Power to the powerless? Learning in Cyprus, Fall 2018

Doesn’t the lack of solution to the “Cyprus problem” confirm the fact that peace activists are rarely effective, as a friend in the know suggests to me? I am quite ready to believe her as I fly to Cyprus.

My in-depth conversations with some 15 Cypriot-born artists, academics, NGOs workers, business people, civil servants, and retirees, over the next two weeks in Larnaca, Nicosia and Famagusta, remind me of my friend’s comment somewhat unexpectedly. I learn, once more, that in order to make peace, one has to acknowledge the cost of war; that up to date knowledge of the adversary is essential; and that peace-activism, while not necessarily producing a final solution, may help a society function decently under precarious conditions.

In September 1974, I had been in close contact with some members of the Greek Cypriot diaspora in Athens. Through them I had experienced indirectly the tragic consequences of the right-wing coup against President Makarios and the large displacement of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot populations following the Turkish invasion/intervention. Here I must confess my difficulties in determining the correct terms to use, as legal facts do not necessarily correspond to the perceptions and experiences of those I listen to. There is no way I can get this right, and my Cypriot readers must bear with me. Regardless, walking with local friends in the “dead zone” along the Green Line dividing Cyprus, I must confront the pain, the losses, and the mourning of war. The zone is still “dead” so many years later, with houses destroyed, vacant lots, fences, and soldiers. Later, as I exclaim about the beauty of the University of Cyprus’ new campus in the midst of rolling hills and lush trees, my host points out gently that most of this stunning landscape is beyond the Green line and thus inaccessible from the campus. How could I have not known? This is embarrassing.

Second, I had arrived in Cyprus determined to visit the “occupied zone”, or Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (only recognized internationally by Turkey). Practically it is extremely easy and quick for a foreigner with a Schengen ID to go through the two crossings of the Green Line, which opened up in 2003. Millions have crossed since, and many Turkish Cypriots work in the Republic of Cyprus government controlled-areas today. Two new crossings opened in November; it is expected that phone services will function on both sides of the Green Line soon again, at last. Some stress the role of economic interest in strengthening the fabric of Cypriot society; others are more skeptical. Paradoxically, the “occupied zone” may offer a limited space of freedom to critics at a somewhat lesser risk than in Turkey.

In the end I make it only to North Nicosia and Famagusta, visiting there both Eastern Mediterranean University and the old town. Tourism is booming in the Northern part of Nicosia and well organized. Charming restaurants shaded by bougainvillea and ancient buildings in decent shape abound. The highway between Nicosia and Famagusta is in excellent condition, and I observe from the taxi window many new houses going up, apartments in shades of green and pink, and more sober commercial constructions. Thanks to EU/UN support, the old town of Famagusta has been impeccably restored, though the once thriving port looks listless. The former cathedral of Ayios Nicolaos, now Lala Mustafa Pasa mosque, is a wonder of Gothic architecture, but also an oasis of serenity. Better than in other churches transformed into mosques, which I have visited elsewhere, here the two religions seem to coexist peacefully rather than clash, and I linger in the beauty.

Third, the collaborative programs across the divide between NGOs, academics, and business people, surprise me by their number and quality. Cypriots like to stress that the island is small and everybody knows everyone, but some activities do not seem well known, which does not make them necessarily less effective. Thus the UN is sponsoring a late November seminar at the Home for Cooperation between students from the University of Cyprus and from Eastern Mediterranean University and their professors on the use of natural resources for peace or for conflict. Although the event is public, I cannot find an Internet announcement. The support of small countries, such as Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, beside the EU and the UN, is many fold. But I come across more modest local initiatives also. L.L, a former Cyprus Airlines employee and now an artisan, was forced to leave his hometown in 1974. Much later he helped restore with Greek Cypriot friends and Turkish Cypriot workers (some of whom volunteered their labor) the Church of Ayios Giorgos in Upper Kyrenia where he grew up. Orthodox services are held there several times a year. My interlocutor acknowledges that this may make little difference to politics. “But it gives hope for the future. You cannot solve a problem without connections.”

