Monday, 29 September 2008

Being Smart

Robert Redford and Paul Newman discussing their formidable opponents at the New York train station in The Sting: 'They're not as smart as they think they are,' says Redford. 'Neither are we,' Newman replies.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

On History, Distractions, and Truth

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson is an excellent thriller for its plot, for its story telling, and for its insights - here are some that will hopefully stay with me:

"It’s easily forgotten, Inspector, that history is not what you read in books. It’s a personal thing, and people are vengeful creatures, which is why history will never teach us anything."

“We are all mad, Inspector, for the simple reason that we don’t know why we exist and this …” he waved his hand at the tissue of existence before him, “this life is how we distract ourselves so that we don’t have to think about things too difficult for us to comprehend.”

"You think you know yourself until things start happening, until you lose the insulation of normality. I would have called myself “aware” before I lost my wife. People would look at me, Narciso for instance, and think there goes Zé Coelho, a man who knows himself. But I’m like anybody else. I hide. My wife was right. I’m inquisitive for the truth but hide from my own. The stuff I’ve carried with me and ignored."

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Western Values (2)

Western values are based on Christian convictions, regardless whether God is worshipped in churches or not. As Jack Miles wrote in God: A Biography:

"Many in the West no longer believe in God, but lost belief, like a lost fortune, has effects that linger. A young man raised in wealth may, when he comes of age, give his fortune away and live in poverty. His character, however, will remain that of a man raised in wealth, for he cannot give his history away. In a similar way, centuries of rigorous, godly character-building have created an ideal of human character that stands fast even though, for many, its foundation has been removed. When Westerners encounter a culture with a different ideal, when we find ourselves saying, for example, “The Japanese are different,” we discover, indirectly, the strangeness and durability of our own ideal, our inherited sense of what a human being should be."

And strange, when looked at from a distance (or through the eyes of another culture), one’s own cultural heritage might indeed appear to be. Again Jack Miles, this time from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God:

"All mankind is forgiven, but the Lord must die. This is the revolutionary import of the epilogue that, two thousand years ago, a group of radical Jews appended to the sacred scripture of their religion. Because they did so, millions in the West today worship before the image of a deity executed as a criminal, and – no less important – other millions who never worship at all carry within their cultural DNA a religiously derived suspicion that somehow, someday, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20: 16).The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, perhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way – for us, he could only be a criminal.”

Needless to say, this is not how Westerners see it – if they see it at all. The message for them is that by losing everything (one’s life), one wins everything (a place in heaven). In other words, redemptive fulfilment lies at the core of popular Western belief (only the Christian faith recognises original sin and corresponding redemption). For a Chinese this seems hard to grasp, at least for Lin Yutang, who, in 1938, wrote in The Importance of Living:

"All in all, here is still a belief in total depravity, that enjoyment of this life is sin and wickedness, that to be uncomfortable is to be virtuous, and that on the whole man cannot save himself except by a greater power outside. The doctrine of sin is still the basic assumption of Christianity as generally practised today, and Christian missionaries trying to make converts start out by impressing upon the party to be converted a consciousness of sin and of wickedness of human nature (which is, of course, the sine qua non for the ready-made remedy which the missionary has up his sleeve). All in all, you can’t make a man a Christian unless you first make him believe he is a sinner."

It goes without saying that quite some Westerners find this also rather difficult to understand.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A Photographic Journey through Turkey

The photographer Attila Durak was born in 1967 in Gümüşhane, Anatolia. Since early 2000, he has been busy with portraying the different ethnicities and sects that populate Turkey - his pictures captured them eating, praying, dancing, playing music, laughing, reflecting, and
wondering, indoors as well as outdoors, alone and in groups.
© copyright 2001, Attila Durak

In "The Project Ebru: The Story of a Journey", Durak not only gives an informative account of how the project came into being but also describes how he became interested in photography. By accident, really. When at university, he took a course in photography because it looked like the easiest way to increase his grade point average but he then found that "for that year I did nothing but take photographs, and I had no desire to do anything else. By the end of the academic year, a life without photography was simply unfathomable to me. During that same period, I took the overland route to Egypt and stayed there for about a month. That particular journey led me to discover something about myself: I liked, and actually preferred, going to different countries and photographing people that I found to be different."
© copyright 2003, Attila Durak

