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April 28 and 29, 2018
From Article in Boulder Daily Camera/ Denver Post >


Even though everybody poops, it’s still gross — generally speaking.

Not for dung beetles, though. Those bugs are sustained by poop. They ball-up animal dung, eat it and use it as a breeding chamber. (The ladies are into it. It’s where they nest their eggs and hatch a new generation that’s born into feces.)

Then there’s the exact same beetle that is considered sacred by ancient Egyptians when it goes by its other name: scarab. The dung beetle’s likeness would adorn jewelry, amulets, tomb paintings, manuscripts, hieroglyphic inscriptions and impression seals.

Same insect, contradicting views.

“The dung beetle is very much a symbol of waste, it’s seen as a disgusting creature,” said Cara Judea Alhadeff, Boulder author of “Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era.” “But it does what it does out of love. It attracts its mate with a piece of poop, which many see as the antithesis of love.”

“Zazu Dreams” isn’t about dung — it’s a cautionary fable created by a mother-daughter team that confronts the realities of human’s impact on nature, while asking readers to question their own sustainability and consumption. The cross-cultural message is relayed by an illustrated Sephardic Arab-Jewish boy and more than 400 detailed footnotes.

Alhadeff and a group of performers will adapt excerpts from the book into a multi-cultural performance at 7 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday at the University of Colorado’s Fiske Planetarium. The performance, “Zazu Dreams: A Declaration of Interdependence, A Love Story,” which Alhadeff calls “dialogue, science and storytelling,” will feature Fiske FullDome visuals, readings and live music. Sunday’s performance will kick off at 5 p.m. with a Persian dinner in CU’s C4C, then “mystical figures” in tree costumes will lead the group to Fiske for the show.

The three generation-built book penned by Alhadeff is narrated by her 7-year-old son, Zazu, and illustrated by her mother, a retired art professor from Penn State (she also taught at CU in 1984-’85), Micaela Amateau Amato.

Zazu and his malamute husky travel through time atop a humpback whale and learn about the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Alhadeff uses real-life history and heroes (like Stephen Hawking, Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carson) to fill out the 140-page tale.

The boy, of a distinct culture shared in real life with his mother and grandmother, encounters racism along his journey. Alhadeff said she and Amateau Amato are digging into the roots of ecological and humanitarian crises.

“It’s such an astonishing mythic collision of two seemingly disparate worlds that are so completely aligned,” said Amateau Amato, who lives “in the middle of Pennsylvania.” “The book crosses genres and gives a notion of hybridity. It’s where social justice and environmental issues collide.”

Amateau Amato is an activist in her own right, as she and her group, Pennsylvania Women for Environmental Justice, recently helped halt Nestlé “from stealing our water.” Amateau Amato said the bottling company had a plan to take hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from her town’s aquifers. So it’s fitting that Nestlé is a villian in the book, alongside Merck, Exxon and Monsanto — all rogues who stalk the Earth. But Alhadeff said that even though Big Pharma, Big Oil and agribusiness are the bad ones, she’s not here to point fingers. Instead, she wants these corporations to be receptive, responsive and aware.

“We need to hold them accountable,” said Alhadeff. “But we also need to hold ourselves accountable. When we hold ourselves accountable, that is really an act of love. Then when we recognize our complicity, we can take action.”

Amateau Amato moved to Boulder in 1969 with her husband at the time, Alhadeff’s father, who taught in CU’s Art History Department while Amateau Amato attended grad school. Alhadeff, a Boulder native and Boulder High graduate who has lived in various spots around the country, is a Sephardic Arab-Jew. Her father is a Holocaust survivor and her family has roots in Greece and Turkey.

Both Amateau Amato and Alhadeff have experienced an “extraordinary” rash of anti-Semitism, said Alhadeff, while part of an “invisibilized culture.”

“People don’t really know much about Sephardic Jews,” said Alhadeff, executive director of Jews Of The Earth. “I wanted to find a way of representing our culture. We came from a place where people don’t think of Jews as coming from — like Iran, Iraq, Rhodes and Turkey.”

Both women, renowned artists, have collaborated much in the past and said this is the first time they’ve tied awareness of their unique heritage into environmental issues.

“My experience with anti-Semitism helped me understand the relationship of what it means to be respectful of other people and of our environment,” she said. “I learned that when we take advantage of each other, it leads us to take advantage of the space we are in. We wind up failing our ecosystem, our water, our soil, our waste.”

Both women and their families live near zero-waste lifestyles. Alhadeff said she tries to function primarily on a barter system, and she has been living off the grid “economically, culturally, and in terms of near-zero resource consumption and waste” since she was a teen. She said she’s never owned a credit card, smartphone or a car.

“Change happens incrementally,” said Amateau Amato. “Starting at the grassroots level is ultimately how every revolution starts. It’s important to create a heightened empathy and recognition of our interconnectedness of all things in this current climate of fear.”

Alhadeff and Amateau Amato said they keep pushing forward with their fight for climate justice even though they walk amid a nation of politics that causes Alhadeff “extreme disgust.” Stop thinking of Arabs as the enemy, said Amateau Amato, of her heritage.

“Many times we see what’s in front of us, and we think we know what we’re seeing, but we’re not looking carefully enough,” said Amateau Amato.

Her former husband, Alhadeff’s father, was brought out of Belgium when he was 2 years old and hid from the Nazis in a closet in France for two years.

“They were only allowed to come out for 10 minutes a day,” said Amateau Amato. “Then they moved to Italy and his family lived in a convent, hiding for six more years. Knowing that gives us empathy for those trying to escape from war-torn areas like Syria and Yemen. We need to see ourselves in these people who are suffering. We have to recognize our own.”

Which is part of the heart of “Zazu’s Dreams,” said Alhadeff.

“It’s what we think of as disposable waste,” said Alhadeff. “Whether it’s human beings, or salt, poop, dirt, the character in ‘Zazu Dreams’ makes this connection. Most of the optics we use on a daily basis came from hurting someone else. I want us to have a relationship with our own bodies, other people’s bodies, the Earth’s body.”

Rob Mies, a biodiversity advocate and educator living in Ithaca, New York, and Alhadeff’s partner, will also perform, reading the footnotes of “Zazu Dreams.” Amateau Amato’s illustrations will be woven into a story displayed on Fiske’s FullDome. There will be live Persian and Ladino (Judeo-Arabic/Spanish) music by Catrene Malshey, Pete Jacobs, Gabrielle Shapiro, Dhanwant Garcia and the Persian Cultural Circle.

Before Sunday’s show there will be a talk from Hailey Hawkins of the Endangered Species Coalition, including an appearance from its mascot, Journey the Wolf.

“This is very much a love story as it is a climate-justice story,” said Alhadeff. “Like the dung beetle seeking love through its use of poop, we seek love through earth’s dirt. We have to take care of it.”