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February 24 2014

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February 13 2014

The Iconic Trinidadian Film You've Never Seen

An image from Bim the movie, courtesy SHARC Productions; used with permission.

An image from Bim the movie, courtesy SHARC Productions; used with permission.

The 1970s saw the release of two important indigenous Caribbean films: Jamaica’s iconic The Harder They Come, starring musician Jimmy Cliff, which still takes some measure of credit for introducing reggae music to the world, and Bim, which explores race, politics and working class challenges in colonial Trinidad.

If you’ve never heard of Bim, far less seen it, that’s all about to change, thanks to the power of social media.

Pat Ganase, who has had a long career in journalism, publishing and communications in Trinidad and Tobago, has started a Facebook page called “BIM the movie” in an attempt to ignite online discussion about the film and the issues it deals with.

“I decided it was time for the first all-Trinidad film to have a Facebook fan page,” Ganase says. “It was the first film that didn’t just use our environment as a location and our people as exotic natives or extras. It is a film with a story that is authentic…and ours.”

Fellow journalist and writer Raoul Pantin collaborated on the script. The actors were all local. So was the majority of the film crew. The early fusion soundtrack was composed by Andre Tanker and performed by some of the country’s most outstanding musicians, including Mungal Patasar. But most importantly, it was a Trinidadian story.

Ganase is friends with Suzanne Robertson (who co-produced the film with her late husband Hugh, an American who edited the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy) and says that even back then, the couple saw a bright future for the film industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

“The first Trinidadian film company was SHARC,” she explains, “named for Suzanne, Hugh and their children (Antonio and Anna) Robertson. Bim—and SHARC—probably failed then, for the same reasons that film, as a viable industry, is not succeeding today. There is a failure to appreciate it as a productive industry that can employ many, many people and bring returns on investment through distribution.”

As Ganase notes, the challenges for young filmmakers today are the same: “Funding, institutional support, distribution and marketing. The film industry is not a solitary art, which is why it is an Industry with a Capital I.” But the sense of déjà vu does not stop there—it extends itself to societal challenges as well. While the film marked a particular time in Trinidad and Tobago's history, addressing attitudes towards issues such as racial identity, Ganase believes  its lessons are still relevant. “Maybe it can tell us something about ‘crime’ in our society,” she offers. “It certainly has something to say about young men who grow themselves up, without father or family.”

The plot follows the main character Bhim (initially pronounced Beem) Singh, whose father, a union leader for workers in the sugar cane fields, is killed on the day of his sister’s wedding. Bhim leaves the only life he knows in rural Trinidad to live with his aunt and her ne’er-do-well husband in Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital city. From the get-go he's an outcast, and is soon drawn into a life of petty crime, working for an underworld type who re-christens him Bim. Meanwhile, the winds of political change are blowing. Bim seizes the opportunity, crushes the son of the man who killed his father and gets himself elected as head of the sugar cane workers’ union. His victory is short-lived, however, and his demise comes rather quickly, as a result of alcoholism.

Upon its release, the film was not panned by critics, but it didn’t quite get rave reviews either. The New York Times critique in 1974, for instance, opened by saying, “By no conventional standards is ‘Bim’ very good, but it’s still vastly more interesting than lots of other movies you’re likely to stumble on.” ‘Interesting’ may have been an understatement; it certainly struck a note with local audiences, presumably even before anyone had even seen it. Trinidad and Tobago had an active Censors Board at the time and the film’s planned debut in December 1974 never happened thanks to a ban. A month later, after legal action was taken against the Censors Board, the film was finally screened—uncut—at the landmark Roxy cinema in St. James.

“The language is harsh; it had plenty cusswords [obscene language],” Ganase recalls, “but not unwarranted. People who have seen the film are the ones who perceive it as seminal and important. There is a ring of truth in Bim the movie.”

There's certainly a timeless quality to Bim. Ganase says that “viewers of all ages and in every decade respond [to the film] the same way…as if it is something that they were deprived of.” She thinks this is because the story is as relevant now as it was then. “It’s not that I want people to know the film,” she says. “It is that people have a hunger for it.”

In just three days, the Facebook page has received over 130 “Likes” and a substantial amount of commentary, both from people who have already seen the film and from those who would like to. Ganase says the page will develop according to the discussion it generates: “It will point us in a direction that comes from the collective.”

One idea that came out of user comments was the suggestion by Trinidadian visual artist Christopher Cozier to work towards having Bim listed in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which restores and distributes films from countries that are underrepresented in global film culture. “It is a worthwhile idea that might be an avenue for new distribution,” Ganase explains. “There will be a showing in the future. But that will happen when the time is right.”

Janine Mendes-Franco is a communications consultant, media producer and writer. When she's not blogging about the Caribbean for Global Voices, you can find her blogging here and tweeting here.

The image used in this post is from Bim the movie, courtesy SHARC Productions, used with permission. A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Guardian Arts section.

February 11 2014

Why the Western Media Loves Hating on China

When journalists stumble onto a story that sounds too juicy to be true, it may well be – so they're taught to double-check the facts before publishing.

But a British newspaper last month ran a piece of blarney with the headline, “China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog.” The story about natural light-starved China's virtual sunrises went viral as news organizations around the world picked it up, with headlines like Smog-bound Beijing resort to virtual sunrises and Smog in Beijing is so so awful you have to catch the sunrise on a big screen.

It took bloggers to expose the hoax by pointing out that the sunrise on the TV monitors in Tiananmen Square was part of a tourism commercial that plays year round, regardless of the time of day or level of pollution. Even then, many news outlets refused to retract or correct the initial erroneous reports.

The episode isn’t just about shoddy reporting on one inconsequential story, several netizens debated. They said it reflects a bias that many Western journalists have toward China and other developing countries: to always believe, and report, the worst. As Immense_Rainbowman posted on Reddit:

The western media love any kind of story that puts a bad light on China. It's part of the whole current anti-China sentiment that has risen steadily since China's economic growth. An easy follow-on from the anti-communism sentiment from the last generation.
The narrative is that life is terrible in China, and it's to distract the Western population from our own troubles, where quality of life is taking a downturn because of recession and debt.

Another Reddit user, “wetac0s,” added: “never trust any news about China from Western media.”

How the story got started

The story originated in the UK's Daily Mail on January 17.  James Nye, a Daily Mail reporter who lives in New York, wrote:

The smog has become so thick in Beijing that the city's natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises.

The futuristic screens installed in the Chinese capital usually advertize tourist destinations, but as the season's first wave of extremely dangerous smog hit – residents donned air masks and left their homes to watch the only place where the sun would hail over the horizon that morning.

The article was accompanied by four photos from Tiananmen Square, the iconic plaza in Beijing, which does indeed feature gigantic TV monitors. One of the pictures showed a sunrise being displayed on a screen, with the caption, “Virtual sunlight”.

Nye's story got picked up by dozens of media outlets around the world, from CBS and The Huffington Post to Business Insider and AOL. Invariably, they echoed the Daily Mail hogwash, saying the digital screens were “the only way people were going to see the sun.”

Within a few days, the misinformation had polluted the social media environment. On Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, people passed along the bogus story:

Exposing the hoax

There were signs from Day 1 that something was amiss. Shortly after the Daily Mail put its story online, a reader, Cole Ranze, posted a comment questioning its veracity:

To be fair, the billboard with the image of the sun is clearly displaying a tourism advertisement for Shandong province, no doubt just one of many in a string of beautiful images meant to illustrate the beauty of that region. I think this article is a bit misleading, to be sure.

But it wasn't until January 20 that the blog Tech in Asia definitively exposed the Daily Mail report and the stories it spawned as a hoax. Under the headline “No, Beijing residents are NOT watching fake sunrises on giant TVs because of pollution,” editor Paul Bischoff called the entire story “complete bullshit”:

In truth, that sunrise was probably on the screen for less than 10 seconds at a time, as it was part of an ad for tourism in China’s Shandong province. The ad plays every day throughout the day all year round no matter how bad the pollution is. The photographer simply snapped the photo at the moment when the sunrise appeared.

Bischoff chastised news organizations that were so eager to carry the Daily Mail fabrication without checking the facts. “International media should be embarrassed for not taking even a moment to second guess the Daily Mail, one of the least reputable news sources in the UK,” Bischoff wrote. He added:

Shame on any media that ran this farce. China has its problems, but they have proven themselves far too eager to criticize just to attract hits from the shock factor. Beijing pollution is bad enough without the added dishonest sensationalism.

Bischoff tweeted his knock-down …

… and it rippled through the blogosphere. On the same social media platforms where the sham earlier circulated, correction alarms sounded.

“Well, we’ve been duped,” an environmentalist in Washington, D.C., posted on his Tumblr. On a blog ordinarily devoted to video games, a man called the initial Daily Mail story “disingenuous.” And a UK political blogger, Tom Pride, noted that “Daily Mail story about sunrises being shown on big screens in Beijing was made up.”

The bigger story: failed media ethics

Of course, the belated corrections will never catch up to the initial falsehoods. As the 19th-century preacher C.H. Spurgeon once said, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

Even now, only a few outlets that ran the fake sunrise-on-TV story, such as Time, have pulled or corrected it. 

But the issue is far bigger than one false news report. It speaks to the state of media ethics, or lack thereof.

“How do relatively respectable outfits like Time, HuffPo and CBS jump onboard with circulating fake stories? Simply by not checking, for one,” reporter Gwynn Guilford wrote in the online business publication Quartz. Her article was titled, ”Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.”

To many reporters, if the meme fits, they'll go with it, no questions asked. In this case, the Daily Mail concoction fit the impression many Westerners have of China.

“And by interweaving the themes of pollution and the government’s Orwellian-tinged attempts to control daily life, the Daily Mail offers a double-whammy of Western reader stereotypes about China,” Guilford wrote.

That enticed other publications to serve up the phony story to their readers as well.

“This isn’t the first China lie that gets picked up and broadcast by Western news media. Mike Daisey’s fabricated NPR story on ‘This American Life’ comes prominently to mind,” wrote Patrick Lozada, managing editor of the news and culture blog Beijing Cream. The headline of his post was “Why the Fake Pollution Billboard Story Matters.”

Many countries besides China get this treatment.

Earlier in January, U.S. news outlets breathlessly claimed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed in December by stripping him naked and feeding him to 120 hungry dogs. That report originated in a sketchy Hong Kong newspaper, was picked up a paper in Singapore and then burst into American media.

