Sunday, September 09, 2007

News, privilege, guilt

Sometimes the news makes me think of dancing. The other day it was while I was driving home from work, headed uptown in late afternoon traffic. As usual I was listening to NPR, and the All Things Considered story was about gemstone miners in Afghanistan.

What caught my ear was the mention of lapis lazuli, a stone you see frequently in less expensive jewelry marketed towards tribal style dancers. Actually, my first lapis jewelry was a pair of dangly earrings I bought as a teenager at the hippie store in my local mall, earrings I've had for 15 years and now occasionally repurpose in my costuming. Lapis is not just for cheaper jewelry, it's also found in vintage and antique pieces. The less expensive items are easier to find, such as the ones sold by Tribal Souk or The Red Camel (who both also carry older, pricier items). *

The story ends with details about the working conditions at gemstone mines in Afghanistan, which really got me thinking.

Conditions in the 20 or so lapis mines above the town are even worse. Some of
them are run by militia commanders. There is no official oversight other than
a required license and taxes paid on equipment in the mine.

Surprisingly, news of the recent mine disaster in Utah has reached this
isolated enclave.

Police chief Sayed Asssadullah Mujaddedi says the American story may have
had a sad ending, but Afghans here envy the equipment and effort that went
into trying to rescue the six American miners.

"We don't have anything like that. There's only one way into our tunnels and
that's the way the miners use," Mujaddedj said. "Last year, six people got
stuck in a cave-in and we had to get them out by clawing at the rocks with
our hands."

Nor are there benefits paid to the families' of miners who die or are maimed.
Mining lapis is a job no one here likes. It doesn't help that the free-for-all
mining encouraged by the Afghan government is lowering lapis prices.
That, in turn, lowers the daily wage, which on a good day, is $10.

But miner Rahimullah says there's no other work available to them. He
has worked the mines for 9 years. He says his 2-year-old son will
someday work them as well, unless other jobs open up.

I wondered, does the lapis in my jewelry (much of it made in Pakistan, as the stickers on the back of items say) come from remote mining towns like this? Is the lapis in my jewelry mined by men with an aging drill and hammers, people who hope that their children will have the opportunity to do something else with their lives instead of this dark and dangerous job?

I suddenly felt like a spoiled brat, in that I am lucky enough to spend my money on jewelry for a hobby, jewelry made from gem stones mined by people who get $10 a day to go in the ground and dig out those stones with hammers. Then I thought that at least these people have a job and make money, and that Afghanistan is changing so that they can legally sell what they mine, and that hopefully this is a step to more economic development that will benefit them, and then I got angry that no, this still really stinks (note - I'm not getting into a discussion of the war and all that, or else this would go on forever).

Finally I felt like an even bigger jerk for my guilty, privileged** whining, when I should really just a) be thankful for what I have and b) try to use some of my money/time/abilities to help out other people.

So I drove home with all this tumbling around in my mind, and thought that I finally had something to type up and post on the blog that was not something I was going to just write up and then delete because it would just be crazy ranting about the usual crap that bugs me in the dance scene (this week: undercutting, bad "fusion"). I'm going to try to follow it up later with thoughts about costuming elements for tribal belly dance, where these elements come from, fair trade, and seeking out alternates when you want to know what you're wearing and where it came from. I'll try to make it coherent.

4/1/2013 ETA: Check out this great article passed along by The Red Camel for further reading. Seems like things could get better for Afghanistan lapis miners:

* Note: I am not passing judgement on these vendors, I am merely using them to illustrate the items I am talking about. I've shopped with The Red Camel (lovely items and a great lady) and I've heard wonderful things about Tribal Souk.

** Speaking of privilege, this weekend I'm headed to Asheville, NC for Triboriginal: Tribal Dance, Music and Culture Camp and I can't wait! I went last year and loved it; hopefully I'll have the energy to report back later. I'm currently having a crisis about what classes to take (when two that look awesome are back to back).

This entry was edited for clarity on 8/31/2010