ANTHROPOLOGY / HISTORY
Noxchi Eat Galnish
Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.
Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.
The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the … fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.
Rolling galnish on a Saturday morning.
Photo by Anita Shishani
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.
As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away – they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.
Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.
Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating potentially hostile environments, such as their university or Moscow in general.
Unfazed by outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles,
I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.
Dinner is ready – after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.
Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour – not a single speck is wasted.
Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can. Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.
When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.
I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnish and dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within – to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.
Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen
Pia Arke (1958–2007) was a mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic artist and cultural theorist whose adult life was bookended by two momentous events in Danish-Greenlandic relations: the 1979 adoption of a home-rule system of governance in Greenland, which marked the first major push toward a Danish decolonization of Greenland, and the series of Greenlandic protests that culminated in the 2009 implementation of a self-rule system of governance, which saw Greenland win sovereignty from Denmark in most areas except foreign policy and criminal law.
I offer these details about Arke’s life upfront because Arke’s art and theory both insist that we consider the artist/theorist’s vantage points—positionalities, to use a phrase in vogue—to be central to and inextricable from her works. In Arke’s case, being split at the root lent her a complicated and complex perspective on the Danish-Greenlandic cultural dynamic.
Arke’s most noteworthy theoretical work is the manifesto Ethno-Aesthetics (1995, English translation 2010), which she submitted in place of a physical product to earn a degree from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Ethno-Aesthetics beams a flashlight into the psyches of Danes who travel to the North Atlantic to encounter their supposed Others, the “Eskimos” [sic], on whom they project fantasies of cultural purity and backwardness. She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage; an almost pitiable need to ignore signs of Danish-Greenlandic syncretism or of Greenlandic modernities to sustain their racial fantasies; and a pervasive obliviousness to the systematic construction and perpetuation of these reductive images of Greenland and Greenlanders.
It seems tempting to frame Arke’s manifesto simply as a North Atlantic incarnation of Edward Saïd’s theories in Orientalism (1978) that the European construction of exotic others reveals less about those cultures than it does about the fragility of Europe’s self-perception and cultural coherence, but Arke goes further than Saïd. Not only does Arke equip critical observers with an intellectual apparatus for “watching them watching us,” i.e. for critiquing Denmark’s construction of Greenland as its other, but she also calls for direct and concerted action from Greenlandic persons to call out their Danish counterparts on their reductivism, and to double down on representing Greenlandic modernities instead of merely playing into essentialist Danish expectations of “what Greenlandic art is.” Arke implores her peers to reject the aesthetic paradigm that Danes tend to impose on Greenland and Greenlanders. Her underlying project, I suspect, is to rouse cognitive dissonance in Danish readers and consumers of Greenlandic culture, calling them out on their stereotyped and reductive visions of Greenland by presenting them with representations of Greenlandic life that diverge so brazenly from what they expect it to look like.
She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage.
Pia Arke ranks among my favorite theorists for numerous reasons: She lets her theory complement her artwork, evinced by the photography exhibit Arctic Hysteria’s dramatization of the violent European gaze on Inuit bodies. She flips the tables of ethnographic inquiry, returning the critical gaze that North Europeans have cast on Greenlanders for centuries. She admits to and even flaunts the anger that these repeated confrontations with Danish scientific racism rouse in her, viewing that frustration not as an unwelcome emotion that leaves her cognitively hamstrung but a feeling that emboldens and sharpens her acumen as a cultural critic. But most significantly, she owns up to and champions the political cause that underpins her theoretical and artistic works: to fight for better, rounder, more complex representations of Greenlanders by Greenlanders. Her dissection of the Danish ethno-aesthetic reduction of Greenlanders to a monolithic category of premodern Inuit sealers who live in igloos (a chimeric dwelling that no Greenlanders actually inhabit; the vast majority of Greenlanders live in apartments in cities and towns along the country’s—mostly ice-free—coastline) has a pointedness to it that lets it contribute directly to the avowedly political cause of decolonizing Greenlandic minds.