However, the story clearly was fraudulent, according to Max Fisher of The Washington Post. He listed several tip-offs, including: The initial story had no sources; and the media in China and South Korea, where reporters are most knowledgeable about North Korea, ignored the report.

“But all of this raises the question: why are so many people – and so many major U.S. media outlets – still willing to treat this implausible story as plausible?” Fisher asked. 

A blog called Pacific Side then aggregated substantial evidence that the fed-to-the-dogs story was fed to the media as satire on Weibo, China's microblogging service.

For many news consumers, the episode said more about the media's behavior than Kim Jong Un's:

Jeff South is a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently visiting Changchun, China as a Fulbright scholar.

February 04 2014

“The Square” Director Jehane Noujaim On Filming Egypt's Revolution

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, director of

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, director of “The Square”. Image courtesy WITNESS

This article by Matisse Bustos-Hawkes for WITNESS originally appeared on The WITNESS Blog on January 31, 2014 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement. 

By Matisse Bustos Hawkes, Senior Communications Manager/WITNESS

The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary by director Jehane Noujaim, follows core activists during the Egyptian Revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarack, and then saw the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi.

In an interview with WITNESS, Noujaim explains how the documentary was constructed from 1,600 hours of footage, the role of citizen video in the making of it and how collaborative production brought the whole film together.

Q: How did the project originate? When did you know you had material enough for a full-length documentary about the Egyptian revolution?

Jehane Noujaim: I grew up just ten minutes from Tahrir Square, and my family still lives in Cairo. I came to the square with plans to make a film, but I was not sure what the story was. In the first few weeks the entire crew met each other in the square and we began looking for characters to follow and began filming. If I weren’t a filmmaker, I would have been there anyway. I often find myself shooting people and situations that I am drawn to. It’s part of the process. The footage doesn’t always turn into a film. This one did.

By the time we finished shooting, we had over 1600 hours worth of material. We cut a finished film in 2012 and took it to Sundance a year later, where it won the Audience Award. But the story wasn’t over. The situation on the ground had changed again and our characters were once again the in thick of things back in Cairo. We realized we had to continue the story. We had to go back to Tahrir and keep shooting. As a result the film became a deeper, more complex story.

Q: How did you find each of the characters you ended up featuring in the film? Were there others you followed who didn't make it into the film? 

JN: The magic of Tahrir Square is that it drew in people from all walks of life, it was easy to find a diverse cast of characters that any audience could relate to. We started with about six characters in the film; out of that Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy emerged as the central figures. Their stories fit together in a character arc that was understandable, coherent, and didn’t pull you too far from what was happening in Tahrir Square. They were also characters I fell in love with — Khalid for his fire and eloquence, Magdy for his faithfulness and open-mindedness, and Ahmed for his sheer charisma and magnetism.

One character that didn’t make it into the film was Buthayna Kamel, the first person I called when the rumblings started in 2011. She was in my 2007 BBC documentary Egypt:We Are Watching You, about a group of women in Egypt fighting for political change long before the revolution started. Buthayna used to work as a newscaster, but quit because she said she was no longer going to tell lies on behalf of the government. She decided to run for the presidency, the first woman in Egypt to do so. We followed her during her entire campaign, but painfully had to take her out because she deserved her own story, and we wanted to keep the film about the public space of the square itself and how it was used as a political tool.

Q: What safety measures or precautions were undertaken to keep those in front of and behind the cameras safe while filming?

JN: For one thing, we all shot the film with Canon DSLRs, which made it look like we were just taking photos. Otherwise, our cameras would have been confiscated by the police. One of the characters in the film — Pierre — lived in an apartment just a few minutes away from Tahrir. It became our safety blanket, a place to run to if we needed to get away. Also we began to rent an office a few minutes away from the Square which we would run to, download footage at, and discuss our shooting plans.

But there really wasn’t a set protocol that we went by. At the start, we found ourselves in the middle of a river, one that none of us expected to be in or had even prepared for. Eventually, safety measures organically emerged. We made a point to look out for each other all the time. Like Ahmed says in the film, “We loved each other without really knowing each other.”

It was very important that the crew came from Egypt — that they were protestors and that they wanted to be there anyway — because we didn’t know where the story was going. What you see is not one person’s film, but a collaborative effort between stakeholders in what was taking place, by people who deeply cared about the future of the country.

Video still of Ahmed Hassan in The Square.

Video still of Ahmed Hassan in The Square.

Q: What key lessons did your team learn about the benefits and the challenges of shooting citizen video?

JN: This film could not have been made without utilizing citizen video.

For example, a month after Mubarak stepped down — while Egypt was still in a post revolutionary hangover — Ramy Essam, the singer of the revolution, was arrested and tortured by the army in the Egyptian museum. He was electrocuted, beaten, and hung by his hair. He spent weeks in bed recovering from his injuries. At the time, people refused to believe that the military would torture someone. The military was still widely viewed as heroes of the revolution, and there was no local or international media coverage of some of the things that were happening on the ground. Looking back now, it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Aida El Kashef, had a camera and she shot a video documenting the results of Ramy’s torture so there would be no doubt what had happened. It was then that Mosireen — a media activism collective founded by Khalid and Aida — was formed, with the goal of putting cameras into locations that would normally never have cameras. Mosireen set up a headquarters downtown where they began training people on how to shoot video and edit and upload pieces. Some of what they shot made its way into the finished film.

In fact, about a quarter of this film, including some of the most of the incredible footage from the frontline of the protests, where you literally feel like you’re being fired at, was shot by Ahmed, the film’s lead subject. Ahmed actually studied journalism, but like many young Egyptians, he had to do whatever job he could find to make a living. He had no real training in filmmaking. Our Director of Photography, Muhammed Hamdy, taught Ahmed how to properly use a camera, and over the course of shooting this film, he used that camera as a weapon to fight back and expose human rights abuses and oppression that he saw.

Many times when he was on the front line, Ahmed was the only one there with a camera. The other protesters would form a circle around him and make sure he was protected. They would say to him, “Record, Ahmed! Record!” because it was so important for them that there was a witness, that what was happening was documented. Otherwise their stories wouldn’t get reported. That’s how it was.

Some of the footage shot for this film has been used as evidence in legal cases, a lot of it was uploaded to YouTube to try to show the world what was happening in Egypt after the media had stopped covering it. Footage has even been used in reportage by major news organizations.

Q: The visual arts and music are huge forces in the revolutionary period. You document the work of muralist Ammar Akbo Bakr throughout the film and singer Ramy Essam figures prominently. Although some works such as Akbo Bakr’s murals were intended to be temporary and shifting, did you set out to create an archive of sorts in the film of the cultural and artistic activity that was taking place along side the protests?

The role of art in the Egyptian revolution cannot be exaggerated. That’s why it’s such an essential through-line in the film, because artists were at the forefront of the changes taking place in Egypt. From the start, culture and freedom of expression were at the heart of the movement. I think that the Cultural Revolution — the explosion of art, painting, writing, and poetry — continues to be something that inspires Egyptians. There are so many initiatives and collectives now for people to express themselves, to express the revolution, to claim ownership of their country. We ourselves were making a film or documenting events as they unfolded through our characters. What you see in the final film and the rest of the other 1599 hours of footage not in the film is, I guess, a form of an archive.

Q: Although you have not been able to officially screen the film in Egypt, have the main characters been able to see it? What have reactions been from Egyptians in the diaspora who have been able to see the film?

The main characters have all seen the film and they are, of course, following all the stories about the film on social media. You have to keep in mind that for them the revolution is still going on. They are very much still in the thick of it. In fact, as Egypt marked the third anniversary of the January 25 uprising, it was quite tense for them.

As for Egyptians in the diaspora, they typically approach the film with a degree of apprehension. Given the ever shifting and increasingly unstable situation in Egypt, this is understandable. We frankly didn’t know what to expect from them. Now that we have been doing screening after screening all over North America and in the UK, we have been seeing Egyptians from across the spectrum of Egyptian society respond differently to the film.

Look, it’s a really dark and divided time for Egyptians – not just those in the country, but in the diasporas as well. Egyptians are torn apart by what's happening in their country. Some have said that Egypt is descending into civil war. Watching the film, however, and especially the relationship between Ahmed and Magdy, the Muslim Brotherhood member, has given them a completely different perspective. Their story personalized the commonality of the human struggle in Egypt despite the deep political divides. Even though Ahmed and Magdy have different political perspectives, the caring and the love, the loyalty and friendship they display to each other at the end of the film has given a lot of the Egyptians who’ve seen the film hope that Egypt can still be united.

Q: What message do you think The Square will convey to worldwide audiences about Egypt's post revolutionary period?

JN: The Square is not the seminal film on the Egyptian revolution. I don't think that anybody can claim to do that. It’s not a piece of journalism, and it doesn’t pretend to tell the entire story of the revolution. And it certainly is not a “one-sided,” “naïve,” or “dangerous” depiction of Egyptian politics, as some have suggested.

This is a vérité documentary about the journey of a handful of characters in Tahrir Square; how they come from different walks of life, but are completely united in their unwillingness to compromise on their principles. Ultimately it’s about greatness emerging out of chaos. My responsibility as the director was to be truthful to these characters and to take the audience deep into their stories. In the end, this is not a film about the Egyptian revolution. It is a film about the Egyptians who are living through it.

Like Ahmed says in the film, “only we can tell our stories, only we can write our stories. It's our time to bring back the narrative, to show the power of our communities to be our own storytellers.” This film is a direct product of this phenomenon.

Official Trailer

The Square is now streaming on Netflix. Reach Matisse and WITNESS on Twitter at @matissebh and @witnessorg.

January 23 2014

Goodbye Alexandros Petersen, Prodigious Guide to China in Central Asia

With a sprinkle of humor, Alex slipped seamlessly and gracefully into a region of stories and storytellers, abundance and poverty, toasts and toast-makers. 

The 29 year-old go-to-scholar and commentator was eloquent and big-hearted in everything he did. 

It was with great shock that I comprehended the loss of Alexandros Petersen, co-author of the excellent Eurasian affairs blog ChinainCentralAsia.com, in a suicide bomb attack carried out by the Taliban at a restaurant in central Kabul on January 17, 2014. 

