Nostos

Yesterday when I was walking down the street I’ve walked hundred times before, I suddenly realized a need for distraction,  a safe escape. I bought this book. I am quite familiar with Milan Kundera, however I knew nothing about his “Ignorance”. I read the introduction which was talking about a man and a woman meeting by a chance while returning to their homeland which they have abandoned years ago when they chose to become exiles. It was saying Milan Kundera has taken the concepts of absence, memory, forgetting and ignorance, and transformed them into a brilliant and moving novel. It was enough. I bought the book right away. If you knew me you would understand why. I had personal reasons for being in that book shop.

Maybe because this book touches different layers of emotions understandable for me, or maybe because I am again thinking of leaving my country, now for longer period, maybe both, nevertheless The Guardian talks about this book as something challenging the “moral hierarchy of emotions” laid down when Homer “glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath”, Ignorance tilts at the romantic assumption that separation from the land of one’s birth must be a kind of death – just as, for the artist, it is casually and erroneously assumed to be the death of creativity.

‘At Paris airport she meets Josef, a vet with whom she had a brief encounter in Prague, now a widower living in Denmark and making his first journey back. He too finds his emigration was driven by a need to escape – in his case his noxious, masochistic memory. With excruciating insight, Kundera homes in on the alienation of the returning émigré. Trying on a dress, Irene is momentarily imprisoned in the life she might have led had she stayed. For Josef, seeing his old watch on his brother’s wrist “threw him into a strange unease. He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after 20 years”. His mother-tongue is an “unknown language whose every word he understood”. Their memories are out of sync with those they have left behind. Encountering resentment and “suffering-contests” over who had the hardest time under the regime, Irene is shocked by friends’ indifference to the 20-year “odyssey” that separates her from them but which has become her identity; she is like Odysseus after his 20-year wandering, “amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca”. Irene senses that, as a condition of reacceptance and pardon, they “want to amputate 20 years of my life from me”. [The Guardian’s review]

I am still at early chapters of the book, but one could already sense the feeling that the novel reveals how the selectiveness of memory can create rifts both with our earlier selves and between people who we share a past with. This part is especially noteworthy for me because I only now realized it. You will understand if you ever been at Irena’s place, because I’ve been:

“I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That’s where the misunderstanding starts: they don’t have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don’t intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don’t hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.” M. Kundera

If you prefer online version, you can find this book here.

I was first introduced to the concept of ‘nostalgia’ in my childhood [The Greek word consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”]. Seeing my parents and compatriots suffering for not being able to visit their homes, listening to their stories about home, talking about longing for that particular street, house, bar in the corner, library on the other side, sea, smelling the water brought from that part of the sea, you can easily understand what nostalgia really means. I was introduced to this concept at  the age of 6. My parents and compats haven’t been allowed to visit their homes since…

Coming across the topics of memory, patria, nostalgy, distance, separation, I suddenly recalled an article that recently got me thinking a lot. It touches a little different dimension of being far from home though, not the case when you are forced to leave home due to the war. In ‘What Happens When You Live Abroad’ author talks about fears, prices and challenges of living abroad, the sentimental side of being a divided person because you suddenly realize “that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones.”

If you have ever lived abroad you will understand the feeling of being an ex-pat, always, no matter where you are and who you’ve become. Author puts it brilliantly:

There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.

And now, when I am thinking about leaving my home country again, I can’t deny that one reason why I so eagerly try to leave is a wish to escape myself, myself in this country. Years of attempts to convince myself that my country needs me [philosophical delusion] didn’t help. Once you made a decision to come back and now you regret it. You choose to leave again. And there’s nothing wrong about that, no matter how all turns out in the end. When you feel you compromise yourself, when you can’t breath, when “there are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.”

There are no answers for all these, there are no judgments. If you have a choice, you make a choice. And even though I liked this piece of opinion very much, it seems like this was written by someone who is speaking from the experience of her gap years. Undeniably the experience of those who immigrate due to no choice or permanently is completely different and far more complicated…

In the end I leave you with my all time favourite and most moving performance by Mariza who is singing for her compatriots…

I have been absent for almost a year. Looking back at this period and stats I can not believe my blog was still receiving so many visitors and comments, even though I wasn’t writing a word. Thank you all for this!
I tried to find more positive topic for my comeback, but I couldn’t avoid a very sad story of Aaron Swartz’s death. This story touched me not only as a human being, but made me think whether what he (and many other tech geeks still do) did was a crime and felony and whether the law often fails. It’s one thing, as the New Yorker writes, “to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.”
Lets think about it…
Rip…

Ideas

At the funeral of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet freedom crusader, Swartz’s father had a blunt message. Aaron — who committed suicide last week while being prosecuted for hacking — “was killed by the government,” he declared. The elder Swartz fanned the flames of a growing debate: Did federal prosecutors go too far in pursuing Swartz on serious felony charges, and are they in part responsible for his death?

