The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Welcome to Small Heath

I'm just starting to settle into my new home. It's pleasant enough. Kids play in the streets, adults mostly keep to themselves. The most striking thing? Erm.. Well, my Hungarian housemate arrived a couple days ago, and we chatted a bit. She said she'd lived in Bristol but this place was... a little different... *pause* "So many Black faces!"

Indeed, while there is a sprinkling of Afro-Caribbeans, that's not the kind of 'Black' she meant. Small Heath has the highest concentrations of Asians in the whole UK. Not sure if there are many Hindus, but there's plenty of beards and even a few (oh-so-last-century) burqas. The religion of most people seems reflected in most of the things around here.

You can shop at Mohammedi's...

...or Mohamm

You can send your kids to religious school (being French I love the name)

(not the most sinister-looking institution)

You can even get your little girl some Islamo-fashion:

And in case anyone's wondering, the community doesn't appear to be the most monolithic bloc:

I'm somewhat surprised pigeons were worth the effort signpost-wise. It is true that while most of the kids around talk and holler in English, you do hear some youths on the bus speaking what I'm guessing is Urdu or Pashtun. This ain't quite anthropology, but I'm sure the best antidote (or, heaven forbid, qualification) to all this Death-o-Europe nonsense, is to be with Muslim Brits up close.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Forest fires in Greece...

...are visible from space. I particularly like the series of photos wiki has posted from NASA. They look like something out of science fiction.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Bought a Towel

I've been buying all the basic items needed for survival: bowels, toilet paper, deo, cereal etc. One of these was a Marks and Spencers towel which was selling for £7 and had a 20% discount. As I bought it, the cashier said it was 7.50 and was reduced to 6.00. I began walking away, but looked at the ticket again to see that indeed the original price was 7.00. I rather sheepishly went up to her again to ask for reimbursement (which should have been about 60p). I had a pang of feelng too money-grubbing, but hey, I've no income yet. She was more than happy to help but spent a lot of time struggling with the computer trying to figure out how much to return to me, for some reason the computer claimed I should get £1.90 back. She eventually gave me that amount to avoid further embarrassment.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Trip to B'ham

I left the Cote d'Azure for Birmingham, England, last Monday. Good timing too because large angry storm clouds were due to arrive just after I left. I took a couple photos of a "Save Maddie" post, *in French*, which had offended me but, alas, with the X-ray machines in the background, a security guard politely asked that I delete them. Mom, Dad and I proceeded to take some goofy pics before our farewells. I liked this one if only for the wretch smile I manage to muster:

My trip went all very smoothly. Though the flight was a little late, this did not bother me as I planned to spend most of the night at Stansted airport. Once I arrived in Stansted, I was a little worried someone might be bothered with me sticking around. It turned out I wasn't the only one with a bright idea.

This chap was sleeping for the entire time I was there:

This one I was rather surprised to see, but he must be praised for his ingenuity:

I managed to nap a bit during the bus rides to B'ham. I've spent the last couple days sorting out all the requirements for living in this city. The only real thing left to do is, ahem, to find a job, before, ahem ahem, my cash runs out. This is why I haven't gotten back to those people whom, I was so pleasantly surprised to learn, inquired about my whereabouts and well-being through phone and facebook (I'm loved!!!).

More to come.

Monday, August 13, 2007

'cause social mobility is the shit

Coming back to France this summer, I was struck by how much mainstream French rap is politically conscious. During France's last presidential election there was some US-style talk of how some French rap is violent, abusive, misogynist etc. In particular, Sarko condemned as "racist, violent and abusive" a song by Sniper whose lyrics include the chorus:
France is a bitch and we've been betrayed
The system is what makes us hate them
Hatred is what makes our words vulgar
We fuck France over with the people's music
We agree and we don't care about repression
We don't give a damn about the Republic or freedom of expression
The laws should be changed and we should
Soon see at l'Elysée Arabs and Blacks in power
Not an ironic set of lyrics given Sarko's ostentatious affirmative action. That isn't the only kind of "conscious" music. There's RNB singer Amel Bent with a more assimilationist song "New French":
Hindered by our genes
Undermined by our appearance...
I do indeed come from somewhere, but I am here
I am here...
New French
Under the same flag
Without the same need for recognition
But not more, no less, a child of France
My favorites though, are two songs who are both vocally irreverent and extol social mobility. Both have Frenglish titles. There's La fouine's "Qui peut me stopper" (Who can stop me) which I like despite the singer's nasty Mullah beard:
I come from far away
And given my skin tone
I'll have to do things well
But who can stop me?
To renounce my identity
I can't even try
But who can stop me?
And again:
'Another one of those little Arabs'
No one can stop them, no one but the good Lord
'Another one of those little Arabs'
No one can stop them, no one but the good Lord

My ultimate favorite is IAM's "Offishall" ([We're] Official). I don't think I've heard a song making education, pharshly rofessional achievement and social mobility seem manlier. It harshly criticizes the racism of French society while, Booker T. Washington-style, praising education, work and

One member's part, Shurik'N who is incidentally a Daoist and martial artist, goes:
They like having us around, it's exotic
Back and forth between Paris and the Islands
And they're scared of us, that's not logical
They do their shopping, we're their guards, they say there's
Too many blacks in their bleux, Arabs in clubs, Too much rap
in discos, and yet what we want is more lawyers
Coming from below, Senate seats et and a TV screen much more colorful than that
I want brothers in white coats, leading surgeons
Scientists or doctors, brothers invited to cocktail parties, not waiting for them

Yeah... bad and virile but not criminal. That's the way.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Book Review: Indira

Second is "Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Ghandi" by Katherine Frank. Indira Ghandi was the prime minister of India from the 1960s and 1980s. She is the daughter of India's first PM, Nehru, and was raised in part by Mahatma Gandhi. Confusingly, however, she married a completely unrelated Feroze Gandhi who granted her that famous last name. This is a monster of a book at over 500 pages, copiously annotated and extremely detailed.

