Reuters: Is political correctness over ‘refugees’ putting lives in danger?

(Reuters 27/11/2015) “They are refugees, not terrorists,” read one late-summer Facebook status at the height of Europe’s “migrant crisis.”

With evidence that Ahmad Almohammad, one of the eight Paris attackers, masqueraded as a refugee en route to Europe, alongside BBC interviews with ‘migrants’ themselves expressing concern for phony refugees — a more intense light has been cast upon Europe’s pro-refugee activists.

From the southern borders of Hungary to the camps of Calais, Europe’s humanitarians have united to assist the stream of migrants entering the continent — while politicians bumble over policy and right-wing heretics tune-up anti-migrant rhetoric.

The European psyche on migration appears to have been caught off guard by the sheer pace of events — with the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat estimating over 700,000 asylum applications in 2015 as just the tip of the iceberg.

The sudden on-screen bombardment of border camps, sea-faring tragedies and protests, seems to have dichotomized the continent into gung-ho humanitarians or fearful conservatives — leaving the continent devoid of the crucial middle-ground to move forward with effective solutions.

Social media messages post-Paris reverberated like deja-vu. “They are not terrorists — less than 0.00007 percent of Muslims are terrorists,” said one Facebook user to rapturous approval. The message appeared directed at the potential right-wing backlash.

Unfortunately, the cruel reality underlying that Facebook status — is that despite the statistically miniscule number of radical Muslims – it takes just one, armed with an AK-47 and explosive belt to kill and maim hundreds.

Why then have Europe’s humanitarians remained so staunchly pro-refugee?

In a Forbes guest post written by Steven Emerson, an executive director, and Pete Hoekstra, a senior fellow, at the Investigative Project on Terrorism, they lament the role of political correctness toward radical Islam in obstructing frank discussion.

“Remember that they [politicians] blamed the Benghazi massacre on an Internet video. Perhaps they will blame the ISIS [Paris] attacks on a TV show,” they said.

The reality of Paris is that a “refugee,” with allegiance to a militant group that puts forward a toxic interpretation of Islam, killed 130 innocent people.

It seems that merely reflecting on the role Islam has to play, and the risks of mass refugee intake, may leave people open to accusations of xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism.

It was a fate British Prime Minister David Cameron risked last week when claiming that we can no longer deny any connection between Islam and extremism. “Extremists are self-identifying as Muslims,” added Cameron.

Unrelenting political correctness is a double-edged sword; protecting people from offense, but failing to allow hard truths through.

In Europe, the clashing liberals and right-wingers fail to recognize that a clear understanding of the migrant issue requires elements of both viewpoints.

Helping the hundreds of thousands of needy people arriving on European shores is virtuous and a central tenet of a continent that has thrived with the free flow of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Preventing refugees from entering Europe risks the build-up of marginalized and impoverished individuals on its borders. That creates the risk of igniting the powder keg that is the Balkans; a reality Europe’s fence builders are inviting.

But, likewise, letting too many refugees into the EU risks creating instability in Europe’s core, which is currently in the midst of a right-wing resurgence and slow economic recovery.

Unfortunately, with policymakers caught somewhere in between the activist and right-wing voices, policy, too, has become schizophrenic. While some EU states have agreed to house refugees, some union members, such as Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, have flirted with the idea of making their states less attractive to migrants by reducing the “pull” factors of welfare support.

This is a potent mix. Accepting thousands of refugees requires long-term commitments to their financial and social needs. Otherwise, Europe will create a breeding ground for disillusioned young individuals susceptible to perversions of Islam, or any other extremist agenda.

When the evocative scenes of Europe’s migrant crisis subside, the fear is that the humanitarian forces to integrate Europe’s new populace will also fade. Europe may not be importing terrorism today — at least not on the scale some on the right-wing seem to think — but a failure in assimilation can create a tinderbox for future extremism.

This means being more balanced on refugee intake, and filtering the flow of migrants into the continent effectively. Thus far, that effort has been wholly inadequate.

When the BBC’s Ed Thomas and Gabriel Gatehouse traveled to the Greek island of Leros last week to speak to Syrian migrants en route to Europe, one Syrian man said, “Check me properly, ask me the right questions… you must check, for my safety and your safety.”

The emotion of the migrant crisis has caught Europe unaware, and divided it between unrelenting fear and impractically open arms. The lack of rationality and perspective on the problem risks sinking the continent deeper into fear and danger.

