Chinese Hands in the African Crude Oil Cookie Jar

Flying from Los Angeles to Toronto to Paris to Cairo takes a long long time and includes plenty of sitting, waiting, reading, eating and sleeping in airport terminals. Sometimes, when I have so much time to pass, I like to fantasize about going to other locations I see on the departure boards, such as Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro or Agra or Bucharest.... However, it is also during these long intervals that I like to people watch. I like to see who is going where.

For example on October 23, 2008, I had six hours to wander up and down the aisles at Terminal F at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris before my connecting flight would start boarding. On my way to the croissant and coffee cart, I saw it at Gate 47 throngs and throngs of Chinese people dressed in rather simple attire sharing their packed lunches. That in itself was perhaps not as curious as where they were going - Malabo. Malabo? Where is Malabo? Should I know about Malabo? From the airline representatives at the counter I found out that it was in Africa. It was not until I returned home and looked up Malabo did I find out that it is the capital and largest city of Equatorial Guinea and it is located on Bioko Island at the rim of a sunken volcano.

Map of Equatorial Guinea and its capital Malabo

Hmm. I did not even know that there was country called Equatorial Guinea in Africa and I pride myself in being geographically knowledgeable. That's embarrassing. But why are groups of rural Chinese heading to this terribly under-developed and impoverished country which is ruled by an incredibly vicious, self-serving dictator?

I assumed it had to do with China's growing need for oil - as the second largest consumer of oil in the world. (I knew that Chinese thirst for oil from another African country - Sudan had been inflaming the genocide in Darfur. Unfortunately, the race for natural resources trumps a social conscience in many a country). At the time I was very intrigued with my random discovery. I felt like I had uncovered some huge national Chinese secret. The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit and diaspora always fascinated me - I have found mini Chinatowns and Chinese run restaurants in the most obscure locations - but even this location at seemed extreme to me. Then I read that starting June 2009, Americans will be able to fly Delta Airlines direct from Atlanta to Malabo. I guess there must be quite a generous supply of crude oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea.
Malabo Waterfront (taken from Wikipedia)

Then quite accidentally the other day, I was sorting through some old, still unread magazines on my bedside and came across the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs and on its cover was the title to an article by Harry Broadman, economic advisor at the World Bank - "China and India Go to Africa." If I had done my reading before my trip in October I would have known that Africa's exports to China increased at a whopping annual rate of 48% between 2000 and 2005. Most of this activity had to do with oil and mining as I had suspected. What I did not know was that 85% of the continent's exports to China came from 5 countries - the oil exporting nations of Angola, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. And so it seems that the Chinese are presently investing heavily in building roads and in oil production in Equatorial Guinea. According to Dawn (Pakistan's leading newspaper), the leadership of this tiny country view China as their principal development partner. Evidence of this Chinese presence is clearly visible throughout Malabo.

In doing some final bits of research to complete this post, I came across two additional facts about Equatorial Guinea that blew me away. According to the CIA World Factbook over the past decade, Equatorial Guinea have become the 3rd largest exporter of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa. And while this country ranks near the bottom of the UN development index, in 2004, according to the BBC, it had the world's fastest growing economy!

I always knew that traveling was a tremendous learning and growth opportunity. I just never anticipated increasing my IQ while jetlagged in transit.


Ahhhh...Now I Can Finally Breathe....

A mosaic of Barack Obama made up of newspapers covering his big election win

Two months of travel have left me rather incommunicado and while not much in my daily life has changed, so much has changed at the same time. The world, at least in my perception and for many around me seems different...better...and despite the severe economic downturn, a little more hopeful. A month has now passed since Senator Barack Obama became President-Elect Barack Obama and aaaaaahhh, it still feels damn good. 46 more days until inauguration day! And while I know, most of the hoopla surrounding his election is winding down and all the momentum is building up for the inauguration, I could not let this moment pass without adding my two cents, especially since I have been such an avid supporter.

I was in Cairo, Egypt on election night. With the significant time difference, I lay in bed at the Nile Hilton, eyes glued to the small television screen in the wee hours of the morning of November 5th, waiting for the state by state returns. When Ohio was called for Obama, as the sun was about to rise over Egypt, I turned off the television to get some sleep, now certain of an Obama victory. I missed all the dancing in the streets back home in the U.S., but I did walk around that day with an extra bounce in my step despite my sleep deprivation.