Alexandros Petersen at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Alexandros Petersen at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

This is not an obituary.

Alex was so well-traveled and well-affiliated that compiling his biography would probably be a task beyond any single person, and certainly the author of this post. A great number of people knew Alex in a great number of capacities, all of whom lost something in this brutal, highly coordinated and premeditated attack.

America-born to a Greek mother and a Danish father, he had friends and admirers across the world, with a notable concentration of both in lands sandwiched between the shores of the Black Sea and the sands of the Taklamakan desert.

As an occasional journalist, I had known ‘Alex the source’ – always reliable for an astute and erudite quote – for some time before I knew Alex the person.

While the first Alex will leave a gaping hole in the rolodex of many analysts and reporters covering Central Asia and the Caucasus, it is the second Alex, known by family, friends, colleagues and students, that will be missed even more. 

As a noted expert in energy politics, Alex's scope was global, yet like many that have traveled through, lived and worked in, or wrote about the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, there was a specific set of countries he found infectious. As he emphasized in his book The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, and later through the ChinainCentralAsia blog and book project, this is a region that western policy-makers ignore at their peril.

Many people that knew Alex, even as briefly as I knew him, will know that he had an aptitude for anecdotes. Through the warm fuzzy memory of one of several excellent dinner evenings at a well-known Georgian restaurant in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (a dash of the Caucasus in Central Asia) I can still hear his tale of the duplicitous Azerbaijani ambassador that summoned him for a dressing down after he had written a critical article about that country, only to promptly stop, smile, and break out a teapot and tea cups. The dressing down, it emerged, had been recorded for the benefit of a political high-up in Baku, while the teapot and tea cups were symbols of the perennial hospitality with which any visitor to the region rapidly becomes familiar. 

On a good night, Alex could reel off a dozen such recollections from his years traveling through countries in Europe and Asia, nearly all of which were outrageously funny. A Petersen punch line could leave your ribs hurting from laughter, a potent and particular gift that the Taliban stole from the world.

China in Central Asia

Through ChinainCentralAsia.com, one of the most readable English-language blogs covering geopolitics in the Eurasian region, Alex had begun in combination with co-writer Raffaello Pantucci and photojournalist Sue Anne Tay, to document what he was convinced, with good reason, would be one of the stories of the 21st century, namely China's giant economic push through the countries lying west of its own restive Xinjiang province. These countries, cobbled together as “the stans” by the western media, lie at the historical heart of some of the greatest land empires the world has known, but are now isolated states increasingly shorn of options. Hamstrung by geography, corruption and various other internal problems, they have few reasons to reject Chinese largesse, and even fewer means to resist it.

Belatedly the chronicle of exponentially increasing Chinese trade and investment in Central Asia has started to turn heads beyond the region and its regular gaggle of foreign observers. Last September, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping's whirlwind tour through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan raised eyebrows across the world by virtue of the sheer size of the deals struck for oil, gas and other giant infrastructure projects in the region. For Petersen, Pantucci and others, this is a plot that has been bubbling for some time, and one that is increasingly central to the epic that is China's rise towards superpower status.   

While Alex diligently tracked every stretch of pipeline built by the Chinese in the region, he also knew that China's influence in Central Asia could not be measured in kilometers of road, barrels of oil, and cubic meters of gas alone. Many of the articles on ChinainCentralAsia.com are enjoyable to read precisely because they gather the testimonies of ordinary Central Asians being affected by the changes that have accompanied China's expanding clout; from university teachers observing the installation of Confucius Institutes in their places of work, to local businessmen whose bank accounts have been swelled by trade with China, and villagers who believe the roads Chinese companies are building in their country – paid for by cheap Chinese credit – are designed to support the weight of Chinese tanks in a future military invasion.

The practitioners of Beijing's westward pivot, and the protagonists in the emergence of what ChinainCentral Asia.com has labelled China's “inadvertant empire” are also human beings rather than mere pawns on a chessboard, a fact Petersen captured in an October article in the Atlantic: 

These actors include Chinese owners of market stalls in Central Asia’s largest bazaars. One I spoke to had lived for years in a shipping container he shared with four other men at the back of a clothes market in Kazakhstan’s largest bazaar. A multi-millionaire, he provided for his children’s Western education, multiple apartments in Shanghai, and even overseas property investments. To him, Central Asia is the land of opportunity. These actors also include Chinese teachers sent to staff the many Confucius Institutes sprouting up around the region. Some I spoke with missed home, but many said they preferred the exciting “frontier life.” CNPC engineers across the region know that they are in for the long haul, as their company and its many subsidiaries build imposing structures in every Eurasian capital. The immense pipeline network CNPC is threading through the region consists of infrastructure set to last half a century.

Alex the Guide

Beyond his writing Alex also inspired as a teacher, and it was during his semester-long stint at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that I got to know him on a personal level. Among the juniors and seniors in the International and Comparative Politics department (many of whom have written articles for Global Voices) that took his elective courses, and freshmen of all departments undertaking the First Year Seminar, Alex was a universally admired guide and friend, as well as a teller of fantastic stories. To both students and colleagues at the university, he was open, approachable, and a great person to bounce ideas off.

We are thinking of his family.  

A man of many temporary homes, Alex was in Kabul to embark on another research and teaching stint at the American University of Afghanistan. Writing to him a few days before he died I told him I was looking forward to a new series of dispatches on the nature and shape of Chinese influence in this fascinating, beautiful, tortured country. Now those dispatches will never be written and the students he was teaching will miss out on the tremendous wealth of knowledge, experience and color he brought to a classroom. When the Taliban cut his life short so brutally, it was fellow Afghans they punished. 

As his friend and writing partner Raffaello Pantucci communicated via email, “a bright light has gone out.”

Chris Rickleton manages the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

January 08 2014

Happy New Year from Philadelphia's “Drunk Racist Clown Parade”

2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A comic brigade at the 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Imagine scores of people festooned in a dizzying array of bright colors, sequins, feathers and face paint, dancing in unison up a city boulevard. They're playing instruments and performing clown routines, poking fun at everything from political controversies to zoo animals to historical events. If they have a spare hand, it's usually holding a beer. Tens of thousands gather to watch the event and join in the fun.

This is not Mardi Gras. It is not Carnival. It is the Mummers Parade, a New Year's Day tradition in Philadelphia that many historians believe to be the longest-running folk festival in the United States.

Performers number in the thousands and spend months developing and rehearsing routines, building costumes and scenery, and perfecting their “strut”, an official dance move that most Philadelphians can at least mimic if asked. They line up at 6am, often in below-freezing temperatures, and prepare for an entire day of strutting and clowning their way up Broad Street, the city's central boulevard.

2010 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fancies at the 2009 Mummers Parade with penguin character. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Day drinking” is a hallmark of the event — ubiquitous on the street and easy to spot on Twitter:

While some parade goers make a point of getting a good night's rest on New Year's Eve, others choose to “go the distance” and simply keep refilling their glasses through the night and into the morning:

With car traffic blocked for miles, people come to the parade by train, bike, and on foot, donning crazy hats and glasses on top of their winter gear, lugging thermoses of wassail and cases of beer. From a distance, it looks like a goofy, unpretentious, all-around good time.

As a child, I was enticed by the Mummers and very much wanted to see them up close. But my dad informally decreed that we would not go to the parade because it was a racist tradition. He had a point.

Like other carnivalesque rituals in the Americas, the Mummers often embody, or at least dress like, a person or thing they are not. But along with mythical creatures and colorful animals, each year some performers—who are almost all white men—present simplistic, cartoon-like depictions of foreign cultures, “wenches” (see below), and Civil War-era minstrel shows. This is the part of the parade that I, like most Philly natives, can't really get down with.

A fancy brigade depicting Native American indians at the 2007 Mummers Parade. Photo by Valkrye131 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A fancy brigade depicting Native Americans at the 2007 Mummers Parade. Photo by Valkrye131 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The parade's signature song dates back to popular 19th-century folk or “minstrel” shows in which white performers depicted slaves of African origin performing slapstick routines, and playing instruments in plantation-like settings. For many Americans (I'd like to think most, but one can't be sure), minstrelsy is a cringe-inducing symbol of the period.

This aspect of the tradition has deep roots. Driven by Irish, Swedish, and German fraternal organizations (then and now), the parade began as a celebration of working-class immigrant culture and a rejection of classist and racial discrimination that pushed these groups to the social and economic margins of the city in the 19th century. 

It's no surprise that minstrelsy was originally a part of the Mummers’ tradition. After the Civil War, free blacks came to the city seeking work and competed for jobs with poor ethnic minorities like the Irish. One can imagine why these groups might have romanticized the pre-war past at the turn of the century.

A wench brigade at the 2010 Mummer Parade. Photo by Kevin Burkett via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A wench brigade at the 2010 Mummer Parade. Photo by Kevin Burkett via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the parade tradition evolved, some things changed, but not without a fight. In the 1960s, “blackface” paint was officially banned in response to protests by black Philadelphians who argued that the city should not support an event that denigrated its own taxpayers. But old habits die hard—I've been to the last three parades and seen performers wearing something akin to blackface paint at each and every edition, like the man in the photograph at right. In a city that is nearly half African-American and where immigrants from China, Vietnam, the Caribbean, and a range of  East African countries make up a sizable chunk of the population, this does not feel okay.

Social media has made it easier to see exactly how Philadelphians feel about this strange celebration — a parallel tradition has evolved in which fiery online debates over representations of race, gender, and social class at the parade light up local blogs and Twitter feeds. 

This year, one Twitter user called the parade an “ignorant, cringe-inducing display of stereotypes of people of color.” Another tweeted:

Mummers typically justify their continued attachment to these rituals by saying it's “just a joke.” But for many Philadelphians, it's just not funny. In a blistering article on last year's parade, which featured two of the more offensive performances in recent memory, local blogger Joey Sweeney described the parade as “100% backward bullshit, an annual celebration of the white man and his famous burden that has no place in the modern, better iteration of this city.” Readers like Milagros Lopez did not take kindly to Sweeney's diatribe.

“I am a black hispanic female and I do not find any of it offensive,” Lopez responded. “If anything it is silly, inaccurate and a little strange….Let them look like fools. It is only hurting their image and not ours.”

