Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"We were simply joyful unbelievers"

Amazing new Charlie Hebdo cover. The headline says, "All is forgiven." I'm not a fan of most of the prophet-cartoons out there - that Danish one with the bomb as a turban, for example, is just nasty. But this one really follows the best tradition of graphic art. It's witty and moving.

And what a powerful message:

“We feel that we have to forgive what happened," said Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo, on BBC Radio 4 today. "I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."

Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, only survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo because he was running late. There was a fascinating interview with him in Les Inrocks shortly after the attack. He said he wasn't even sure how he could continue drawing. One of the things that weighed on him was the enormous responsibility placed on the team's shoulders after the first cartoon controversy in 2007. He questioned the sudden scrutiny of their cartoons for a deeper symbolism and political meaning, "when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine".

"We were simply joyful unbelievers," he said. "All of those that died were joyful unbelievers. And now, they’re nowhere. Just like everyone else."

It must be unsettling for an irreverent, anti-establishment artist to suddenly find himself turned into a national symbol, a warrior saving the Republic. Luz said his dead friends would have scorned the singing of the national anthem at the rally in their honour. Charlie is not about symbols, he said, but about specific cartoons lampooning specific people and situations. And in that vein, he was going to force himself to publish the next edition, not for some wider cause but for his friends:

"I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died. The friends we loved and whose talent we admired so very much."

Friday, 9 January 2015

"Mustapha Baudelaire", or why this is not a clash of civilisations

Mustapha Ourrad

Among the twelve people killed at Charlie Hebdo were two Muslims, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policeman Ahmed Merabet.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan journalist at Charlie Hebdo, writes in this heartfelt piece:

"Mustapha died. He only obtained the French nationality a few weeks ago. With his North African accent, rolling his r's, he was the one who corrected our French. Every Monday, which was deadline day, he would not leave his office except to bend over the shoulder of a journalist and ask in a low voice: "What exactly were you trying to say?"

Mustapha Ourrad left Algeria in 1978. I found some pictures of his home village on an Algerian news site, TSA, along with quotes from old friends that paint a picture of an ambitious young man straining to see the world.

"He was very young and summarised the books of André Gide, Malraux and Baudelaire for us; which is why we nicknamed him Mustapha Baudelaire," his childhood friend Ousmer told TSA.

Mustapha Ourrad's village in Algeria; source: TSA

Already the far-right is trying to use the horrible events of this week to stoke fear of immigrants and warn against the evils of multiculturalism. If anything, the team at Charlie Hebdo was proof that immigration and multiculturalism are good things. Migrants benefit from global opportunities, host countries benefit from a global talent pool. Multiculturalism is not the problem. Murderous lunatics are the problem.

I haven't seen many articles on the religious and cultural diversity at Charlie Hebdo, whereas I've seen plenty of articles on what this all means for relations between French Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a false divide. Journalists like Zineb El Rhazoui and Mustapha Ourrad have/had a Muslim background, but they clearly, obviously have/had more in common with Charb and Tignous than with their attackers. This is so banal it hurts me to write it, and I'm only writing it because of all that ridiculous talk of the "clash of civilisations". There is no clash of civilisations. Liberty, equality, human rights are not Western privileges. Zineb El Rhazoui said she was hired because of her activism in her native Morocco during the Arab Spring. In 2013 she published a comic book called "The Life of Mohammed" together with Charb, one of the cartoonists. And guess which subject she graduated in? Sociology of religion.

Charlie Hebdo & Voltaire

Photo: Le Monde/AFP

"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Voltaire)

When I read about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo this week, I felt such sorrow for the twelve victims. Much has been written about the cartoonists, who bravely exercised their right to poke fun at every single world religion. As Salman Rushdie said in reaction to the killings: "Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Now that the news cycle is moving on, some columnist seem to be grasping for clickbait and creative angles, and I've seen a few stories saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative or rude. This of course misses the point. The point is not that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were great. 100,000 French people didn't spontaneously take to the streets in mourning because the cartoons were great. The point is that everyone has the right to draw cartoons. And if someone takes offense, they also have the right to respond: by drawing another cartoon, by arguing against the cartoon, even by sueing if they feel the cartoon is defamatory. That's how democracy works. What is unacceptable is to kill someone because you disagree with them. It is also unacceptable to blame the victim, or, as the Financial Times did, to suggest the editors at Charlie Hebdo could have used more "common sense", which sounds suspiciously like "well she shouldn't have worn such a short skirt". Cautious satire, common-sense satire, is pointless satire.

