Europe at the Crossroads: Portes Ouvertes de Belleville & the Prè Saint-Gervais, Performers from Around the World — Artists Converge on Paris; Help the Arts Voyager be there

Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.

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 The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville  and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.

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France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7  the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and



When presidents had false teeth but spoke the truth & Texas recruited immigrants


Copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 19, 2012. Like what you read? Then please stop “liking” us and help pay for it. Designate your PayPal donation to, or e-mail us at that address to learn about donating in Euros or by check.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Heritage is a messy business, especially in a country built out of multiple heritages. There may be no more vivid microcosm of this principle right now in the United States than that found in the few blocks that make up the Cultural District of this cosmopolis which calls itself “Cowtown” with pride and whose concentration of world-class museums and Western heritage seems to justify the city motto, “Cowboys & Culture.”

Monday at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — named after the American cowboy journalist, humorist, actor and philosopher — the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, running through February 4, celebrated the opening of its 116th year with a Cowboys of Color Rodeo, aptly held on the day honoring Martin Luther King, who did more to emancipate African-Americans than any other American in the 20th century. Across Gendy Street, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame is honoring with her own exhibition (“The cowgirl who became a justice”) retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who, in voting to stop the Florida ballot re-count in the 2000 presidential election, helped enable the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters. Right across the street, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is hosting an exhibition on George Washington — including the last intact set of his dentures — that acknowledges that the father of our country was also a slave holder, as well as an exhibition which recalls when Texas *campaigned* to bring a million immigrants into the U.S. through the port of Galveston… which was also a major entry for… slaves. And the Rodeo, meanwhile, seems to have forgotten that a founding principle of the nation whose Western heritage it celebrates was freedom of religious expression, which also means that the majority should not impose its religion on the minority; spectators for Cowboys of Color had no choice but to listen to the announcer open the event by invoking Jesus Christ before the first bull even hurtled out of the chute. (Here’s what Will Rogers said about religion: “I was raised predominantly a Methodist, but I have traveled so much, mixed with so many people in all parts of the world, I don’t know just what I am. I know I have never been a non-believer. But I can honestly tell you that I don’t think that any one religion is the religion.”)

Being American is not in itself often thought of as an ethnicity. And yet there seems to be at least one ethnic trait that most Americans have inherited: Bad teeth. This correspondent for one feels a little less self-conscious about his own dilapidated mashers after pondering a set of our founding father’s dentures and reading about his troubled dental history in “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” a touring exhibition on view at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History through January 22. Most revelatory is the text accompanying the display of dentures (composed, by the way, of ivory, cow teeth, and human teeth; other sets also included hippo teeth — and none of the president’s eight dentures were made of wood). Beset by dental problems from his early 20s, by the time he was sworn in as the first president in 1789 General Washington had only one of his natural teeth remaining in his mouth, a possible explanation for his sallow cheeks, we’re told. (The exhibition also uses computer science to construct life-sized mannequins of the younger Washington from later portraits.) On another occasion, he provided a lesson in resourcefulness that perhaps ought to be included in our history books alongside Valley Forge for health-care strapped contemporary children to consider: Following his dentist’s instructions, Washington used wax and plaster of Paris to make a mold of the inside of his mouth to send away to the dentist. By the time he left office, all of Washington’s original teeth were gone.

Does the exhibition’s attempt to digest Washington as slave-holder have any teeth? Visitors can watch a series of video interviews with African-American scholars and others who differ on the degree to which perceptions of the president should be influenced by his having owned slaves. Most say it taints him, but one suggests that Washington  wanted to free his household’s slaves, but most of them were owned by Martha Washington, and he couldn’t afford to buy their freedom from his wife.

galveston-1From the exhibition Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island. Images courtesy Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

“Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” a massive exhibition running in the gallery next door to ‘Washington’ through April 1, does a much better job of balancing the pride and shame of American heritage related to immigration, devoting almost equal time to the slaves who were hauled in chains through this Texas Gulf port beginning in 1845, and the voluntary immigrants who decamped there through 1924, an immigration not merely welcomed by the nation and later state of Texas, but encouraged. At one point, we’re informed, the state launched a campaign to bring a million immigrants to Galveston. Even the railway companies pitched in, offering free jump on, jump off privileges so that the immigrants could explore the state at their leisure to pick a place to settle, where they could usually find low-cost housing. About the only immigrants who — late in the game, after 1913, when rules became stricter — had a harder time getting in were people like me: Jews, who some immigration officials claimed were shifty. (Perhaps tolerating invocations of Christ at Texas rodeos is one of the costs of our admission.) The exhibition even features a wall with an immigration timeline to which visitors can add their own family’s entry history with handy post-its. The only criticism I have of the exhibition is that it’s heavy on explanatory text, audio, photographs, and reproductions and very light on actual artifacts. A better bet is to head over to the Cattle Raisers Museum, housed in the same building, and into the legacy room, where “legacy drawers” contain photographs as well as personal memorabilia from pioneering cowboys and the occasional cowgirl.


One of the first things immigrant Charlie Hoffman (left) did after debarking at Galveston Island was to don cowboy gear so he could take a picture to send back home. Jewish immigrants (right) found it harder to gain entrance after 1913, with some officials labeling them slackers.

If you thought the cowboy was an artifact, then you’ve never been to the rodeo. I attended my first on Martin Luther King Day, when the 116-year-old Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo — one of the three largest in the U.S., running through Feb. 4 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — offered as one of its opening events the Cowboys of Color Rodeo. This wasn’t just about token inclusion; a third of the wranglers who settled the West were cowboys and cowgirls of color. I however felt momentarily excluded with the opening prayer invoking “the Lord,” i.e. Jesus Christ.

I was quickly distracted by the bareback riding, in which the cowboys appear to be surfing the horses while straddling their backs (the legs have to start out over the animals’ shoulders). I was just noting how cruel the tie-down roping seems, with the calves quickly and rudely wrestled to the ground and then bound, including around their necks, when the informative announcer pointed out, “For those of you attending your first rodeo who might be thinking [this is cruel], remember this is where your meat comes from, and to do things like give the cows their medicine and get ’em to the doctor, you gotta rope ’em down.”

More pure — and seeming like more of a collaboration between horse and rider — was the thrilling Pony Express Relay Race, which is just what it sounds like, two relay teams racing around barrels, barely slowing for the hand-off of a rolled up parcel until the final rider drops it into a barrel in the center of the arena. The teams were mixed, cowboys and cowgirls; the prior event, pure barrel racing (with the winner being the fastest to get around the barrels and cross the finish line), was all cowgirls, as young as nine, and all fleet. My biggest thrill came during the bull-riding, when a bull the size of a killer whale tried to bolt from the chute above which I was sitting and into the stands. (“Arts journalist mauled by bull.”) This event still struck me as cruel and, as a Taurus, I found myself rooting for the bulls. Not that the combat isn’t dangerous for the human participants, despite that the points were trimmed from these animals’ horns. The performers who seemed to be putting their lives most at risk were the three ‘clowns.’ I put clowns in quotes because don’t let the make-up, floppy costumes, and wigs fool you: their role is serious, to distract raging bulls from fallen cowboys long enough for the cowboys to amscray. One of these jesters, sporting a multi-colored wig, took up his post in a barrel, ducking into it just before a bull charged and pushed the barrel around the grounds with his horns.

After the rodeo I moseyed (sorry) over to the animal barns, avoiding the ‘swine’ hangar and making straight for the boer goats. Except for the occasional “baaaaaaaaaah,” these animals, about the size of deer and just as pretty with white coats, brown heads, and floppy ears, seemed like they’d make ideal pets. Some even propped themselves up with their fore-legs on the fences of their pens. “Are these used for milk?” I asked a middle-aged woman minding one of the goat pens, meaning “cheese” but not wanting to seem too effete. “Meat,” answered the goat-keeper matter-of-factly. I decided maybe it was time to re-think my hankering for a particular recipe from “The Cowboy Grill” cookbook, edited by Cheryl Rogers-Barnett (Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’s daughter), Ken Beck, and Jim Clark: Johnny Cash’s Barbecued Mexican-Style Fiery Goat.

