We've detected an outdated browser.

You may want to consider updating your browser. International Policy Digest requires a modern browser in order to view the website properly.

Click here for information on how to update your browser.

Continue Anyways
Culture & Religion

Archive | Culture & Religion

Cultural Cleansing: EXIT, Novi Sad and Serbian Culture

|
Fatboy Slim performing at EXIT. Photo: Momcilo Grujic

It has become one of Europe’s biggest music festivals. The current issue of the inflight travel magazine on Serbia’s national airline JAT goes so far as to call it a global event. They are not the only ones. The name of this barnstorming event is Exit (July 10-14), the venue Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, that beautiful Belgrade on Valium, to use an expression wedged in one of the tour guides. Held at the Austrian built fortress of Petrovaradin, it has become a tourist beacon, a noisy attraction if only for a few days.

Fatboy Slim performing at EXIT. Photo: Momcilo Grujic

Exit, for all its zany excitement, has another story. It’s that of carefully cultivated public relations. Serbia wants admission to the European Union, an inexplicable desire in the broader sense given the implosive potential that arrangement faces. The sense in Serbia is that dictate has followed dictate. Hand over the war criminals. Check. Modernise economic structures. Check. Have hearty festivals of noisy welcome. Check.

Such trumpeting, it is assumed, will get you far in the cultural stakes. And Serbia has been a victim as well as a villain of playing the culture game when it comes to gaining acceptance in the European community. Rogues one day become the fairy tale heroes the next. Roles shift; images dance and alter. The narrative of the brute has been replaced by the narrative of the party reveller.

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 18

|
Pictured: Ato Nefse, Aba Gebrameskel, Ato Ketema Kifle, Ato Maorei and Ato Beru

April 11, 1964 was the night of the big farewell party for our school director, Ato Ketema Kifle.

Pictured: Ato Nefse, Aba Gebrameskel, Ato Ketema Kifle, Ato Maorei and Ato Beru

Several times he made trips to Addis to lobby the Ministry of Education for a promotion and he finally received one and was appointed the director of a school in Harar. Mr. Ooman, the very efficient assistant director of our school took charge of planning the event. At first there was a great debate between those who wanted a sedate cookies and punch affair and those who wished to have an alcohol fueled event. The debate wasn’t even close and the latter event prevailed.

Mr. Ooman arranged for the party to be held in the back room of the electric company. The paparrazo from the Foto Vito Shop on the piazza was present so it was a very well documented event. The photographer would line up little groupings for numerous pictures just like in the society pages of a newspaper. As was my usual practice I dropped by his shop the next day to buy up all the embarrassing photos of myself. He had a stealthy way of operating so to this day I cannot recall what he looked like.

Continue Reading →

The Death of Giulio Andreotti and Modern Italy

|
Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister of Italy, died last week at the age of 94

Giulio Andreotti was a creature of the Italian post-war scene, with its astonishing volatility and kaleidoscopic deals. Unlike his opponents, he proved astonishingly versatile. He seemingly occupied every notable position in Italian cabinets he could before his death at the age of 94.

Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister of Italy, died last week at the age of 94

He was elected to parliament in 1946, and proved to be a masterful if ruthless architect in shaping Alcide de Gasperi’s Christian Democracy Party. During the Second World War, he proved busy cultivating the contacts among the Catholic establishment that would prove crucial in subsequent decades. The odd feature of this behaviour was that he always seemed to exert influence from the shadows, a dealmaker who would, so went the popular depiction, been welcomed by the devil. He was prime minister seven times. He was minister of the interior, defense and foreign minister at stages. He was always stepping into the limelight.

Andreotti professionalised politics, making its pursuit inseparable from him as a being. He gravitated to power in the manner of lustful desire, a creature of heat who seemingly operated in the manner of that Italian expression that it is far better to have power than shag. (These are hardly mutually exclusive, but governing can have its distractions.)

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 17

|
Celebration on Tukul Hill.  Celebrating the unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia

November 18, 1962 was a day of public celebration in Gondar. Our Peace Corps director, Harris Wofford, arrived from Asmara and accompanied us to the “Unity Day – Ethiopia and Eritrea” celebration on Tukul Hill.

Celebration on Tukul Hill. Celebrating the unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia

There gathered were many hundreds of local nobles and officials from throughout the province. The Governor and other high officials were sheltered in a large army tent where a crush of men tried to sit as close to the Governor as possible. The celebration was held in recognition of the Eritrean assembly vote which dissolved the Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia and allowed Eritrea to be annexed to Ethiopia.

