October 2007

October 31, 2007

True Grit

Every year I look forward to attending the "Courage in Journalism" awards, given annually to a few women who demonstrate true fearlessness in the pursuit of truth. The event is a lesson in humility and a reminder of what price some journalists pay for their ideals. This year's ceremony, held last night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, was no exception. The winners far outshined presenters Meg Ryan (looking bedraggled) and Angelina Jolie (looking the star). The award went to a group of six Iraqi women who write in the Baghdad bureau for McClatchy newspapers. Four attended, only one of whom still lives in Baghdad, the others having had to flee after having family members killed and their lives threatened. Hoda Ahmed, who still lives in Baghdad, told me afterward that she perseveres despite the risk to herself and her family, so that the outside world has a more human understanding of what her countrymen are like. "We are not terrorists. My children are not terrorists," she said, in British-accented English. But terror is her life. She tells no one outside her immediate family what she does for a living. When she leaves to work every day, she says she is going to care for her elderly parents across the river. There were security guards at the event not just for Jolie, but for Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who has been continually threatened by powerful businessmen and politicians in her home country for exposing pedophile rings. Her stories were stomach-turning. Serkalem Fasil, an Ethiopian journalist jailed and charged with treason for writing about the regime, could not be present because of security issues; despite acquittal, she faces new charges. (I had no idea Ethiopian journalists face these kinds of risks. Fasil was pregnant when arrested in 2005 and had her child prematurely in prison, caring for him in a cell infested with rats and roaches.) Finally, the indomitable, silver-haired Peta Thronycroft of Zimbabwe brought the room to its feet as she spoke about covering the corrupt Mugabe regime in a lonely, 30-year quest to enlighten readers. She described colleagues fleeing the country, friends and neighbors distancing themselves for fear of being tainted by association. Her work, she stated unemotionally, "has not made a bit of difference." Perhaps. And yet she vows to continue. As the evening ended, I spoke to Thornycroft as she rummaged around at her table. "I've got to get Angelina Jolie's placecard or my granddaughter will kill me," she said, finally finding it. "My daughter will be very upset to learn that Brad Pitt wasn't here."

October 30, 2007


Find today's program here:


October 29, 2007

Tune in Tomorrow

Friends and Readers:  Hope you will tune in tomorrow, 2:30 pm PST, Tuesday, October 30, as I guest-host "The Politics of Culture" on KCRW for the first (and, depending, very possibly the last) time. You can listen live at 89.9 FM if you are in Los Angeles, or hear it online at KCRW.com, and it's also available as a podcast. The topic will be the culture of a society under surveillance, with guests including Adam Rifkin, director of a new movie called "Look," which shoots a tale of modern drama entirely from the perspective of surveillance cameras. Other guests include Melissa Ngo, senior counsel and expert in questions of surveillance and civil liberties, and Grant Fredericks, a pioneer in forensic video analysis. Hope you will join us for a lively debate.

The Twisted Tale of a Body Part

Maori It was bound to come to this: ancient body parts held hostage by a French bureaucracy fearful of creating a precedent. That's the truth behind a strange tale playing out in France this week. The mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior was what an enlightened deputy mayor in Rouen decided was not a work of art, but indeed, part of a "barbaric trafficking in body parts," as Catherine Morin-Desailly told the New York Times this week.  She struck a deal to return the head to New Zealand as a gesture to the dignity of the dead. Maoris, native to that country, preserved the tattooed heads of warriors killed in battle for their own cultural memory. Europeans collected the heads in the 19th century as curios, along with many other things on many other continents that did not belong to them. Mummies, for example. (U.S. museums have their own store of Maori heads, along with relics of Native American culture in U.S. museums that include human remains.) In France, the culture ministry has blocked the return because of worries that it would open the door to a flood of restitution requests. At the moment matters are stuck in court; the culture minister won a ruling to stop the handoff of the head, while Morin-Desailly had a symbolic ceremony with a high-level New Zealand delegation to do so anyway. The standoff exposes absurdities in the French cultural approach to patrimony. The French claim that any artifact or object that is part of a national collection is, by definition, French patrimony. This is an untenable one-way street in a world where restitution is an ongoing, evolving issue. Meanwhile, the culture ministry has convened a conference to study the ethical problems of storing or exhibiting human remains in museums. This one will be fascinating to watch, however it plays out.

Italy Racks Up Returns

Princeton190_2 More booty going back home:  Princeton's art museum has agreed to transfer title to eight ancient artifacts to Italy in the wake of demands by the government, my colleague Elisabetta Povoledo and others reported over the weekend. Of 15 items under dispute, Princeton will keep 7 objects and transfer legal title to eight, and four of those they can keep on loan for four years. The stunning vase pictured at left will stay on loan to Princeton. No details about what evidence or documents were used to strike the deal, but I would imagine that this is the start of a flood of similar agreements, as institutions make rational decisions in the wake of the Getty deal and the prosecution of Marion True. Italian prosecutor Maurizio Fiorilli told reporters that he is looking at artifacts at the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan. As these deals continue to roll in, and Italy takes possession of beautiful, well-curated and well visited artifacts from around the world, two points need to be monitored by observers: how well will Italy care for the objects that it has claimed as restitution? And has the campaign to take these pieces back to Italy had a real impact on illegal excavating?

October 01, 2007

Zahi - 1; Western Museums - 4 (Heads Up, Boston)

Hamysmall2 A major break-through has occurred for Egypt in its quest to reclaim five major pieces from five major Western museums. The Hildesheim Museum in Germany has agreed to lend Egypt the statue of the architect of the Great Pyramid in time for the opening of Cairo's new Grand Museum in 2012, Egypt has confirmed today. (The statue of Hamiunu was taken from here, the architect's burial mound. An archeologist shows the pit where the statue was found and taken to Germany in 1912, which sits a couple of hundred feet from the pyramid of Cheops, built 4,500 years ago.) I have just spoken to Zahi Hawass, who heads Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and while he confirmed the news, it did not seem to mollify him at all. He has made little progress in gaining the agreement for four other pieces he has requested for the Grand Museum's opening. The Louvre has rejected a request for the Zodiac ceiling of Denderah; Berlin has a committee looking at the request for the great Bust of Nefertiti, but seems negatively inclined; the British Museum is still thinking about the Rosetta Stone; and Boston Fine Arts Museum has rejected the request for the statue of the architect of the next-largest pyramid, Khefren's. Hawass is especially incensed at Boston, and warned that he is ready to take punitive measures against the museum. "I am going to make especially this museum’s life miserable," he warned. "They get every exhibit for free. They should be punished." In the past Hawass has threatened to ban museums from excavating in Egypt if they do not cooperate on this issue. Regarding Boston, he said that he would confer with his colleagues and announce something in about a month.  (photo copyright: Sharon Waxman)