The following morning, the main paper in Egypt, Al-Ahram had this headline regarding the American election, "A Dream Come True." Now Egypt is geographically far and removed from the United States and the majority of Egyptians struggle daily to barely sustain their families; but despite the difficulties of everyday life, the Egyptians are a very generous and animated people, full of good humor and chatter; and many Egyptians while disillusioned with their own country, all wanted to talk to me about Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Prior to the election, the young Egyptian kids at the souq or marketplace in Aswan all cheered when I responded that I was supporter of Barack Obama.

On my way back home, stopping over in France, I noticed that the excitement was even more heightened. Every French magazine, every newspaper had Obama on their front covers for months prior to the election. It almost seemed that Obama was running for president of France. And then after Obama's win on November 5th, my sister and her friends in England, some American, some not, all celebrated together.

The New York Times yesterday broke the story that Obama is considering delivering a policy speech the first 100 days of his presidency in an Islamic capital. Cairo presently, seems to be a likely option. I think this is an intriguing idea and if organized in a thoughtful manner could have far-reaching implications. The strategy of speaking directly to the people on the streets instead of through the filters of propped up corrupt dictators is a powerful one. Barack Obama has captured the world's imagination and if he continues to tread carefully and purposefully, he can continue to heal divides and shift narrow perceptions. His life experiences has made him more aware of his role and responsibility as a global citizen. Yet it cannot be overlooked that he must sustain a delicate balancing act internationally when he, as president has to maneuver between his roles and responsibilities as as a fellow citizen of the world and as the enforcer of American interests globally. But of all the American presidents who had to walk that fine line, I would definitely prefer one who is mixed-race, and who had Kenyan father, an internationally-minded mother from Kansas, an Indonesian step-father; and who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and was raised by his white grandparents and has a sister who is half Indonesian, half white American and a brother-in-law who is Chinese Canadian.

It is an extraordinary feeling to be united globally in the hope and desire for a better tomorrow. When I finally returned to the U.S. after my travels, I could not deny the exhilaration I felt exiting the airport in Los Angeles. This was not the same place I had left. I returned to find a different, transcendental, more hopeful America. For the first time in eight years, it felt good to be home.

The following are interesting links and articles that I have read on Barack Obama's victory that I thought might be of interest. I have abbreviated an article written that I enjoyed reading by Pico Iyer on a chance encounter he had with Barack Obama. I have also included a link to Tyler Brule's Fast Lane column in the November 22nd weekend issue of the Financial Times. While I can't say he usually writes much of substance in this column, I still continue to read it every week. Perhaps I subconsciously enjoy the fluff, or perhaps his column is akin to a train wreck for me - not good to see, but I can't help but stare. And yet surprisingly, his piece titled "America Inc needs to get smart," his to do list for the Obama's administration is rather smart and witty.

American Newspapers - Headlines of Obama's Won
International Newspapers on Obama's win

America Inc Needs to Get Smart
Financial Times - November 22, 2008
By Tyler Brule

My Chance Encounter with Obama in Hawaii

Time Magazine - November 5, 2008
By Pico Iyer

(For the full article, click on the title above. The abbreviated article is below).

...Everywhere I've been this year — from Jerusalem to Japan to Colombia to Italy and back again — I've heard people essentially say that America is an overweight, white plutocrat who is not only out of touch with the world but also shows no signs of wanting to grow closer to it. This is as unfair as any image — contradicted at every moment by the kindness and curiosity of many Americans — but it remains a potent one in a world where people communicate more with images than ideas and assumptions travel faster than truths. The best way to begin to correct it is to show the world a leader who can't really say how much he's African or Asian or American or just a product of their mixing in Hawaii. The point is not just that Obama will bring globalism to America; in his name, his face and his issues, he'll bring America back to the globe.

You could, in fact, say it is the questions that he draws from his experience that are as important as any answers he may come up with. How to make a peace between the black and the white inside him (or inside our cities and our country)? How to do right by our relatives in Africa without dishonoring the grandparents from Kansas who raised us? How to bring the modest Muslim school in Java together with Harvard Law School? The questions Obama has been thinking about all his life are the very ones that dominate the world today. And the mounting economic crisis only makes the construction of a wider identity — and conversing across the waters — more urgent, not less so.

Barack Obama the man is sure to disappoint some of the expectations his fans have; any man would, especially in the age of the 24/7 news cycle. But the past and the future that he speaks for are precisely the ones that belong so uniquely to the new century....