It remains that the Anan Plan to reunify the island under a shared government was rejected in 2004 by a majority of the Greek Cypriot community; and little has changed since. Yet I am struck by the absence of demonization of the adversary, even among respondents little inclined to contacts with the other community. Convictions are firmly held, in a calm tone, without verbal attacks or insinuations. Acts of violence are rare, and the island feels very safe to the visitor. What a contrast with the United States from where I have just arrived. I wonder to what extent the activities of peace-minded citizens have shaped mindsets and practices. I cannot know for sure, but my encounters change my mind on one point: instead of looking for one comprehensive solution to the so-called Cyprus problem, might I not be wiser to salute the capacity of Cypriots on both sides of the Green Line to survive calamities and weave decent lives? Instead of one solution for one problem shouldn’t I be thinking of the “solution” as an incremental, yet quite effective process of weaving a web of concrete collaborations around shared interests? The atmosphere in Cyprus remains subdued: the “solution(s)” does not depend on Cypriots only; big powers have troops on the ground; yet it would be wrong to discount the power of the powerless.

 

 

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Letter to Simone Veil (1927-2017)

Dear Simone Veil,

Your passing on June 30, 2017 barely made a ripple in the American news media; and yet even far away, there is so much we can celebrate and learn from you. You had it ‘all’: good looks, brain, money, social prestige, a brilliant career, a devoted husband and you leave 27 direct descendants. Yet your many gifts and accomplishments do not inspire envy, or a competitive spirit.

You are one of the most beloved public figures in France. Why do I share this feeling when I never met you face to face and I am neither French, nor Jewish? For one, you never made me say in the usual resigned manner: of course, she is just a politician. Even if one disagreed with some of your stands, your last public appearance was against gay marriages in France, much of the time you were right on.

After you became a senior civil servant in your late twenties during the Algerian war, you fought hard and successfully to protect incarcerated Algerian rebel women from torture and rape. As minister for health you held the floor for three days at the French National Assembly to defend the government proposal making abortion legal in 1974. The Veil law passed after you withstood countless insults and threats in the mostly male parliament. But, modestly, you always maintained that the law that had most improved French women’s condition was the 1967 Neuwirth law legalizing contraception.

Your most significant legacy may be your stand for peace. You were born in the well to do, highly educated and thoroughly secular Jewish family Jacob, which had been French for centuries. Very early you were exposed to your parents’ divergent views on the Germans. Your father who was held prisoner of war in 1914 hated them; your mother to the contrary, thought that peacemakers on both sides, such as Gustav Stresemann and Aristide Briand, should have been listened to. You wrote that upon your return from Auschwitz you chose to follow the ‘lesson’ of your mother.

Although you did not like Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the ‘banality’ of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem, your life journey is emblematic of another of Arendt’s central theses. This other survivor of the Holocaust knew that harm done could not be undone. How then could people interact with one another ‘after the deluge’? She proposed two ‘palliatives’ to the potentially deadly consequences of human action. First, she advocated forgiveness, so that the past would not dictate the present. Forgiving is not a feeling of abandoning hate, but an action based on the willingness to re-engage with former enemies for the sake of the shared world. Arendt’s second palliative is promising, i.e. endorsing laws and constitutions in politics, which would bound actors to certain courses of action.

Already in 1945 your husband and you were convinced that reconciliation with Germany was absolutely necessary, or there would be a third WW much worse even than WWII. After your death, one close friend confided that you were never heard uttering one word of reproach against the Germans even in private exchanges. Yet in 1944, the German occupiers had deported your whole family; you never saw your brother and father again. Your beloved mother Yvonne Jacob died of typhus in spring 1945 during the ‘death march’ out of the camp.

In spite of failing to protect you from deportation and half of your closest relatives from extinction, France gave you opportunities after your return. You studied law at the prestigious institute Science Po, met Antoine Veil, married and had three sons by the age of 23. You seemed destined to have the comfortable life of a stay at home upper class bourgeois wife and mother, and had to fight to obtain permission from your reluctant husband to work. For 20 years you did so in relative obscurity.

One day, your five-year-old son came back in tears from school. He had just learned about the 1572 St Barthélémy massacre when Catholics massacred Protestants. ‘Fortunately I am not Protestant’ he told you. Thus you had to start the long process of explanation about being a Jew. You did not enjoy talking about unbearable suffering, but it had to be done. All your life you wore your camp tattoo on your left arm; during the summer under sleeveless dresses it was especially visible. You were honorary president of the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah and a close friend of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld who dedicated their lives to hold Nazis accountable. Memory is a must and the ‘foundation for reconciliation’, you said.