But others felt differently. “You know how upset you are by this article?” wrote Erica Matos. “How targeted and wronged you feel? How misunderstood?…Now, imagine hundreds of people parading these opinions around the streets and rubbing your face in it. That's how people like me, who are of an ethnic minority, feel when we see antics such as these in the Mummers Parade.”

Wench brigade at the 2009 Mummers Parade. Photo by Melody Kramer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wench brigade at the 2009 Mummers Parade. Photo by Melody Kramer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I find myself siding with Matos, and with Twitter users who criticized local government for supporting parade organization, traffic patrol and clean-up. In a city that is too bankrupt to fully support public schools and transit, and where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line, you'd think there would be no funding available for this sort of thing. But you'd be wrong.

Fallen clown at 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Carlykbad via Instagram.

Fallen clown at 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Carlykbad via Instagram.

In the end, after a few years of witnessing the revelry and excess, I feel about the same as my dad does. Should I reject the tradition full out? Hate it, as I was raised to do? Maybe.

But I'm torn. The truth is that I love the essence of the event — waking up on New Year's Day to a city transformed into a strange world of wild colors and costumes is a magical thing. Being free to take on an imaginary identity for a day and starting the year off with a fantastical escape from reality, rather than a hungover look at the road ahead, feels like a gift. I just don't like the way the Mummers do it. For 2015, I think the solution will be to start my own tradition. A small costume party at my apartment, with lots of music and dancing. And plenty of selfies for my GV friends around the world.

December 26 2013

Projections of the Future: Tsunami Memorials and Disaster Response

On the anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Ivan Sigal visits memorials of the disaster in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and finds prophesies of our future. This story was originally published by Creative Time Reports.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Last year I visited Banda Aceh, a provincial capital located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The Indonesian city was the epicenter of the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, which tore through communities from Thailand all the way to Somalia, killing approximately 230,000 people. While I had traveled to Sri Lanka to help right after the storm, I followed Banda Aceh’s story of recovery closely over the years. I wanted to see for myself the choices a community made in rebuilding and memorializing those lost in the disaster. What I discovered was both haunting and instructive, a monument to a past catastrophe and a harbinger of things to come.

Banda Aceh was substantially rebuilt within five years, although traces of the tsunami remain visible on the margins of the city, in the shape of seawalls and remnants of the old bridge across the bay, and in the continuing home-reconstruction projects at the town’s edges. The province of Aceh, of which Banda Aceh is the capital, also experienced a political transformation; the armed separatist rebellion across Aceh’s interior concluded with a peace deal and substantial regional autonomy. Although international donors provided some $7 billion in funds to aid in the reconstruction, by some accounts it flowed disproportionately to the city at the expense of smaller towns and more remote regions, as well as to the political victors of the conflict. Along with urban and residential reconstruction, the city built memorials, a mass grave and a museum. These spaces preserve the memory of the 160,000 killed by the tsunami in Aceh, but they also play other roles, offering both moral instruction in civic engagement and tsunami tourism.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people clinging to roofs, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people clinging to roofs, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

The Aceh Tsunami Museum in particular embodies this goal of civic instruction. Photos of death and destruction, taken after the tsunami, loop endlessly; video monitors play images of traumatic moments, now pixelated and bordered by benign blue-bubble backgrounds. Colorful dioramas restage scenes of terror and death: clay figures hang from model boats or flee massive blue papier-mâché waves. A miniature of the city’s famed Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, one of the few buildings not destroyed by the waves, stands alone in front of a painted screen of rough sea and sky. Rusted motorcycles and seismographs, encased in glass, have been repurposed into objects of reverence and sentiment. Interactive maps depicting the changes in coastline are cast in rough gray fiberglass. A model house built on a hydraulic jack simulates the experience of shaking earth. These objects allow us both to look directly at horror and to distance ourselves from it, through facsimiles reduced in scale, rendered in clay and captured and framed in glass. They keep the experience at a safe remove while providing instruction in the value of creating and preserving order—implicitly supporting the post-conflict state.

New homes customized by their inhabitants, Banda Aceh, Indonisia, Photos by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

New homes customized by their inhabitants, Banda Aceh, Indonisia, Photos by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Beyond the memorials, Banda Aceh is a rebuilt city, now comprising neighborhoods of identical houses built with aid agency funds and supported by international contractors. Every house has been customized by its owner; variously colored facades, porches, patios and additions provide each with an individual personality. Neighborhoods are now protected by sea walls and acres of mangrove. Here is a city returned to its former pace, an ocean becalmed. Aceh’s story seems to be in the past, but the idea that the disaster it experienced can be confined to symbolic representations in museums is an illusion: the clay figurines drowning in papier-mâché waters are, I fear, projections of our own future.

When I first traveled to Sri Lanka in the days after the tsunami, witnessing the scale of destruction and trying to help in the aftermath changed my life. It opened in me a sense of urgency and an understanding that frequently the scope of disaster is the result of human failure rather than natural catastrophe. After the tsunami came Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake, the Haiti earthquake, Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan and numerous other calamities. With each of these events, it has become clearer that our efforts to mitigate the destruction unleashed by natural disasters are grossly inadequate. Forecasts of stronger and more frequent storms caused in part by a warming ocean mean that we will have to manage the threat of similar disasters for many years. We are only beginning to recognize what needs to be done, and how vulnerable we become the longer we wait.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting a floating diesel power station, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting a floating diesel power station, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012. 

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (detail). Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (detail). Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (detail). Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Diorama depicting people fleeing a wave, Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (detail). Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012. 

Poster of tsunami victims, displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Poster of tsunami victims, displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Foundation for a new home in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Foundation for a new home in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Long-term effects of beach erosion in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Long-term effects of beach erosion in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Women sitting by a seawall in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Women sitting by a seawall in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Remnants of a bridge in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

Remnants of a bridge in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Ivan Sigal, 2012.

 

 

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

December 24 2013

7 Things You Didn't Know About Japanese Food

Image of bakery in Japan

Image of bakery in Japan by Flickr user ohpapercut. (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, usually consisting of rice, soup and vegetables and featuring a variety of mostly mild and delicate flavors, has become well known throughout the world. Recently, washoku – a way of cooking, presenting and eating traditional Japanese cuisine – was inducted into UNESCO‘s Cultural Heritage list.

Global Voices contributor Taylor Cazella, who recently moved from the US to Japan, introduces seven unexpected yet tasty foods and food trends that you don't want to miss if you visit Japan.

1. Bread and Japanese bakeries

In Japan, as is the case with most Asian countries, rice is the staple grain. Rice has played an important role in socio-economic history of the Japan, and, up until the modern era, was even used for taxation purposes instead of a manufactured currency. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese diet became increasingly westernized. Bread grew in popularity, and now occupies an important and flourishing role in Japan’s food culture. A visit to any of Japan’s numerous bakeries will reveal a great variety of well-crafted products: everything from delicious sweets and French-style baguettes to shrimp rolls and pigs-in-a-blanket.

macha or green tea flavor ice cream. Photo taken by flickr user emrank

macha or green tea flavor ice cream. Photo taken by Flickr user emrank (CC BY 2.0)

The Japanese have also invented new types of bread, such as anpan, a Japanese sweet roll most commonly filled with red bean paste, and curry bread, a deep fried dough filled with Japanese curry. There are also efforts to counter the popularity of bread by using rice as a base in recipes. In addition to regular bread, some bakeries make rice bread, a special type of bread using rice flour, in hopes of increasing consumption of domestically grown rice.

2. Ice cream, with a Japanese twist

Ice cream probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind when someone mentions Japanese food. Yet, Japan is home to some truly unique flavors of this summertime favourite — the kinds of things you won’t find on US ice cream maker Baskin Robbins‘ famous list of 31 flavors. Among the more popular Japanese flavors are maccha (green tea), sakura (cherry blossom), satsumaimo (sweet potato), goma (black sesame seed) and yuzu (a type of citrus fruit with a flavor similar to mandarin orange mixed with lemon).

Less common are exotic flavors [ja] that you wouldn't find anywhere else but in Japan, based on local specialties. These include basashi (horse-meat sashimi), eel, and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Such varieties can be found in particular souvenir shops in locations where the ingredients are local specialities.

3. Gekikara ramen and other spicy foods 

You can find a variety of snacks with extremely hot, spicy flavors in Japan. Image by flickr user  yuichi.sakuraba (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

You can find a variety of snacks with extremely hot, spicy flavors in Japan. Image by Flickr user yuichi.sakuraba (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Japanese food has a reputation for being mild, and some might even go so far as to call it bland. However, anyone willing to make that generalization has obviously never experienced a bowl of gekikara ramen, a version of the ubiquitous noodle dish flavored with potent spices. Those brave enough to try a bowl should expect to sweat a bit! And while Japanese curry is typically sweeter and less fiery than its Indian counterpart, some curry shops will allow you to select your level of spiciness, the higher of which will definitely pack some heat.

4. Raw egg

One of the hallmarks of Japanese food is the abundance of fresh ingredients that are quite often used raw. The best known example of this is the raw seafood used in sushi, but several other raw foods figure prominently in Japanese cooking.

Raw egg, for example, can be found in many dishes, typically served on top of rice, or as a dip for noodles. This presents, arguably, one of the greatest difficulties Americans face when sampling the array of  Japanese food. American children are taught from a very early age to regard eggs with extreme caution. In the interest of preventing food-borne illnesses, Americans learn to always wash their hands after handling raw egg, to be careful not to cross-contaminate other foods with raw egg, to always store eggs in the refrigerator, and certainly never to eat eggs raw. This can be quite a shock for American visitors to Japan, who will find eggs stored on grocery shelves at room temperature, and eggs served entirely uncooked in a number of restaurant dishes.

That said, if properly handled, raw egg – sourced from clean, healthy chickens – is perfectly safe for human consumption. And everyone should try the humorously named oyakodon (mother and child bowl), which consists of cooked chicken and reduced onion served over rice with raw egg on top, at least once.

5. Okonomiyaki and common cuisine

Japan is a destination for foodies and gastronomes the world over, seeking the subtle and sublime qualities of Japan’s high-end dishes. This has led to a somewhat skewed perception of Japanese cuisine, as  common Japanese dishes – the cheap and delicious meals enjoyed daily by average people – are sorely underrepresented abroad.

