Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Buenos Aires does not have designated 'going out' nights. In this city that loves to live, there is always something to do, which is why on Monday night I found myself at a drum concert. It's called 'La Bomba' and is held every Monday in a giant, concrete warehouse that looks more like a parking garage than a concert venue. A conductor leads roughly 10 middle-aged guys who play timpani, sets, bongos, and djembes. It's crowded and hot, people and music straining against the raw, unpainted walls. Natalie, her friend Lauren and I jumped right into the tide with our fellow free spirits, dreadlocks and the occasional t-shirt flying into the air around us. I carried my purse, my jacket, but no inhibitions. For awhile I just danced in my own space, concentrating on the music for me. However, somewhere around the 1-hour mark I stopped to really look at the band and the crowd. Everyone in the band looked incredibly happy and at ease. What struck me was that they were putting their music forth with complete abandon, allowing the crowd as a whole but also individuals within the crowd to digest the music and take it as their own. It was a musical peace offering to the masses with no fine print or strings attached. It was open, and clear, and honest. We may have been stuffed into some garage-like locale, but this was to muffle the noise for the sake of the neighbors, not because the event was taboo. This revelation may not sound ground-breaking, but seen through the frame of recent emigration from the Middle East, the openness was striking.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be open and closed, what is presented and withheld, and which of these actions can be qualified as 'honest'. What does it mean for a city to truly unfold itself to those who seek to understand it better? In Cairo, women are meant to be hidden. Their honor is sacred, and hijabs and nigabs are a very clear reminder of that value. However, because women's coverings so clearly demonstrate societal values, I find them somewhat idiosyncratic. By covering themselves, by hiding away so much skin, women blatantly expose something incredibly personal; their beliefs. By hiding one thing, something else is revealed. In Buenos Aires, women do not cover themselves, which of course reflects an equally strong set of values, just one that I am more accustomed to. This social exterior seems placid, without mystery. However here there are also layers beneath the surface. Buenos Aires may be relatively tranquil now, but it hides a dark underbelly of a past wrought with military coups and colonial struggles. That mothers march in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday, or that Argentinians look strikingly European are both indications that this country cannot escape its past, or the values that helped build the society it is today; that in small ways it's attempting to address its roots and develop a comfortable synthesis of old and new. I feel like Cairo operated more in extremes. It was louder, dirtier, harsher and at times somewhat overwhelming. But in the land of sand and sun, I couldn't help but admire the energy. Cairo was presented to me, undistilled and unfiltered. So far, Buenos Aires is revealing itself more gradually to me. Buenos Aires and Cairo could not be more different, but I'm so glad I get the chance to go to both places, to compare how different cultures unravel themselves. I get to observe what it means for a city to be honest to its own past as well as those who visit. I can only hope that my time here will help me peel away more layers, unraveling the picture and making what initially seemed simple infinitely more complex.