A week after the event I spoke with a Tigryean merchant from Asmara who told me that the Emperor got the approval of the Eritrean Assembly by sending army trucks throughout Eritrea rounding up all the Assembly members and hauling them to Asmara at gun point. He went on to relate that the Ethiopian government would not let any of the American or European Counsels near the Assembly members on the day of the voting. A year later while I was learning more about Ethiopian agriculture during a two weeks’ stay at Alamaya Agricultural College, a student whose father had been a member of the Eritrean Assembly corroborated what the merchant had reported.

Continue Reading →

Explaining Iran’s Nowruz

|
Ruins of Persepolis outside of the southern city of Shiraz. Photo: Daniel N. Lang

Nowruz is considered the most important national holiday in Iran. It marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, it begins exactly at the moment when the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth’s equator and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun.

Ruins of Persepolis outside of the southern city of Shiraz. Photo: Daniel N. Lang

Although the holiday signifies the commencement of the vernal equinox, which starts on March 20 or 21, it doesn’t always start at the same time; the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is different every year. But that’s the beauty of Nowruz– it starts on a unique moment each time, and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as transition point of the year. The timing is astronomically and mathematically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendar in a precise manner and officially inaugurates the New Year.

Nowruz is now considered a global festival as it was officially recognized and registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in February 2010. The same year, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over thousands of years. Like Christmas, Nowruz is a pleasurable, elaborate and delicate festival which brings millions of people together, but it seems that there are certain elements in Nowruz which make it a distinctive tradition, and one of these important elements is its historical significance.

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 16

|
Silversmith apprentices in Gondar, Ethiopia

Fifty years ago Gondar was a very different town. We understood that it had a population of a little over 10,000 and was compact enough so almost everyone, ourselves included, could easily walk on most errands.

Silversmith apprentices in Gondar, Ethiopia

There were the Italian occupation buildings centered on the hill near and above the Piazza and many ancient castles and churches. Weeks after arriving there in September 1962, several of my students agreed to take me on a walking tour to some of the businesses in the town. Early one Saturday morning we met on the Piazza in front of the Foto Prince Makonnen Shop across from the Cinema Bar so I could buy a roll of high speed black and white film. As I look at the photos I took that day, I can recall memories of my interactions with the shop owners and the bustling of daily life around Gondar.

The Foto shop where I bought my film was owned by a marketing genius whose technique made him the paparazzi of Gondar; there was not an event in Gondar at which he wouldn’t materialize and take candid shots of all the participants. He would then race back to his shop and print the photos as post cards and hang them in his shop window. In the early evening following the event we would often see numerous students laughing as they stood in front of the window. There would be our images, sometimes looking silly, so of course, we would have to buy all of our post cards.

Continue Reading →

Exploring Human Settlement in Australia

|
Ayers Rock in central Australia

Race, ethnicity and origins are always up for political grabs. No one really wants to know that they were preceded by someone else, that they were not the first ones there. This is the Adam complex, and no culture is immune from it. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted by German geneticists suggests that there was a “substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Australia about 4,230 years ago.”

Ayers Rock in central Australia

The authors recapitulate the familiar theme of an isolated civilization on a continent holding “some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the expansion of modern humans out of Africa.” They note that the genetic history of Australians has not been examined in detail, finding an “ancient association between Australia, New Guinea, and the Manwanwa (a Negrito group from the Philippines)” and “a signal indicative of substantial gene flow between the Indian populations and Australia well before European contact, contrary to the prevailing view that there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world.”

The study should not come as a surprise, though the reaction from Australia’s archaeological and broader scientific community will be of interest. The discussion of Indian roots in the Australian connection is probably bound to be troubling for the cognoscenti. It has become something of a shibboleth – the “oldest” civilization and the fact that isolated human existence began on the curiously shaped Australian continent some 40,000 years ago (give or take 10 thousand here and there – who cares?).

Continue Reading →

Swami Vivekananda: A Global Citizen

|
Swami Vivekananda.  Source: Wikipedia

Swami Vivekananda endeavoured throughout his life to see God face to face, and for this end he received the blessing of his guru, Swami Ramkrishnaparamhans.