The Danger of Us versus "That One"*

© Daisuke Kobayashi

Ever since Barack Obama entered the presidential race in February 2007, with his mixed race, mixed heritage and his international up-bringing there has been a strong undercurrent that have pushed issues of racism and otherness to the forefront of American consciousness and politics. In the Financial Times today, there was an article on "Obama's Burden" and the nebulous role race will play in this up coming presidential election. The article questions the true accuracy of the poll numbers. Other African-American candidates running for public office in the past have had significant leads in the polls only to lose to their white opponent. And now John McCain's campaign out of options to turn the numbers in his favor have decided to suggest that Obama's brown skin, different name, diverse cultural influences make him a scary, dangerous "other," that white America can not afford to take a risk on.

This direction and tone in American politics leaves me very unsettled and with a very uncomfortable knot in my gut. While any form of discrimination saddens me, this Republican campaign tactic which draws on our basest, most vile human characteristics, is not however the only reason for the uncomfortable pit in my stomach. It is because, as they are demonizing Obama for his brown skin and diverse upbringing, I look at my brownish-beige skin, my mixed-heritage and diverse upbringing and wonder if I too am an outsider, an other and do not belong into this America they describe. Ironically, it is the diversity of ideas and cultures that the McCain campaign now shuns that made America the powerhouse it is today.

I do think however, that this attempt to make Obama the "other" is a dangerous strategy. Aside from destroying any respect McCain once commanded, it ignores the browning of America. I think this not just because I live in California, the "brownest" state of fifty, but because through immigration, rising numbers of mixed marriages and therefore mixed-race children, whites will not be the dominant race in America by 2042. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while minorities make up one third of the U.S. population currently, by 2050, 54% of the country will be made up of minorities. Instead America will become a "majority of minorities"- yellow, red, beige, brown, black. The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at the University of California, Los Angeles estimate that by 2050 the numbers of bi-racial or multi-racial people will triple in the U.S. to 16 million people.

Shifts in cultures and beliefs can be difficult and complicated even within one's own family, let alone an entire country and there are probably many people out there who find this information rather disconcerting and will take time to make peace with it. The younger generation who has grown up in this transition will probably think nothing of this shift as they are a part of it. However, with regards to this upcoming presidential election, I think it is time to stop alienating the future majority of the country.

*John McCain addressed Barack Obama as "that one" during the 2nd presidential debates to the surprise and dismay of many.


The Land of Crystal Gardens

Baccarat's Crystal Garden

The aristocracy have had a long intimate relationship with the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne (a 2,090 acres park on the western edge of Paris). Louis XVI brother, Comte d'Artois built the Chateau Bagatelle and landscaped the surrounding 59 acres into an exquisite park on a whimsical bet he made with then Queen Marie Antoinette. (Comte d' Artois gave it the name Bagatelle which means trifle or trivial in French). After the French Revolution, Napoleon took it over and used it as his hunting lodge. After that it was passed onto English nobility before the city of Paris acquired it 1905. Given its aristocratic origins, it is fitting that for a few months, the district council of Lorraine and four of France's most prestigious crystal manufacturers transformed the Parc de Bagatelle into a giant jewel box.

Under the direction of architect/designer Vincent Dupont-Rougier, the four houses of crystal - Baccarat, Lalique, Saint-Louis and Daum created distinct wonderlands that blended nature with crystal sculptures.

The Baccarat crystal garden (see above) was inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Bouquets of glasses, sleeping decanters hint at a surreal environment. The use of ruby red rose buds reference Baccarat's emblematic color and the chandeliers are a reminder of the company's history.

The design of Lalique's crystal garden (see below) is influenced by recurring themes in Lalique's works - the garden of Eden and the ocean. Anthuriums, anemones, apples, sparrows, turtles, butterflies and dragonflies flutter around a monumental crystal cactus table that was designed in 1951. Marine life is introduced with a school of 100 fish in 30 different colors.
Lalique's Crystal Garden
Saint-Louis' Crystal Garden
Saint-Louis, the crystal maker for King Louis XV (which is where it gets its name) envisioned their garden to reflect a French style inspired by Versailles and its fountains. The green and chartreuse glasses and champagne flutes represent carefully groomed hedges that showcase the majestic urn, an abstracted Versailles.
Crystal Garden of Daum
In Daum's garden, floral designer Emilio Robba created a more exotic feel through the addition of his carefully crafted bamboo and palm trees. The crystal Buddha and Bodhisattva heads from Daum's China collection are meant to increase the sense of mystery within the garden.

The Parc de Bagatelle is already a jewel within the Bois de Boulogne however, this crystal exhibition with all its colorful sparkle and glitter make the park feel even more magical and transcendent. If you can, catch this exhibition before it leaves on November 2, 2008.


