Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl

Afghan girl

This image is considered by many to be the crowning masterwork of the National Geographic Magazine’s photographers. Taken (a perfect double meaning, as I will explain) by Steve McCurry in 1984, the image appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the magazine, highlighting the refugees of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She made an encore appearance in the October 2013 issue–the 125th anniversary issue of the magazine, a cover girl again. And in between, she has been used as a model for coffee table compendiums, wall posters and other ephemera.

America didn’t know much of Afghanistan when the photo was snapped. What we did know even then was that it was a place where empires go to die. After all, the Soviet Union’s excursion would set of an economic ripple that by 1989 would level the great rival of the Cold War. Afghanistan was more than the USSR’s Vietnam, it was its Waterloo. As for the girl in the photo, so perfectly composed, so innocent and fiery, so beautiful, Steve McCurry captured humanity in a way that Da Vinci did with his medium centuries beforehand.

National Geographic’s team took this image at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her tribe of Pashto Muslims were being exterminated by Soviet gunships. She was orphaned shortly before this photo was taken of her. She was 12, before her age of maturity, before her wearing of the veil, and before her child marriage, as we would learn some years later.

Over the prevailing 17 years, no one knew what happened to “Afghan Girl.” But in America, her image became a cultural icon. Determined to find what had become of the magazine’s most successful cover girl, McCurry headed back to Afghanistan in 2002, with a team of scientist, to try to find those sea green eyes. McCurry found her, amazingly alive. If you are interested, her whole story is recounted in the April 2002 edition of the magazine.

Le Louvre - Mona Lisa

For this posting, I began with a sense of wonder at this image–a true modern icon like that of the Mona Lisa. I thought of approaching it a bit like an art historian, expounding on the composition (filling the frame in a near-triangular composition), use of color (greens and contrasting reds with a sfumato background), medium (glorious old Kodak Kodachome!) and context (as described above). No one who sees this image cannot help but be arrested by those eyes. Only later do you notice the tattered clothes, the dirt and grime and the overall intensity. Like the Mona Lisa, the image has lost some of its impact over time. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece. And the same qualities that make the Mona Lisa an icon are the same for Afghan Girl. For nearly two decades, so little was known about the sitter for this portrait that wild speculation filled the void. And given her age, she remained forever young in the eyes of the Western World, a vibrant gem among the killing fields of Afghanistan.

But that art critique is as far as I could go, for at what expense do Westerners get to exploit the girl in this portrait for art’s sake alone? After all, this is a picture of a pre-adolescent Muslim girl, whose religion forbids the iconic fascination with a “graven image.” While it tells the story of refugees, and surely creates a sense of pathos, I can’t help but feel a bit like a slum tourist after gazing too long. Her adulation by photography critics seems intrusive, if not an exercise in cultural voyeurism.

When McCurry found her years later, she seemed so very worn, so cold. This is of course due to custom–to speak to a man outside of one’s marriage is grounds for death in Afghanistan. Most astonishingly, when asked if she had ever seen this image, she said she had not. What could have McCurry and National Geographic expected? The first image was a photographer’s dream–capturing that perfect instant, serendipitously, and winning accolades. Going back to relive the moment seems a bit like going on vacation to the same place over and over–the first experience can never be recaptured. And in this poignant case, the young girl has grown up. Time has been no friend. Her fearful eyes now flash contempt and confusion.

When I read the April 2002 issue again, I realized the bittersweet nature of this art.  I have been a subscriber of this magazine since I was nine years old–a gift from my great uncle who gave me the world each month in my mailbox. I love their work–they are a worthy institution. They are not above criticism though. Taken once, the photo is artful. Taken and used again and again, this work is exploitative of another culture, and plucks the woman from her context. She is no celebrity, though many have made money off of her. She is no victim either. She is a survivor within her culture. And that to me is the frame for this portrait–a true enigma, like Mona Lisa. We think we know her so well, and yet we do not know her at all.

(NB–I have left out her most recent photo from the less famous April 2002 edition of the magazine. Some things are best left alone. We even know her name, but even that seems like an invasion that I am not willing to pass onward through my own blog. And yet, I too cannot look away.)