A great example of this is okonomiyaki. Many varieties and regional variations of okonomiyaki exist; in fact, the name itself means “cooked how you like it.” The basic formula, however, includes different vegetables (often: cabbage, carrot and/or onion) and meats (often: squid, pork, shrimp and/or beef), diced and mixed into a pancake-like batter, cooked on a flat-top grill and garnished according to personal preference (often with a type of barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, edible seaweed and/or dried bonito flakes).

Bars and restaurants that serve okonomiyaki usually have a great social atmosphere, given that okonomiyaki can be cut into pieces with a metal spatula and shared with friends or family. Actually, many places allow groups of patrons to make their own okonomiyaki by ordering ingredients and using a griddle built right into the tables. This do-it-yourself style is not uncommon to other forms of Japanese common cuisine, including the ever-popular takoyaki (octopus balls).

6. Whiskey!

whiskey and soda

Image by Flickr user satetsu (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It might be considered cheating to include a section on whiskey, quite clearly a beverage, in an article intended to be about Japanese food. But would any article about French cuisine fail to include mention of French wine? Food and alcohol have a long relationship, though Japan’s affection for good whiskey is somewhat surprising, considering that sake usually hogs the cultural spotlight. Nevertheless, Japan’s distilleries produce high-end spirits that continually challenge the supremacy of Scotch, and often take first place in blind tastings and international competitions.

Whiskey bars, serving a variety of import and domestic products, are not uncommon in larger cities. And the whiskey highball (usually whiskey and either ginger ale or soda water served on ice in a highball glass) remains a popular cocktail of choice for both freewheeling Japanese youth and more staid businesspeople. The highball even emerged recently as part of a buzzword employed by Japanese beverage conglomerate Suntory in a marketing campaign: hai-kara, which is a whiskey highball (haiboru) served with fried chicken (karaage).

7. Otsumami, the marriage of alcohol and food

In Japan, alcohol is rarely consumed by itself, but is almost always accompanied by food of some kind. Visitors to Japan may be surprised when they order a drink at a bar or restaurant and are served a complimentary bowl of potato salad or strips of grilled chicken. This is entirely normal, part of the unspoken rule that says alcohol should always be paired with something to snack on. In fact, there is an entire category of snacks made and marketed to accompany alcoholic beverages. These types of foods are known as otsumami, which comes from the verb “tsumu”, which means “to pluck” or “to pinch,” a reference to the fact that they are quite often finger foods.

Japan is a notoriously alcohol-friendly society. Alcohol is abundantly available, to the point of being sold in vending machines in many places, and the consumption of alcohol on a regular basis is culturally accepted. For this reason, otsumami are very popular and sold in countless varieties. Those new to otsumami may want to start with more familiar fare, like mixed nuts or edamame (soy beans), but the more exotic varieties hold their own allure as well, such as squid jerky and whole dehydrated anchovies.

Whatever one’s culinary inclinations or perceptions about what traditional Japanese cuisine is, or ought to be, there is a lot more going on in washoku than just sushi and white rice. Japanese cuisine is big, wonderful, nebulous, and ever-changing. Those willing to explore it are sure to find something spectacular.

New Jersey native Taylor Cazella currently lives in the southern end of Mie Prefecture, Japan and works as an Assistant Language Teacher at a local high school.

December 08 2013

In Japan, Disaster and a Radio Show Put Refugees On the Agenda

Nanmin Now

Radio host Katsuya Soda talks to the audience at Radio Cafe, a community radio station in Kyoto. Used with permission. 

“You see, it’s different here. It’s much safer and more peaceful in Japan,” said my friend. I was introducing her to the idea of Global Voices: hearing stories from other side of the world, because “the world is talking”.

She continued: “There’s almost no need for people here to voice any kind of opinion or point of view, especially when your life is secured by following the norm.”

In a way she’s right. People living in Japan don’t always have to be concerned to what’s going on elsewhere. News headlines reflect this: in the public evening news broadcast, international news makes up only 7% of the total coverage. A researcher who monitored the broadcast [ja] over a period of three months found that a total of only two minutes, or 0.7 % of overall, were dedicated to reporting anything related to the African continent.

What’s going on outside the island usually doesn't matter to Japanese, unless it’s North Korea conducting nuclear tests, or something significant related to the superpower, the United States. And ignorance is bliss, as they say.

One Japanese citizen who disagrees is Katsuya Soda, who believes that the public’s indifference to world affairs is ruining things in Japan. In February 2004, Katsuya started Nanmin Now! [ja], a radio program about refugee issues that airs on a community radio station in Kyoto. The show begins with an introduction by Katsuya in Kyoto-flavored dialect: “It’s time for Nanmin Now! A program that reports refugee information like a weather report.”

Before the Internet and social media became a space for popular expression, low-power FM, or community, radio was the only medium available to those who wanted to get an issue like the plight of refugees on the airwaves in a traditional city like Kyoto.

“At that time, information from the Internet had even less credibility than it does now,” says Katsuya. “I thought it was important to provide information via a medium that was familiar to everyone. Community radio is small in terms of reach, but it’s a trusted medium, as the airwaves are mandated by law to transmit information.”

With Nammin Now!, Katsuya’s ambition was to report news about refugees in such a way as to make refugee issues an item of concern in the minds of fellow Japanese. He was inspired to start the show after reading a book by Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “It taught the importance of the role of media and sustainable relationships, and the idea of a weather forecast came to my mind,” Katsuya says. “I decided to start a radio program that continuously reports on refugee issues just like the weather.”

Since launching the show, Katsuya has interviewed more than 500 people on the topic of refugees. The six-minute broadcast airs on a Saturday.

The word refugee—“nanmin” in Japanese)— doesn't appear very frequently in the Japanese news headlines. Japan accepts fewer than 50 refugees per year (in 2010 it accepted 39), even though it makes the world’s second largest financial contribution to the UNHCR. This is a surprisingly small number for a secure and peaceful island country. Some of these asylum-seekers even experience difficulties in Japan, such as deportation and detention. For the Japanese, the refugee problem is something going on the other, poorer side of the world. “It’s like a distant sorrow,” Katsuya says, “not just in terms of physical distance but also mentally. People believe they could never be a refugee.”

The mission of Nanmin Now! Is to ensure that “all the children of the world can sleep at home safely,” referring chiefly to places like certain countries in Africa, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, major sources of refugees. In the aftermath of Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, however, and accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that followed, Katsuya became concerned about children in Japan.

The disaster destroyed 126,583 residences [ja], and, in Fukushima alone, 160,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. 100,000 people now live in temporary housing inside Fukushima, with another 60,000 are scattered throughout Japan.

After the earthquake, Katsuya joined a team setting up a temporary radio station in a disaster-stricken area to provide emergency information. After the government shifting the radiation exposure limit [ja] for children from 1 to 20 millisieverts, some people in Japan came to consider they were being put at risk by their own leaders, and Katsuya became actively involved with people who evacuated from Fukushima.

“When I communicated with evacuees from area with high radiation levels,” Katsuya says, “I started to see a kind of similarity between Fukushima evacuees and refugees: both have to do with structural violence. People had to evacuate from their homes in Fukushima because there was a nuclear accident. The act of locating a nuclear power plant is like a domestic colonization, which marginalized communities have to accept.”

For the Japanese people, the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima accident have brought the refugee issue very close to home, both validating and amplifying the work Katsuya has been doing for nearly 10 years.

Nanmin now! airs on FM79.7MHz, a community radio station in Kyoto, as well as online on-demand. Katsuya Soda's first book [written in Japanese] A Proposal from Community Radio in an Era When Everyone Has a Risk of Becoming a Refugee―Connecting the Voices from Fukushima is available [ja] on Amazon.co.jp.

Keiko Tanaka is a Japanese civic media enthusiast interested in digital engagement, radio and youth culture. 

December 07 2013

A Brief Unity of Purpose: Marching for Puerto Rican Prisoner Oscar López Rivera

Thousands gathered in Hato Rey, the economic hub of the capital city of San Juan, on Saturday, November 23, to demand the release of Oscar López Rivera from prison.

Thousands gathered in Hato Rey, the economic hub of the capital city of San Juan, on Saturday, November 23, to demand the release of Oscar López Rivera from prison. The banner says “Christmas with Oscar back home!” Image taken from the Facebook page 32 x Oscar [es].

November 23 was a gorgeous day. Cool breezes blew through the streets and the temperature was nothing short of ideal on what I expected to be a stifling hot Saturday afternoon. Even the trees on the grounds of the Federal Court appeared to be in on the act, providing shade from the bright Caribbean sun. It was as if nature had conspired to create perfect weather, as if it, too, was somehow in solidarity with the thousands of us who gathered in front of the Federal Court building in Hato Rey, the economic hub of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, to demand the release of the country’s longest-held political prisoner.

Oscar López Rivera has been imprisoned for 32 years, and counting, by the U.S. federal government in Terre Haute, Indiana. The charge is “seditious conspiracy,” even though he was never convicted of crimes that resulted in death or injury to anyone. His lawyers have reported he has been subjected to inhumane treatment during his incarceration. They have also said he has been singled out for punitive treatment because of his political affiliations, which prompted Amnesty International to criticize the conditions under which which he and other political prisoners were being held.

And yet, through it all, Oscar's spirit remains serenely unbroken. So much so, that in 1999 he refused the conditional clemency offered by President Bill Clinton, saying that it would be like being in prison outside of prison.

Image taken from the Facebook page Free Oscar López Rivera Now.

Image taken from the Facebook page Free Oscar López Rivera Now.

Looking around as more and more people arrived to join the march, I marveled at the diversity around me. The campaign to secure Oscar López Rivera’s release from prison is supported by people from all walks of life, of all ages, and across the political spectrum. Granted, the most vocal sector calling for his release is still associated with the political left. Nevertheless, it has reached to a point where it doesn't matter if you're in favor of independence, statehood, or something in between for Puerto Rico. 

Lady Justice

An effigy of Lady Justice rises over the crowd at the protest to demand Oscar López Rivera's release. Image taken from the Facebook page 32 x Oscar [es].

One of the things that immediately drew my attention was a huge effigy of a Caribbean version of Lady Justice, the famous image of a woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other that adorns many a courthouse around the world. I remember remarking to my mother how odd it seemed that she wasn't blindfolded. She said, “Well, maybe they decided to remove her blindfold to see if she is more just without it; it certainly hasn't worked so far.” The oft-repeated phrase “a nation/country of law and order” came to mind, and I thought to myself how little that actually had to do with justice and doing the right thing. Perhaps the blindfold that Lady Justice is often seen wearing also blinds her to the injustice of the legal system that she stands for, turning her into nothing more than a legalistic automaton.

