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This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days. So here goes!
Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)
Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.
The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.
“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).
I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.
Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.
Coming across some unsweetened chocolate containing dried figs and ham (prsut), the combination seemed so unusual that we picked a packet up to try at home later. This was in a little shop near the open air market of Ljubljana, the eminently walkable capital of Slovenia. The combination, when we tried it, was delicious and to be highly recommended. Tasting this reminded me of a bitterly cold winter evening some years earlier, wandering through a Christmas market in Vienna, when I was stopped by a bearded man who looked like a Peruvian pan flute player.
“You look cold,” he said.
“Yes, I am cold.”
“Try a mug of Aztec chili chocolate with rum,” he said. “It’ll warm you up in no time.”
So we bought two steaming mugs of his brew and soon felt a pleasantly mild fiery glow spread through our innards. It helped us forget frozen hands and the biting cold for a good half hour. Figs originally came from Asia Minor, modern day eastern Turkey, but they spread early all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Chocolate probably originated in Olmec lands around 1000 BC where they called it kakawa. The origin of the word chocolate is presumably from an Aztec word ‘xocoatl,’ a bitter drink they brewed from cocoa beans. Here’s a link to a brief history of chocolate.
A gourmet friend told me several years ago about a trip to Sicily where he ate the most delicious lasagna he’d ever tasted, in a nondescript restaurant in a small village. Curious, he asked the owner, who was also the cook, the secret to his lasagna. “Unsweetened chocolate,” the man explained, pointing to a thin brown layer in the middle.
The Olmecs gave us chocolate and avocados. Kiwi fruit were brought out of China and found a new home in New Zealand where its name changed from Chinese gooseberry to kiwi. Okra originated in Ethiopia and now is used by households from India to Florida. Sugarcane spread from India and New Guinea to the rest of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes also originated from South America, while chick peas came from Turkey and the Middle East as long as 8000 years ago. Ethiopia also gave the world coffee, probably via Mocha in modern day Yemen. Tea, as is well known, came from China.
Where is all this leading to? To people, of course. To the people who consume these foods and beverages all over the world. Thank goodness for the free movement of food and food habits. A world without hummus, okra, tomatoes, potatoes or, God forbid, coffee and tea would be a world of culinary despair. So the way the world is going right now, most nations are saying, ok, we’ll take your food but not your people. Imagine the long-term global poverty and despair that then ensues, not only immediately, but in the long run. Imagine a world of monocultures with no biodiversity! So next time you go to vote, remember to vote for culinary diversity, and the people that come with it. This idea is underlined in the following illustration and article from UK think tank Global Future about future diversity in business leadership.
Many years ago, I was shocked when an economist friend of mine (not you, Larry) said “so what?” in response to my moaning about arctic sea ice loss and the threat of extinction to polar bears. The economist in question is a thoughtful, gentle human being who would never think of himself as cruel or unkind. But he was thinking in terms of economic resources for human needs and, like a lot of people, myself included, who are stuck in their heads (i.e. nurture their intellect and take pride in it), they see themselves as thinking people, and therefore naturally superior – unthinkingly superior – to all other living things.
I came to humility rather late in life. This late-found humility was triggered by a number of factors; the increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in my circle of acquaintance, the anti cow-slaughter movement in India, increasing evidence of methane emissions from cattle farming for meat, and a video about South African Anna Breytenbach who has made interspecies communication her life’s work. I had always appreciated animal pets as sentient beings, but Breytenbach’s work, in particular, brought me to see them at eye level so to speak, dispelling any vestigial notion of superiority. Yes, we can think faster, outwit them in IQ tests, juggle, ride bicycles, add numbers, make wars – and exploit our planet – much better than they ever can. Despite all this, if we don’t recognise them as sentient beings with as much right to live as we do, then we put our own humanity, and humankind, at risk.
