Tag: culture

An Evanescent Charm: Syria Before the Civil War

By Florcita Swartzman

And just like that, without fully knowing what we were doing or what would happen next, we were in Syria. It felt so alien and at the same time so safe, although we knew the mass media would not agree. The border control officers bid us a warm goodbye and were sure to recommend to us a famous ice cream shop in Damascus. “Don’t leave without trying pistacchio with nuts,” called the officer who had searched our bags, as we headed toward the bus stop. There we would take yet another ramshackle minivan to a town called Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî), on our way to Aleppo, and then we would travel by train to Damascus.

 

Ayn al-Arab was a typical Syrian countryside city. Everything was a bit run-down, a bit too noisy, and a bit too much the color of sand. Everyone looked at us with astonishment, surely because they had never seen a Western tourist wander through their dusty streets. For the first time, we saw women in niqabs; they looked like black ghosts, with almost every inch of their skin covered. The veils left uncovered only a tiny window that revealed their brown, almond-shaped eyes. Even in the scorching heat, the women wore matching black gloves and shoes. Often they carried babies in their arms, or guided two or three children through the town.

 

After a short wait at the bus terminal, we hopped on a van to Aleppo and left Ayn al-Arab. The driver greeted us repeatedly, “Welcome, my friends, welcome!”  Next to us, dark-eyed children stared at us endlessly. The ride through the ill-maintained Syrian roads was bumpy and seemed to take forever, thanks to the driver, who constantly found friends along the way. He couldn’t help but stop and chat with them, each time announcing an unneeded 5-minute break to the passengers.

 

This is how, so soon after our arrival, we learned our first lessons in Syrian culture. First, nothing here ever goes according to plan. Second, simple things take twice as much time as they would in any other part of the world. And third, Syrian timing is not your timing.

 

Aleppo was dazzling. We arrived after dark, and still had to take a taxi to the center of the city. The taxi left us right under the Bab al-Faraj, a tall Ottoman-style clock tower that used to be one of the symbols of the city. Now, in 2017, nothing that had surrounded it at the time of our visit remains standing. Even the tower itself has been damaged during the recent bombings, but in 2011 it was a majestic sight, overseeing the crazy Aleppine traffic and the somewhat out-of-place palm trees on each corner. The cobblestones of the old town’s streets each told a different story; the souqs, or marketplaces, smelled strongly of spices and of times long past, when it seemed that the Ottoman empire could rule the entire world.

 

In the souqs, customers and salesmen greeted each other with “as salaam alaikum” -peace be upon you-, to which the response was “alaikum as salaam“. The small shops sold everything from tea, coffee, spices, and traditional handmade olive-oil soaps to carpets with impossibly intricate designs and embroidered silk scarves. Sometimes children would mind the shops while their parents were away for the afternoon; that’s how safe Aleppo was a few years ago.

 

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Except for some people advising us to avoid Hama and Homs but never saying why, we never had reason to feel in danger. We certainly never got the feeling that we were in a country in which one of the worst civil wars of our time would soon break out. Random people in the street often invited us into their houses and treated us to cups of hot tea, just because we were the only tourists around and they were curious about us. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak any English, nor we any Arabic. Smiles, hand gestures and body language were the only tools needed to communicate.

 

At the train stations, employees behind ticket counters lazily served customers while they ate dried apricots and drank a form of mate (not mate by South American standards; but mate to them nonetheless). Muffled Arab pop music blared in the background. Kids ran through the ancient streets in their favorite soccer jerseys, bearing the names of players that had no business in this Middle Eastern open-air museum: Neymar, Shevchenko, Messi, Ronaldinho, Özil, Suárez. However, it was clear that the Syrians needed to watch their actions and words. There was always a portrait of Bashar al-Assad on display somewhere, whether at home or in the shops, and few people dared voice their true thoughts about the government. In the main square of Aleppo, a statue of Hafez al-Assad stood solemnly against a background of Syrian flags fluttering in the wind: a true exhibition of demagoguery and despotism.

 

We arrived in Damascus on a warm morning and booked a hotel that we stumbled upon in the old city center. After billing us for four nights, the owner invited us to join him and his family for breakfast. He spoke little English, and his family only knew Arabic. We sat on the carpet next to his three kids, while his wife brought plate after plate of traditional Syrian specialties: a mezze (multi-course meal) of shawarma meat, hummus, lakhma bread, halloumi cheese, and fatthoush salad, along with many dishes unknown to us. The breakfast was truly delicious, and was one more proof of how warm Syrian hearts are. However, putting an end to it was not an easy task: Middle Easterners take their hospitality seriously, so we had to truly insist that we were full and couldn’t eat another bite. The truth is, by then we only wanted to rest after a sleepless night on the train from Aleppo.

 

The dimly-lit Old Town of Damascus was still waiting for us in the evening, so we went out for dinner and a walk. We saw wealthy families eating in expensive restaurants, shopkeepers closing their businesses for the day, old men playing backgammon over a cup of tea in crammed bars and male friends strolling around, holding hands as is the custom in the Middle East. Further from the busy restaurant scene, almost no sound could be heard in the deserted old town. It felt empty now, even gloomy. Our only company in these dark alleys was the scent of apple tobacco coming from the hookahs in the lively bars we’d just left behind.

 

Eventually, we found our way back to the cheerful Damascene night. We had a fresh carrot juice at a café, and discovered the last story-teller of the Middle East theatrically reciting a tale in Arabic. The old man wore a hat like a Moroccan fez, and held a stick in one hand. The other held the book he was reading from. We fell under the spell of his story without even noticing, and without understanding a word he was saying: his hoarse voice thundered on and on in the big room where everyone listened in silence. We had sat enthralled for about half an hour when, abruptly, the loud chatter resumed and merry-makers went back to their Backgammon games. The old story-teller had gone silent and had come down from his throne in the center of the room. The tale he was telling had ended. Syria, however, is a tale never meant to end.

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Cultural Relativism: The Case of Pitcairn Island

By Jason Newman

In the middle of the vast emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean, there lies a small group of islands. Known as the Pitcairn Islands, these are the last of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Pacific; the second-largest, the only inhabited one, is called simply Pitcairn Island. This island, which measures just over two miles from East to West, is famous for two things.

Firstly, it served as the final destination for many of the mutineers who so famously wrenched their ship, the HMS Bounty, from the control of the supposedly tyrannical Captain Blythe. After having cast the captain into the Pacific, his right-hand man Fletcher Christian, along with nine crewmen, six Tahitian men, and eleven Tahitian women, set sail and landed at Pitcairn. Eventually violence broke out among the party members, and by the time they next communicated with the outside world only one man was alive. His name was John Adams, and he shared the island with nine remaining women and nineteen children. Much was made of the story, and it was sensationalised in the British press at the time. Even two centuries later, it served as the inspiration for three different films.

The second story that led to the island’s fame is just as salacious as the first. In 2004, six men, nearly one third of the island’s male population, were charged with various counts of sexual assault against girls as young as eight years old. The crimes came to light after an investigation was triggered when a teenage girl alerted a British police officer, who was visiting the island, that she had been raped.

The defence put forward by the men, and indeed many others on the island, was that this was simply part of island culture. When a girl reached the age of eleven or twelve, she was fit for “breaking in”. They argued that it had always been this way, and the practice had been carried out from as far back as the early descendants of the mutineers. These claims were ultimately rejected by the courts and the men were convicted, although they were given laughably lenient sentences.

One of the central questions that arises from the Pitcairn case concerns the legitimacy of pleading cultural relativism as a defence for such actions.

Cultural relativism, the favourite tool of the regressive left, states emphatically that actions can only be judged within the bounds of a particular culture. It is used to justify the wearing of the hijab as an act of liberation, and at its most insidious level it has been used to argue against the prevention of practices such as FGM (female genital mutilation) under the guise that it is a “cultural practice.”

In their quest to denigrate the freedoms achieved by Western society, the post-modernists and the regressive leftists claim that the reason we see such things as “barbaric” or “medieval” is our ethnocentrism. In other cultures these things are perfectly acceptable, and as a result this is enough to justify their legitimacy. To call into question the morality of these practices would be to impose our Western sensibilities upon different cultures, and would be an “act of oppression.”

According to this reasoning, the Westerner who mutilates his daughter is guilty of grievous bodily harm. However, the African or Muslim who does so is merely carrying out a cultural tradition, and thus should not be punished. Similarly, in the Pitcairn case, should a Western man have sex with a twelve-year-old girl he is guilty of rape, but if a native of the island should do so he is merely acting on a social tradition of his society. This system of thought proudly proclaims that there cannot be any objective truth or objective morality.

This system also states that no one culture can be prized above another: the cultures of certain tribes found in New Guinea who practice cannibalism are to be put on equal footing with cultures that prize free speech and individual freedom. Thus, the Western culture that the leftists are so opposed to—for its supposed “oppression”—can through this same thought process be dismissed as merely a cultural peculiarity, no better or worse than the rest.

Acceptance of the practices of different cultures, no matter how unpalatable their beliefs, has clearly become the virtue signal of the day. Should any dissent be expressed, the dissenting party is promptly accused of propagating cultural imperialism. Of course, this is ridiculous: society would become unsustainable should only one group of people be prosecuted for something like FGM, while others be allowed to proceed with the practice simply because they are part of a different cultural group.

The idea of tolerance as a virtue in and of itself, regardless of which policies one is accepting, is rather absurd; it is in fact a logical fallacy. If practices can only be judged within their cultural bounds, who is to say that tolerance is a virtue? It is only our ethnocentric culture that proclaims this, and as a result tolerance can be said to be only as good or as bad as intolerance, should another cultural group practice intolerance.

A society that would practice this insane level of “tolerance” (cultural relativism) would as a result rob itself of the ability to punish those who would harm other members of that society.

How does cultural relativism care for the Pitcairn girl who alerted the authorities? Despite her upbringing in the island’s culture, she still knew that what was happening to her was wrong. Indeed, the other thirty-two women who initially came forward and stated that they had been raped on the island, in cases dating back decades, obviously also knew that what was happening to them was wrong.

