Anyone else fed up with hypocritical Hollywood?

Anyone else fed up with hypocritical Hollywood?

By Rebecca Hartill

I’ve arrived in the movie star capital of the world without any clue of who is who and what is what. Hollywood and the entertainment industry is to me an unknown field, which is partly why I find my time in L.A so interesting. Something that has not slipped my attention however is the #metoo earthquake, and being a political science major, the issue of social representation and its connection to individual rights is a topic that lies close to heart. The #metoo movement has apparently not rocked the boat enough to upset the status quo, as we this year saw the fewest female winners in six years while the ethnic representation remained highly westernised.

As a firm believer that habits rather than talents are key to success, I’m perplexed by all the high heels and close fitted low-cut dresses leftover from a conservative world that sought to sexualise women. Females are highlighted for how they look and males for what they do. Males dress in the identical black-tie outfits not by coincidence, but because the assumption is that they do not need to dress in any other way. You see males are carried by their brains, while females are successful though their looks.

The #metoo movement has apparently not rocked the boat enough to upset the status quo, as we this year saw the fewest female winners in six years while the ethnic representation remained highly westernised.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: Fatma Al Remaihi attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA – MARCH 04: Fatma Al Remaihi attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

However, I suppose I should cut Hollywood some slack and realise that it, just like me, is a product of its social circumstances (I too wore a tight dress and stilettos to work during the Oscar evening). Maybe it isn’t my place to say, since I don’t even recognise half of the people walking the red carpet.

Whether it be a sign of ignorance or a receipt of how out of touch Hollywood is with the rest of the world, I find it almost amusing that a film portraying Winston Churchill as a faultless national hero can receive so much praise when Mr Churchill in fact made quite a few doubtful choices during his political career. Maybe historical accuracy is of only secondary concern to the Academy, but I know one or two who would categorise the film as an infotainment way to present an ”alternative truth”. This is ironic, considering that Hollywood spends so much time worrying about the wide reach of the very same phenomenon.

Nonetheless, someone did catch my eye, and both her persona and her outfit are a refreshing sight. Fatma Al Remaihi, who does not have a wikipedia site (yet), is the CEO of the Doha Film Interview and carried her Middle Eastern heritage down the red carpet with fascinating gusto, just like she does in her work.

At the Frontiers of Europe

In early May, five members of The Society of International Affairs participated in a project in Palermo, Italy about how civil society can work against organized crime. Sicily is famous for its mafia, yet the understanding of most people abroad is limited to gangster movies and the mafia wars in the 1980s and 1990s. This project was essentially about understanding, on a deeper level, how the strong influence of the mafia affects the everyday lives of people. There were participants from seven different countries, therefor discussing how challenges are similar or differ in different countries was also an important part of the project.

Adam Josefsson was one of the Swedish participants. He sat down with, and interviewed Nicola Teresi from the organization “Libera”. Nicola works in Sicily and Lampedusa with researching and informing about how international trafficking of humans is organized. Although migration wasn’t the main topic of the project in Palermo, it has a clear connection to international organized crime. Understanding this issue is of especially big importance at the moment, because Europe is currently receiving a big wave of refugees, and how the situation should be dealt with is one of the most important policy debates within the EU. Sicily is at the southern frontier of the EU, and so it is one of the places within the EU where the various dimensions of the issue are most noticeable.

[toggle title=”FACTS”] Libera. Associations, names and numbers against the mafias is an Italian association founded in 1995. It followed popular uprising against the mafia. Libera’s aim is to educate how organized crime affects society, and to promote a civic culture that is based on respect for other people. Libera is an umbrella association for the anti-mafia movement, with around 1500 local groups tied to it, including both civil society groups and, for example schools. Libera plays an important role in facilitating the reallocation of confiscated mafia lands to civil society, and Libera sells agricultural products farmed by these cooperatives. There are proven connections between international migration and organized crime, so Libera also works with researching this issue.[/toggle]

What is your relationship to the theme of migration?
Libera is interested in human trafficking. We focus on organized crime and so we have learnt that on the international level there are big and small criminal groups who speculate on the lives of people. So I’m working with research, education and the creation of a culture surrounding the theme of immigration, in which the Italian people can understand what’s happening abroad. We consider all the dead on the Mediterranean, victims of international organized crime.

Which are these criminal groups and what are the links between them?
There are a lot of groups. We can picture a network of international traffic that starts in the home countries of migrants. These are primarily countries in Central sub-Saharan Africa, and on the Horn of Africa. There are also countries in Asia from which people escape from wars and persecution. It’s clear that there are persons already in the home countries who profit from the needs of refugees. They get paid to organize these very long journeys, going through many transit countries. The final destination in Africa is usually Libya, which is the country from which people depart from to Lampedusa in Italy.

