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Bringing Home the World: Exploring the Margins

Mark F. Pettigrew

By John P. Thompson

The lecture hall in Emerson was full of people shuffling fellowship schedules and recommendation forms. the advisor was at the lectern, telling us about travelling fellowships and the awards given last year. One person had gone to a village in Greece, another was looking at playgrounds in northern Europe. She was taking questions. How many recommendations do you need? How long are the essays? Who nominates you? Near the back, a dark haired guy in a t-shirt and black boots raised his hand.

"Do the fellowships," he asked, "permit travel into violent Third World Countries?"

There was a pause.

"Where do you want to go ?"

"Occupied Kurdistan. I'm interested in the Kurdish refugee camps."

"Um, well, no they don't, um, like sending people into dangerous areas. Parents don't like it if we help their kids get killed." A nervous laugh.

The dark-haired guy went quietly back to his notebook. Around him you could see a little ripple of embarrassment fan through the room, people's cotton-candy concerns about deadlines and format policies going damp in their mouths.

That was the first time I saw Mark F. Pettigrew '89-'90.

Pettigrew once started a short story with the title "Under the Big Sky." It was to be "an end of the world sort of thing." An anthropologist was going to be out in the desert somewhere, studying an obscure nomad tribe, when the rest of the world was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Suddenly these people living on the margins of the world, ignored by humanity, were propelled onto center stage--they were the only humans left, and the anthropologist's view of them changed completely.

"The idea--besides obvious messages about how they have respect for the land and that chemical and nuclear weapons do not--was that though the anthropologist sees them as so much more important, the nomads don't feel any different. Only we saw them as marginal; their world has always been important and real to them."

"I never finished the story," he laughs, "I can't write fiction worth a damn."

"But what I'm interested in are things people haven't heard about. That's where a contribution can be made."

Mark wants to make his contribution through photography.

"One of my feelings about photography is that, while I don't think it can change the world, sometimes it can make things exist for people in the West that don't exist otherwise."

Every night for a few months this spring, in the backyard of 36 Irving St., Where I met Mark for the second time, as a roommate, you would hear the pop of a Sterno can and soon coal light would be flickering against the back windows. Occasionally there would be the spiralling wails of Arabic music. Inside, a tea kettle would be boiling mark was preparing to smoke.

In early spring of this year. Mark's Egyptian fiancee mailed him a package of his favorite tobacco, ending a three-month attempt at quitting his sheesha. A sheesha is an elaborate water pipe, with a glass bowl base, topped by brass fittings called 'alb al-sheesha, or "heart of the sheesha." "Above this fans out a copper dish that serves to catch any coals or ash falling from the haggar or "stone." Smoke is drawn through the lay (hose) which is connected to the 'alb al-sheesha.

The whole apparatus is very much like a bong, which led to a lot of interrogations when Mark used to sit crosslegged in the Winthrop courtyard puffing away, water gurgling through the pipes, hose coiled around his knees. The caterpillar in last fall's Mainstage production of Alice in Wonderland, pillowed like a pasha on his guru's mushroom, was smoking Mark's sheesha.

He began smoking the sheesha, and met his fiancee, during a year and a half of study at the American University of Cairo. Originally Class of '89, Mark went to Cairo halfway through his sophomore year, and spent the following year there as well. He returned to three semesters at Winthrop, and spent his last living off campus on Irving St. His fiancee and he met in Cairo in the fall of '87, and he describes her in contrast to the majority of women he met there.

"Almost all the kids there are extremely rich, elite Egyptians. And there's this type--people say bint masr gadida, `girl from Heliopolis.' It's sort of like saying valley girl, Basically an extremely spoiled person who likes dressing up. And what you get used to seeing at A.U.C. is bint masr gadida, girls from Heliopolis. It's sort of hard to take after a while...The first time I say [my fiancee] she was wearing khaki pants," he laughs.

"The way she and I met was that she was a campus radical, and I, well I got into an argument with the A.U.C. admininstration. Let's leave it at that," he laughs again. "We were both in the doghouse."

During his time in Cairo the sheesha, which is a fixture in the city's cafes, became for Mark a way of meeting people outside the university. "People are always surprised to see a foreigner sit down and be familiar with a sheesha," says Mark," and they get very curious and friendly. It's a very communal custom."

One of Mark's most focused forays into the city was during the summer of '89, which he spent getting to know some of the people who live in Cairo's City of the Dead. He was interested in the social networks that exist among the people living in poverty in the city's old tombs. The work he did eventually became a photo essay and an article(for Harvard's Development Forum) in which he was able to show, in this neglected part of Cairo, the existence of a healthy fabric of human community. All were photos taken in the City of the Dead; there are people going about daily chores, a smoke-filled barbershop and an unforgettable image of a gravedigger's young son laughing and playing on the gates of a tomb.

This spring, after three months abstinence, the sheesha brought back strong memories of his explorations of Cairo. It was easy to sit with him in the back-yard, stirring tea, handing back and forth the lay, basking in a stream of Arabic names and stories. Every night until the tobacco ran out, Mark would be in the backyard, arranging glowing embers with the masha' (a pair of small brass tongs), cupping his hands and blowing softly on the coals.

It was through Egypt that most of Mark's lasting commitments were forged--personal, political, and also professional.

