Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Summer Project: Walking from Germany to Poland

I'm walking from Germany to Poland this summer, retracing the route my mother and grandmother took as refugees when they escaped the Red Army in 1945. It's been an incredible experience so far; Poland is beautiful and people have been so helpful and friendly. You can follow my walk here.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Trauma & Fiction Event at Goldsmiths

Speaking about memory and loss in the divided Germany at Goldsmiths today, in the context of the publicly accessible (formerly top secret) Stasi files. How do historical documents come together to form a collective or private narrative? How much fiction is there in history, and how much history in fiction? Do novelists have a moral obligation to be historically accurate? Come and discuss!

Speaking of the Unspeakable:
Approaching War and Trauma through Fiction
2pm – 3.30pm
Thursday May 14th
144 Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths
Chaired by Dr Rick Crownshaw
Sophie Hardach: The Stasi Files
~ Memory and loss in the divided Germany
Sonia Lambert: Tales of Internment
 ~ “Enemy Aliens” held by the British in 1940
Yoanna Pak: The Dragon King and the Emperor

~A short story set in the Pacific War

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masterpieces for the blind at Museo del Prado

Image: www.20minutos.es

The Museo del Prado in Madrid has long been one of my favourites - beautiful paintings, and they explain the context and narrative of most paintings in depth instead of the usual 'this is Leda with the swan, oil on canvas.' Now they're going one step further and displaying 3-D (or rather, relief) copies of famous paintings for blind people to touch. One of the visitors said it was like getting back his eyesight - he can now touch the paintings he remembers seeing as a child, before he lost his sight.

In my hometown, one area of the botanical gardens was designed for blind people, with fragrant roses and herbs, a guiding rail and explanations in braille. Apparently Kew Gardens offers walking tours for the blind, but something more permanent and structural would be nice. And perhaps the National Gallery could copy the Prado's idea? I grew up in a town with a high percentage of blind people, and one of my teachers was blind, so I'm always happy to see something that makes the world a better place for them.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to parent like a German

"The Jugendweihe: A Pledge to the Great and Noble Cause of Socialism"

A friend pointed out this article in TIME magazine: How to parent like a German. It's by an American mother living in Berlin and reads like a typical global hipster piece. There are plenty of fun observations on free-range parenting and cute German traditions like Zuckertüte (or Schultüte), the giant cardboard cone filled with sweets and stationary that we are given to celebrate our first day at school.
But then there was this passage on the "Jugendweihe", a coming-of-age ritual:

"Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a ... ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood."

The author doesn't seem to realise that "Jugendweihe", the ceremony she so warmly recommends to Americans, was popularised by the East German regime as an alternative to more traditional religious rites of passage. It was part of the totalitarian effort at what we call Gleichschaltung, bringing everyone into line, making sure there was no allegiance to entities other than the East German regime. It was also part of the broader discrimination against religious folk. Refusing the Jugendweihe could mean hurting your entire family's job prospects and certainly attracted the attention of the secret service, the Stasi. Joachim Gauck, the German president and former pastor who oversaw the opening of the Stasi archive, wrote quite forcefully about this in his memoir. 

It's fine if people feel the ritual is meaningful to them anyway. There's nothing wrong with an American embracing an atheist alternative to communion, confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah. What made me cross was the complete unawareness of the historical context. Sure, there's an argument to be made that some traditions of the Real-Socialist Republic are worth preserving. The concept of Jugendweihe dates back to the 19th century, and while it was used as a political instrument by the East German regime, there must be ways to reinvent it. It's still popular with many East Germans, indeed more popular than the Christian equivalent, confirmation, according to official data. But this author didn't make an argument, she just went for a bright and innocent: 'Jugendweihe! Awesome!'. She refused to engage with the past, either out of ignorance or because it would have spoiled the fluffy optimism of the piece.

I know, I'm probably overreacting. It was a light-hearted and friendly take on some of the more positive aspects of my culture. Yet I do sometimes wonder if Berlin's global hipsters are even aware my country was divided once. Or if they just think the GDR was like one big retro shop with cool vintage fonts and cute orange furniture. 

Sorry, rant over. Next: ironic Stalin moustaches.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A visit to the Buttes Chaumont

I was in Paris this weekend, vising my old neighbourhood, the 19th arrondissement. At its heart lies the Buttes Chaumont park, which I've always seen as a heart-warming symbol of successful multi-culturalism. My first novel was set there, and I've spent many hours sitting on the grass and enjoying the urban soap operas around me. On any given weekend, you'll see hip young Parisians with trilby hats, big Muslim and orthodox Jewish families, little boys with kippas and girls with headscarves, maybe a gay wedding or two, runners, picnickers and Chinese pensioners practicing tai chi. Plus the guy with the Shetland ponies.

When I heard that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been part of a gang of jihadis known as the "Buttes-Chaumont gang", who met and exercised in the park, I felt a strange sense of territorial outrage. It's irrational - out of all the things the attackers did, where and how they exercised is really the least important aspect. But I couldn't help it, I felt so angry that a small number of violent men hijacked *our* park as their extremist club house. I don't want them to be known as the Buttes-Chaumont group, because it's not their damned park. It's one of the most beautiful green spaces in Paris, a real gem in a very mixed neighbourhood, and 99% of people go there for the tulips and the trees. They're the real Buttes-Chaumont group!

As for Paris, it was as beautiful as always, but I did notice a lot of tension and nervousness that hadn't been there before. Big armed guys in camouflage were guarding all the Jewish schools and cultural centres. It's reassuring that there's extra protection, but also heart-breaking that this should be necessary. The only island of calm was the guy at my local kosher supermarket, right next to the park. When I asked him why he wasn't taking extra security measures, he just smiled and said "God protects us." 

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.