So then what should we say to these women? The relativist position, taken to its logical conclusion, would have us say, “You may not like this, but it is part of your culture. Therefore we are powerless to stop it, since we don’t want to impose our Western ideology on you. Sorry.” Some of the women who ended up protesting the case the loudest, saying the rapes were part of island culture, were the very women who initially were willing to testify against the men. This seems to imply that they had been intimidated by family members or neighbours. Even they originally did not feel the events that happened on the island were normal.

This suggests, much to the displeasure of relativists and racists alike, that humans are fundamentally similar at our basic level – that we all posses a certain universality when it comes to moral issues. If this is true then there are certain moral values that transcend culture, in which case there is indeed an objective standard of morality. If it is untrue then we are all, as members of our own cultural groups, fundamentally different from others who were raised in separate cultural groups. In this case, the danger is that that one cultural group can claim inherent superiority over the others and potentially obscure them.

The trouble lies in discovering which values will hold as an objective moral standard. Reason dictates it should be the system of values which has led to the most peaceable, prosperous and open society in the world. Much to the ire of those on the regressive left, that society is modern Western society.

Our society, at its most basic level, is built on the standard of the individual’s right to be left unmolested by other individuals or groups, and has at its core the conviction that all men are created equal and therefore are all beholden to the same set of laws without consideration for creed, religion or race. It is the same society and culture that would (and did, as they were tried under British law) prosecute the men of Pitcairn for crimes that they themselves surely knew were morally abhorrent.

Cultural relativism sounds wonderful on paper; after all, who wouldn’t want to understand the world from a new perspective? But when tolerance for other cultures descends into tolerating the worst and most barbaric aspects of these cultures, the position quickly becomes untenable.

 

For more from Jason Newman check out his blog or follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96.

De Turquía a Siria: derribando fronteras y prejuicios

Por Florcita Swartzman

Junio del 2011 nos encontró a mí y a mi pareja, dos escritores itinerantes en nuestros veintitantos, sumergiéndonos en las duras aguas de la realidad siria: el diablo reencarnado bajo la forma de un territorio mal delimitado, esa zona conflictiva y turbulenta a donde nuestras familias nos rogaron no ir; una porción de suelo donde, según la CNN, no menos que el apocalipsis se estaba por desatar. Eran los comienzos del levantamiento popular en contra de la dictadura de Bashar al-Assad, el oftalmólogo que sucedió a su padre que estuvo en el poder durante 30 años. El más alto puesto originalmente estaba destinado a Bassel al-Assad, el hermano de Bashar muerto en un accidente automovilístico en 1994. Su muerte dejó a Bashar, recién salido de la universidad de medicina, sin más opción que la de hacerse cargo del poder. Y lo hizo bien, tiranizando al país durante más de 15 años. En el 2011 el pueblo sirio se rebeló contra la dictadura, la fuerte situación de desempleo y las crecientes corrupción e inequidad de derechos, todo lo cual fue a desembocar en la guerra civil que continúa hasta el momento en que escribo estas líneas.

Lo hablamos cerca de un millón de veces a medida que nos acercábamos a Medio Oriente: queríamos verlo todo con nuestros propios ojos, pero no estábamos realmente seguros de lo que nos encontraríamos ahí. En ese momento estábamos en Moscú y no podíamos seguir retrasando el planeamiento del resto de nuestro viaje por más tiempo. Mientras tanto, los medios de comunicación occidentales estaban haciendo un buen trabajo en comenzar a implantar el miedo en nuestras mentes. Decidimos que queríamos visitar Aleppo y Damasco, cruzando hacia Siria desde la frontera turca-kurda. También queríamos visitar Hama y Homs, pero pronto abandonamos la idea. Sabíamos que teníamos que ignorar las tragedias pronosticadas por los medios masivos, especialmente porque nunca estuvimos ciegos ante la fascinación que tienen por demonizar al Medio Oriente y todo lo que allí sucede. Tomamos aire y supimos que iba a pasar: lo íbamos a hacer.

Nuestro último día en Turquía comenzó en Şanliurfa, una pequeña ciudad muy antigua con miles de años de historia -fue parte del viejo imperio de Macedonia antes de convertirse en una provincia romana, y ya estaba habitada desde hacía muchísimos años antes- muy cerca de Gaziantep. Tomamos un bus a la otogar principal de Şanliurfa y desde ahí un dolmuş nos llevó a Akçacale, la última ciudad turca antes de la frontera con Siria. Camino al sur vimos el mítico río Éufrates y dejamos atrás muchos pueblitos pequeños, polvosos y coloridos. Luego de algunas horas finalmente llegamos: del otro lado de la frontera estaba Tel Abyad, Siria. En Akçacale nos bajamos del dolmuş, (unas mini-vans que son el medio de transporte más común entre ciudades y pueblos del interior de Turquía) y fuimos hacia el control fronterizo. El oficial turco nos saludó amablemente y se veía emocionado de ver pasaportes argentinos por lo que creemos que seguramente fue la primera vez en su vida. Claro que no teníamos respuestas precisas a todas sus preguntas sobre Maradona y Messi, pero hicimos lo que pudimos mientras nos sellaba los pasaportes con la partida del país. Salir de Turquía fue pan comido, pero entrar a Siria no sería tan sencillo.

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Nos acercamos al control fronterizo sirio e inmediatamente fuimos frenados por dos oficiales que salían de una cabinita en una esquina. Por el aspecto de este puesto de frontera no esperábamos que nadie hablase inglés, pero nos equivocamos. Uno de ellos señaló nuestras mochilas y nos indicó que las abriéramos arriba de una mesa usada para inspección de equipaje. Un cuadro enorme de Bashar al-Assad colgaba del techo y en ese momento me di cuenta de que era demasiado tarde para decidir que ya no tenía ganas de cruzar a Siria. Pero no había nada más que hacer: ya estábamos ahí.

Empezaron a revisar nuestras mochilas mientras nos hacían algunas preguntas acerca de las razones de nuestro viaje, y nos dimos cuenta de que estaban buscando algún tipo de dispositivo electrónico. Como era obvio, con poco esfuerzo encontraron nuestra laptop. Nos hicieron encenderla y empezaron a abrir documentos y programas al azar, como no entendiendo bien el funcionamiento de la máquina. Se tomaron su tiempo con nuestras fotos de Venecia y París, seguro más por curiosidad que por chequeo de seguridad. Nos dijeron que no podíamos entrar a Siria con ella. Lo sentían genuinamente, pero no podíamos pasar con la laptop. ¿Qué pasaba si éramos periodistas encubiertos? ¿Qué tal si estábamos ahí para agitar los ánimos de la gente todavía más, mostrándoles seductoras fotos de nuestra jovial vida en Occidente? ¿Y qué si traíamos palabras de libertad para desparramar por el país? No perdimos la compostura, y les explicamos amablemente que íbamos a esperar el tiempo que fuese necesario hasta que la situación se resolviera; volver a Turquía no era una opción y teníamos todo el día por delante para esperar resultados positivos. Qué hubiese pasado si llegaba la noche y todavía no teníamos una respuesta favorable era un esenario en el que no queríamos pensar demasiado. Continuamos hablando en términos amistosos con los oficiales, que ahora se veían preocupados y deseosos de ayudar (después de todo, la hospitalidad musulmana también corría por sus venas), especialmente luego de que los nombres de Messi y Maradona salieran a relucir. En Medio Oriente aman las ligas de fútbol sudamericanas. También nos enteramos de que a los sirios les gusta tomar mate, la bebida nacional de países como Argentina, Uruguay y Chile. Nos sorprendimos de verlos tomándolo en la frontera, y ellos se sorprendieron aún más cuando les explicamos la forma correcta de prepararlo (lo que estaban tomando parecía una mezcla de agua sobrecalentada con yerba torpemente volcada en unos vasitos de vidrio completamente misteriosos para cualquier persona criada en la cultura del mate).

Luego de largas horas de oficiales y autoridades desconocidas yendo y vieniendo a una oficinita en el piso superior entre ocasionales miradas de preocupación dirigidas a nosotros, nos hicieron saber que estaba todo bien y que podíamos cruzar la frontera con nuestra laptop, no sin antes estamparnos un gran sello en los pasaportes aclarando toda la situación en árabe, en caso de que la policía nos revisara durante nuestra estadía. Pasamos el control de frontera y a la vera de la ruta desértica Tel Abyad se sentía casi posnuclear. Una bandera siria raída y polvorienta flameaba en lo alto de un edificio sin terminar. Al canto débil del adhan sonando desde un minarete distante, algunos hombres por acá y allá acomodaron sus alfombritas en el suelo para rezar en dirección a la Meca mientras esperaban el bus hacia la capital. La voz quejumbrosa del imam perforaba el aire mudo de aquella ciudad desierta que parecía jamás haber estado habitada. Una destartalada mini-van con destino a una pequeña ciudad entre Tel Abyad y Aleppo se paró en la improvisada terminal de buses a levantar a algunos pasajeros, y nosotros nos subimos entre beduinos y algunas mujeres con sus hijos. Habíamos creído que el viaje a Aleppo sería corto y directo, pero pronto entendimos que una vez que estás en Siria, lo mejor que puedes hacer es olvidarte de tus planes e ir con la corriente.

Continuará…

Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

From Turkey to Syria: A Border Crossing From Perception to Reality

By Florcita Swartzman

June of 2011 found my partner and me, two itinerant writers in our mid-twenties, plunging into the harsh waters of Syria’s hellish reality. We went straight into that conflicted, shaky area of the world where our worried families begged us not to go: a portion of soil in which, according to CNN, nothing less than the Apocalypse was about to break loose. It was the prelude to the country’s uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the ophthalmologist who succeeded his father who had been Syria’s ruler for almost 30 years. The spotlight was originally meant for Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s brother politician who died in a car accident in 1994. His death left Bashar, just out of Medical school, with no other option than to take his place and it turned out he did pretty well at tyrannizing the country for more than 15 years. In 2011 the Syrian people rebelled through demonstrations against the dictatorship, the heavy unemployment situation, the rapidly increasing corruption, and inequality of rights, all of which ended up in the civil war that is still happening as I write these lines.

