Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski is an amazing book that was given to me as a second hand book by a friend already years ago. It ended up at a pile and stayed there for years. However since I travel a lot for my work in the Middle East these days, I am reading book by book through that pile while waiting at airports or flying in airplanes.
Travels with Herodotus is one of those books that I should have read earlier and that I couldn’t let go once I started reading. It is not a new book (published in Dutch in 2005 already) but who cares, nor is Herodotus who lived in the 5th century BC.
Kapuscinki proves that Herodotus has not lost any of his actuality in 2500 years for 2 main reasons:

1. He is the first known author to check and double check his stories, indicating for his readers how (im)probable the history he offers would be; that is tremendously interesting. His way of operating is amazing, checking stories in the 5th century BC cost him years but that didn’t stop him at all. He must have felt that he was not just writing for his contemporaries but for the entire humanity. So as readers in the 21st century we can follow pretty accurately the games of power of the ancient world.

2. Herodotus shows with facts the extreme cruelty of the rulers of his time – and of their advisers, family and the like. They make you think of some 20th century dictators; indeed not mankind has changed but the possibilities individuals get to apply their cruelty in daily reality. Herodotus describes the cities of Athens and Sparta as cities with a democracy where power was limited or should we say: diffuse, divided; no one was able to rule through fear and cruelty to the extent that it was found among Persians, Assyrians, Parths and many other people where the power was in the hands of one person or family. Somehow it is the system that allows humans to be cruel – or stops them. In the light of today’s debate about the value of democracy, these are intriguing thoughts.
The division of power leads to endless discussions, even on the battle field where the Greek leaders fight although the Persians are near. It is fun to read for those who have experience with democracy; nothing changed in the ‘way it is done’. And the surprise is that small Greek states without apparent unity win the war over well organized Persians who outnumber them and do not loose time in discussions about strategy. The book proves that it would have changed the course of history in Europe, had the Persians won the war. It is an encouragement to proceed on the way of checks and balances in the institution and execution of power!

Travels with Herodotus is not just about Herodotus, it is also about the author Ryszard Kapuscinski himself. He interwaves his personal story as travel journalist with Herodotus’ book Histories in an interesting and also meaningful way. I think Kapuscinski saw this book as his personal life story. On his first foreign trip that he undertook while he had always lived in closed communist Poland, Herodotus’ book accompanied him and did so on many other journeys that followed. It was not just a source of inspiration but also a method and a continuous challenge for reflection. Kapuscinski shares a lifetime outcome of that with his readers; this book has a depth that is rarely seen. It is a gift for humanity: buy it, in a second hand bookshop if no longer available, who cares.

Travels with Herodotus is a must-read for anybody who is interested in:
– (the development of) democracy versus dictatorship
– Asian and European ancient history
– travel journalism, both content/stories and methodology
– philosophy, politics, culture and anthropology.

Useful links:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jun/30/featuresreviews.guardianreview6
http://www.geschiedenis.nl/nieuws/artikel/912/reizen-met-herodotos (in Dutch)

Hamas promises peace

RamallahThis week a group of journalists and opinion leaders had a conversation with spokesmen of Fatah and Hamas on the Westbank. Fatah and Hamas have reconciliated and the two men presented themselves as a political unity in Ramallah. The conversation led to one unclear outcome but also to some clear conclusions that I am happy to share with you.
The unclear outcome was the answer to the question as to how Hamas felt about the deal between Israel and Turkey on the Mavi Marmara ship. Although this deal involves action points to be taken by Hamas, the Hamas spokesman was clear: this is between Israel and Turkey, Hamas has got nothing to do with it and has no opinion about it. The news that  there was some disappointment about the deal in Turkey because the hopes were the Gaza bloccade would be alleviated, made no big impression: Hamas is not involved here and has no comments on the deal.