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry (See ‘Fair Use’ Rationale)

Mona Lisa Photo credit: Gregory Bastien / / CC BY-NC-ND


America’s Grandpa: Pete Seeger


Valedictories were piled high this week for Pete Seeger, a singular American troubadour who lived a huge, long life. Like the recent passing of Mandela, no one looks at the death of a nonagenarian with the kind of sorrow that we hold for those who die young. No, for people like Pete Seeger, we are of course sad to see them pass, but we praise the meaningful life they led.  Everyone has their pantheon of music gods who they revere. And over the course of our lives, we tend to change out those Rock and Roll tin gods for others, based on our tastes. For me anyway, I have a very short list of musicians whose art I hope survives the human race and echoes through the universe forever like an annuciation of the human condition. Those are: Bach, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and Pete Seeger.

There is a slight irony that this wise old banjo picker died on the night of the Grammy’s. A continent away, a commercial industry lauded whole genres of performers whose music may capture the vapid, white hot void of pop and hip-hop, but offer nothing really to exalt the human condition or highlight our collective plight. Nor do those shiny, autotuned people celebrate what is good and noble about us all.

Pete Seeger’s music did the opposite of winning platinum records (though the man had hits of his own, and his songs covered by others were hits in their own right.). For Seeger, music was a convener and motivator for social action. A life-long pro-union socialist, he was the last of his generation that truly fought for workers rights, then civil rights, then against war and poverty. Wherever there was an injustice, he showed up with his banjo to provide hope for those who fought for freedom and justice.

As a music innovator, he popularized folk music, the banjo itself and brought folk melodies out of the mountains and into the movements of his day. Most people may not realize that the peace anthem “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by Pete, and became the song of the civil rights era. When approached to lend his name to the production of a “Pete Seeger” banjo, he took no royalties. He lived an esthetic, almost monastic life in an old cabin along the Hudson River, giving away much of his winnings to causes around him–the preservation of the Hudson Valley watershed, civil rights and liberties.

There are plenty of obituaries out there getting into the marrow of the man–his activism, his defiance of the McCarthy-era witch hunt. What I loved about Pete Seeger was his moral consistency and his impulse toward justice for all. He was ahead of his time, and was until the very end. Here are some of my favorite songs by Pete. They are simply beautiful, and are among the few works of art that I can say changed my life. Or rather, helped me get back home, to my own people–those working folks, their condition and the need to help those who are less fortunate. Some have called Pete as secular saint. I can’t disagree.

Thanks Pete. Time for my generation to pick up the banjo, I think. We’ll take it from here.

Pete Photo credit: Joseph A. Horne / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Voice of the Past: Mohammad on Cats

Turkish Angora cat

One of the more charming customs of Islam and its adherents is the reverence shown toward cats. Being a bit of a cat person, I was amazed upon my first trip to the region to see the care strangers offered the street cats. People left out food for them, some were taken in a house pets. In fact, my wife’s first kitten as a child was adopted in that way, off the streets of Istanbul and hauled around the world.

The reason for this compassion, I’d like to believe, is human nature. But in Islam, the compassion comes from emulation of Mohammad, their prophet. When not spreading Islam, Mohammad had a soft spot for felines. His favorite cat, Muezza, was described as being an Angora with a blue eye and a green eye.

Several of his sayings—captured in the Hadith—say that Mohammad had a fellow traveler who was nicknamed “King of the Kittens”—Abu Hurariah. He claims that his cat saved Muhammad from a snake bite. To show appreciation, Muhammad stroked the cat’s neck, causing the cat to arch up for more caresses. Believers say that Muhammad’s blessing gave all cats the “righting reflex”—a well-known cat behavior.

For more practical reasons, cats are admired for their cleanliness, as bathing is a hallmark of Islamic custom. Cats are thus allowed to roam into Mosques, homes and hospitals. Food sampled by cats is considered clean—or halal. Others believe that cats are always looking for those in prayer, and will reward the pious with their company.

The most famous cat crazy story in relation to Mohammad follows like this:

Mohammad arose to the call to prayer—the adhan—by the muezzin of the mosque. He reached for his cloak only to find his cat, Muezza, asleep upon its sleeve. Rather than disturbing the cat’s slumber, Mohammad cut the cloak from the sleeve, leaving the cat undisturbed.

While some might see that to be a waste of outerwear, only a cat lover could appreciate such a sentiment. However, as much as I like my cats, I am not cutting off the sleeve of my parka to accommodate their seeming narcolepsy.