Ethno-Aesthetics took the form of a dissertation in visual arts, yes, but the combination of Arke’s acerbic, satirical prose and her incisive dissection of Danish neocolonialism in Greenland slate it for wider circulation. Indeed, upon its trilingual republication in Greenlandic, Danish, and English in 2010, Ethno-Aesthetics has won scholarly attention even outside the Danish-Greenlandic context. The University of Chicago-based journal Afterall made Ethno-Aesthetics the centerpiece of its Autumn/Winter 2017 edition, using illustrations from Arke’s work on its cover page and devoting the three leading articles in the journal to Arke’s manifesto. Though popular interest in Arke’s theories of the European relation to its North Atlantic others has yet to swell, the freshness and daring of Arke’s work—theoretical and artistic—gives me hope that she may one day enjoy the posthumous recognition she merits.
Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?
I have just started a five-year program at Stanford University. I find myself somehow at the edge of the Western world and near its nexus at the same time. Though I write from the perceived center of the Wallersteinian world-system that would place Arke squarely on a periphery, her words resound here.
Arke’s immediate theoretical contribution may have been a toolkit for better understanding and critiquing the Danish marginalization of Greenlanders, but the methodology of activist scholarship she perfects seems transferable to the context in which I find myself.
Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?
Do I suffer from a similar ethnocentric myopia to the one that made a Danish missionary, whose poem Arke uses as an epigraph to her manifesto, feel somehow justified in lamenting the “too civilized” state of Greenlanders when he visited the country in the early twentieth century:
Sorrow and happiness wander together!’
We readily could appropriate these words
when we met the East Greenlanders.
We were happy to have reached them, yet,
undeniably, also saddened to see them;
for they did not appear as the unspoiled people
we had hoped to find! They were already ‘civilised’;
but what a civilisation! The year before, at Itivdlek,
we encountered a group of East Greenlanders
about whom we could say that, evidently,
these are ‘wild’ people. This year, at Angmagssalik,
we meet with East Greenlanders, one of which wears a top hat,
another knee breeches, stockings and shoes,
as if intent on going to a banquet at the emperor of Germany’s court.
One presents himself in a coat, another in a normal shirt! Etc. etc.!
I nearly burst into tears!
From the diary of C.P.F Rüttel, Missionary in East Greenland, 1894–1904
Arke’s manifesto seems apposite reading for scholars close to the center of the intellectual world-system who, like me, want to steer clear of ethnocentrism—of a reductive ethno-aesthetics—and show the requisite attunement to the experiences of persons whom we too easily fix in a position of subalternity and deny participation in contemporary cultural life.
Ethno-Aesthetics speaks with prophetic clarity and authority to protest and counter one of the most problematic intellectual tendencies of our moment.
It could, and should, be required reading for the burgeoning generation of thinkers striving for a more cogent, diverse, equal world.
Arke, Pia. Arctic Hysteria, 1996. Nuuk, Greenland. Film. 5:55 minutes, silent.
Arke, Pia. Ethno-Aesthetics. 1995. English and Greenlandic translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.
Arke, Pia and Stefan Jonsson. Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2003. English translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.
Kuratorisk Aktio. Tupilakosaurus: An Incomplete(Able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, 2012. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.
Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Literature and Creative Writing. His interests include contemporary culture, new conceptions of World Literature, and emerging strategies for literary studies. Contact him at nnielsen[at]stanford.edu.
ART AND ART HISTORY
This piece describes the work of translation as an introduction to a course on Dignity and Indignation, a Freshman Core Colloquium at NYU AD. I thank Mohit Mandel (http://translationnetwork.org/) for selecting and editing excerpts of student responses.
At a moment when the trope of the “network” or “moving map” is replacing the old paradigm of the map as regards the contact between world cultures, the work of “translation” has most recently become the paradigm par excellence for historical, ethical, political, and cultural, production: making texts present in and to other locations and, in so doing, rendering the text present to itself by offering new perspectives on its meaning.