These criminal groups are often small and very flexible, and they profit from holding the migrants as slaves. They control their movement and make them call their families and ask for money. If they don’t do this, traffickers can get violent and torture them, and eventually their families are forced to sell practically everything they have to send money and liberate their children. When arriving at the coast of Libya there are criminal groups who control fishing boats that can take migrants to Italian waters. We’ve discovered that these groups are sometimes in contact with European criminal groups, who will then enable migrants to get to other European countries. The refugees often want to go to places where they have friends, relatives and working opportunities, and a refugee reception system that works. The majority of people who arrive in Italy don’t want to stay here. In 2014, around 170 000 migrants arrived in Italy, of which around 100 000 disappeared. We don’t know exactly where they’ve gone, but surely they’ve received help to leave Italy by these criminal groups.

How does the Italian reception system work and what sort of help do the refugees get? Is it true that Italy doesn’t register migrants, as is required according to the Dublin Accord?
In general, the Italian reception system works poorly. We only have a limited number of places in the system, which doesn’t cover the total number of refugees who come here. It’s a precarious system that lacks capacity, and foremost it has been shown in legal investigations that the big cooperatives that own the reception centres benefit from the long time that the refugees have to stay there. This is another form of speculation on the lives of the refugees, and we see a slow processing of asylum applications. What this means in practice is that the more refugees you can fit in one centre, the more money you can earn from it. For example looking at Rome, we can see that criminal groups control the cooperatives running the centres with connections to politicians and businessmen. They receive thousands of refugees, without giving them proper services, which means that they can make big profits. It’s a similar situation in all of Italy, even though the picture sometimes looks different.

There are associations and cooperatives helping immigrants in a great way, but the point is that these are small actors. So the general picture that emerges from the research on this is that the system doesn’t work very well, and in addition to this there are the problems connected to European politics. The Dublin Accord says that the first European country that migrants arrive to must register them, and then they must apply for asylum in that country. So in this case it means that they’ll have to stay in Italy. This system is rather badly constructed and dangerous. It doesn’t allow for a redistribution of immigrants in the whole of Europe, a redistribution that would guarantee solidarity and sustainability of the European reception system. This system constrains the immigrants so that they’ll have to remain in Italy even though most of them don’t want to, and in any case the Italian reception system doesn’t have the capacity to receive all of them. It’s believed that in some cases immigrants aren’t identified, with the officials choosing to turn a blind eye and let them go to other countries. This happens because Italy has a reception system that works poorly.

Which are the immigrants that choose to stay in Sicily and what sort of life awaits them here?
Today Sicily is providing refuge to around 15 000 immigrants, living in many different centres dispersed throughout the island. In general, their lives are characterized by waiting and problems. They have to wait out the long bureaucratic process to apply for a visa or the right to asylum. These people are heaped together in the centres without the opportunities to do anything. Often they receive some teaching of Italian, however from what I know it’s rare that these people have any opportunities to work, since having the residence permit is a requirement to be hired. They are in great need to work to provide for themselves and to send money to their families, but since they aren’t allowed to they have to make do; they can try to get by through illegal means. We know for a fact that in the centre in Mineo close to Catania, there is a system of using the immigrants as workforce for very low wages. In the morning people are being recruited, sometimes by mafia members, who in turn have deals with farmers who want to reduce their costs so they also turn a blind eye and pay the people who work all day very little. This phenomenon is a form of slavery, which exists in all regions of Italy.

Anyone who has ever eaten a vegetable or fruit in Italy has surely eaten something that was produced with slave labour. This is a problem that regards the whole of Italy, and which is related to organized crime.

Is this something that is talked about in the public debate?
Not much. There have been some important journalistic investigations. There is information about this in newspapers, but it’s really not given much attention. And on television, they really don’t talk much about this. And the reason is that Italy and Europe has a need for slave labour. We turn a blind eye and benefit from this system to fill our tables.

What opinions do people in Italy have of immigrants in general?
The consequence of the misinformation spread by the media, especially in the times of economical crisis, is that there is a war between different groups of poor people. Also in Italy we have now started to witness a cavalcade from political parties on the extreme right. What do I mean by calling it a war among the poor? On television, they always show pictures displaying a form of fake emergency. It’s portrayed as an invasion of immigrants, which really isn’t the case. Furthermore, they say that these people are welcomed by the state and given much help and money. In reality it isn’t like this. The Italian reception system entitles each immigrant 30 Euros per day, but this money never reaches the actual person. It’s common that the immigrants don’t get more than 2,50 Euro per day. All the money goes to the businesses and cooperatives that run the Italian reception system. However, people in Italy don’t know about this, so there is a growing sentiment that Italians are competing with the immigrants who arrive at our coasts. The primary reason for this is the influence of the media who manipulates news stories. It’s also the fault of politicians who spread hate and racism, and who use this information to legitimize their own bitterness towards people fleeing to Italy.

