If the dead could speak

If I should one day die, and should I happen to be in Rome when such an unlikely event takes place, I’d like to be buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not because I have anything against Catholics, of course, I may even be one by that point anyway. Possibly. It would just be nice to be laid for eternity next to such characters as Keats, Shelley and Gramsci. If the dead can actually speak I’m sure they’ll have enough to keep us moved, entertained and inspired for the rest of our, er, deaths. (Someone did once say if the dead could speak, we would not be able to understand them, but that’s by-the-by as I’d be dead myself then anyway).

Most of the other residents of the graveyard are immigrants, people who were born elsewhere and made their lives here. It struck me as an important place right now to reflect on migration and particularly on the experiences of those who for various reasons may have had or may be having a more tortuous passage to establishing themselves as foreign-born residents. It seems apt that in the cemetery there are at least two people from Syria – as it happens, ‘If the dead could speak’ was the title of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report into the horrific conditions endured by inmates of that unfortunate country’s torture prisons.

There is a bond that connects all migrants, living and dead, and if the residents of this cemetery, most of whom we might suppose came here in peace and out of their own volition, were to hear the details of the plight of those prisoners they would hopefully wish that their own good fortune, the welcome extended to them, were passed on to others. There is also the possibility that the experiences of migrants today would resonate with their memories of their first days or years in Italy; maybe those in the cemetery went through similar struggles to their those whose stories are quoted below. In any case, I would assume that they would at least want the voices of their living counterparts to be heard, whatever their reasons for coming here happen to be. As I myself am a living human being who happens to be an immigrant (one who has been made to feel very welcome here – and one from a country which has of late been a lot less welcoming than Italy has) those are very much my sentiments. What follows therefore are quotes from a number of sources, including the immigrants themselves, which, if we pay attention, may help us to better understand the current situation and help us to recognise what our own responsibilities as fellow migrants and living human beings are.

dsc_0058“The way people look at you and mutter about you on the bus or train, as though you’re dangerous. That would never have happened in the ’80s. Now if you want to rent a house, you’ll get a viewing appointment over the phone alright, but as soon as you get there and they see you’re black, you’ll either get told ‘it’s already gone’ or quite simply ‘the neighbours don’t want to live next to foreigners’. It’s become quite normal for people to admit they’re ‘anti-foreign’ and talk about it freely. They don’t differentiate between migrants and nationals with foreign parents.” (France 24, 2009)

dsc_0060“In July, in Quinto di Treviso, Northeast Italy, residents and far-right militants broke into flats destined to receive asylum-seekers, took the furniture outside and set it on fire, leading the authorities to move the asylum-seekers to another location.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0053“Akram, a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.” Human Rights Watch, 2016

dsc_0052“Mayor Alberto Panfilio said calm had been restored at the center, where up to 1,500 people have been placed in a facility originally meant for 15 migrants.” (Voice of America, 2017)

dsc_0050“Four Eritrean girls, aged 16 and 17, said that adult men constantly harassed them. Bilen, 17, said men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us… They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.”” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0044“Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0042“Kaiser Tetteh was from Ghana. He was kidnapped and imprisoned for three months in a makeshift jail in Libya by a smuggling gang. “Kidnapping is normal. If you are in a taxi they will kidnap you, they will take everything from you.” He said he witnessed the killing of 69 people in Libya during an escape attempt from the prison. “All the time you don’t sleep,” he said. “Everyone has guns. Even kids have guns.” Lucky told us he did not mind where he was resettled in Europe. “I’m a beggar, I don’t have any choice. I just want protection. I just need freedom.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0035““It is not easy to live here illegally,” Lisa, one of the volunteers told me. “I don’t know if people really want this, sleeping in the park or not having a job. “We think people are coming here because of war and violence, not because we are kind. We are doing something very human. We tell them where to go, where to eat and try to give them advice. We don’t want them to be illegal.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0029“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for a concerted international effort to block people-traffickers after the reported deaths of up to 700 migrants in the latest sinking in the Mediterranean. “We are asking not to be left alone,” Renzi told reporters after an impromptu cabinet meeting, adding that he wanted an emergency meeting of European Union leaders to be held this week to discuss the mounting migrant crisis. Renzi underlined that search and rescue missions alone were not sufficient to save lives. He said the problem could only be solved by preventing the criminal activity of people trafficking and stopping migrant boats from leaving Libya.” (Reuters, 2015)

