Zac Goldsmith: “I honestly don’t see what’s offensive about the word”

 

Numerous Conservative MPs have rallied round their colleague, Ann Marie Morris, who is reported to have uttered the highly offensive phrase ‘n***** in the woodpile’ in a speech at a public event about Brexit.

The first to rush to her defence was recently reelected Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith, who commented: “It’s quite simply a word I use all the time. We have an open fire in the main living room, and round the back of my mansion there’s a pile of firewood. When it’s cold, I have some of the servants fetch some wood and build a fire. It’s not an offensive term”.

When pressed as to whether he thought it was appropriate for politicians to use the other word in the phrase, commonly referred to as the N-word to avoid offence, Mr Goldsmith was nonplussed.

“I don’t even see why it’s called the N-word”, he responded. “It begins with ‘i’, for a start. It’s merely a prepo…”

At this point our reporter was obliged to clarify. When the nature of the word was explained to Mr Goldsmith, he was silent for almost two minutes. Eventually an aide (subsequently identified as his brother Ben) intervened and whispered something in his ear. Mr Goldsmith looked perplexed. A hushed conversation then took place, during which the MP seemed to grow agitated. He appeared to be seeking some sort of clarification from the aide, but further explanations only seemed to puzzle him even more. Upon moving closer to the conversation, our reporter was able to distinguish words such as ‘darkies’ and ‘coloureds’. After several minutes one of Mr Goldsmith’s butlers politely asked us to depart the premises. He explained that Mr Goldsmith was suddenly indisposed as he had been “working like a n*****” all week” and had to urgently prepare a speech for a Bring Back Slavery event at the Commonwealth Club the following Thursday.

In a subsequent email the MP for Richmond apologised for having cut short his interview. In relation to the question of his colleague’s remarks, he stressed that he saw “nothing racialist about the word ‘the'”, and said he hoped the whole issue would soon disappear, “like a n….. in a blackout”.

When asked for a response to Goldsmith’s own potentially inflammatory use of language, Prime Minister Theresa May said it would not derail her plans to appoint him Secretary of State for Race Relations in The Colonies in the upcoming reshuffle. As for Mrs Morris, she said, the prime minister herself would, in her capacity as leader of the Conservative, Unionist and Obviously Racist Party, soon be making a formal apology on the MP’s behalf to any woodpiles who “may have taken offence” at the use of the term.

Lesson plan: “You are a refugee”

Wherever you happen to teach there’s a chance that your class includes refugees and/or racists. The point of this lesson is to increase the level of understanding of the plight of the former and encourage the latter to be less so. Linguistically the lesson lends itself to concentrated practice of various conditional forms. In terms of vocabulary, the ‘text’ is quite lexically dense so I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than B2. As you will see, discovery and development of relevant vocabulary is written into the task as it will be repeated various times.

To set it up you will need access to a pc, ideally with an IWB/projector; it also requires that students make use of their own phones.

Procedure

1. As students to write down the name of anyone they know who had to leave their home for a prolonged period, maybe because of war, political instability or a climate catastrophe. If they don’t know anyone personally ask them to think of any famous people who fall into that category, or even any films they’ve seen which depict such a situation. Ss discuss in small groups.

2. Share ideas, obviously sensitively if anyone in the class has had such an experience. In the process elicit, board and clarify key vocabulary: refugee, seek refuge, protection, asylum; escape, flee, run away.

3. Tell ss they’re going to imagine that they’re refugees. Ask them to guess which country they might be escaping from. Tell them they’re going to face a series of dilemmas and see if they’re successful at reaching safety. Point out that the scenario is based on the real experiences of millions of people.

4. Show them this page from  the BBC website and recapitulate the scenario. Point out the vocabulary that has already come up and highlight the words ‘traffickers’ and ‘deportation’. Clarify any misunderstandings.

5. Tell then you’re first going to do the task all together. Decide on the balance of the class if ‘you’ are male or female.

6. Show them the first dilemma: Egypt or Turkey. In pairs, students discuss for about two minutes, then vote as a whole class.

7. Take them through the dilemmas, clarifying vocabulary as you go. If you like, you could highlight the 1st/2nd conditional forms on the board.

8. See how ‘you’ end up. Gather reflections on the success/failure of their route.

9. In the same pairs, ss repeat the task on their phones. Monitor in case they need help with language.

10. After a couple of attempts, gather reflections on their experiences.

Homework: Students repeat their task at home and write the story of what happened in the past simple, first person, adding details as they go to make it more real.

Extension task: in a following lesson you could the videos on the same page to practise talking about unreal scenarios using 3rd and mixed conditionals, eg. ‘If they had paid the smuggler…’, ‘If he hadn’t decided to go to Libya’, etc.

هذا هو!

In his attitude to Islam, Bill Maher is on the same side as Trump

crop_358maher03_28_14.jpg

The US comedian and chatshow host Bill Maher has been on the rant about Islam again, saying that it needs a ‘reformation’. This is a common trope on the right, and Maher’s latest declarations are, as this excellent article details, just the latest in a long history of anti-Muslim statements which place him firmly on the right of the political spectrum in relation to one of the most disturbing developments of the Trump Era.

