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We build a mudhif

Mudhif building sarah and mohannad
Your correspondent joined U.S. military veterans, Iraqi refugees and other volunteers from the community to break ground on Memorial Day and start work on a traditional Iraqi structure dating back thousands of years called a “mudhif“ on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, Philadelphia. More photos here. Watch a video about the first day ceremony and building start of an Iraqi mudhif.

“Al-Mudhif” is the brainchild of Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage and Mount Airy based designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi who, after attending a lecture Kavage delivered a year ago at Moore College of Art during which she displayed a photo of a mudhif, suggested they build one! It is, perhaps, the first in the United States. The project, sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is one of fifteen site-specific installations, six already completed, extending as far north as the Delaware Water Gap and as far south as Wilmington, west to Reading and east to Trenton, all within the Lenapehoking watershed, the home of the native Lenape people.

Building a mudhif, which your correspondent can attest to firsthand, is overlaying and binding together reeds into long columns. These columns are then placed in 32-inch deep, 2-foot wide holes to provide the vertical supports. They are then bent toward one another to form an arched roof. In upcoming days, mats will be woven and set in place to form a thatched roof. Air and sunlight will come through lattice panels to be constructed and attached. Adjacent to the structure, Kavage’s husband, Rob has been busy installing the structure for a large bench for seating and a view from just outside the mudhif.

On day one, we divided into two large teams- the first tasked with digging 10 large holes, 5 opposite 5 to form the length of the rectangular structure. I opted to work with volunteers assembling the columns. We used phragmites, reed grasses, harvested previously. (A non-native form of phragmites is considered invasive and it is likely a plus-side of the project was some invasive control)

From the sidelines, an older man from Iraq who went by “Kam” vividly recalled his father’s large mudhif in Nasriyah near the Euphrates River. His family would welcome guests and travelers to rest, stay, eat and drink coffee or tea in the mudhif, set apart from the main home. At that time, Kam said, people traveled distances by horse and would go from mudhif to mudhif to rest along the way.

A younger man, Hadi al-Karfawi, who left Iraq at the age of nine spoke of his strong emotional connection with the mudhif his grandfather, a tribal leader, had built . As a boy, he was tasked with preparing and serving the strong coffee to guests. He absorbed that the mudhif was community place where people would come to resolve disputes. Everyone was given a chance to speak without interruption. The disputes might be inter-tribal or among families  of one's own tribe.

As your correspondent spoke with al-Karfawi, Mohaned Al-Obaidi, the lead builder and Yaroub’s brother, was having some trouble bending the first two columns of reeds to form the arch at the entrance. Traditionally, al-Karfawi said, the reeds, of a different variety in use here, might be more moisture-filled, perhaps more freshly cut, which would make the bending easier. (The arch is not going to be the traditional rounded one; Yaroub has designed it to be more angular  so winter snow will more easily slide off and not weigh down the roof.) al-Karfawi spoke of helpers being divided into groups, just like us, with specific tasks and he demonstrated how he and others would stomp on mud mixed with hay to form the “cement” to applied inside the roof. He had brought along two of his young children and, as the project was about to get underway, they stood by with child-sized shovels at the ready.

In his opening remarks, Al-Obaidi spoke of how emotional this undertaking has been- recreating a traditional community structure from his homeland. He suspected many of us have only associated Iraq until now with war and suffering. He hopes this welcoming mudhif will bring about a better understanding of Iraq’s ancient and rich culture.

The grand opening of the mudhif is planned for June 24th and according to a Schuylkill Center blog many activities are planned. “We will activate the installation Al-Mudhif with extended programming around exchange of war experience, healing and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.”

Your correspondent asks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the dispute resolution aspect of a mudhif could be "activated”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if representative native Lenape could settle ongoing claims in this mudhif with representatives of the long dominant immigrant community? Descendants of former slaves with descendants of former slaveholders? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Israeli and Palestinian representatives could forge a just and lasting peace in this mudhif? And isn’t it fitting that this peace and justice-making take place on land taken from the Lenape, now in the safekeeping of environmental non-profit, in a traditional structure of a people who themselves experienced recent devastation to their own culture- the swamp Arabs of Iraq? A structure built for community, hospitality and peace-making. Inshallah.

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More videos here

Building Al Mudhif - short version

Mudhif groundbreaking ceremony

Docent tells about Iraqi mudhifs and ancient Sumer

Schuylkill Center Director acknowledges land belonging to Lenape people at mudhif groundbreaking


Tour of the Winterthur quarry garden (in the rain!)