We talked it through about a million times as we approached closer and closer to the Middle East. We wanted to see it all with our own eyes but we weren’t really sure of what we might encounter there. We were in Moscow at that time and couldn’t delay the planning of the rest of our trip any longer. In the meantime, the Western media was doing a great job at planting fear into our minds. We decided that we would visit Aleppo and Damascus crossing down to Syria from the Turkish-Kurdish border. We also wanted to see Hama and Homs; however, we soon dropped the idea. We knew we had to ignore the tragedies predicted by the mass media, especially as we have never been blind to the fascination it has for demonizing the Middle East and every event happening there. We took a deep breath in the knowledge of what was to come: we were going to do this.

Our last day in Turkey started in Şanliurfa, a tiny, pretty old town with thousands of years of history very close to Gaziantep.It was part of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia before becoming a Roman province, although it had been inhabited long before that. We took a bus to the main otogar of Şanliurfa and from there a dolmuş took us to Akçacale, the last Turkish city before the frontier with Syria. On our way south we saw the mythical Euphrates river and passed by lots of small, dusty, colorful noisy villages. After a couple of hours we were there: at the other side of the border we could see Tel Abyad, Syria. At Akçacale we made our way down from the dolmuş, the rickety mini-vans that work as the main means of transportation around small cities of inner Turkey, and we headed for the border control. The Turkish officer greeted us merrily and was visibly thrilled to see Argentinian passports for what, we think, might have surely been the first time in his life. Of course we didn’t have precise answers for all the questions he asked about Messi and Maradona, but we tried our best as he stamped our departure from the country. Exiting Turkey was a piece of cake, but entering Syria would prove to be not as simple.

We got closer to the Syrian border control and were immediately stopped by two officers who came out of a small booth in a corner. By the look of this border post we were not expecting anyone to speak English, but they did. One of them pointed to our backpacks and instructed us to open them over a table used for baggage inspection. A huge picture of Bashar al-Assad hanged from the ceiling and in that moment I realised it was too late to decide I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of crossing into Syria anymore. But there was nothing I could do about it; I was already there.

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They started looking into our backpacks while they asked a few questions about the reasons for our trip, and we could tell they were looking for some sort of electronic device. Of course they quickly found our laptop. They made us start it up and proceeded to clumsily open random files and programmes obviously lacking any deep understanding of how this machine worked. They took their time on our photos of Paris and Venice, probably more out of curiosity than security. They said we couldn’t enter Syria with the laptop and that they were genuinely sorry, but they just couldn’t: what if we were undercover journalists? What if we were there to stir the social unrest even further, showing people seductive pictures of our joyful life in the West? What if we brought words of freedom to spread around? We didn’t lose our temper, and kindly explained that we would wait all day if necessary for a suitable solution to the situation; we were not going back to Turkey and had all afternoon ahead to talk the problem through. What were we to do if by the evening we had not had a positive answer? This was a scenario we didn’t want to think too much about. We went on to make small talk with the officers, who now looked concerned about us and determined to help (after all, world-famous Muslim hospitality ran through their veins too), especially after Messi and Maradona were named, they love South American football leagues in the Middle East. We also learned that Syrians like to drink yerba mate tea, the national drink of countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. We were surprised to see them drinking it at the border, and they were even more surprised when we explained to them the correct way to prepare it (they appeared to be drinking a mess of over-heated water and yerba clumsily poured on some small vodka-like glasses, a method mysterious to anyone raised on the traditional culture of mate).

After long hours of officers and unknown authorities coming back and forth from an office upstairs and occasionally looking at us with worried faces, we were told that everything was alright and that we could cross the border with our laptop, but not before we received a big stamp in our passports that clarified the situation in Arabic just in case we were checked by the police during our stay in Damascus. We passed the border control and along the desert-like road, the small town of Tel Abyad looked almost post-nuclear. A ragged, dirty Syrian flag fluttered on the top of an unfinished building. At the faint sound of the adhan call to prayer being sung from a distant minaret, some men here and there placed their mats on the floor to pray towards Mecca while they waited for the bus to the capital. The crying voice of the imam pierced through the dead quiet air of this dusty, deserted town that seemed to never have been inhabited. A shabby minivan bound for another small city between Tel Abyad and Aleppo stopped at the improvised bus terminal to pick a few passengers up and we got on along with some Bedouins and women with their children. We had thought that the trip to Aleppo would be short and straightforward, but we soon learned that once you get to Syria, the best thing you can do is forget about your plans and just go with the flow.

To be continued….

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Tales of the Balkans: Macedonia and A Fantasy of Cultural Appropriation

By Florcita Swartzman


“So, what do you think about Macedonia?” my host in Skopje asks me. Mitre is a retired man who, as we talk over mint tea by the pool in the back garden, shows me the collection of books he’s written over the years: books about hotel management, based on Western capitalist marketing models. In the time of Tito’s Yugoslavia, writing this type of work was a jailable offense. My answer to his question is naive, as I have not yet been completely confused by the frail -and sometimes contradictory- sense of cultural belonging with which Macedonians seem to struggle so much. I tell him that Macedonia feels like a laid back country where people look like they have no worries, living in this recently independent nation beneath the notice of many other well-established countries. My already fragmented point of view may have been slightly biased by all the parties and open air festivals taking place in Ohrid during the summer I was there; yet, underneath all that colorful excitement, a true and complete existential crisis was shaking the very foundation of Macedonian identity.

The conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name is one of the oldest cultural disputes in the modern world. However, it is nothing new to the rest of their neighbors in the Balkan Peninsula, who roll their eyes in exasperation every time the argument comes up. Same old song and dance. In fact, Macedonia is only the colloquial and technically incorrect alias by which we refer to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the name that the European Community agreed to provisionally adopt in order to pour oil on Greece’s troubled waters. And with the millions of euros that the current Macedonian government has spent over the last few years fabricating an awkward “Greek Muse” costume for Skopje, it is only natural to ask whether the Macedonian people are beginning to buy this fairy tale that is being constructed around their roots.

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The first thing that came to my mind while surveying the center of Skopje was that the architects of this “Extreme Makeover: Cultural Appropriation Edition” went a little overboard with the whole statue theme. There are far too many statues for one city, especially one so small. Every last bit of the town center is garishly decorated in the same manner: in the space of one block, there are three different bridges over the Vardar river. The main bridge, as well as the narrow street that leads to the entrance of the Archeological Museum of Macedonia, has been decorated with the statues of every conceivable artist and saint “born in Macedonia”. Or in what Macedonians think Macedonia is, which is not the same as what Greeks think Macedonia is. But we’ll get to that later. Regarding this shrine of Macedonian personalities, the riverside guides its visitors through the Walk of Heroes that the whole of Skopje’s downtown seems to be, to Macedonia Square. Here, towering majestically over the city, is the colossal statue, the crown of the city, the King of kitsch: the figure of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus upon a 24-metre high pedestal, surrounded by soldiers in a defensive position and by golden lions spitting water, encircled by dancing waters timed with rhythmic lights. There is no room whatsoever for ambiguity here: this is everything Macedonia could hope for in the self-image she wants to convey to the world. But the red, paint-bombed lion testicles and the graffitied walls of the public buildings tell another story: apparently, not everyone in Skopje is thrilled with the city’s new look.

In April of 2016, fed-up Macedonians stood up against the government: the monumental plastic surgery that the capital had undergone in 2014 -consisting of more than 40 monuments, façades and new buildings- had cost the people over €560 million that could have been better spent investing in public services, which are in desperate need of improvement. The uprising, called the Colorful Revolution, left a good portion of Skopje’s fake-old architecture and the Disneyland-like statues brightly paint bombed and vibrant. Among the “Macedonian personalities” all about the city center, new heroes are now immortalized -not in stone, but in plastic and metal- the figures of the Bulgarian saints Kyrill and Methodii, the Tsar Samuil (also Bulgarian), the ethnically Albanian Mother Theresa, the Serbian Tsar Dusan, the Albanian military commander Skanderbeg, and various Bulgarian writers.

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But what about Greece, and why is this called the Macedonian-Greek conflict? The only Macedonia that Greece recognizes as legitimate is the territory comprised by East, Central and West Macedonia, three historical provinces located in the Greek north. Thousands of years before becoming who they are today, the Macedonians comprised one of the many Indo-European tribes that migrated from Asia Minor to the Balkan Peninsula, where they eventually consolidated as an empire. Their origin was not Hellenistic, but they spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods and acquired the same general culture as the Greeks. Under Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, they conquered Greece and kept it under Macedonian rule, until the Romans annexed it as a part of their territory by the name of “The Roman Republic of Macedonia.” Between this time and the independence of modern Greece, which occurred less than 200 years ago, various waves of invasions took place: not only from the Turk Ottoman Empire, but also from the medieval Slavic tribes that were seeking to expand their area of influence beyond the Kievan Rus. At this point, Macedonians ceased to be “that historical Greek-related tribe of ancient Mediterranean warriors,” to become a nation assimilated into and culturally absorbed by the Eastern Slavic world. The Slavic ancestry of Macedonia is unmistakable, and today the customs, language and folklore of this country are strongly tied to the Eastern European sphere. This is why the modern Macedonian demand to be recognized as the descendants of the historical Macedonia makes no more sense than modern Uzbeks claiming to be the children of Alexander the Great.

The Republic of Macedonia is a fine parallel to the dos and don’ts of a fancy cocktail party: do not overdo it on makeup. Do not arrive wearing the same clothes as the host through a fear of going unnoticed. Do not embark in a philosophical quarrel with the oldest, wisest person at the party (who could turn out to be the host as well). But most importantly, Do resist the urge to decorate at home with flashy symbols like the Vergina Sun, or the tantalizing name snitched from a warrior on his horse partying on the roof. I repeat: do not attempt to take these items home. Surely there is a good reason why History did not place them there in the first place.