A friend recently remarked on the number of stray dogs in her neighbourhood. She complained that animal rights activists were busy protecting the rights of the dogs, while ignoring the plight of poor people in the same area who were struggling to eke out a living. I neglected to point out at the time that a government that does not respect the rights of animals as sentient beings is much less likely to respect the rights of economically powerless people. Take the case of infrastructure. When have rich people ever lost their homes and land to make way for a dam? If you can show me an example, I would wager they were richly compensated and ended up materially better off than before. Never so in the case of the poor. The same applies to roads. An eight-lane highway is deemed necessary and land is appropriated, very often from people who can never afford to use that highway.
And so I come in this roundabout way to the fact that Simba died two nights ago. This blog posting is a mark of respect to the passing of a much loved animal. She was only a cat, but she was a sentient being. R.I.P. Simba.
Aristotle famously said, one swallow does not a summer make. In the same vein, one could also say, eleven soccer players do not a nation make. Nevertheless, the collective pride of a nation gathers behind its soccer team once every four years while millions of people take heart or lose hope when their national team scores goals or is defeated. One way of looking at soccer is as a proxy war. Much better to slug it out on the soccer field than on the battlefield. But to my mind there’s a connection between soccer and development as well.
Economic development has a lot to do with collective confidence. Way back in 1990, Cameroon’s Roger Milla became an international star on the World Cup stage in Italy that year. He was one of the oldest players on the field, and his habit of doing a victory dance in corner field after scoring a goal made him a celebrity worldwide, not only among soccer fans. It was during these World Cup weeks that I drove to Schärding, a small town in Upper Austria, close to the German border, to spend a weekend exploring a newly opened bicycle path between Schärding and Passau in Germany. In the evening, after a long ride, when I entered the Gasthaus where I had taken a room for the night, the owner behind the bar did a double take and shouted, “Schau, schau. Der Roger Milla ist da.” Look, look, there’s Roger Milla. Everyone turned around to look, some cheered, and I could think of nothing better to do than imitate Roger Milla’s victory dance. The evening went off very well after that. Some of the regulars in the room seemed to think I really was Roger Milla and asked me how come I spoke such good German. (I was born in India, by the way and none of my friends think I even remotely resemble Roger Milla).
When I describe this incident, people ask me: how did you feel? Wasn’t that terribly racist?
Wait a minute, I tell them. Don’t be so quick with the R word. In a part of the world where there are few visible minorities, most people tend to be ethnically challenged. They see only themselves and other people like them, and everyone else is simply ‘the other.‘ This ethnic ignorance is the source of strength of divisive political leaders; the Orbans, the Kaczynskis, and the Petrys of Central Europe. To give an example of how I see it; I recently went on a field trip with a bunch of bird watchers. Where I only saw sparrows and the occasional bul-bul, they saw flycatchers, minivets, drongos, three kinds of woodpecker, kingfishers and many, many more. So too, with the ethnically challenged. Until they learn to see human life in all its rich variety, they will see only two kinds of people: us and them!
So that’s why I wish the Senegal team does well on the soccer field and even hope they win the World Cup, for maybe then, even the most ethnically (or ornithologically) challenged among us will finally realize: there are not only sparrows in Senegal, there are crowned eagles too.
St. Mark, Chapter 10.
13. And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
Terrible things are done, mostly by dictatorial governments, to children everywhere, especially to the children of the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed. However, when an official spokesperson for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of freedom and the rule of law says, “I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” then that person has surely never heard that the law is an ass; that laws were made for people rather than the other way round; that war crimes are committed by people who say, “I was only obeying the law. I merely followed orders.”
In June last year I wrote a blog entitled “Living in Limbo–A Streetside Portait” about a man who stands outside the local supermarket and sells the Augustin newspaper. He’s a refugee from Georgia and used to teach philology back home. I cannot communicate well enough with him to know why he had to leave his home. Perhaps he’s a political refugee and is reluctant to talk about it. Today he handed me a story, photocopied from an old edition of the Augustin. Since his German is very halting, I presume someone translated it for him. Whatever the case, the writer comes across as intelligent, well-read and sensitive, and the story deserves a wider audience. Hence I’ve translated it into English and posted it here. I hope you enjoy his story. I’ll simply call the writer Wassili.