A translation of the word and concept dignity in the opening sentence of the Universal Declaration Human Rights (UDHR) opens up the document, allowing it to be read beyond its original context and relevance, thus making its transmission available to different perspectives. Translation brings attention to the instability of the original text by continuing the work that the original drafters of the UDHR began in the post-war period: the search for a concept and word flexible enough to underwrite the legal concept of universal human rights and translated from English into world languages.
The “Translating Dignity” exercise served as a participatory introduction to the NYUAD course Dignity and Indignity during its first week. In the Gramscian spirit of Nick Bromell, my aim was “to show how much political theory is packed into … the words and actions of ordinary men and women.” Before students encountered the concept in philosophical and historical texts, I asked each student to translate the word “dignity” into his or her native language, and in one paragraph to describe the first or the most memorable encounter with either the word or the notion. They were to share their responses on our course site. The writing and their subsequent discussion were designed to generate meanings, theories, practical, political, ethical implications of the term from personal and primary encounters with the word.
Students submitted translations in 18 languages including Spanish (Spain), Latvian, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Kannada, German, Danish, Malayalam, Bari (South Sudan), Spanish (Jamaica), Romanian, Pashto, Arabic, Vietnamese, and English. The course site documents the richness of the responses. The raw and unprocessed stories are packed with the many of the topics we will discuss in the term.
danh dự (Vietnamese)
The word was evoked various contexts, from individual and family, to national, religious, and global; stories from intimate and private to world historical such as the Muhammad drawings in Denmark, Latvian independence from Soviet Union, Sudanese civil war were recounted. The translations evoked the different meanings of dignity, as in social rank or honor, inherent sacred worth, market-value, or autonomy. During our second meeting student pairs discussed each other’s posts before presenting the work of their partner to the group.
Here I will present one example of the way in which the discussion of a particular post prefigured, organically, for the class what NYUAD’s Core Curriculum refers to as a “global challenge.”
A student from Latvia presented the viewpoint of a student from Denmark, whose first encounter with the word dignity was when when Muslim Danes expressed their indignation at the notorious Muhammad drawings. The Danish student’s point of view was that he could see how the drawings would be offensive, and that the artist should not have created them. Before we moved on, another student, visibly distressed, asked to discuss the topic further: the artist’s right to artistic expression went so far as to include the right to insult Muhammad, the “man.” His tone was irreverent, and emphatic, and I perceived that he was making others in class uncomfortable. He was reenacting the Muhammad drawings episode, on this first week of Freshman classes in Abu Dhabi. In a series of back-and-forth exchanges, the student from Denmark offered that, while the artist had the “right” to express himself, he should not have done so out of respect for the Muslim community in Denmark.
I intervened by offering that the distinction between right and dignity evoked in the Universal/Cairo/Arab Declarations of human rights is a main topic of the course, and one we will address as we acquire the conceptual tools and historical perspectives. The translation and its discussion showed in a most organic and efficient way the crisis of constitutional rights or the liberal state as a legal framework for contemporary societies. I explained that one of the books assigned in the course is Hobbes’s Leviathan, a work of political philosophy that elaborates the notion of rights and civil liberties as they first appear in seventeenth-century Europe, forming the legal framework of the modern state. It is from Hobbes that we get the positive law formulation “if it is not illegal, you are free to do it.” This framework could contain political communities, I offered, in the aftermath of religious wars in Europe, because traditionally the emerging market economies provided the basis for a common sense. In contemporary multicultural societies, rights and law are proving insufficient means of insuring political communities, and cannot be a basis of a shared culture. The global challenge is to imagine and enact a new common sense or collective.
The writing and their subsequent discussion were designed to generate meanings, theories, practical, political, ethical implications of the term from personal and primary encounters with the word.
Student Comments: First Encounters with the Idea of “Dignity”
The first time I had contact with this word was during a math class when I was 12. Near the end of the class, the teacher suddenly stomped and, raising his voice, said: “Estoy verdaderamente indignado,” I am truly indignant.