It’s typical for those caught out making crass and ill-informed generalisations about Muslims to defend themselves by arguing that their quarrel is with religious faith itself. Maher did make a documentary called ‘Religulous’ (2008), which attempts to satirise all the world’s leading religions. His show has often featured the ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris, whose work has, since the publication of a book in which he tries to use secular beliefs to justify the use of torture, been a rallying point for islamaphobes. Thankfully, partly thanks to being articulately challenged by people like Reza Aslan, Harris recently seems to have had doubts about drinking from the same pond that outright nazis like Pamela Geller piss and bathe in, and he has spoken out forcefully against Trump’s “Muslim Ban”. The internet doesn’t work via reasoned debate, however, but by memes. On social media it rarely takes more than a short scroll down the followers lists of people quoting Harris to find proper full-on racists who also include antisemitism and white supremacy in their repertoire of photoshopped hatred. His assertion (on Maher’s show) that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas” has had a vigorous afterlife despite his having since sought to distance himself from his more rabid disciples. Daring to question the wisdom of Harris on Twitter is like removing the pivotal can from the bottom of a pyramid of tinned human shit.

A standard trope among those on Twitter who declare themselves ‘atheists’ is the idea that because Muslims are not a ‘race’ it is legitimate to unleash the most violent impulses against people of that faith. This belief is supported and encouraged by Maher, and may even be derived from him: he said in 2010, expressing sentiments that anyone who has spent any time on social media will recognise as those of the far-right:

“Am I a racist to feel alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race; it’s because of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”

(From http://flavorwire.com/600169/reminder-bill-maher-is-garbage)

Anti-Muslim prejudice is also fast becoming the Achilles’ heel of self-styled progressives. In  more than one pro-Bernie Sanders Facebook group I have seen the most horrendous far-right material being shared and commented on approvingly. Isis and their affiliates know what they’re doing in trying to eradicate basic liberal principles, and their allies on the far-right clearly appreciate the effort being made.

Harris, of course, is not a theologian. None of the New Atheists are, even their Pontiff Richard Dawkins. Terry Eagleton’s classic takedown of Dawkins in the LRB is sublime:

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

While Dawkin’s mischaracterisation of religious faith is seemingly based on a Sunday school understanding, adult faith is infinitely far more profound and complex. I was inititally attracted by the work of Dawkins and Harris, but I quickly lost faith in such a simplistic and deterministic view of human affairs and became curious about other ways of thinking and praying. I can see a great deal of sense in Kierkegaard’s line about the function of prayer being not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. I also identified with William James’ notion of a ‘will to believe‘ – what is (for example) confidence in ourselves but a form of faith? Several years ago I started attending Quakers meetings. I wanted to develop a commitment to making the world a better place which was not rooted in rage and resentment and to seek communion with others in a spirit of shared compassion and reflection rather than kneejerk condemnation.

I also wanted to have an area of my life which is not conditioned by the ideology of selfishness and social darwinism that Dawkins – with very great eloquence – espouses. I wanted to try (pace James) to develop a conscious faith as opposed to being controlled by assumptions and impulses that I don’t understand or control or often even recognise.

Blind faith and superstition play a huge role in our lives. Our entire way of life is sustained by a set of unquestioned assumptions, whether that be in the supremacy of the market, the integrity of a sports team or the primacy of our nation state. All of the above are affirmed in rituals of consumption, fanship and symbolic allegiance which are entirely irrational and often intimately related to discrimination and violence in the form of the dispossession and/or humiliation of others. We also suffer greatly from a vague and largely unexamined notion that somehow ‘technology’ (in some ways a metonym for the global market) will somehow liberate us from environmental pressures, that staring at our smartphones will redeem us from reality, that this peculiarly narcissistic medium will save us from nature’s revenge.

You also don’t need to be a theologian to see that the popularity of Dawkin’s book at the same time as the West’s attack on Iraq was no concidence. It’s not by chance that an culture of intellectually tearing apart the Koran appeared just as agents of a supposedly more rationally-based societies were systematically destroying one of the oldest civilisations on earth. Dawkin’s work also raises issues of privilege and complacency: the belief that the world is simply the way it should be, that the distribution of wealth and life chances has been ordained according to logic and science and that faith in something greater is therefore ‘unnecessary’. This is a return to late-19th century positivism at its most arrogant. That does not imply that all those taken in by the arguments of Dawkins et al are guilty of racism. However, anyone doubting the link between New Atheism and Trump’s attempts to exclude Muslims from the United States would be well advised to watch this video, gleefully retweeted by Dawkins in 2015. It also suggests that his attitude to feminism is not all that far removed from that of either his many bigoted followers or, for that matter, Islamic fundamentalists.