dsc_0026“I left Ethiopia because of the political situation. I’m Oromo and in 1991 there was conflict between Tigrinya and Oromo. My grandfather and my father fought for the Oromo. Later, my father was arrested and my brother shot dead at university by the government. In Ethiopia if you are Oromo you can’t do anything. They arrest you and they can kill you. At the time I wasn’t involved in politics. My father and grandfather were part of the OLF party. The Ethiopian police came to question me, asking who was supporting the party. In 2013/14 they arrested me and held me for two months in the prison of Diradawa. They wanted to know where my uncle was. They didn’t give me food, only bread and water once every three days, and we had to do a lot of work in the prison.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0028“About seven months after Osama’s arrest, security officers stopped Firas at the gate of his university. “If you keep asking about your brothers, we will cut out your tongue,” they told him. That day, Firas fled Syria.” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

dsc_0027“Compounding Italy’s frustration is the fact that its northern neighbours, including France, Switzerland and Austria, have in effect closed their borders to migrants, preventing what had been a natural flow of refugees towards more prosperous parts of Europe.” (Financial Times, 2016)

dsc_0064“A 16 year old, named Djoka, from Sudan reported, “They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist… They took both my hands and put them on the machine.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0068“Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said Tuesday there would be “mass expulsions” of migrants when the League gained power, after the most recent revolt in a migrant centre in Italy.” (ansa.it, 2017)

dsc_0062“An Afghan migrant travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) along an Italian highway strapped by leather belts to the bottom of a lorry, according to police.” (Guardian, 2016)

dsc_0054“In an intercepted phone call, Mafia businessman Salvatore Buzzi was heard telling his assistant Pierina Chiaravalle: “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”” (Al Jazeera, 2015)

dsc_0065A Nigerian man who had recently fled to Europe to escape Boko Haram militants was beaten to death on the streets of Italy this week as he tried to defend his wife against racist abuse. (Huffington Post, 2016)

dsc_0039“Syria is burning; towns are destroyed and that’s why people are on the move, that’s why we have an avalanche, a tsunami of people on the move towards Europe… As long as there’s no resolution in Syria and no improved conditions in neighbouring countries, people will move.” (UNHCR, 2015)

dsc_0073High ships come in bearing black strangers

who call over the harbor, Where are we?

Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.

Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway

standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,

a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls

to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,

the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.

Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.

And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,

grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me

as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.

I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.

Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,

how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.

(Eliza Griswold)

dsc_0077No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well. (Warsan Shire)

dsc_0066“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Angkor Brexit

At the end of June 2016 I flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia to visit the nearby temples of Angkor Wat. My wife was away on a study trip and I fancied a bit of a holiday. However my mood had been somewhat curdled by the result of the Brexit referendum a few days earlier. This is the deeply embittered photo essay which resulted. I didn’t have a blog at the time so am posting it here now for posterity. រីករាយជាមួយ.