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Beyond Violence: The Cognitive Dissonance of Trumpian Logic

Beyond Violence ( 29  September 2015) “We will make America great again,” the stirring words of Donald Trump as he announced his candidacy for the 2016 U.S. presidential election in June. As Republican debate gains steam, sketchy details of a Trumpian utopia have emerged; largely expressed in terms of the U.S. reasserting its economic and foreign policy might—it seems, purely for the aura of being ‘the best’. The rhetoric and supposed national goal adopted by Trump’s campaign are reflective of hypocritical and damaging attitudes that are perpetuating the status quo of today’s world order.

Two days following Trump’s statement, the U.N. refugee agency released figures showing that there are more displaced people now, than at any other time since World War II. One in every 122 humans is, today, either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. War, conflict, and persecution are driving new human movements—and are increasingly bringing once distant nationalities, cultures, and religions closer together.

Countries of the developed world face the influx of peoples from where development has ‘failed‘ or been shrouded by conflict. Such global dynamics have subsequently influenced national politics. As the border fence rises in Hungary, ‘migrants’ swell in Calais, and Republicans stew over agendas on Mexican immigration—nationalist voices and right-wing politics are on the ascendency. And, driven by humanity’s innate aversion of ‘the other,’ fear mongering has become a political strategy befitting the times.

By painting people from different abodes and religions with the same brush, right-leaning ideologues are achieving such fear. They fear the importing of ill behaviors as individuals from these stigmatized backgrounds arrive at their shores. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” proclaimed Trump of Mexicans coming to the U.S., adding that such issues are “probably [coming] from the Middle East [too].” There, the ISIS limelight has also burdened the Islamic world. U.S. television host and political commentator, Bill Maher, proclaimed in September 2014 that; “the Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.”. These incendiary broad-brush decrees derive from a lack of perspective, where poverty, conflict, and illicit activities of certain peoples are used to color entire associated groups.

Prejudicial views are not only unjust, but holding oneself to a higher moral worth on the basis of origin is also fundamentally hypocritical. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century political philosopher, described the natural state of humanity, devoid of a social contract or political ordering, as “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” As ‘rational’ beings—animal spirits, driven by self-interest, prevail. In the developed world, where the iterative processes of development have played out over a longer time span, the laws, rules and regulations that tame our very innate behaviors have been reinforced. In the developing world, stunted by a colonial past, conflict and poor governance—crime and illicit activities find room to thrive. The restraining forces of the rule of law are yet to be effectively established, implemented, and enforced. Civility arises from development, not the other way round.

The developed world is thus not necessarily more civilized; it is rather better restrained from reverting to a Hobbesian ‘natural state’. When fissures open in its own ‘social contract,’ it too is not immune to the behaviors condemned in the developing world: As riots erupted across London in 2011,Libya and Iran ironically imposed U.K. travel warnings for its citizens, as opportunistic bandwagon rioters took advantage of temporary lawlessness to blindly loot due to…“taxes.”. And, across the developed world, the financial crisis was evidence of a failure of regulation in containing our avariciousness. Humans are, at the core, essentially one—regardless of origin, religion, and race.

Exercising caution through screening, documenting, and monitoring is important when opening doors to unknown persons—a point often overlooked by today’s petitioners and refugee activists who claim ‘more needs to be done.’ Yet, to seek political gain from stoking fear is to hold double standards between people of the developed and developing world. Advocates of such views suffer from a somewhat cognitive dissonance—preferring to see the absolute distinction of culture, religion, and nationality in the international ills of terrorism, refugee crises, and illicit trade ahead of the very common humanness of these issues or the role of interlinked global systems. Such a mindset subordinates the crucial importance of supporting development around the world.

In reality, the international ills facing the developed world today are largely the result of failed state building elsewhere. In a globalized system a gap in the laws that bind state, market, and civil society at the national level, sow the seeds for international maladies.

This is an unalterable paradigm where fearful, futile, and narrow-minded views of the developing world dominate, and where Trump-esque machismo foreign policy, that champions dominance for profiteering and ‘greatness,’ percolates in a world that yearns for peace, development, and inclusion.