As in any decent Puerto Rican protest, the mood was festive. Plena rhythms and artistic creativity abounded. Outsiders often find this strange, possibly because they're more used to protests more serious in tone, more solemn and angry, even when it is a peaceful one. This isn't to say that people weren't serious about what they were trying to accomplish, or that they weren't angry about Oscar López Rivera's incarceration. Rather, this is a distinct characteristic of Caribbean societies, and in a society like Puerto Rico's, which, like all Caribbean countries, has historically been oppressed by an external power that tries to build itself up in the minds of people as the model of all that is civilized, cultured, enlightened, and just plain better, there is no more effective way to deflate that power. Humor and the carnivalesque are, in other words, an important form of resistance.

It was only later, when I thought about the poor coverage the march had received in the international mainstream news, that I realized there was no chopper overflying the area. This was mind-boggling, considering that simultaneous protests were taking place in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, and that there were a many as 40,000 people gathered to protest in Puerto Rico alone. René Pérez, from the band Calle 13, had lent his support and was participating in the march held in New York. Calle 13′s tweet became the most relevant topic on Twitter related to President Barack Obama's Twitter account:

Marchando rumbo a Brooklyn. Libertad para Oscar Lopez @barackobama Free Oscar Lopez! pic.twitter.com/cYtrwsGyqK

— Residente C13/ RC13 (@Calle13Oficial) November 23, 2013

I must confess that until about a year and a half ago, I knew practically nothing about Oscar López Rivera. As I gradually learned about him, I couldn't help but feel that the cause in favor of his release from prison should also be my cause, just as his cause to free Puerto Rico from colonial rule is also my cause, one that I pursue in my own small way every day.

Seeing the unity of purpose show, if only for the briefest of moments, on that Saturday afternoon by such a large, diverse crowd of Puerto Ricans renews my faith that someday we may, perhaps, unite to demand the decolonization of Puerto Rico once and for all.

That, I believe, is the secret to the remarkable resilience of Oscar López Rivera's spirit: His conscious, defiant resistance that translates into a faith that rejects the nihilism of self-fulfilling despair, in spite of the temptation to retreat into the seductive silence of comfortable passivity.

Ángel Carrión is a blogger and musician from Caguas, Puerto Rico, currently working on a Master's degree in the History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. His current research focuses on the history of music in Puerto Rico and issues related to cultural policy. He has been writing for Global Voices since February 2012. Follow him on Twitter (@angel15amc) and read his blog at dialogolibre.blogspot.com.

November 19 2013

When Third Culture Kids Grow Up

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At the 2012 Global Voices Summit in Nairobi Kenya.

Many of us who were raised in countries that were not our parents’ “homeland” or have parents from two different countries, have been labeled as third culture kids. Our parents’ work and lives allowed us to travel to different countries and often live on several different continents throughout our childhood, learn to speak countless languages and move seamlessly between cultures, often picking up habits from each of them that we make our own. Many people consider us lucky and, for the most part, we are.

But what happens to third culture children when they grow into adults? When the time comes for us to settle down (for a while at least), raise children, build lives and put down roots, third culture children sometimes have a tough time making the transition to becoming one culture adults. Although many of us have often wished we had been born and raised in one place, with only one bedroom and one yard that remind us of childhood and what other people call “home”, we simply don't know how to belong to just one place and one language.

This is where the World Wide Web comes in, and this is why you will find many former third culture kids, now third culture adults, playing and thriving on the Internet. They're involved in online communications, the tech industry, international media, activist organizations, and all sorts of other areas that are driven by, or which prosper thanks to the Internet. Cyberspace, where every place, every language and every culture is available to us, is where we feel at home.

Global Voices is a perfect example. I joined Global Voices when our wonderful former Editor for Central and Eastern Europe, Veronica Khokhlova, stumbled upon my English-language personal blog about “life in expat-repat limbo” in Belgrade, Serbia.

Let me clarify (if that's at all possible in this case): I was born to Serbian expat parents in Spain, raised mostly in Portugal, except for three years spent in Kuwait while growing up, where I picked up the English that you see in this post. I've also spent a lot of time on and off in the US where members of my immediate family live. My native languages are Serbian (Croatian, Bosnian), Portuguese and English; but I also speak Spanish, Italian and can read and understand Macedonian, French, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukranian, and several others. Even though I had little free time to spare, I was happy to join Global Voices as an author in English, member of the Serbian Lingua team, and of the Portuguese Lingua team.

Just two and a half years after starting as a volunteer, I was invited by Global Voices to join our most prolific authors, editors, contributors and collaborators for the biannual GV Citizen Media Summit 2012, held in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya, I confess, was one of the few countries I longed to see but hadn't yet. But what I found there was not at all what I expected. Over five long, exciting, filled-to-the-brim days, I was in third culture adult heaven.

On the first day of the Summit, a member of the Global Voices Italian team, Abdoulaye Bah, a Guinean native and Italian citizen, came up behind me and said, “Dobar dan” (“Good day”), in perfect Serbian. Many Africans have studied in the former Yugoslavia, and I have run into plenty of them throughout the world, but it was a warm surprise to find a GVer among them, Abdoulaye's life has been more interesting than most. Abdoulaye has already told the fascinating story of fleeing his birth country and ending up in Italy, working for the United Nations. What he didn't have room to mention is that he first fled to Belgrade, Serbia, and went to high school here. We spent a while reminiscing on his teenage days and Tito's Yugoslavia – a new memory we created together that can't be picked up just anywhere.

On another day, we went out to watch a World Cup match at a local burger joint in Nairobi. By that time, many of the GVers I had been hanging out with had heard me speak several languages, some of them not quite sure where I was from anymore. At half-time, I went outside for a quick cigarette and chat about international politics, an easy topic to run into at any GV event. When I returned to our table, packed with third culture adults from at least five countries, Rafael Tsavkko, our Portuguese-born Brazilian and in-house conspiracy theorist, asked where someone was, in his native Portuguese of course. Instinctively, I responded in Portuguese that I had just seen that person outside having a cigarette. Rafael then went into one of his priceless rants that began with “What the hell? You speak Portuguese too??” and launched into a theory about how I might be a secret agent type, how no secrets could be kept from me and that I was probably the only one who knew what everyone was saying about each other. All in jest, of course, so I responded that I had been groomed as a child to be a counterintelligence operative but was left without a job after the Cold War thing fell through. Another new memory created that one can't find just anywhere.

And last, but not least: at the party on the last evening, Elena Ignatova from Macedonia, Tetyana Bohdanova from Ukraine and I were standing in a corner, talking. Sounds normal enough, except that each of us was speaking her own native language and, because we were familiar with the topic of the conversation, we understood each other perfectly. At one point, we noticed GV co-founder Ethan Zuckerman standing next to us, leaning in to hear. We asked him to join us but he said he was just wondering which language we were speaking, as he couldn't quite catch it. When we explained that each of us was speaking her own language, he stood back in surprise for just a second, then grinned widely and said something along the lines of, “This is exactly what Global Voices is about.”

The evening ended in a traditional GV a capella rendition of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody”, sung in several accents and terribly out of tune. Because this, this spot on the Word Wide Web that is a scrapbook of different cultures and opposing views, is where third culture kids come when they grow up.

Danica Radisic is a corporate communications consultant, writer, blogger and poet. When she's am not happily dedicating her time to Global Voices as its Central & Eastern Europe Editor, she play a part-time adult as a mom of two and CEO of Krazy Fish Consulting. On Twitter she's NikiBGD.

 

November 12 2013

#GVMeetup Karachi: Finding Family in an Unexpected Place

GV Pakistan author Sana Saleem and Awab Alvi with GV Urdu editor Faisal Kapadia with some participants  Photo from #GVMeetup in Karachi, November 1, 2013 album on the Bolo Bhi Facebook page

Ismail Vohra (standing in white traditional shalwar kameez at the left) with Global Voices Pakistan team members Sana Saleem, Awab Alvi and Faisal Kapadia and other participants. Photo from #GVMeetup album on the Bolo Bhi Facebook page. November 1, 2013.

The next 6 weeks we are organizing six global in-person ‘meetups’ led and facilitated by Global Voices members, who live and know their local communities. This is a testimonial written by Ismail Vohra who attended the first official meet-up in Karachi, Pakistan.

It was a typical sunny Friday in Karachi. I was invited to a Global Voices meet-up, and I expected it to be another typical boring presentation, the kind that most organisations do. 

I signed up for the meetup because my friends did. I thought, “this would be a great opportunity to see them after school!”

Following standard Pakistani time, I reached the venue half an hour late. To my surprise, the meetup had already begun. I quietly entered the room, while a TED talk was being played on a big screen. A guy named ‘Ethan’ was talking about some weird English term that I can't remember, but I do remember that he was talking about how we can use the Internet to bridge the world.

As you might know, TED talks are pretty interesting, and so was this one. Starting a presentation with such a inspirational video rather than a PowerPoint not only inspired me with Ethan's ideas but also got me excited about what the Global Voices people would do next. After the video ended, one of the presenters asked if someone from the audience could explain to those who joined late (I was one of those late comers) what happened in the first half an hour.

Global Voices Urdu Editor Faisal Kapadia getting ready for the meet-up. Photo of the #GVMeetup in Karachi on November 1, 2013 from the Bolo Bhi Facebook page

Global Voices Urdu Editor Faisal Kapadia getting ready for the meet-up. Photo from Bolo Bhi Facebook page.

An audience member gave a nice summary about the use of the Internet for activism. Then came the part that impressed me the most. A presenter asked, “Did you know that there was a 700 kilometer march yesterday, for the missing people in Balochistan [province]?” I thought, “Dude! Woah. Why didn't I read that on the BBC's website or see it on [Pakistan's leading channel] Geo News?”

He continued: “And that's what Global Voices is all about. We try to raise the voices that are not covered in mainstream media.”

And I could only agree. I'm sure you all are wondering what was so special about this meetup? I have no idea. All I know is I've never felt so loved and special at such a meetup before. I felt I was a part of this family. I felt like I was solely created for them. They were so humble, polite and sweet. I don't know if the presenters ate a lot of sugar or marshmallows that day. But whatever it was, there was affection and warmth in the air. People with such humble behaviour convinced me, in fact, made me come to the realisation that I wanted to be a part of this global family immediately.