In 1996, Durak immigrated to New York, "a city of eight million people from different lands and cultures, speaking more than 100 different languages and believing—or not believing—in hundreds of different religions and denominations, and all living together. One third of this population is comprised of first-generation immigrants from approximately 200 countries. In the City’s restaurants you can taste the cuisines of every country of the world, and in its arts centers, parks, subway stations, and streets, you can listen to the music and watch the dances of the most unexpected regions and peoples. As Henry David Thoreau said, everyone “hears a different drummer” in New York. Yet it can hardly be said that they remain indifferent to the beats of other drums in the process. It is also common to find that different beats have mixed together to create entirely new sounds. While Americans often employ the “melting pot” metaphor in describing the cultural diversity in the United States, this “melting” aspiration hasn’t had much of an impact upon New Yorkers. There, if it’s meant to be, time gets the job done; and if it doesn’t, nobody could care less. That’s why New Yorkers prefer the “mosaic” metaphor to describe the culturally diverse fabric of their city. This particular metaphor is their way of explaining that the many and varied peoples who co-exist here may, if they like, maintain their own constant, invariable colors without having to mix and mingle their hues with those of others."

© copyright 2002, Attila Durak

What one observes and experiences in places far from home often makes one become curious of home. And this is precisely what happened to Attila Durak - "the multitude of colors and voices in New York ignited my desire to explain the cultural diversity of Turkey via photographs".

When working briefly in Istanbul (in 2005), I felt deeply impressed by the cultural variety of the city, and of the places nearby. I howewer wasn't aware that the variety was that vast - the Ebru Project was an eye-opener. Actually, it was more than that: it was a heart-opener - it made me look with sympathy at the people portrayed, it made me like them.

© copyright 2001, Attila Durak

By the way: "The English translation of “ebru” is “marbled paper,” which refers to the fluidity of paint and water on paper. With its creative combination of water and paper, “ebru” inspires the possibility of conceptualizing historical flow and “passing solidity” at the same time. As such, it is a metaphor that offers a promising alternative to others like “the mosaic” or “the quilt” for thinking through the new and old dilemmas of cultural politics at the turn of the century."

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Interkulturelle Kompetenz

Interkulturelle Kompetenz kann ganz Unterschiedliches bedeuten. Nicht den Kopf verlieren, wenn es in einem fremden Land plötzlich unverhofft schwierig wird, zum Beispiel. Oder: Nicht an einem einmal gefassten Plan unbedingt fest halten, denn die Dinge haben es ja so an sich, dass sie sich ändern. Oder: Auf seinen Instinkt vertrauen. Nein, nicht so wie George W. Bush, aber so wie Helge Timmerberg in Timmerbergs Reise-ABC:

"Neulich in Bombay: Ich war auf dem Weg zum Flughafen. Frühmaschine, Morgendämmerung, der Tag brach gerade erst an. Als das Taxi an einer Ampel hielt, klopfte eine kleine Hand ans Fenster. Ein Mädchen, ich schätze so zwölf, sah mich mit grossen Augen an. Mir schien, dass es noch nicht gefrühstückt hatte. O.k.. ich verliess das Land. Und hatte noch jede Menge der Landeswährung bei mir. Aber leider nur in grossen Scheinen. Die Ampel sprang um, Angst flackerte in den Augen der Kleinen. Soll ich sie fragen, ob sie wechseln kann? Scheiss drauf, ich gab ihr einen der Scheine, und ich werde nie vergessen, was mit ihrem Gesicht geschah. Ich duschte praktisch in ihrem Lachen. Sie hüpfte über die Strasse zu ihrer Mutter zurück, drehte sich wieder um, hüpfte und lachte und winkte, und ich winkte zurück, bis ich sie nicht mehr sah. Ein selten schöner Moment der Widersprüchlichkeit. Es war viel zu viel, und es war ein Kind. Ich hatte alles falsch gemacht, und doch hat es gestimmt. Regeln sind nur wichtig, wenn sich das Herz nicht sicher ist."