In that context, I was thinking of the non-journalists who were killed at Charlie Hebdo. The bodyguard, the two policemen, the receptionist, the caretaker. In some ways, they were the best and bravest defenders of free speech and liberal values. They weren't the ones who drew the cartoons. But they worked in a building that had been repeatedly threatened, and in the case of the policemen, they tried to protect the lives of others simply because it was their duty, because it was the right thing to do. It's sad that so little is known about these victims, and I hope we'll learn more about them. I keep thinking that there must have been at least one among them who didn't even read Charlie Hebdo, maybe didn't even like the cartoons. Someone who truly embodied that Voltaire quote: someone who perhaps disapproved of what the cartoonists said, but defended to the death their right to say it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Geisha-stalking in Kyoto

When I lived in Tokyo, the local correspondents used to have a joke about the to-do list of the visiting, 48-hours-in-Japan journalist: a feature about the yakuza, one about Mount Fuji, and one about geishas. So I decided it would be a bit tacky to go geisha-stalking during my short stay in Kyoto. Or rather, geiko-stalking - here, they're called geiko and maiko (trainee geisha). Surely I was too cool for that.

Anyway, one of the great things about Japan is that you need never feel shy about a photo fetish. Or any kind of fetish, for that matter. After deciding to be all aloof and dignified about the geiko/maiko thing, I passed a little throng of Japanese men and women in front of one of the little tea houses in Miyagawa-cho, where I'm staying. I asked what they were waiting for. A maiko! I think one of the maikos was having a coming-of-age party, hence all the attention. But one of the women and I quickly decided to look out for other geikos as well. And we spotted quite a few.

"They're very quick on their feet," my new friend said. So quick that we didn't manage to take pictures of the others. But anyway, I just wanted one picture. And seeing them clip-clopping through the lantern-lit alleys was better than any photos.

Speaking of Japan and photos, I walked past a lot of engagement photo sessions earlier in the day, around Shimbashi. Most of them were quite traditional: sweetly smiling couples in kimonos, portrait-style. But then I saw these guys. They were having so much fun! I loved it. Dear newly engaged couple, I hope you don't mind seeing your picture on this blog. May you enjoy many more years of happiness and laughter.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magical Koya-san in the Snow


The temple town on the holy mountain of Koya-san is my new favourite place in Japan. The fact that women have only been allowed to enter this site for a hundred years or so, made my stay here all the sweeter. We're here now, sisters! 
If there's any way you can go and visit Koya-san in December, do it. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will change the way you think about life, death and central heating.

I came to this ancient place on a bit of a whim. I'm in Asia to see friends, clear my mind and finish my current novel, and a temple retreat seemed like a good way to help with the second and third part. Otherwise I would just spend the entire trip chatting and drinking. Which is great in terms of catching up with friends, but not all that conducive to writing.

I'm not going to lie - Koya-san in December is not an easy trip. To get here from Tokyo, you need to take a bullet train to Shin-Osaka, then a subway to Namba, a local train to Gokurakubashi (changing at Hashimoto, which is funny if like me you suffer from Hashimito's thyroditis), then a cable car and finally, a bus. 

Other downsides: the monks don't really do central heating, or indeed any kind of heating. I stayed in two temples, and in the first, there was snow in the hallway in the morning. 

However, in a concession to the tourists whose good custom keeps the temples from rotting away, they've put little electric heaters in every guest room, and heated low kotatsu tables. One of the monks assured me that they also use heaters in their own dorms - I was worried the monks were forced to shiver all night as part of the whole austerity and spiritual purity thing, while the guests were sleeping snugly. Apparently, in the old days there was really no heating of any sort, and the older monks used to flee to another monastery the valley when their bones could no longer take the mountain cold!

Some bloggers have described Koya-san as expensive, but right now now it's actually amazingly good value as the yen is so weak. A night at Eko-in, the second temple where I stayed (and my favourite of the two), costs about 12,000 yen including dinner and breakfast. That's about 65 quid. For that, you get to stay in a tatami-matted room in beautiful ancient temple, with a view of snow-topped rooftops; sleep on a comfy futon and relax with your feet unter a heated, duvet-covered kotatsu table; take part in a guided afternoon meditation session; and have a delicious vegetarian feast served by a friendly monk in a dozen pretty bowls (for dinner, and a lighter version for breakfast). Plus, a steaming hot soak in a lovely communal bath, after which you can wrap yourself in one of the yukata (cotton kimonos) they provide, sit by your window and contemplete the bittersweet brevity of life and the beauty of the passing moment. 

You also attend the morning service, which at Eko-in (one of the two temples where I stayed) includes the fire ritual. I may suggest this to my local rabbi to liven up the shabbat service. It should be ok, halachically speaking, as long as you light the fire before sundown on Friday.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that it's all worth it. Even if I had left Koya-san with pneumonia and not a single new chapter, it would have been worth it. The beauty of the place is impossible to capture in words or pictures. Maybe you're looking at the photos and thinking, oh that temple is pretty - but the point is, the entire town looks like that. There are a few modern buildings, little shops and cafes, but the site is really dominated by the dozens of temples lining the streets. You can step away and take it all in a one big temple feast for the eyes, and it's beautiful, and then you walk close up and see a carved stone sculpture, or a charm dangling in some incense smoke, or a red bridge flashing in the snow, and it takes your breath away.

