I've written two separate papers on Humanitarian Space thus far and if the University of Delhi is interested, I might present my research on the complications of Humanitarian Spaces within conflict zones at a conference called Imagined Horizons: Spatial Configurations of the Present.  For anyone interested, here's the opening paragraph...

"Humanitarian operations within conflict zones often require military support to satisfy security demands, a practice frequently at odds with the humanitarian objective to deliver aid to demanding populations in a politically neutral manner.  This contradiction is most evident within the necessary action to carve out humanitarian spaces for the implementation of aid programming within conflicted regions.  The creation of such spaces frequently demands military support, leading to an increase in conflict by additionally politicizing the role of humanitarian aid and thus politicizing a landscape created for logistical purposes.   Furthermore, by impinging upon the pretense of neutrality, humanitarian actions supported by militarization adversely affect the expression of rights among displaced populations who must occupy the same territory.  This imbalance is likewise reflected within the physical transformation of the humanitarian space, as a space created for the sake of institutional operation and human rights expression, is converted into a zone of controversy and power."

December 10, 2008

The Day I Met Ronald Reagan

Today was intially a very frustrating day.  I stayed up all night, unable to sleep.  I woke up all groggy, and had to bust out the door to Hidayek El Maadi to meet up with the Lost Boys gang.
Except that didn't work out.

I went to the cafe where I had previously met their leader.  It is a well known hang out for Sudanese refugees in that neighborhood, and I assumed I would meet up with them just as before.  Yet no one showed.  I sat, drank a cup of wretched tea (I forgot to ask for Lipton), and after awhile I made a couple trips into the labyrinth of alley ways where our 'school' is located.  Unfortunately I never found any indication that these guys were showing up.  That's fine, as the only frustration is for them to satisfy such low expectation.  However, in my own error, my phone battery was dead and I was unable to call my boss Natalie.  So after an hour and a half of wandering the street and drinking tea, I left.

Here's one of those streets.
The evening remained overshadowed by my disappointment, only compounded by my usual brooding over my life in Cairo etc.  Then at 8:27 the telephone rang.

This guy called, saying he was from a group called V.I.P., and that he heard I am a music producer, that I had a recording studio, and that I can write beats for them.  I guess word is getting around about the work I've been doing, and now it seems local hip hop artists are looking to work with me.  This guy happens to work in Garden City, which is nearby, and was just getting of work, so I offered to meet him in front of Hardees.

I walked down there and after a few minutes was shaking hands with this Sudanese rapper.  Upon asking his name he told me "Ronald Reagan."  I smiled, as it sounded like any other goofy street name most of the gangsters have, usually the names of famous rappers in America..  We went inside and sat for over an hour, drinking orange soda, talking about music while I shared with him samples of the work I've made with Unigunz.  I showed him the way I work on my laptop and discussed the philosophy underlying the whole project/partnership.

It became clear that he is excited about this project, and more importantly, he wants me to show him how to do this sort of work himself.  Equipped with his own computer at home, he has spent many hours trying to make his own music and music videos.  He pulled out a flash drive and showed me a video he had filmed and edited himself.   He recorded the video on a hand held digital camera and edited the separate scenes on his PC.  For a guy with limited resources, I think he did a rather decent jobfor the video. Sure, its very rough, but he is definitely doing thebest he can.  He filmed it at place where he works at 5 am so thereweren't any customers, and managed to do all of it by himself.

The only real problem with it is that the music itself was ripped from a very successful musician in America, not only that, but it was a top ten song a few years ago.   At least the lyrics are original, so the first thing we are going to try to do is write an original piece of music to replace the one he has now. 

Later on he asked how to spell my name to enter it into his phone.   I told him that its just "Mitch," that I don't have a street name and should probably get one.  Sure - I've thought about forming one - suggestions by friends have ranged from Mizzel to  DJ Abayed Abayed, which means DJ Whitey White in Arabic, but I haven't found anything.  Upon mentioning my lack of street name, the guy looked at me and said, "Yeah, I don't have one either.  That stuff is for Lost Boys and Outlaws, and I don't need that.  My name is Ronald Reagan, and yeah, he was a president, but its just a name."

Realizing that it wasn't a street name, it reminded me how aid workers sometimes name children after the day of the week on which the child was born.  I've met quite a few guys from Sudan named Sunday.  I also thought of a story I heard once from a Sudanese guy about how much his family loved Ronald Reagan because when Reagan was in the White House the family was able to better take care of the children than during any time after.  I wondered about the story behind this guys name, but I decided that I might ask another time.

Oh yeah, and here's Ronald's video.

December 7, 2008

Cairo's Lost Boys

Today I visited the Lost Boys to initiate another hip hop program. 

It's interesting to observe the differences between the two primary Cairo gangs, the Outlaws and Lost Boys, considering that the members both come from the same parts of Sudan.  The Lost Boys have been the predominate youth gang within Sudan for many years, while the Outlaws only recently formed in retaliation to constant harassment.

Within Cairo, the two gangs live in different neighborhoods and have evolved to maintain particular characteristics.  The Lost Boys live in the nicer neighborhood of Maadi, are generally better educated, have less structure within the gang, and are often the more violent.  In contrast, the Outlaws were founded, and accordingly named,  because they exist 'outside the law. '  The Outlaws live within the poorer neighborhood of Ain Shemz, have limited education or oppurtunity, maintain a strict system of order within the gang, and generally engage only in retaliatory acts of violence.

Today I managed to immediately befriend a guy named James within the Lost Boys who is excited at the prospect of being able to record professional quality reggae music.  Apparently he has a couple traditional drums which he plays at church services (all members of both gangs attend christian churches on a weekly basis or more).  For several years he has been trying to play music with other people for awhile, yet nothing would ever come together - certainly something to which I can relate. 

Now with the other guys, the general gangsters, it is definately more challenging to get these guys off the street and into the studio - but, since that is the point of the project, it is a matter of using any means necessary.  Unfortuanately the best strategy right now appears to talk about how the oppositional gang is doing so well with the project.  I played some tracks of music recorded with the Unigunz, and said "This was made in Ain Shemz."  I didn't say who made it, but since they assumed it was made by the "Outlaws," the guys began to listen with rapt attention.  I suspect now that when I show up on wednesday, there will be more interest and motivation to make the project happen. 
Of course, once I get a little bit out of these guys, I'll return to the Outlaws in  Ain Shemz and say 'listen to what the Lost Boys have made!" 

Its frustrating, but this is really the only way to get either gang to do anything.  I fully intend to direct the attention away from that motive with each increment of progress, but for now, I obviously have start somewhere.  As for James, I already gave him some homework to do, and I'm curious to see if he will manage to deliver when I see him again in three days from now.