Thursday, 23 July 2009

Speaking of the weather

You'd think it would be oh so cliche to talk about the weather now that I am in England but the weather is an important variable for me. I mean, it is one of the most discernible differences between Liberia and England. 

I have gone from five years in tropical climate where it rains for half the year and does not for the rest to a place which actually has four seasons. Having basically only two season in Liberia - well maybe two and half as there is a subtle coolness that descends thanks to wind sweeping down from the Sahel around December and January something which we fondly call the harmattan - gives one a different perspective on time.  Time moves differently in such a place. Having four seasons again here - we also get four glorious seasons in Pakistan and relish each one - was kind of nice. Time seems to be in a bit of rush with the four seasons. I guess time seems to march quickly here. 

When I first got here, I severely missed the sun in Liberia, the lush greenery, the warmth and of course, the sense of community. It was already October when I got here and, it was pretty grey and drab. Or to put it in other words, quite depressing. Nevertheless, it was still nice to experience having to wear warm clothes again, to have a real excuse to drink hot chocolate and to see London paralysed with the freak snow storm in February. The setting of the sun at 4 pm threw me off though - you'd have the night start at that time and your mind and body want to go to sleep. 

Spring was sweet though. I live close to Putney Bridge and it was just nice to take a walk around there. It was like seeing the earth awaken. The same walk during the cold weather was like walking through a frozen wasteland - nothing seem to be alive.  I forgot what bugs looked like. The trees were poverty-stricken bare. No greenery in sight, not even a leprechaun, not even a single cloverleaf, no nothing. Well actually that's not true. My walk takes me over the Hammersmith Bridge which is an eye-sore kind-of moss green. The first time I saw it, I was 'whaat the green monstrosity is this.' I mean, it is a friggin green bridge with some gold decorations to top it off. It is a giant green bridge! GIANT GREEN BRIDGE. GGB. 

Oh I came to Great Britain to do a Great Masters and Great Britain is full of Great Green Bridges.  

I personally believe that trolls live underneath it. So that was green. But not enough to beat the winter blues. 

The skies were miserably grey. But the whole place seemed to be a little more biologically alive in spring time. It was quite sweet and there was some beautiful flora and fauna to observe and enjoy. 

Summertime has been even more delightful. There is no evidence whatsoever of the miserable-Charles-Dickens-kind-of-depths-of-despair-won't-you-kill-me-please-depressing London any longer. It was amazing how the locals just threw off their clothes in joy. The parks became beaches - literally! You'd see everyone in their friggin bathing suits enjoying the sun. I mean, anything that even resembled a park became a beach. It was quite amusing to see this spectacle. The tube people - haha, the tube people - started making suggestions that now that it was hot, it would be advisable to carry a bottle of water around. Well, after all my road trips through some of the worst 'roads' in the rainy season and some tough bush in Liberia which used to make me car sick among other things and of course, that 12-hour ride through the desert in Balochistan where I was boiling which I will never forget, I can take anything. These tube rides are a walk in the park, baby. 

Well jokes aside, it did get quite stuffy in the tube - you'd think being such an advanced country they'd have air conditioning. I am used to slightly hotter and more humid weather but it did get quite balmy a few times. And one more thing, the longer days! They threw me off too. The sun was up at 4 am or even earlier and did not set until after 10 pm. That messes with your head, too. It is the whole northern hemisphere thing. It was the same when the family lived in Kazakhstan - we had really long summer days. But otherwise, it is nice to see a pleasant, green and happy London. It is a completely different city. Puts you in a good mood and I may be wrong, but it seems everyone around is also pretty happy.  

The weather is but one of the differences between the part of Africa I lived in and England but so critical. It seems the two places are entirely different planets. Like I said earlier, it seemed like nothing was alive here in the winter. And, it seemed like such a harmless and safe - hence boring - environment to me. The environment in Liberia itself is something which people have to struggle against. The bush out there is no weakling bush. Trees out there are real trees - majestic and huge. The greenery out there needs no excuse to grow where ever it chooses to grow. When it rains, it pours for months at a stretch and makes the tracks and roads virtually impassable. The millions of dollars spent by the World bank on road rehabilitation in the country will probably only last another year because the bush is going to grow back and another rainy season will make those roads slush and uneven again. During last year's rainy season, I think entire communities in one of the areas of Monrovia got washed out. And let's not forget the sun - even at the height of the London summer, the sun out here does not compare to the sun out there. You might as well call it a moon. Everything is so pale compared to the climate and scenery of the Africa I have seen. The soil is red - here is it a dark brown. And the sunsets! 

I guess I have really thought about the differences in climate, the trees, the bugs, the weather from my time in Liberia and here in London. I have enjoyed having the four seasons again and seeing time move the way it did. It was amusing to see the parks of London become urban beaches. It has been nice to see happier Londoners. Musing about the weather and my surroundings also made me think how the ordinary Liberian really has to struggle against the weather and the harsh environment that is made harsher because of poor infrastructure. I do also look forward to going back to warmer places, fantastic sunsets, real fruit and a real sense of belonging to my fellow man and woman.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Dinner parties

I have hosted a few get together's with my brother this year in London. It has been a very pleasant experience. It has made me fondly remember and realise where Tariq and I get our oh so special diplomatic and hospitality skills from. It also helped me to realise that this is yet another one of those things that my brother and I do so well together.

Speaking of what we do so well together. Firstly, I would have to relate a little bit about ourselves. Tariq and I are exactly a year and a week apart. He was born on 20 August 1980 and I was born on 13 August 1979. In our first 'abroad' experience in Ankara, our mother used to take us around in one of those 'twin' prams!

