The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

This post is under construction.

I recently finished reading The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. This is the first installment in Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles Trilogy.

Rick Riordan, a former Texas school teacher, is best known as the creator of the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. This series connected modern day young heroes and heroines with the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece. Riordan’s latest series follows a mixed race brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, as they discover the truth behind their mother’s death, their family’s magical heritage, and the world of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.

Reading The Red Pyramid is itself an education in Ancient Egyptian Mythology. As young readers (and quite frankly older readers as well) are not as familiar with the myths of Ancient Egypt as they are with those of Ancient Greece, Riordan had to meet the challenge of writing a novel that is engaging for young readers but also informative. In an interview with The Seattle Times in 2010, Riordan expressed surprise that no other author had attempted to create a children’s book based on the fact that Ancient Egypt has the oldest school of magic in the world.

I was initially drawn to the book when I discovered that its central characters were mixed race. Riordan has stated that: “Egypt straddles civilizations — African civilization and Western civilization. I wanted to capture the sense that Egypt is a multicultural society, and that its African culture is part of African-American heritage.” This is definitely the sort of book that would make many of my Egypt-obsessed Afrocentric friends happy but what I must commend Riordan for is creating two mixed race characters who are allowed to express the identity conflicts that being mixed race creates for them. As Riordan states: “At a time when kids are searching for their identity, when you add race to it, it’s a big challenge.”

Carter Kane, 14, is visibly more “African” than his sister Sadie, who takes more after their English mother. Sadie Kane, 12, is light-skinned with carmel coloured hair and blue eyes. Since her mother’s death, she was sent to live with her English grandparents in England, whereas Carter continued to live with their African American father. The fact that the siblings are virtual strangers and don’t even look like siblings creates many challenges for them in the book.

Egyptian Gods and Goddesses that appear in the novel are:

Set, the main villain of the story, is the God of the desert, storms, darkness and chaos.

Horus, the God of War and Hunting. Carter wears an amulet of the Eye of Horus given to him by his father as protection. Carter is unknowingly hosting Horus.

Isis, the Goddess of Magic and Fertility. Sadie is unknowlingly hosting Isis.

Anubis, God of Funerals and Mummification. Anubis is depicted in the book as something of an Edward Cullen wannabe. He is pale, handsome, and brooding. Sadie is infatuated with him and he seems to be also attracted to her. What’s with girls today and dead boys?

Thoth, the God of Wisdom. He is portrayed in the book as an eccentric University Student. We also learn that he is the God of Baboons which, in Ancient Egypt, were considered to be very intelligent animals.

Bast, Goddess of Cats. Bast is the protector of Sadie. She has been living in Sadie’s cat Muffin since being realized from her battle with Apophis by Julius and Ruby Kane.

Nut, Goddess of the Sky. She is the mother of Set, Osiris, and Isis.

Geb, God of the Earth. He is the father of Set, Osiris and Isis.

Serqet, Goddess of Healing Bites and Stings, in the book she is portrayed as a villain and the Goddess of Scorpions.

Sobek, God of the River and Crocodiles.


Other concepts from Ancient Egyptian Mythology:

Per Ankh, House of Life.

Duat, the Underworld.

Ma’at, Order, Truth and Justice.

Apophis, Chaos.

Further Reading:

First Chapter of The Red Pyramid available online

Interview with Rick Riordan about The Red Pyramind in The Seattle Times

The Kane Chronicles’ Website

Rick Riordan’s Website

Egyptian Legend: Apophis in the Duat

BBC Archive: Chronicle: The Key to the Land of Silence: How the Rosetta Stone translated ancient Egypt to the modern world.

Documentary Review: Seules by Bashir Bensaddek

Seules (Women Alone) is a French-language documentary directed by Emmy Award-winning Algerian Canadian director Bachir Bensaddek. Seules follows the lives of two Algerian women, Hafida and Fatiha, who chose to leave Algeria during the civil war in the hopes of finding a better life for their children in Montreal, Quebec.

However, by the end of the film, both have left Canada. Why?

Hip Hop Artist Rabah Ait Ouyahia shopping with his mother Hafida in Montreal

The film is narrated by hip hop artist Rabah Ait Ouyahia who is the son of Hafida.

Segments of the film are divided up along of Maslow’s Hierarchy Needs: The Need for the Basics of Life (Food, Air, etc), The Need for Security and Safety, the Need to be Loved and Belong, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization.