Turkish Angora Cat Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn / / CC BY

Depiction of  17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran or northern Iraq (the “Edinburgh codex”). Illustration of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī‘s al-Âthâr al-bâqiyah ( الآثار الباقية ; “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”)  Photo credit: unknown / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Grattis Knut Dag! (Happy Knut’s Day)

Canute, Tallinn

Much of my blog’s content is about asking “why.” When I think about a city, a travel opportunity, a cuisine or custom, it is usually through that particular interrogative that I engage, and thus learn.  The answer to that question often leads to among other things, ethnicity and nationality. So much of our daily habits, from our food, language, clothing and holidays derive from the rich palate of ethnicity and nationality. Usually, Anglo-Americans do not celebrate a particular ethnicity, given our place as longest-simmering in the great American melting pot.

Ellis island 1902

While later immigrants from Europe brought with them some of their traditions, most of those traditions have been either ubiquitously commercialized (Guinness, Pizza, Croissants) or slowly faded and forgotten (Wienerschnitzel, Spotted Dick). Ethnicity, in the long genetic view, is rather fleeting. And in the cultural view, the formula for survival is its frequency of use. Consider that over the past few years, more people have embraced Cinco de Mayo with Margaritas. Yet Dyngus Day is a holiday only known to the sons and daughters of Poland.

I have gradually tried to bring in old customs from my forbearers in my daily life, even if some of them amputated them from our family traditions generations ago. I am more likely to say “Gesundheit” over “Bless You” and have hosted a few Oktoberfests of my own to celebrate my maternal family’s Bavarian roots and my paternal grandmother’s Rhineland and Swiss heritage. I have yet to convince my own family to sup on Haggis to celebrate Rabbie Burns and our Scottish heritage through my surname and my wife’s maiden name, though I do take in Scotch not so much as a celebrated restorative but rather a birthright. I don’t do much for my English heritage, lacking a palate for boiled food, flat ales and fish and chips and all.  


But this time of year, coming loose from the Christmas holiday (a holiday whose trees and yule and holly and elves harken past the Christ child and right into Norse mythology), I found a way to draw in my maternal grandmother’s Swedish and Norwegian heritage, and close out the holiday season with a tip to my Swedish ancestors on Knut’s Day.

Knut’s Day is a religious martyr’s day, commemorating the death of Canute, a Danish prince and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, assassinated in 1131 by his jealous family who wanted another scion on the throne. The day of his death coincided with the Feast of Epiphany, and as the years moved on, Canute and his story became a sort of final act for the Christmas season. Folks in Scandinavia would dress as a goat (?) and take down the Christmas festivities. Knut’s (an alternative spelling) Day was changed to the 13th of January to try to break the confusion. Today in Sweden, the day is usually reserved for tearing down the Christmas decor. For those who still decorate their trees with sweets and savories, the children are allowed to raid the tree of its candy canes and cookies, in homage to their raiding Viking heritage perhaps.

Canute had a relative, King Canute, who was also assassinated. (We are talking about Vikings, here). Both owe a certain polar cub, named Knut, for a rehabilitation of his name. You may recall Knut, the adorable polar cub saved by the Berlin Zoo, whose Bieberesque exposure led him to psychosis from the shutterbugs and fanatics. Of course, long time fans of Notre Dame football recognize Knute Rockne’s name, in any form.

Polar bear cub Knut in the Berlin zoo.

Ascribing so much meaning to a spot on the calendar may seem overkill. After all, most people toss their trees when the garbage pick-up says so. Some people follow the Christian season right up to Epiphany. Others want the Tannenbaum out before the first touchdown of the Super Bowl. Yet meaning is often under our noses. Most of the days of the week in the English language owe their names to the Norse Gods—a “win” for my Viking ancestors and their adoration of their god of war (Tiu’s dag),  the god of the hunt (Wotan’s day), the god of thunder (Thor’s day) and the goddess of love, (Freya’s day). Aside from the days of the week, my choices in observing anything Swedish in my year are limited to either this particular day, or perhaps going to IKEA.

yellow line on  blue wall

(I cannot deny that I sometimes tingle with scant nationalism for Sweden when seeing a big blue box blazed with gold on the horizon. My people?)