Do we see the same situation in Sicily as in Italy overall?
From my point of view, there is a difference on the cultural level. This is because the racist party of Italy, namely the Northern League, was born in Northern regions. So as a cultural phenomenon, racism is stronger in the North. But it’s clear that this sentiment exists throughout the whole country, and with more and more people coming here, people are led to believe that we’re being invaded. People believe that it’s not right to give immigrants a place to stay, when at the same time ten million Italians are living in relative poverty.

Are the Italian regions taking an equal responsibility to deal with the situation?
No, this isn’t the case, because this depends on the number of immigrants that they accept. Sicily is the region that receives the most, around 15 000 last year, while the figures for most regions are much lower. And in the few regions where the Northern League is in power, they are starting to fight against receiving more people.

How is the situation on Lampedusa today?
Right now the centre on Lampedusa is full of immigrants. The centre on Lampedusa was previously in a state of collapse, because it had to receive too many people. This centre assists in the rescuing of people, and it’s a sort of hospital where people can make a stop to rest. Immediately after this stop, they are transferred, because the law says that they have to be within 72 hours. Sometimes the system works exactly like this, but when too many people come at the same time, they have to stay there longer. Even though it’s not a good place for them to be. In any case, the population of the island of Lampedusa is very welcoming. It’s a population that lives by the law of the sea, and they know that people in difficult situations need help. However the people of Lampedusa hate the journalists who write false or mistaken stories, in which they write that migrants have invaded Lampedusa. Firstly, this isn’t true. Secondly, it hurts the tourism of the island. It creates an image to the rest of the world that immigrants have invaded Lampedusa when this is really not the case.

Finally, following the European debate on migration policy, do you see any hope for a solution for these problems?
The hope is my personal, because I’m an optimistic person. Perhaps the historical phenomenon of migration can help Europe make sense of the current situation. What’s the kind of Europe we want?

Do we want a Fortress Europe, which closes its borders, and militarizes, which is what’s happening now, or do we want a Europe for the people, based on rights, which was the original idea of the European Union?

This is a choice that needs to be made, and it’s a really important one. The number seeking shelter here is a number that the EU can absolutely accommodate. What’s needed to do this is just to create a system based on shared burdens, with quotas for each country.

Today, I read in the newspapers that maybe they’re setting up a common European system on quotas. But at the same time the EU is planning to bombard the migrant boats, and to do international police operations in Libya. In reality these are measures that are absolutely the wrong ones, for many motives. Firstly, an international operation without Libyan consent is an act of war. Secondly, the person who drives a boat to Lampedusa, is hardly ever a human trafficker, but instead just a poor person who in exchange for money is assigned to this job. And even in the cases where the smuggler is the real organizer, it doesn’t improve the situation much to arrest him because it doesn’t stop the phenomenon of slavery and exploitation in the home and transit countries. Arresting individual traffickers can never stop the smuggling. It’s only granting people rights that can do this. So there are political possibilities to help the migrants, and to return to a Europe that safeguards the rights of everyone. I hope that this is the path that we’ll choose, instead of the military solution.

Continue reading At the Frontiers of Europe

Livet i krisens Aten

Författare: Carin Carlund och Anna Eken

Aten är en vacker stad, dess antika stormakt och rika historia återspeglas i de många monument och tempel som omgärdar staden. Trots att det är i Aten som demokratin har sitt ursprung har Greklands politiska historia varit långt ifrån enkel. De senaste seklerna har Grekland genomlidit en lång period av ockupationer och diktatoriella styren. Landet befann sig under Ottomanskt styre så länge som 400 år. Ockupationen av den utländska makten gjorde att grekerna i ren kulturell självbevarelsedrift samverkade och hittade vägar för att kringgå de styrandes  maktutövning och kontroll. Modern historia har vidare präglats av andra världskriget och den medföljande tyska ockupationen av Grekland, det efterföljande inbördeskriget och militärdiktaturen 1967-74.

Vy över Aten Foto: Amanda Seebass
Vy över Aten Foto: Amanda Seebass

Då Utrikespolitiska Föreningen i Göteborg i maj 2015 reste till Aten var syftet att få en närmare inblick i det aktuella politiska läget i Grekland. Med hjälp av invånarnas perspektiv hoppades vi få en mer nyanserad uppfattning av varför den ekonomiska krisen uppkommit samt hur livet ter sig för grekerna i skuggan av den.