Because their need for security was not being met many Algerians chose to leave Algeria during the Algerian Civil War which began in 1991 when the Algerian government cancelled elections fearing that an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was becoming too popular. A military coop and armed conflict with Islamist groups soon followed. Many educated Algerians chose to come to Quebec because they already spoke fluent French. But they found it difficult to find jobs in their fields as their previous education and experience were not recognized in Quebec.

Fatiha, a nurse and widow, chose to leave Algeria with her children because she feared for their safety. In her late forties, she decided to return to university in order to restudy nursing. But in Montreal she could only find part-time nursing jobs. At the end of the film, we see that she has been recruited by a Swiss agency to work in a hospital in Lausanne. She now works full-time and is well paid. She doesn’t regret having come to Canada because it gave her the opportunity to improve her nursing skills and get a well-paying job…in Switzerland!

However, Fatiha mentions earlier in the film that she feels like she has lost her children because while she was in Canada she didn’t have the ability to spend much time with them. She was too busy working and studying to even cook meals for them so during that time they mostly lived on take-out. We know that by the end of the film Fatiha’s need for self-esteem and self-actualization have been met but we wonder about her need to be loved and feel that she belongs.

For Hafida, immigrating to Canada eventually cost her her marriage. Her husband couldn’t find work in his field, became depressed and frustrated and eventually returned to Algeria and divorced Hafida, leaving her behind with their three children, Rabah, Siham and Mohamed. Hafida, who although educated and a fluent speaker of French had lived most of her life as a housewife, had to go to work to support herself and her children. She eventually became a qualified childcare worker and ran a daycare out of her home. 

By the end of the film, Hafida has returned to Algeria where she says she has time to live, something she didn’t have in Canada. She deeply regrets having immigrated to Canada. Two of her children, her daughter Siham and her son Mohamed (who does the music for the film), have decided to stay in Montreal.

In a fascinating discussion with her daughter Siham, in which Hafida tries to convince Siham that life would be fine for her in Algeria, Siham says that she wants to stay in Montreal because she wants to work and be a “business woman” something she believes is only possible for women in Algeria if they come from rich and well-connected families, whereas in Canada, a woman can come from nothing and still become a success: “You can come from Saint Michel (an ethnically diverse and lower-income neighbourhood in Montreal notorious for its street gangs…but also the home of Cirque Du Soleil) and end up in Westmount (a rich neighbourhood in Montreal),” she says. Siham tells her mother that she is so adamant about being financially independent of any man because she saw how Hafida suffered because she was financially dependant on her father.

We learn at the end of the film that Hafida’s son Rabah has decided to move back to Algeria. The film closes with Hafida presiding over Rabah’s wedding.

I would recommend the documentary Seules to anyone who wants to better understand the myriad ways in which Canada’s immigration system is failing immigrants and their families.

Rabah’s new life in Algeria should be a subject of a documentary on its own.

Rabah is a hip hop artist (under the stage name El Winner) and his group Latitude Nord is a child of the Montreal Hip Hop music scene. Their track Young Gun Killers (2002), in reference to the Columbine High School shootings, is a classic of Quebecois Hip Hop.

I first saw Rabah Ait Ouyahia in the 2001 Quebecois film Tar Angel (L´ange de goudron) directed by Denis Chouinard. Tar Angel is about an Algerian immigrant named Ahmed Kasmi (played by Zinedine Soualem) whose family fled the civil war in Algeria in order to make a better life in Montreal. The remarkable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who has starred in such films as Paradise Now, The Nativity Story, and The Visitor, plays Ahmed’s wife. The family is finally about to get Canadian citizenship but Ahmed’s teenage son Hafid, played by Rabah Ait Ouyahia, goes into hiding because the police are searching for him after he’s been caught on tape freeing illegal immigrants who were about to be deported. Ahmed discovers that his son has become involved in a militant activist group and the only way to find him is with the help of Hafid’s Quebecois tattoo-artist girlfriend Hugette. At one point in the film, Ahmed is forced to drink alcohol by the atheist leader of the militant group Hafid is involved with in order to get information about his son’s whereabouts.

Further Reading:

Review of the film Tar Angel in The Globe and Mail

Documentary Review: girlhood by Liz Garbus

Posted in African Americans on Film, Documentaries, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on May 29, 2010

At the opening of the film girlhood by Liz Garbus, viewers are informed that the rates of young girls being charged with violent crimes is on the increase in the United States. Well, it’s also said to be on the increase here in Canada. As much of my work is with teenage girls in high school, this issue is both personally and professionally relevant to me, however, I often wonder if girls are really becoming more violent or if our society is just admitting something that has always gone on but we didn’t know how to label because of our stereotypical image of girls and women as somehow less aggressive than men. I don’t think girls are really less aggressive than boys, nor do I think we should somehow pathologize aggressive and violent behaviour by girls but see it as a given among boys. What is more important is that both boys and girls develop a sense of agency in relation to their aggressive behaviour, and take responsiblity for the consequences of their violent actions.

girlhood tells the story of Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen. We follow them over a period of about three years. We are introduced to them while they are incarcerated in Waxter Juvenile Detention Center, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Shanae is 14 and has served two years at Waxter for the murder of her friend, a crime she committed when she as only 12 years old. Megan is 16 and is in Waxter for Assault with a deadly weapon.

Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen in girlhood

Early in the film it is apparent that Shanae doesn’t really feel remorseful for the murder of her friend. At one point she tells her parents that the girl she murdered actually has it easy because she’s just dead whereas Shanae is suffering because she is in detention. Thankfully, her parents point out that being dead is definitely WORSE than being in detention! Shanae’s ability to feel remorse for her actions is seen as a key benchmark that needs to be achieved before she can leave Waxter.

Megan, we are told, has been in 11 foster houses by the age of 16. Her mother is a heroin addict and is herself often in and out of jail on prostitution charges. Over the years, Megan has run away from most of her foster homes in a desperate attempt to reunite with her mother. Megan admits that when she leaves Waxter she will only be going back to another foster home. When we meet Megan at Waxter it is clear that she is something of a troublemaker but probably more out of boredom than any malice (Garbus in her DVD commentary says that Megan is actually a very respectful young woman and that one of her main criticism of the Waxter Facility is that there is not really much structured activities for the inmates.). It is also quite clear that the staff at Waxter have a special affection for her despite her antics. At one point, Megan states that she feels that she is an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body because she has so much to regret. In contrast to Shanae, who has a great deal of family love and support, Megan only receives letters from her mother sporadically, and in one scene in the film desperately wants to call her grandmother to see if she is going to visit her. During this scene Megan whines that nobody loves her, she seems to be half joking but one has to wonder. Megan admits to having a special relationship with a fellow inmate which seems to be of a romantic nature. At Waxter, Megan’s need for attention and affection, her vulnerablity, are on display for everyone to see. She is also silly and childish which is what you expect for a girl her age. But one is left wondering how this silly girl took it upon herself to attack another young woman with a box cutter (the main reason why she is locked up). Is the Megan inside Waxter the same Megan outside Waxter?

Liz Garbus has made other films about life in prison, such as the Academy Award Winning The Farm: Angola. Before starting the film girlhood, she actually meant to do a film about young men in juvenile detention centres because from her work on the film Angola, she was intrigued and disturbed by how many of the inmates there said they had learned the tricks of their trade from their experiences in juvenile detention. But while researching junvenile detention centres she met Shanae who suggested that she make a film about girls. In her commentary on the film, available on the DVD, Garbus admits to being struck by Shanae’s intelligence and cutesiness (she was wearing pigtails at the time) and then shocked to discover that Shanae was locked up for murder! Garbus followed Shanae’s suggestion and was determined to include her in her film. She then had to go about getting permission to film. The extent of Garbus’ access to the girls while in detention is remarkable (she states that she eventually had keys to the inside of the Waxter facility because the staff got tired of her and her crew’s constant requests to get into different rooms). Garbus remarks that the structure within Waxter allows the girls to actually be girls. This comment is echoed by Mr. Godsey, a staff at the facility, who states in the film that although the girls don’t like structure they need it because they haven’t had it at home. He also states that although many of the girls leave Waxter and go on to live lives free of crime, others’ lives deteriorate when they get back home because of the dangers and tempations of life in their often crime-filled neighbourhoods (remember most of the inmates at Waxler are coming from Baltimore!).

So what will be the fate of Shanae and Megan when they leave Waxter?

The second part of Garbus’ film follows Shanae and Megan’s lives after leaving Waxter. Shanae moves into a lower security halfway house because her mother does not feel ready to take her back home. Megan, after a failed escape attempt from Waxter, goes into another foster home.

It is during Shanae’s interview to get into the lower security facility that we learn that she was also gang raped by five men. We have already learned that starting at the age of 10, Shanae began drinking alcohol heavily, was running away from home and having unprotected sex. This led to a pregnancy at the age of 11 which her mother arranged for her to have terminated because it was feared that because of Shanae’s heavy-drinking the baby would have fetal alcohol syndrome. Garbus in her commentary points out that Shanae does not believe that the gang rape should be seen as some sort of excuse for her murdering her friend. As the film progresses we see Shanae go from feeling very little remorse or even understanding of the consequences of her violent actions,  to feeling real remorse and a sense of responsiblity. A lot of this seems due in part to her mother Antoinette’s support.