I am not quite sure when I met the word værdighed for the first time. I do, however, think that it may have been in connection to the Muhammed drawings, and the reactions that came from many Danish Muslims in that regard. “You are violating our dignity,” I think they said.
I remember feeling the sense of this term since very early childhood in my country, when Latvia had recently re-established its independence from the Soviet Union.
The first time I encountered this concept (and this is often how the word is used) is when I heard about assisted suicide. When I used to live in Korea, there was an old, terminally-ill woman who sued the Korean government for not respecting her 존엄성 to decide for herself when she wanted to die.
I first encountered the word dignity when I was taught that our bodies should be treated with dignity, when I was having a lesson on chastity in a Catholic school.
For me, dignity is a feeling associated with belonging: feeling that you have a place to call home. My most vivid memory related to this is the story my grandmother told me about about how she came to the United States.
The first time I truly reflected on the concept of dignidad was during Religious Education class in the ninth grade.
I remember reading a news article praising a deaf guy who refused to receive an extended deadline for his class assignment. … I understand danh dự (in Vietnamese) as the rights or worthiness that a person deserves.
What is it to be “dignified”? All I knew was that it was an honor to be called a “dignitary.”
The first time I felt the sense of dignity is when I heard my father and grandmother arguing about the position of a person in the family tree.
During one of my Islamic classes in ninth grade, our Islamic teacher told us that “One’s dignity lies within their decency and chastity.”
My first experience with the concept of dignity was when I was out with my family, and we observed a young man causing a fit in public for some unknown reason. As we observed, we realized that he had cut to the front of the line for a service and demanded that he be served before any of the other people who were standing in line.
The first time I deeply thought about the concept of dignity was when I studied the Islamic law, fiqh (الفقه).
I remember encountering this word when I was learning Japanese history on warfare.
I came across this word for the first time when my parents taught me about the importance of the values that qualify the right of a person to be accepted and well-treated by society.
It was after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in 2005.
I first encountered this word when I learned about the frequent pickpockets’ and scammers’ methods in Europe.
I first heard the word digno, which is the adjective for dignidad, at the age of six while watching the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The first time I encountered the concept of dignity (or at least the first time that I can recall) was through Catholicism. More specifically, I encountered this concept through Jesus Christ and his story.
I encountered the word 존엄성 when I was in middle school. In our Korean history class, we learned that the kings of Joseon dynasty possessed 존엄성, which was a justification for them to rule over the country.
Looking for Nature (II)
Notes from the Bwindi
PART TWO: THE GORILLA TREK
We awoke at six in the morning’s utter darkness and showered by torchlight in order to get to breakfast by seven. Our guides were already scouring the adjacent national park for a family of habituated apes we could visit that morning.
When we arrived at the Uganda Wildlife Authority outpost just inside the gates to Bwindi National Park, the head of the visitor’s center said that his advance team have found three families in the vicinity: the Mubare, Habinjanye, and Rushegura families, ordered in a crescendo according to how strenuous the trek to reach them would be.
I chose the most strenuous trek, not because I have any illusions about my abilities as a hiker but because the pictures of that gorilla family mesmerized me: they seemed just as cohesive a family as my human one, complete with a hierarchical family tree: one silverback patriarch, four junior “blackbacks” who would soon contest the silverback’s supremacy, two adolescent boys, two adolescent girls, and three mothers each with a male infant, ranging in age from two years to four weeks.
The Rushegura family tree.
Photograph by Manas Pant.
On our hike up to the Rusheguras, we measured our progress by the increasingly slight signs of human interference we saw: From our lodge near the entrance to the park via three SUVs to the sturdy but simple visitor’s center inside the park, we went into the rainforest along the ‘R’-trail that took us past the center’s backyard generator (diesel-fueled by the smell of it) and sewage facility. From the backyard, we walked through a short stretch of dense secondary forest, across three increasingly rickety, seemingly collapse-prone plywood bridges in quick succession, into a lush river gulch, up a slight slope, at which point we started our ascent along a dirt path which gradually narrowed as it grew ever steeper and took us higher up the mountainside. Halfway to the summit, the designated path had become indiscernible from the rest of the hillside, though it was not clear at which point during our ascent we had stopped following a well-demarcated trail.