You became an ardent supporter of European integration and the first president of the popularly elected European Parliament in 1979. You wrote in your autobiography Une vie (2007, Stock): ‘The fact that I helped make Europe has reconciled me with the twentieth century’. The book was a library success and is under reprint. You were elected to the Académie française in 2010.

According to your son Jean, your last word, pronounced softly but distinctly, was: Merci (thank you). Simone Veil, may we do more than love you; may we, in our flawed and limited ways, act out your legacy of courageous involvement in public issues, non-violent conflict resolution, and faithfulness to family and friends. Your life demands no less from its admirers than this merci.

 

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Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Larissa MacFarquhar, New York: Penguin Press, 2015

This is a strange book about an unusual kind of “strangers”, people endowed with impossible idealism and overpowered by the urge to help other “strangers”, those who do not belong to their families. The Indian Hindu family Amtes rescues many people from the ills of leprosy, builds several villages, and stick at its many helping missions over four generations of doctors and social workers under very harsh conditions. The Canadian-American family Badeau raises 22 children including three severely handicapped boys who live well beyond their normal life expectancy.

The merit of the book lies in the stories it tells its reader, and the journalist MacFarquhar excels at this. She narrates the stories of “do-gooders” on four continents although the majority are North Americans. She has little to say, however, about the incredible physical resilience of such do-gooders, especially the women, some of whom manage to combine extremely demanding forms of engagement toward the stranger with birthing and mothering their own children. Not many would manage this, including this author, just for physical reasons.

What fails to convince is the way the author inserts rather shallow “abstract” arguments at various points in her book, without weaving them into her stories. She asserts at the outset that caring for strangers’ children seems “unnatural, even monstrous” (8). Her repeated argument that altruism excites hate, or at best rejection, stretches credibility. There are few examples of this in the book’s stories. The attack on a missionary in Mozambique, which she relates, seems due more to the wretched and violent living conditions of that country than to any protest against altruism. The same can be said about the suffering experienced by the midwife working for decades in Nicaragua and whose patients suffer much more. MacFarquhar cites relevant social scientists, Darwin, Smith, Comte, Nietzsche, and some fiction writers such as Ayn Rand and Baldwin who protested against absolute goodness. But there is no way to do justice to such important thinkers in a few lines, and to add insult to injury, the citations are not footnoted.

MacFarquhar writes that do-gooders act on their own, and this is why they seem so “strange” (296). Yet her stories are a testimony of the opposite. None of the do-gooders have acted alone although they did make their own rules initially. But the book is written from a very American point of view, stressing individual efforts, rather than collective attempt to make long term changes to unjust structures. Thus the usual heroes do not feature here, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mandela. Assuredly these figures are well known and this would have been redundant. But the lack of attention to people who have tackled structural injustices in order to alleviate human suffering is a disappointment. This is a well written, interesting and yet strangely flawed book.

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Retrieving an alternate tradition of US foreign policy….

Retrieving an alternate tradition of US foreign policy…

Response to “Friendless Obama needs Middle Eastern allies of convenience”, Financial Times, Wednesday September 24, 2014

Sir, Francis Fukayama and Karl Eikenberry critique President Obama for “overpromising” when he states that the US will “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS”. Recent wars should have taught Americans that, “they do not have the wisdom, resources or staying power to dictate political outcomes”. This makes sense, but Professor Fukayama and Ambassador Eikenberry’s alternative is singularly lacking in originality and vision: the best America can do is “offshore balancing” just as the United Kingdom did in previous centuries. Like the UK, America has no “permanent friends”, only “allies of convenience”. Off shore balancing, however, did little to pacify Europe.

We should remember that part of the American historical experience has consisted also in mediating non-violently between foes for the benefit of all involved. Let us remember President Theodore Roosevelt’s successful mediation between Russia and Japan over the fate of the Sakhalin islands; and the post WWII Marshall Plan whose most remarkable feature was not that it was a large hand out, but that it required from the beneficiaries that they propose a plan for sharing the fund among themselves. 16 European countries created the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, a practical experience in collaboration that altered deeply the relationship between former enemies, and paved the way for European reconciliations, beside its immediate economic benefits. At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush offered helpful and deliberately low key mediation between Germany, which was keen to reunify and the Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom, which were understandably worried at the prospect.

