Friday, June 29, 2007

Up up and away

Gone, till I have e-mail again. And some time to think of the comments to the two last posts: being for free speech, does this blog have to be the channel for racist comments? I feel soiled when leaving those comments on...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Colorblindness doesn't help

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is a belief or ideology that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another race or races. The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race, and that it is also the prejudice based on such a belief. Actually racism is a system that sanctions a specific brand of group privilege. The concept of race, is scientifically flawed since no trait is genetically linked to one single group. In modern society race was accepted as the root of social inequalities and thus as 'natural' by the economically or military dominating group. By withholding for instance education to one group and fostering this in another the social precondition for inequality is created. Wealth, opportunity and status then flow to the dominant group, not out of merit, or hard work. In India it goes to the Brahman's caste, in the Western world to white males… Not because these groups are innately better, but because of the fundamental inequality of generations underlying our present society. Treating everybody as equal today is actually not sufficient, colorblindness does not solve the problem of racism, poverty and inequality in our society. It is our society which needs to become just and equitable, with equal chances for all and extra stimulation for those who need it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Race is a modern concept

There is no gene for race is the title of the action during equality month. The concept is American and a hit in Europe. With the multiple choice questions one learns that humans have approximately 30.000 genes. Question: On average, how many genes separate all members of one race from all members of another race? Answer: None. There are no characteristics, no traits, not even one gene that distinguish all members of one so-called race from all members of another race.
Race is a modern idea. The word race only was coined in 1508, referring to a line of kings. The ancient societies did make distinction according to religion, status, gender, class and even language. ‘Barbarians’ evolved from a Greek word referring to people who speak the language badly, physical distinctions were not a subdividing category. Most traits that we see in people are not directly linked to skin color. Those traits are inherited independently from each other: hair form, height, blood type, musical talent, intelligence, etc… If many black people have sickle cells in their blood then this is not a racial factor but is connected to the ancestors' place of origin. Since sickle cells protect against malaria, the only thing such cells tell you about the person is that the ancestors came from a region with malaria: Mediterranean, Arabia, Turkey, Southern Asia, Western and Central Africa, but not South Africa.
Slavery predates racism. And when Pocahontas traveled to the court of London in 1619 it created a scandal because she, a princess, married a commoner, beneath her station. In a feudal society, status was fixed at birth. There were even laws which forbade to dress so that one could pass for another class. The racial concept of Manifest Destiny wasn’t born yet…
The power of illusion is still strong and color blindness alone will not right the wrongs. The machine that has been developed lats you choose to be different ethnic groups and it can age and morphe you, not make you younger again. I liked myself best with some Asian influence...