Interventions like Maher’s make such stuff respectable among an audience that likes to think of itself as progressive. This is not, after all, a theoretical intellectual debate taking place in a vacuum. It primes them to accept further abuse of Muslims by a Government they should in theory have no affinity with and draws them into the sphere and influence of the far-right.

In saying all this I want to be clear that I am aware of the stultifying and repressive nature of religious belief, particularly when organised into hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions allied with terrestrial power structures. Religious beliefs have also been exploited throughout history by Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and everyone else under the sun to pursue psychotic murderous agendas. Anyone wanting to argue that Islam was uniquely prone to violence and destruction would have to point to a continuous history of such violence in Muslim societies over the last 1,400 years. Nor is there anything particularly distinct about Islam’s treatment of women. From Northern Nigeria to Central America and from West Virginia to East Africa, barbaric manifestations of both Christianity and Islam seek to control women’s fertility. The Misogynist-in-Chief himself is an odd kind of Christian, one who apparently doesn’t believe he’s accountable to God for his moral actions. He’s not a good advert for such a belief. The presence in his administration of figures like Mike Pomeo and Betsy DeVos, both of whom actually welcome the ‘Apocalypse’, should be a screaming red alert for liberals. For American progressives to think that such problems (and their political priorities) lie elsewhere right now is bizarre.

Comedians don’t make for good political leaders, any more than primetime ‘billionaires’ do. Michel Houellebeqc was prescient in making the main character in ‘The Possibility of an Island’ a Doug Stanhope-type comic who becomes a cult leader. Charlie Brooker predicted something similar in ‘Black Mirror’. Both could well have been predicting the Italian agitatore-in-capo Beppe Grillo. The world is awash in comedians-turned-political-preachers urging their audiences to question all authority! – except their own authority as narcissistic/megalomaniac white men making the most of their God-given right to be listened to.

Even among comics, there are better role models. Louis CK’s personal campaign against Trump was heartfelt and humble and didn’t entail his putting himself forward as an alternative. His views on religious faith allow for a certain ambivalent respect in relation to others’ beliefs:

“I’m not religious. I don’t know if there’s a God. That’s all I can say, honestly, is “I don’t know.” Some people think that they know that there isn’t. That’s a weird thing to think you can know. “Yeah, there’s no God.” Are you sure? “Yeah, no, there’s no God.” How do you know? “Cause I didn’t see Him.” There’s a vast universe! You can see for about 100 yards — when there’s not a building in the way. How could you possibly… Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? Where did you look so far? “No, I didn’t see Him yet.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet; it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’m just waiting until it comes on cable.”

Then there’s Russell Brand, who, burnt by the failure of his highfalutin political pretensions, is now educating himself on the subject of religion and global politics (and sharing what he learns here). Perhaps Maher should do something similar. Or maybe it’s time for him to be retired before his constant and deliberate flirting with far-right ideas does any more damage.

I’m proud to be an immigrant

photo-a

As I leave the metro station near my work on Tuesday afternoon I see a sticker from a fascist organisation reading ‘Italy for the Italians’.

At work, while waiting for the students to turn up, I read an article via Facebook that says that Theresa May is going to take away the right of EU nationals to settle in the UK ‘within days’.

I’m an immigrant and I’ve been one for most of my adult life. I’ve lived in six countries other than my own. I chose to move to each of those countries of my own free will and no one attempted to stop me. I’m also a second-generation immigrant, because my father was born in Germany but left in 1950 with his mother, who had met a British soldier and emigrated to Guernsey. My father recalls his journey to the UK as an interminable process, with different visas required for each country he passed through. He later went on to work in countless countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, before eventually settling in Sheffield.

My wife isn’t an immigrant now, but she has been one for a total of 13 years. Our brand-new daughter is in a more ambiguous situation, in that she was born to one Italian parent and one foreign one (me). Actually, thanks to a little bit of foresight, my wife now has British passport by virtue of having lived in London for six years. She had to do an absurd quiz with questions about horseracing, cricket and the Commonwealth, and then she had to swear allegiance to the Queen. I helped her prepare for the test but I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions, and I would have objected to having to paying allegiance to someone just because they occasionally put on a supposedly magic hat.

I’ve always felt welcome in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve never been the object of hostility. On my very first night in Dublin (where I lived for six years) someone in a kebab shop remarked on my foreignness with what sounded at the time like aggression, but on reflection they were almost certainly taking the piss.

In terms of my immigration status I’ve also been extremely lucky. I’ve never had to worry about keeping a low profile or lie awake worrying about possible deportation. I’ve never even had to do a visa run, and my status has never depended on my language skills.

Moving back to the UK in 2006 after thirteen years abroad felt a little like moving to a foreign country. For the first few months in London I kept automatically referring to ‘other foreigners’. It felt natural to spend my time with others who’d lived or came from abroad.

When I went to live in China the paperwork was immense, but it was all available in English. Last year I got annoyed when the Thai embassy insisted on a particular form of bank statement which our narco-sponsoring bank didn’t want to provide. There was a way around it, one which didn’t inconvenience us unduly.

