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Weblog :: Personal
On Remembrance Day 11.XI.2012 10:41

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.


--John McCrae

There's a solemnity to Remembrance Day that makes it to me one of the few public holidays worthy of its subject; the shared minute's silence of an entire nation echoes louder than the entire year's triumphant marches, rattling sabres and beating drums of war. The Vimy Memorial, a tribute to the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is in my opinion one of the most beautiful in the world. It features no triumphal arches, and the only sword it depicts is being broken on the ground. It shows the nation at war as it should be seen: not as a brave general leading his men into battle, but of a weeping mother mourning her sons.

The only proper emotional response to war is revulsion. Revulsion at its horrors, revulsion at the fates of its victims, and revulsion at its indisputable necessity. There is a tendency now to sanitise war - indeed, to sanitise death - in a way that makes it seem distant, that dehumanises the dead. This is why our strikes are 'surgical', our bombs are 'smart' - it is not a coincidence that the 'operating theatre' now shares its name with a room in a hospital. And when this is the way we wage war, we no longer weep, we no longer turn away in horror - we merely count the numbers, the deaths in a far away land, and return to our lives unaffected. It was this horror that united our soldiers with their victims - or our victims with their soldiers - and kept us, sometimes, from the brink. To remember our soldiers in a way that minimises the horrors of how they fought and how they died cheapens their sacrifice.

There is a dangerous conviction in some corners of the Western world that war is good for the soul, that of the nation and that of the soldier. That it is a display of power, that it can be entered it into lightly, that the homeland is enriched and purified by this spilling of blood and treasure, that to stay strong it must prey upon the weak. This is not only wrong, but it goes against the immense progress that we, as a race, have made away from the brutality of our past. War disfigures the soul, scars it in a way that often does not heal. We have an obligation to remember not only the dead but those individuals who bear those scars for us. To celebrate our soldiers as returning victors without mentioning the gas and the trenches and the jungles and the IEDs is to betray their memory as much as forgetting would be.

And what will be the nature of modern war? Now armies of drones fill our skies, raining destruction down from miles above - faceless men in faraway offices murdering faceless into whose eyes they will never have to look. And all such victims are now enemies just by virtue of being killed - any man of military age is declared a militant. And why not? After all, one of their 180 million compatriots shot a girl for the crime of demanding her right to education. Surely all these men must be our enemies! But we do not know if they are like the man who murdered her, or the man who helped raise his daughter to demand that right in the first place. In the past, it was our sacrifices that stayed the hand of our bloodlust - the tears of the widows and the orphans and the fathers and the daughters. What will happen when war has no more role for heroes - only bureaucrats and victims.

War is hell, and heroism is retaining ones humanity when surrounded by it. The most celebrated military figure in Canada, justly, is Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN forces during the Rwandan genocide, whose humanity left him haunted about his impotence in the face of wanton carnage. His antithesis are those now in the international community who are beating the drums of war to Iran, many of whom know nothing of war themselves, of the costs it will impose not on both the soldiers who are asked to die for some craven political purpose, and the inevitable victims who will not be asked anything at all, whose deaths will become mere statistics. To remember is a moral obligation, because to remember those who have fought and died in our wars is to remember the solemnity, sadness and regret that must be felt before we send men and women to fight and die for us again, lest we forget that there is no greater dishonour to a man's memory than to have needlessly sent him to his death.

Amman, Jordan Jo

Arabia Felix 02.IV.2009 10:07
I haven't updated in a while, I realise, but that's because I've been settling in - I've stopped travelling for a while and will be living in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, for the next few months, studying Arabic and (hopefully) making money at a job of some description. I fell in love with Sana'a the moment I saw it - it's probably the most beautiful city I've seen since Esfahan, with a gorgeous and distinctively styled old city almost entirely devoid of new buildings. Just strolling through its narrow streets is a joy, down every alleyway and around every corner an aesthetic pleasure - if there's nothing to do, it's perfectly pleasant to just go out and get lost. The minute I arrived, I hoped I'd be able to stay longer.

As an added bonus, this is one of the best places in the world to study Arabic, for a variety of reasons. For one, the dialect is closest to the standard Arabic used in the media - the dialects of Arabic being as far apart from on another as Harlem street slang is from Received Pronunciation. Moreover, not too many people speak English - and everyone's willing to patiently wait as you struggle your way through the most basic of sentences. The atmosphere here's wonderful too - the people have a dignity that I had sorely missed from Egypt onwards, and their willingness to help (and general lack of trying to cheat you) reminds me, more than anything else, of Iran. I haven't done much travelling yet, except for a weekend trip to some nearby cities, but that comes with the changeover from the constant-travelling lifestyle to a more stable one.