Beyond Violence: Rising above the rhetoric

(Beyond Violence 27 July 2015) “When did a fence help anyone?” retorts Laszlo, a volunteer at Szeged train station, as a fifty-strong crowd of refugees herd around a new box of donations. The Hungarian government’s public disdain for immigrants intensified in mid-July with construction work commencing on a 175 km long a border wall with Serbia. At this transport hub in Hungary’s Southern Great Plain, civilians like Laszlo are banding together in support for those who have already made the arduous journey into central Europe. They are not just humanitarians – but symbols for coexistence, amid Europe’s growing xenophobic rhetoric.
blog imageA man familiarises himself with the help centre

Pooling the technical and monetary support of non-government organizations (NGO), Szeged’s locals have built an information booth with key facilities for refugees arriving in Hungary. “They come from all over; Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq” says Agnes, a staff member at Hungary’s Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO. According to government figures, so far this year 60,000 migrants had arrived in Hungary – the second highest influx per capita in the European Union (EU).With Hungary’s presence in the Schengen Zone – entering the country is the Holy Grail to progressing, unhindered by border controls, toward the coveted countries of Northern Europe. “Many travel overland up through the Balkans, and then cross from Serbia,” Laszlo explains. “They will end up in Germany, Scandinavia and England.”

The ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government, led by populist president Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, has recently ramped up nationalist strategies amid the inflow of refugees. Anti-immigration billboards written in Hungarian have sprung up around the country proclaiming, ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians’. The right-wing party also launched a national consultation entitled ‘immigration and terrorism’ – and flouted an EU asylum rule, which requires asylum seekers to be taken back to their first EU country of entry for asylum processing.

The political maneuvering has catalyzed both anti-immigration and humanitarian movements. On July 10, the extremist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement attacked asylum seekers at Keleti train station in the country’s capital, Budapest – and just five days later a protest against the treatment of refugees began in front of the capital’s towering Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Protesters have faced an uphill battle in a country shifting further right, with activists even being arrested for defacing government propaganda.

Yet, in Szeged, a community has risen above the rhetoric and embraced compassionate values toward the arriving refugees. When asked whether the government offered any support to their voluntary work, Laszlo responded simply, “f**k no.” The plight of refugees arriving via Serbia circulated on Facebook, before volunteer doctors, organizational staff and students coordinated to set up the help station.


A family plans their next steps

‘You are now in Hungary’ reads the first line of the refugee’s information sheet – complete with travel, legal and health advice. Following capture by border police they are brought to Szeged train station – where they rehabilitate and receive free tickets to travel on to refugee camps around Hungary. Many simply use it to refresh and continue deeper into Europe.

“Shavers and shaving cream” yelps a young volunteer, waving the grooming instrument about in her hand. Facilitators come even in the form of 8th grade students. “The community have come together to provide free Wi-Fi, sanitation facilities and also security guards to protect the refugees from skinheads,” she added. Every time a new clothes donation arrives from nearby a charity or individual the crowd swarms in excitement.


A new box of donations arrive

In spite of the Szeged group’s activism, “Hungarian people are generally fearful and impacted by government views,” adds Laszlo. With Europe’s economic fallout right-wing politics has seen a resurgence from the United Kingdom to Germany. Weak growth combined with heightened concerns over extremism has stoked the rise of anti-immigration, anti-EU and even anti-Islam movements.

While issues of sovereign debt and immigration may unravel the EU, the ascendency of xenophobia alongside it attacks the very foundation of the European project – peace. Developments in Hungary including the scapegoating of foreigners, threats against refugees and the rise of a border wall, echo a Europe of yesteryear. The signs from history, where fervent nationalism has subordinated ‘the other’ through discrimination, segregation and violence, appear to be nascent in Europe today.

Those at the Szeged help center have not folded to the prevailing narrative of their government. “These people are fleeing war and conflict; not coming to steal our jobs” says another volunteer. A global vision has enabled them to see beyond the nationalist pictures painted by Hungarian authorities – and to focus on universal human values. Harnessing these mindsets and energies in civil society will be critical in stemming xenophobic movements in Britain, France, and Germany and beyond.

As young Afghan men walk about jovially, Syrian mothers tend to their children. There is a sense of relief and calm about their faces. Within 48 hours most would have left – to be replaced by a new group of exhausted and disoriented refugees.

While fences spring to preserve nationality – the small group of volunteers outside Szeged station are illustrating that there are no barriers to our common sense of humanity.


