Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masterpieces for the blind at Museo del Prado


Image: www.20minutos.es

The Museo del Prado in Madrid has long been one of my favourites - beautiful paintings, and they explain the context and narrative of most paintings in depth instead of the usual 'this is Leda with the swan, oil on canvas.' Now they're going one step further and displaying 3-D (or rather, relief) copies of famous paintings for blind people to touch. One of the visitors said it was like getting back his eyesight - he can now touch the paintings he remembers seeing as a child, before he lost his sight.

In my hometown, one area of the botanical gardens was designed for blind people, with fragrant roses and herbs, a guiding rail and explanations in braille. Apparently Kew Gardens offers walking tours for the blind, but something more permanent and structural would be nice. And perhaps the National Gallery could copy the Prado's idea? I grew up in a town with a high percentage of blind people, and one of my teachers was blind, so I'm always happy to see something that makes the world a better place for them.


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to parent like a German

"The Jugendweihe: A Pledge to the Great and Noble Cause of Socialism"



A friend pointed out this article in TIME magazine: How to parent like a German. It's by an American mother living in Berlin and reads like a typical global hipster piece. There are plenty of fun observations on free-range parenting and cute German traditions like Zuckertüte (or Schultüte), the giant cardboard cone filled with sweets and stationary that we are given to celebrate our first day at school.
But then there was this passage on the "Jugendweihe", a coming-of-age ritual:

"Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a ... ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood."


The author doesn't seem to realise that "Jugendweihe", the ceremony she so warmly recommends to Americans, was popularised by the East German regime as an alternative to more traditional religious rites of passage. It was part of the totalitarian effort at what we call Gleichschaltung, bringing everyone into line, making sure there was no allegiance to entities other than the East German regime. It was also part of the broader discrimination against religious folk. Refusing the Jugendweihe could mean hurting your entire family's job prospects and certainly attracted the attention of the secret service, the Stasi. Joachim Gauck, the German president and former pastor who oversaw the opening of the Stasi archive, wrote quite forcefully about this in his memoir. 

It's fine if people feel the ritual is meaningful to them anyway. There's nothing wrong with an American embracing an atheist alternative to communion, confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah. What made me cross was the complete unawareness of the historical context. Sure, there's an argument to be made that some traditions of the Real-Socialist Republic are worth preserving. The concept of Jugendweihe dates back to the 19th century, and while it was used as a political instrument by the East German regime, there must be ways to reinvent it. It's still popular with many East Germans, indeed more popular than the Christian equivalent, confirmation, according to official data. But this author didn't make an argument, she just went for a bright and innocent: 'Jugendweihe! Awesome!'. She refused to engage with the past, either out of ignorance or because it would have spoiled the fluffy optimism of the piece.

I know, I'm probably overreacting. It was a light-hearted and friendly take on some of the more positive aspects of my culture. Yet I do sometimes wonder if Berlin's global hipsters are even aware my country was divided once. Or if they just think the GDR was like one big retro shop with cool vintage fonts and cute orange furniture. 

Sorry, rant over. Next: ironic Stalin moustaches.




Monday, 16 February 2015

A visit to the Buttes Chaumont

I was in Paris this weekend, vising my old neighbourhood, the 19th arrondissement. At its heart lies the Buttes Chaumont park, which I've always seen as a heart-warming symbol of successful multi-culturalism. My first novel was set there, and I've spent many hours sitting on the grass and enjoying the urban soap operas around me. On any given weekend, you'll see hip young Parisians with trilby hats, big Muslim and orthodox Jewish families, little boys with kippas and girls with headscarves, maybe a gay wedding or two, runners, picnickers and Chinese pensioners practicing tai chi. Plus the guy with the Shetland ponies.

When I heard that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been part of a gang of jihadis known as the "Buttes-Chaumont gang", who met and exercised in the park, I felt a strange sense of territorial outrage. It's irrational - out of all the things the attackers did, where and how they exercised is really the least important aspect. But I couldn't help it, I felt so angry that a small number of violent men hijacked *our* park as their extremist club house. I don't want them to be known as the Buttes-Chaumont group, because it's not their damned park. It's one of the most beautiful green spaces in Paris, a real gem in a very mixed neighbourhood, and 99% of people go there for the tulips and the trees. They're the real Buttes-Chaumont group!

As for Paris, it was as beautiful as always, but I did notice a lot of tension and nervousness that hadn't been there before. Big armed guys in camouflage were guarding all the Jewish schools and cultural centres. It's reassuring that there's extra protection, but also heart-breaking that this should be necessary. The only island of calm was the guy at my local kosher supermarket, right next to the park. When I asked him why he wasn't taking extra security measures, he just smiled and said "God protects us." 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"We were simply joyful unbelievers"



Amazing new Charlie Hebdo cover. The headline says, "All is forgiven." I'm not a fan of most of the prophet-cartoons out there - that Danish one with the bomb as a turban, for example, is just nasty. But this one really follows the best tradition of graphic art. It's witty and moving.

And what a powerful message:

“We feel that we have to forgive what happened," said Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo, on BBC Radio 4 today. "I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."

Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, only survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo because he was running late. There was a fascinating interview with him in Les Inrocks shortly after the attack. He said he wasn't even sure how he could continue drawing. One of the things that weighed on him was the enormous responsibility placed on the team's shoulders after the first cartoon controversy in 2007. He questioned the sudden scrutiny of their cartoons for a deeper symbolism and political meaning, "when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine".

"We were simply joyful unbelievers," he said. "All of those that died were joyful unbelievers. And now, they’re nowhere. Just like everyone else."