(MORE:Aaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26)

Swartz, a computer prodigy, helped create Reddit but was perhaps best known as a freedom-of-information activist. In addition to campaigning against overly punitive copyright laws, he allegedly linked his laptop to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer system to download millions of articles from JSTOR, a paid-subscription database of academic articles. (MIT was a subscriber to JSTOR, but Swartz was not an authorized user.) Federal prosecutors…

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Africa…

I had a talk with my friend few minutes ago. She’s in Africa right now. It was when I suddenly remembered those three photos that completely changed my perception about Africa. Every time I see them I can’t help myself but think how useless I am. . . and wish I could help… I know these photos were taken two decades ago, but as hard it is to believe it’s still a very common picture in these countries…

Mike Wells, 1980, Uganda, World Press Photo of the Year

Child in Uganda holding hands with a missionary. The stark contrast between the two people serves as a reminder of the gulf in wealth between developed and developing countries. Mike Wells, the photographer, took this picture to show the extent of starvation in Africa. He took it for a magazine, and when they went 5 months without printing it, he decided to enter it into a competition. However, Wells has stated that he is against winning a compeition with a picture of a starving boy.

Kevin Carter, southern Sudan, 1994

In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to southern Sudan, where he took now iconic photo of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. It is a horrific picture that gave people a true look at the dire condition in Sub-Saharan Africa. Carter said he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. The parents of the girl were busy taking food from the same UN plane Carter took to Ayod.

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993 as ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists in the Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease, but Carter came under criticism for not helping the girl.

Carter eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, but he couldn’t enjoy it. Two months after receiving his Pulitzer, Carter would be dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg, a suicide at 33. His red pickup truck was parked near a small river where he used to play as a child; a green garden hose attached to the vehicle’s exhaust funneled the fumes inside. “I’m really, really sorry,” he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”

James Nachtwey, Somalia, 1992

A mother carries her dead child to the grave, after wrapping it in a shroud according to local custom. A bad drought coupled with the effects of civil war caused a terrible famine in Somalia which claimed the lives of between one and two million people over a period of two years, more than 200 a day in the worst affected areas. The international airlift of relief supplies which started in July was hampered by heavily armed gangs of clansmen who looted food storage centers and slowed down the distribution of the supplies by aid organizations.

Vaclav Havel: “People, your government has returned to you!”

From documentary "Citizen havel", source

Vaclav Havel was a great inspiration for me, I guess just as for any other child of post-communist transition. If I had to pick one of his essays, speeches, articles that I admire much, I would probably go for either “The Power of the powerless” or his  January 1, 1990 New Year’s Address to the Nation. Here is a full text of his speech and I wish to share it with you. My deepest condolences.

“People, your government has returned to you!”

Vaclav Havel’s New Year’s Address to the Nation, 1990

My dear fellow citizens,

For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

Václav Havel in Prague in 1988, the year before he led the Velvet Revolution. The Teleghraph photo

Allow me a small personal observation. When I flew recently to Bratislava, I found some time during discussions to look out of the plane window. I saw the industrial complex of Slovnaft chemical factory and the giant Petr’alka housing estate right behind it. The view was enough for me to understand that for decades our statesmen and political leaders did not look or did not want to look out of the windows of their planes. No study of statistics available to me would enable me to understand faster and better the situation in which we find ourselves.

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children’s homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all.

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The breakaway territory should seek legitimacy through supporting native Georgian rights, not playing dominoes

by Hugh Williamsonm, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Published in: The Guardian
November 19, 2011

They like playing dominoes in Abkhazia. As dusk falls, young men unpack their pieces on the promenade by the Black Sea in Sukhumi, the picturesque capital of this breakaway territory bidding for independence from Georgia.

The fact that Abkhazia is a largely unrecognised state does not diminish the duty on the authorities, as the territory’s controlling power, to meet their human rights obligations under international law.

Yet like playing ping pong in China, shuffling the dominoes in Abkhazia can also resonate with wider diplomatic meaning. In October, Sukhumi was proud to host the domino world championship (yes, it exists). Abkhazia didn’t win – the Dominican Republic had that honour – but it achieved its goal of gaining some international attention. More than 200 players from two dozen countries attended, including a team from the US.

We spent 90 minutes putting these points to Alexander Ankvab, Abkhazia’s de facto president – a can-do politician who takes visitors’ calls on his mobile.

He disagreed with most of our findings, though, and talked about the “new realities” he was building in Abkhazia – realities that the largely hostile international community would have to get used to, he noted.

We said his “new realities” need to be grounded in the rights of the territory’s long-established population.

Abkhazia is only recognised by Russia, Venezuela and two other tiny states, and its status is part of the bitter tensions between Russia and Georgia that peaked in their short war in August 2008.

The two countries’ breakthrough agreement on 9 November on customs arrangements is a sign that compromises are possible. Yet the annoyance in Washington and Tbilisi, and the pride in Sukhumi and Moscow, over such a seemingly harmless domino match (media reports told of intense, ultimately futile pressure on the US domino players, for instance, to withdraw) underline how politicised any dealings with Abkhazia really are.

This atmosphere does not make independent human rights work in Abkhazia very easy. In our meetings with Abkhaz officials on this visit, that came as no surprise, and Human Rights Watch rarely opts for the easy ride. But it means that, as in other territorial conflicts, a different, more creative approach is needed to protect the rights of ordinary people by the key players involved. In this case, those players include Russia, with its strong military and financial backing for the territory.

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