Almost all of my childhood experiences involve Tariq. We were always up to something. One of my earliest memories is of Tariq getting hurt really badly. You see, he was always running into walls and this one time, he nearly split his head open. We had been playing together as usual and I tried to hide it from our mother by wrapping his head in one of her dupattas which I used to play with. He got a lot of stitches. Poor kid. Come to think of it, a lot of our childhood escapades involved a lot of bleeding and stitches. He once stabbed me with a pencil in Bonn. I also fell into a poison ivy patch in Bonn, I wonder if it was him who pushed me over the fence. The worst episode was in Bucharest when Tariq and I were horsing around and, this glass door fell on me and I ended up with a gushing wound on my wrist. I had to have nearly 15 stitches. In Dakar, Tariq was crushing ice and stabbed himself, his pinky. I also threw an encyclopedia at him and narrowly missed his eye. You might think we were trying to kill each other but I assure you it was not the case. All these incidents usually happened by accident and often when our parents were not in close vicinity or not at home at all.

Of course, we have always been a quarrelsome brother-sister duo but we did not try to kill each other. In fact, when we were in our teens, we used to fight so much we used to go into these 'not-on-speaking-terms' phases. I think we even went into a debate tournament together in Athens during one of these phases.

So then, what have we done so well? Well, we were each others' childhood friends, chums, co-adventurers, co-explorers, etc. We used to do everything together - playing with lego, running around, watching cartoons, coming up with secret clubs and handshakes, planning run away's (we ran away twice in Islamabad), him skipping a grade and being with me all the time, trying to publish our own school newspaper at Dakar Academy (which was sadly rejected because Mr. Agnor started his own), becoming debate partners at ACS in Athens, coming to London together for our undergrad, and so on.

More recently, we teamed up to get a flat together in London. Tariq was kind enough to ask me whether I wanted to go in with him at the time he was thinking of getting property in his city. And, because I had managed to save some money since I have started working, I was in a position 'to go in' with him. It was a nice feeling to be able to do this with my brother. He also came to visit me in Liberia and spent two weeks with my boyfriend and I. My brother was the perfect guest, got along with Wesley and the rest of my friends. I sent him up to Lofa County to my Pakistani peacekeeper friends and he charmed them too. Thereafter, whenever I met a Pakistani peacekeeper in Liberia, I came to be known as Tariq's sister! We also criss crossed across Iran last year for about two weeks and then crossed into Balochistan at the border. That was a great trip. I will never forget discovering Iran with him but I will never forget that excruciating 12-hour bus ride through the desert from the border to Quetta during which we chatted to a gold smuggler and Tariq loudly singing to Junoon's 'Neend Aati Nahin'.

So when it comes to dinner parties, it seems that we really know how to put together a party and to be hosts. You see, we've been seeing our parents entertain all our life. Being in the diplomatic service, hosting events, meeting people from different countries and cultures, representing one's country was part of every day life. When my father became an ambassador, the responsibility to do all that was even more heightened. It was either a reception at our place or a dinner for the diplomatic corps or a visiting delegation from Pakistan. Or, it was them who had to attend some function. Their weekly schedule of events was posted on a clipboard and, Tariq and I used to regularly scan it. If our parents had a reception or a dinner to go to, it meant having our own private in the house. We would watch movies, TV and eat snack food and drink coca cola to our hearts' content. When Saira came along, our job was to baby sit her. In the beginning we did not know what to do with her when she was still a baby. Once she started to cry non stop and, we called them back from a dinner after half an hour. There's also the Michael Jackson story - you see Michael Jackson had come to Bucharest for a concert and guess what? Our entire friggin school was there, all our classmates, everyone, and what do our parents do? We baby sit Saira and they went to the concert themselves! Yes, you read that correctly. We missed the one and only opportunity to really see Michael Jackson in concert. And apparently, it was a spectacular once. This was part of his 'Dangerous' tour.

If it came to an event at our house, we were also a part of the process. When we were still very small (that's in Romania), our job was to dress up little Saira in her new frock and send her down so she could meet the guests. When we got a bit older and that in Dakar, we had to start helping out. We would get the instructions from our mother - when to turn off the 'dum' from the pilao or the sequence of the food to go in. No we did not do any cooking, we were there to help the staff in the kitchen. Or, we would help to put together a collection of 'millay naghme' for national day receptions. It was always a lot of fun, being part of it. If we were having an event at our house, bouquets of flowers would be sent over starting the day before. Or, on the day of the dinner, they would get the coolest presents, some special chocolates or sweets or a vase or something typical from a country. Likewise, our parents had a stock of 'typical' things to gift - onyx, walnut or rose-wood boxes with mother-of-pearl in lay, embroidered cushion covers, shawls and so on. That reminds me, our mother would sometimes be part of these charity fairs put together by the diplomatic ladies and, we would help her to 'sell' stuff at the Pakistani stall. Or there would be a Pakistani pavillion at one of the international trade fairs which we would visit. All good fun.

So I guess, hosting and entertainment comes easily to us and we have a lot of fun doing it. I have certainly gained some mastery over cooking and entertaining in Liberia. Wesley and I have hosted dozens and dozens of dinner parties, Eid parties, a huge Christmas lunch, a fund raising party for the earthquake, movie nights, and so on. Hosting with Wesley is great because for our big do's he does an entire sheep. Nah, we're not cheap, we go all the way.