Friday, June 22, 2007

The magnificent chaos of women's lives

Anita Nair's best-known novel in Europe (besides her poetry, essays and non fiction travel writing) is Ladies Coupé: basically 6 ordinary women telling their life stories during a long train ride. This might remind you of Chaucer’s pilgrims traveling to Canterbury or of Italo Calvino’s ‘Castelli Incrociati’. It is an old literary ploy. Until recently there were women’s coupés on the trains in India. So it refers to a recent past and the women tell their stories not publicly but almost as an intimate aside to the protagonist who at the end realizes her full potential as woman. The anonymous passers by give life to all women we see and the book reminds us that all women have a story to tell. During the long train ride the women elucidate the different life choices they made. The women are real, the feelings ring true, also to me as a western reader. The main quest is: can a woman stay single and be happy or are we all incomplete without a man. Through her skillful writing she lets us taste and feel and smell and sense modern India. She conjures up our empathy so we realize that the women’s dilemmas and relational choices are the same in Western Europe as in South East Asia. I doubly like her book, as her novel is not burdened with exoticism: her characters speak plain English and there is not an elephant in sight in the novel! Yet without a shadow of a doubt it is set in India. The quotes I chose are all questions and encouragements that maybe even some of us need to hear once in a while. At the request of her translator into Italian she put at the end the traditional recipes of India that are cooked by the women in the book. So we really can smell and taste what the author suggests.
Quotes from Ladies Coupé
- Margaret had got off at Comibatore. Before leaving, she ran a comb through her hair and adjusted her sari pleats, then said, ‘Akhila, if there is one virtue I have, it is immunity to what people think of me. Naturally this makes them dislike me even more. People don’t like to think that their opinion of someone means nothing to that person. And when it is a woman… the thought is intolerable. But like I said, I don’t care. I ‘m not saying that you ought to think like I do. But you’ll discover that once you stop worrying what the world will think of you, your life will become that much easier to live.’
- When Brahma writes our destiny, they say, he allots a specific number of years to each one of us to experience all aspects of living. My time as a housewife was spent long before I became an adult. In my mother’s house, I did all that a woman with her own house does. Perhaps that was meant to be.
- Would she who wore marriage as if it were Kancheepuram silk understand that what Akhile most desired in the world was to be her own person? In a place that was her own. To do as she pleased. To live as she chose with neither restraint nor fear of censure. That while Akhile did ache to be with a man and yearned to allow her senses to explore and seek fulfilment, that while she wished to be loved by a man who would fill her silences and share all of himself with her, she didn’t want a husband. Akhile didn’t want to be a mere extension again.
- But you know the heart is a glass bangle. One careless moment and it’s shattered… we know that, don’t we. And yet we continue to wear glass bangles. Each they break, we buy new ones hoping that these will last longer than the others did. How silly we women are. We should wear bangles made of granite and turn our hearts into the same. But they wouldn’t catch the light so prettily or sing so gaily…
- Once she had thought that she couldn’t love another man as she had loved Hari. Giving him all of her body and soul. This morning, she thinks anything is possible. That she has the courage to pick up from where she left off and begin again. That much as she desired Hari, she desired life more.
- So this then is Akhila. Fourty-five years old. Sans rose-coloured spectacles. Sans husband, children, home and family. Dreaming of escape and space. Hungry for life and experience. Aching to content.

Recipe from Ladies Coupé:
1 ½ cups of lentils, preferably red
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 finely chopped onions
½ teaspoon of chill powder
1 teaspoon of curry powder
½ teaspoon of turmeric
2 tablespoons of dried coconut
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon of salt
1 medium cauliflower
juice of half a lemon

Wash and soak the lentils overnight, before cooking. Heat the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan and brown the onions. Add the pieces and cook for one or two minutes. Add the lentils, coconut, water and salt and bring to the boil. Cut the cauliflower into small pieces and add to the sauce. Cover the pan and cook until the cauliflower is soft. Add the lemon juice and serve with boiled rice.

I should have added that not only does Anita Nair -who lives in Bangalore-, run a publicity company and write a weekly column in a newspaper, she also is a foody writing about restaurants….

Friday, June 15, 2007


Danny Rubinstein is an Israeli analyst of Palestinian affairs and has covered the Territories for the past years. He is senior – level-headed – impartial – a Zionist with no special love nor affection for the Palestinians and their cause. Yet he writes the following: "While Fatah blamed Hamas for the crisis, the primary reason for the break-up is the fact that Fatah has refused to fully share the Palestinian Authority’s mechanism of power with its rival Hamas, despite Hamas’s decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections. Fatah was forced to overrule Palestinian voters because the entire world demanded it do so.” He adds: “Matters have come to the point where Hamas attempted to take by force what they believe they rightfully deserve.”
Europe and the US have pushed for democratic elections and then proceeded not to honor the results of it. Hamas, the winners of the election, has acted pragmatically observing for over a year a unilateral ceasefire so that their signature suicide attacks ceased. In The Guardian, respected British Newspaper Alvaro de Soto states that it was “under pressure from the United States that Abbas refused Hamas' initial invitation to form a "national unity government." De Soto details that “Abbas advisers actively aided and abetted the Israeli-US-European Union aid cutoff and siege of the Palestinians under occupation, which led to massively increased poverty for millions of people. These advisors engaged with the United States in a "plot" to "bring about the untimely demise of the [Palestinian Authority] government led by Hamas," de Soto wrote. We have often seen the US strategy at work of installing puppet regimes or aiding certain factions such as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, in Lebanon, Latin America, in Palestine to fight on their behalf. This strategy obvious has fired back. Chairman Mahmoed Abbas has in a hasty and ill advised move declared the state of emergency. We, the west are responsible for the bloodshed, we have armed the factions (just as we armed the contras in Latin America). You'll find the full article here.
In the mean time, the non-violent Women In Black organize their weekly Peace vigils and people in the cultural field set up projects of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian artists. That is a good way to build bridges for peace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chinua Achebe