Then the questions that WERE actually answered…
1. Is Hamas ready to accept a 2-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict? The answer was a loud and clear: yes! This is something that I never heard before and that opens new windows for the future, as the 2-state solution means that the parties involved recognize each other so Hamas is ready to recognize Israel.
2. How does Hamas see the position of women? Hamas wants a democratic state with full rights for women in all positions. Women have the same rights as men and Hamas will work within the framework of international laws set in this respect. The way the society was described here sounded like paradise, certainly more than the Netherlands where we do struggle with some men-women issues in daily life!
3. How about a free press? Hamas admits there is no free press now but they are motivated to have a free press. However it is difficult in the actual circumstances because of (their perception of) the Israeli oppression. The answer is, give Hamas a free Palestinian state and free press will be realized in that new state.
So after this conversation the conclusion can only be: Hamas promises peace. Hamas just made peace with Fatah, and they will make peace with Israel and with international rights like the rights for women and the rights for free journalism.
You can imagine that the group that witnessed this conversation, was excited and ready to give congratulations.

 

Elections in Turkey

elections in turkey 0  Elections are coming up in Turkey and it is impossible to overlook them! I went to a trade mission in Adana and Mersin last week with the Dutch ambassador, his team and other entrepreneurs and we saw and heard the elections everywhere. Cars with loudspeakers shout out their messages: ‘Hey Adana’ and then the text of their campaign follows in a volume that forms an interruption for your conversation – just wait untill they passed to continue.
There are flags and banners everywhere, on the houses, over the street, over the river… think of a spot and the politicians did too.

Here some interesting pictures:
elections in turkey 2 CHP relatively modest on a roundabout;
elections in turkey 2 The ruling AK party: ‘Now I can go to university with my veil; they just talk, AK party acts‘;
elections in turkey 3 A big flag from the MHP party (grey wolves, a big party in Adana) and smaller – below the flag – a sign of the Saadet party: ‘not the European union but Islam union‘ (union is the same word as unity in Turkish);
elections in turkey 4 A big flag of the MHP over the road – busses and bigger cars can not go under it without touching the flag so it is damaged on the lower side but the effect is there I guess. In most countries this would be forbidden;
elections in turkey 5 Not everybody is good in flags: the wind has frustrated the Salih Demir message here…

In the Netherlands it happens that people forget to vote. I don’t think that can happen here. Nevertheless it does not make politics more popular in Turkey than in the Netherlands; most people that I asked did not like the overall political presence.

Naziha’s spring – an outstanding IDFA documentary

naziha's spring  It was a coincidence that I went to an IDFA documentary, I never have / take time for things like that but in this case the maker of the documentary was the daughter of a friend with whom I participate in a Turkish litterature club – yes, all Turkish spoken so you understand I do not speak a lot, however I do read all the books (in Turkish) while not every participant does 🙂
I have to say that Gülsah Dogan presented an outstanding documentary that should be obliged learning material for any organisation involved in the problems of Amsterdam-West families. She has succeeded to make an inside picture about one of the (former) most problematic Dutch-Moroccan families Amsterdam-West has known. And anyone in the public can recognize and feel the characters, the conflicts, the existentialist problems that occur in this story. It is very moving – there were many tears – and the complexity of extreme family situations is revealed. This is a documentary that deserves a price and I hope it will win.
See http://www.idfa.nl/industry/tags/project.aspx?id=5273991f-70a3-431d-836f-264b6b41bce6, for more info and also times to visit next wednesday, thursday and saturday 26/27/29 November. Don’t miss this one! For me, it will still be on my mind for many days; it is really, really impressive!