It was nice to do this one thing with Tariq here in London as well. We seem to like to clean the whole place before the party and after the party (including some nasty wine stains on the beautiful cream-coloured carpet). I was happy to be able to try my cooking and test it on London folk - my finest hour was probably the pilao with almonds and two leg of lambs. We try to be as inclusive as possible. I consciously make the effort to mingle and talk with everyone and Tariq does too. I think he's a bit more easy going than I am, I actually got a little irritated with some of the peoples' behaviour. He had planned to ask people to take off their shoes for the last dinner party but chickened out at the last minute - he was too embarassed to ask a girl. Nice guy. I on the other hand, found it very cheeky of some people to be gate crashing and/or inviting some of their own friends who would gate crash our parties. I find it interesting that while some people clearly appreciate the effort it goes to putting together a party, especially a dinner one, others take it for granted. I have to tell myself to take it easy and that it's all part of the fun. For instance it is important to take note of those who do come to your events, especially if they had to make a great deal of effort to travel to your place. I mean, I realised this was true even in Liberia and even here in London.

The thing I will remember fondly is that I was able to host parties with my brother. It was also a pleasure to see little Saira being the little grownup and being able to easily mingle with our grown up friends. She even helped to make sure the 'dum' was turned off (I am becoming like my mother, telling her to mind the 'dum' while I shower and dress, that was exactly what our mother used to tell me!!) and she also helped to serve the food. And, she was keeping a tab on who Tariq was chatting up and reporting back. Not that I told her to do so, she is just very possessive of Tariq. It was fun to host with Tariq and see that we are so similar in this respect.

I think being able to be hospitable is a good trait. It was part of our culture and of our grooming. It helps one to be part of society. It helps to appreciate other cultures and other ways. It is certainly full of surprises, good and bad. It even deepens relationships with friends in some cases! And sometimes you get the most thoughtful thank you notes and gifts. So all in all, I'm glad I hosted with Tariq!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A Talk by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The MDGs - A Moral Challenge
13 July 
St Paul's Cathedral


What an honour, what a privilege to see and hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu! I cannot even explain how moving an experience it was for me to hear him speak. 

We all hold Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in such high esteem. I have known these figures as part of the struggle against apartheid. Even before I actually knew what apartheid was in any kind of real detail, I always knew it was something terrible, literally it was as vague as that. I mean I only really got to know a little idea of what it might have been like through my boyfriend but before that it was something 'just bloody awful.' And, I knew that Mandela was in prison for almost 30 years by this regime. My father had told us about this Mandela fellow who was put in prison for that long. Now that I think about it, half of our father's teaching was always struggle-based. I remember him making a socialist, Marxist link to Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. He had these very clearly defined greats of history and contemporary politics. If I remember correctly, he was telling us that even before the end of apartheid. The entire forgiving part of it came much later into my consciousness and, when it did, it really blew my mind. I used to ask my boyfriend, but how could you guys just swallow that? How could you forgive? I could never wrap my head around it. Not that my boyfriend is a saintly figure or that he did not have any generational and existential anger in him, but he tried to explain to me what they heck South Africa was trying to do. First, he explained the concept of ubuntu to me - 'I am a human because you are a human' - and that they had preserved their own humanity by forgiveness. And then, what other option was there for mixed race families? Finally, perhaps they had found something within this paradigm of forgiveness and it would inform future conflicts. 

My boyfriend and I also made frequent comments on the TRC process in Liberia. We were not sure whether about the impact the process was making in terms of national reconciliation. His comment was that the TRC did make an impact in uncovering the truth and healing because it did not have the moral leadership of someone like Desmond Tutu; it seemed to be a technical affair in Liberia.  

Well now I can at least say I have some idea of Desmond Tutu's persona and moral persuasion. And perhaps understand how it could be possible a nation could go through truth and reconciliation. You sure would need the leadership. At the same time, we outsiders also have to acknowledge that yes the  leadership did guide South Africa from apartheid to democracy but it would not be possible without the ordinary man and woman's participation, that the nation itself, the black majority, has to be given credit and a place in history. Of course, the TRC process cannot really be complete without alleviating the poverty, suffering and enduring legacy of the apartheid but nevertheless, we have to still acknowledge the the route that South Africa followed in terms of a peaceful end of conflict and post conflict justice. Of course, people argue that the peace came at a high cost to the victims of apartheid as they still suffering from the legacy of apartheid. That is all true but we have to acknowledge that the South Africans managed to peacefully bring about the end of apartheid; moreover, they forgave their white oppressors. Africa is great for having, then, produced, a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu but also for people that forgave their very oppressors. 

My friend Cecilia had told me about this lecture, otherwise I would not have known about it. I told some of my brother's friend to come along too - something 'un-corporate for the corporate types - and it turns out that one of my brother's good friends, Gautham, had been planning to attend it for a few months as he was a member for Advocates for International Development, the organisation that put this event together. Another mutual friend Karina said she'd be there but she didn't make it. Tariq was working late on a transaction and couldn't be there.  

The event took place at St Paul's Cathedral. I went there a bit earlier to check out the place and take my photographs. I think I might have seen the Cathedral many years ago but I do not remember. It was truly majestic and there was great light that day so I was able to get some great shots. I queued up a half earlier which I am glad for because I managed to get a seat closer to the podium. Entering the cathedral really took my breath away - maybe because I have not been inside for many many years now. The last time I was in a church or cathedral in Europe must have been Rome during the Christmas holidays when Tariq and I came from our first year in university in London back to Greece (where our parents and little sis were) and the family travelled to Italy by boat. We were 19 and 18 years old and had done two years of Humanities in high school which included studying the art of the Renaissance. We could really appreciate the time in Rome unlike our younger days when the Gothic (or whatever it was) churches and cathedrals used to scare us. Well anyway, the cathedral was absolutely beautiful inside. 