Friday, 19 September 2008

Photographs of the South Bronx

The first few sentences, sometimes the first few paragraphs, usually do it for me – or they don’t. In any book, and that includes photo-books.

Lisa Kahane’s “Do Not Give Way to Evil” starts like this: “The past is never over. Image outlives fact.” It hit me, immediately: Yes, exactly, this is it, so true, that is precisely why pictures are more telling than words.

Images carry feelings, and these we remember – this is why images are so powerful.

The book shows photos of the South Bronx between 1979 and 1987, “not just another neighbourhood but another realm, visible but incomprehensible, an urban wilderness actively populated by ghosts.”

What is true for the first few sentences is likewise true for the first few photographs. In “Do Not Give Way to Evil” it was the first one – the abandoned Bronx Borough Courthouse – that did it for me. When contemplating it, I instinctively knew that I would like Lisa Kahane’s other pictures – and I did. All of them. For they not only showed me the South Bronx, they told me about life.

Moreover, I loved her helpful introductory text. For its humaneness, its unpretentiousness, and its insights. Here are some excerpts:

“Change is a constant in New York City and it’s usually considered progress. In the Bronx, it was extraordinarily brutal. Portrayed either as a garden spot or a wretched failure of civic life, the ruin of the Bronx, part natural progression of the American Dream, part intentional destruction, was a long time in the making. Fewer things than one imagines are coincidences. What is made to seem the inevitable process of history is often the interplay of money and power.

Withdrawal of federal funds, diminishing city services, and dependence on welfare turned the American Dream into an American Nightmare. Anger and frustration turned to cruelty, and boredom to loss of hope. Drugs were easy to get. Widespread fires, unknown since the early nineteenth century, made a comeback. Counterproductive government response made arson profitable for landlord and tenant. In the 70’s the borough averaged 12,000 arson fires a year, over thirty a day.

There are books now that explain it all and yet explain nothing. The devil’s best game, the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. Even though it’s always the present tense in a photograph, the spirit of the time can only be represented, not recalled or recreated. The best thing about these pictures of devastation is that they can’t be taken in the Bronx anymore.”

Lisa Kahane's "Do Not Give Way to Evil” was published in 2008 by PowerHouse Books, Miss Rosen Editions, Brooklyn, New York.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Condition of Man

The condition of man imposes its own limitations: to an estimate of his significance and of the implications of his existence he can bring no more than the fallible and subjective processes of his capacity for conjecture. Isolated, wedged transiently at a point in infinity, careless of what has preceded his life, preoccupied and obsessed by the thoughts of what may succeed it, shackled and blinded by the problems and prejudices arising from it, his readiness to dogmatize will be proportionate to the intensity of his fears and the deficiency of his imagination.
An appetite for faith may be to some extent its justification: it is certainly not its proof – we do not build a fire to prove or disprove the existence of cold, but to keep ourselves warm. A traveller on a perilous journey may draw comfort from the knowledge that he has a pistol in his pocket, though, unknown to himself, his servant has neglected to load it. Like the traveller, we shall only learn whether or not our pistols were loaded when the issue will have transcended speculation; till then we must draw our comfort from whatever we care to believe or disbelieve. Truth, if it exists, will remain unaffected. A starving animal will suck the dug of its dead parent and a man in extremity can condition himself to believe what he calculates will bring him most consolation.
A.E. Ellis: The Rack

Monday, 15 September 2008

Elections & Experience

On 12 September 2008, Bob Herbert of the New York Times (under the title "She’s Not Ready") opined:

"While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson Thursday night, and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I’ve gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail.

How is it that this woman could have been selected to be the vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket? How is it that so much of the mainstream media has dropped all pretense of seriousness to hop aboard the bandwagon and go along for the giddy ride?

For those who haven’t noticed, we’re electing a president and vice president, not selecting a winner on “American Idol.”

Ms. Palin may be a perfectly competent and reasonably intelligent woman (however troubling her views on evolution and global warming may be), but she is not ready to be vice president.

With most candidates for high public office, the question is whether one agrees with them on the major issues of the day.

With Ms. Palin, it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing. She doesn’t appear to understand some of the most important issues."

Since when have an understanding of issues, competence, or knowing what is going on, been a prerequisite for public office, I wonder? Actually, it more often looks like the other way 'round.