Climbing the second half of the mountainside, we felt increasingly as if we were walking on the tattered fringes of the known world, at any moment prone to teeter over the side of the mountain and roll down the three-hundred altitude meters we had gained on our trek, or to come upon a flock of forest elephants or a spitting cobra (both of which animals are known as the most aggressive species in their respective families). We simultaneously wondered when we would finally cross that subtle barrier separating civilization from sheer wilderness – when would we reach the elusive, sacred grounds of the mountain gorillas?
As we paused to rehydrate after scaling the summit, our trekker reviewed the safety precautions he had issued at the foot of the mountain. While he told us to drop our walking sticks as soon as we saw the gorillas (before mountain gorillas were designated as a protected species, most gorilla hunters used spears to slay the apes, so the sight of a wooden stick might still scare or infuriate older, mentally scarred gorillas), our trekker got word from the advance team that the Rusheguras were within half a mile from us.
“When would we reach the elusive, sacred grounds of the mountain gorillas?”
The advance team made a series of what the guide called “human gorilla” calls, sounds which resemble monkey cries enough not to aggravate the gorillas but which still sound distinctly human. These calls inform the trekker about the location of the advance team, and thus of the gorillas. We heard the calls to our right and made our way to the gorillas by hacking a path through the underbrush, prepared to drop our sticks when a ten-year-old Rushegura blackback strayed from the family and wandered directly into our path. When he saw our twenty-one-person party, all of us wielding walking sticks, he grew understandably agitated, and arched his back. He prepared to charge and probably would have, if only he were not outnumbered twenty-one to one, had our two accompanying rangers not wielded AK-47s with live rounds, and had our porters not been so quick to relieve the tension by collecting our walking sticks and making us back up twenty meters. Now unarmed (save for two guns and three machetes, of course), we could approach the blackback and witness his retreat into a particularly dense patch of rainforest, inside which we came across the Rushegura’s three other blackbacks. Then, in a particularly blood-stiffening moment, we glimpsed a touch of silver flicker in the bush. Our trekker chopped his way in the general direction of the silverback and uncovered a meadow in which a mother lay holding her month-old cub.
At the edge of the meadow.
Photograph by Manas Pant.
To prepare for this hike, we read about “profound interspecies events” and asked in disbelief if our first-hand encounter with the gorillas would really make conservation activists out of us; while I cannot say I became a vehement gorilla activist in that very moment, I can think of few scenes more conducive to a profound interspecies event with mountain gorillas than watching a mother nurse her newborn while the silverback male looms ominously in the shrubs behind her.
As we circled around the mother and child at the prescribed twenty-foot distance, we came upon a juvenile gorilla in a tree. We stood in a crescent facing the mahogany tree from which the two-year-old juvenile dangled when someone pointed to a patch of fur on our right. Had we not had an unobstructed view of a two-year-old gorilla playing in a tree, we probably would have cleaved our way toward the patch of fur on the right, but at this point in time, we were so oversaturated with first-hand gorilla encounters that the prospect of seeing what was hiding to our right seemed less exciting than staying put. Only when our guide announced that the ape we had eyed to the right was one of three gorillas in the process of eating lunch did we break the crescent and follow our guide into another clearing.