The Man and the Mountain
I’m no longer a stranger here now. I feel I’m in familiar surroundings. I have many acquaintances who call me by name when they talk to me, which pleases me no end. No one knew me in those days, when an elderly man, Herr F., invited me to his villa. He was eighty years old, but still active and full of joie de vivre. His energy would have put many a younger man to shame. His villa was near Neustadt. He called the Augustin office one day to ask for ‘permission’ to take me to Neustadt. He arrived at the Augustin office in his car to pick me up at the appointed time. This was a great honour to me; such a great honour that it was embarrassing.
I remember another occasion when I felt such embarrassment; it was a very cold day. I had no gloves and I was selling newspapers. I noticed someone staring, and then approach me holding out a pair of gloves, obviously intending to give them to me. I refused, pretending I was not cold, but that was wrong. It’s normal for Austrians to look at strangers, but I only understood much later that it’s even more embarrassing to refuse warmth and gestures of goodwill.
Herr F and I drove in his car. It was an old Ford, but very well maintained. He was in high spirits. We joked and laughed a lot. He showed me his villa. Then he took me out to lunch at a restaurant in the mountains. We ate well and drank a little. Herr F was the first person in Austria who reminded me of the words of the 12th century Georgian poet Schota Rustaweli who said: Never forget the duty of friendship to a friend who shows you his heart, for all paths are open to him.
Several days passed before Herr F. came to see me again. “Wasil,” he said, laughing. “You’re Stalin. And I’m Hitler.”
“No Herr F. That’s impossible. The two of them didn’t like each other. They were enemies. We, however, like and respect each other.” Herr F. smilingly agreed. He knew who Stalin was. I’d spoken about him that day at lunch in the mountains. Stalin was Georgian, from Gori. This place is known for its delicious apples and its Stalin Museum. Many foreigners think Stalin was Russian and when they learn he was Georgian, they come to visit the museum.
I haven’t seen Herr F. for several months now. I’m now selling the Augustin at another location. I have neither his telephone number nor his address in Vienna. What do I know about this man who gave me, a stranger arrived in Vienna, such a memorable day? Who knows if he is in trouble, and if so, how I can help him? Who knows where he is now? Perhaps he’s busy and no longer remembers this simple newspaper seller.
There are perhaps many people who think like me. Perhaps the mountain also thinks so; the mountain that rises five hundred meters in front of me, and spends its time thinking. When no one comes to me to buy a newspaper for a long time, the mountain and I look at each other. I think of the time I worked in a school, with a book in one hand, und taught children Georgian language and literature. Now I’m learning to live, or rather, learning how not to be a stranger in a land where I must live.
Sometimes in autumn the mountain is covered in fog– and it seems to be thinking. Just as I do. A big mountain can think more than the small one can. People are like that. The more they think, the more the fog bothers them. I’m talking about the mountain that stands before me. There are vineyards on its flanks, but I see no one there. I wonder how anyone can produce wine on such steep slopes. Georgia too is a land of mountainous vineyards. Grapes grow there too; grapes that are nurtured like children.
In the country where I was born and grew up, one can see mountains, precursors of the Caucasus. I visited these mountains often in my childhood. I went alone, sat down somewhere under a bush, and looked down fondly at my village, loving every single settlement as far as I could see. You small Austrian alpine mountain, I think. It’s your fault that I’m homesick at the sight of you. I love you too. Even though I’ve not known you so well, I love you from a distance. There will come a time when I’m closer to you. For then, if you allow me, I’ll look on your fields and meadows from above, just as I did as a child, silently and wordlessly turning to the land I used to say: I love you, Georgia! With the greatest respect then, I would then humbly say: I love you, Austria.
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Where to begin? Needless to describe the sense of loss and dismay as a gracious, thoughtful, highly intelligent family man is replaced by a blustering, orange-hued womanizer who seems to have no respect for anything other than power, wealth and glitter. For better or for worse, the US has been regarded as the leader of the democratic world for much of the last century. In this role, it attracted some of the best and brightest of the world’s young to its universities. They stayed on after graduation, started businesses that thrived and helped make the US the global business and financial powerhouse that it is today. Much of that lustre, also called soft power, has been lost in the past decade, ever since the US began its war on terror and the futile armed incursions in the Middle East.