Winterthur quarry garden horticulturist
Pouring rain did not deter a small group of visitors from touring the quarry garden at Winterthur, the former estate of Henry Frances DuPont. Beneath a broad umbrella and underscored by a staccato of raindrops, Jim Pirhalla, horticulturist in charge of the quarry garden, described how “HF” at the age of about 81 in 1961 decided to convert what had been a working quarry in earlier times into an ornamental garden. Stone was brought in and placed by crane to create a terrace effect against the quarry wall backdrop for pocket plantings. On our early May visit, rose-colored primula japonica in the quarry basin was blossoming profusely- peaking, Pirhalla said. He explained how water channels in the quarry bottom were created because a bog-like environment would not be suitable for such plants. The channels had to be dug out again in the 1990s after silting up. Some employees who had been with Winterthur a very long time related to Pirhalla that they had drunk quarry water in days long past. Fed by a natural spring and water funneling into the quarry from the fields, the channel water flows into Wilson run (known at Winterthur as “Clenny” run for the farmer who once worked the area) before joining the Brandywine Creek. The quarry is also an oasis for orioles, catbirds, robins, warblers, wrens and all sorts of birds, some migrating through, and even in winter, as the quarry area never freezes up; as Pirhalla related this, birdsong accompanied him. Watch video of quarry garden tour here.

More photos of Winterthur here.


Hilltop Books displays Chestnut Hill Library Artifacts

Chestnut Hill library artifactsHilltop Books, the bookstore of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, now has on display historical ledgers of the Chestnut Hill Library and other historical records of the Free Library of Philadelphia system. Two ledgers contain daily counts of circulation by subject area at the Chestnut Hill Branch appearing to date back as far as 1937. A large, dried-out leather edition “Registration Book Vol 1” of the “Chestnut Hill Branch” with ribs on the spine contains 1476 numbered and handwritten names and addresses and appears to date back to 1897. These, possibly, are individuals who had borrowing privileges at the branch. Among these are a number of prominent Chestnut Hill family names. The Free library of Philadelphia Annual Report of 1896 indicates it was the first such report. It appears that this book is preserved in electronic format. See the worldcat record here.

Interim bookstore manager Laura Lucas indicates that the Friends are working with the Chestnut Hill Conservancy to preserve these and other historical treasures.

Download phone camera generated Free Library of Philadelphia First Annual Report 1896.pdf (26150.8K)

Click here for a small photo album of the books.

Click here for a small video of a "page-through" of the books.

 


Slave Tour of Mount Vernon Evolves

Carruth mount vernon
Historical interpreter Reba Carruth who led a group including your correspondent on the "Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour" says that before her time, the tour was called "Slave Life" and focused on Washington's use of slave labor. She explained that the current format makes a distinct change in terminology from "slaves" to "enslaved people" and not only focuses on Washington's dependence on them but how they were transformed when Washington breaks with tradition by bringing in skilled tradesmen from Europe and requiring them to train the enslaved people to practice these trades at the same high level as their own. Carruth gestured toward the wide swath of field sloping down from the mansion and gave a shout-out to George, a slave who had acquired the skills of a master landscaper to maintain the grounds.

Washington inherited slaves from his father when he was only eleven years. Washington's marriage to Martha Custis brought many more slaves to the Mount Vernon estate. But he had a fraught relationship with slavery and shortly before his death provided in his will that the 123 slaves he directly owned be freed.

As the Washington family intermarried with the Lees and Custises, families of standing both in England and the colonies, by the time of the civil war, many family members had become Confederates. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the slave cemetery down by the Potomac River had been destroyed and planted over. It was here that Carruth concluded the tour with a short service and wreath laying at a large stone memorial set amidst ongoing restoration of the cemetery. Some of us accepted her invitation to read aloud short biographies of some of the slaves known to have lived and died on the estate.

According to the official website, "Mount Vernon is owned and maintained in trust for the people of the United States by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, a private, non-profit organization." According to Carruth, this group and others with very close associations to Mount Vernon have scrutinized and had to approve of the tour contents which now includes acknowledging that there were [sexual] liaisons between the gentry and the enslaved women, hitherto held hush. Watch video tour of George Washington's Mount Vernon and interview about the nature of the tour here.


Comrade Pineapple, Soviet Great-Granddaughter

Comrade pineapple two
Julia Alekseyeva emigrated to the United States from Russia when she was four years old. Her relationship with most members of her family was fraught. But her great-grandmother, Lola, reflected her own personality and they developed an especially close bond despite nearly 80 years difference in age. Lola, like many other Jews who had been marginalized and persecuted in the pre-Soviet era, had become a member of the Communist party. She later became secretary, devoted but exploited, to the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB. The years leading up to and through the war years were a time of struggle and deprivation. Lola's husband, sent off to fight, and many other family members fell victim to the Nazis. In "Soviet Daughter," a graphic biography, Alekseyeva recounts Lulu's sweeping 100 year story based on memoirs her great grandmother had secretly kept. Alekseyeva places "Interludes" between some chapters of the book which weave in her own personal history- growing up an immigrant, overcoming thyroid cancer (precipitated by Chernobyl radiation exposure) navigating her college years and discovering her sexual, Jewish and political identities. Near the end, lost in grief after the death of her beloved Lola, Alekseyeva receives a phone call. She has been accepted into the Comparative Literature Department at Harvard. Alekseyeva has also authored illustrated works on Rosa Luxembourg and Walter Benjamin. At "Book Paper Scissors! an artists' book fair at the Free Library on the Parkway, cosponsored by the Philadelphia Center for the Book,  these were on display along with Soviet Daughter. Rounding out her display were Yuri Gagarin t-shirts and other t-shirts embellished with a pineapple and written across the pineapple Alekseyeva's DJ name - “Comrade Pineapple.” Watch here the author artist describe her graphic memoir about her one hundred year old Russian great-grandmother.