I wanted for a long time to migrate to Brazil, but I basically never had the courage to live and work undercover in a country where foreign teachers are very rarely granted visas. I’d hate to build a life somewhere and see it destroyed overnight. That’s what happened to one of my sisters when she went to work in the USA. She popped over to Mexico for the weekend and wasn’t let back in. Her experience of deportation was extremely distressing.

All the Italian people we’ve spoken to over the last month have been very congratulatory about our daughter. Nobody’s told us the country is ‘full’ or told her to get back where she came from. Nobody would ever tell an actual individual that to their face unless they were actually insane in several important ways; such notions are political abstractions. The fact that our flesh-and-blood child will use up space and resources has never been mentioned.

The stories we’re hearing now from the UK and the US are staggering and heartbreaking. They result from decisions made by people who have no understanding of the risks and sacrifices that human lives entail. Or maybe they do, but they shut their eyes to the implications of what they’re doing. Perhaps I in my examining job have blithely made decisions about people’s language skills which have meant they had to go back to someone else’s idea of where they belong.

I’ve got friends and former students who’ve spent years of their lives dreaming of studying in the UK only to find that large parts of the ‘education’ system are no more than a scam to rip off gullible foreigners. In much the same way, no one travels thousands of miles in the back of a truck to sell selfie sticks outside the Colosseum or roses outside the cinema. Immigrants are useful for other things than political scapegoating.

I’m an immigrant, but an immensely privileged one. In my case, leaving my country was in many ways the obvious and easiest choice. It’s largely by virtue of an accident of birth that I’ve been able to get status and find work. I didn’t get a job in Portugal in 1999 because I was an experienced teacher, but because I have the right accent and passport.  I’ve also benefitted from a favourable historical situation as far as living in Europe is concerned. In most cases, it takes courage and initiative to move to another country.

As it happens, my country’s wealth came in large part from invading other territories and forcing people to migrate. One factor propelling the whole Brexit nonsense is a denial of that history, a resentment at the notion that Britain should and could learn from its past, and a forlorn hope that it can somehow relive the experience. Italy, a country whose cultural richness derives in large part from the ebb and flow of different civilisations, had its own vainglorious attempt at imperial expansion, but fortunately reviving that particular epoch is the dream of a persistent group of loudmouthed oddballs at its political fringes, rather than the historic mission of the most reactionary elements of its political elite.

I’ve tried all my life not to be ashamed I’m where I’m from, to overcome my sense of discomfort at my origins. For me, my unconscious personal project of distancing myself from my roots and trying to be from somewhere else is symptomatic, I now recognise, of a generalised cultural disavowal – there are few things as typically English as pretending not to be. It has also been conditioned by my family background. I have also always enjoyed a certain relief at not possessing any sort of claim to pureblood status or any mooted connection to the ‘soil’. I’m proud to be an immigrant son of an immigrant parent, and it would be absolutely wrong for me for me to do anything other than express my full solidarity with my fellow immigrants all over the world, especially those whose experiences have been less charmed than my own. Of course, that solidarity has to be more than verbal – I need to get involved in specific initiatives to help those less fortunate than myself. Voicing solidarity is easy – it needs to be expressed in actions to have any actual meaning. I believe that in terms of resisting Brexit and Trump, or combatting exclusionary EU policies elsewhere in Europe, helping and supporting (relative) newcomers to our countries is one of the most useful and important things any of us can do.

(This piece was written with suggestions from Andrea, Federica, Federico and Patty.)

Milo, Miller and Marine Le Pen: Pedophiles, Nazis, and genocidal Islamophobes

photo

No thinking and feeling human being can do other than take great satisfaction from the downfall of the white supremacist activist/’libertarian’ ‘provocateur’ (aka racist troll) Milo Yiannopoulos, who was exposed this week as an advocate for pedophilia. This icon of the “alt-right” movement clearly thought we as a  civilisation had reached the point where all forms of abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful could be openly celebrated, but it turns out he was wrong. From now on all coverage of the alt-right should include an explicit reference to its chief figurehead’s support for the rape of children.

The speed with which the far-right fake news outlet Breitbart dumped their star turn shows that they are more vulnerable to media exposure has been assumed. It’s unfortunate that no such outrage has accompanied the news that White House spokestroll Steven Miller is also an outright white supremacist. Progressive elements in the mainstream press should counter any tendency to normalise such affiliation by seeking not just to expose him but actively seek to oust him and others like him.

The global far-right movement knows how to stretch the boundaries and to insinuate their values into mainstream and even ‘progressive’ opinion. Yesterday  I saw this in practice. At some point over the last few months I must have liked or signed up to a US-based Facebook group called ‘Real Progressives’. It seemed mostly made up of Bernie ‘supporters’ who had been naive and/or arrogant enough not to heed their hero’s warnings at the most crucial time, and thus helped Trump into power.  Still, with the election out of the way and all radical forces united in opposition to the new ‘President’, I would have assumed that we had essential values in common.