Ok, enough cliched travel writing. Koya-san in spring, summer, autumn is probably stunning as well, and more comfortable. But I cannot imagine it looking any more spectacular than this. 

(Footnote: my Japanese was never great, even when I lived here, and once I moved away, what little I had fell out of my brain. However, in a wholly unexpected, delightful bit of travel magic, I now find I can suddenly speak Japanese! Sort of. I can book a room, order a meal, praise the prettiness of the snow, agree that it's very cold but the onsen is very hot, tell them I'm from Germany via London and working on a book, exclaim "omoshiroi-desu, ne!" and "sugoi!" and "honto!" while tilting my head and widening my eyes just so, and check if the Eko-in temple is after the next set of traffic lights and then to the right. And so on. All of this seemed pretty lame when I was living here, the kind of functional level it's so easy to get stuck on, but now, as a tourist, it feels GREAT.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Visit to the Umbrella Revolution


I'm a bit of an accidental protest tourist. Last year, during the Gezi Park protests, I attended a dear friend's henna night in Istanbul complete with a big "Occupy Henna" banner. This year, visiting some friends in Hong Kong, I stumbled into one of the pro-democracy camps, the one at Admiralty. Intrigued, I took a stroll around and chatted with the activists.

Christmas at the protest camp

When they heard I was German, they reacted with delight (when does this ever happen?). 
Seriously, they got very excited about that. Several of them said the fall of the Berlin wall was a huge inspiration and proved the power of peaceful protest. Yay.

I for my part always find it moving to see a peaceful pro-democracy campaign, precisely because it reminds me of one of the few good things my country is known for.

I liked the protest art inspired by the humble umbrella, which turned into a revolutionary symbol after demonstrators used it to shield themselves from tear gas. The characters on the yellow sign say: "I want universal suffrage." The Occupy activists are demanding free and fair elections for 2017, with the people choosing their own candidates. Beijing on the other hand insists on vetting any candidates first. After two months of protests, the student leaders are now considering ending the occupation, and activists at the site expected police to come in soon and dismantly the camp anyway. So here are some more photos before it all goes.

How about some Occupy Origami:

And some very orderly Occupy graffiti:


Keeping fit for the revolution:

While studying hard:

Why there are no pictures of people in this post - "Protect student, please don't take photo of the face!"

The protests are student-led, and an older man I spoke to expressed great concern for them.
"I'm old, if I go to jail, it doesn't matter," he said. But many of the students, including the leaders, are only 17 or 18. He pointed out that risking their future in this struggle. Which is why it's so important that the rest of the world doesn't forget about them. In any case, they keep reminding us to listen:

Mini-camp at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, reminding Britain that guarantees for Hong Kong's democracy were part of the handover to China

Also, in case you forget we're in Hong Kong. Occupy tents reflected in a fancy car dealer's window:

Despite their perseverance so far, the people I spoke to at the camp were not very hopeful. China is unlikely to give in, especially since it would probably fuel people-power movements elsewhere. Think how the average Tibetan or even Beijinger would react to the umbrella revolution triumphing over the central government. 

But regardless of who will win this particular stand-off, just the fact that the movement has come this far, gathering global attention and defending the right to protest right under the nose of a dictatorship, should be a point of pride. 

As activist Benny Tai wrote in the New York Times: "The Umbrella Movement has awakened the democratic aspirations of a whole generation of Hong Kong people. In this sense, we have achieved much more than what we could have hoped for."


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Big-eyed art fraud

Margaret & Walter & children

I'm looking forward to the Tim Burton biopic on the big-eyed art fraud of the century. Walter Keane's 1960s paintings of big-eyed children were apparently really created by his wife, Margaret. The Guardian did a very nice story about it. There was one passage in particular that struck me:

"This story begins in Berlin in 1946. A young American named Walter Keane was in Europe to learn how to be a painter. And there he was, staring heartbroken at the big-eyed children fighting over scraps of food in the rubbish. As he would later write: “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.”"

The bit about his life as a painter is a lie, apparently, but the bit about the children rings true to me. As it happens, my mother was one of those ragged post-war children in Berlin. She doesn't have any stories of fighting with the other children, but she does have plenty of stories about running along trains full of GIs throwing sweets and sliced white bread from the windows. And picking crumbs of coal from the gravel, then carrying them home in a tin to heat their little flat. Knowing how fastidious my grandma was, I can't see my mother's hair being matted, no matter how poor they were. But as for the bruised minds, yes, that's probably quite an accurate description. So amid all of Keane's lies, there are some little coal-crumbs of truth.