Det blev tydligt att den grekiska historien präglar den inhemska debatten i mycket större utsträckning än vad som syns i internationell media. Under våra möten (mer nedan) drogs ständigt paralleller mellan de tidigare odemokratiska styrena och de senaste årens urholkade demokratiska struktur. Under övergången från totalitär kontroll till dagens demokratiska system hann en utbredd korruption etsa sig fast i landets politiska och byråkratiska apparat. Denna strukturella korruption anses vara en av de mer omfattande anledningarna till varför Grekland befinner sig i den ekonomiska situation landet gör i nuläget.

Bakgrund

Den ekonomiska krisen bröt ut i efterdyningarna av den anrika investmentbanken Lehman Brothers kollaps år 2008. Flera andra amerikanska banker drabbades också av stora kreditförluster som en följd av osäkra bolån, så kallade sub-primelån. Då dessa lån utfärdades hade inte bankerna krävt ett tillräckligt kreditvärde hos låntagarna. En dominoeffekt av bankpanik spreds som en löpeld från USA till Europa vars banker, genom olika typer av investeringar och lån, flätats samman med den amerikanska ekonomin. De så kallade PIIGSs-länderna (Portugal, Italien, Irland, Grekland och Spanien), tillhörande den europeiska ekonomiska periferin, drabbades hårdast bland medlemmarna inom EMU. På grund av deras redan svaga ekonomier och förhållandevis ofördelaktiga utgångsläge fanns det en starkare grogrund för den ekonomiska krisen att bita sig fast i. I Grekland har följden blivit att värdet på de grekiska tillgångarna rasat. Ekonomiskt starka aktörer såsom rikskapitalister och företagare har valt att överföra sina tillgångar till utländska banker, och på senare år har även många mindre aktörer och privatpersoner valt att transferera sina pengar utomlands. Den grekiska ekonomin har på så vis dränerats på kapital.

Möte med Transparency International

Vi kommer till en beigefärgad kontorsbyggnad på Theitos i centrala Aten, här ligger Transparency Internationals greklandsavdelning. Mannen som hälsar oss välkomna och som ska leda mötet är en pensionerad affärsman. När han börjar berätta för oss om korruptionen i landet märks det snabbt att han tar ämnet på allvar. Korruptionen, säger han, är en av de mest bidragande faktorerna bakom krisen i landet eftersom den förhindrar strukturella reformer.

I Transparency International Corruptions Perception Index, CPI, från 2014, som mäter nivån av korruption i den offentliga sektorn, placeras Grekland, tillsammans med bland annat Rumänien och Italien, som ett av länderna med högst korruption inom EU. I en undersökning utförd av organisationen år 2012 påstås det att korruptionen är så utspridd att den påverkar grekernas värderingar och mentalitet. En långvarig acceptans av korruption hos grekiska medborgare och en växande fatalism gällande möjligheten att kunna stå emot den, har försatt flaskhalsar hos de institutioner som är menade att leda reformarbetet. I undersökningen nämns sjukvård, skatteverk och byggindustri som de sektorer där greker mest frekvent tvingas betala mutor.

Transparency International ser trots allt positivt på situationen och menar att det finns tecken på förbättring i landet. Hos den sittande regeringen, ledd av Syriza, ser de potential, då de är först med att försöka starta upp ett oberoende ministerium för att bekämpa korruptionen.

Syrizas regeringsperiod

Vid valet den 25e januari 2015 lyckades det vänsterinriktade politiska partiet Syriza under ledning av Alexis Tsipras nå ut till en bred väljarkrets, vilket resulterade i parlamentarisk vinst samt en framgångsrik regeringsbildning. Syriza uppnådde dock ingen egen majoritet utan bildade en koalitionsregering med Anexartitoi Ellines (Oberoende Greker), ett nationalistiskt och konservativt högerparti som bildats av en utbrytargrupp från oppositionspartiet Nea Dimokratia (Ny demokrati).

Syrizas och Anexartitoi Ellines gemensamma mål var att få stopp på de åtstramningar och nedskärningar som slagit hårt mot den grekiska befolkningen och som inte resulterat i de nödvändiga strukturförändringar som landet behöver. Det är genom det här målet som de båda partierna med vitt skilda ideologiska grunder lyckats finna utrymme för samarbete.