As Winston Churchill said: the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voters (he however also said that democracy is still the best of all the bad systems available).

Okay, fine, but what should we do now? Listen to another Brit, John Lennon, who said: Don't follow leaders.

By the way: experience is consistently overrated. When the US supreme court (with members appointed by Bush Senior) bestowed the presidency on Bush Junior, some media, troubled by Junior's lack of foreign exposure, pointed out how reassuring it was that vice president Cheney was such an experienced politician. Well ... ?!

We should keep in mind what the German writer Kurt Tucholsky once said: that a man with ten years of experience may have been ten years completely mistaken.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Adapting to a Foreign Culture

When adapting to a foreign culture, writes Jan Morris in Hong Kong, there are "four stages of reaction that foreigners may expect. First they feel a fine euphoria, so exciting and interesting is the spectacle of Hong Kong, so reassuringly familiar many of its aspects. Next they become tense and bewildered, as they realize how vastly foreign the territory really is, and experience a growing feeling of isolation. Then, sensing their own ethnic identities challenged, they endure a period of irritability, grumbling a lot and being hostile to the Chinese. And if all goes well, finally they relax into the environment, accepting its essentially alien nature, developing new tolerance, greater objectivity and, says Dr. Mildred McCoy, a psychologist at the University of Hong Kong, “appropriate coping skills". "

Thursday, 11 September 2008

In Thailand

In Chiang Mai, I saw a billboard that said: "Fruit Juice, 100 percent artificial, guaranteed no natural ingredients added."

"Are they handmade?" I asked the street vendor who had traditional garments on display. "No, no, machine, very better", she replied. It took me a while to understand what she meant: that the machine had made her work easier.

There was no taxi at the airport in Pitsanoluk. "How can I get to town?" I asked the young lady at the information booth. "My master will drive you", she said. The master turned out to be the director of the airport. "And how do you plan to go to Mae Hong Son?" he inquired. "I guess by bus" I said. "Bus no good" he replied. "You should do it like the Thais do it". "Aha, and how do they do it?" "Take it easy, fly." I flew.

Prachuap Khiri Khan. I explored this small town and the beaches on the back of a motorbyke. "Here eat drink", my driver said while pointing to a restaurant. "Here sing a song" - that was a disco. After a while, I felt I should also make a contribution. "Look at this beautiful bird", I shouted. "Bird", he shouted back. Thais have quite a remarkable ability to state the obvious.

In Bangkok, I bought a wallet. It was a Gucci imitation, plastic, and very cheap. A week later it broke apart. When I passed by the same shop, I decided to stop for a chat. "Look at this", I said to the salesgirls. "This wallet I bought here only a week ago and already it falls apart." "How much you pay?" the girls asked. "60 Baht", I smiled. They smiled back: "60 Baht one week, 80 Baht two weeks."

During a Thai class, somebody mentioned corruption. Our teacher, a gifted entertainer, the most important qualification for teaching in Thailand, said: Corruption? We don't have that here. And then, with a big smile, added: Well, come to think of it, that is our system.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Fraudulent Necessità

The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do. If you wish to counter the man in the street, it cannot be by appeal to moral principles, much less by demanding that people should run their lives in such a way that there are no contradictions between what they say and what they do. Ordinary life is full of contradictions; ordinary people are used to accommodating them. Rather, you must attack the metaphysical, supra-empirical status of necessità and show that to be fraudulent.

J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Western Values

Western values share the classical legacy of the Greek and Roman civilizations, are based on Christianity and mainly characterised by the prominence given to the individual – that we are all, each and everyone, children of God, this Christian belief stands at the core of Western culture. Democracy, the rule of law, personal freedom, the separation of church and state as well as the conviction that the world can be explained rationally denote Western idea(l)s.

The expressions that these values find in Europe and in North America differ however not inconsiderably – the American readiness to, for instance, exercise power (be it the death penalty or the invasion of another country) seems to indicate a mentality rather different from the ever so reluctant European attitude.

The culture we grow up in shapes the way we see the world. If this culture is one of strength, our view of the world will be one from a position of strength. In the case of America this includes a propensity to use that strength.