New hope- en route to Budapest

The Soul of Kathmandu

On the day the Islamic State seized control of the 2,000-year-old oasis city of Palmyra, Kathmandu reminds us that while sites of heritage may crumble, deep-rooted cultural spirit remains firm.

Guided by the cooling Himalayan breeze, a spicy chai aroma wafts through the brimming November rooftops of Thamel district – the backpacker abode of Kathmandu. Below, in the dusty labyrinthine metropolis, men squat eagerly around an intense chess game as a rickshaw-laden chaos ensues behind them. The peaceful zip of rotating prayer wheels turns to the effervescent chatter of youth, as the soothing scents of Asan Tole’s spice market gives way to the clamor of Newar style bazaars. The pendulum rhythm of life is entrenched in the capital’s fabric. It is how the Nepalese derive their energy.

As April’s earthquake devastated the Kathmandu valley, local volunteers, young and old, have mobilized quickly to provide relief supplies and aid to impacted villages. Accounts of resourceful living, makeshift employment and the reopening of certain heritage sites are intermeshed with the wider humanitarian struggles. For the national and international response, transmuting the resilience of the Nepalese people to the country’s state and infrastructure is the future. To rebuild and emerge stronger from the rubble is to harness the soul of Kathmandu.

Kathmandu, as it was, November 2013:

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Saris for sale: A woman crouches beside her vibrant fabrics

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(L to R) Clamoring bazaar: Stall owners soak up the chaos on Siddhidas Marg,  The Urban Jungle: Intertwined chaos

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Soothing scents: The spice market on approach to Asan Tole

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Faith: A family worship to the God Mahakaala

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Checking the accounts: A suave boy runs through the days earnings

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(L to R) The universally embracing Jana Baha temple: A father and son emerge from prayer,  Entrepreneurs: Creative teens meld together sale items from scrap metal

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(L to R) Silhouettes in the alley to Kathesimbu Stupa, Beard shaver and financial advisor: A man offers his services on Thamel Marg

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A peaceful escape: A dog finds dinner off the chaotic Chokchya Galli

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Gridlock: En route to Durbar Square

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Towering temples: Peering out from a once heaving Durbar Square

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The Monkey Temple: Worshippers encircle the now damaged Swayambhunath Stupa  

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Kathmandu from above: Prayer flags blow over the ancient city

Hidden Perspectives: A Photo Essay

The developing world is often seen through a monochrome lens: a grey picture, yearning for the brush of western modernity. Yet, sandwiched between the emergent Elephant and Dragon economies of the new world, Bhutan challenges our vision of development, illustrating that under a new light the ‘developing’ world can also lend us its own color.

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The land time forgot: Prayer flags traverse Bhutan’s Himalayan terrain like arteries. Each color represents its own sādhanā, or spiritual purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. With every mountainous breeze the verses they contain flutter off into the ether, spreading faith and blessing the Kingdom.

Untitled1The lonely hope: En-route to Punakha a woman roasts maize as a roadside refreshment to entice the intermittent traffic. Poverty prevalence in some rural areas is as high as 52.9%, compared to about 1.7% in urban regions[1]. Remoteness and mountainous terrain can isolate rural dwellers from significant markets.

[1] United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan: Rural Economy Advancement

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Holding onto the past: At the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, youth undergo 4 to 6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms. Global development policies for education often target more modern technical and industrial skillsets, to prepare students for the international job market and to stimulate innovation.

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A refuge to religion: Almost 10% of the Bhutanese population is part of the monastic system[1]. Children as young as five are sent to monasteries by their parents who cannot afford to feed their families or pay for government schooling.

[1] Bhutan Youth Development Fund, December 2014

Untitled4Aged techniques: An elderly woman begins an arduous day’s labor, crushing chili after sun drying them upon her tin rooftop. Modern technology such as solar dryers would not only ease her strain, but it would allow her to sustain her livelihood throughout the year, including during the wet monsoon season[1].

[1] Fuller et al, Technical and financial evaluation of a solar dryer in Bhutan, 2005

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Out of school: Young children wander through the Punakha valley. Owing to Bhutan’s undulating terrain, school coverage is often thin in rural areas. As a result, these children would have to walk miles across rugged terrain to their closest school.

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Hard labor: Near Sopsokha in the Punakha valley, a subsistence rice farmer begins a day’s work under the heat of the Himalayan sun. The lack of modern farming equipment means rice harvesting is not as efficient as it could potentially be.