Young students watching a presentation during the meet up.

Young students watching a presentation during the meet up. Photo from the Bolo Bhi Facebook page.

Global Voices may raise hidden voices from all across the globe, but it is a voice within itself. A family you can trust. It taught me that you don't have to be hyper or loud to win an audience, instead create love and affection that people can feel and understand. It opened me up to the desire for a better world. It encouraged me to work for the love of this nation and to give back.

Well, sometimes one cannot really explain the feelings in words. I'm not here to promote Global Voices, but yes, it was something that inspired me greatly and am looking for the day when they'll be successful in their mission and I'll proudly say I am so glad to have been a part of their very first “official” meetup.

17-year-old Ismail Vohra often turns to the web in search of neutral narratives. He is actively involved in community service in Karachi, where he is completeing his O levels at City School, PAF branch, where he is headboy. He is an avid reader of Urdu poetry and an active Urdu debater. Ismail was a Kerry-Lugar 2012-2013 exchange student in the US. Follow him on Twitter @ismail_vohra

A big thank you to the rights and policy organisation Bolo Bhi for providing a venue for the event, and GV Urdu editor Faisal Kapadia and GV Pakistan author Sana Saleem, for organising the meet-up, along with Eddie Avila and the Rising Voices team. Our next meet-up is in Cairo on November 16. 

November 06 2013

For the Love of Football and Bolivia

Bolivia vs. Peru at the Hernando Siles Stadium in La Paz - Photo by Eddie Avila.

Bolivia vs. Peru at the Hernando Siles Stadium in La Paz – Photo by Eddie Avila.

The year was 1994, and Bolivia had punched its ticket to take part in the first and only World Cup appearance in its history. As an added bonus, this invitation-only sporting party was taking place right in my own backyard. To see his national team make it this far was a Bolivian football fan's dream, right? Yet one problem remained: it wasn’t my national team…yet.

I admit it. Growing up in the United States the son of Bolivian immigrants, the sport of football—or soccer, as it’s known in the US—never really interested me as a youngster. I preferred to play playground basketball pick-up games with my friends after school. On Sunday afternoons, while my dad was watching Mexican league matches on Spanish-language television with the familiar broadcaster's call— “GOOOOOOOOOL!!!”—resonating throughout the house, my brother and I would be watching “American” football on the other TV. On our street, nobody set up a pair of rocks to a make makeshift goal to kick around a black-and-white ball on lazy Saturday afternoons. We were the only Bolivian family in our Kansas town, so it was only natural that football didn’t figure much in my early life.

When tickets went on sale for the World Cup in the United States, my dad was already well versed in the ticketing process. He knew which times and travel routes to take in order to see as many matches as possible in Dallas, Texas, the city closest to us. Countless times he asked if I wanted to come along, but I had better things to do. I finally relented for one of the last matches in the First Round, curious to see what the fuss was all about, and with tickets in hand, we made our way to Dallas to see Argentina vs. Bulgaria.

The majority of football fans packed into Dallas’s Cotton Bowl stadium that day were first- or second-generation immigrants, taking full advantage of the opportunity to see their national teams so close to home. For them, football was a gateway to have a little piece of familiarity in their new home. Before, during, and after the match, I craned my neck to soak up as much as I could of the color and rhythm emanating from the multicultural crowd. By the time the whistle sounded with a 2-0 victory for Bulgaria, the so-called “beautiful game” had gained a new fan.

Over the next ten years, my trips to Bolivia became more frequent and lasted a little longer each time, eventually becoming a kind of crash course in being Bolivian, making up for lost time. I met members of my extended family for the first time, pored over old photographs, and heard stories about my grandfather's time as a soldier in the Chaco War. And I started making connections between foods and other cultural references that were commonplace in our Bolivian-American household in the middle of Kansas, and their place of origin.

But ultimately, it was football that best helped me make sense of my bicultural and transnational existence. It also played a major role in my coming to feel like Bolivia was my country too, when I finally moved there permanently in 2007, even though my childhood experiences were quite distinct from those of my local family and friends.

Many of my recent memories from those years travelling back and forth are directly related to football. Since most of the national team’s matches are played at 3,600 meters above sea level in the city of La Paz, I would often take a quick trip from Cochabamba, my family’s city of origin, to see the World Cup qualifying matches. This meant taking an overnight bus, watching the match, and returning on the next overnight bus. All in the name of rooting for the home side hoping to see them return to the footballing world's biggest stage.

These trips were an echo of the ones taken by my father when he was my age. An often-told story is of him taking the back-to-back overnight bus to La Paz to catch a glimpse of the—arguably—greatest player of all time, when Brazilian titan Pelé‘s Santos team played against the Bolivian club Deportivo Municipal.

I also have memories of city residents pouring into the streets to celebrating a national championship by Jorge Wilstermann, my local club team, which is named after Bolivia’s first commercial pilot. I can only imagine what the scene was like when Bolivia clinched its World Cup spot in 1993 following an away tie in Quito. My only reference for that wondrous moment comes from my cousins, who speak of the days of jubilation and the national holidays that followed this accomplishment. And most recently, witnessing Bolivia’s 6-1 drubbing of powerhouse Argentina—complete with stars like Messi and Tevez—provided the short-lived sensation that anything was possible.

Some of the less savory aspects of Bolvian football, such as the violence between rival fans and anger towards referees and poor-performing players, remain foreign to me. But even so, I can't imagine what the transition and assimilation to life in Bolivia would have been like without football.

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“I can't imagine what the transition and assimilation to life in Bolivia would have been like without football.”

In 2010, good fortune allowed me to travel to South Africa for the World Cup. Here again I followed in my father’s footsteps, maneuvering my way smoothly through the ticketing process in order to catch as many matches as I could. In South Africa, I savored the experience of being among fans from all around the world who share similar feelings of pride for their country through sport. But I did have to content myself with daydreams of what it would have been like to see the Bolivian squad emerge from the tunnel, or hear the goosebump-inducing national anthem play over the stadium loudspeakers.

Another World Cup qualifying cycle nears completion, and Bolivia was eliminated months ago for its poor results. We must now set our sights a few years forward, when qualification matches begin for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

If and when Bolivia reserves a place in another World Cup, I’ll definitely be using my ticket-booking prowess to secure a front row seat. And even if we never make it back in my lifetime, I’m still grateful to the sport that allowed me to establish new roots and find commonalities with the millions of other Bolivians who hold onto the same hope, not only for our national team, but for our country.

Eddie Avila lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia and is hoping to plot out his trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

October 28 2013

On the Kingdoms of Spain

90,000 people attended a pro-independence concert at the Nou Camp football stadium in Barcelona. The full mosaic spelled out the words 'Freedom 2014 Catalunya'. Image Copyright Demotix. June 29, 2013.

90,000 people attended a pro-independence concert at the Nou Camp football stadium in Barcelona. The full mosaic said ‘Freedom 2014 Catalunya'. Image Copyright Demotix. June 29, 2013.

Last week in Madrid, Catalan politician Alfred Bosch stood before Spain's Congress and asked for a moment of silence [es] for a man many in the Chamber don't want to remember - Lluís Companys.

In 1936, two years after he tried to secure Catalonia's independence from Spain, Companys was publicly executed by Spanish dictator Franciso Franco's firing squad. He is the only incumbent president in Europe to have been executed.

Bosch's request was met with contemptuous chatter from handful of right-wing congressmen. Someone even yelled, “Viva España!” (Long Live Spain!]).

“Some of you don't take this seriously. Fine. What can I do?” Bosch lamented. After a frustrated pause, he added, “And by the way: Viva España, I agree. And Viva Cataluña, Viva la France. Through positivity, all the world's nations can get along.”

As is often the case when Catalonia's politicians speak before government institutions in Madrid, the tension in the room was raw and palpable like that of an international chamber. But on paper, the Spanish Congress is only a national chamber, of a “one nation-state.”

To large segments of Spain's population, though, their Kingdom may be more accurately described as a state of many nations. But don't tell that to the country's constitutionalists, who are doing their best to deny the fact.

Catalonia, the next State in Europe

This year, on September 11, hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands to form a human chain that extended 460 kilometers across their region, from the French Pyrenean border to Spain's third largest city Valencia. Complete with matching t-shirts and slogans, this robust act of protest was astonishingly well-organised, which came as no surprise: it was in fact the echo of a mass demonstration that took place one year prior, when a million people took to the streets of Barcelona under the banner: “Catalonia: The Next State in Europe.”

The day after that first demonstration, Catalan President Artur Mas publicly endorsed the protest and called for a referendum on independence. Shortly after, he convoked early elections which produced a sweeping pro-referendum majority in Barcelona.

Overnight, Catalan politics changed. The Independentists were now in control. Unionists softened their rhetoric. Nearly two hundred towns in the Catalan countryside preemptively declared independence [ca]. Parliament passed a declaration of sovereignty.

Instead of taking this clamor seriously and engaging the Catalan public, most in the Spanish government, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, positioned themselves firmly as antagonists. They insisted that referendum was illegal, framing [ca] Catalan nationalists as enemies of democracy and, in some extreme cases, comparing the sovereignty movement to Nazism [es].

They have also tried to promote the idea of Catalan nationalist ambitions as parochial and irrelevant. After a meeting with Catalan business leaders in Barcelona this month, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister claimed not to have noticed any strong markers of regional identity. In a recent English-language interview with The Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Rajoy described the hypothetical advent of Catalan independence as contrary to the world's “natural evolution.” When addressing the Spanish public [ca] at the UN General Assembly, he went out of his way assure those in the chamber that none of his fellow world leaders had asked him about Catalonia.

Behind closed doors, however, it seems that Spanish officials are more concerned than their dismissive behavior implies: recently, Spain's UN delegation drafted a report [es] on how best to respond if Catalan leaders take their case to the international community in the wake of a successful referendum on independence. It asserted that Madrid could possibly draft security council allies into blocking Catalonia's full statehood, but would be relatively powerless to stop the region's admission as a General Assembly observer.

“Catalonia: The Next Partially-Recognized State” may not be as elegant a turn of phrase as those coined by activists, but it  nonetheless haunts politicians in Madrid.