Cultures do not clash, humans sometimes do – not so much because of different values (after all: quite some of the behaviour of American soldiers in Iraq would be as offensive back in America) but because of, perhaps, a mix of fear, xenophobia, military training, lack of manners, and youth, a mix that can be found wherever an army (from East or West, North or South) is found fighting.

The debate about a possible clash of civilizations gives a prominence to cultural values that is not deserved – for any closer look will result in realising that what humans have in common by far outweighs their differing opinions – and obscures that the problems between Europe and America, as well as between the West and the rest of the world, is one of power (competing greed, egotism etc. – the character traits that we all share) and not of incompatible values.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Intercultural Coaching (2)

"Don't tell jokes to an audience you don't know" is certainly good advice yet, contrary to what many intercultural experts seem to believe, it has nothing to do with things intercultural. But don't, for instance, the English and the Swiss laugh about different things? Sure, some Brits and some Swiss have a different sense of humour, to however believe that all Swiss (or all Brits) are fond of the same jokes seems a bit unrealistic. I, for instance, like some English humour. And I also happen to know some fellow Swiss, Germans, Thais, Brazilians and Californians who share this fondness of mine. One of my all-time favourite journalism fun-pieces in regards to things intercultural is Rosemary Behan's "Praising Allah is a full-time job in Tunis" in the Daily Telegraph of 1 August 2007. Here are some excerpts:

In conversation, the first thing you notice is the amount of time even the most secular Arabic speaker spends thanking God. They praise Allah so often it's a wonder there's time to do anything else. After almost every single task, whether it's finishing a meal, having a drink of water, completing a project at work, running an errand, talking about the future or simply exchanging pleasantries, it's alhamdulilah, inshallah or bismillah. People never seem to get tired of it.

Confusion between dialects adds to the fun. Here, a tabuna is a small bread roll; in Morocco, it's a discreet part of the female body. In Tunisia, a maarass is a married man, while in Egypt it means homosexual - an unfortunate or convenient discrepancy.

Far more challenging than any language barrier is a disappointingly widespread lack of understanding and respect for women - Western women in particular. Foreigners are targets for the unsavoury attention of men who have made preying on the isolation of female travellers a national sport. I've learnt to tune out the barrage of sexual references that come at me in English, French, German and Italian. I am frequently referred to as "gazelle" and have been followed on the street for hours by boys as young as 12. Even when swimming in the sea, we were chased by a crowd of horny windsurfers.

This harassment is enough to turn ordinary women into raging feminists. Tunisian women can strut around in jeans and tight T-shirts and not attract a single word of attention, while Western women dressed in long sleeves, baggy trousers and sunglasses are seen as fair game. I look like a walking Bedouin encampment - and I have still had 20 offers of marriage.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

A Fervent Prayer

A female CNN journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out and as she arrived at the Western Wall, there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site. She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.
'Pardon me, sir, I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. What is your name?'
'Morris Fishbien,' he replied.
'Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?'
'For about 60 years.'
'60 years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?'
'I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.'
'How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?'
'Like I'm talking to a fuckin' wall.'

Monday, 1 September 2008

On Journalism

On 28 August 2008, Sanitsuda Ekachai blogged in the Bangkok Post on "Media and Demagogues" and had things to say that we (that includes journalists) are well advised to consider when consuming our daily diet of news. Although she writes in regards to the present political turmoil in Thailand, the media elsewhere are not different. It is rare that one comes across such readable and succinct analysis. Here's my favourite excerpt:

One privilege of my having grey hair has been the chance to watch changes in journalism over the years.

The early generation of journalists were primarily intellectuals and free-spirited fighters against military dictatorship.

Despite the poor income and unstable career, journalists enjoyed public respect because their dream for justice and democracy struck a chord with the populace.

As politics and the economy opened up, the mass media grew to become big business. Ironically, the more stable journalism became as a profession, the more was the media's tendency to play safe to protect business interests at the cost of the ideology of old.

Reporting anger from the ground against state and business power, for example, is seen as one-sided. Giving meaning to the news is seen as losing neutrality.

Most newsrooms are happy with ping-pong journalism, unable to tell readers what is really going on. Media neutrality is reduced to mean merely quoting both supporters and opponents.