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Cuentos de los Balcanes: Macedonia y una fantasía de apropiación cultural

Por Florcita Swartzman


“Y entonces, ¿qué piensas acerca de Macedonia?” me pregunta Mitre, mi anfitrión en Skopje; un señor retirado que, mientras charlamos tomando té de menta en la piscina del jardín trasero, me muestra una colección de los libros que escribió sobre hotel management bajo los modelos de márketing occidentales. Si alguien te descubría escribiendo sobre estos temas, podías ir preso durante los tiempos de Tito. Mi respuesta a su pregunta es ingenua porque todavía no me siento completamente confundida por lo frágil y a veces hasta contradictorio de la identidad cultural de los macedonios. Le digo que Macedonia me parece un país tranquilo y donde se ve que la gente no tiene grandes preocupaciones, siendo una nación recientemente independizada cuyo nombre suena a enigma para el resto del mundo fuera de Europa del Este, demasiado remoto como para siquiera molestarse. Puede haber sido que mi punto de vista estuviese levemente influenciado por todos los festivales y fiestas al aire libre que estaban sucediendo durante el verano que pasé en Ohrid y que en la realidad, debajo de toda esa diversión colorida, una verdadera crisis existencial estuviera sacudiendo las bases de la identidad macedonia hasta los huesos.

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El conflicto entre Grecia y la República de Macedonia sobre el nombre de esta última es una de las disputas culturales más antiguas del mundo moderno. En verdad, nada nuevo para el resto de sus vecinos en la Península Balcánica, que revolean los ojos exasperados cada vez que la discusión sale a relucir. Lo mismo de siempre. De hecho, Macedonia es sólo el nombre coloquial e incorrecto bajo el que conocemos a la constitucionalmente llamada Antigua República Yugoslava de Macedonia (ARYM), el nombre que la comunidad europea ha adoptado provisionalmente con el fin de calmar los ánimos inflamados de Grecia. Y con el gobierno habiendo gastado millones de euros en el disfraz de musa griega que Skopje está obligada a usar desde hace algunos años, no sería descabellado preguntarnos si los macedonios no estarán verdaderamente comenzando a creerse el cuento de hadas que se construyó en torno a sus raíces.

Lo primero que me vino a la mente cuando caminé por primera vez por el centro de Skopje fue que los arquitectos de este Extreme Makeover: Especial Apropiación Cultural fueron demasiado lejos con el tema de las estatuas. De verdad: son demasiadas estatuas para una sola ciudad, y para el caso una ciudad muy pequeña. Cada parte del centro es igualmente exagerada. Hay tres puentes distintos para cruzar el río Vardar en el espacio de una cuadra: el principal, junto con el angosto bulevar que lleva a la entrada del Museo Arqueológico de Macedonia, está decorado con las estatuas de todo posible artista y santo “nacido en Macedonia”. O en lo que los macedonios creen que es Macedonia, que no es lo mismo que lo que los griegos creen que es Macedonia. Pero ya vamos a llegar a eso. Volviendo al altar de las personalidades macedonias, y para coronar el Paseo de los Héroes que parece ser el centro de Skopje, la costanera desemboca en la Plaza Macedonia donde la gigantesca estatua se erige majestuosamente sobre la ciudad, la reina de las estatuas, el paroxismo de lo kitsch: la figura de Alejandro Magno montando su caballo sobre un pedestal de 24 metros de altura, rodeado por soldados en posición de defensa y leones dorados que escupen agua, todo cercado por un juego de aguas danzantes moviéndose al son de luces rítmicas en el piso. No queda ningún lugar a dudas: esto es todo lo que Macedonia sueña para su propia autopercepción. Pero los testículos pintados de rojo de los leones y los muros grafiteados de los edificios públicos cuentan otra historia: aparentemente, no todo el mundo en Skopje está conforme con el nuevo look de la ciudad.

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En abril de 2016, los macedonios se hartaron y se levantaron en contra del gobierno: la monumental cirugía plástica que atravesó Skopje en el año 2014 le costó a la gente más de 560 millones de euros que podrían haber sido mucho mejor empleados en los servicios públicos cuya calidad Macedonia está terriblemente necesitada de mejorar. El levantamiento, llamado la Revolución Colorida, dejó a una gran parte de Skopje pintada de colores brillantes y vibrantes; especialmente a los falsos antiguos edificios y a las estatuas que más parecen estar aptas para decorar un parque de diversiones. Entre las “personalidades macedonias” que se pueden encontrar en toda la ciudad están inmortalizadas -no en piedra, sino más bien en plástico y metal- las figuras de los santos búlgaros Cirilo y Metodio, el Zar Samuil (también búlgaro), la étnicamente albanesa Madre Teresa, el Zar Dusan (serbio), el comandante militar y héroe albanés Skanderbeg y varios escritores búlgaros.

¿Pero qué pasa con Grecia, y por qué lo llamamos el conflicto Greco-macedonio? Bueno, porque la única Macedonia que Grecia reconoce como legítima es la que comprende el territorio de Macedonia Este, Central y Oeste, tres provincias localizadas en el norte griego. Miles de años antes de convertirse en quienes son hoy, los macedonios eran una de las tantas tribus indoeuropeas que bajaron del Asia Menor para establecerse en la zona de los Balcanes, donde consolidaron su imperio. Su origen no era helénico pero hablaban griego, adoraban a los dioses griegos y compartían la misma cultura que los griegos de su tiempo. Su imperio fue tan poderoso que llegaron a conquistar Grecia y mantenerla bajo dominio macedonio hasta que los romanos la anexaron como parte de su territorio bajo el nombre de República Romana de Macedonia. Entre este momento y la independencia moderna de Grecia hace menos de 200 años varias olas de invasiones sucedieron; no solamente por parte de los otomanos sino también de las tribus eslavas que estaban buscando expandir su área de influencia desde el Rus de Kiev. Justo en esta parte de la Historia es cuando los macedonios dejan de ser esa tribu mítica de antiguos guerreros mediterráneos en estrecha relación con el mundo helénico para convertirse en una nación asimilada y culturalmente absorbida por la esfera eslava del este europeo. La herencia eslava de Macedonia hoy es inconfundible y las costumbres, la lengua y el folclore de este país están fuertemente atados a Europa del Este. Es por esto que la demanda de la moderna República de Macedonia de ser reconocida como descendiente de la Macedonia histórica tiene tan poco sentido como un reclamo que surgiera de los uzbekos exigiendo ser considerados como hijos de Alejandro Magno.

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La República de Macedonia es el mejor ejemplo de todo lo que no se debería hacer en una fiesta elegante: no exageres con el maquillaje. No llegues a dicha fiesta usando la misma ropa que el anfitrión solo porque tienes miedo de que de lo contrario nadie te note. No te embarques en una discusión filosófica con la persona más vieja y más sabia de la fiesta (que podría resultar también ser el anfitrión). Y lo más importante de todo; debes resistir el deseo de decorar tu casa con cualquier símbolo brillante como el sol de Vergina o algún nombre llamativo de un guerrero a caballo que puedas encontrar dando vueltas en la fiesta. Repito: no intentes llevarte estos objetos a tu casa. Debe haber una buena razón por la que la Historia no los puso en tus manos en primer lugar.

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Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

Rusia hoy: ¿atacada por la nostalgia de un pasado glorioso?

Por Florcita Swartzman


El comunismo en Rusia ya es historia. Atrás quedaron las figuras de Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov y Brezhnev. O por lo menos eso creeríamos. Pero la verdad es que hay algo de su pasado que no quiere soltar a los rusos. Los rusos, esas fascinantes criaturas profundamente marcadas por los inviernos fríos y los errores políticos de sus gobernantes pasados y presentes. En el siglo XXI, en una era de globalización galopante durante la que Louis Vuitton intentó (fallando lastimosamente) hacerse un lugar junto a Lenin en la Plaza Roja, imaginaríamos que todos los ídolos del grandioso pasado Rojo estarían bien enterrados en el fondo de las mentes de los rusos para nunca jamás volver a emerger a la superficie. Pero como aprendí durante mi viaje de mes y medio desde Vladivostok hasta San Petersburgo, nada podría estar más lejos de la realidad.

Hay una estatua de Lenin en casi todas las ciudades y pueblos, especialmente en Siberia. Siempre va a haber por lo menos una que te recibirá en cualquier estación de tren a la que llegues: usualmente es la figura de Lenin con un brazo levantado en el aire en posición triunfante, señalando el camino hacia un futuro socialista lleno de bienestar que nunca va a llegar, con ese tono nostálgico que sólo el realismo soviético puede lograr. En la mayoría de las ciudades siberianas, las dos calles principales se llaman invariablemente ulitsa Karla Marxa y ulitsa Lenina. Otras calles secundarias pueden llevar los nombres de Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya y similares alias igualmente demagógicos.

Así que la verdad que no; los rusos no han olvidado su glorioso pasado militar. Al día de hoy algunas personas siguen llorando la muerte de Stalin, otros siguen llamando Biblioteka Lenina a la Biblioteca Nacional de Moscú (aunque el nombre fue oficialmente cambiado en 1992), Ekaterimburgo todavía se conoce como Sverdlovsk, y recientemente Vladimir Putin convirtió el Día de la Victoria, la fecha que conmemora la capitulación de la Alemania nazi ante la Unión Soviética en 1945, en su propio ritual y en el escenario desde donde declara al mundo la resurrección de Rusia como potencia militar. El Día de la Victoria es un evento de una carga emocional muy importante, y el Sr. Putin se asegura de no perderse ni una oportunidad de llegarle al pueblo como su amigo y salvador. El mensaje que busca enviar es, en cierta forma, que el Ejército Rojo todavía vive en los corazones de los rusos y que no existe circunstancia económica o geopolítica que los pueda disuadir de dar batalla. ¿Batalla a quién? Al enemigo sediento de poder de este lado de la Cortina de Hierro. Al mundo imperialista occidental. Al mundo.