1902 motorized buggy greets visitors to Quakertown visitors center

Quakertown history visitor center
Upper Bucks Chamber and Visitors Center
Executive Director Danielle Bodnar treated your correspondent to a little tour of the Center's museum. A 1902 motorized buggy is one of the many treasures on display. The Chamber partners with The Quakertown Historical Society which provides historical artwork, memorabilia and binders of old newspaper clippings and photographs and more for the center museum. Bodnar says people like to come in and take a trip down memory lane by searching the archived Quakertown High School yearbooks for, say, pictures of their grandparents or to research some family genealogy. Outside the Center, she pointed out historic Liberty Hall across the way where the Liberty Bell was temporarily hidden on its way from Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War to keep it safe from the British. And Bodnar added that the Richard Moore house on Main Street will be honored this September 14th for keeping escaped slaves safe during civil war times. A historical marker will be placed at the building which served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Watch highlights of Quakertown visitor center tour here.

For more photos of the visitor center, click here.


Germantown celebrates Juneteenth freedom from slavery

Juneteenth libation
At Philadelphia's Juneteenth celebration in Germantown, Iraina Salaam performs a libation ceremony in honor of African ancestors as members of Boy Scout Troop 1719 and the Tyehimba drum group look on. Juneteenth, June 19th, is a celebration that marks the day in 1865, two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of slavery. Also in the video Cerise Dash sings "Oh Freedom," a spiritual. Watch video of Germantown, Philadelphia's Juneteenth emancipation from slavery celebration featuring a libation ceremony, gospel spirituals, colored Union infantry troops and more

Click here for  photo slideshow

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Juneteenth chickenbone

Author Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks sells copies of her recent book with many photographs by noted photographer John W Mosley about the racially segregated beach between Mississippi and Missouri Avenues in Atlantic City, New Jersey.


Solebury's longest resident reminisces

Longest solebury resident cannonball

Dorothy Brown, 69, has lived on her family's property in Solebury township on Old Windybush Road nearly all her life, first in the house up the hill, where her brother lives, and now in the house her grandmother had built as a retirement home. Four generations have enjoyed extended family living between the two houses. Brown relishes the sounds, the smells and the people that she knows so well and figures she's the oldest resident in the township. Old Windybush Road was the main route for farmers bringing their produce to sell in Philadelphia. There was a watering trough for horses across the road and a blacksmith's down the road where the farmers could get their horses shod. The area has become very developed over the years but bond issues have allowed the purchase of development rights to preserve thirty percent as farmland and open space. Watch video interview about historic Solebury township.

Click this link to a video  where Dorothy Brown shows an 8 pound cannon ball dating back to the Revolutionary War  that her daughter found sticking out of the mud on her way home from work at an ice cream store in New Hope. Brown recounts that the British were bombarding the colonists from the New Jersey side of the Delaware River after Washington had commandeered all their boats.


Painting like Pollock, campers have fun

Paint like pollock kid abstract expressionist

"I wanted to give this class because I wanted to paint like Pollock with a group of people who want to paint like Pollock." This is how artist Kay Gering introduced her workshop students at a multi-generational cooperative camp in Ottsville, PA (ECRS) to the drip and splash technique of abstract expressionistic Jackson Pollock. Pollock pioneered the form in the 1940s and early 1950s. He was much more interested in the physical act of making art than the results on canvas, Gering explained. With dozens of colorful, acrylic house-paints donated by her contacts, Gering set her group out with cups, straws and sticks to create Pollock-like art on oversize white and black canvases and to over paint some smaller art reproductions. Your correspondent interviewed one participant, T, as she moved about the canvases, paint cup in hand. For her, the class had special significance. T recently attended the critically acclaimed stage production of the French produced "Pollock" in which her daughter starred as Pollock's ambitious artist wife, Lee Krasner. Watch campers, young and old, splash paint on large canvases in imitation of abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock.Paint like Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist artist

PHOTO ALBUM SLIDE SHOW HERE


Conservator demonstrates preservation techniques

Conservator demonstratres conservation techniques
At a preservation workshop through the Mount Airy Learning Tree, Free Library of Philadelphia conservator and private consultant Meg Newburger explained, often in hushed tones, the threats to books, paintings, ephemera and other treasured objects posed by aging and exposure to the environment and pests. Then she conducted a hands-on demonstration of the archival materials and methods for keeping our precious items intact for posterity, an art and science she had clearly mastered