It must be unsettling for an irreverent, anti-establishment artist to suddenly find himself turned into a national symbol, a warrior saving the Republic. Luz said his dead friends would have scorned the singing of the national anthem at the rally in their honour. Charlie is not about symbols, he said, but about specific cartoons lampooning specific people and situations. And in that vein, he was going to force himself to publish the next edition, not for some wider cause but for his friends:

"I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died. The friends we loved and whose talent we admired so very much."

Friday, 9 January 2015

"Mustapha Baudelaire", or why this is not a clash of civilisations

Mustapha Ourrad


Among the twelve people killed at Charlie Hebdo were two Muslims, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policeman Ahmed Merabet.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan journalist at Charlie Hebdo, writes in this heartfelt piece:

"Mustapha died. He only obtained the French nationality a few weeks ago. With his North African accent, rolling his r's, he was the one who corrected our French. Every Monday, which was deadline day, he would not leave his office except to bend over the shoulder of a journalist and ask in a low voice: "What exactly were you trying to say?"

Mustapha Ourrad left Algeria in 1978. I found some pictures of his home village on an Algerian news site, TSA, along with quotes from old friends that paint a picture of an ambitious young man straining to see the world.

"He was very young and summarised the books of André Gide, Malraux and Baudelaire for us; which is why we nicknamed him Mustapha Baudelaire," his childhood friend Ousmer told TSA.

Mustapha Ourrad's village in Algeria; source: TSA


Already the far-right is trying to use the horrible events of this week to stoke fear of immigrants and warn against the evils of multiculturalism. If anything, the team at Charlie Hebdo was proof that immigration and multiculturalism are good things. Migrants benefit from global opportunities, host countries benefit from a global talent pool. Multiculturalism is not the problem. Murderous lunatics are the problem.

I haven't seen many articles on the religious and cultural diversity at Charlie Hebdo, whereas I've seen plenty of articles on what this all means for relations between French Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a false divide. Journalists like Zineb El Rhazoui and Mustapha Ourrad have/had a Muslim background, but they clearly, obviously have/had more in common with Charb and Tignous than with their attackers. This is so banal it hurts me to write it, and I'm only writing it because of all that ridiculous talk of the "clash of civilisations". There is no clash of civilisations. Liberty, equality, human rights are not Western privileges. Zineb El Rhazoui said she was hired because of her activism in her native Morocco during the Arab Spring. In 2013 she published a comic book called "The Life of Mohammed" together with Charb, one of the cartoonists. And guess which subject she graduated in? Sociology of religion.

Charlie Hebdo & Voltaire

Photo: Le Monde/AFP


"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Voltaire)

When I read about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo this week, I felt such sorrow for the twelve victims. Much has been written about the cartoonists, who bravely exercised their right to poke fun at every single world religion. As Salman Rushdie said in reaction to the killings: "Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Now that the news cycle is moving on, some columnist seem to be grasping for clickbait and creative angles, and I've seen a few stories saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative or rude. This of course misses the point. The point is not that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were great. 100,000 French people didn't spontaneously take to the streets in mourning because the cartoons were great. The point is that everyone has the right to draw cartoons. And if someone takes offense, they also have the right to respond: by drawing another cartoon, by arguing against the cartoon, even by sueing if they feel the cartoon is defamatory. That's how democracy works. What is unacceptable is to kill someone because you disagree with them. It is also unacceptable to blame the victim, or, as the Financial Times did, to suggest the editors at Charlie Hebdo could have used more "common sense", which sounds suspiciously like "well she shouldn't have worn such a short skirt". Cautious satire, common-sense satire, is pointless satire.

In that context, I was thinking of the non-journalists who were killed at Charlie Hebdo. The bodyguard, the two policemen, the receptionist, the caretaker. In some ways, they were the best and bravest defenders of free speech and liberal values. They weren't the ones who drew the cartoons. But they worked in a building that had been repeatedly threatened, and in the case of the policemen, they tried to protect the lives of others simply because it was their duty, because it was the right thing to do. It's sad that so little is known about these victims, and I hope we'll learn more about them. I keep thinking that there must have been at least one among them who didn't even read Charlie Hebdo, maybe didn't even like the cartoons. Someone who truly embodied that Voltaire quote: someone who perhaps disapproved of what the cartoonists said, but defended to the death their right to say it.






Monday, 8 December 2014

Geisha-stalking in Kyoto




When I lived in Tokyo, the local correspondents used to have a joke about the to-do list of the visiting, 48-hours-in-Japan journalist: a feature about the yakuza, one about Mount Fuji, and one about geishas. So I decided it would be a bit tacky to go geisha-stalking during my short stay in Kyoto. Or rather, geiko-stalking - here, they're called geiko and maiko (trainee geisha). Surely I was too cool for that.

Anyway, one of the great things about Japan is that you need never feel shy about a photo fetish. Or any kind of fetish, for that matter. After deciding to be all aloof and dignified about the geiko/maiko thing, I passed a little throng of Japanese men and women in front of one of the little tea houses in Miyagawa-cho, where I'm staying. I asked what they were waiting for. A maiko! I think one of the maikos was having a coming-of-age party, hence all the attention. But one of the women and I quickly decided to look out for other geikos as well. And we spotted quite a few.

"They're very quick on their feet," my new friend said. So quick that we didn't manage to take pictures of the others. But anyway, I just wanted one picture. And seeing them clip-clopping through the lantern-lit alleys was better than any photos.




Speaking of Japan and photos, I walked past a lot of engagement photo sessions earlier in the day, around Shimbashi. Most of them were quite traditional: sweetly smiling couples in kimonos, portrait-style. But then I saw these guys. They were having so much fun! I loved it. Dear newly engaged couple, I hope you don't mind seeing your picture on this blog. May you enjoy many more years of happiness and laughter.