More than money

Since the 2012 protests, the international media has taken a keen interest in Catalonia after decades of neglect. Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN and even Buzzfeed have all published articles about the recent separatist surge, but very few have seriously treated or even acknowledged the sovereignty movement's cultural roots, which extend deep into the soil of Mediterranean history (Buzzfeed being the exception here).

Instead, mainstream media outlets have framed the growing appeal of independence as a visceral response to the recession that continues to heavily burden Spain's economy. Raphael Minder's argument in the New York Times that references to national identity are “high-minded ideals” that soften a debate that is primarily about the distribution of Spain's national budget, is an excellent example of their reductive treatment of Catalonia's sovereignty movement. It is certainly a mistake to downplay competing notions of nationality as the cause of friction between Barcelona and Madrid.

The heat of that friction, however, derives not from disagreement over the value of nationhood itself—self-identifying Spaniards and Catalans alike experience this quite viscerally—but rather from a battle over competing notions of the ideal relationship between nation and the state in Spain.

Last year, President Mas wrote that Catalonia is a nation which only now needs the tool of statehood. His argument, which hinged on the assumption that nations are unique phenomena and therefore don't need sovereignty to be legitimate, is actually a standard of Catalan politics—of the 129 presidents who have presided over the region's parliament since 1359, only two before Mas have ever sought full independence: Pau Claris in 1641 and Lluís Companys in 1934. Each revolution occurred after overzealous officials in Madrid encroached too far upon regional liberties, as a result of Spanish nationalism's rise as a homogenizing force.

It is important to remember, amid such striking tension, that Spain's era of absolute centralism is thankfully a thing of the past. As a recent OECD analysis [es] concluded, Spain is among Europe's most politically decentralized states. Nonetheless, a battle is being waged over the spirit of the country: is it multinational or a singular, cohesive society?

The worry in Catalonia is that the political establishment in Madrid continues to insist on the latter, embodied in a recent statement [ca] by Spain's Minister of Education that the government's interest is in “hispanicizing” Catalan children, an argument indicative of a pervasive colonial mentality. The strong tendency towards this kind of rhetoric suggests that a majority of politicians (and probably, a great deal of the public, too) rejects a pluralistic definition of Spanish nationhood, and consider their country as it was defined by royal decree [es] in 1707: united according to the culture and traditions of Castile.

If this is how a majority of Spain identifies, then it is so, and this is reasonable. It is unreasonable, however, to then force those communities marginalized by this national definition to accept their marginalization. If Spain should continue to be a unitary nation-state, the Catalan people have every right to establish their own, providing a significant majority wants one, and a referendum on independence is the only way to determine this.

Those who must insist on the Spanish nation’s singularity should also be comfortable with the idea of bidding seven million Spaniards adéu.

Daniel Bogre Udell co-edits the Catalan-language edition of Global Voices Online and founded Wikitongues, a project dedicated to raising awareness about global linguistic diversity. He is currently writing a master’s thesis on the history of national identity in Catalonia. 

October 27 2013

The Codefather

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Barbadian Alan Emtage, inventor of the world's first Internet search engine. Photo by Michael Rhodes. Used with permission.

“I wrote a piece of code that gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry. I didn’t make any money off of it, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

Uttered by a man with a Barbadian lilt, those were the opening lines of the Huffington Post video released last April that introduced many in the Caribbean to Alan Emtage, the 48 year-old computer scientist who did indeed write the piece of code that gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry called Internet search.

Whenever we use a search engine such as Google, we’re referencing the work of Emtage, who, in spite of only recently being discovered by his home region, is a bona fide tech pioneer. His invention, in 1990, of Archie, the world’s first search engine, figures in any respectable account of the history of the Internet.

Born in Barbados in 1964, Emtage was raised in an extended family that instilled in him a strong curiosity and “capacity for discovering stuff”. Especially influential were his mother’s aunts. Aunt Constance Inniss, a science teacher and headmistress of St. Gabriel’s School, encouraged him to listen to the BBC’s science programs and took him fishing on the sea wall near the family home at Carlisle Bay, where they’d discuss what they saw and caught. Emtage remembers her once waking him at 3am to see a comet.

At Harrison College, one of Barbados’ elite secondary schools, Emtage found himself in another positive learning environment. He followed the science track, pursuing Maths, Physics and Chemistry at ‘A’ Levels, and was attracted to computers fairly early on, acquiring a Sinclair ZX81 with a whopping 1K of memory during a visit to the UK in 1981. But computers weren’t an automatic first choice as a profession. At McGill University in Montreal, where Emtage went in 1983 after winning a Barbados Scholarship, several career options presented themselves. He considered majoring in Meteorology, and after coming near the top of the class in an introductory course in Geology he was personally wooed by that department’s chairman.

Emtage admits he chose computer science by a process of elimination. Uninspired by the prospect of “spending my time up in the Tundra poking around for diamonds”, or languishing in “a radar station in St. James” as a meteorologist in the Barbados, he also felt that computer science was a career with legs. “In 1983 we were at the bottom of a fairly bad recession and computers were one of the things that looked promising, at least from an employment point of view,” he says.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 1987, Emtage entered McGill’s Master’s program. As a postgraduate student and sysadmin (systems administrator) in the university’s IT department, he enjoyed a privileged position, with access to the latest in computer technology and a unique vantage point on the nascent phenomenon called the Internet, not to mention membership in a community of expert programmers. The mid-1980s to early 1990s were an exciting time to be a computer science major at a North American university, particularly a prestigious one like McGill. The university had the first Internet connection in eastern Canada and the second in the country. Microcomputer prices were dropping and companies like Sun Microsystems and Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computer were targeting the higher education market; NeXT made what was then its largest ever sale when McGill purchased 50 of their machines.

Still, computers back then were a far cry from what they are today. Computing tasks were carried out by a central mainframe computer, a massive machine usually housed in a general-purpose computing facility. You submitted your task to the mainframe, where it sat in a queue awaiting its turn to be processed. Computer scientists like Emtage spent hours waiting for printers to crank out their jobs on massive sheets of dot-matrix paper.

This was the context in which Emtage wrote the code that would become Archie, the world’s first search engine. His job as sysadmin involved finding software for students and faculty, which meant manually searching computer archives on public servers, a tedious process if there ever was one. Emtage wrote Archie to automate the process and make his own life easier: “Rather than spending my time logging on to FTP sites and trying to figure out what was on them, I wrote some computer scripts that would do the same thing, and much faster too.”

That, in a nutshell, is what’s happening behind the scenes each time we do a Google search, but when Emtage developed Archie in 1989 it must have seemed like magic. Word about the tool spread rapidly thanks to Emtage’s colleague Peter Deutsch, head of McGill’s IT department, who suggested they make the tool public and allow external users to log in for themselves. Archie went viral across Canada, then the world. “There was a lot of pent-up demand,” Emtage says. “Everybody was like ‘Oh my God—of course! Why didn’t we think of this?’”

Others had in fact come up with similar ideas, as is often the case with scientific discoveries. “I had several people, very soon after the fact, tell me that they were doing similar things for themselves but that they had never taken the path to making it public,” says Emtage. “I just happened to get there first and, as there was no commercial competition at the time, there was no incentive for them to replicate it.”

In 1990, Emtage and Peter Deutsch formed Bunyip, a company designed to market a more robust commercial version of Archie—also the first Internet startup in history, in that it was the first company designed expressly to sell an Internet-related service.

As Deutsch had a family, it fell to Emtage to do the work of promoting Bunyip and Archie. “I had an amazing experience travelling around the world to conferences and meetings, meeting all of the people who created the Internet,” he says. As a founding member of the Internet Society and member of the Internet Engineering Task Force, Emtage worked alongside figures such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Jon Postel.

But the revolution ended up passing Bunyip by. Montreal had a few tech companies, but lacked Silicon Valley’s nurturing ecosystem and community. Emtage and his partners held differing views regarding outside investment in the company (he was in favour). In 1996, a burned-out Emtage left on a three-month backpacking trip around the South Pacific; on returning to Montreal in late 1996, he resigned. A stint working for a Bunyip client lasted a year, after which he joined Mediapolis, the New York web design firm that has been his home for the last 15 years.

Alan Emtage skydiving in Brazil.

Alan Emtage skydiving in Brazil. “Computers are my profession. But they are not my hobby.” Photo courtesy Alan Emtage.

About the alleged missed opportunity to have cashed in with Archie and achieved near-bottomless wealth and fame, Emtage is both modest and philosophical. “Sure, I’d love to have been a billionaire,” he says. “But you don’t get to twist one knob of the time machine and make one thing change: twisting that knob changes everything else. It is not necessarily clear to me that I could have become a billionaire. If I had patented those technologies, perhaps. It is also possible that I would not have been visionary enough to word the patents broadly enough. The first past the post do not necessarily become the most successful. Google was by far not the first search engine, or even the first web search engine. They just did search so much better than their predecessors that they were able to create a multi-billion dollar industry out of it.”

It’s also possible that the quality-of-life trade-offs involved in becoming a billionaire would not have suited Emtage’s temperament. Contrary to the geek stereotype, computers aren’t his life, or even his hobby, as he’s quoted as saying on the “Greatest McGillians” web site. After the dotcom crash of 2000-2001 and the events of 9/11, Emtage and his three partners at Mediapolis took the decidedly un-billionaire-like decision to scale the company down from 17 employees to just the four of them.

The arrangement has given Emtage the freedom to pursue his passions—travel and photography—and spend time at his cottage in idyllic Provincetown, Massachusetts. Also to take a keen interest in certain aspects of technology and US politics. “Off the top of my head I can think of myself as being a minority in four or five different ways,” he says. “And the Internet is my baby, in sense that it’s only five years younger than me. So I have a great interest in intellectual property law, which I think it fundamentally broken, and civil liberties.”

But being part of a four-man outfit also means that there’s “nobody to bump it up to,” Emtage says. “It’s weird for some people that as far along as I am in my career, or in age, I’m still coding and I’m still talking with clients. But I don’t want any of the other stuff. I don’t want to deal with the corporate bullshit and office politics. These are three people that I know very well and I’ve worked with for many years. I know plenty of people who are miserable in their lives—I just try not to be one of them.”

Georgia Popplewell (@georgiap) (is a writer and media producer from Trinidad and Tobago, and Managing Director of Global Voices. A version of this article originally appeared in Caribbean Beat Magazine.

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