Finally I left the stock show grounds and gamboled towards the giant blue crop-duster plane hovering over the corner of Montgomery Street, turning left towards the Trinity River. I stopped at the empty lot below the railroad tracks to pour a hot cup of java from my ’60s-era red polka-dot German thermos scored for a buck at a Paris garage sale. (“These days, Tex Ben-Itzak does his wrangling at flea markets.”) A sign by the tracks warns, “Many of these trains have no human conductor and will not stop,” but I still like to look up at the mustard-colored engine cars with “Union Pacific” in red letters over the rusted wheels and imagine there’s a real-life conductor making them march forward and go “choo-choo.” I looked up at the thunder clouds in the big 6 o’clock calico sky and decided they’d dubbed the wrong state “Big Sky Country.” Then I lifted up my dark brown working cowboy boots (Fort Worth garage sale, $10 with bandana) and headed towards the underpass and the Trinity, stepping right into a field of wet cement, a wanna-be cowboy grounded by progress.

A show you won’t see in Donald Trump’s America

iranians-cover Elham Korda in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Copyright 2015, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

On Friday January 27, 2017, United States president Donald Trump issued an executive order barring from entering the United States for 90 days all citizens from seven countries with majority Muslim populations: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and the Sudan. On Friday night, refugees who had already been granted visas were detained at U.S. airports, among them, the New York Times reported, Hameed Khalid Darweesh,  who worked for the U.S. government for 10 years in Iraq. On Saturday, after thousands turned out at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest the detentions, a federal judge issued an emergency ruling annuling the detentions, but not the decree. If  Mr. Trump’s order stays in effect, among the artists you’ll never see in the United States are the extraordinary Iranian actresses I had the privilège of seeing and reviewing here in this article first published on November 4, 2015. PS: There are, of course, larger implications of Mr. Trump’s action: On the cusp of World War II, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe was turned away from New York Harbor, the  Jews sent back to face certain death. Never again.

PARIS — As I watched Afseneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s reality-based play, “Every day a little bit more,”  unfold Monday night at the Theatre de la Ville’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre, I could not stop thinking: Why aren’t we seeing this (Iranian production) in the United States? Why is the U.S. instead actually fining the French bank BNP Paribas $8.9 billion for breaking the arbitrary American embargos against Iran and the Sudan, while the French are bringing Iranian artists to Paris to talk about other things besides Islam, terrorism, nuclear weapons, Syria, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Salafism, Wahabiism, Wassabiism, fatwahs, anti-Semitism, ayatollahs, oil, censorship, bans, and other subjects which do exist but which are not the sole facet of the Iranian-Persian (or even Muslim) identity, just as gun violence and white against black racial killings are not the only element of the American identity? Even if  what’s derisively referred to here as “multi-culturalism” may get a bad rap from some sectors of French punditry, fueled by misplaced fear that it dimishes instead of enchancing the national identity, when it comes to cultural vectors —  in this case, director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Theatre de la Ville team — there’s no contest: the French are infinitely more open to the world. And the pay-off is infinite. Thanks to Demarcy-Mota and these incredibly earnest and sincere artists, now whenever I hear “Iranian nuclear threat” or skepticism about Iran’s motivations in Syria, behind the word “Iranian” I can see not just ayatollic machinations and troglodyte conservativism but a people with the exact same concerns as the rest of us.