En turbulent period har förflutit sedan den nya regeringen tillsattes, kantad av nya förhandlingar, återbetalningskrav och nödlån. Den 5e juli i år hölls en folkomröstning i Grekland om huruvida befolkningen accepterar de åtstramningskrav som långivarna utfärdat, inför det tredje nödlånet. Syriza propagerade för ett nej i folkomröstningen, och därmed ett nej till fler nedskärningar. Trots att folkomröstningen resulterade i ett rungande nej resignerade Yanis Varoufakis, Greklands dåvarande finansminister, kort därefter. Den officiella anledningen är att Varoufakis åsikter inte var i linje med hur villkoren för ett tredje nödlån utvecklat sig. Dock finns det andra röster som säger att han tvingades till resignation då andra europeiska beslutsfattare inte ville ha med honom vid förhandlingsbordet.

Förhandlingarna kring avtalet ledde också till ökade splittringar inom partiet och ett nytt parti tog form, Popular Unity, som bildades av före detta Syriza-medlemmar.  Deras anhängare menar att de reformer och ytterligare nedskärningar som Tsipras går med på är ett svek mot folket, samt att Grekland skulle må bättre av en Grexit och återgång till den egna valutan Drachma. Tsipras menar å andra sidan att dessa budgetreformer och ökade skatter är ofrånkomliga för att Grekland ska kunna få ett tredje nödlån. Tsipras var således tvungen att söka stöd hos oppositionen för att kunna ratificera avtalet på hemmaplan. Efter ett avgörande möte mellan Eurozonens finansministrar röstades det tredje nödlånet, på 86 biljoner Euro igenom. Det instabila politiska läget i landet och splittringarna inom partiet har lett till att Tsipras i augusti utlyste nyval och avgick, där han dock återigen kandiderar som partiledare för Syriza. Söndagen den 20 september avgörs det om Tsipras och hans parti får fortsatt förtroende.

Möte med Syriza

En eftermiddag tar vi tunnelbanan ut från de centrala delarna av Aten till Metaxourgiou, ett område dominerat av övergivna kontorshus och slitna bostadsområden. På en av bakgatorna ligger Syrizas avdelning för internationella relationer. Här får vi tillfälle att möta representanter från partiets arbetsgrupper inriktade på ekonomiska, europeiska och internationella frågor.

I egenskap av att vara ett nytt parti säger sig Syriza inte vara sammanflätat med kapitalister och investerare så som de etablerade partierna. Detta lyfts även som en styrka under våra tidigare möten med politiskt oberoende organisationer. Samtidigt är den vanligaste oron Syrizas brist på erfarenhet, och deras generösa politiska löften beskrivs ofta av oppositionen som utopiska och orealistiska lovord.

Utsikt från syrizas balkong Foto: Rebecca Eliasson
Utsikt från syrizas balkong Foto: Rebecca Eliasson

Samtalet kommer in på korruption och politikerförakt. De berättar att det snarare är en regel än ett undantag att parlamentariker har personliga kontor utanför parlamentets väggar där de tar emot intressegrupper och privatpersoner med egna politiska agendor. Där erbjuder de exempelvis stöd för efterfrågade lagförslag eller en befordran inom den offentliga sektorn, i utbyte mot diverse mutor och väljarstöd. Dessa personliga kontor menade representanterna för Syriza att partiet inte håller sig med och att de har för avsikt att avskaffa dessa över hela den politiska kartan.

Representanten från ungdomssektionen hävdar att valframgången inte beror på ideologiskt övertygade väljare. Han menar att ideologi inte längre är den mest centrala drivkraften, istället har frustration och rädsla skapat en enande effekt. Syrizas främsta styrka beskrivs som möjligheten att erbjuda väljarna ett tydligt motstånd mot den tidigare politik som förts – detta i motljus till den strama nedskärningspolitik som de tidigare regeringarna gått med på i sina förhandlingar med EU-kommissionen, ECB och IMF.

Efter mötet bjuder representanterna från Syriza oss på cocktailmingel. Medan solen går ner över kontorets balkong och det övergivna kontorshuset mittemot, hamnar vi i en intensiv diskussion kring landets politiska framtid. En äldre dam berättar stolt historien om hur hennes far, mitt under den tyska ockupationen, klättrat upp på Akropolis och bytt ut den nazistiska flaggan till en grekisk. Hennes sinnesstämning skiftar dock fort mellan hopp och förtvivlan då hon i nästa stund beskriver hur hennes två vuxna barn nyligen blivit arbetslösa och flyttat tillbaka till barndomshemmet, samtidigt som hennes egen lön halverats.

Flaggan på toppen av Akropolis Foto: Amanda Seebass
Flaggan på toppen av Akropolis Foto: Amanda Seebass

Möte med Nea Dimokratia

I en stor byggnad med öppna kontorslandskap möter vi den kostymklädde representanten för det konservativa oppositionspartiet Nea Dimokratia. Samtalet inleds med en presentation av partiet men övergår snabbt i kritik riktad mot den nuvarande regeringen.