The talk

I caught a glimpse of the Archbishop walk in and everyone knew he had entered the space. His figure was short and one could see he was an old man. He had such a humble air about him. He went to sit at his seat which was just a few paces away from mine, at the end of his aisle so I could see his back. 

He was introduced by Patricia Janet Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the current Attorney General for England Wales and Northern Ireland. Gee, what long titles. It's so friggin pretentious. How about just lawyer-in-chief? It's fitting and cool. I must say that her introduction was really fake and politician-y - so many greats have been trained as lawyers (Gandhi, Lincoln, Mary Robinson, etc), Desmond Tutu is a personal hero of hers, he was 'spiritual icon' of our times, Advocates for Development are doing such a great job, MDGs are so important, etc. So she finally came to a stop after probably at least 15 minutes and let the guest of honour speak. 

Mr. Tutu went up to the podium, started speaking and just blew everyone away with his talk. He was humorous, he was poignant, he was passionate, he was sincere, he was politically charged, and he was so damn great. And I will say from the outset, I cried during this talk. I do not know why but I cried. I do not know whether it is I am missing my boyfriend a lot. I do not know whether it is just knowing I was in the presence of someone who led a nation into forgiving and reconciling. Someone who is so great. I guess it was just humbling in every respect. 

Mr. Tutu made quite a few jokes about how old he was getting and how - what's his word - decrepit he was now. It was really cute. There was one about how a school was being named after him in the Netherlands that had been founded four hundred years ago or something. A little girl comes up to him and asks him whether he was around on the first day the school was opened! Apparently, they changed the name of the school afterwards. And then, there was a joke about a professor and his driver who switch places so the professor would not have to give the same lecture over and over again. The driver would keep the lecture long enough to not have any chance of questions. But this one time, a question did come up and it was quite convoluted. The driver says, 'is that it? even my driver in the back can answer that one!'

So what was the 'bee in his bonnet?' Being a man of the cloth, he interspersed a lot of his talk with biblical references - the story of Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, etc. He spoke of interdependence and the idea that human beings are made together, need each other and cannot be solitary, not even conceptually. This is the essence of ubuntu - something which I first heard of from my boyfriend. That 'I am human because you are human.' It is quite a profound concept, thought, idea, sentiment, philosophy. That our humanity is in others, is because of others. How did Mr. Tutu say it? 'My humanity is caught up in your humanity.' When you de-humanise others, you de-humanise yourself. 

He spoke about the TRC and I was pretty amazed he did. He said that they had to hear people talk about how they chopped up human beings, burned their flesh for hours, while having a barbecue nearby. He said 'we had wondered' at how depraved a soul must be to cook human flesh while cooking animal flesh too. I remembered reading that during this year for the course and something like that really shocks you. That a regime like that existed and police or military officers went around doing that. How did that work? Now that I think about it, hearing about apartheid makes me feel so overwhelmed because I think of how my own boyfriend grew up under it and, could very well have been a kid who may have been picked up and disappeared. Just like that. 

There was a part where the Archbishop was telling a story about Jesus Christ and how his 'all' meant everyone. To explain how God means all when He means all is the black and white and yellow, the gay and lesbian and so-called straight (that got a few laughs), Israel and Palestine and Hamas and Fatah and bin Laden (this got more of a profound silence that one can hear) and then George Bush (now this got the whole place laughing). There aren't any outsiders, everyone is an insider. 

He said that humanity was like a family and the family works like so, 'each according to his abilities, each according to his needs.' I didn't pick this up during the talk but Gautham pointed out later that it was Marx! So much for Cecilia and myself - SOAS students - not picking it up. In Cecilia's defense, she knows Marx in Spanish and I just don't obviously! Man, how embarrassing. I am a fake SOAS student alas. 

I think it was a very political talk! Mr. Tutu said that the world spends 'obscene' amounts of money - in the trillions - on 'budgets of death and destruction'. Moreover, the war on terror is not going to be won. Not as long as people are desperate. He said that trillions is spent on nuclear armaments but only a $1 was needed on a child to vaccinate against measles. He said that developing countries are told to invest in agriculture however the trade barriers that are put up make it a 'joke.' He said that the EU pays $ 2.5 dollars per cow per day to farmers however 3 billion people subsist on less than a $ 1 a day. And then he says, 'as you know I try not to be controversial.' I am amazed that he mentioned all that he had mentioned because these are the explosive issues of the day as far as freaking development is concerned. He also spoke about Iraq and how he had tried to convey to the White House that the inspectors in Iraq should be given more time. George Bush did not speak to him directly but Condolezza Rice did and said, it would not be possible. He said since then it was found that it was all fabrication and lies. That the people of Iraq should be apologised to by George Bush and Tony Blair. I think it was something very powerful he said saying it where he did say it. 

Mr. Tutu mentioned a cartoon where God has lost a copy of the Divine Plan. And it certainly seems like that is the case. That 'evil has the last word.' But no, there is still hope and compassion. He was pleased to see the work of Advocates for Int'l Development, the fact so many lawyers were present for free, to see so many young people. He said that the good work vindicates everything else. 

It was not just what he said was so powerful but also the way he said it and how he balanced it all with humour and emotion and gravity. There were bits of it that made one feel injustice and pain but other parts to make one feel hopeful and human. The MDGs and all the blah blah talk usually makes me roll my eyes - I mean come on, the MDGs?! Some vague targets are going to develop a country? Some vague targets to make us feel even more miserable about how we are so far away from those targets? Some targets which the UN cannot and probably will not reach even with all the billions they have in their budgets? But I could stand to hear about the moral cause behind the MDGs from someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When I have heard about the MDGs from one of our big bosses in the UNDP, it just sounded like bullshit to me, some guy earning probably $ 20,000/month not even including all the freaking benefits talking about it, usually made me want to puke. Why? Because it was all so a-political. It was so neo-liberal. It was so fake. Mr. Tutu was very political though and he was not naive about it either. This is someone who has spent their life in a struggle and seen through it. Led others. They know what they're saying. Somehow I can suspend my cynicism. Amazing but true. 