A Dream of 27 Years - my visit to Mont Saint Michel

Indulge me a quick minute down memory lane. I was nine years old, sitting in French class in Tokyo, just a handful of days before winter break. Since it was so close to the holidays, my french teacher suspended our usual lessons of verb conjugation and reading in favor of story-telling. Since she was always especially animated, stories told by her would always capture our interest and imagination. That day, she told us about this special island off the coast of Brittany and Normandy called Mont Saint Michel.
To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much of what she said that day. It has been a while. But what I do remember are her descriptions of what seemed to me to be a magical island in the middle of the sea which had a special bridge - sometimes you could walk to the island and other times the sea would hide the bridge, like it was never there. For years, I carried that image in my head. My childhood imagination and wonderment became adult curiosity and a mission. Over the years, I have tried several times to visit this island, even traveling to the edges of Normandy, but somehow my planning never worked out and it remained an elusive destination. And so this 'mountain island' remained a figment of my imagination - until now. Twenty-seven years later, I finally made my trip to the top of Mont Saint Michel.
The origins of Mont-Saint-Michel are thought to date back to 708, when a sanctuary was built for the archangel by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, who claimed he was inspired to do so when St. Michael came to him in a dream. Soon after the mount became a major destination for pilgrims. In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the Abbey, while a village grew below its walls. During the 100 years war with Britain, Mont-Saint-Michel became a military stronghold, successfully repelling English assaults and thus became a symbol of national identity for the French.

A statue of St. Michael slaying the dragon

From the start of the French revolution, up until 1863, the abbey was used as a prison, imprisoning clerics who opposed the republican regime. However, by the mid 1830's, influential members of French society, like Victor Hugo, started a push to have Mont-St.-Michel designated a national treasure, which it was in 1874. In 1979, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.
Facade of abbey church
The abbey church that was started in 1000, is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The unique proportions of the church are based on the area available on the top of the rock.
The Cloister built at the beginning of the 13th century was a place for meditation and prayer
and served as a connector between various buildings.

Detail of cloister spandrels

The town while extremely charming and well preserved since its medieval origins, loses some of its mystique and charm with the swarming tourists and kitschy souvenir shops. While these stores may have existed in the Middle Ages, selling pilgrims mementos from their religious journey, I doubt they consisted of cheesy plastic replicas of the abbey, most likely made in China.
Store signs at the base of Mont St. Michel

My experiences on the island were truly memorable. The buildings were incredibly well preserved. This jewel of an environment really transported you to another time and now that I am back home, I am more in awe of what I saw when I look at my pictures. However, the one thing I kept looking for, even as the bus drove us back to the train station at dusk, were the rushing even violent tides that envelope the base of the fortified island. They were a critical part of the Mont St-Michel I read about over the years and was told 27 years ago in French class.
Village buildings
What I learned after my visit was that in 1879, the bridge that I wrote about in the beginning was converted into a causeway. Then in 1969, the River Couesnon around Mont St-Michel was canalized, reducing the flow of water and increasing the build up of silt around the island. However, in 2006, the French government authorized the building of a dam to reintroduce the tides and river currents around Mont St. Michel by flushing the surrounding silt and salt marshes back to the sea. This should once again transform this mount to the island it once was. This project will be completed by 2012 and the image I carried with me for 27 years will be restored.
The base of Mont St-Michel at low tide


Our New Republican Leadership - the Farce Continues...

Are you kidding me?
When Sarah Palin on Friday introduced herself as John McCain's Vice Presidential pick, I thought I was watching a speaker at a local Parent-Teacher Association meeting, NOT the woman who could become the president of the United States. To put it mildly, it was shocking.

Our planet is in peril from global warming. The United States is mindlessly fighting two huge wars. The tremendous loss of innocent life is constantly increasing and yet remains an afterthought to this current administration. Instead they continue play out their Neo-Con fantasies like it is a video game. Billions of dollars are being spent to bomb and destroy for control of oil and gas. Torture and other human rights violations are now an accepted government policy in the U.S. as part of the very misguided 'War on Terror.' Poverty, desperation and extreme oppression is lighting the Middle East aflame. Genocide is still ravaging Sudan and the Congo - even after we said never again with Rwanda. The 21st century specter of the Cold War is rising once again with Russia. China continues its powerful march forward. Meanwhile the American economy continues to plummet. Food prices are sky rocketing (not to mention the global food shortage). The United States has lost its standing in the world. Its presidential office has been reduced to fodder for jokes at home and abroad.

Oh, I could go on and on...