That turns out not to have been the case. On Tuesday someone who, judging from their profile, was clearly a pretty serious racist posted a meme showing the French fascist leader and Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen calling for children wearing headscarves to be expelled from France. The immediate response from members of the group was not just approval, but a collective outburst of genocidal racism. There were even people calling for Muslims to be sterilised. My remonstrations (and those of a few others) had little effect. We pointed out she’s on the same side as Putin and Trump, and that she proudly associates with holocaust deniers, but they weren’t interested. She’d thrown a bone and they went for it without hesitation.

The far-right knows how to position itself and how to frame its messages. These ideological mengeles know where to insert the needle to get their poison directly into the veins of people who, although they go on believing themselves radical and progressive, are now primed to accept the fascist agenda. These were people in this group of ‘socialists’ and ‘Greens’ openly calling for, if not the rape, the physical abuse of children on the basis of their religion.

Perhaps if Milo Yiannopoulos had specified in his rant that only Muslim children were fair game for sexual abuse, his message would have found a more receptive audience. I hope not, but what I’ve seen in pro-‘Bernie’ and Jill circles makes me suspect that it would have gone down well with at least some of their self-declared supporters. All of us on the Left need to be extremely vigilant and very vocal with regard to any anti-Muslim racism appearing in our midst. That is the Trojan horse being used by the smarter elements of the far-right to insinuate their insidious messages into supposedly ‘progressive’ milieus.

Burning denial down by the Tiber

20170207_163216I miss the days before Kindles and iPods, when you could get to know someone better by browsing through their book and music collections. Our Dutch friend Merel, at whose house we spend New Year’s Eve, has a good variety of recent fiction and books on sustainable development and the like. I’m a little taken aback to see on her shelves quite a range of books on dictators and fascism, including two by the disgraced Hitler apologist David Irving. Thankfully it turns out they belong to her landlord.

Irving is a Nazi activist who used to get away with pretending to be a historian. He was the subject of a 2016 film starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, which depicted his failed attempt in 2000 to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for pointing out that he had systematically distorted details about the Holocaust in his books in order to let Hitler off the hook. The judge concluded that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

As it happens I’d come across a physical copy of one of his books before, about twenty years earlier in my local library in Dublin. I took it out and disposed of it, and then explained to the library what I’d done and why. They understood my point and once I’d agreed to pay the cost of the book they agreed not to replace it. The film about the trial of the book’s author is no classic but it sets out the main details, featuring real footage of Irving giving Nazi salutes to audiences of skinheads in Germany and Austria, where he once spent a year in prison for continuing to spread lies about the death camps. It also makes the link with other kinds of denial – one of the key lines spoken by the main character is ‘Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did take place’. The fact that Holocaust denial is booming online and that many of those espousing it also deny that the earth’s climate is changing is no coincidence. Hitler launched his campaign to conquer Europe in order to extend Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’, living space. In anderen Worten, he wanted to expand the Third Reich’s vegetable patch. Last week the right-wing British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by the climate-denying pro-Trump tycoon Rupert Murdoch, used its front page to blame Spanish people for depriving Britons of food. Inclement weather in Southern Europe has meant that there are fewer vegetables to export to British supermarkets, and The Sun wants its readers to blame foreigners rather than asking why global weather patterns are changing. As I have long argued that climate denial and racism are intimately linked, I can’t help but feel at the same time a little vindicated and also really rather scared for the future.

sin-titulo

Once I’d explained the books’ provenance to Merel, she was more than happy for me to take them away and get rid of them. It was just a case of finding the time (my wife was heavily pregnant until last Monday :-)) and the place (we’ve only lived in Rome since last September). I decided to post a question in a friendly group for local foreigners on Facebook. Things I’ve posted there in the past on related topics have generally got a good reception, although I’d been surprised when, in response to a piece I’d written in which I called  the Italian fascist group Casapound ‘openly racist’, an Italian guy popped up and invited me to join them. My post about the books got a mixed response. Several people were consternated until I pointed out what kind of books they were, but some contributors continued to remonstrate, calling me a Nazi for wanting to burn books. Thankfully a sensible person pointed out that while the Nazis had indeed gone in for a bit of book-burning, it wasn’t by any means the worst thing they had done. A couple of people made witty but pointed reference to the fact that one of Rome’s (very best) bookshops is called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I replied, arguing that the two items in question didn’t really deserve the hallowed status of ‘book’. I made the same point to a young Italian guy who promptly sent me a PM asking if he could have the books ‘for research’ because he was ‘interested in the topic’:

screenshot_2017-02-07-18-51-49

…which gives a new dimension to the phrase ‘you’d have to have been there’.

Although Irving has long been a discredited and bankrupt irrelevance in terms of serious history, both the Guardian and The Independent for some reason decided to give him a blast of publicity in the wake of the film. He claims that the election of a US President who openly consorts with Holocaust deniers (and, it should go without saying, climate liars) has revived interest in his ‘work’, with ‘thousands’ of young people contacting him to find out more about his ‘research’. He continues to use YouTube to propagate the lie that he’s a proper historian.