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Pero las consecuencias de no enterrar a tiempo esos mecanismos de defensa obsoletos tarde o temprano llegan. La gente rusa ha aprendido a vivir con conceptos e ideas muy fuertes, incluso bárbaros a veces, sobre el significado del ejército y la disciplina. En plena luz del siglo XXI, los chicos de 18 años terminan sus períodos obligatorios de servicio militar hablando como autómatas sobre defender el país a cualquier costo y sobre “patria o muerte”: cosas que en la práctica les son completamente extrañas. Exactamente como si el pasado estuviera contando cuentos de batallas y honor a través de sus bocas. Y este sistema de creencias inoculado, como hemos visto con la reciente anexión rusa de Crimea, es extremadamente funcional a los intereses territoriales del gobierno.

La Unión Soviética hizo un trabajo excepcional canalizando las emociones de las masas con el fin de que los rusos estuvieran siempre listos para pelear contra el invasor cualquiera fuese la forma en que éste pudiera presentarse. Paradójicamente, ni siquiera los chicos de la era post-soviética se salvaron del adoctrinamiento. De esta forma nació una suerte de psicosis colectiva en relación a la defensa de las fronteras de la Patria que continúa, aunque con un poco menos de intensidad, hasta el día de hoy. Putin lo sabe y, por supuesto, pone a trabajar para su beneficio la añoranza que la gente siente por ese pasado imperial. Incluso ha mecionado en varias oportunidades que la caída de la Unión Soviética fue un error, palabras que calan muy hondo especialmente en las generaciones de veteranos rusos que todavía ven en Stalin la figura de un padre protector. La insistencia de Vladimir Putin en ideas como la soberanía nacional, la fraternidad y la importancia de la independencia económica también es uno de sus trucos políticos para mantener a la gente distraída de la fuerte crisis económica que viene manteniendo a millones de rusos por debajo de la línea de pobreza desde nada menos que el colapso de la URSS.

También hay otros talentos que el Sr. Presidente exhibe para mostrarse al pueblo como un héroe y figura paternal. Las fotos que circulan por internet nos lo han mostrado en su lado más audaz y masculino: montando a caballo a través de la helada tundra siberiana, esquiando, pescando, cazando, venciendo ferozmente a un medallista de judo en su propio deporte, nadando sin delfines, nadando con delfines, domando tigres salvajes, jugando jóckey sobre hielo y casi cualquier otra actividad masculina que nos podamos imaginar. Esta estrategia le funciona; la necesita para mantener su popularidad en alza. Según estadísticas publicadas por el VtsIOM, el Centro Ruso de Investigación de la Opinión Pública, el índice de aprobación de la figura de Vladimir Putin fue del 86% nada más que en el año 2016. Su imagen seduce tanto a mujeres como hombres porque hace lo posible por ser visto como el ejemplo del hombre ruso valiente, implacable, incorruptible. Esto es lo que significa la hombría es la afirmación silenciosa que irradian esas fotos donde aparece con el torso desnudo, luchando con osos polares.

¿Podrá Rusia alguna vez liberarse del yugo de la política emocional, los personalismos y los regímenes autoritarios? No hay ningún signo social que indique que este será el caso en el futuro próximo, pero ya se pueden ver pequeñas chispas de resistencia encendiéndose entre las generaciones más jóvenes en contra de Putin y los movimientos corruptos que lo ayudaron a trepar a su actual posición de poder absoluto. Rusia está cansada de la corrupción, pero hace la vista gorda por falta de opciones más sanas, de mejor calidad. Está cansada de la violencia, pero la sigue alimentando. Los rusos están cansados, por encima de todo, de los dictadores sangrientos, pero siguen adorándolos en sus pedestales inalcanzables y otorgándoles facultades casi divinas. Antes de octubre de 1917, Lenin una vez dijo: “si dejamos el asunto librado al pueblo, no tendremos la revolución ni en mil años”. La verdad es que, en Rusia, es muy difícil para la gente hacerse escuchar porque la burocracia es todopoderosa e insalvable en una forma verdaderamente kafkiana. Sin embargo, puede que no todo esté perdido: es un momento difícil para estar vivo en la ex capital soviética del mundo pero hoy, en esta época digital de híperconexión, ese pueblo al que Lenin alguna vez miró por sobre su hombro tiene la capacidad -por primera vez luego de décadas de vivir en una pesadilla- de despertar, organizarse y rebelarse. Ahora es su turno de levantarse y pelear por su propia independencia.

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Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

Russia Today: A Tale of Nostalgic Confusion

By Florcita Swartzman

Communism in Russia is over. Long forgotten are the figures of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov and Brezhnev. Or so we’d think. But there is something about their past that will not let go of the Russians. The Russians, these fascinating creatures deeply marked by their cold winters and the miscalculations of their previous and present rulers. In the 21st century, a time of raging globalization in which Louis Vuitton tried (and failed) to get a spot next to Lenin in the Krasnaya ploshchad, we would imagine that all the idols of the grandiose Red past would be buried deep in the Russian psyche, never to float back up to the surface again. But as I learned during my month-and-a-half trip from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, nothing could be further from the truth.

 

There is a statue of Lenin in almost every Russian city and town, especially in Siberia. There will always be at least one such statue that’ll welcome you first thing when you set foot in any train station you’re arriving at: it’s usually the figure of Lenin with his hand triumphantly lifted up in the air, pointing the way to a glorious socialist future full of wealth that will never come, with that characteristic nostalgic tone that only Soviet realism can pull off. In most Siberian cities, the two main streets are monotonously named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Other secondary streets might be called Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya and other similar, demagogic names.

 

So the truth is: no, Russians have not forgotten their glorious military past. To this day some people continue to mourn Stalin’s death, the Moscow National Library is still called, by many, the Biblioteka Lenina (even though the name was changed in 1992), Yekaterinburg is also known as Sverdlovsk, and recently Vladimir Putin has made the Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the USSR in 1945, into his very own ritual and the stage from which he showcases the revival of Russia as a military power to the world. The Victory Day is a very emotionally charged event, and Mr. Putin makes sure he doesn’t miss a chance to present himself as a friend and saviour to his folk. The message he looks to deliver is, in some way, that the spirit of the Red Army still burns in every Russian’s heart, so no economic or geopolitical circumstance should be an obstacle to fight back. To fight who? The power-thirsty enemy this side of the Iron Curtain. The imperialist Western world. The world.

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But there are consequences to not laying an outdated defense mechanism to rest. The Russian people have learned to live with very strong -sometimes barbaric- ideas and concepts about what the army and discipline mean to them. In plain daylight of the 21st century, 18-year-old kids now come out of their mandatory military service terms mindlessly speaking about defending the country at all costs, about “Motherland or death” and about things that are in practice completely alien to them, as if the past were reciting old tales of battle and honor through them. And this inoculated belief system, we’ve seen with the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, is extremely functional to the government’s territorial interests.

 

The Soviet Union did a great job channeling the emotions of the masses so that the Russian people would always be ready to fight the invaders in whichever form they would take. Paradoxically, not even post Soviet-era children were spared this indoctrination. In this way, a sort of a collective psychosis was born in regards to the defense of the Motherland’s borders that continues, even though less visibly, to this day. Putin knows this, of course, and acts upon the nostalgic yearning of his folk for the imperial past. He has mentioned quite a few times that the fall of the USSR was a mistake, and this resonates especially with the older generations of Russians that still see a protective father in the figure of Stalin. Vladimir Putin insisting so strongly on national sovereignty, fraternity and the importance of economic independence from the Western powers also means that one of his political goals is to distract the masses from the raging economic crisis that is keeping millions of Russians under or around the poverty line since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

There are also other talents that Mr. President displays in order to get the people to find a paternal friend and a hero in him. The internet has showed him to us in his most audacious, masculine side: riding a horse through the frozen Siberian tundra, skiing, fishing, hunting, fiercely beating a judo medallist in his own field, swimming without dolphins, swimming with dolphins, taming wild tigers, playing ice-hockey and almost any other manly activity we can think of. This strategy works for him, he needs it for his popularity to continue rising. According to the statistics published by the VtsIOM, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Vladimir Putin’s overall approval rating was of 86% in 2016. His image appeals to men and women alike because he looks to be regarded as the ideal example of the brave, relentless, incorruptible Russian man. This is what manhood means is the voiceless statement being made through the photos of him bare-chested, wrestling with polar bears.
Will Russia ever be able to free herself from the yoke of personalism, authoritarian regimes and emotional politics? There are no clear social signs that this will be the case in the near future, but there are already little sparks of resistance burning among the younger generations against Putin and the corrupt moves that helped him climb to his current position of almost absolute rule. Russia is tired of corruption, but she turns a blind eye to it for lack of a better, healthier option. She is tired of violence, but keeps on feeding it. The Russians are tired, above all, of bloody dictators, but they keep on placing them on pedestals and investing them with god-like power. Before October 1917, Lenin once said: “if we leave the fight up to the people, we won’t have a revolution in hundreds of years”. The truth is that, in Russia, it is very difficult for the people to be heard in any matter related to politics. The bureaucracy is almighty and insurmountable in a very much Kafkaesque manner. But not all may be lost, though: it is a hard time to be alive in the ex-Soviet capital of the world but today, in this all-connected internet era of ours, those people that Lenin once looked down upon have the ability -for the first time after decades of living in a nightmare- to wake up, organise and revolt. Now it is their turn to stand up and fight back for their own independence.

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For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Miccoli

By Mary Long

Miccoli is an up and coming English band known for soaring harmonies and cryptic lyrics, which hint at a private world into which we are invited and reluctant to leave.

The band is comprised of the English-Italian Miccoli siblings, Alessandro, Adriano & Francesca. Having grown up surrounded by music, it became part of their identity. When decisions had to be made regarding ‘life choices’, music wasn’t a choice, but a calling, that had to be followed. This sense of an all- encompassing vocation eases the physical hardships of touring and strengthens the siblings’ commitment to creating music.

Their greatest motivation is the gratifying and humbling thought that people find solace in their music; Alessandro says, even the process of creating music is, in itself, extremely cathartic.

‘Over the years we’ve fine-tuned our creative process – because inspiration can strike at any time – you don’t really dictate the process – instead it guides you – we make mental notes, record it on phones, scribble on pieces of tissue or whatever – sometimes do nothing; as Paul McCartney said “If you can’t remember it in the morning, it couldn’t have been all that good”.