It was truly an honour to be there. It was an amazing mix of spirituality, God, people, humanity and politics that I could be open to. And that the speakers' voices were booming in that cathedral's space made it even more powerful in a way. 

I had a nice drink with Gautham and Cecilia afterwards. We exchanged our thoughts, about development, our near futures, etc. I wonder when next I will be able to do this but it is a privilege for sure. I would not have seen the inside of the Cathedral otherwise and I wonder when next I would ever get to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu in London. 


A priest had actually been the first speaker who made a brief note of the occasion, that all were welcome to the Cathedral (Christian, other faiths and non believers). It is pretty impressive that in this day and age, everyone is welcomed to that space, even non believers. Imagine how much the world has changed where this all is really all inclusive. This would not have been the case a few centuries ago,  a couple decades ago.

I think the South Africans, Africans and the world is so lucky to have a figure like Desmond Tutu. 

I think I can more fully appreciate the idea that the Church has been part of struggles. It is a bit less abstract for me now I guess. I mean I did have an idea that the Church, moreover the Catholic Church, was instrumental in the struggle against the dictatorships in Latin America. But it's better to have a more concrete idea of it! 

I told my boyfriend I went to this talk. He said that he was the 'typical neighbourhood minister or pastor.' I was like, typical?! He said he'd heard a few of his sermons and met him too a couple of times. The reason he did have the moral leadership during the TRC process for example was because the majority of people are Christian and they would be led. He was part of the struggle as well and he pretty much got the position by 'default.' Though he speaks of God and all that, he does not do it from a judgmental position - he gives it as it is. I think that is really what it was. That he did not do it from a 'holier than though' high horse. And he wasn't divisive either. That's pretty great, eh? 

I'll be honest, I have lost God. And it's pretty bad considering all things. I lost God in my twenties and never ever imagined I would. It was just not conceivable on any level. Not even philosophical level - our parents, especially our father, brought us up believing in God without any contradiction to science or any other discipline of thought, God made even more sense because of science. Moreover being Ahamdis we knew it better than anyone. But I did lose God and have been in sort of a no-man's land. I am not quite sure whether I am a complete aetheist but I am in a not-a-fan-of-organised-religion phase right now. I couldn't care less about it. I do still love having my Muslim cultural identity but that is how far it goes. So any way, I am still fascinated by those who believe in God. I think it is amazing, for instance, how those who live in poverty or have seen a lot of shit still believe in God. In fact, they seem to believe in God even more so. There are some pretty intelligent people out there who believe in God. It is fascinating. So what makes mere mortals like me so friggin arrogant about it? Whatever makes one tick I guess or makes sense at the moment. Who knows? Maybe I will find God again. But I sure can tell you, it was nice listening to the Archbishop. 

PS. This suddenly reminds me of Dakar Academy and the Twilight Zone kind of atmosphere we had there. It was all about damning and judgement along with the singing in the chapel. It was a very happy go lucky bunch, 'we are all going to heaven,' Jesus loves us all, blah blah - but if you ask them, what about those who had not accepted Jesus Christ has their saviour? Nope, they're going to hell. 

PSS. The idea of transformative justice versus punitive justice after the end of conflicts was a main theme this year in VCD. Punitive justice as a standard was set with the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi regime after the end of WW2. The freaking WW2 seems to have set the standard for a lot of thinking on wars, frankly. Evil versus good, one ideology pitted against another, clear sides of in a war, clear victims and oppressors, clear victors and the defeated, clear beginning and end, clear justice and reconstruction - well at least how it is romanticised and documented. The United Nations was set up - 'never again would we have war.' However, the war did not end there, did it? Sure, the Nazis were defeated but the 'real shit' - the ideological warfare of the Cold War - had just begun. The Soviet Union and American were merely convenient partners against Nazi Germany but they had always been suspicious of each other. The end of WW2 was merely a pause - the real goddam World War was the Cold War where the Soviet Union and America fought on the world stage, every theatre they could find. History did not end with WW2 but with the Cold War (Fukuyama). The Cold War was really equally critical if not more than WW2. So, point oneWar did not begin or end with WW2. The Cold War immediately followed. Point two: I don't know what point two is. Oh yes, WW2 has set the standards for the kind of justice that should follow after the end of conflict. Even a friggin bank was set up for reconstruction after war. Whole-hearted reconstruction happened in Europe and Japan. However, ironically, this reconstruction - the Marshall Plan - assistance has never really been extended to any other state recovering from war. So it is blue print but it is not. They want everyone else to follow punitive justice - where possible - but not give the necessary assistance to stabilise and consolidate peace. 

Communication Power - Manuel Castells

"We think with our feelings and rationalise based on those feelings."
9 July, LSE

I don't know where I know the name Manuel Castells from but I remember reading it somewhere. I know I should look it up from one of my study packs (where I am sure I have read it) but I feel too lazy to do so. I thought the lecture would be interesting so I went along. This and the 21st Century Museum lecture were ticketed events so I had to queue up in the 'returns line' to get a space as I had not requested a ticket from the LSE on time. And, I was lucky enough to get into the lecture theatre instead of having to see it from the video-link that was set up in the next room. 