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Community ties: The lone farmer is soon joined by fellow villagers. By mid-morning the Punakha valley ebbs and flows with the rhythms, laughter and spirit of its rice farmers.

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A lesson in morality: A Zorig Chusum School student carefully cleans his paintbrush aside his ‘four harmonious friends’ portrait.  It is a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders upon the back of a patient elephant, symbolizing social and environmental harmony.

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Entrenching traditions: Velvet robed monks wander into the colossal Punakha Dzong courtyard. Traditional arts not only teach morals, they become part of the fabric of the country, painted and etched into the walls of its regal religious architecture.

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The poster-boys of Gross National Happiness: several monks beam with excitement as they initiate a fire purification ceremony. By their late teens, children who have been through the monastic system are well versed in Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality.

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Keeping faith: A husband and wife enter the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Buddhism transcends secular life. It creates an affinity between people, environment and traditions, which in turn brings meaning and happiness to everyday endeavors.

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Two sides of the coin: A trio of monks softly hum verses outside the Gangteng monastery in the Phobjikha valley. When viewed from a different lens, the developing world can be as humbling to us, as it is to the countries we put under the microscope.

La Pura Vida

At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, Leon’s parque central enlivens to a cacophonous tune. The clamour of market stalls, murmur of hymns and crackle of fireworks add to the joyous yelps of children opening their new presents in the town square. A young Nica boy acquaints himself with the controls of his new remote-controlled toy car as it accelerates from the commotion toward a quaint cafe.

It speeds through the heated scent of roasted coffee beans, before braking suddenly beneath the eaterIMG_20141224_210440y’s artsy wall decor. Next to portraits of Nicaraguan revolutionaries is the chalked quote of the day written in swanky italics, today’s is from Bertrand Russell; ‘the Good Life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’

The good life or the pure life, La Pura Vida, is a phrase adopted by Nicaragua’s southern neighbours, Costa Rica, yet synonymous with the wider Central American region. From Guatemala’s colonial town of Antigua, through to Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, people are unified by their unique pace of life. Here an unhurried, restful and contented demeanor largely underscores everyday interactions and transactions. Its as if the chase for a further buck is outweighed by the stress it necessitates.

Russell’s quote perhaps resonates most with Costa Rica. Following victory in the country’s civil war in 1948 the then President abolished the army; a constitution that still remains today. Instead, finances have been channeled toward education, which has aided in improving living standards and the country’s welfare system. La Pura Vida has become about living sustainably, with economic growth not only in harmony with the environment, but also with lifestyles. For IMG_20141225_124739critics, a culture that checks the pace of life also arrests economic development, and is therefore seen as complacent, lazy and inefficient. Yet La Pura Vida advocates would argue that its viability avoids the stresses and the ‘rat race’ induced excesses of modern-day capitalism.

Along the PanAmerican Highway at Penas Blancas, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, scores of Costa Rican women meet crossing tourist buses. They offer wholesome hot empanadas, crisp plantain and sandwiches to hungry travellers. Despite the urgency of their situation, they approach in laughter, bantering among one another and not competing for customers. There is a somewhat genuineness to the services they provide, offering disposable plates, napkins and water at no extra cost. A stark contrast to what may be more common in the ‘western world,’ where the centrality of money almost devalues the humanness of service into purely a ‘transaction’. The women at Penas Blancas cherish the esteem and satisfaction, in addition to the  finances, that their occupation brings.

IMG_20141225_123830For the Central American region as a whole, historic circumstances may have built the foundations for current lifestyles and culture. A long suffering people, from the time of Spanish conquest through to extensive periods of civil war, the populace is arguably inured to the plundering of its wealth. ‘Seven families own Guatemala, we are not part of any’ adds Jairo in laughter, pointing down the cobbled street, as he polishes a mustachioed man’s shoe under the shade of Antigua’s iconic Santa Catalina arch.

Poor governance and rife inequality have humbled these people. There is a somewhat gratitude for the possessions they do own, and a worriless approach to life that maximizes on community ties and minimizes on greed. From Plaza Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador, to Plaza de la Independencia in Granada, Nicaragua, families and friends congregate each evening to share platos tipicos and enjoy card games. Perhaps a difficulty to dream beyond the confines of what they do have has sharpened their sense of the present, and desire to obtain total satisfaction from it.