20160914_111306Someone in the Facebook group had suggested a far-off part of town crummy enough that few would be bothered by the sight of someone burning some books, but I didn’t really want to drag a one-week-old-baby across Rome and end up getting us both arrested for arson. Instead I thought of a largely abandoned area round the corner, next to the river, so I could get the whole thing out of the way in half an hour and not neglect my parental responsibilities. As it happens the area isn’t uninhabited; there’s a community of gypsies scattered along a stretch of the Tiber. Elsewhere on Facebook I read about the impending destruction of a similar settlement in Napoli, where my wife was born. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that:

The proposed forced eviction will render more than 340 Romani families homeless, including pregnant women, young children, and persons with disabilities. These Romani families, like most Roma in Naples, are a part of the city, having been resident there for a number of years. Despite this, the municipality of Naples has not provided them with any alternative housing.

I’m sure Irving himself would approve. Anti-gypsy racism seems particularly rife (indeed respectable) in Italy. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a class of Italian schoolchildren had produced drawings supporting the burning of a local gypsy camp. As a novice arsonist myself I had to hope that the fire I was about to start wouldn’t burn out of control and have a similar impact. Whatever it was I wanted to achieve by burning the books, it certainly wasn’t that.

Thankfully there was a good omen. The place I settled upon also has some fitting graffiti (‘YESTERDAY PARTISANS, TODAY ANTI-FASCISTS’). As it happens, the only elected representative of the aforementioned fascist group Casapound recently dismissed the Italians who took up arms against their own fascist Government and the Nazi regime which stepped in to save it as ‘rapists’.

20170207_163458

It would be nice to see someone like Irving as a detail of history, a footnote: there were some Nazi sympathisers who denied the holocaust, but they were ignored. But that’s not the case. Next month the French may well elect a President whose biological and political father has repeatedly described the systematic murder of millions of people as exactly that: “a detail of history”.

20170207_163750-1

The reasons that some things are beyond debate is that people often lie about their interests and their ideologies. David Irving knows the Holocaust happens, he just can’t admit publicly that he thinks it was a good thing and should be repeated.

20170207_163924

As people like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. It also explains why I wanted to burn these books.

20170207_164009

Holocaust denial and climate denial have much more in common than has been so far acknowledged. Exxon executives knew several decades ago that the company’s activities were causing the planet to overheat and would make human life impossible, but they kept quiet because admitting it could hurt their profits. They and other such companies then invested billions of dollars in spreading lies about climate science, funding people to speak up for them who are no more proper climate scientists than David Irving is a proper historian. These are the kind of trolls who would take the last six words of the last sentence and remove them from their context. If I could I would burn all attempts to deny that the climate is changing. I would set fire to millions of web pages and happily watch them go up in smoke.

20170207_164104

By denying death, they deny life.

20170207_164117

Afterward the well-known events took place.

Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,
orders were given. There were those who murdered
in their own way,
grieved in their own way.
I won’t mention names
out of consideration for the reader,
since at first the details horrify
though finally they’re a bore.
(Dan Pagis)

20170207_164638

and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
tuvalu
kiribati
maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, and colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

still
there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive

dear matefele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

(Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)

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

Rome: The Streets Where We Live

sin-tituloI was tickled to see that someone on Tripadvisor had described the restaurant immediately underneath our flat as being in an ‘absolutely insignificant quarter of the city’. The area may not have a name as such (we have to describe it using a series of awkward coordinates) or any singular identity but it is of significance to us for two reasons: one, there’s the fact that we live here, and two, that it embodies certain tendencies and pressures both global and local*.

Take, for instance, that restaurant. It’s become quite popular of late partly by virtue of its very good rating on Tripadvisor (and/or the other way round). It also attracts quite a few foreigners, a lot of whom may well be staying locally. There’s now something which calls itself a ‘guesthouse’ in our building, but no hotels nearby. I attribute the presence of those tourists to (and I presume the guesthouse is part of) Airbnb. Will Self once remarked that most inhabitants of London don’t actually live in London itself, but rather on the map of underground stations. In a similar way, nowadays most tourists visit a Google Maps version of a city: sleeping in Airbnb homestays, eating in Tripadvisor restaurants, getting driven round by Uber**. A recent report on the effects of Airbnb in Amsterdam mentioned established local businesses getting pushed out by new concerns catering to tourists such as bike rental shops, so it’s not by chance that one has just opened up right across the street from us. To be fair, those tourists do need some way of getting around, given that Uber barely exists in Italy and the public transport system appena funziona. Finding a normal taxi in Rome often feels like getting your hands on something to smoke in an unfamiliar city: you have to hang about in particular places and hope you get lucky, or try to get hold of the number of someone who might be able to supply you with one. At least our area is more or less within walking distance of Trastevere, a much more Woody Allen part of town altogether.