Om Syriza står för en stimulativ återhämtningspolitik, förespråkar detta liberal-konservativa parti en omfattande omstrukturering av den offentliga sektorn med stora nedskärningar på antalet anställda. Detta anser Nea Dimokratia skulle frigöra resurser och automatiskt bidra till en minskad korruption. Representanten berättar stolt hur 300 000 tjänster frigjordes under deras styre i föregående mandatperiod. Då frågor kommer upp kring dessa åtgärder och de sociala konsekvenserna, uttrycker den politiska ämbetsmannen att ett politiskt partis roll i första hand inte är att följa sina väljares önskningar utan att se till befolkningens bästa.

Mötet avslutas snabbt då Nea Dimokratias representant måste rusa vidare till nästa möte, denna gången med den kinesiska ambassadören.

Politiskt mörker

Då vi sitter på takterrassen vid Monastirakitorget och ser ut över Atens upplysta gator slås vi av hur frånvarande krisen är här, i hjärtat av turist-Aten. Atens gator visar i de centrala delarna upp en livlig atmosfär, men några minuter från centrum med spårvagn möts vi av en annan bild. En bild av affärer som stängts ned bakom lås och bom och husväggar fullklottrade med politiska budskap. Namnet Merkel verkar vara ett populärt motiv, lika populärt som hennes person är impopulär. Då vi besöker en ungdomsfestival den sista kvällen får vi, som avvikande turister, den misstänksamma frågan om vi är från Tyskland.

Innan den ekonomiska krisen 2008 var andelen arbetslösa 7,7 % i Grekland, men de senaste åren har många fått se sina tjänster gå upp i rök. Samma siffra, enligt mätningar från Eurostat, hade i januari 2015 växt till 25,7 %. Under vårt möte med Amnesty International beskriver de en dyster verklighet där mänskliga rättigheter ständigt kränks av våldsmonopolets ordningsmän; en tredjedel av Atens poliskår röstar på det fascistiska och uttalat främlingsfientliga partiet Gyllene gryning.

Vår sista dag i Aten möter vi en grupp statsvetarstudenter från National and Kapodistrian University of Athens på en uteservering i Panepotimiou. De berättar om sina tankar kring krisens uppkomst och lösning, men mest av allt sin oro inför vad som komma skall. Trots det oroliga läget vill de flesta av dem stanna kvar i landet för att hjälpa till att bygga upp det och därigenom bidra till en ljusare framtid.

Ungdomsfestival, Aten. Foto: Amanda Seebass
Ungdomsfestival, Aten. Foto: Amanda Seebass

Några månader efter vår hemkomst när dammet lagt sig kring debatten om det tredje nödlånet hör vi av oss till en av universitetsstudenterna, Irene Tsaknakis. Hon gav oss en aktuell bild av de senaste turerna av den grekiska krisen. För henne kom Syriza-regeringens misslyckande att undvika ytterligare nedskärningsåtgärder inte som en chock. Ett förhandlingsresultat utan åtstramningar hade hon inte väntat sig när hon, som så många andra greker, röstade fram Syriza i valet i januari. Det som dock blev en besvikelse var den bristande kompetensen som regeringen visade vid sin hantering av långivarnas krav. Med en bättre framförhållning hade införandet av de kapitalkontroller som i stor utsträckning begränsat kapitalrörelserna i landet kunnat förhindrats. Hon såg även brister i det alltför stora tolkningsutrymmet gällande folkomröstningen den 5 juli. Var det nedskärningarna eller EU-medlemskapets framtid som skulle avgöras?

Hennes förtroende för den nya överenskommelsen var låg. De nedskärningsåtgärder som återigen förordnats Grekland kan rimligen inte tillföra något nytt till de problem som liknande åtgärder inte lyckats ändra på. De löften långivarna givit om framtida överläggningar kring en omstrukturering av landets skulder, såg hon inte som tillräckligt konkreta för att balansera upp de negativa konsekvenserna av avtalet. Den ekonomiska verkligheten behöver fortfarande förbättras för majoriteten av det grekiska folket.

Författare: Carin Carlund och Anna Eken, Utrikespolitiska Föreningen i Göteborg

The anti-mafia movement: A fight with many faces

The anti-mafia movement: A fight with many faces

As I enjoy an espresso and a cigarillo in a tiny coffee bar in the old quarters of Palermo I look out over the streets where the number of vespas and tourists are countless. Somehow the modern aspects of Sicily´s capital seem distant and out of place in a context where the historical and cultural heritage has much more of an impact on me. Narrow alleys with lines of swaying laundry hanging across the streets gives a genuine atmosphere of historical presence.