Now the clatter IMG_20141228_080017of horse hooves join the pandemonium in Leon, as carriages shuttle families to and fro. As lemon and guava juice mixers run low, locals share white rum shots by handing out cups to any sober looking passers. Like the wayward toy car there is a seeming disorder to proceedings here. Yet like the boy at its control; the beat of Central America is driven by gratitude and steered by a smile. La Pura Vida

Related Articles:

Living La Pura Vida- The Huffington Post

‘Speed Limits’ examines modern society’s ever quickening pace of life – LA Times

Which countries have a faster pace of life?-  The Business Insider

Painting the town red

As the early afternoon Andean rainfall subsides, a dense mist rises through the cobbled streets of La Candelaria; Bogota’s historic quarter. With the faint rumble of thunder, overcast skies and patter of water droplets shedding from the Colombian capital’s colonial architecture, a distinct sense of revolution flourishes in the air.

Remnants from internal conflict born in La Violencia; the country’s ten-year civil war during the 1950s, continue to be felt today. An ongoing rift between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups and left wing guerillas such as FARC and ELN has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1958[i].

While the armed conflict, drug and crime syndicates have largely quieted today; their legacy means that Colombia now has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons, that is, behind Syria[ii]. Topics of income disparity, education and industrial policy have now spilled onto Colombian streets. With plenty canntoxicomonoed up, some Colombians are finding a new revolutionary voice.

When the Bogotano haze parts, like a stage curtain, it unveils large murals of vibrant, colorful and illuminating street art. With their illustrations unfolding at each junction of the capital’s mazy streets, like new pages of a book, their messages, like Colombia’s history, are deeply etched into the fabric of the South American city. The grafiteros want to tell the story; the spray-can has become their voice.

La calle es tu calle, ‘the street is your street’ reads one stenciled piece. From the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist graphics of the art collective, Toxicomano to the feminist and poverty visuals of Bastadilla, Bogotanos are rebranding the streets with their artistic messages. In February 2013 Bogota’s mayor promoted graffiti as a form of cultural expression, and with the city slowly becoming a hotbed for artistic voice, some authorities are even hiring grafiteros to spray-paint their own buildings.

Upon one Bogotano scaffolding wall, a large black and white fresco of an indigenous Choco region woman dragging a rich man and his material belongings comes into view. Nearby, DJ Lu’s stencil art portrays pinas granadas, ‘pineapple grenades’, alongside an image of a solider clenching grenade balloons. The multidimensionality and detail of the images, in their message and art form, has spurred grenadescuriosity. Graffiti tours offering up interpretation are now commonplace.

Toxicomano’s own front against ignorance and anti-mass media rhetoric strikes through the afternoon mist now rising into Bogota’s enveloping verdant hillsides. Their imaginary film promotions are stenciled throughout the city. One yellow highlighted title translates to, ‘Displacement: A film that should not be seen, let alone lived’, and nearby the phrase La vida real supera la fiction, ‘real life exceeds fiction’, is printed.

Bogotanos are coming to terms with their realities. Where social change still begets violence across the globe, the message of non-violent protest, and struggle for change, may find a new vehicle in the creativity and artistic penchant of humanity.

In the evening damp the doughy scent of sizzling Arepas, a Colombian flatbread, lingers in downtown Bogota. As Bogotanos refuel, spray-canisters reload. With the red-blood spill of history spread across the palette, tomorrow the grafiteros will attempt to recolor and redefine their very own revolution.

[i] Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory

[ii] Internal Monitoring Centre Global Overview report 2014

Related Material:

We need a creativity revolution – RSA, Adam Lent

The Wisdom of Tyler Durden – Tej Parikh

Bogota’s booming graffiti culture – Colombia Reports

Dousing the flames of history

A dusty heat swirls through the t-junction at the base of Golden Temple road in Amritsar. It carries with it a bready scent, airborne from a gently tandoor-oven heated breakfast roti. The rickety put-put of a rickshaw drills over echoing verses from the famous temple, as its smoky exhaust disturbs a Punjabi man’s attempt to tame his beard in the vehicle’s wing mirror.