In terms of local changes, it’s noteworthy that the restaurant itself used to (until about two years ago) be a Jewish one. Although I don’t know its history, there’s certainly a community centred on our street, with two butchers and a bakery on the other side of the road. It reminds me of the few weeks in the summer that I spent staying near to the huge Orthodox Jewish colony of Stamford Hill. It struck me as curious that the Orthodox people and the other locals rarely acknowledged each other. Those few interactions I had – looking for directions, asking to get past people on the bus – felt kind of encouraging. Although rumours abound in London about what the Orthodox community gets up to behind closed doors, peaceful coexistence is based on letting other people get on with their lives rather than bashing down doors in case someone’s doing something you could enjoy getting annoyed about. Racism itself is becoming conditioned by the intrusive habits and prurient morés of online life. It seems so easy to resolve conflicts and differences on the internet: you just call people names and it instantly feels like the world’s a better place. In offline reality respectful distance is the basis of civilised accord.

It sometimes seems as if anti-semitism is bubbling away, just beneath the surface, everywhere you look. Just beneath our apartment is a shop run by a guy from Bangladesh. This also feels like home from home; I used to live in a bit of Bangladesh, in Whitechapel to be exact. However, while almost all Bangladeshis in East London come from a tiny part of the country called Sylhet, most here seem to be from Dhaka. The proprietor of the shop works extremely long hours, and is tired of it. He wants to go to London, and he wants to know if there is any way I can help him. He got 5.5 in IELTS ten years ago and he used to work as a pizzaiolo. It’s hard to see how he might get a visa. After ten years here he finds Italy ‘disgusting’. Why doesn’t he like the country any more? my wife asked him once. ‘Because there are too many Jews’, was his rather startling response. Not a great move. Now we choose to shop elsewhere.

Although they might not welcome his support, he may have something in common with the local fascists. A couple of years ago there was a sudden local spate of far-right graffiti and posters against ‘usury’. I recently came across some graffiti from the teenage fascist collective Casapound reading ‘respect the hero, not the refugee’. This seems to be something of a trope on the far-right. They worship violent sacrifice and martyrdom in much the same way as their jihadi counterparts in the Middle East. Both are puerile Valhalla-worshpping death cults. Last December, in one of my proudest moments, I tore down and disposed of a huge fascist poster stuck up next to our local bus stop spreading the standard lies about immigrants getting precedence over local people in housing and healthcare. Then we got on the bus and went to the Museum of Liberation, which focuses exclusively on the Nazi occupation of the city. In Italy there is a keen distinction made between nazis and fascists. In some circles calling oneself a fascist is almost respectable, or at least it doesn’t have the same stigma as nazifascista, which applies only to the German forces. I recently read a book by a prominent US historian of fascism who argued that the Italian version wasn’t nearly as bad and had more in common with Mao’s China than Hitler’s Germany. I find this dubious – such arguments are destined to give succour and credibility to the contemporary far-right.

‘Nationalism is an easy illusion’. That’s what’s written in huge letters on a nearby railway bridge, more or less where Garbatella begins. This area was built during Mussolini but it houses a radical tradition, with lots of squats putting on politically-inspired music events. Just to the south there is the vast district of EUR, also inaugurated by Mussolini as a showcase for fascist architecture; Bertolucci used it to very great effect in Il Conformista. It does have some remarkable and not at all unpleasant-to-look-at buildings, such as the Square Colosseum. Nevertheless, things seem to get poorer and grubbier as you follow the main arteries further south, and the new far-right is keen to take advantage of popular discontent. I recently saw a news report about a squatted social centre in EUR being turfed out by ‘local’ people repeating the usual lies about immigrants. Also beginning just around the corner from us is Via Magliana. This area of the city gave the city the Magliana gang, which appeared to be dormant until about two years ago when a huge scandal broke, centring on the figure of Massimo Carminati. He boasted that his mafia operation was making far more money from running refugee centres than it does from dealing drugs. The investigation revealed a level of murkiness in the distribution of public money that most hoped was a thing of the past. The whole affair reminds me, once again, of Mexico. The fact that the new Mayor, Virginia Raggi, seems to be feeling the unexpected strain of her job may be part of a deliberate design to teach her who really runs the city. Two months ago she lamented that Rome is ‘full’ and can take no more migrants, and then a week later made a laudable statement attacking a gang of racists in a deprived part of town for trying to exploit the housing crisis for their own ends. In the meantime, a series of transport strikes have combined with the ongoing garbage collection crisis to create a sense of impending municipal doom.

There is a vibrancy to this area which is partly attributable to the presence of immigrants. When I first visited in 2012 we popped into the haberdashers to get keys made and I found out that the guy I thought was Sicilian turned out to be from Egypt. I feel comfortable speaking Italian with other foreigners. The lingua franca is Imperfect Italian. There seems to be a sense of shared experience despite my evident privilege. One common sight on Italian streets is recent (and sometimes not so recent) immigrants selling books. There appears to be a whole publishing industry based on these street sales, and over the years the quality of the publications has improved considerably. They sell illustrated children’s stories (which will soon come in handy) along with recipe books and some excellent volumes of African poetry.

The Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous used our district as the setting for one of his novels. His books are always pleasurable and easy to read despite the abundance of new and old Italian slang. He presents a laudable defence of multiculturalism without flinching from the difficulties, with terrorism and the suspicion it generates an ever-present background. The world he describes is one I catch glimpses of, one of overcrowded apartments and constant anxiety about renewing one’s permesso di soggiorno (residence permit). One of the largest groups of recent immigrants is from Bangladesh, and they tend to be the ones you see in tourist places selling selfie sticks, luminous flying things and mobile accessories. Like the goods sold on the Metro in Mexico city it’s hard to find out how the goods are distributed. I asked my Bangladeshi hairdresser but he didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Visiting his shop is a cheap if not always cheerful experience. The first time I was there I had my hair cut by an Afghan who spoke no Italian, the second time it was the owner, who has been here for three years. I soon felt guilty about favourably comparing my Italian to his. His first year or two years in Italy were spent working in agriculture in Apuglia, which is apparently not exactly a bucolic idyll.  Before that he had been stuck for months in Libya, before managing to escape with hundreds of others on a boat designed for dozens. It’s tempting to call him one of the lucky ones but I wouldn’t swap my luck for his.

In addition to a local Chinese shop selling useful plastic tat, on the corner of the street there is a coffee bar run by cheerful second-generation Chinese people who seem to speak better roman dialect than the locals (after all, they are locals). It’s a very popular place to hangout, read the paper and argue and also doubles up as a gambling emporium. Although betting shops are becoming more prevalent in Italy, they are more subtly woven into the urban fabric than they are in the UK, and are easily confused for normal cafés. There may well be a link between their increasing number and the amount of people begging on Viale Marconi, outside the hundreds of shops selling expensive baby accessories and the dozens of french fries outlets that have sprung up in a sign that globalisation and austerity may be doing permanent damage to the Italian diet. There are also signs of gentrification, such as the brand new and very swish birreria just around the corner and the artisan beer shop on our street. Given that I am, in theory at least, its perfect customer and I’ve never been in there or seen anyone buying anything, I don’t know how it survives. However, Mexico taught me that just because somewhere doesn’t have any customers doesn’t mean it’s not…solvent. So chi lo sa.

Some tourists come to our area to go to Saint Paolo’s Basilica, in whose café I’m sitting as I write this. Since December 2015 it has been under very heavy guard, with armoured vehicles and fully-armed and camouflaged soldiers outside. The church is of huge historical and religious significance as it houses the remains of St Paul. You could fit several ordinary-sized cathedrals inside it and still have room for one or two smaller basilicas. I used to use it as a soulful shortcut to get to the metro station, but the experience of passing through a metal detector with a machine gun pointed at your feet is guaranteed to shush any spiritual siren calls that were beckoning you in.

To get to the Basilica and the Metro station you have to cross the river. At some not-quite-conscious level I’m always contemplating bridges and rivers and the relationship between the two. Along the Tiber you can walk all the way into the centre. On the other side of the river, towards the working class district of Testaccio, with its former gasworks and warehouse clubbing scene, you see signs of gypsy encampments amidst the overgrown foliage.

Like most areas of Rome our district has its share of dog shit**, graffiti, broken glass and smashed-up pavements. This is not a part of Rome that Penélope Cruz or Jesse Eisenberg will be spotted in any time soon. I haven’t written about many of the delightful things that this area and Rome in general have to offer, its restaurants and gelaterias and galleries and bookshops. I didn’t want to (and I probably wouldn’t know how to) write an Eat-Pray-Love-style elegy in which I boast of the tiny pleasures of sipping on a perfectly-formed cappuccino and nibbling at a melt-in-your-mouth cornetto in a picturesque Roman piazza while reading Dante in the original language. But there is much of significance on any street and I hope I’ve given something of a sense of what it’s like for this individual (me) to be living in this part of Rome at this particular moment in its immensely complex history and some suggestion of what it must be like for those less blessed with good fortune than myself.

 

* I’ve only been living here since September 2016 but me and my wife had already been visiting regularly since 2012.

** I’m aware of the irony of writing about this on the internet.

*** Mind you if you really want to see some dog shit the place to go is Via Vaiano near La Magliana. Mamma mia.

DSC_1646.JPG

Puebla: Clowns, Trains and Antorchistas

dsc_1022In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.dsc_0791Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.dsc_0830

dsc_0834

dsc_0835We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.dsc_0887

dsc_0889

dsc_0892I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.dsc_0893The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.dsc_0932

dsc_0963

dsc_0994

dsc_0998Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.dsc_0897It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more.dsc_0900 I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.

Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport.  I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.

Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.

dsc_1045We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists. dsc_1039

dsc_1047

dsc_1043

dsc_1054

dsc_1050

dsc_1034Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. dsc_0166In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.dsc_1058It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.