Istanbul: mysterious tickets after Süleymaniye Mosque donation

              On leaving the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) I gave a donation to a guy sitting at the exit of the Mosque with a sign ‘donations for the Mosque’. As the entrance was free and usually the maintenance of this kind of buildings is enormous in costs, it seemed reasonable to have some contribution. I gave money and got a few blue tickets in return for that. I looked at them and thought, why do I get this kind of tickets? I gave a donation, but what is this for?
As my brains couldn’t find a solution, I started to think the Dutch way. This must be a proof for tax administration that a donation was made, I thought. In the Netherlands this exists; for income that is spent in gifts to good aims, citizens don’t need to pay taxes. But you must be able to proof that you gave away that money. I suggested the Turks might have the same system and that the tickets I got at the Süleymaniye Mosque served to prove to Turkish taxes that this money was really spent as a gift. But I also know that perspectives can be coloured too much by national perspective. The reason why I got the tickets could be completely different.
So in the restaurant, close to Süleymaniye, where we had dinner after visiting the Mosque, I showed my newly acquired tickets to the staff and asked them for the meaning of them. The staff was very surprised about it: ‘we have never seen these tickets before’. They started to question me ‘the Mosque is free to visit, why did you give them money?’.  I tried to explain to them the idea, or should I say idealism, of donations but my table company destroyed it all by saying ‘she wanted to feel good about herself’, making everybody burst out in laughter as if I were the kind of fool that was hardly seen in this part of Istanbul.
The restaurant staff explained to me ‘the government takes care of the Mosque, they don’t need your money’. Hey, I don’t give up that easily so I responded in an utmost surprised way ‘ah, I thought Turkey has a separation of state and religion’. ‘Well yes’, they replied, ‘the state doesn’t pay any money but local government does, the city of Istanbul is taking care of the Mosque’. I thought that the separation of state and religion also involved local government as well as national government but they thought that local was completely different from national and showed surprise that the City of Amsterdam is not giving money to churches or mosques ‘Istanbul is very social but Amsterdam is not’.
Soon enough, we started to talk Turkish instead of English and we jumped from the way Christians were treated in the South-East of Turkey to the way Muslems were treated in Greece and Bulgaria. I got a bit upset and so did they, and they had the superiority of language, meaningful in situations like the moment where I said that the monasteries in the North (güney) had a hard time under Turkish government when they declared there were no monasteries in the North – like I usually do, I mixed the words South and North (kuzey versus güney); a problem of mastering a language that weakened my arguments because they wouldn’t notice that I was not telling an ‘untruth’ but making a language mistake.
We didn’t really find a solution for Muslems in Greece and Bulgaria or for Christians in South East Turkey but we had a drink together to close the discussion. The only problem that lasts now is that my question about the tickets was left unanswered: why does a tourist who gives a donation to the Süleymaniye Mosque get tickets showing the period, the amount and the purpose of the donation? If you, reader, know the answer, please send me a message because I really like to know after all…

 

Istanbul and souvenirs with a religious component

  Changes can sometimes be perceived in small signs that function as a symbol for deeper lying norms and values. One of those signs in Istanbul is the way souvenir shops deal with presents that have a religious component. When I was here twenty years ago, the presents with different religious background were thoroughly separated from each other. For example in the jewelry market, jewelry with the ‘bismallah’ sign were sold in shops with a muslem owner, golden crosses were sold in shops with a christian owner. In that time there was no mixed collection of presents with religious component to be found at the same shop; absolutely nowhere!
This is something that has really changed now. In many shops it is possible to find articles with islamic, christian and jewish meaning all together not just in the same shop, but also on the same shelve. For someone like me who missed 20 years of Istanbul development, it feels like a radical change. I asked some questions about it in one souvenir shop and the workers there kindly explained to me that they believe in and respect all the prophets. I tried to explain them how this was in the years ’70, ’80, even begin ’90 but they kept telling me how they feel about it now. They couldn’t explain history to me, why it was different before and why it changed. They had Maria and Jesus hanging in their shop next to islamic holy artefacts, see the picture above, and considered that as normal.
I cannot analyze this yet, it would need a more indept insight but as said I have seen this mixture in many shops in Istanbul city already. These are small signs for what could be a more fundamental change. My first and overall impression is that the selfconfidence of the Turks has increased a lot in daily life, and tolerance often comes with selfconfidence. Another way of looking at it could be that the Christian minorities form no more threat whatsoever to the Turks which allows a different attitude. Finally, it is also possible to look at this businesswise. The Turks were always good in customer service, eager to help customers out, create strong relationships and earn some money; maybe they have just added these new products to their buckets…