Even as I was slipping into my usual critical aloofness Monday and ‘judging’ “Every day a little bit more” on dramatic criteria, I kept pinching myself in disbelief that I was actually watching three Iranian women and their Iranian theater company permitted into the country like any other troupe to depict universal human dramas, something I could never be watching if I were in the United States. (Author’s note, 1/29/2017: When this article was original published in 2015, an American reader disputed this contention. Under Mr. Trump’s new order though, in 2017 there’s no doubt.) You may think I’m exaggerating, but when afterwards I asked Elham Korda (in English; for a people supposedly weaned on hate for “the Great Satan,” they have an amazing proclivity for speaking its mother tongue; among the Iranian contingent at the after-party Monday, English was more pre-dominant than Farsi or French) — who plays the widow of real-life martyr Major General Abbas Doran, who crashed his plane, fatally hit by Iraqi fire, into the Baghdad hotel where Saddam Hussein was planning a meeting of the non-aligned movement to send the message that Iraq was winning its war with Iran — if the play, also touring to Vienna and Brussels, would be going to the United States, she just smiled ironically.

iranians-twoElham Korda and Setareh Eskandari in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

In this context it almost feels banal re-hashing the stories of the three women, involving, besides Korda’s older war widow, Baran Kosari’s mountain-climber and Setareh Eskandari’s mistress of a soccer star / wife murderer. What matters more — and I’m embarassed that my French colleagues won’t feel as obsessed with this point and will feel more free to examine the play itself without being distracted by the political externals — is that, like film-maker Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 “Taste of the Cherry,” Mahian and Sadri, through the vessels of their credible interpreters and enabled by the Theatre de la Ville reveal Iranians as normal human beings with concerns we can all relate to. (Spoiler alert.)

Tragic ending aside, for example, Kosari’s measuring up to the male rappelers on her team reminded me of the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia decides to join the Boy Scouts for a foraging expedition and holds her own with the guys, only Marcia got more winded that Kosari’s character, based on the real-life story of the first Iranian woman to scale various mountain-tops. Korda’s character (the reason I keep referring to the actresses’ characters is that none of them were given names, just as they never got to consume the scrumptious dinner — you could smell the spicy aromas mounting as the meat sizzled — they prepared live in a real kitchen set up on stage), meanwhile, could have been an American war widow holding out hope that her husband’s body not being recovered meant he could miraculously show up any day. There are particular exceptions, confirming that Iranian women still have a long way to go: Her husband’s pension goes not to her but his father, she getting a quarter of the amount — with the precision that it’s to be devoted to the costs of raising their son, the male life still priming. And while it’s not entirely clear whether she or the soccer hero has killed his wife, Eskandari as his mistress agrees to his request that she take the fall after his ultimately false assurance that he’ll get her spared from the death penalty. But the very noting of these sexist conditions belies the notion that the Iranian government will censure anything critical of its society and policies; “Every day a little bit more” was not only presented at this year’s Tehran International Theater Festival, it won the awards for best original text and best actresses.

If I have a criticism, it’s not of the acting itself, which was appropriately direct and accordingly unembellished and dramatic when called for, but of the oddity that while the three heroines’ stories were interlaced, there wasn’t a lot of actual interaction between them; rather they related their tales directly to the audience. But the correspondence between the three journeys was clear: In one fashion or another, while each was paired with an evident male hero — the soccer player, the male mountaineering champion, the fighter pilot — in each case it could be argued that the woman’s exploits were more enduringly heroic. The mistress paid the price for her lover’s infidelity to and possible murder of his wife (the conviction and horrifyingly graphic precision of her confession makes it hard to tell if she’s making it up to cover him or really committed the act; the text could be more clear here); the mountaineer was the one ostracized (including by her own mother) after her male partner’s fatal decision to allow the participation of a mountaineer not in a state to be climbing in their expedition; and unlike him, even the martyr’s widow didn’t choose her path but had it imposed on her, and given that society treated her almost like a sub-survivor whose suffering wasn’t as important as her father in law’s or son’s, her crucible was more unjust and more enduring. It might even be argued that, in the sense that it required bucking state authority, her refusal to have her husband’s empty uniform buried in his grave for want of a real corpse demanded just as much courage. These are martyrs in their own right whose stories are as meritorious as those of the men to whose orbits they were inevitably tethered.