Outside the iron-black gated entrance to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, India rolls on as normal. Inside India stands still in remembrance where a symbolic commemoration, the eternal flame, burns. It remembers the hundreds of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that perished in 1919 after the British Indian army opened fire on them in the bagh, where they had gathered in protest against oppressive British rule in India. As unsuspecting martyrs, they became the spark that lit the path to Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi carried the torch. His message of non-violence compacted by championing the united spirit of all Indian people ultimately ousted British rule.

Today’s global interdependence, technological and communicational advance makes tantalising the progress that can be forged by the power of global unity. Yet, our mark on history continues to be blotched by the divisive proclivity of humanity. We continue to see our differences as barriers, before seeing richness in our diversity. Though we may be making dramatic progress materially, our thought is yet to evolve.

In the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict flaring up again in tit-for-tat warfare, killing hundreds and solving little – we are drawn to hashtaging our allegiances; dividing ourselves and pointing our fingers. These actions only serve to exacerbate all party’s ailments. It aptly represents the middle-east as a whole; where richness in natural resource and intellect is being plundered by the region’s inability to coexist as a cohesive unit of diverse beliefs.

Even where religious beliefs are common, geography and political alignment can divide. 100 years ago, on 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot dead near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo by a Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip. The shots fired from Princip’s semi-automatic pistol on that cobbled street corner, changed global history, igniting the First World War and setting in motion the ever restive European borders. A resultant continent blighted by border conflict wars has pacified through integration of goods and people, which until recent tensions have driven its unified prosperity.

Often our apparent differences are manipulated as politicised tools; we fear being the minority. A trio of red-robed monks wander out from the quaint Tibetan Mandala Cafe, which looks out onto the plush Indian Himalayas from its cushy spot in Mcleod Ganj. Soothed by masala chai, they initiate the day’s second tour of the Tibetan struggle exhibit at the Tibet Museum. For Tibetans, Chinese occupation has driven them to self-immolation. For Russians in eastern-Ukraine it has driven them to civil war. In either case the loss of innocent lives, certainly evident with the downing of flight MH17 in the latter, merely adds to the suffering. It offers fitting symbolism of humankind’s self destruction, with the deaths of renowned HIV researchers upon that flight.

Back in the dawn commotion of Amritsar, two raggedly dressed children fight over rights to the morning warmth of the roti, under the nose of the startled Punjabi man. Fashioning his now ruffled beard, he tears the breakfast snack in two and returns a half back to each of them, who then proceed to eat in silence. For Gandhi, change was sought by teaching the British the value of Indian cooperation, and not by being marginalised by their power, or perpetuating the anger of the Jallianwala bagh massacres. In current climes they are poignant lessons if we are to begin writing our own history, as oppose to repeating it.

Other related material

Video: Conflict in the middle east – George Galloway

 

 

When east meets west

A pendulum of sunshine flickers through coach C as the Himalayan Queen emerges from a petite tunnel and enters another. The train bravely chugs its way into the altitudinal panorama overlooking Solan hill-station, as a waft of spicy aubergine radiating from a passenger’s loosely fastened lunch tiffin battles with the fresh mountain air.

Himalayas (786)The 96km Kalka to Shimla railway mirrors the India surrounding it. Renowned for the steepest incline over such a distance; India too has risen from the plains to the lofty global heights in an incredibly short span.

The train pulls into Shimla while the sun settles behind the rolling peaks, turning the sky a dramatic orangey-pink hue. The ensuing mist-ridden milieu and peachy skyline befit the hundreds of Bollywood films set in the former British ‘summer capital’: Chori-Chori (1956), Kudrat (1981), Black (2005) and Bang Bang (2014), to name a few.

The transition of film titles in this chronological short-list alone echoes the dynamic India, and the world, is attempting to balance. The flattening and fusion of the world into a global community has brought cultural spheres of influences closer together. It has ignited the debate between whether these fresh cultures bring dilution or enrichment to our own.

Now a billion dollar industry, Indian cinema has transitioned from the Ramayana epics to western MTV culture in 100 years. In 1954, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru received a petition from women who wanted to limit certain corrupting influences from films. 50 years on, item songs promoting a westernised portrayal of women have become a mainstay, and in attempting to modernise India’s image, the country in part is left with a crisis of identity.

With the largest youth population in the world, exposure to western influences has come at odds in an India which battles between retaining traditional values and the supposed ‘vogue’ imprinted in its media. Indian cinema may soon begin, if not already, to redefine the Indian psyche to Hollywood ideals, in order to fill film-makers’ coffers more rapidly.