The lecture was actually a book launch for Castells' latest book Communication Power. He was introduced by Prof Robin Mansell who is the head of the media and communications department at the LSE. Castells is known for his work initially on Marxist urban sociology and thereafter for power relations, communication theory of power, networks, etc. 

It was a really interesting lecture given it was on communication, power relations, the new digital age, the mix of politics and media, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We are seeing a lot of developments taking place and new spaces and possibilities being formed so it was nice to hear an academic talk on this and get some perspective. 

The Prof said that he had given two previous lecture at the LSE: i) 2004 was on politics and power and ii) 2008 was on the central role of the internet. 

It was quite a lengthy talk so I will just list some of the key points that I picked up:

  • Power is exercised by the capacity for violence and coercion and secondly, to shape the mind. He said that purely coercive power was less decisive than the power that shapes meaning in our minds. 
  • Media is fundamentally a business - make money or win influence. 
  • Digitalisation of information and the rise of self mass communication. Whereas once it was a message from one to many, now it is many to many. These two do interact - but do not necessarily merge. This has also led to cultural transformation. The audience is not passive but an active and even a 'creative audience' that creates, produces and controls content. People that are interacting are not just 'receiving' any longer. 
  • How is meaning constructed in peoples' minds? Research in political psychology shows us that people tend to believe what they want to believe (gasp!) and it is based on emotions(gasp gasp!). Rational-choice economists and believers, this puts you out of commission. I guess you guys have to flip burgers now. The War on Terror has been successful in influencing opinion because it plays on peoples' fears of terrorists. Despite the fact that it was established that the Iraq invasion was based on fabricated evidence of WMDs and a 9-11 link, people in the US still believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9-11. 
  • Media politics or communication politics is the 'politics of our time.' It has led to a personalisation of politics. We think with our feelings. We don't read. This emotional processing leads you to trust whomever you are connected with. He spoke of character assassinations and scandal politics. 
  • Today there is a crisis of legitimacy of the political system - corruption, failure of democracy - as well as the financial crisis. This has led to a 'double crisis.' People don't believe in the state or the market. 
  • Phenomenon like YouTube and Facebook are creating 'constant possibilities.' The 'genie is out of the bottle' and can't be put back. There is 'autonomy of communication.'
  • Modern communication tools are leading to development of instant communities of practice. They are also helping to create 'outrage movements.' He gave the example of the elections in Spain in 2004. And the recent election violence in Iran. The government tried to shut down wi-fi and cell phones but did not and would not shut down the Internet - it would be virtually impossible. More servers would spring up to keep the system up. He said Twitter was not so much key here because apparently more people outside of Iran were active on it including Israel! The Internet cannot bring down a government but can open up a realm of possibilities. 
  • Difference between social movements and insurgent politics. Social movements use available tools like the Internet to change values while insurgent politics start in the margins of the system and try to change power. YouTube and Facebook are then social movements. 
  • The global climate change movement could be said to be a social movement which once had hardly any people informed about it whereas 85% of people have knowledge of it today (I guess these are US opinion polls). 
  • The Obama campaign could be said to be insurgent politics. Young people connected to the Internet were part of the campaign. The co-founder of Facebook was an adviser to the campaign. The grassroots was part of this campaign. The Internet reinforced the grassroots and vice versa. The Obama campaign did not use lobby money but received money from the grassroots. Castells cracked a joke that now Obama is the president he has a real problem now. He is President of the US. He has also generated such a high level of hope. Obama tapped into emotions and wired our brains with 'change' and 'hope.' Hillary was on about her 'experience.' 
The Prof proposed four kinds of power and networks. Networks have the tendency to dissolve power. We have to re-analyse power in asymmetrical networks:

  1. Networking power - the power of letting in the network, exclusion, gatekeeping
  2. Net war power (?) - power of setting standards i.e. Washington Consensus (aha!)
  3. Network power - within the network
  4. Network - making power - programming and switching, networks of power connected through switches, e.g. the Rupert Murdoch empire that is connected to finance, media, politics
There was an interesting question on how markets were different from networks but I did not quite get the answer. One or the other does not have any control. I wonder which. Well, markets did not have any control and that is what led to the financial crisis so let's go with markets. Markets are different from networks because they are not controlled. 

There was also a question about the BBC and other media that are getting a lot of their information, opinions from ordinary citizens - 'citizen journalists.' Were they just going cheap instead of getting academics, professionals? (This is something Wesley and I are always wondering too) But the Prof said that BBC has a large desk just for fact checking. Therefore, it is not that they are skipping professional, academic insights but this is a parallel dimension to the news we get today.

On an end note, I think it was an interesting lecture. Phenomena like Facebook or YouTube are truly changing the way we receive information, process it and disseminate it further on. It challenges mainstream media. The audience is not a passive, receiving audience any longer. We have seen the impact of this people media on elections - one of the critical aspects of democracy - in the US and Iran. There are also alternatives to the big newsmakers like BBC and CNN - i.e. Huffington Post in the US. The fact that people are able to relay information first hand themselves using technology like mobile phones, cameras, texting, Facebook, Twitter sort of challenges mainstream media and forces it to be more interactive. Like the Prof said, there are constant possibilities being created. Underlying all this is what the Prof said in the beginning - that the more decisive power is not the capacity for coercion or violence but the power to shape meaning in peoples' minds. 

Having studied VCD this year and the critique against classical, rational-choice economics forcing itself into the social sciences, it was interesting to hear the Prof saying that people are 'not rational beings and we rationalise with our feelings!' 