King Canute Tours North Carolina Shoreline

King Canute Photo credit: tm-tm / / CC BY-SA

Ellis Island Photo credit: unknown / / Public domain

Swedish Tomte Photo credit: jpellgen / / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut the Cub Photo credit: beingmyself / / CC BY-ND

IKEA Exterior Photo credit: ChromaticOrb / / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut’s Crown Photo credit: Mike Licht, / / CC BY

Senate Bean Soup

senate dining 2

One of the great cliches in Washington DC goes something like this:

“You can tell Congress is out of session.”


“The weather has cooled off…no more hot air coming off the Hill.”

(cue Rim-Shot, Cymbal)

If you ask me, while bloviating and grandstanding may be the source of the hot air, there is also the possibility that the favorite lunch chow of Congress could be to blame. Bean Soup, an olde-timey bowl of beans and ham, has been on the menu in the Senate and House cafeterias for over 100 years. In the Senate, it is known as “Senate Bean Soup,” to add distinction to a dish that is otherwise as bland as the institution.

Each side has official recipes, resolved perhaps by a conference committee. Like all good ideas, the soup originated in the House of Representatives.

Jos. G. Cannon, 4/3/14  (LOC)

The story of the arrival of Bean Soup on the permanent smorgasbord of the House and Senate would be laughable if it was not so sad. Speaker Joe Cannon, a powerful political boss in his day, had a hankering for the steamy bowl of ham hock and white beans. Being August in Washington, the chef that day decided to perhaps pull the thick, pasty napalm from the menu, for fear of causing hyperthermia in the already sunsoaked staffers. Cannon, upon arriving in the cafeteria and discovering his favorite food missing, erupted:

“Thunderation!” he bellowed. (What a phrase!)

From that moment on, the Speaker decreed under his personal privilege in such matters, that Bean Soup would reign on the menu for eternity. Imagine his modern successors making such a declaration. What (more) contempt might we hold if Speaker Boehner declared every day “Cincinnati Chili” day, or if Mitch McConnell in the Senate side of things demanded that his native Kentucky Fried Critters be served every day! Not to be outdone, the US Senate followed suit shortly after Cannon’s decree, adding the dish to the menu as well.

If you wish to dine as a Senator or Speaker, any citizen can find their way to the soup. The most posh way to enjoy the soup is with an invitation to the Senate Dining Room, reserved for Senators, VIPs, and campaign donors (who make the request, of course.) A bowl of the soup will run $6.00 in the dining hall. If you are not a crony or lackey, fear not, the soup is still accessible to the plebeian class. In both the Capitol Visitors Center, the Longworth House Cafeteria and the Senate Dirksen Cafeteria, a bowl can be had for $3.25.

As for my own partaking, I took mine usually in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Building, near Union Station. The Senate and House Office Buildings offer numerous services to the staff who work long hours wrecking serving the American people. Long before the development of the food court, food truck or shopping mall, the basements of the office buildings provided every need to the staff–printing services, barber shop, banking, postal services, and cafeterias. They still do, in fact. Walking first through security in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building (hilariously shortened to Russell, SOB on the signage) then though the corridor, past the barber shop, through a subterranean tunnel and then into the Dirksen Dining Hall. Technically for staffers, it is open to the public.

And how does this manna taste? The soup is now produced by some contractor, set alongside tomato bisque, chowders, and chicken noodle. It is a dated, old fashioned food concept. Bulky, protein-laden. Swampy and steaming like a DC summer. The antidote to the winter doldrums, but only a sadist would eat this density in summertime. The soup is simple fare. White beans, some mashed to thicken the broth, float in cloudy water. Smoked ham, thoroughly boiled and deracinated from the hock, join the party. Onions, mere onions, add depth. Like a Japanese dish, the construction is elegant in its simplicity, but that simplicity may be taken as boredom by the modern palate. Nonetheless, eating Senate Bean Soup is like learning history through your taste buds.

On a more spiritual level, I am convinced that Senate Bean Soup is a symbol, a metaphor worthy of Dan Brown. How? It is approximately 100 old white farts (or 435 on the House side) rolling in pork fat.

Senate Bean Soup in the Dining Room: Photo credit: saikofish / / CC BY-NC-SA

Speaker Joe Cannon Photo credit: The Library of Congress /,3906677

Senators in the Bowl by TJ Kozak at