The meadow we inhabited was an area about the size of a university dorm and currently had a population of seventeen: three gorillas (two mothers and a four-month-old) and fourteen humans (five students, one professor, one Global Academic Fellow, two rangers, one trekker, and four persons from the advance team that had located the Rusheguras), but that number would increase by two in the twenty minutes we spent there. First, the two-year-old we had seen in the tree climbed down to harass his younger brother/cousin (gorillas are notoriously incestuous) by pulling him down from a branch every time the poor toddler tried to climb it. Later, their father walked into the meadow, and we finally got a frontal view of the family’s most photogenic member, the seventeen-year-old silverback. He had not been in the meadow for five minutes before he started chewing on the branches one of the females had snapped in half for him to eat – an assertion of male dominance which seemed hard not to think about in anthropocentric terms. How astonishing that patterns of male subjugation of woman and blatant gender discrimination is a cross-species phenomenon!
Of course, what amazed us most as we stood in that meadow, no more than fifteen feet from our genetic cousins whom climate change and geopolitics have driven to the edge of survival, was not the behavior of the gorillas so much as the sheer improbability of what we were experiencing. We were deep inside a thicket, on top of a mountain ridge, in the middle of an aptly-named “impenetrable forest,” in a part of the world which remains inaccessible to the vast majority of travelers; how could we possibly abstract from the unlikelihood of what we were experiencing? Our expedition to find ‘uncontaminated’ nature or its closes substitute had taken us so far from home that most us knew we would likely never experience nature in this way again.
A mountain gorilla mother with cub hide in the thicket.
Photograph by Manas Pant.
We watched as the silverback ate the pre-snapped branches and noted with astonishment that a particularly big-stomached female who had already been eating before the silverback came onto the scene did not care to follow him when he walked out of the meadow to take a nap in the shade of a low-hanging tree; she chose instead to remain seated and stuff herself, the remains of snapped and chewed canes strewn over her protruding chest. We marveled at her appetite and only moved into the shaded area where the silverback was resting when she got up to join him. Our allotted hour with the gorillas elapsed while we were rudely intruding on their midday nap, and we sensed that we came close to having overstayed our welcome as we left the Rusheguras: When we made our way back to the porters who had stayed behind with our walking sticks, we came upon the remainder of the pack, a group of juveniles whom we had not yet seen, and noted a distinct change in their body language. Where the other gorillas had taken minimal note of our presence, the juveniles arched their backs in unison, as if to encourage us to make ourselves scarce. We did; our trekker had just told us that even a juvenile mountain gorilla has enough arm strength to tear a human limb off with a single, swift jerk.
We made our way down the mountain ridge along the same path we had used to reach the top, more tired and sweatier than before, but enriched by one of those vexing and perplexing experiences that leaves you with many memories and even more questions: Are gorillas still wild if they graze your leg as they pass you and think nothing of it? Will the gorillas be here when my parents see my photos and decide that they also have to visit? Is the Rushegura family to mountain gorillas what the giant pandas in China’s intensive panda breeding programs are to their species: a sacrificial population whose life quality we readily diminish in the name of saving the species? Are we making the gorillas’ problems worse by going on “last-chance” tourist trips? Are we alleviating the issue? Do we care? These and more questions raced through my head as we made the long trek down the mountainside and noticed how civilization gradually became more discernible around us.
Nikolaj Nielsen is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
NOTES FROM BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL FOREST
PART ONE: INTO THE RAINFOREST
He might not mean to, but our driver sends out a Morse code “S-O-S” as he honks: three short jolts, three protracted blasts, and another volley of three quick-fire honks, all meant to disperse the pedestrians who are walking in the middle of the red dirt street. A moment of sunlight breaks the rain long enough for us to glimpse a beautiful and unusually well-built, white-chalked house with a black-tiled roof and a spectacular view of an arrestingly green valley. Next to the beautiful house with the beautiful view, a clay hut outside of which we see two kids aged nine, maybe ten, carrying bricks on their heads. They are not child laborers; they are just helping their family build an expansion to their home. Except for the white-chalked one, houses here are built with unpainted, ochre bricks which are burnt elsewhere in the village. Most houses have the square footage of a standard college dorm, but they show no signs of destitution, just as most lots have a contraption for drying coffee beans somewhere in the backyard.