In 2006 the high-level bipartisan Iraq Study Group appointed by Congress delivered a remarkable set of proposals. Its Report recommended that the US engage in a “robust diplomatic effort to build an international support structure intended to stabilize Iraq…This structure should include every country that has an interest in averting a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors – Iran and Syria.” The George W. Bush administration, which had made much of the Group, chose to disregard this proposal in favor of the surge and re-arming the disaffected Sunnis of Iraq. One wishes that it had put half as much money and effort into mediating between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and beyond. It is no too late for Americans to remember that mediation and treating other peoples like friends rather than enemies or mere allies of convenience, has served them well.

 

 

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What Do I Think of Russia?

My St Petersburg students ask me during our last class: What do you think of Russia? What can I answer except that I have not “seen” Russia having been in St Petersburg, Moscow and Kaliningrad, and in the last two cities only for a few days? They readily agree. Yet I have spent three and half months in Russia. So what do I think even if my response can only be provisory and limited? I do not want to duck the question although thinking something about a country sounds so much like judgment, and this I want to avoid. So I bring up a few queries and reflections rather than any conclusion.

As I walk the streets of Saint Petersburg, at times I sense something like a dark cloud hanging over us, me and the other harried passersby. This is not about meteorology under the beautiful misty sky, and I feel very safe physically. So what is it? I wonder. Is it fear about the political future? Memories from the Soviet times? Disappointments after the 1991 aborted revolution? Or simply mourning too private to utter in public? I cannot know. What I know is that Russia is a tough country, which has demanded and still demands well developed survival skills from its citizens.

It reminds me of the US in some respects. Saint Petersburg is a busy city whose air is polluted by too many cars. There is little time to invite anyone not part of the inner family circle to one’s home. And long conversations around the kitchen table are long gone, I am told. Employees of the service industry work too hard, most stores and coffee places are open every day of the week until 11 pm. A simple cappuccino coffee easily costs 120 rubles (4 dollars) whereas I pay 9 dollars for a taxi ride that may last 30 minutes. Under my window immigrant workers replace water lines at great speed; others clean the streets. I observe late on Saturday nights yet others repairing some of the splendid government and private buildings left from the Tsarist era. How much they remind me of the Latin American roofers employed in my Saint Paul, Minnesota, affluent neighborhood who work similar hours. Schoolteachers, college instructors and even some professors, are paid less than a living wage. And medical care of quality is not universally guaranteed; it is available if one can pay for private medical services also.

I watch President Putin on TV giving his yearly State of the Union speech in front of a respectful and mostly male audience, with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sitting in the front row. This ceremony’s deferential trappings are visually so US-like. I am surprised also by the militaristic tone of TV channel Russia Today’s documentary, which celebrates the heroism of the Russian Special Forces deployed in the Caucasus, and which is shown several days in a row. Interviews about Soviet and post-Soviet identity in Svetlana Alexievitch’s last book, Vremia second hand (konets krasnovo tcheloveka)[1] confirm that some former Soviet Union’s citizens, including Russians, believe in war’s positive role in strengthening national identity, like some Americans.

Other things are very different. I observe from the windows both of the beautifully looked after and comfortable Sapsan high-speed train from St Petersburg to Moscow and the slow intercity train near Kaliningrad, deserted countryside and dilapidated dachas. I worry about the future of Chechnya and Dagestan republics, which are still part of the Russian Federation and far from being at peace. War is contagious.

The dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 has meant that new borders rose between people who used to be fellow citizens and spoke the same tongue; now they belong to different sovereign states and are “foreigners” to each other; and this is partly making immigration issues more acute in Russia. It strikes me that the dismantling of border controls within the European Union (EU), a process, which started in 1985 and is still ongoing, provokes similar reactions of rejection, but in this case against those who have morphed from “foreigners” whose identity must be checked into fellow EU citizens with full freedom of movement. The frozen borders of the Cold War times, whose disappearance I do not regret within the EU, seemed easier to handle.

Most of the well-educated Russian women I speak with (born between late 1940s-late 1960s) have had one child or none. As a result several find themselves today supporting aging and handicapped husbands and they will keep working as late as possible, i.e. well into their sixties or even seventies. Others in their forties, are more optimistic, but express a sense of limited opportunities. University graduates who got their degrees in the chaotic 1990s (marred by ill-conceived liberalization programs) have often not found work corresponding to their qualifications.

On the other hand, the students I meet in four academic institutions in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Kaliningrad, are very much like those I taught in France, the Netherlands and the US: full of energy, dreams and curiosity, mostly eager to learn and to achieve.  I learn much from them as I teach and give lectures.