The Man Brooker International Prize 2007 for fiction is the global Booker Prize for all literature published in English, be it written or translated into English. I hadn’t even seen the shortlist with 15 names when I heart this morning that the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (see Monday’s post) had been awarded the prize and thus will receive the 60.000 £ that come with this prestigious distinction. Nadine Gordimer, who won the prize years ago and called him the father of modern African literature was a member of the jury. Ashebe writes essays, poetry and fiction. The first book he won acclaim with is an historical novel Things Fall Apart about the influence of colonialism on the traditional African communities. A trait in his books is that he uses expressions, sayings, wisdoms and phrases from Ibo, the local language. All his books are political. He worked for the Nigerian Radio, having been trained at the BBC in London. He also has been a diplomat in Biafra. He will however to me always be a strong and honest writer. By the way: Dr. Scarpone informs me that Vanity Fair has a special on all Art African...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ousmane Sembène

Rockcastle loves Africa, even lived for a period of time in Dakar, renting her own apartment and volunteering for several NGO’s. She started working for the Talibé (street children) and later assisted a few other projects with her linguistic skills. She is knowledgeable about non-fiction concerning the Dark Continent and reads its literature. She introduced me when I was to go to Nigeria to Ebony, a book by the incredible Polish journalist Ryzard Kapucinsky. Ebony influenced my way of looking and understanding Africa. Great Writing. In the literature department my favorites would be Towards the decolonization of African Literature. African novels: Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe and the painfully beautiful book The famished road by Ben Okri.
One day she took me to a film by Senegalese movie maker Ousmane Sembène, the pioneer of African cinema. He directed about ten movies, the first one in 1966. Twice he received an award at the Venice film festival. Unforgettable is his movie Moolade, a deeply moving story about female circumcision. He is progressive, so he advocates the eradication of this custom that is nowhere in the scriptures. What I liked was the incredible change in attitude in the characters when they were speaking in public, with a shift in tone and voice and attitude. When they were among themselves at home, they spoke with a natural voice and rhythm. It made me understand the importance of form and symbolism in cultures based on oral traditions. The landscape in this movie too became sign and symbol, fascinating that was. Last Saturday, at the age of 84, he passed away in Dakar. He did what he wanted to do and according to Dr Scarpone that brings happiness...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Election day

Before me a gray haired man in a black pair of jeans and a good pair of cowboy boots, his daughter, with uncovered hair, and wife with scarf and traditional dress try to catch up with him. Good quality boots is a rarity here in this country especially if it is combined with a nice waistcoat and being worn by a North African man. I smiled, since seeing this made my day. The daughter catching my smile proudly said ‘We are going to vote’. They hadn’t received the convocation, so they had gone to the town hall on Friday and got things in order. Not voting in Belgium is fined heavily. It reminded me somewhat of the scores of registered black urban voters in certain states of the US who had disappeared from the voting registers. To my comment on her father’s footwear, she replied laughing:’ He is crazy about all things American. He has at least twenty pair of boots and even the fringed jackets.’
The girl will vote green, out of concern with climate change and also because of their anti-racist stance. I applauded her and we walked together. She is now studying to be a caregiver for the elderly but wants to train to be a nurse and add interpreting for the hearing impaired. Hopefully the thimble of encouragement I gave this young woman will help her in days she meets with intolerance.
May tolerance prevail today: remember all wo/men all are born equal and have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Art = transformation = energy