Then when the feeling is right we either sit down together or take some time to ourselves, reflect and see what flows – piecing together all the notes left behind.’

As writers, anything and everything can be inspiration.

‘Personal relationships play a key role and have to be faced with raw honesty, but when it comes to conveying this into songs, we like to also keep lyrics as cryptic and open ended as possible.’

Miccoli are wonderfully reticent about the origin and meaning of individual songs, generously preferring to allow listeners to develop their own personal interpretations.

The essence of Miccoli’s sound is their harmonies, which the band has spent many nights rigorously rewriting until perfect. This unique sound has won many loyal followers, but there is a price to pay for refusing to conform to the ‘commercial throw away music culture’. It is extremely difficult to get media recognition, which is the gateway to potential new audiences.

‘I think the great thing about the internet now is that it allows us to discover new music from all over, we don’t necessarily have to put up with the diet that major labels are trying to feed us. Great music is out there, you just have to be willing to search for it.’

In a world that is more connected than ever by technology and social media, paradoxically, less time is spent actually interacting with each other, be it with a conversation or listening to live music, as people seem more concerned with ‘instagramming’ or ‘tweeting’ moments, rather than being present and connected.

‘We played a venue in LA where they demanded everyone entering the show turn off all mobile devices and were told to focus purely on the music, such a simple thing created a more focused and calm energy in the room, it was really refreshing.’

Listening to Miccoli’s music seems to make, instead of take, time; Alessandro Miccoli appreciates time in a way very few of us do, following a traumatic event several years ago.

‘It changed my perspective of life completely – there’s a certain naivety that comes with youth, this sense of invincibility, endless time. It’s not the case and took a near fatal experience for me to come to that stark realisation.’

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Miccoli have certainly embraced the philosophy that time and health should not be squandered; they are going to release a new album, Arrhythmia, in October.

The most unexpected of cicumstances inspired the album title, which suggests a life in danger from within.

‘Adriano and Alessandro were diagnosed with ‘arrhythmias’ of the heart. The word “arrhythmia” originates from late 19th century Greek “arruthmia” meaning lack of rhythm. A word none of us had heard before, but one that soon become very familiar and one that would inspire the whole album.’

When the band first started, their sound was very acoustic and stripped down; but as the new album demonstrates, Miccoli’s style has matured and a new confidence and sense of adventure has emerged. They have experimented not only with instrumentals but also harmony arrangements, in turn producing a more unique and more definitive sound.

A key part of Miccoli releases are beautiful music videos, in which the siblings’ individual pursuits have proven to be incredible strengths; Francesca has modeled and Alessandro’s photography captures the mysterious atmosphere of their songs.

Filmed in America, Sweden and Thailand, among other places, the band say it was as if there was a homing beacon in each location.

‘Having lived and breathed these songs for so long, the songs take on their own identity, meaning and character; when it comes to giving them a visual identity it’s very natural and almost instinctive.’

Identity is a theme explored very effectively in the stunning new music video for ‘Idle Stranger’; faces are obscured by masks and disembodied shadows, never quite revealing their true selves. Bells toll warningly at dusk and curtains flutter inexplicably in this dark and uncertain world of Venice. The lyrics are prophetic, almost reproachful in tone; ‘You will always be an idle stranger’

In ‘Lights’, the siblings retain their otherworldly qualities as they wander through the crass colours of Las Vegas; despite following the signs, they seem lost in the artificial kaleidoscope of the city.

Moving into the desert to film ‘Magnify’, the band are strangely at home, their dark hair sharp against the white sand. Swirling shadows twist across their faces as their pleading call ‘Please don’t magnify’ echoes through the song.

Filmed on the barren beaches and snowy woods of Sweden, ‘Undo’ explores the classical beauty of these children of nature, who urge us to ‘Fight, dream, believe’. Muted colours fade before the sunrise; the blinding morning light is directly contrasted by the lyrics, which speak of destruction; ‘All you do, do is try to undo’.

At this stage in their careers, having observed the highs and lows of a savage business environment, Miccoli is confident that people will appreciate the album, which is truly a labor of love.

‘There’s always an element of excitement but that’s also paired with worry, nervousness and anticipation, whenever you share something you’ve been working on for so long and are so invested in – will people like it? Is it relatable? But then a calming thought comes over you – if we genuinely love and wrote it from a sincere place – then I’m sure other people will see that and love it too.’

As artists, they have a philosophy that transcends external criticism.

‘It all circles back to the sense of self, if you are happy with what you are creating, then it no longer matters what people think. In the final analysis, music is art and art is an expression of one’s soul.’

Touring dates are in the planning stages; the band hope to play Ireland and the U.K. with additional dates in the US. Check out their website at www.miccoli.co.uk and follow them on their YouTube Channel, Twitter, and Facebook

The album is scheduled for release in October and an EP ca ed ‘1/2’ (H ALF) will be available on 12.05.17

Half EP front cover

Thomas Sowell, the Alt-Right, and an Understandable Aversion to Labels

By Van Parkman

Thomas Sowell, one of the greatest conservative minds to gain prominence in the last half of the 20th century, recently said in a radio interview with Larry Elder that he did not think of himself as a conservative or a libertarian, or as belonging to any other particular political category. Instead, he asserted that he would rather reserve the freedom to call things as he sees them. I personally believe that existing under a conservative or a liberal heading does not exclude one from forming independent opinions; either a great or a horrible umpire, by reputation, may still make the claim, “I call ‘um as I see ‘um.” Being a liberal or a conservative is not about agreeing without question or qualification to every single policy or opinion that falls from the sacrosanct tree of knowledge of good and evil for the respective political category you fall into. Outside of religion there should be no such magical trees.

In point of fact, conservatism is both criticised for and partly defined by the great number of internal policy disputes. More conversation than ideology, conservatism is dynamic by nature. Prompting criticism from its opponents, conservatism is also deliberative and at times quite stubborn, as is known all too well by those of various temperaments dwelling under its banner. Political parties and affiliations by interest allow for the political relevance of priorities agreed upon by the greatest number of people through compromise on lesser priorities. Ideally these priorities find their source in opinion, research, circumstance, culture, religion, history, experience, and tradition on the right. By contrast, the left tends to entertain a few thoughts at a time, as their radar of abstract idealism grants immediate priority to the most emotionally evocative stories. Although they do not always have time to think about the stories in relation to a wider array of issues, they always have time to react. In practice this means that leftism is influenced more by popular culture, incensed rhetoric, Twitter, and Tumblr than the right has been in recent memory. This last election cycle has shown, however, that the left is losing its monopoly on reactionary politics. There are now incensed right-wing reactions to the perpetually incensed left-wing culture of reaction. There are now rigid reactions piled upon rigid reactions and those stacks of reactions are tipping over and shattering again and again, the fragmented pieces finding their way into every nook and cranny of American society.

Conversely, one might say that conservatism is the ideological equivalent to the legal checks and balances of the government itself. This analogy is built on the diversity of conservatism. Due to its hesitancy to play political games that divide society along lines of race and orientation, it doesn’t always appear diverse. But don’t judge a book by its cover: conservatism has many different voices and ideas within, and it often listens to those voices and ideas rather than using the people behind those voices as mere means to political ends. Some of these voices speak from the grave through religion or culture, having proved the relevance of their opinions over time. Because its ideas and wisdom transcend the anxiety of the now, there is no need for the clamour which accompanies the apparent diversity of the left. True diversity does not require a culturally, ethnically, or ideologically heterogeneous family in order to be heard quarreling by the neighbours each night; the only requirement for that is adolescent intolerance.

Even Thomas Sowell’s objection to being labelled is indicative of a conservative alignment. It shows that he is not dogmatically aligned with any particular ideology that promises enlightenment through adherence to universal abstractions. Clearly, Sowell does not get a self-righteous buzz from belonging to a particular group. Nor does it seem the case that he gets his kicks from being seen as the sole constituent of an elitist category beyond all other categories. His demeanor and disposition are not nearly so melodramatic. In fact, most of what Sowell believes and advocates for falls on what is broadly understood as the conservative side of political opinion. The label of “conservatism” does not describe an abstract ideology to which people subscribe after a relatively short period of indoctrination or enlightenment. The idea of conservatism stems from groups of people who became labelled as “conservative” only after centuries of approaching problems with at least a few shared cultural and political expectations and outlooks; they carried similar values, principles, and priorities rooted in a shared disposition which in turn was forged through shared cultural, political, and religious experiences.

That said, Sowell has the right to be a tad rebellious and reject labels if he so desires. As the most prominent black conservative in America, with a history of transcending labels and statuses, (which leftists, for the sake of the consistency of their narrative, need him to adhere to) his aversion to playing a game so characteristic of the far left is understandable. And perhaps there is wisdom in his aversion to being labelled. If conservatism becomes a label that is too easy to identify with or be identified by, a banner too easy to carry, or a set of dogmas too easy to adhere to, conservatism risks becoming an ideology for giddy gnostics. It ought to be, instead, based solidly within reality and on the wealth of experience which keeps cultures and minds independent of dogmatic ideology and of conveniently simplistic labels. As a substantive collection of people in the present who are in conversation with the past and future, conservatives live by a number of ideas. These ideas have slowly developed to maturity,  permeate society, and give character to a particular culture at a particular point in time. Yet now conservatism risks becoming a culture defined by the label attached to it by enemies within and without. Conservatism can be manipulated by its centralised leaders, its loudest advocates, or even its enemies who rejoice in labeling and defining it further. Driven by and easily defined by labels, it would become a conservatism flipped on its head; conservatives would be manufactured through ideological programing, rather than being born to a particular time, place, and attachments. Therefore, becoming too at ease with the label, rather than the complex combination of past events and ordered thought which led to the necessity of the category in the first place, creates the danger of transforming conservatism into a top-down leftist ideology such as Nazism or Stalinism (You’re likely thinking that Nazism is right-wing. You’re about 25% correct.). Conservatism properly understood is the opposite of that defined-by-creed-and-decree nonsense.