Many questions remain pending for me as I depart, and, much more challengingly, for Russians. Graduate students present their primary research at a fascinating seminar on civil society at European University Saint Petersburg. The protests of 2011 and 2012 against rigged electoral processes have instilled new hope that Russians can create a working democracy. Weeks later I meet an election observer of the 2011 and 2012 federal elections in quite a different venue. This activist insists on civic responsibility, which must be met regardless of the costs, and yet she remembers the fate of the 1920s émigrés who had to start life all over again in foreign lands. So, in case politics go wrong, my interlocutor bought a little house in a Baltic republic a few years ago, a pleasant get away for now, but also a potential safe haven. Just in case…

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Leaving Saint Petersburg: Mourning and Celebration

Why all the mourning as I prepare to depart? “Home” is being dismantled. I give away the few objects I bought to improve my daily life: a cotton area rug, Ikea lights, two humidifiers, a nice green plant, a printer. I pack the books I bought thanks to the Fulbright program and sent to Saint Petersburg via the US diplomatic pouch and which are now going to the European University’s library Foreign-language books are expensive here, foreign newspapers even more so. So I resorted to satellite TV. As I switched between British, UK, German, French and Russian channels, I could not help but laugh sometime at the feast of contradictory standpoints.

I will miss the many Russians I met, their stories willingly shared in response to my ceaseless questioning. I will miss their questions.

I will miss mundane details such as the traffic light where the seconds left to cross the streets are carefully marked. In spite of what St Petersburg people tell me, many drivers have carefully stopped at marked cross walks, light or not, to let me pass. I will miss the reasonably priced exercise club where you can get great one-hour classes for free. I will miss entering food shops and delis with their vast array of salads, whose labels I cannot always decipher properly, meatballs of all kinds, and fresh and smoked sea food. I will miss the many delightful coffee shops, each with its own personality. Strangely enough, I will even miss the challenge of trying to make myself understood through broken Russian, gestures and drawings.

Guided by a scholar of Kaliningrad’s identity, I have treaded the street of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) where Hannah Arendt grew up. I have sat on three panels, which interviewed some thirty Russian Fulbright candidates, and marveled at the creativity and ingenuity of so many grant applications and their authors. I have met three museum curators (more than in my entire American life, I must confess), and visited two of their exhibits, the Pushkin Museum flat and the costumes exhibit on porcelain dolls at the Russian Museum. As I watched the Shurale ballet from the upper tier of the Mariinsky Theater I understood what I will miss in Russia at its best, a unique combination of artistic rigor, utmost technicality and unbridled passion. I observed it in the museums, in the buildings on the banks of the Neva, in some of the shop windows. I read it.

Yes, I will miss the fabulous women I met through the printed word. It is hard to fathom how poet Anna Akhmatova of Poem without a Hero and The Requiem could survive the Stalinist years. Did she draw solace from the austere apartment she shared with others in formerly aristocratic Fontanka House whose inner courtyard and park continues to offer serenity and calm in the midst of a bustling city? Irène Némirovsky, another highly gifted and beautiful woman, and a Russian Jewish émigrée to France, managed to write La Suite Française during her last months in liberty even though she sensed her life would be cut short. She leaves us a sarcastic yet profoundly understanding set of portraits of French families and their German occupiers in Vichy France. I will not forget either the French-Russian grandmother remembered (or semi-invented?) by her grandson Andreï Makine in Le Testament français. The Stalinist regime trapped this anonymous mother and grandmother physically, but hardly intellectually or spiritually. These women transgressed borders moved by brain and heart.

As I enjoy a last bowl of kasha  (delicious porridge thick with seeds and banana slices in this case, enough to keep you going for the day) in my favorite bookstore cum coffee place I strike up a conversation with a fourteen-year old girl who tells me she comes here every Saturday to read and write. With her long blond tress, pale skin, slightly slanted blue eyes and intelligent conversation in halting English she strikes me as the Russian I dreamed about in my earlier years: bookish, cultured, and thoughtful. Every so often her phone rings, but otherwise she is deep in her reading. A new Akhmatova? One can only wish.

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The Poetry of Gardens and shared spaces

Family Sunday in St. Petersburg Summer Garden

Family Sunday in St. Petersburg Summer Garden

Enjoying the fall in the Summer Garden2013-10parkleaves22013-09-summergfountain2013-09-Fontankahouse

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