But somehow because I am a woman, I am supposed to leap for joy because John McCain put a woman with absolutely no national and foreign policy experience on his ticket? This is insulting. While Mrs. Palin and I both share the same XX chromosome, I am first a citizen of the world and a resident of the United States and after eight years of botched policies, I, along with most people in the U.S. and the world are in dire need for sound and thoughtful American leadership and judgment. And while a miracle may prove me wrong, I doubt it could come from former beauty queen whose primary experience in politics comes from being a mayor of Wasilla, a tiny town of approximately 5,000-7,000 in Alaska. She has so little experience, that EVERY news article I have read about her has written about her favorite food (moose), the sports she plays, her teenage summer jobs - just to fill up space on the page. Even news commentators and political pundits joked that her foreign policy experience comes solely from Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia. How would any world leader take her seriously? The conversation would end at moose burgers.

And after eight years of the Bush's administration dangerous disregard for the environment, the last thing we need is someone else in the White House who believes that global warming is NOT man-made - and that we should continue to drill and exploit all our natural resources at ANY COST to the environment - which seems to be her only expertise.

During the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and founder of Bain Capital, seemed much too smooth and slippery with his slicked back hair and daily flip flops, although I could not deny his business savvy. Now, with the introduction of Sarah Palin, oh how I miss him. If you are going to pick someone who is an religious conservative as a running mate - he or she might as well know something about the economy.

There is so very much at stake in this election. McCain's whim of a pick to get more media attention clearly demonstrates how disconnected his is from the gravity of our present situation. The George W. Bush and his administration has made a mockery of this country the past eight years. Now John McCain with Sarah Palin want to ensure that the United States remains the laughing stock of the world.

Wasilla, Alaska - not quite a thriving complex metropolis - more a tiny suburban town with beautiful natural surroundings. It is most known for its annual Alaskan sled dog race. Yup, that's it. Apparently that is all the experience you need to be a Republican Vice President nominee.
(*Image above taken from BBC website).
(Image from www.city-data.com/city/Wasilla-Alaska.html)


how i spent my summer

As I watch the last few days of August slip lazily by, I am made painfully aware that the warm summer rays will soon dissipate with the cooler autumn breeze. This transition in seasons however, has reminded me how long it has been since I have posted anything on either blog. It has been a slow month...my mind has been absent - on vacation. However, before we are firmly launched into September, I thought I would do a post that recalls my childhood on the first day of school - "How I Spent my Summer."

Earlier in August, I went to Toronto and unlike my usual trips where I visit only my usual haunts, this time I did a little sightseeing. Here are some pictures I took ....

Mona Lisa eating a banana - Graffiti at Kensington Market

Children's drawings blanketing a wall on McCaul Street, downtown

Frank Gehry's addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario (re-opening November 14, 2008)

Image of the final design on a wall around the AGO construction sight

Graffiti around the corner from the Queen Street

Ontario College of Art

The CN Tower lit up on a misty night


Birthing a New Blog

I would like to introduce you to my new blog - Borderless Culture Life & Style!!!

I decided to create lifestyle blog to supplement this one because for many years now, I have found a lack of magazines, websites, etc. that catered to the life of the well traveled, well informed individual and/or global nomad. I felt that a lot of publications that attempt to cater to that global spirit tend to be overly commercial and superficial. (Most of these magazines seemed to assume that if you were a global nomad, then you undoubtedly shopped at Gucci and skied in Zermatt. End of story. We bought global multi-national brands and traveled to luxurious locations and vacationed on yachts. That was our whole identity). Even if all I did was shop, ski and sail, I still could not relate to the advertisers and many of the articles. While I am well educated and professionally content, I was still often priced out of many of the products, hotels, etc they were promoting. And so I decided to survey the best and brightest of my internationally minded friends and found that I was not alone.

While we adore good design, good food - generally the good life, we are also concerned about the state of the world; the environment, social and economic inequities. We value intellectual rigor as much as a side splitting laugh and silly banter. And while we weren't always rich (just yet), we want our lives to be rich with experiences and knowledge.

So this new blog attempts to focus on the real lifestyle of the global nomad. It's more lighthearted and playful in tone and hopefully will have a lot of heart. I plan to cover my favorite topics like food, travel, living and moving globally, books, design, people, love, entertainment and just every day life. Currently, it has three new posts - "Why a new blog?" and "The Happiest Place on Earth - and it ain't Disneyland," and "The Silk Road 2023."

Check it out but keep in mind that I am still in the development stages. And since I have set up a tall order for myself, I would really appreciate your ideas and comments.

Borderless Culture Life & Style
I hope you will enjoy it....


Can Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Rise above the Generic in Mumbai?