Things have really worked out pretty perfectly for me - I arrived here with nothing but the name of a single hotel and a vague hope that I could study Arabic despite the fact that I was completely out of money. I found a vague post on Lonely Planet about a language institute here that needed some website work and so here I am, doing a sort of work-study barter at the Saba Institute. The place is really great - it's new, the director, Dr.Hamoud, having started off on his own some one year ago - and it's got a really personal touch that schools in other places, from what I hear, lack, and since I rent a room from them as well my expenses are next to nil. Since they're completely flexible - and my courses are private - the first hour of each lesson consists of me ranting about my trip in semi-competent Arabic, but it actually really helps and is at least more interesting than the more typical la singe est sur la branche school of foreign language acquisition. It's a great place to study Arabic, and I'm really thrilled with the way things are going.

Yemen is a pretty distinct place from the rest of the Arab world. Every single BBC story about it concerns a terrorist attack on tourist, and contains the phrase, 'Yemen, one of the poorest countries outside Africa,' which I can't help but doubt is true. Here, conservative Islam is socially, rather than governmentally enforced - I'd say ninety percent of women here veil even their faces, which in a supposedly 'fundamentalist' country like Iran would have been seen as crazy, with even the most conservative women wearing the face-revealing chador. Women rarely walk with men here on the streets, and the division of the sexes is greater than I've seen in any other Islamic country - one man told me that even if he saw his wife on the street, he would pretend not to recognise here, for fear of gossip being spread on the street; any man coming into a building shouts his presence so that the woman can escape and not be seen. An interesting point however, is that one common perception - that such clothes rob women of their identity - is manifestly not true; any man can recognise his wife or sister a mile away.

It has to be admitted, though, that one of the things Yemen is famous for are terrorist attacks, of which there have been a spate in recent weeks. The majority of these are kidnappings which, unlike in places like Somalia or Iraq, are completely harmless - the captives are merely leverage in the tribes' battles against the central government, and are treated as guests afforded all the protection of tribal custom, and almost always released after a few days. There have been lethal terrorist attacks of late, targetting the Korean population, but these seem to relate to an oil contract recently signed by the government. All of this stirs into Western hysteria, though, because the president-for-life, Ali Abdullah Saleh, automatically labels any group as 'al-Qaida', because that's the surest way to keep American funds flowing in - and, conversely, any group would be happy for the label because of the prestige it gives, especially when recruiting. It's all ridiculous, but it also feeds a paranoia with the police - you need a permit to travel anywhere, because the tourist industry is one of the great hopes for this, the poorest of the peninsular states, but a major hassle for independent travellers like me, without the money to rent Land Rovers or fly. But such is life - in local parlance, hadhihi al-haya.

So, I'll be living here for the next few months - spending the next week or two looking for a job, insh'allah something in programming but, in a pinch, teaching English, the credit crunch and the burst of Bubble 2.0 having reduced the prospects of contracting over the net. This blog will probably become less of a travel blog and veer back into politics and philosophy, as I really miss writing about that - and there shouldn't be another break like the last month until I start travelling again. Meantime I hope all is well, and photos should keep coming up on facebook as time allows; life is pretty great for me here - I can't imagine a better lifestyle than travelling the world learning languages, which I'm genuinely passionate about in a way I wasn't about much of my life back in Canada.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

The land is the blood 07.II.2009 07:16
Travelling in Ethiopia, you will never cease to be reminded of the country's cultural diversity - '85 languages,' anyone who speaks even a bit of English will tell you, 'more than 90 ethnic groups.' Underlying this, however, is a preoccupation with heritage that's quite prominent in both Africa and the Middle East, a belief that a person's ancestors an define him in a way that is quite at odds with modern Western individualism. I hae mentioned before my Turkish friend Omer from Cairo, who would never be Egyptian despite his family's having lived there for generation; they always marry within the community, and so the blood is kept both pure and separate from the society in which they live, never to be accepted by it. One people learn that I was born in Poland, and that my parents are Polish, I'm never really Canadian to them - my heritage precludes it. Although I've felt this feeling many times before - harrassed by children in Shiraz, I was told, 'they're Afghans, of course' - it had never been put into such sharp focus as it has in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