Swami Vivekananda. Source: Wikipedia

Swami Vivekananda was a social reformist who devoted his life to the welfare of the downtrodden and impoverished. He triggered a new spiritual wave with his missionary devotion, leaving a legacy of spiritual fulfilment and social service. Swami Vivekananda’s birth was an exceptional event in India, particularly for the region of Bengal, a northeast region of India.

Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born to an aristocratic Bengali Kayasth family in Kolkata on January 12th, 1863. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was a very spiritual person herself. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics, and academics. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he was well versed in Western philosophy and history. He was heavily influenced by the western scientific outlook and was fascinated by Darwin’s theory of evolution. He actively refuted the genesis theories contained in the religious scriptures. He believed that the sciences would free religion from the hold of superstitions, dogmatism, priestcraft, and intolerance.

Continue Reading →

Afghanistan’s Long Road to Gender Equality

|
An Afghan woman teaches a class of girls in the Rukhshana School on March 11, 2002

In all countries with troops still on the ground in Afghanistan there is steadily growing public feeling that the sooner their armed forces are out of the war there the better. And hopefully with minimal further injury and loss of life.

An Afghan woman teaches a class of girls in the Rukhshana School on March 11, 2002

While the various home governments will no doubt spin the line of how successful the deployment has been, we should have no doubt that post-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan will be a very difficult place. Not just in terms of the country’s obvious ongoing political fragility, but also with respect to its socio-cultural environment and in particular, the subordinate situation of women. Recent media reports of the murders of three young Afghan women – one by her husband for working outside the home, another by her in-laws for her refusal to go into prostitution, and the third in retaliation for the rejection of a marriage proposal – are stark reminders of this.

While we shouldn’t ignore the fact that every year women in ISAF countries are also killed by close family members and experience ongoing domestic violence from current or previous partners, the Afghan cases come out of a cultural environment where the majority of the adult population considers violence against women justified in certain circumstances. A picture of this mindset is revealed in the results of a survey recently carried out by the Afghanistan Central Statistics Organisation and UNICEF. The Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) is an international household study developed to monitor the situation of women and children around the world.

Continue Reading →

A Call for Understanding: Observation of the Middle East

|
President Barack Obama greets State Department employees after speaking at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In light of the recent horrifying attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, this commentary is intended to help anyone who is struggling to understand what has happened in the Middle East this past week.

President Barack Obama greets State Department employees after speaking at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

A book used in leadership development for U.S. government officials working in international affairs with Muslim countries is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. It is the chosen reading of Dr. Kamal Beyoghlow, Professor of National Security Strategy and Middle East and North Africa Studies at the National War College. Dr. Beyoghlow also teaches at the Federal Executive Institute delivering lectures including Understanding and Building Relationships with the Islamic World, as well as teaching U.S. government leaders across defense, intelligence, and other agencies. This book is a place to start for a quick tutorial. Websites are readily available online with maps and statistics of world religions, and these assist in personal study.

We live in a complex world. American style sound bites are insufficient for the level of responsibility we carry as a nation - and frankly for the role that we have taken upon ourselves in the world as a people. We hear politicians throwing current issues around like footballs in their own very partisan ways which will ultimately result in a win-lose scenerio.

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 15

|
Senveten in Gondar

When I was assigned to teach agriculture at Haile Selassie 1 Secondary School in Gondar I had a lot to learn about agriculture in Ethiopia.

Senveten in Gondar

Unknown to me at the time of my arrival in Gondar was the fact that there were two agricultural extension agents in the area, Ato Arega Effende and Ato Yilma Degafa. Ato Arega was assigned to Gondar and points south and Ato Yilma to the north around the Debat area. They were both a big help to me. According to sources in the American Embassy the Extension program worked well as long as the Extension Service was part of the Ministry of Agriculture. However, after it was reassigned to the Ministry of Education it was neglected within that bureaucracy.

I saw the most of Ato Arega who had been educated at American University in Beirut. He would from time to time pop into my classroom unannounced and recruit some of my best students to put on demonstrations and give speeches at local farmer meetings. It was a wonderful experience for them to practice public speaking. In a future article I will talk more about that. Ato Arega had a favorite pair of wrangler denim pants which he would always wear. We often refer to blue denim pants as levi’s or jeans, however, in Ethiopia they were wranglers. We assumed it was because the wrangler brand got to Ethiopia first and thus it became the generic name just like the Amharic word our students used for a ball point pen was scripto.