"My earliest ideas about doing photo-journalism," he says, "came from being in Egypt. When I first got to Egypt I thought of it like Disneyland, because there's an amazing amount of freedom if you're a Westerner there...So I had a good time for a few months." Then the significance of social conditions began to sink in, particularly the startling contrast between "the wealth of the elite and the next to nothing of the poor people. You see those contrasts so much more clearly than you do here, even between wealthy Harvard students and homeless people in the Square. It's so much more vast that it's hard to imagine."

Mark began working in Cairo with a community service society, work he continued in a homelesss shelter once back in Cambridge. The work was "a start," through he was drawn more and more to what he could do with a camera. At the time he was taking pictures for Caravan, a student paper at A.U.C., covering a lot of demonstrations. One experience in particular stuck with him, giving him his first sense of the power of film.

A demonstration was being held for the Day of the Land, which for Palestinians is "the equivalent of a national day." It was the first since the intifada. Al-Quds, A.U.C.'s Palestinian club, was holding a bookfair and some rightist students from the university got into an argument with one of the club members working at a bookstall. They seemed to think the books he was selling carried over-extreme messages, and so ("these people have a lot of power, they're in the super-elite") they called a university security guard to take the student away.

"I was above all this, taking pictures from a stairway above the bookfair. My fiancee came running up and grabbed my shoulder and told me what was going on. I ran down there to get pictures of him being taken away, because the university had denied taking people away previously.

"He was being led away by a security guard, but all around him were these sort of rightist goons...One of them was nicknamed Al-gebel, 'The Mountain.' Al-gebel saw me with my camera...I kept taking pictures and he kept getting closer, and finally he picked me up and moved me out of the way. There's a great sequence of photos in which you see him notice me, start advancing, and then the final frame is a blur..."

Followed closely by the gathering crowd, the student was taken by the guards to a small room on campus. One fear was that he would be turned over to the state police, and that, again, the university would deny involvement.

"They were going to interrogate him...the people from the Palestinian club wanted an observer there. I was right outside and there was this mob around the little door, and one security guard trying to keep the mob out. And I was too dark to take pictures but I just kept clicking to keep the pressure on and eventually they let in an observer...the danger of having it all recorded on film had scared them. And that impressed me with the power of photography. As I said earlier, I don't hold out any great hopes that it can change the whole world, but I certainly think that it's a force...it's especially a pressure on totalitarian systems.

On the kitchen counter at 36 Irving St. is an Etch-a-Sketch. On the grey face above the two knobs are not the usual convoluted stick men, shaky square house, or the even more usual quasigeometrical mess of random shapes and wiggles. Glaring from the screen is a squat, intricate medieval demon named Baphomet, who has a cross in his crotch, a flaming eye in his right hand and a nasty leer on his toothy face. Baphomet used to be regarded as the guardian of the gates of hell, and here, on the kitchen counter, in the squiggly confines of the Etch-a-Sketch, he has been quite vividly reproduced.

Mark has an amazing talent with the Etch-a-Sketch. For a while, he did a different one every day. Hamlet holding Yorick's skull. More demons, some of them on motorcycles. Scenes from the Arabian Nights. When he went back to Cairo to visit his fiancee, after finishing his thesis, Mark said goodbye to the house with a pyramid landscape, replete with all three pyramids, a blazing sunset, a camel and himself waving goodbye in the distance. The round knobs just don't look capable of it.

The demon Baphomet is actually outside Mark's usual field of arcane knowledge, as he specialized in Egyptology and Baphomet is of European origin ("Some of my roommates used to joke about him in the bathroom. 'Don't forget to wipe your feet on the Baph-o-mat.")Mark does, though, have command over a whole panoply of gods and kings.

"My interest in Egyptology began in third grade. It was a social studies class on Egypt. We had an assignment to do a design for the traps inside a pyramid. Mine went on for about three or four sheets of construction paper, and finally they had to tell me to stop," he laughs, "I had crocodile pits, everything...it was great."

Now, after five years as an Egyptologist, including a year and a half in Cairo studying hieroglyphics, and a thesis on the Old Kingdom, he can spin innumerable tales of the history and lore of the Middle East. Antara, a bastard son and warrior from the Jahaliya, the time before Islam. Akhnaten, who ruled before Tut, and founded the temple of the sun god. But though Egyptology was what originally took him to Egypt, "when I got there I was more interested in modern Egypt."

Since going there, this interest has broadened to the entire Arab world, and it is there that he intends to return after graduation. The last two years he spent at Harvard, Mark has been active in the Society of Arab Students, and he has also organized letter-writing campaigns for Amnesty International. His curiosity about experiences on the margins of conventional awareness has led him down the byways of myth and history to demons and ancient kingdoms and has also led him to the ignored and oppressed people of the world.

"I'm extremely interested in the whole Horn of Africa--Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia. Especially the war in Sudan." He's interested eventually in working as a photographer for one of the news services--particularly Reuters, which he admires for its ability "to get to the hard-to-get-to places." But, he says "I've been thinking about spending next year, if I can, working with a relief agency in Sudan. Just to get a feel for it and to try to understand the country. I'm interested in where the Arab world intersects with Africa...

"It's a gruesome civil war. It's unbelievable that it's so invisible to the West. If you're already interested you can find articles about Sudan--little columns on page 23 or whatever. But photographs really bring things home for people."

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