The Cosa Nostra is as old as many of the buildings surrounding me and has endured in Sicily since the middle of the 19th century.  Together with four students from Gothenburg and approximately thirty young representatives from other EU countries, I am here for the Erasmus+ programme Hand in Hand Against Mafia with the aim of promoting democratic values and combating organized crime within European society. It is a fact that organized crime is a common concern for several European nations and therefore initiatives like these are of high value. Libera Palermo, the organization behind this project, is a local entity of the national organization Libera, which is working on several fronts to combat organized crime. Promoting the raising of minimum salaries and organizing events for companies and other actors to come together and share experiences on how one might handle extortion and other forms of harassment, are only a few examples of Libera´s work. Structural changes in society may be of vital importance since it might prevent the incentive for low-income earners to consider organized crime movements as a way of securing their rightful “piece of the pie”. This is especially crucial in the case of the younger generation, which is mainly the target for recruitment by the Mafia.

Weronika Perlinski (2)
Photo: Weronika Perlinski

Teatro Massimo, where the final scenes from the Godfather Part III took place is located a few blocks away from where I am sitting. On one level the Cosa Nostra seems absent whereas the effect of the Mafia´s presence is an intrinsic part of Palermo and Sicilian society. Just across the street from where I am sitting the building is beautifully decorated with graffiti. As in other parts of the world graffiti serves as a form in which to challenge power, and in Sicily the main power to challenge is the Cosa Nostra. This graffiti painting fully serves this purpose, illustrating an octopus with its tentacles spreading in all directions, a symbol of the Cosa Nostra and its damaging effect on Sicilian society. Talking with local Sicilians, some will give you a hint of what the Mafia is capable of. Extortion, in the form of having to pay protection money, is common for most business owners. The extortion money paid to the Mafia is labelled pizzo and if a business owner does not pay it a friend might visit arguing the benefit of paying the pizzo, in the business owner´s best interests. If the money is still not paid a smashed window or glue in the keyhole might be the next step taken by the Cosa Nostra. Direct interaction with the victims is preferable to avoid exposure.

The image of the Mafia during the last decades has in many cases served as fictional romance. Generations have been brought up with an image of the Mafia, portrayed through fictive characters such as Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. The gap between fiction and reality is significant. Our extravagant anti-heroes do engage in illegal activities, such as smuggling, extortion and murder, but what separates them from real Mafiosi is that they convey the aura of romance. Real Mafiosi such as Salvatore “Totto” Riina, John Gotti and Bernardo Provenzano do not uphold the same ambiance as their counterparts on our TV screens. Riina, often described as one of the most ruthless Mafioso of all time, was responsible for the death of 100-200 people, including the two anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino.

Except for the Cosa Nostra in Siciliy, the main Italian Mafia organizations consists of the Ndrangheta in Calibria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia and the Camorra around the city of Naples. While many believe that the Mafia is here to stay with its tentacles deep in Italian institutions and political life Carina Gunnarsson from Uppsala University, an expert in the field of anti-mafia work, argues that the anti-mafia movement is a major force to be taken into consideration, even if their efforts seem to get little attention in media. Since the 1980s a strong movement among the civic society has stood up towards the Mafia. While there have been civic forces fighting the Mafia since the 1860s, the movement has moved from the countryside and is now mainly driven by an urban educated middle class. The grassroots movement Addiopizzo is an archetype portraying the fight. During the last decade it has achieved a clear impact. By working together with business owners, who do not want to pay the pizzo, they hit the Cosa Nostra on an economic level and prove that standing up towards organized crime is possible. The fact that the initiative was taken by five young activists in 2004 illustrates that actions made by just a few people can have a major impact. The organization´s motto is “A whole people who pays the pizzo is a people without dignity”. While the initiative is brave as well as bold, it is highly dependent on socially conscious motivated consumers.

Weronika Perlinski (1)
Photo: Weronika Perlinski

Since the 1990s the Cosa Nostra has followed a strategy where the organization´s aim is to keep a low profile. Some might argue that the public outcry after 1992, when the two anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were brutally murdered by the Cosa Nostra, has forced the Mafia into this strategy. Others would argue that peace only certifies the effectiveness of the Mafia where the use of violence is an indication of weakness. What is obvious is that more than 20 years later the situation with the Cosa Nostra has changed radically.