Arab winter or Arab spring in Egypt

  Who ever is looking outside today in Europe, is looking at a frozen world. Life is cold and hard these days. Who wants to be outside? People have been freezing to death out there!
The weather in Egypt is warmer but the climate is even colder than in Europe. The people of Egypt suffer but there is one big hope: they protest. They are aware of their situation and demanding their rights. For sure their road is not going to be easy. That is a sad but realistic conclusion after a spring and summer full of aspirations for a quick and smooth improvement of democracy and freedom. The revolution of the Egyptian people has entered a winter that is not finished yet.
It is strange to see what the signs for a long winter can look like. I noticed that today, in the aftermath of the terrible events in the football stadion of Port Said where 74 people died and hundreds were wounded. Many people blame the government but it is the Egyptian Football League that has been suspended indefinitely. There will be no football matches until August.
August is summer time! This message makes it clear that the political fight is tough and will take a long long time before winter withdraws. The Romans knew this already: that the last thing a people has, is food and games. When the people have no power, the least they need is food and games. If you want to stay in total power and be undemocratic, you have to give it to them. In Egypt, the people are not just deprived of power, they are now also deprived of games. This means the oppression is more than average and lead by leaders who did not learn anything from ancient times – and also that the period to come is going to be severe on the people, and that the people are not going to accept it.
I just wonder: how many deaths and wounded to go the coming period? How much organized destabilization that will be very difficult to repair in the years to come? Still I do believe in the strength of a people who dream and hope and never give up…

How much spring is the Arab spring?

Lente smileys  During the last months, many politicians and journalists have started to discuss the depth of Arab spring; is it a spring at all? They are cynical because they did not see the Arab world change at once. Hope grows a bit now that Khaddafi is in his final moments, but scepticism is still there.
In an earlier blog http://grethevangeffen.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/the-surprise-of-arab-spring/ I already adressed the one-sided knowledge and expectations politicians and journalists have about the Middle East. Their attitude concerning freedom and democracy in the Middle East is confusing. Everybody knows that freedom does not come at once and is never for free. The same thing counts for democracy. Why on earth do people expect Arab countries that have suffered from lousy dictators during many years to be free and democratic just in the time of a blink of the eye, as by divine commandment? Once the dictators are gone, Arab citizens will still have to fight for freedom and democracy, maybe not with arms but the benefits will not just drop from the sky without human efforts and even sacrifices.
Another thing is that this is an Arab and not a western development. The outcome of Arab ‘spring’ might be a different ‘summer’ than western observers expect. This is what happens when people start to create their own destiny. I am very curious to know what the Arab world will look like in two years!

Northern Cyprus Heritage (7) Antiphonitis

  The Byzantine monastery church of Antiphonitis lies lonely but strategically in the hills on the north side, not far from Sourp Magar (see blog Heritage (1). It has a special and beautiful architecture. Inside it has frescoes dating from the 12th to 15th century. Part of the frescoes have been looted, but others are still there.
Greek Cypriots have heavily blamed Turkish Cypriots for the looting, even suggesting that this was part of a bigger plan of the Turkish army to make all Greek signs disappear from their point of the island. Indeed there was a proven case of a Turkish art robber, cooperating with a Dutch one (see: http://www.cyprus44.com/kyrenia/antiphonitis-church.asp. But concerning the harm done to frescoes by visitors, I found hundreds of Greek writings on unique frescoes. Many of them seem to date from before the conflicts on the island, at least the dates that people marked in (!) the frescoes are all before 1975, dates like 1910, 1929 and 1960. This suggests that the Greek Cypriots didn’t care so much or protect this heritage themselves. Just a few pictures to show the serious damage done:
     
There is nothing Turkish there…  it is too easy to blame ‘the enemy’, it is beside the facts and rather paranoid to blame the Turks for a deliberate appraoch in this destruction.