Uganda’s Central African climate makes the country an able coffee producer, and the mountainous terrain near its border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo grows ample amounts of the highly caffeinated red berry. We have not come for the high-quality coffee, however, but rather for the mountains which tower up on our right. Somewhere in those mountains, where geopolitical boundaries are infinitely more fluid for other animals than they are for humans, some four hundred mountain gorillas live within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The park is home to almost half the world’s extant population of mountain gorillas, and because fellow mountain gorilla hotspot Virunga National Park in D.R. Congo struggles with both extensive poaching and embittered political strife, Bwindi welcomes far more visitors than Virunga does. We might be so close to the Congo that the mountains towering up to our right sit well within the Democratic Republic’s borders, but while Bwindi’s proximity to the D.R. Congo will figure in the stories that tourists later tell their awestruck friends, tourists will not cross the border. Instead, they will stay in the luxury lodges just outside the gates into Bwindi. We are driving to one of those lodges, the rustic-yet-indulgent Mahogany Springs Lodge, a small jungle resort made entirely of wood (but not, as one might expect and fear, of mahogany) within walking distance of Buhoma, the last village before the entrance to the national park.
Our driver told us it would take ninety minutes to reach Buhoma from Kihihi airstrip, but a ninety-minute drive near the Ugandan-Congolese border seems to go by faster than a similar drive on an Emirati highway, and not just because the Ugandan highlands offer better views. With all its tosses and turns, the road to Buhoma becomes an attraction in itself. Since we share the unpaved, half-lane road with pedestrians, cattle, and the occasional oncoming car, our driver cannot go faster than sixty kilometers per hour if he expects to reach the lodge unscathed, so we resign ourselves to the long duration of this short drive. To busy ourselves, we gaze out the open windows.
Motorcycles are multiple-person vehicles here; they can seat anywhere from two to four persons. If someone sought a correlation between the number of additional passengers on a motorcycle and the speed at which it barrels down the road, he would not find it; drivers seem not to care that their dangerous flirt with speed jeopardizes up to three other lives as well as their own. Then again, they deftly swerve around our convoy of SUVs with an ease that suggests they have done so before, so perhaps they have become experts at racing down a too narrow dirt road with too many people on the bike.
Our cars’ license plates start with UAE, UAE, and UAF. At first I took this pattern to suggest either that the lodge has a set of license plate just for us or, more likely, that many visitors to Mahogany Springs Lodge either come from or transit through the UAE. I later realized that ‘UAE’ is the standard-issue tri-letter identifier for license plates from Kihihi. But even if the three cars’ license plates only match by coincidence, they make quite an awe-inspiring convoy. Throughout the ride, our driver maintains a furious speed. He does not slow down when we pass a man seated in the side of the road; our car covers his leg stumps with a film of red dust as we speed past. However, he does slow down when we drive through an unnamed village, because, as he tells us, “it is bad luck to drive past the Divine Mercy House (his parish church) without slowing down.”
As we leave the town, goats, cows, and kids continue to intermingle. The children cross the road when they feel like it, as if they have not learned to fear the lethal force of an SUV’s bumper. Our driver continues at the speed we expect from a car chase or a scene in which the Secret Service just told him that a terrorist faction will blow up our convoy if he slows down.
It does not help alleviate my concern about the driver’s speed that Ugandans drive on the right, especially when a massive Isuzu truck swerves close around us with ten or more waving men from the load. They are wielding machetes, but like the children who have not learned to fear oncoming cars, these men might not realize how the knives in their hands might perpetuate Western stereotypes about Central African men’s penchant for war. Moments later, we pass the only two-story private home between Kihihi and Buhoma and notice that the owner has protected his property with a ten-foot wall with razor-sharp broken glass shards on top. This particularly evil burglar repellent may deter property crime, but it sends an unfortunate signal to tourists. Seeing the lengths to which Ugandans go to protect their belongings, tourists are likely to suspect that crime rates here are much higher than they actually are, and that they need to be on guard at all times. Like our driver’s death-defying speed and the machete-wielding men in the Isuzu truck’, the glass shards on top of the wall seem to suggest that Uganda is inherently dangerous, something visitors need protection against.