In the middle-east the status quo appears to be treating different cultural influences with paranoia and subordination, avoiding any form of assimilation altogether. In Israel there is an inability to harmonize Palestinian and Jewish lifestyles, to the extent that absolute separation is sought. The Christian minority in the middle-east is also finding itself persecuted in the crossfire of sectarian violence.

In the modern world where connectivity is king, it seems that there is an equilibrium to reach, where we appreciate and accommodate the diversity of cultures around us, whilst remaining aware of how they influence our own values.

Deep in the Basacarsija bazaar in Sarajevo, ‘Europe’s Jerusalem’, a handful of moustachioed men sip their Turkish coffees and smoke hookah in the converted Morica Han, a 16th century Bosnian roadside inn originally built as a caravanserai. The noon prayer echoes through the courtyard from the nearby Gazi-Husrevbey mosque, whilst a Jewish man wearing a kippah saunters past toward the SarajevoHimalayas (819) synagogue. Here there is a striking synergy; Ottoman, Jewish and Christian influences have blended into a united Bosnian pace of life, where cross-cultural influences are adopted by others whilst preserving and enriching their own.

In the clamour at Shimla station, two refreshing Indian origin students emerge en route to the ‘Life and thought of Gandhi’ conference at the Indian institute for advanced studies.  With their fervour to learn the philosophies of India’s father set among their own international ambitions, they symbolise how the we must all adapt in the connected age. To embrace diversity, while remembering to champion our own heritage and identities.

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Travel writing: ‘On the wings of a dragon’ Kathmandu to Paro

“Passengers on the left hand side; please look out of your windows,” the pilot announced officiously over the loudspeaker.  It was the most eagerly awaited departure from Kathmandu’s quaint airport on that crisp morning, and barely ten minutes after take-off aboard flight KB401 I was staring straight at Everest, with its snow-capped peak piercing imperially through the hazy mist.

The check-in line was deserted. Druk Air’s orange emblem with its fire-breathing dragon, or druk, Bhutan’s national symbol, roared through the rustic woody decor of the Nepalese capital’s only airport terminal. Standing behind the counter a regally dressed woman with a neatly powdered face gave out a beaming smile.  “Are you sure; heard only eight pilots are trained to land there,” jested a man laden with hiking gear. I was too entranced by the enigma of Bhutan to take heed of the stranger’s concern. The ticket initiated me into a select club of individuals willing to pay the extravagant visa fee to enter the unknowns of the last Himalayan Kingdom.

A cacophony of nerves and excitement swelled through the teeming departure lounge as the flight to Paro was announced. The airport’s shuttle bus comically transported us ten feet forward to our narrow-bodied jet airliner.  On board the shiny purple traditional dress, or kira, fashioned by the air hostesses, glistened through the plane’s whitened interior.  A passenger asks one, “are you from Bhutan?” in fascination. “Yes, I am sir” she replied politely.

Following the thundering thrust of the engines we were air bound, heading eastwards and soaring majestically over white-tipped roof of the world. We basked amongst the Kanchenjunga and Everest peaks while tucking into Drukair’s choice of snack; a cheesy pastry with a subtle green chilli inside. It was a tourist compromise on the Bhutanese’s beloved ema datshi dish comprising of melted cheese with vigorous chillies, but sufficient enough to kick the senses in preparation for the much anticipated descent into Paro.

Soon the white carpeted mountains below began to take on a greener complexion. The tiny nodes of glacial rivers became ever more evident, carving through the landscape.  “Please do not be worried by our descent, this is normal” announced the pilot, releasing an ambivalent hush throughout the cabin.  We began rapidly angling from left to right through the valley, as if upon a rollercoaster, and dramatically hurtled toward the ground. The earthy hues soon turned to tall conifers and the intricate woodwork of Himalayan rooftops with drying red chillies atop became visible.

The plane darted theatrically across the runway and the passengers burst out like a carbonated beverage from a container, with cameras clicking at everything in sight. The luscious valley side we had flown in from shaded the simple airport and a large billboard of Bhutan’s King and Queen signposted the ornate arrival lounge. Each breath drew in the cleansing effects of the unusually pure mountain air. At the exit a herd of men clad in the elaborate gho local dress greeted us cheerfully. “Tashi delek. Welcome to Bhutan.” We had entered a different world.

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