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Museum of the 21st Century

Neil MacGregor, Director British Museum
Nicholas Serota, Director Tate Modern
John Wilson, BBC
7 July 2009, LSE

I must be in love with the LSE or something - I'm either there or at SOAS. Thing is that I want to catch any lecture that I can while I am still in London, while I am still a student. It has been absolutely delightful to go hear all these academics, intellectuals, bankers, journalists, lawyers, etc.   When next am I going to get the chance to do this? I must soak it in as much as I can. 

I've heard some great talks at SOAS but LSE is a bit of a more happening place. Furthermore, there seem to be events going on even through the summer while there's not much happening at SOAS unless I am not keeping up. 

I was very interested by the title of this talk 'The Museum of the 21st Century.' Museums seem to be more than just public spaces housing art, artefacts, history, exhibitions, dinosaurs and fossils today. For example, one hears of millions of dollars spent on an acquisition or the sale of an art piece. And expensive art is housed in these museums. One reads of weird modern art - spliced cows in formaldehyde, a woman's unmade bed, a huge crack in the floor. Whatever controversy or fascination or excitement that surrounds art is undoubtedly linked to museums as well for that is where the average person usually interacts with art. Museums are as important as art, history and ideas themselves. Then we have controversies such as whether the British Museum has any legal right to continue to keep the Elgin Marbles - the British Museum has said that Greece cannot protect the Marbles, that the Marbles will be better cared for in the UK, etc. The British Museum holds antiquities from all over the world. We often joke that if we have to see pieces of our history, we need to come to the UK. Finally, I think museums as spaces are so interesting because modern architecture seems to be transforming our idea of buildings and spaces where sometimes the building itself overshadows anything within the building itself. As for fossils and dinosaurs and natural history museums, what would our childhoods look like without visits to those museums? 

Museums are littered all over novels and movies. "Squid and the Whale" - the title of the movie comes from one of the character's memory of seeing a display of a squid attacking a whale in the museum. The character of Gwyneth Paltrow in "The Royal Tenebaums" hides in a museum for a few days when she's a kid. Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye goes to meet his little sister in the museum and as we know, Holden is obsessed with things changing and at least the museum represents a place where things don't change. There's "A Night at the Museum" (the first one was great, the sequel was crap, one of the worst possible sequels ever made) and the dumbing down of history and biology for Hollywood. There are movies with robberies of art pieces such as the "Thomas Crowne Affair." 

It could be such a powerful metaphor or symbol in a short story or novel, eh? I am making a mental note of this - if I ever get to writing a story, it will be set in a museum. 

So what was the talk about? Well firstly, seeing the two directors and the director of LSE, all so seemingly English and what's the word, distinguished and gentlemanly, was quite amusing. The BBC fellow was a thorough journalist though - whizzing through his questions and facilitating the discussion.

The talk was to mark 60 years of Thames and Hudson, "the most eminent publisher of illustrated books in the world" according to their website. So there was a short note from the son of the fellow who founded the publishers before the talk started.

The introduction by the BBC journalist, John Wilson, was quite hilarious. He said that having these two directors together was like getting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together for "Heat!"

The directors were asked why they were still doing their jobs and both were gleeful of the privilege they had, being able to roam around the galleries when no one was around, being so close to the greatest works of art or Ramses II and so on.

Both of them really made the effort to point out how museums and their place in society is quite different from the United States. Public collections in the UK are really public collections and because museums do not charge entry, the relationship that has been forged between the collections and society is very different to that in the US. The cultural realm was depoliticised in 1753 by the creation of the British Museum. The National Gallery is situated for example where it is so that people from the East End could easily walk there. It was amusing to see the directors bashing the Americans in the polite way they did. The Tate Modern fellow said that they actually had artists on their board while this was not the case in America.* 

In response to the question of 'black clouds over public spending' and the ominous danger they might pose to their museums, the directors said they weren't terribly worried about funding. Moreover, they did not think they would come to a point where they would have to start charging people. 

The British Museum director waxed lyrical about London and how it was the greatest city there was. How did he put it? The world was London and London was the world. The UK's multi culturalism came from having different cultures co-exist in contrast to America which was a melting pot or France where people had to 'become' French. This was an interesting way to put it. Furthermore, he said that the distinction between home and abroad does not exist any longer. And because of ahem, the UK's imperial history, the UK has the kind of treasures, antiquities and artefacts it does (making the distinction even more blurred!). He was going on something about trusteeship created by the Parliament. What a great word, or shall I say, what a great SOAS MSc Violence Conflict and Development word! 

The British Museum Director, probably a little more so than the Tate fellow, was really building up a grandeur about it all. As far as collections in museums go and relating to and creating public consciousness are concerned, indeed, that is so. Museums are some of the most significant spaces in society - creating an ever more important link between people and art, history, ideas, biology and so on. As for the British attitude toward these spaces and making them free and public, it is indeed commendable. The British public and visitors are very lucky their government has believed that such access art and history and science should be free. Moreover, as the British Museum director was saying, there is great effort being made to share collections all over the world and to educate people about linkages between cultures and periods of history. 

For instance,  an exhibition on Shah Abbas of Iran was held at the British Museum and Chinese pottery was also shown in the same show. The Museum had also gone to Iran to work with the Iranians to put on this exhibition. Agreements for cultural exchanges were made. The Iranians had actually asked to be loaned the Cylinder of Cyrus but that request is on hold at the moment given the current situation in Iran following the elections. 