Since the mid-nineties, Ethiopia has been divided into regions based on ethnicity; there is a region for the Amhara, who have traditionally ruled and whose language is the country's official one, despite not being the most numerous; there is a region for the Oromo, who are the most numerous ethnic group but have never held power; there is a region for the 'Southern Tribal Peoples,' a catch-all for the largely animist or Protestant tribes of southern Ethiopia and who now perform roughly the same role as zoo animals would for passing tourists; and so on for the Tigray, the Afar, the Somali, etc. Of course, the words 'Africa' and 'tribalism' are so closely associated in our minds that there hardly seems need to prove the point, but Ethiopia has delineated tribal divisions so openly that it can't be ignored, and although it offends my liberal Western instincts, I can't decide whether it really is a good policy or not, regional identity being quite strong in the population - though the national unity posters in celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium, proclaiming the brotherhood of all tribes, remind me strongly of China's attempts to proclaim the glory of Tibet (the Autonomous Region) and the artificial creation that is Qinghai province.

In Ethiopia, though, the ethnic identity often mixes with history; the emperors have traditionally been Amhara, as were the communist dissidents who would take Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, imprisno, and kill him, and who would become the monstrous Derg regime which held Ethopia in an iron grip for two decades. They were in turn overthrown by those who make up the current, less (though not un-) oppressive government - but these men were not Amhara, but Tigrayan, and had their roots in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which ends in the two words so common when reading about political change in Africa. Travelling through the Tigray region after having spent a week and a half in the Amhara one, one can't help but notice that the lights were a bit brighter, the roads smoother, and the power outages rarer, as though, for some unknown reason, a little bit more government funding came to these parts than others. Ethiopians I've talked to seem to be ambivalent about their government - some proclaim that there is no freedom and no work, which is true, but others say Ethiopia is making progress, and are extremely proud that the African Union summit is currently being held here. I couldn't help but notice, though, that the complaints I heard came in the Amhara and Oromo regions - never in the Tigray.

Human identity, though, defines itself most often in terms of whom it excludes and the Habesha, as the Ethiopians call themselves, Amhara and Tigray alike, consider themselves superior to other sub-Saharan Africans, even as they feel a kinship with them. 'The only imperial power in Black Africa,' the information pamphlet on Aksum proudly proclaims, so presumably the rulers of Songhay and Zimbabwe were merely glorified chieftains. Ge'ez, the Ethiopians' native script, is often cited as the only native African writing system, when it is in fact adapted from the Sabaean of Arabia. When you ask Ethiopians what distinguishes their country in Africa, the most common answer is an abstract, spoken as though capitalised - 'Culture' or 'Civilisation.' Moreover, Ethiopia was the only place left uncolonised during the 19th-century 'Scramble for Africa,' a fact of which Ethiopians are extremely proud - despite several years of occupation by Mussolini which have left a simultaneous hatred and reverence for the occupiers' culture typical of post-colonial countries, which is why the country is full of piazzas and macchiatos, and an old man on the street greeted me with buongiorno, as he must have seen his parents do to foreigners when he was young.

Identity works in concentric circles, radiating out from the self into more diffuse and inclusive self-designations until it becomes all-inclusive and therefore meaningless, as light radiates out into the black vaccuum of space until there is nothing in the emptiness to illuminate. First, we identify with our family, then with our ethnicity or clan, then with our country, then with our civilisation (in the Huntingtonian sense), and only then, potentially, with all of humanity, though this is rare if not wholly non-existent. You can see this in the way we stereotype people locally - people from Mississauga are boring suburbanites, people from Queen West are pretentious dicks, etc. - and group unfamiliar people into larger groups - all Muslims are violent. This is because our identity as, say, an Annex resident is defined against other neighbourhoods, and ours as a Westerner against the other worlds that we instictively perceive as homogenous - in fact, we reduce our own civilisation to a kind of homogeneity when we assert our identity as part of it, as I did when I referred to my 'liberal Western instincts' a few paragraphs ago. In Ethiopia, both riven by and united despite divisions into regions and sub-regions and clans, the nature of identity is easily visible. When I was involved in a dispute with several of the 'guides' over their payment, they tried to make me angry, and they thought they had an infallible strategy - 'I thought Canadians were good people,' they said, 'but I see they are greedy, just like Americans.' They simply could not imagine that an insult on my country would not be deeply personal - especially drawing in the country against which Canadians define themselves, showing a bit of astuteness on their part - because a similar comment about Ethiopians would have been very insulting, which is why I took care to contrast their behaviour to others' I'd met. They assume that this instinct prevails in all people - to defend their identity groups in the face of others, and to take generalisations about them as statements about themselves. This is, of course, patriotism, exactly the same kind displayed in so many political speeches, from the United States to Iraq to North Korea, a feeling taken for granted as a virtue by people all over the world.