I’ve come to Cambodia to visit Siem Reap (pronounced with a sort of nasal burp at the end) and Angkor Wat.
This is a ubiquitous banner promoting the ruling party of Cambodia, who are a bit like the UK’s Conservative Party, at least in that they’re apparently currently facing a massive political crisis. It’s odd to see this banner everywhere a few weeks after having visited Cuba, because in theory Cambodia is a more-than-one-party state, but in practice the opposition gets kicked around a great deal by the government and its media. Unlike the UK then, although I don’t know if there is any equivalent to Blairites in the Cambodian opposition party, and I don’t know the Cambodian phrase for asking about this.
This puts me in mind of the well-known Anti-Nazi League sticker with someone depositing a swastika in the bin. I was hoping to escape from thoughts of UK politics but so far it isn’t going very well. Actually you see quite a few other-way-round swastikas in Cambodia and Thailand, emblazoned on t-shirts and so on. I always feel a bit put out by this but maybe there are some symbols that we have in our culture that remind Cambodians of the Khmer Rouge. As they say in Cambodian, “អ្នកមិនដែលដឹង”.
This is a list of all the people in Sunderland who voted Labour in 2015 but chose to vote Leave in the referendum. It’s in Cambodian so no-one can track them down on Twitter and ask them what the fuck they were thinking.
“If you vote leave…your husband will probably lose his job at Nissan. It’ll close down. And the Tories…if Johnson and Gove take over they’re gonna have no mercy whatsoever on the NHS. None.”
This is what life was like in Brussels before last Thursday, according to Brexit voters.
This looks immaculate, but there was dog poo, actual dog poo, on the floor, and obviously I’d taken my sandals (crocs) off, and I nearly stood on it! Bloody EU.
There’s a link being passed around right now among(st) right-wing idiots about a EUROPEAN SUPERSTATE! It seems to be particularly provoking rage among(st) those who are too dim to remember that they actually voted last week. I’m not into IQ tests but I think a lot of the people who voted Leave would probably score well below your average painted statue.
I’ve kind of gone off Corbyn.
This is a photo from the pro-Corbyn rally that took place a couple of days ago in Parliament Square, a rally that all the main news channels, but particularly the BBC, chose to ignore, the bastards.
I apologise for the previous caption, it was unduly cynical of me. Somewhere here I will explain what I think of the current Labour leadership debacle. I think I might put it next to a photo of a monkey eating a banana.
Looking at this kinda reminds me that Julian Cope has a fantastic (and apparently solidly-researched) theory about how places like Angkor Wat, Stonehenge etc all got built (and thus, presumably, how a lot of historic decisions came to be made). I think a lot of the voters on June 23rd may have simply been drunk.
When I arrive (unplanned) the class happen to be drilling the phrase “he is ugly”. I teach them to say “We’ve all had enough of experts” in perfect estuary accents.
Hooray for Mr Samet! Who has never heard of Brexit and thinks the UK must be a great place to live.
Aren’t all schools…oh never mind.
The complex at Angkor Wat is a representation of the cosmos in miniature. It’s not actually particularly miniature. That’s not meant as a criticism.
This is unusual – a Downfall video which actually uses the exact words of those being parodied.
Oh Jesus it’s just started raining torrentially again. The rain is actually very welcome, as this part of Cambodia has just been through a massive drought, there are even emergency appeal collecting jars in local bars, where foreigners (like me, for example) drink beer made with local Cambodian water. The jars are for collecting money, not water.
Which reminds me that if there is one single thing that damns this referendum to hell for all eternity it’s the fact that neither side at any point made any reference to the changing climate and what we’re going to do about it. The Leave side didn’t because it was led by three climate liars (Johnson, Farage and Gove) and the Remain side didn’t because it was shit. At least Caroline Lucas exists.
This was actually even more peaceful than it looks, because there was some Cambodian classical music playing all around the temple, it was basically like this. Which calmed me down a bit as I’d been spending the last few days mostly listening to this.
Speaking of music, although it’s not clear from the photo, those colourful lights were actually flashing and all the statues were bumping their hips to something that sounded a lot like Carly Rae Jepsen.
By the way, if you go to Angkor Wat and you don’t see any of these, you’re not in Angkor Wat. Tell your tuktuk driver you want to go to THE TEMPLES.
#Brexit is the opposite of enlightenment.
Some of the temple things are still being built after almost 1,200 years. Probably some more bloody corrupt EU shenanigans.
I think at this point I might go for a drink.
Local agricultural workers discussing Article 50 in some detail.
This pricing policy may have been determined by the Cambodian equivalent of #Ukip.
He’s been this way ever since the Sunderland result was announced.
Some wag on Twitter posted two maps side by side. The first showed the areas which mostly voted for Brexit, the second the areas where Mad Cow disease had a major impact in 2000. They matched up pretty much perfectly.
Still though, at least our language still dominates the world https://www.google.com.kh/search?q=leksonal&oq=leksonal&aqs=chrome..69i57.6036j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.
I don’t know what this thing is but I suspect that if you bought one for a Cambodian peasant for his birthday he’d be so overjoyed he’d happily vote whichever way you told him to.
One of these two men is the Prime Minister Hun Sen, the other is almost certainly the bloke who with great ceremony ordered the planting of the tree you can see to the left of the photo.
There is more meaningful debate going on between these two cows about what they’re going to have for dinner than took place between the two sides during the entire referendum farce.
Can’t look at that bloke pushing that trolley/cart thing without thinking it might be a ballot box.