So the British Museum director spoke about the Elgin Marbles. Sure, the Greeks had now built a brand new museum which could house and protect the Marbles but that was not really the stand of the Museum. The Marbles belong to the world, they are part of a shared human culture and history. It is a matter of how you see them - as cultural inheritance of national self? Moreover, this is not the European way; Europe's great works are housed in various museums across the continent. The real question here is how can we show these Marbles and other collections to China and Africa. Let's not politicise culture. Let us remember that it was only when the Marbles came to London that people were really able to study them and seem them clearly because before at their height no one had really looked at them closely. 

I was thoroughly amused by the British Museum director's train of thought. Gee, we are global citizens. It does not matter where history or art is kept as long as the world can share and enjoy it. We are now beyond these national boundaries and limited way of thinking. How can he speak like this? Everyone knows that the 'excuse' the British Museum had in keeping Greece's national treasures was that Athens was too polluted and the Marbles were better off in London. Now that the Greeks have built a new museum, it is not about pollution but about shared culture and history. Well why don't we uproot the Parthenon and bring it to London so we may more fully appreciate the Marbles in context. I mean, would it not be more of a fantastic experience to actually see the whole thing together as it once was? 

When it came round to questions from the audience, none was asked about the Elgin Marbles. I don't know whether there was not enough time or people thought it pointless. A question was asked on whether the museums would prefer to have an endowment rather than yearly funding - both the directors agreed they liked the present system which forced them to think about their finances and spending and activities on a frequent basis. 

A few questions were asked on how the museums were going to harness the technological/digital age. The directors stressed that this was indeed the future and their curators would have to spend as much time online as otherwise. Whether numbers of visitors would decline if they could just visit the museums online, the directors were not so sure. What was exciting was how having content online could provide access to people in other countries. For instance, students of Ramallah were able to view Islamic calligraphy online as they could not visit the Museum in London. The Tate Modern director said that in this new age, it was a question of whether museums were going to be authors or publishers. 

I found his remarks and over-excited emotions so thoroughly smelly. How can he conveniently change arguments - once it was about pollution and adquate housing for the Marbles and now it is something as noble as global citizenship? How can he talk about global citizenship in the way he did? Sure, it is nice to imagine ourselves as global citizens when one thinks of universal values, the Olympics, the UN, and global warming but this added layer of consciousness is in addition to national citizenship. The truth is most of us are still national citizens of one kind or the other. He should bear in mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to travel across these borders which are physical as well as symbolical as well as colonial as well as imperial. Borders that we see today were messily carved by imperial Europe. The borders that we see today keep out poor immigrants who try to escape poverty in the South and make desperate attempts to come to Europe to earn a better living. Forget economic migrants, even students find it difficult to come to Europe and American to study. So what the heck is he one about? Bless his imperial - sorry, global - soul.

Someone asked what the directors thought cultural vandalism was. I wonder whether at all this was a hint hint vis a vis the the Marbles but I can't be sure. The British Museum fellow said that he considered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas, historical sites in Iraq by the Americans and the recent destruction in Gaza as cultural vandalism, the 'destruction' of history. UNESCO was going to work to address the destruction in Gaza but had got nowhere so far. 

There was something about acquisitions. The Tate Modern fellow said in such non-chalant manner that 'we don't need to have every Turner out there.' The last one we got was very important though and we needed to complete the collection. The guy was talking about it as if it was his own house he was decorating. The British Museum guy said they were busy collecting Ghanaian cloth as these are made to mark important historical events. 

Some fellow called Richard York asked whether booming attendance figures would end up becoming 'bad for art.' Isn't this a bit contradictory? On the one hand, people are thinking that the digital age will reduce numbers and this fellow was saying that there was a time when museums and galleries would be virtually empty. He'd once asked the security guard why it was so empty and the guard had said, 'director likes it this way' - this got a lot of laughs from everyone. The response was that in such a case, opening hours could always be extended. 

The grandeur kept building up - collections can now be moved around, they don't have to permanent anywhere. Moreover, we need to re-configure our information for the benefit of non-Europeans. We need to de-Europeanise everything. What noble intentions! No, I am not being sarcastic - this is the first time I hear some sense! 

There was an interesting question from a girl - she wanted to know what the directors thought about the taking of art outside museums and whether this was an exploitation of art to lure visitors or just plain exploitation. Gee, I never knew art was being exploited! She was trying to get at the idea that art should only be seen within museums. But that's not entirely true. Aren't sculptures all over the place and are frequently commissioned and displayed in the public? 

There was a question on architecture! The Tate Modern fellow said that in some cases architecture indeed was superseding art itself. However, he felt that the most interesting buildings out there were done by artists acting as architects. Gee, how snobby. 

Well anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this mostly snobby talk. These two directors went on about as if they were royalty, legs crossed, reclined in their chairs, talking - no drawling about art and history, going on as if the museums were their living rooms. The Tate Modern director was really arrogant I think. It seemed as if the two have never done any real hard work in their lives. Oh well, bless their delicate souls. 

On an end note, it would haven been interesting to ask a question on the future of art itself. What would modern art look like in the 21st century and how will that shape art's relationship with museums as spaces which display art and allow people to interact with it. 

PS. I am really excited about going to see Amartya Sen on 27 July at the LSE!! 
PSS. This makes really want to visit a museum!

*This is something I found extremely amusing when I was an undergrad here. Having been schooled in American Int'l schools, naturally, I was more loyal to the US (never having been though) and thought the idea of coming to study in our former imperial masters' country a bit ridiculous but come here I did. I used to find it so contradictory how the Brits love and despise the Americans. I used to buy these movie magazines and found it absolutely hilarious how no matter how crap or average the movie would be, the editors would never have anything bad to say about a British movie (you can find all the industry can actually fit into one movie) yet British actors are clamouring to make it big in Hollywood.