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the architects who seem to have perfected the generic glass tower have been awarded a project that is so large and requires such depths of cultural and social sensitivity, diplomacy and skill that I can't help but wonder if their clients knew what they were doing when they hired SOM. Unitech, perhaps India's largest real estate developer commissioned SOM to redesign 124 acres of the Santa Cruz district of Mumbai, which essentially consists of 124 acres of slums housing and 125,000 slum dwellers.

Slums of Mumbai - Image taken by Simon Bruno
From what I have read, slum dwellers make up 60% of the population in Mumbai and while their land only takes up 6% of the city of Mumbai, it is located in the heart of the city and therefore extremely valuable in the current real estate boom. As part of the joint effort to redevelop this land, developers and the Indian government have agreed to give the slum dwellers, if they are willing, new apartments free of charge. Slum rehab however, is not an easy task, despite the inherent structural and physical dangers of slum living. The residents of Dharavi - the largest slum in the world (not far from Santa Cruz) have been putting up stiff opposition towards any redevelopment plan, wary of any change to their lifestyle that has been passed down from generation to generation. (Apparently, 75% of the residents need to agree with any plan for redevelopment). As a result, Dharavi redevelopment projects have been stymied in the bidding process for years.
Slums of Mumbai - Image taken by Simon Bruno

The government program offers the dwellers 225 sqft apartments in mid rise buildings in exchange for their land. Placing these dwellers in vertical buildings releases close to 95% of their land for redevelopment. Unitech anticipates to make a profit of £1 million from the Santa Cruz project.

Designing an urban environment that equally and adequately addresses the rich and vibrant Indian culture and the unique social structure of slum dwellers is already a tremendous challenge. However, the Santa Cruz redevelopment project is made even tougher because the new apartments for the slum dwellers will be immediately adjacent to high end commercial space - which brings me back to SOM.

From the 1950's to the early 1980's, SOM was undoubtedly a leader in architectural design with buildings like the Lever House in New York (1952), Nation Commercial Bank (1983) and King Abdul Aziz International Airport - Hajj Terminal (1981) in Jeddah and the Sears Tower in Chicago (1974). They popularized the the curtain-wall skyscraper. Their designs were thoughtful and inventive - but no more.

In recent years, their architecture and urban planning have become generic and staid - often regurgitating similar designs. While they continue to push the realm of engineering feats, as with the Burj Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, local culture and environmental concerns are afterthoughts now. Aside from the fact that any building with a glass facade over 164 stories tall has no place in a desert climate, the design of the Burj Dubai is also recycled from a previous design. Likening the plan of the building to some local desert flower after the design was completed was a pathetic attempt to localize the building. The Hong Kong Convention Hall or the the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai were both supposed to become cultural icons for their cities, however, these buildings have been un-relatable to their local population.

Their recent efforts at urban development have been no better either. An entire quadrant of prized historic hutongs, the heart of Beijing's residential neighborhoods were flattened to make room for SOM's design of Finance Street. While SOM thought they were modernizing Beijing, Liang Wei, deputy director of Beijing's Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute viewed it as a "disastrous development," only appropriate perhaps in an empty lot in Nevada.

Now SOM claims that this new design for the slums of Santa Cruz will be reminiscent of Roppongi Hills (Tokyo), Canary Wharf (London) and Battery Park (New York). The choice of these references however, is also unfortunate. Not only did Canary Wharf and Battery Park suffer from minimal success, they also represent what people fear most about globalization - the mindless transplant of the same generic glass towers from city to city devoid of all locality, culture and identity.

The slum dwellers of Santa Cruz will be formidable critics for SOM. For the 125,000 Indian residents, who struggle throughout their lives daily under the harsh and unsafe conditions, I hope SOM succeeds in creating a thoughtful and locally sensitive environment. Who knows, miracles can happen.

*Simon Bruno images were taken from www.simon.bruno.name/india/Day4/index.htm
**The last two pictures are buildings designed by SOM. The first image is the Sears Towers and the second image is the King Abdul Aziz International Airport - Hajj Terminal.


The Delicate Dance of Cultural Exchange

So finally after years of planning, the first stone for the Louvre's Islamic art wing was laid by French president Nicolas Sarkozy last week. Ironically, this grand gesture occurred a few days after the French courts denied a Moroccan woman's appeal for citizenship because of the radical interpretation of Islam she practices and because she insists on wearing a burqa. A burqa, she claims she only felt compelled to wear once in France, pressured by those in her religious community.