In the years we still organized the Artists Nights, no audience but only artists came to talk about paint and turpentine, about how to read a text, reading texts and musicians trying out something new in their repertoire, etc… A young poet showed up one day late and a dollar short. Literally. He read to me in the kitchen while I made a ham and cheese sandwich platter and I was impressed by his search, his seriousness and his abundance. At the next occasion he read for the whole group very complicated (good) poems. My friend Rockcastle was present at that occasion and asked him to read in a different way until she understood the text. Undaunted he complied with her request and I must say that I learned from the hilarious experiment. So with joy in my heart I received an invitation to ‘Transform-Duality’ an exhibition/overview of his visual art of the last 10 years. He paints and does installations and transforms readymades into a new concept. Some of the conceptual objects are in aluminum in which he carves the words that make you think, sometimes a pencil drawing is added. Sometimes in the hanging of the separate elements you realize the message could be different. This way the linearity of language is questioned by the use of space and material. It is all about duality, present and future, war and peace, new and recycled. His oils on canvas seem to me to stay on the surface, even in the paintings with a lot of perspective, maybe referring to the superficiality of these times while examining our contemporary society with a critical mindset. Most human figures are painted in the nude, an iconic reference to old Greek art work. To me the humans seem distorted, while a Doctor admired their anatomical precision. So what do I know. His work is clean without being sleek or slick being too honest in his search for that. Art = transformation = energy. A suivre…

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Neva

Cities with water provide space and seem to instigate the building of grand projects. Even in an historic city as St Petersburg, there was industrial activity along the banks of the Neva and also communist housing blocks in a now prime location. Eventually the sun did set, yet night never quite descended over the city. The Neva is wide and imperial.

The canals exude a cozy grandeur, maybe thanks to the magnificent pastel painted palaces and the large variety of bridges. The top one was build by the same company that build the Eifel Tower and so cities become truly cosmopolitan, an expression of European history and civilization, a living reminder of what was. And thus we have to think of a disirable common future.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Hermitage

The Hermitage is closed on Mondays , like most museums in the world. But then there is the group admiring the Dutch Masters. Look how the shiny silk is handled on the reclining lady in the red coat with ermine. The Baroque staircase is a goldleafed splendor doubled in the mirrors and rather overwhelming. The 15 century majolica figure is pensive, pondering how the compulsive collecting of Peter the Great, makes it possible for us to admire all this. There are plenty of other museums, with tools, curios. Being two meter and three centimeter tall he surrounded himself with short people. The hermitage is sooo big that we didn't get to see the Gold of the Scythes, the modern paintings nor the real Fabergé eggs...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

White Nights in St Petersburg

See the long shadows the bench draws on the path... The low setting sun past midnight creates a strangely diffuse light, a challenge for an unexperienced photographer like me. It took this city about ten minutes to steal my heart. Many of the old buildings from the time of Peter the Great are now under the protection of Unesco and restaured with their funds. The white nights make one restless because life goes on, even when it is past bedtime on a workday. The abundant light also brings lightheartedness and easy joy because all the surrounding beauty is there to be seen and felt and heard in the music of buskers...

Saturday, June 2, 2007


My friendly vet used to tango. He knew the moves, had the passion, even the sparkle that made women want to dance with him. His moves had however no elegance, heavy as they were from the Flemish clay that made my tango dancing friend look as if on clogs. I had to think of him while watching a mixed bunch of young skateboarders going through their moves in a local ‘One Love’ skateboarding competition. They knew their jumps, but most had no style, or ease, of course with a few exceptions. Some had a chip on their shoulder and attitude, one or two were cool. The kids swore in English since that is classier than the local language. I could see them practice all the little things like stepping on the edge of the board so that it flies to one's hand… that is when I noticed that some skaters had put graffiti on the bottom of their board. I saw them swerve, kick up the board, jump, fall and start over, zigzagging and after a jump trying to keep their balance. Seems to me like a great preparation for life’s troubled road.