Although I’m working hard and having some success at immersing myself in the here and now, unfortunately this puts me in mind of the recent referendum in the UK over membership of the European Union, the result of which had an impact on global financial markets.
Another result of the recent referendum in the UK over membership of the European Union is that I briefly contemplate buying and drinking one of these.
Post-Brexit landscape.
This looks a bit like a wedding cake. Tomorrow it’s my birthday. I hope they make me a cake, although I don’t know who they might be.
These people look like they might be British. Maybe I could invite them for a birthday drink. Then again perhaps not. Over these few days I speak to lots of Europeans and Americans, but find I have no appetite for making conversation with my ‘fellow Brits’. Alternatively, they could be German. They do appear to be marching in step. Actually here I was just playing with the focus.
More than one person I have spoken to online in the last couple of days was (shouldn’t that be were?!) of the opinion that a split inside the Labour Party is now inevitable.
References to goings-on in British politics abound.
The three branches on the left seem to be making a bid for the other side. Maybe they’re ‘Blairites’.
One aspect of the situation with Corbyn is that there are so many things we know now about how people make voting decisions, insights gained from cognitive science, that effective political campaigns take advantage of and ineffective ones don’t. In the (OH GOD NO) referendum Labour had nothing with which it could respond to “take back control”, a metaphor which reached right into people’s deepest aspirations and crushed all rational argument. In the final debate last Wednesday Johnson and the others used that phrase 114 times. That’s why, much to what we now know to be Johnson’s absolute horror, they won. I don’t think there’s anyone in the Corbyn leadership who has a notion of that. They think it’s all about putting a more reasoned argument. I know all this sounds horribly Blairite, but if anyone fancies a who-hates-the-Blairites-more competition I’m game.
Two things which are an absolute must-read for anyone vaguely interested in the psychology of voting are Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and pretty much anything by George Lakoff. Actually those are both quite entertaining names for psychologists to have. Thinking Fast and Slow is a particularly important book to read to understand why we can’t bring ourselves to think about climate change.
Around this point I get talking to a German couple who are so level-headed and sensible in their assessment of Brexit and the refugee situation I do actually start to feel a little teary. “Na ja, naturlich wir können hilfen. Wir müssen hilfen!”. I tell them I’m thinking of doing a kind of photo essay where I combine photos of Angkor Wat with my thoughts and feelings about Brexit and they seem to think it’s a great idea. Shortly after this we switch into English as I am starting to worry that they think I am slightly mad.
I point out to my new continental friends that already, four days after the vote, most British people I know and come across online are talking about other countries they could go and live in. The Syrians have had five years of civil war and after less than a week of mild political instability we all want to take refuge elsewhere.
Me and the Germans are so engrossed in talking about politics that we manage to get horribly lost . We soon disentangle ourselves from the labyrinth using our collaborative skills and European ingenuity.
I think this is my favourite photo I’ve ever taken. It shows that despite the disappointment and despair occasioned by the Brexit vote, there are always cracks where hope can enter. Unfortunately this one is in Cambodia, nowhere near the UK, which is f*cked.
Primates actually peel bananas in a different way from we humans. When I say “we humans” I’m not including anyone who voted to leave the European Union.
You might even say that monkeys are “experts” at eating bananas.
According to something Russell Brand said, chimps (I know these are not chimps) never live in troops of more than 85 members. Is that the answer to our predicament of how to live together? I’d imagine inbreeding would be a problem. If the UK spurns all economic and social intercourse with what we may now as well go back to referring to as the continent, within a few years we’ll all start to look like our intensely horsey Royal Family, who as is well-known only maintained the fecundity of their own gene pool by irrigating it with European blood (not actually blood).
Buddhist monkey contemplating eternal suffering caused by imminent ill-advised EU withdrawal.
Ancestral wisdom of a greater species: abandoning one’s troupe is a form of suicide.
If only those people who used the Brexit vote as a gesture of anger against the political establishment had restricted themselves to sticking their tongues out of their mouths like this monkey. That woulda really stuck it to the man without the need to sabotage our future by destroying relations with our neighbours.
“My God’s got no nose…”
Not amused.
I was very surprised to see your mum there.
“Nice composition, Richard”.
The queue to apply for German passports stretched from Chesham Place to just outside Siem Reap.
The process of industrial decline soon accelerated.
The first script here is Khmer (Cambodian), the second Thai, and the third…some shit tribe, a civilisation that voted itself out of existence many eons ago and whose “language” nobody now remembers or speaks, no-one of any importance anyway.
The final ruins of a collapsed civilisation, one which once conquered vast areas of the globe but now barely survives on income from foreign tourists. An economic backwater and geopolitical nonentity. Some people will blame Nicola Sturgeon, of course.
The Americans who took this picture had never heard of Article 50.
“How am I voting? Well, stay, obviously. Remain. I may be only three days old (and a monkey) but I’m not a f*cking idiot!”
“350 million pounds does sound like an awful lot of money”.
The English Defence League took to the streets in order to physically obstruct the invasion of foreign marine life.
Six days too late. Mate.
Somebody did make me a cake.