Image of the new wing by the architects
In 2004, France banned the Muslim headscarf in state schools and other public buildings. Now the courts have ruled that the burqa is a symbol of oppression and inequality and therefore incompatible with French values and nationality. There are many who support this ruling not only within conservative ring wing but also within the north African Muslim community in France. Mohammed Moussaoui, the (Moroccan) head of the French council for Muslim Faith stated that the burqa rightfully is "neither and obligation nor even a recommendation." Fadela Amara, of Algerian descent who is Muslim and a junior minister said that the burqa was a prison perpetuating sexual inequality. Given the ongoing controversy over veiling in France, it is intriguing that this new wing of the Louvre is known as "The Veil" by its architects. Architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti describe the new building as a giant glass windswept Muslim headscarf in the heart of Paris.

This addition to the Louvre will form the largest exhibition space in Europe built purposely to display Islamic Art. Former French president Jacques Chirac saw this project as an effort to redirect attention away from the notion of the clash of civilizations heightened by America's invasion Iraq. Sarkozy announced that this was a symbol of France's friendship with the Arab world.

Given that France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe (approximately 6 million), this is a significant gesture to reduce the focus on extremists and promote a dialog between the heritage of Islam and the French secular republic. Although, I am surprised that it has taken this long for France to have a museum to display Islamic art given that France has been a colonial power in so many countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The department of Islamic Art at the Louvre was not even created until 2003. It seems a tremendous shame that over 10,000 pieces of art, one of the most sizable collections of Islamic art in the world sat unseen in the basement of the museum. However on the flip-side, it is also important to note that since the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, a new wing focusing purely on Islamic art is monumental and will be viewed once completed by millions of people. For many around the world, this will be their first exposure to this rich artistic heritage. The French cultural minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres acknowledged the significance in 2005. The Louvre, he said was no longer just a museum but "now an essential instrument for the dialogue of cultures and the preservation of their diversities."

The controversy surrounding the Louvre however, does not end with the headscarf, many are also perturbed that the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has donated 17 million euros towards the total cost of 86 million euros to help fund the construction of this museum, when Saudi's hardline interpretation of Islam is viewed as practicing sexual inequality and artistic and cultural destruction - but Sophie Makariou, head curator of the Islamic art department is un-fazed. For her and many others, when trying to promote cultural exchange, awareness and dialogue, everything is not black and white.

Image taken from the New York Time - Image by John Papasian
This infusion of culture however, is not only going in one direction. In 2006, the Louvre brought 136 works to Saudi Arabia and 400,000 visitors came to see the exhibition in 2 months. And in 2012, the Louvre will be opening their first museum outside of France. Abu Dhabi is the first country to loan hundreds of works from this famed museum transplanting the Louvre global brand from the heart of France to the sands of the Middle East. This extravagant effort will offer many societies from around the Middle East and Asia, that might previously have little or no exposure to Western art an opportunity to see these pieces first hand.

Like those Mastercard advertisements that are frequently seen on television and magazines -
Cost of the new Islamic Art Wing at the Louvre - 86 million euros
Cost of transplanting the Louvre museum and brand to Abu Dhabi - US$1 billion
Increased cross-cultural understanding and appreciation - Priceless.


Holy Cow Obama! What are you thinking?


Ever since Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee for president for the Democratic party, I have un-glued myself from the 24 hour news cycle and political analysis on TV. While I do admit to suffering from overdose from the long primary season, I am also getting increasingly turned off by the growing momentum towards 'politics as usual' in America. While I still believe that Obama is the better candidate for president of the United States, over the past few weeks his statements have made me raise my eyebrows so many times - it is starting to look like I ODed on botox.

While I was squirmy, I still let it slide when Obama announced at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) meeting that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel. It really is not his decision to make, especially since the rest of the world still views the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem as illegal. He later rescinded the statement.

Then there was the incident at a rally in Detroit where two Muslim women wearing head scarves were asked to move out of the camera shot by Obama campaign volunteers. This story was then followed by another when the New York Times reported how Minnesota representative Keith Ellison felt slighted when eager to support the Obama campaign, he was told to cancel a trip to a mosque in Iowa because it would not coincide with their tightly wrapped message. While Obama has visited churches and synagogues, he has avoided visiting any mosques. Although I was disappointed because this goes against his message of unity, I could still appreciate how Obama has to tread carefully given the tremendous ignorance out there regarding the religion of Islam. And there are groups having a field day spreading vicious rumors all over the internet about his past. But it does make me question what happened to the man who took a stand and took a public HIV test in Kenya to promote AIDS education in 2006 and gave the courageous and poignant speech on race in America months ago.