One of the most educational parts of the film I felt was the example set by Antoinette. She demonstrates that you can support and love your child while not making excuses for them. Too often, I have seen parents make excuses for their children and this I feel has actually stunted their children’s moral growth and led to them continuing to commit violent acts. Antoinette refuses to allow Shanae back home until she is convinced that her daughter has really changed and has gotten all the help that she needs. I think this is key to Shanae’s eventual success. One may wonder how Antoinette could be a good parent considering all the trouble Shanae got into at such a young age. But if the viewer pays close attention to the film and Liz Garbus’ commentary we learn that Shanae’s mother was a single parent working two jobs trying to support Shanae and move her family out of the projects.  Unfortunately, this meant that she wasn’t around to supervise Shanae. Shanae started drinking with her cousin. Sometimes, it is members of our own families that expose our children to drugs and alcohol, something I have often seen growing up in my own neighbourhood. Antoinette does her best in extremely difficult circumstances.

In contrast to Shanae’s successes, when out of Waxter, Megan soon runs away from her foster home with no consequences (despite the fact that staying in foster care is a requirement of her patrol), couch surfs for a while and eventually gets her own place with her cousin. You watch Megan go from being a silly little girl at Waxter to being a bitter, angry and hard woman so quickly that you can’t help but be reminded of Mr. Godsey’s point about these girls needing structure. The structure of Waxter allowed Megan to be a child, the streets provide no structure and force her to be more of an adult than most adults ever have to be.

Garbus remarks during her DVD commentary that she was torn while making this film because her ultimate conclusion during her experience following these girls’ lives was that Family Matters. As a left-wing filmmaker, she worried that this appeared to be some sort of right-wing Family Values advocate conclusion. But the reality is that Shanae, because of the support of her family, is able to overcome the trauma of her childhood and the impact of her crime and graduate from high school and go on to community college whereas Megan, without really any family support, is only able to struggle, her greatest achievement being that she doesn’t return to crime or become a hardcore drug addict. In my own opinion, considering that Megan has to do all this on her own, hers is the greater achievement.

I don’t think it’s a right-wing conclusion to say that everyone needs family and that strong families raise strong, healthy, happy children who can grow up to be adults who can contribute positively to our society. But not everyone has families like this. So the question is to what degree do we all have to support children whose families can’t? This is where politics comes in and things get ugly.

I remember being struck at the end of the film that one of the staff at Waxter came to Shanae’s home to congratulate her on graduating and see her off to the prom. The staff person made it clear that she wasn’t there on official business. She was there as a member of the community and Shanae was a child of the community and therefore her child.

Further Reading:

Profile of Liz Garbus by the Center for Social Media

Video Clip from girlhood

Movie Fire Craker Website (Liz Garbus’ Film Website)

German, My Father, and I

My Father spoke German. That was one of the very few facts I knew about my father before I actually found him. My mother had told me that he had lived in Germany before coming to Canada and had learned to speak German there.

But my knowledge of my Father’s German proficiency would have an unexpected effect on the trajectory of my own life. In my Grade 10 year, during which I spent mornings attending classes at the now demolished Laurentian High School and afternoons getting visiting teachers because I couldn’t cope with a full day of school because of my overwhelming social anxiety, I decided to do something different, something to engage me intellectually and quench my at that point insatiable thirst for knowledge. I had already attempted taking Philosophy classes which ended up being weird private lessons in theosophy that involved reading the works of the likes of Madame Blavatsky in some European man’s appartment. This would not due.

One day, well scanning the bookshelves at Carlingwood Library, I spotted a poster for German Language Courses. They were offered for free and you could even get high school credits for them, all you had to do was attend classes on Saturday mornings all the way down town at Hopewell Public School. I remembered that my father had spoken German and somehow I felt this was a sign, that I was meant to learn German.

I began at the beginning, a Grade 9 Class for newcomers to German. My teacher was a lovely Austrian woman. We were provided with a textbook which we were free to take home with us. I immediately took a great liking to German. For many people, German is just the language of Nazis and Adolf Hitler, but there was a Germany before the Third Reich. Actually, something like 1 in 4 Americans is of German Ancestry (there was even a possibility that German would have been the official language of the newly independent United States) and at the time of my taking these classes, German was the third most spoken language in Ottawa (now  it’s a competition between Chinese-the statistics don’t specify if it is Mandarin or Cantonese-and Arabic). German is also part of my own heritage. My great great mother was German, a Schoeder.