The alt-right learned everything he knows about his long absent and idealised father, Western civilisation, from the incensed derogatory labels overheard while living under the single-parent roof of leftism, Western civ’s noisy ex-wife. She was busy as always, repudiating her ex for being a white, patriarchal, oppressive racist. In reactionary rebellion against his mother, the alt-right proudly adorned himself in the labels worn by his impression of the estranged father. Never truly knowing his father, he wore those labels with adolescent pride and vitriol. Now the alt-right, having adopted the speech patterns of his mother, is obsessed with race, labels, and the systematic prioritisation of such superficial categories. The alt-right, like the left, reduces Western civilisation to a few superficial labels with neither side understanding the true importance of any civilisation. The alt-right is not conservative for the same fundamental reason that progressivism is not conservative; the alt-right is too easily defined by a simple set of beliefs and dogmas. It claims to have broadened the right’s base and to have made it relevant again. Such a broadening seems too convenient to be legitimate, and too easily achieved considering that it is gnostic and propositional in nature, with no apparent need to listen to a diverse array of voices nor any method by which to do so. The result is an idol made in the image of conservatism, whose deficiencies are blamed upon conservatism itself. The worshippers of this idol have prophets who conveniently interpret its will with fiery passion in no uncertain terms. The result is vulgarity, impropriety, and haste.

The far left, likewise, is quite dogmatic and as a result is also hypersensitive and noisy. The deplorable element within conservatism, though often headline material and a convenient political deflect, are quite a small percentage of the right-wing electoral base. Conversely, the essence of the mainstream left is constituted by the anatomical defects which produce their corresponding kin on the political right. Common emotions and sentiments are expressed as dogmas when translated into the self-righteous apathy of political abstraction so often mistaken for empathy. These dogmas are expressed in simplistic tried-and-failed policies under new names, the past futilities of which go unrecognised due to the left’s inability to detect anything beneath labels. This deficiency is shared by the alt-right. Labels are the only means by which shallow people can make sense of the world. Similarly, the alt-right grows the “conservative” base by feeding off of common emotions and circumstantial reactions. This behavior leads to immovable doctrines and policies, which stand in opposition to the traditional values, principles, and institutions of Western civilisation that conservatism is attempting to preserve. Instead of apathy through self-righteous abstraction in the guise of empathy, when the common sentiments of the alt-right are politicised they result in apathy through self-righteous abstraction in the guise of circumstantially justified fury. Both are blind “ends justify the means” approaches to political action: action which nevertheless affects human life in an objective world. This objective world is one that such shallow idealogues only observe through goggles of passive or aggressive disengagement. The former is obsessed with being or defending the victim and making the oppressors pay; the latter  is also obsessed with being or defending the victim and making the oppressors pay.  Especially where the alt-right is concerned, this new propositional, rather than dispositional, approach may be easily manipulated and magnified in the future by simply substituting one dogma or priority for another and sanctifying it with the blessing of a charismatic Führer. The alt-right relies too heavily on emotion, defends with pride the labels bequeathed to it by its opponents, and rejects the more gentile conservatism along with its self-vindicating stubbornness and cautionary elements that both the alt-right and progressives despise. If the gnostics have their way, all that will be left in America is knowledge versus knowledge and sets of dogmatic beliefs versus sets of dogmatic beliefs. That is to say, the pure subjective emotion of one perspective will be pitted against the pure subjective emotion of another perspective: but the minds of all involved are controlled and hijacked by Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil which lurks like a fungus within the best of us. Is it any wonder we are so politically divided?

In light of this, it would seem that the centuries-old leftist stratagem of drying out the mortar which stabilises our civilisation is finally coming to fruition, now raising its head in the extreme corners of politics. Progressives and alt-righters alike want the privilege of easily defining what old-hat conservatives are or should be. However, as long as we have people like Thomas Sowell with his understandable aversion to labels, we will always have a dynamic conservatism whose constituents are defined by their similar underlying dispositions rather than by labels born from shallow, predictable, and circumstantial outbursts of indignation derivative of uniform adherence to simplistic sets of dogmas.

On Buenos Aires and Other Irregular Nouns

By Florcita Swartzman

You might not believe it, but Buenos Aires is not exactly a kind city. If you live in the outskirts, in the conurbano bonaerense, you will have to climb on one of those red or blue trains that speed through both neighborhoods and lucid hours in order to get to Buenos Aires, to get to the big unfair sister who will welcome you with wary eyes full of amusement. And if you live in a different province, you might get the vague feeling that she is the stage in which the rest of the country is barely invited to perform. In either case you would be right: the capital can be very tyrannical over her own fellow provinces; no wonder Juan Bautista Alberdi once wrote that “Argentina broke free from the yoke of Spain only to fall under the yoke of Buenos Aires”. Internal colonialism, as they call it.

 

That said, and though at times it seems so, Buenos Aires is not all that cruel. Strictly speaking, it is a city of contrasts and sunny colors except on rainy days when it becomes a grey metropolis with crying tiles that brood about love and betrayal, just like the old tangueros would, and splash passers-by with their muddy tears. Tristes lágrimas porteñas. But at other times, like warm spring afternoons, jacarandá trees bloom and scatter their violet flowers all across the city while porteños bloom too in their own human, southern ways: they’ll sit at a table outside of a coffee shop and talk over a cup of a cafecito for hours on end about dreams, love, and the hardships of life just as they have done since the beginning of time. Or they will gather with friends at parks on Sundays to drink mate, that tea-like drink foreigners insist has hallucinogenic effects. It doesn’t, believe me.

 

Like coffee, beer and pizza are huge in Buenos Aires. Mostly pizza; one of the greatest legacies of the Italian immigration in Argentina (although the recipe has mutated so much over time that we now complain about la vera pizza italiana when we visit Naples, because nothing in the world tastes quite like una buena pizza porteña). But pizza is not the only piece of cultural wealth that Italy has shared with us: great grandmothers able to cook spaghetti alla bolognesa for an entire Roman legion, slang words like laburo, birra, testa, matina, fiaca, mufa or capo, the exaggerated hand gestures that accompany loud talking and our general attitude towards life are all direct results of the major disembarkations of poor Italian migrants that took place in Buenos Aires between the 1850’s and the not-so-distant late 1960’s.

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Of course there’s the buses too: you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them, but you have to know what they are about if you want to get the pieces of your Buenos Aires puzzle together. The public buses -or colectivos as we call them- rule the streets of Capital Federal and its outskirts, are about the cheapest way to move around and come and go anywhere and everywhere. But there is one little detail about them: their drivers are a different kind of being, something between human and extraterrestrial. Now, how to actually take the bus in Buenos Aires is a different story, as worthy of a book as any other subject. Once you figure out your route, you ‘only’ have to find the location of your nearest bus stop, which can be a real challenge as they don’t tend to be well marked. Spotting them is a matter of luck, intuition, and common knowledge combined, almost like a cosmically accidental divine ability porteños are gifted with at the time of our birth. This sometimes leaves the outsider confused and with the sense that everything in this city works randomly, that in Buenos Aires there are no particular rules for anything at all and that there must be no Spanish translation to the word foreseeability. We know this. We apologize. We are not working to solve this inconvenience, and probably never will.

 

If you manage to walk through feminist riots, protestors against the ban on marijuana, colorful LGBT Pride parades, and just random demonstrations for whatever reason we’re in the mood to complain about (and if you are able to make it out in one piece), Buenos Aires will reward your sight with the beautiful architecture of neighborhoods like Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, San Telmo or La Boca, each one with its own distinct personality and vibe. You only have to look up to notice a whole new layer of the city; a suspended world of Art Nouveau, Neoclassical and Baroque reliefs in the upper part of old recycled buildings above eye level. It all sounds very poetic -except for the riots and demonstrations-, but don’t forget that you are in one of the loudest capitals of South America, with bars open all night during weekends, people going out for dinner at 10:30 pm, and nightclubs filling the air with muffled music. The lovers of quiet, of words, and of literature, however, won’t feel left out here: a part of the charm of Buenos Aires lives in the second-hand bookstores scattered around the streets Córdoba and Corrientes; little dusty shops like portals to another world. All sorts of books -Latin American poetry mixed up with philosophical essays and cheesy romantic novels- pile up on weak wooden shelves about to collapse any time while customers, who are mostly students of Filosofía y Letras, walk through the narrow dark halls reveling in the pure pleasure of the smell of Jean Paul Sartre’s work.

 

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m walking down Reconquista street towards Retiro, the main urban train station of Microcentro. The 6 pm sunlight gives the scene a dreamy pinkish tone and a warmer look to this otherwise hustling, corporate-like, area. These last few blocks before Reconquista meets the busy Leandro N. Alem avenue feel somewhat different from everything else around them, as if the atmosphere all of a sudden changed slightly within a couple of blocks though I have never been able to point out why. Here the street gets narrower, more trees and shops and restaurants line up along the sidewalk and, from a distance, you can already see the Torre Monumental, a Palladian-style tower built to commemorate the centenary of the May Revolution and a monument that has always been linked to our bumpy relationship with England. I take the train and walk home at times thinking about how I hate Buenos Aires, at other times I think of how I love her and miss her against my own will when I’m abroad. I hate her for being so overtly chaotic. I love her for always showing herself as she is, even with her many flaws. I would never want to change a thing about her.

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Un Mes En Kiribati (o La Anatomía Del Paraíso Primitivo)

por Florcita Swartzman

Las angostas callecitas de tierra que serpentean entre las aldeas de Tarawa Sur, la principal isla y capital de Kiribati, ofrecen una vista bastante particular: pequeñas chozas junto al mar construidas con hojas y palos de palmera, perros, gallinas y cerdos corriendo libremente y, por supuesto, los usuales grupitos de niños desnudos, riendo y gritando aquí y allá. Estos niños, nacidos en el paraíso tropical y criados en el eterno ahora, no tienen ningún problema al momento de señalar a un i-matang cuando lo ven. Pasas caminando entre ellos, el i-matang, el extraño blanco, y te siguen. No te dejan continuar caminando. Se acercan y te rodean, todo risas y grititos explotando como fuegos artificiales. Sí, te tocan. Toman tu mano, la miran curiosamente durante un rato, y la aprietan. Un apretón demasiado fuerte. ‘Eres real’ es lo que casi puedes escucharlos pensando. ‘¿Cómo puedes verte tan diferente a mí y sin embargo ser…tan similar?’ Seguro, la i-matang está desesperadamente necesitada de sol del Pacífico que broncee su pálida piel, pero puedes aprender una cosa de ella: venimos del mismo lugar.