Young Indira beside Mahatma Gandhi, who is fasting.

The most striking thing I found reading the book was how weak and non-existent Indira seems in her youth and early adulthood. She is unendingly ill with pulmonary diseases, painfully thin, does poorly at school, and floats around Europe and India with her family (she attended the world's first international school, l'Ecole Internationale, in Switzerland for League of Nations brats). She has no normal childhood or youth as the whole Nehru family is deeply involved in the Indian independence movement. They all periodically have to face jail time (a veritable rite-of-passage) for their activities, which the British government calls seditious.

She marries an ambitious, hot-headed and energetic Feroze Gandhi in 1942 despite the misgivings of her father Nehru. Though they were sincerely in love and they produced two sons, the marriage proved a miserable one. Indira was more committed to her father's political work (who becomes PM of independent India) than her husband (who quickly begins having a number of a more-or-less open affairs). I was struck by how Indira lives for others, she has no independent personality, not until in 1959, at age *fourty-two*, she deems that she has repaid her debt to her family and must live her own life. Tragically good timing, because both her husband Feroze and her father Nehru would die within the next few years.

Then Indira comes into her own, she drifts into the prime ministership in 1966 as the previous once dies. She quickly personalises politics massively: she avoids the party organization her father had created and appeals directly to the people with populist programs such as bank nationalizations and removal of aristocratic privileges. She is massively re-elected in 1967 despite a vast coalition against her running on the motto "Remove Indira". She skillfully responded with the motto "Remove Poverty". As the situation in Bangladesh (then a part of Pakistan, though 1,200 km away) degenerated into genocide as the the West Pakistani military elite reasserted its rule in the country in 1971, Indira acted decisively to attract international attention. She eventually fought a brief 2 week war, short and successful, to liberate the country. She became massively popular earning the title "Empress of India".

Indira near the "Smiling Buddha" blast site.

Though she governed over other successes, the investments of the "Green Revolution" to make India's food supply self-sufficient were finally paying off and India exploded its first atom bomb ("Smiling Buddha"), she did not fulfill her promises on poverty. By the mid-70s inflation was rising, strikes were paralyzing the economy and an anti-Indira coalition was making strong headway calling for her extra-constitutional overthrow. Indira had already eroded much of India's democracy, weakening the constitution, politicizing the judiciary and bureaucracy, and circumventing political parties. In response she declared "the Emergency", effectively making herself dictator, censuring the press, imprisoning thousands of opponents and postponing elections... but trains ran on time and inflation fell. Indira grew increasingly isolated, relying on her corrupt and ambitious son Sanjay whose political influence grew. She eventually relented, holding elections in 1977 and losing badly.

Indira, her son Sanjay and their cronies then had to face 3 years of vengeful and badly organized trials on their misdeeds during the Emergency. They emerged basically unscathed, the very unpopular Sanjay died in 1980 just before the elections in an airplane crash which, though it devastated Indira, placed her in a perfect position to win those elections (the sympathy vote counts). Indira seems pretty aimless during her final term, unable to handle the communal violence affecting Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Harijans (also called Dalits or Untouchables, the lowest of Hindu castes), especially in Kashmir and the Sikh-populated Punjab.

Time magazine upon her assassination in 1984.

In 1984 as a Sikh terrorist group had been rampaging across Punjab from their base in the Golden Temple (the holiest of Sikh holy places), she launched a military operation to retake the temple and kill the terrorists. She succeeded, with massive civilian casualties and the temple heavily desecrated. Sikhs around the country were enraged and, a month later, two of her own Sikh bodyguards shot some 30 bullets into her body at point blank range. Her other son, Ranjiv, became the new prime minister. Over the 3 days after Indira's death, some 3,000 Sikhs were killed, tens of thousands more expelled from their neighborhoods, in anti-Sikh pogroms throughout India.

Overall Indira comes across as a fairly unimpressive leader. She seems to have been very lucky to have been Nehru's daughter, not had terribly coherent ideas politically and been very dangerous to India's democratic politics. However, she had the ability to really connect with the common Indian and like de Gaulle, another leader with extra-constitutional and authoritarian tendencies, ultimately favored a return to democracy and could not govern without the approval of "the nation".

In the book, Indira and her family appear very flawed but touchingly human, especially as a youth: they have petty disputes and feuds, she reads voraciously, complains of at the size of her nose and the darkness of her skin, she has few friends and her life is distinctly unordered. One word of warning she spoke to a son I thought particularly poignant: "There are millions of people in the world but most of them just drift along, afraid of death, and even more afraid of life."