Eager to look beyond the easy stereotype of Central Africa as a ‘dangerous’ place, I look out the window and deliberately search for a scene that can complicate my first impression of Uganda. Within a minute, a group of uniformed schoolchildren walking on the left side of the road provide that complication, as they wave and cheer at our convoy. More groups of children are making their way home from school up ahead, and it quickly becomes clear that the children of Buhoma can react to an oncoming convoy of SUVs in one of three ways: Some wave and run towards us as they scream “yes!” or “eyyy!” Others turn to face the cars, staring at us with a look that is neither welcoming nor overtly malicious; still others put out their hands to ask for candy in a manner which simultaneously suggests that they expect you to give them candy and shows how disappointed they will be if you do not. As we came unprepared for the children who want candy, we have to disappoint some of them, but the energy and joy painted on the faces of these uniformed cheerleaders surely must dispel any sense of danger in even the most paranoid and overwhelmed visitors. The schoolchildren’s enthusiasm tells us that, rather than isolate ourselves during our time in Buhoma, we should open up to the people we meet; perhaps we can learn to feel the children’s unbridled enthusiasm if we try?
Just before we turn onto the road to Mahogany Springs Lodge, our driver pulls over the car by what is obviously a tea field. No doubt not meaning to patronize, he says: “This is what we call ‘tea’. Do you know what tea is?” He continues, “Most Ugandans drink tea, but they do not take coffee. There’s a saying that coffee gives you heartburn.” In the spirit of learning from the people around us, our driver’s comment exemplifies the openness it takes to unlock Uganda. His comments strike us as obvious, until we see the profound point hidden within. Ugandans grow coffee, but they do not drink it; they see coffee for what it is: the world’s most ubiquitous drug. Might we all learn something from the Ugandan coffee producers and leave the vexed brew alone in order to live a bit longer?
The stop gives us a chance to savor our packed lunches, which come in sealed envelopes. Its contents, a cheese and tomato sandwich, a vegetable empanada, two hard-boiled eggs, a slice of cake, and a banana, are wrapped in Saran Wrap four times around to prevent contamination. When our drivers bring the envelopes out from the trunk in a big crate, I cannot help but wonder if our lunch traveled with us all the way from Abu Dhabi; the envelopes certainly give our lunch packs the clinical appearance of plane food. This suspicion lasts until I attempt to peel one of the two Saran-wrapped eggs in the envelope and struggle to break the brown shell. In Abu Dhabi, egg shells are paper thin, because industrial farming puts so much pressure on caged chickens to lay eggs that they do not have enough time or calcium to envelop each egg in a robust shell; this West Ugandan egg is so thick-shelled that I have to bash it against my kneecap to break it.
Upon reflection, perhaps the contrast between the UAE’s thin-shelled eggs and the near shatter-proof Ugandan ones captures the different spirits of the two countries: whereas life in the UAE can too easily become a prolonged lull of convenience, Uganda overwhelms its visitors and makes something as simple as breaking an egg a protracted task. In Abu Dhabi, one always hears the background murmur of construction work; that industrial soundscape does not exist in Buhoma, where the only sounds heard are the constant chirping of unseen birds in the canopy and the occasional riff of an SUV engine on the dirt road. Life in Buhoma lacks many of the comforts of the UAE, but the thrill of getting by without the comfort of driving on paved roads invigorates us and prepares us for our weekend goal: to reconnect with our genetic cousins dwelling in the Bwindi rainforest just beyond Buhoma’s city limits.
The original is unfaithful to the translation.
— Jorge Luis Borges
Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.
It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?
With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.
Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?
Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.
Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.
ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?
MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.
CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.
ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?
CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.
MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.
CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.
MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.
CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.
ES: How should people use the Translation Network?
CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.
MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.
CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.
ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?
CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.
MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.
The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.
A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email email@example.com.