In my opinion, however, patriotism is one of the worst things in existence. It is the adaptation of tribalism to the age of the city-state, and like its mother philosophy it comes down to this: that when two lives are weighed in the balance, the scale is tipped by considerations of geography. It is the belief that a place is superior simply because you were born there - proved to be my grandmother with her constant assertions that Polish yoghurts and meats are much better than Western ones, and by a policeman in Poland who told my father to 'go back to Canada and your plastic ham!' on being given an Ontario driver's license. It's easy to understand why patriotism exists from an evolutionary perspective - in social animals, gene survive most often with groups as well as with individuals, and groups which helped one another against other groups were more thus more likely to survive. Such behaviour reaches its apotheosis among certain tribes of Papua New Guinea, who kill anyone they encounter unless he is a recognised member of their in-group, but the modern manifestations of this are everywhere. I'm far from free of them myself - I still feel a strong pride whenever Toronto achieves something or is in the news, and I feel the classic tribal feeling when watching the Leafs or TFC, because sports is, of course, war transposed onto the more civilised plane of the ice rink or the football pitch. Nevertheless, I would never work to the detriment of other human beings simply because they did not share my ethnicity, and I am now travelling in a land where this is not just common but assumed as inevitable - as it probably is the world over.

It is certainly the case in the United States, where the prominence of 'American interests,' and the President's serving of them, is taken as a given. This is particularly interesting considering the excitement Barack Obama has inspired among Africans - I've eaten at the Obama Restaurant in Bahir Dar and used the internet at the Obama Business Centre in Mekelle, and Kenya declared the day of his inauguration a national holiday. There are 'Yes We Can' t-shirts everywhere here, bilingual in English and Amharic, and every Ethiopian to whom I've spoken on the subject thinks he's 'a good man' who will definitely be 'good for Africa.' Why? Because he's African - he has African blood. The fact that Obama himself identifies as African-American with a heavy emphasis on the latter does not enter their calculations: he will help Africans more than others because he shares their blood more than others', just as the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in trying to raise Ethiopia raises Tigray just a little bit more. This is human nature, instinctual and irrevocable, and I have no doubt that even if Barack Obama is a great president he will be a huge disappointment for Africa.

Ultimately, the jins, the Arabic word for tribe, remains one of the primary units of self-identity in Africa, though it is not as bad in Ethiopia as in some places whose 'national identity' exists only in the football stadium. That is why people here have such trouble comprehending the nature of my dual citizenships - they cannot believe that I could betray my blood so wholly and serve that of another nation; I don't serve Canada in any meaningful sense, of course, but that's another issue. Similarly, a nationalist Russian I met in a Beirut hostel insisted on talking to me in his native language, straining my grasp of it to the breaking point, asserting that Westerners, though they acted like my friends, could never really be because they did not have Slavic blood like he and I did. The notion of bloodlines, of fate and nature determined by birthright is inescapable here, and there is quite a strong undercurrent of it even among the secular humanists of the Western world. I hope such a feeling might lessen as the march of civilisation, if it exists, moves forward, but I fear that the survival instincts honed by evolution in the African savannah and beyond, will be insuperable.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Et

Quick update 04.I.2009 12:33
Sorry for not posting the last two weeks, but I've started on three rather large pieces I haven't quite been able to finish, on Iran, Egypt and Gaza. Meanwhile Egypt, for its part, has been rather horrible to me, at least over the last week, and I'm glad to be leaving it. In the urban indifference of Cairo, you can still remain a bit anonymous, but here you can't even walk down the street without being constantly accosted. Everyone lies too - touts, policement, your hotel, tourist information - all in a massive conspiracy to get you to spend as much of your money as possible. Being overcharged, I understand - you're a foreigner after all - but to tell me there's no bus when I can see one is just too much. Besides that, I've been a bit under the weather and out of energy, another reason I haven't been able to get down to writing. But tomorrow it's off to Sudan, which should be an adventure, especially the 24-hour-boat-ride :S - if it's anywhere near as stressful as buying the tickets was, I'll need six sleeping pills or so. Anyway, photos and blog entries increasing in frequency soon!