Continue Reading →

Banning the Snip: The Debate on Circumcision

|
Male circumcision

Chancellor Angela Merkel has a plateful of matters to deal with, most of them of an economic nature. Europe is stuttering and staggering, and the Dame of Austerity is finding herself with fewer friends by the day.

Male circumcision

With the recent decision by the regional court in Cologne disapproving the legality of circumcision for underage boys, a storm has erupted that has given her another issue to worry about. The debate may never have taken place had the doctor who performed the circumcision on the couple’s child not been charged with bodily harm. The Chancellor’s sentiments were recorded in the Bild daily: “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews cannot practise their rituals.”

“Otherwise we will become a laughing stock,” Merkel continued rather emphatically. Both Merkel and Joerg van Essen, parliamentary floor leader of the Free Democrats, have suggested that laws overturning the effect of the ruling will be introduced over the autumn. The first thing to note in this sea of hysteria is the limited nature of the ruling. The court’s jurisdiction is confined to the city of Cologne and its environs. The fear there, of course, is one of precedent. Nor did the court expressly outlaw circumcision of underage boys. The regional court emphasised that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 14

|
Bath of Fasiledas

The Bath of Fasiledes has now been restored with the help of funding from the Government of Norway. When my son, John, and I visited Gondar, Ethiopia in 2006 the work was still in progress with stone masons rebuilding walls.

Bath of Fasiledas

This fascinating structure was created during the reign of Emperor Fasiledes (1632-1667). It is a stone walled compound within which there is a giant rectangular pool. Situated within the pool is a three story castle. The Bath was only a short walk from my house. In fact, it was across the road from the third compound of our school where all the school gardens were located. Between my house and the Bath was the sports field which contained the charming monument to Zobel, Fasiledes’ favorite horse. The celebration of Timket is held on January 19 or January 20 if it is leap year.

Timket is one of the two major public celebrations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The other is Meskel which is held in September to commemorate the finding of the true cross. Timket commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Bath was filled in early January by routing water from the nearby river through an ancient irrigation ditch. Because the hospital sanitarians told us they had chemically treated the water in the Bath, John Stockton and I took an early swim in the Bath on January 4, 1963. In my diary I noted that it was “as cold as swimming in Lake Superior in August.”

Continue Reading →

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 13

|
Voice of Ethiopia newspaper and letters home

I don’t recall the issue of censorship being discussed in our Peace Corps training program at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962.

Voice of Ethiopia newspaper and letters home

Our means of communicating with home were very basic and primitive when compared to the instant internet communications of today. My weekly letter home was anticipated and shared with family members and friends. Among my parents’ generation there was a great reservoir of good will towards Ethiopia and His Majesty Haile Selassie. They remembered with great emotion his 1936 appearance before the League of Nations where he appealed to the world to take collective action against the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia and their horrific killing of civilians.

Some Peace Corps volunteers became aware that their letters were being published by their families in local newspapers. In my “Peace Corps Diary: 1962-1964 Part 6” I describe how Dallas sent home his motion picture films with the knowledge that his mother was showing them to her friends. He took great delight in imagining their reaction to the particularly gruesome film of the butchering of a cow at Easter.

Continue Reading →

The Vice of Memory: Vidovdan and Serbia’s Jerusalem

|
Patriarch Pavle at Gazimestan. Photo: Darko Dozet

In the Belgrade fortress that used to boast one of the Ottoman Empire’s most formidable bastions, rests a charming church aromatic with incense.

Patriarch Pavle at Gazimestan. Photo: Darko Dozet

A strict placard lies in wait at the entrance, warning the attendees that they should dress properly, keep their hands out of pockets, take their hats off and observe in respect. The side entrance of the ‘Rose’ or Ružica church is flanked by the sentimental sculptures of two Serbian soldiers from different eras – one from World War I, the other from the 14th century.

It is an apt setting of memory given the Kosovo anniversary – each year, the date approaches Serbs like a fast moving train, heavy with purpose. The occupants of that train are the usual grievances and sad reflections, the stock that has been held in thought since the martyrdom of Saint Lazar (Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović) on June 28, 1389 before the fast advancing Ottoman Turks. Depending on which history book you consult, it was either a remarkable feat that checked the advance of Islam into Europe, or a disastrous loss to the Serbian nation which saw its army wiped out. Whether it was anybody’s victory is questionable: both Lazar and the Turkish leader Sultan Murad I lost their lives.

Continue Reading →