Food for thought for those in many countries around the world who wish to permanently stop immigration of ‘foreigners.’
When the first migrants left Africa 75,000 years ago for the Cradle of Civilization — modern Iraq and Kuwait — Stoneking and his team estimate there were fewer than 100 people. They suggest there were just 15 men and 26 women. They also point to a Bering Strait crossing, from Asia to North America, around 15,000 years ago, as is commonly accepted.
Source: M. Stoneking, et al. Human paternal and maternal demographic histories: insights from high-resolution Y chromosome and mtDNA sequences. Investigative Genetics. 2014.
Inside the Statue of Liberty, on a bronze plaque, a sonnet was engraved in 1903. A poem by Emma Lazarus, called “The New Colossus.”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Over the century since the plaque was installed, the last five lines of the poem have become an intrinsic part of the US story. No longer. Donald Trump’s message is clear. The masses can huddle elsewhere, taking their yearning with them.
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The sugar cubes floated in my thickly creamed coffee before slowly dropping out of sight. This was a sequel to views of Klimt at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna, itself a sequel to a memorable week exploring inner landscapes of the soul.
There were two of them. They led happy lives, replete with feline fulfilment. They loved to purr and cuddle in bed with their humans in the night. They ate well. Always had food and drink served to them. They never went hungry. They seemed at peace with themselves and their world. There were vestiges of wildness in them still to remind you that, despite centuries of domestication, they were their own creatures, creatures of the wild; individuals. And yet, there was an edge missing. You could see it in their eyes. It was a mixture of sadness and resignation. I came to recognize this glance in the cats and my heart went out for what I had done to them. Years later, I saw a video of a woman who could communicate with animals including big cats, the world’s apex predators, and interpret them in anthropomorphic terms. This video changed my thinking about domestic pets. Having been sensitized by this new thinking, I began to see all the subtle forms of exclusion that are practised in societies around the world.
Most ancient cultures respected the natural world, seeing humans as an intrinsic part of it. At sometime in our collective past, we began to call ourselves civilized and parted ways intellectually with nature. This paid off for a few centuries, roughly until the end of the twentieth century. René Descartes famously declared humans to be the thinking species in the sixteenth century. We think, therefore we are (…superior to all other forms of life?). Science and technology have tamed the earth, have subdued nature to such an extent that, like in the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, we are in danger of cutting off the branch on which we perch. Of course we don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, but every time we turn away from a conversation with an unfamiliar “other” we practise a form of discrimination just the same. I noticed with a shock of recognition, the ‘sadness of cats’ on the faces of people in the news; in the gaze of a young woman going through the shipwreck of her marriage; in the face of a man devastated by war and conflict; in the catatonic resignation of a child dragged from the rubble of a bombed home. Where does all this violence begin?
It begins with the way we treat all sentient beings, not just our own kind. Gandhi allegedly said, more than a half century ago, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Anthropologist Michael Thompson, in his 1979 book Rubbish Theory, explores the rise and fall in value of objects, depending on scarcity or abundance. He uses bakelite ashtrays as an example in the book. This early synthetic product of the 1930s was sold cheap, and now have become collectors items. Following from Rubbish Theory we should infer that, since animals in the wild have become a scarce commodity, we should value them highly. Conversely, with world population close to seven and a half billion, human life is cheap. Perhaps this is what we are seeing in international politics these days. But here is the paradox of human existence. If we subscribe solely to economic logic, we deny our humanity and diminish ourselves, sowing the seeds for our own ultimate destruction.
Rulers, kings and presidents come and go, but the earth will survive. However, humankind will not survive, if we continue to pursue only economic growth and ignore the unmistakeable signals that the planet continually sends us. Many of our leaders ignore it. It’s time to change those leaders. And here is another paradox of politics. We can change these leaders only if we change ourselves first.