Aswan, Egypt Eg

Return to Egypt 10.XII.2008 06:05
When I was around sixteen, I went to Egypt on a trip to Egypt organised by one of my high school teachers which, quite frankly, I barely remember. Since I'm travelling in the Middle East, I've decided to enter Egypt again, this time as a backpacker and not a package tourist. Although I still remember some things about that trip back in high school, they're not about Egypt itself - it's mostly about hanging out with friends and the stupid stuff we did, not the sites or the people or the culture. To be honest, I don't really count any of he travelling I did as a teenager, because it really isn't the same; you just stayed with your family or group seeing what you were told to see (and not really understanding it even if it was worthwhile), the only thing you got out of being bragging rights about the places you've been. Even though I've visited almost every country in Europe, I don't feel like I've been to cities like Paris, Vienna and Madrid at all; I simply didn't know what I was doing. To be honest, I feel the exact same way about books I read at that age - I read Ulysses in Grade 12, and when I re-read it in university I realised that I could not have missed the point more completely; I get the feeling I'll feel that way again on the next reading.

Visiting anywhere as a package tourist is absolutely horrible, and honestly, I can't fathom why people do it. I suspect it's the feeling of security you get - you never have to find your own transportation or book your own hotel, and there's no worrying about being ripped off because your tour company has already made sure you've overpaid maximally for everything in advance. Moreover, there's the security of being isolated from those unpredictable, backwards cultures that are totally unlike the west. They don't have marked prices or bus schedules or anything - frankly, I don't know how they can live that way. Though that's a bit exaggerated, I honestly think this is why so many travel in tours or not at all - they're afraid of the unfamiliar, of anything that doesn't work exactly the way it does back home, which is a shame because travelling is really, really easy. It's cheap too, because the kinds of rates package tours quote bear no relation to the reality on the ground. Everyone who's 'always wanted to travel' but hasn't for whatever excuse should just try it, even on a quick two week trip, to see how easy and comfortable it is.

The main reason arranging things for yourself, even if it is a hassle sometimes, is the fact that it lets you interact with people on an everyday level. The process of buying your tickets, of getting seated on the bus, and of chatting to the people next to you is a great way to experience a culture in an environment where your tourism is irrelevant, because with the major bus companies you're just another passenger, paying the same amount as everyone else. This is how you learn the little hand gestures and habits that help you fit in with, and feel comfortable in, the local culture, and this is where you can actually have conversations with the regular people. In Iran, as I've written, I met several atheists, a gay guy, a Baha'i and many others - could this possibly have happened in a tour group? Moreover, travelling alone allows me to see sites that others might have no interest in whatsoever and, conversely, avoid things that most people find interesting but I wouldn't - I fully intend to explore some of the less-visited bits of Cairo because I like simply walking in urban environments, a kind of unstructured, pointless activity that many, especially in such a polluted and noisy city, would find extremely unpleasant.

Travelling on a tour bus is like a kind of self-imposed cultural apartheid. You travel in your own vehicles on your own road system. The locals exist for you only in two capacities: as facilitators of your access to sites and photo opportunities, or as performers that offer stereotypical glimpses of 'experiencing another culture,' such as Bedouin dancing shows. They are, essentially, either servants or zoo animals. Frankly, I've never been comfortable with these 'cultural' events, because they feel like you're treating people as the object of tourism, but I guess a lot of people like them because they think different cultures are mostly defined by their clothes, music and other funny habits. It's fun to watch them from a distance, but not to try to function from within them, trying to buy food or get across town with the locals. We want everything to be like it is at home - even though we'll describe our intrepid travels to people back home. The epitome of this are trips to resorts in the Caribbean, which are fine - just don't pretend you've done anything except visit a little slice of Canada with better weather. The isolation from anything local is total; there's no aspect of travel to it at all.

That's why I'm glad to be in Egypt again; although I've only been in Dahab so far, relaxing in the extremely laid-back atmosphere of this little tourist town, I think it'll be interesting to see how different my experiences of the Pyramids, Luxor and Abu Simbel are - and I'll realise just how much I missed the last time I was here. Now, honestly, package tourists fill me with nothing but disdain, with their haughty attitudes, constant complaints about the littlest things, and total cluelessness about the places they're visiting, though they are cash cows for the locals (one interesting thing I've noticed is that for Middle Easterners, this kind of tourism is their dream: they would never go backpacking or alone, but as part of a luxurious tour that involved lots of partying, Western standards, and total isolation from the Chinese or Indians or whoever. I guess every culture's the same.) I'm going to try to take local transport to some of the less-visited temples between the smaller cities, which the police frown upon but I think is possible. Hopefully, it'll be a very different trip from the one I took earlier as I make my way southward down the Nile.

Dahab, Egypt Eg