Northern Cyprus Heritage (5) Pandeleimon

 The monastery of Agios Pandeleimon, patron saint of physicians, in Camlibel was in closed militairy area untill recently. The church is late 16th century, the 18th century monastery was already abandoned in the ’50’s and contained little of interest. The site shows an incredible negligence. Why not clean things a bit up before you leave them open to the public, I’d say to the army; it makes a much better impression. This looks like the army has really worn out the place and when there was nothing left, withdrew from it. Even if we keep in account that the monastery was already empty for some time it is a great pity.
           

            
The place is extremely beautiful and could be developed for new functions although I know that the Greek Cypriot Church is fiercely against that. However, like this a precious site is just falling into pieces. Why was the army so inconsiderate with this place? I think it is the same problem as for Agios Christostomos: when a church acts like a political factor, its buildings will be treated like that too. This is how valuable heritage is lost. On a pillar of the church I found the words: ‘sleep quiet’, obviously written by someone with Turkish background as they always write the way they speak (‘slip kwot’). Although quite some Turkish Cypriots criticize role and influence of the army, they never deny the core function of their presence: that since the army is here, they can sleep quiet.

Northern Cyprus Heritage (4) Ermelaos en Lapta

 Sirinevler is a rather poor village. It is located not on the coastal side of the northern part of Cyprus where life is flourishing but behind the Besparmak ridge in the large Mesaoria plain that lies in between the Besparmak mountains in the North and the Troodos mountains in the South; in the middle of the Mesaoria, the Green Line dividing the island in two parts. On the Turkish side in the Mesaoria there are mainly farmers. Life is hard there, cold in winter, hot in summertime.
Where in the very North the EU is only present with some signs about improvement concerning environment, in the Mesaoria villages we find the EU improving the infrastructure and look of the villages themselves; this is really a poverty issue.
The church in Sirinevler that was called Agios Ermelaos before, is in a terrible state. It is a more simple church than the ones with frescoes and all, but it certainly doesn’t deserve this status. It is a little beauty that deserves to be there in all pride.
     
I think the pictures of Agios Ermelaos are clear: this is dreadfull…

And now a few pictures from two churches in Lapta on the northern side of the Besparmak ridge. There are more than 2 churches in Lapta but the overview is the same: these churches are preserved better and respected more. Lapta is much richer and more international than Sirinevler; this works out well for heritage conservation!

     

So when you are confronted with a diversity issue, do not assume too easily that the problem is diversity itself; it might be poverty and isolation. Solutions that you propose depend highly of the view you have about the situation: go for an indepth analysis!

Northern Cyprus Heritage (2) Christostomos

 The church of Ayios Christostomos was located in military area until 7 or 8 years ago. The Bogaz region where it stands was for many years, from 1963 to 1974 the middle point of severe fights. Most probably the status of the church was better before all this started. Looking at its exterior, there is not a big problem but when you look inside you can really see the negligence and the absolute destruction of unique frescoes:
   
Clearly for Turkish Cypriots this church is not felt as their heritage or their responsability. Ayios Christostomos lies in the region where fightings among Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the ’60’s and ’70’s were most fierce. And that memory is alive, it appears, maybe also because there has always been few recognition for the problems of Turkish Cypriots. I made two other photographs here of recent graphitis:
  
The picture on the left is clear I guess, the one on the right has, if you look carefully, yellow graphiti mentioning ‘Hamitköy’. Hamitköy was the village where hundreds of refugees had to stay for over ten years in sheds and tents. They ran from Omorphita that was 80% Turkish and attacked by EOKA troops during christmas 1963. There was looting and killing and until today 150 persons are missing. It is significant that ‘Hamitköy’ is painted as a graphiti on a church. Many Turkish Cypriots see the church as the great inspirator of anti-turkish feelings on the Greek side. For example at the moment Greek Cyprus has an electricity problem. Turkish Cyprus helps them out. The Greek Cypriot Government has accepted that, but the Greek Cypriot Church has heavily criticized this acceptance, as in their views anything from the North of Cyprus must be boycotted.
However unique the frescoes are, they will not be saved as long as this kind of discussions continue. Where people fight, heritage is suffering.