Los mecanismos de la economía de mercado son relativamente recientes para los kiribatianos, cuya moneda oficial, además del dólar australiano -usado en la capital del país y felizmente ignorado en el resto del territorio- es el trueque. Ellos intercambian bienes por otros bienes y servicios, como pollos por ropa, pescado por ayuda para techar una nueva choza, arroz por tuba de coco, etcétera. Bajo todo punto de vista, una economía de subsistencia. Estamos frente a un país que el experto occidental, pobremente entrenado en el arte de la vida primitiva, llamaría ‘pobre’. ¿Qué es la pobreza, de todos modos, y cuáles son los parámetros que estamos utilizando para medirla? ¿Asociamos pobreza con una alta tasa de criminalidad? ¿Con el hambre? ¿Con la falta de seguridad económica? ¿Nos detenemos alguna vez a pensar que esos pobres podrían no sentirse pobres en absoluto? ¿Podrá ser que estemos, tal vez, ligeramente disparando la palabra pobreza sin una comprensión real de su significado?

Los kiribatianos no trabajan en el sentido en que nosotros lo hacemos. Ellos trabajan codo a codo con la naturaleza. Matan a sus animales para consumir la carne (a la antigua; sin industrias, dinero ni fábricas involucradas. Sólo ellos y su comida). Claro que no tienen horarios de trabajo, y sus funciones fisiológicas no están dictadas por ninguna convención externa, sino sincronizadas con sus relojes internos. Construyen sus casas con sus propias manos y comparten vida y risas con sus vecinos de aldea. ¿Quién necesita riquezas materiales cuando uno puede tomar, respetuosamente, todo lo que necesita de la naturaleza? Es evidente que los kiribatianos tampoco necesitan de ningún sistema de márketing publicitario que les diga cómo sentirse respecto de sus cuerpos ni sus elecciones personales. Nadie que nazca y se críe en una sociedad que inculca la autoaceptación tiene la necesidad de aprender el significado de palabras como envidia, vergüenza, resentimiento o avaricia. Nadie espera que seas alguien que no eres en una sociedad donde poco es suficiente.

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Después de las clases, los chicos generalmente se reúnen a jugar en grandes grupos. La edad no es un factor importante pero tienden a socializar más con sus compañeros de grado, ya que la aldea entera asiste a la misma escuela primaria. El género definitivamente tampoco es una limitación: en todas las aldeas se puede ver a las chicas jugando al fútbol, correteando descalzas y ensuciándose tanto o más que los chicos (¡el Pacífico no es el lugar indicado para venir a buscar princesitas delicadas!). Generalmente juegan también con piedras, palos y piezas de cualquier material descartado que puedan encontrar y convertir en nuevas creaciones y juguetes. Cuanto más te alejas de la capital, más raros se vuelven los dispositivos de entretenimiento como los televisores, las radios y los teléfonos. Sitiados por el sonido de risas infantiles, los adultos de la aldea tejen cortinas y alfombras de hojas de coco para sus chozas, hacen ejercicio, juegan -dependiendo del humor del día- al vóley o a juegos de mesa, van al agua a pescar y a nadar, trepan cocoteros para bajar la preciosa savia que después de destilada se beberá como tuba, y se reúnen a disfrutar de su mutua compañía. A veces los puedes ver sencillamente sentados, sin hacer nada, sin hablar. A veces las palabras no cuadran con ciertos momentos particulares.

En el atolón de Tarawa, la mayoría de las aldeas e islotes al norte de Tarawa Sur no tienen energía eléctrica: así que aprendes a despertarte con la salida del sol y el canto del gallo más cercano, vives tu día y te vas a la cama cuando los ojos se te cansan después de leer durante horas a la luz de la luna. La desintoxicación de nuestras distracciones diarias no es tarea fácil, pero al final te acostumbras tú también al silencio y a la contemplación, cuando te das cuenta de que los teléfonos móviles y las computadoras no tienen realmente lugar en una isla como ésta. Es casi como si fueran máquinas incoherentes, herramientas innecesarias de otro tiempo. Sin ellas te familiarizas más fácilmente con las fases de la luna, el comportamiento del clima, la forma en que la mente colectiva de los pájaros está siempre en sintonía con el cielo y otros, quizás más verdaderos, aspectos de nuestra realidad más inmediata como seres humanos.

‘Kiribati: para viajeros, no turistas’ es el eslogan de la Oficina de Turismo de Kiribati. Y detrás de esas palabras se esconde un manifiesto en cinco palabras, una advertencia e incluso hasta también una orgullosa declaración identitaria. En el mundo queda hoy solamente un puñado de paraísos primitivos, vírgenes, ajenos a los intereses de la esfera económica de Occidente, librados a su propia autodeterminación. Algunos otros no han sido tan afortunados a lo largo de nuestra Historia, pero son parte de ella también. No muchos exploradores tienen el coraje de aventurarse a las profundidades del corazón de este archipiélago, pero si te dejas tragar por él y luego regresas, como si hubieses atravesado el espejo para siempre, a una dimensión que ya no te pertenece, es seguro que volverás con un mensaje: no te olvides de tus raíces.

Para más información sobre la experiencia de Florcita en Kiribati, visita su blog o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

A Month In Kiribati (or The Anatomy Of Primitive Paradise)

By Florcita Swartzman

The narrow dirt roads that twist and turn their way in and out of the villages of South Tarawa, the main island and capital of Kiribati, offer quite a particular view: little huts by the sea made from palm sticks and leaves, dogs, chickens and pigs running around freely, and of course, the usual flocks of naked giggling kids here and there. Those kids, born in a tropical paradise and raised on the eternal now, can sure point at an i-matang when they see them. You walk past them; the i-matang, the white stranger, and they follow you. They won’t let you walk any further. They gather around you, squeals and chuckles exploding like fireworks. You are well within bounds to call them touchy. They take your hand, look at it curiously for a while, and give it a squeeze, too hard a squeeze. ‘You are real’ is what you can almost hear them thinking. How can you look so different from me and yet be so…like me? Of course, the i-matang is in desperate need for some Pacific sun to tan her pale skin, but you can learn one thing from her: we come from the same place.

The mechanism of market economy is fairly recent for Kiribatians, whose official currency, besides the Australian dollar -used in the capital of the country and happily ignored everywhere else- is barter. They trade goods for other goods and services, like chickens for clothes, fish for some help with the thatching of a new hut, rice for coconut toddy and so on. By all means, a subsistence economy. We are now in front of a country that the Western expert, untrained in the art of primitive living, would call “poor”. What is poverty, anyway, and which are the parameters we are using to measure it? Do we equal poverty with high crime rate? With hunger? With lack of economic security? Do we ever think that the poor may not feel poor at all? Are we, maybe, just throwing the word “poor” around without any real understanding of its meaning?

Kiribatians don’t work in the sense that we do. They work hand in hand with nature. They kill their animals for meat (old style, you know? No industries, no money, no factories involved. Only them and their food, nothing in between). Of course they don’t have work schedules, and their physiological functions are not dictated by external conventions but synchronized with their inner clocks. They build their houses with their own hands and share life and laughter with their fellow villagers. Who needs material wealth when you can respectfully take what you need from nature? They certainly don’t have the need for advertising to tell them how to feel about their bodies and choices either. You never have to learn what the words jealousy, shame, resentment or greed mean when you are born in a society that encourages you to feel good about yourself. No one ever expects you to be somebody you are not in a society where small is enough.

After their classes, children generally play with each other in large groups. Age isn’t really a factor, but they tend to hang out with their grade-mates as the whole village attends the same elementary school. Gender is definitely not an issue either: you can see the girls playing football, running around barefoot, and getting as messy as boys (the Pacific is not quite the right place to come look for fragile princesses). They also usually play with sticks, stones, and scraps of whatever discarded materials they can recycle into their very own personal toys. The further away you get from the capital, the rarer entertainment devices like TV sets, telephones, and radios become. Surrounded by the sound of giggles, the grown-ups of the village weave palm leaves into mats and curtains for their huts, exercise, play volley-ball or table games -depending on what the mood calls for-, go swimming and fishing, climb coconut trees to bring down precious sap that will later be distilled into toddy, and get together to enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes you can see them just sitting around in complete silence. Sometimes there’s no need for words to fill the air.

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In the Tarawa atoll, most villages and islets north of South Tarawa don’t even have electric power: you learn to wake with the raising sun and the first crow of your nearest rooster, you go about your day and go to bed when your eyes get tired after hours of reading under the moonlight. To detox from all our usual daily distractions is not an easy task, but you too get used to the silence and contemplation as you realize that mobile phones and laptops don’t really have a place in an island like this. It’s almost as if they were incoherent, unnecessary tools from another time. Without their aid, you get more easily familiar with the phases of the moon, the behavior of the weather, the way the collective mind of birds is always in tune with the sky and other, maybe truer, aspects of our immediate reality.

        Kiribati: for travellers, not tourists is the slogan of the Kiribati Tourism Board. And behind those words hide a statement, a warning, and maybe even a proud “this is who we are” declaration of principles. There is only a handful of primitive paradises left in the world today, untouched, undisturbed by the interests of Western economic powers and left to their own self-determination. Some others have not been so lucky along our History, but they are a part of it too. Not too many explorers have the courage to venture into the deep heart of this remote archipielago, but if you let yourself be swallowed by it and spat back into a dimension that doesn’t belong to you anymore, you are sure to come back with one message: don’t forget about your roots.

For more info on Florcita’s time in Kiribati, check out her blog. Also, check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review.