Unfortunately over the past couple weeks, the shifts in his message have continued. First there was his new found support of the Supreme Court's overturn of District of Columbia's 32 year local gun ban. And now, more frighteningly is Obama's recent decision to support legislation granting legal immunity to telecom companies that have partaken in the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants. During the Democratic primaries that ended not so long ago, Obama stated that he would fight such legislation. Now his campaign is trying to put a positive spin on this dramatic shift.

From what I have read from the political pundits, any candidate who wishes to get elected to the White House needs to move to the political center - which I can appreciate. However, in trying to become the new face of politics and everyone's candidate - left, right, blue, red, educated, blue collar, wealthy, poor, evangelical, atheist, urban, suburban, rural... - Obama runs the very real risk of diluting his message and alienating his staunchest supporters who formed his base from the very beginning.


The Dichotomy in Rwanda's Economic Transformation

Picture from EDAW

Fourteen years have passed since genocide tore through the human fabric of Rwanda. Such an inconceivable trauma takes time to heal but that is not stopping Rwandans from moving forward with incredible speed and determination. A new master plan is being designed for the capital city of Kigali as part of the greater plan to transform Rwanda from an agrarian economy (92% of its population are subsistence farmers) to an information economy. The country's Vision 2020 development agenda aims to turn the population of Rwanda into a knowledge based society with a vibrant class of entrepreneurs. Using east Asian countries as a model, Rwanda is hoping to become the Singapore of Africa.

But how is this possible - when 52% of the population still lives below the poverty line; only 5% of the population has steady access to electricity; life expectancy is hovering around 46 years of age; 175,000 women and girls are infected with HIV from rapes during the genocide; 400,000 women have been widowed; 100,000 men are imprisoned for their role in the genocide and families have been decimated? (In just a 100 days in 1994 1 in 10 Rwandans were murdered). Well, meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He is leading with a determination and vision unlike any African leader. However, armed with a strong conviction and singular vision of achieving these goals, he has implemented some rather contradictory laws and developments. President Kagame has made honest governance and security critical; has promoted education and healthcare; and aggressively advanced the rights of women in public and private life. He has also outlawed all opposition.

Welcome to the unusual economic and social miracle that has become Rwanda.

Present Day Kigali - Image taken from Wikipedia

Up until 1994, the majority of women in Rwanda did not work outside the home, did not own property and were instead viewed as property. In May 2003, Rwanda voted in a new constitution, allowing women to own property and reserved at least 30% of the seats in Parliament for women. As a result, in the first national election since the genocide, 48% of the seats of Parliament were won by women (39 out of 80). 36% of Kagame's cabinet positions are also held by women. Rwanda now leads the world in representation by women in a national legislature.

Most Rwandan women, left alone to pick up the pieces and support not only their own remaining family members but thousands of orphaned children after the fighting died down, have also managed to start businesses with an infrastructure not created to support them. Today 41% of businesses in Rwanda are owned by women. For the first time in Rwanda's history, women are taking charge and developing new skills to move forward.
Picture by Davina Pardo
In addition to this dramatic political and socio-economic advancement, Kagame has transformed Rwanda into the safest country in Africa. His administration has also waged a comprehensive campaign against bribery and influence-peddling in government.

Since 2004, Rwanda's economy has grown at an average rate of 6%. Economists, diplomats, development experts are all full of praise for what Kagame has already accomplished and still plans to accomplish. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Rwanda "a miracle unfolding before our very eyes."
Proposal for Kigali's New City Center by OZ Architecture

But there is also a more ominous side to this positive development. Kagame's last election that he supposedly won with 95% of the vote is rather suspect. He has allowed no real opposition foster. Judicial independence has been compromised. Free speech and freedom of press does not exist. And while Kagame advocates one Rwanda, he purposefully squashes lingering sentiments of sectarian politics for his own benefit - cementing his rule.

It is a known fact, although often overlooked, that without sound economic development it is extremely tough to heal a society violently ripped apart by civil war, or worse still, genocide. Old wounds cannot start to heal if people cannot feed their families or provide them shelter and have no hope for the future. It is also absolutely critical that women hold positions of power and leadership, if they are to over turn the mindset that allowed the mass raping of women and children. Perhaps without the dictatorial methods of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda would not have progressed as far and be hailed as the hope of what is possible in Africa. After such unthinkable horrors, and utter lawlessness during genocide, perhaps a rigid, even authoritarian framework is necessary to rebuild security and a new socio-economic structure. Where must the line be drawn between development and progress and free speech? And given that women's rights are human rights then Kagame can both be praised and demonized for his approach towards the rights and freedoms of his people.