Algav juhendit Tallinn

I am in Estonia.

I come across a memorial park which is not on my tourist map. It has some gravestones with writing in Russian but my attempts to find out exactly what it is for come to nothing when the gardeners are unable to respond to my questions in English, shit German and non-existent Finnish. My command of Russian is unfortunately no better than my knowledge of basic photography. Behind the memorial, which also features some concrete seats facing one another and a pair of hands carved into the rock, stands a small forest from which there is a windswept chorus of echoing women’s voices, giving the deserted arena a haunted air.

It strikes me that the function of such memorials is precisely to haunt us; a problem in an age that purports to no longer believe that, what with history being done n’ dusted, the dead have any power over us.

The hands are perhaps an echo of the structure over the road what is clearly part of the same memorial, also unmarked on the map. Overhead and all around a number of large black birds fly, land and take off. I do not know their name in Russian, or in English.

A short walk down the road there is the National Museum, housed in a mansion set amidst low chalet buildings where (presumably) the servants of the Russian aristocracy used to live and keep their horses. It strikes me that post-Soviet states may well be reaching out to a more distant aristocratic heritage. In the grounds I come across an abandoned building which I, being British and in former Eastern Europe, immediately assume is some sort of macabre former death factory.

Speaking of ghosts.

Estonia is the world’s largest country.

This image is quite close to a bust of Miss Estonia 1931, who was probably not a Communist, unlike the people in the photo.

In 1930s Estonia a tightly guarded and highly privileged elite controlled and hoarded the supplies of top quality sockwear.

The sailing events for the 1980 Olympics were held in Tallinn, but were apparently not popular with the locals. The hotel in which I am staying was built to accommodate the competitors. It is olympically garguntuan; it takes me seven minutes to walk from reception to my room, not counting getting lost, which I manage to do four times in three days.

I visit the Museum of Occupations, which being partly German I am unable to think about as anything other than the Museum den Besetzungen. It is mostly concerned with the Soviet years. I have some qualms about the extent to which the attempt to equate Soviet crimes with those of the Nazis is apparently part of a more general attempt to play down the latter. Like about 90% of the things that I know, or nearly know, this suspicion comes courtesy of the Guardian:

The three Baltic states in the late 1990s set up state-sponsored commissions to study Nazi and Soviet crimes, but not in an open and democratic spirit. This was a project of ultra-nationalist revisionism with an active political agenda that meant much more to the politicians than this or that historical volume produced for minute readerships. That political agenda was in short, to rewrite the history of the second world war and the Holocaust by state diktat, into a model of “double genocide”. Holocaust denial was, in fact, never an option in a region with hundreds of mass graves. Instead, a new and more worrying “Holocaust obfuscation” movement took off, with a lot of government support in the region. It tries to reduce all evil to equal evil, in effect to confuse the issue in order to write the inconvenient genocide that is the Holocaust out of history as a distinct category.

The museum is indeed a recent construction, which has very little detail about the Nazi occupation and very many artefacts and films related to the Soviet period, which was, to be scrupulously fair, extremely brutal. In Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 Tony Judt writes:

The Baltic States, fully incorporated into the Soviet Union itself, were even worse off than the rest of eastern Europe. In 1949, kolkhozes in northern Estonia were required to begin grain deliveries even before the harvest had begun, in order to keep in line with Latvia, four hundred kilometers to the south. By 1953 rural conditions in hitherto prosperous Estonia had deteriorated to the point where cows blown over by the wind were too weak to get back on their feet unaided.

The first Soviet occupation was quite shortlived, the Russians being replaced by the Germans in 1941. In one night in 1940 Stalin’s forces rounded up and expelled 11,000 people, including several hundred jews, to Siberia; during this period Estonia lost around 10% of its population. According to the above booklet, by the time the Nazis arrived, there were around 1,000 Jews left in the country; by the time they had left, they were twelve. Most of these ended up in a concentration camp in Estonia itself; the exhibition makes no mention of this, however.

Estonia now has a population of around 2,000 Jewish people.

Estonia estonianises many more English words than Finnish finnishises.

This can sometimes seem a bit daft.

It is an issue; a school art project on the boat back to Helsinki features this work, the documentation to which reads:

In my view, we are facing the problem of a diminishing language space, where the foreign expressions used in daily interaction seem endless…people don’t say ‘hello’ in Estonian, but use English words instead.

I can’t say I’ve done much to forward the cause of the Estonian language, (the similarity of which to Finnish seems to be some sort of international secret, incidentally). I have learnt the words for Hello and Thank you, and also taught myself how to say ‘My Estonian is a bit limited’ (in English).

The national religion of Estonia is Hare Krishnaism.

Finally, an idea for how to dismantle the Euro: simply allow this side of the coin to circulate as legal tender in each individual country, and in no other. Problem solved. Nearly.