I came to love elements of German Culture as well. I became quite found of Lieder, German songs by composers like Schubert, based on the work of German poets like Goethe. I also developped a fondess for Kurt Weil songs as sung by Ute Lemper. I would never have had the opportunity to develop such obsure tastes had it not been for CBC Radio.

I excelled at German. It made me realize that I was quite gifted at acquiring languages quickly and thoroughly. It gave me a newfound confidence and sense of my own intelligence, something which had been battered down so long during my years of functional illiteracy in elementary school. German also gave me a way out of Laurentian High School. I had been told again and again by teachers and guidance counsellors that I would be better off at a more “academic school” where I would be challenged more intellectually. But to get a transfer out of my home school I would have to be a Music Student (couldn’t read a single note, still can’t), in French Immersion (self-taught French) or be studying an international language that was not offered at my home school-Bingo! Because I had studied German in Grade 10 I was allowed to transfer to Nepean High School for Grade 11 where I could continue my German Studies up to the OAC Level (back when there was Grade 13, boy am I dating myself!).

I had been warned that Nepean High School as very posh and very snobby. I would be Black White Trash in an ocean of silver-spoon-fed WASPs. That was an understatement. The school was something out of a John Hughes film-Think Pretty in Pink! But, the standard of education was amazing. We were being educated to go on to university as that was what all our teachers expected us to do. It was during my first year at Nepean High School that I learned how the socio-economic class of the students who attended a school shaped the standard of education at that school and the expectations teachers had about their students, even before getting to know them. This reality made me very angry. It also compelled me to excel. And this I did, with a vengence.

My first year at Nepean High School I came top of my class in German and went on to win the annual regional German Language Contest and the annual provincial German Language Contest. I was an Academic Star. I even landed a half-page write-up in the City Section of the Ottawa Citizen (a few weeks after my grandmother was convicted and the Citizen Court reporter wrote that my family was one of the most dysfunctional families he had ever written about).

My prize for my win at the provincial level was an all expenses paid 4-week trip to Germany! I had never been anywhere outside of Canada other than Ogdensburg, New York with my grandparents in their RV. I would be flying on a plane! I would be staying away from my mother for 4 whole weeks! I had never done this before unless she was in the hospital, at which time I would stay with my grandparents. No grandparents this time-just total strangers in a strange land.

Needless to say, my trip to Germany was a life-changing experience. My mother was not happy to see me leave and actually wanted me to cancel the trip but I went without her blessing. My time in Germany really helped me gain confidence as an individual without my mother (who at that time was my one and only friend) and helped me overcome my social anxiety. I got to meet other teenagers from across Canada (BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) and from around the world (Uganda, Kenya, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Slovakia, Mauritius). We travelled all across Germany, visiting cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, and of course Berlin.

My Father in front of the Olympic Tower

I knew that my father had lived for some time in Munich, which was the last city we stayed in before we returned to Canada. This seemed fitting. I wandered the streets of Munich thinking that I was looking at the same buildings my father had seen, maybe even walking down some of the same streets my father had walked down.

When I finally found my father I would learned that he had lived in Munich while building the Olympic Tower (Olympia Turm) for the 1972 Munich Olympics. This was the first Summer Olympics held in Germany since the infamous 1936 Olympics that had been held under the watchful eye of the Fuhrer (which means leader by the way). The Germans were eager to paint themselves in a more positive light, to show the whole world that they had overcome their Nazi past and were happy, hopeful and open to diversity. This included a Cultural Olympics that showcased artistic talent from around the world, including Nigeria.

Nigerian composer Akin Euba premiered his piece Dirges at the University of Ife Theatre at the 1972 Olympics. This piece is a unique synthesis of African and Western musical influences. Euba also studied Lieder. In his essay “Text Setting in African Composition“, Euba writes:

The strength of German Lieder (art songs) in the nineteenth century rested partly on the gifts of the poets who provided composers with the texts that they set to music. It occurred to me early in my composition career (in the mid 1960s) that African composers might equally look to African poets for the texts of their songs.

One of Euba’s earliest settings was of a poem by J. P. Clark, “Abiku”, first as a dance-drama then as a song with a three-part chorus with five Nigerian instruments.

But the showcasing of African Classical music on an international stage is not the sort of thing most people remember about the 1972 Munich Olympics. What most people remember is the Israeli Olympic team being held hostage and then massacred by terrorists. This event is the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. My father was actually present in the Olympic Village when this all went down.

Learning German provided me with countless opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. But I never would have considered learning the language if  I had not had this strange attraction to it because of my association with it and my father.