Initiatives to counteract organized crime have been taken by the Italian government for decades, but for a long time the Christian Democrats in Rome had links with the same forces that they argued they wanted to get rid of. To what degree the Mafia still has connections amongst politicians, law enforcement agencies and other institutions is difficult to comment upon, but it is clear that civic society may have a significant role to play because government strategies have not been sufficient. While the Mafia is still a taboo topic among many Sicilians others have decided to take action. Allessandro is one of them. After one of his family members was shot dead in the streets of Palermo he has been dedicated to fight organized crime. Civilian bystanders with no connection to the Mafia might become victims just because they are in the way. A common technique for Mafia members is namely to move among civilians, serving as shields against the police or other Mafia sections competing for economic influence or power. Allessandro is not alone in his struggle. The anti-mafia organization Agenda Rossa has the aim of protecting people who are at risk of being victimised by the Mafia. By organizing large manifestations functioning as a ”bulletproof vest”, Agenda Rossa therefore prevents assassinations carried out by the Mafia, using the same method as the Mafia.

What is evident is the fact that presently civic society constrains the position of the Mafia to a certain degree, not only by a few strong front figures such as Falcone and Borsellino, but by a large number of ordinary citizens who have decided that they are no longer willing to be compromised in their daily lives. The struggle takes many forms and minor efforts might just constitute “a drop in the ocean”, but as long as they are somehow connected they represent a major force. What is even more important to remember is the fact that organized crime is not just limited to southern Italy but also an increasing issue in several other European countries. Therefore governments and civic society all around Europe should sense the importance of acting against organized crime.


The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 

Intercontinental exchange: missiles & learning in Canadian IR

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“Students taking this course will be able to appreciate that innovations in weaponry and strategy of war have had a profound effect on the outcome of modern wars since history in the last century has taught us that triumph or downfall in battle has more often than not been determined by innovation in weaponry and combat strategy”

The point of view emphasized in the passage above is unusual as a part of a university course outline. Or, to be precise, it is unusual from a Swedish perspective. To deliberate on the different advantages of weaponry innovation and combat strategy seems miles away from the main focus in Swedish international relations studies. Not that military activity is a banned issue in Swedish universities, but that the emphasis is generally on how to reduce military hostility in general and not on debating the effects of different offensive moves.

I took this class, POLI 388, last semester as an exchange student in Montreal, Canada. I was deeply uncomfortable having to express my own opinions on how the raising threat from China should be confronted by the US. Would it be best to invest in increased arms to create deterrence? Or should “we” rely on strong allies and balance the power? Or perhaps we should focus on the national resources and growing industries in Africa and try to get an advantage? All the other course participants actively engaged in these considerations. I, on the other hand, just wanted to follow my instinct and shout out “I am not Henry Kissinger and this is not the 80s!”. It did not feel reasonable to have this conversation without any reflection and criticism about our starting point. The realist tradition of international relations studies was never questioned; other states were always portrayed as potential threats and military means was always a possible procedure.

At one point, our professor mentioned that it could be healthy to, citing his powerpoint, “try and step outside one’s own cultural perspective in order to embrace the possibility that non-Western cultures may exhibit different ways of thinking and acting”. He clearly admitted that there was a possibility that the world could be seen in another light. However, his main argument for doing this mental exercise was that it “could help reduce the criticism that strategic studies has traditionally been too Western-centric”.
I cannot say that the class was pointless. Week after week, I found myself taking part of these bizarre deliberations, because although the situation was absurd, it was also intriguing. No wonder the North American foreign policy is so offensive if this unreflective and dogmatic conception of the world is what is advocated in school.

The unique political history of the North American countries give us a hint about why the realist perspective is so normalized and unquestioned. In contrast to Sweden, both Canada and the US have been involved in several military conflicts during the 20th century. Besides the two major world wars, the nations have been engaged in many foreign military operations and interventions, and they have also been the targets of other states’ hostile threats, particularly during the cold war. The military has traditionally received huge financial resources and foreign affairs have always been a political key issue. Being the hegemon of the world, the US, with Canada as its ally, sets the political, military and scientific agenda and by questioning the ideas in any of these spheres, you question the world order.

In conclusion, this course actually taught me something profound about international relations by broadening my understanding of different political traditions and cultures. Nevertheless, my own conception of the world has not changed. I still feel alienated from the perspective proclaimed in the course outline and I am still not convinced of the advantages of being able to tell the differences between intercontinental ballistic missiles and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.

Text by Lina Englund
Photo by laslovarga

Tokyo

Many say springtime is the time when Göteborg awakens. With the first rays of sunshine, suddenly the streets are filled with elated citizens – making you wonder where all of these people were hiding outduring winter. While right now may be a great time to enjoy this city’s soft evening light and the spring flowers, there is one destination more than 8550 kilometers eastwards that offers an equally splendid springtime experience. Nihon e yokoso: Welcome to the Land of the Rising Sun, and the imperial city of Tokyo.

Photo: Tanaka Juuyoh
Photo: Tanaka Juuyoh

FOTO BStarting at the end of March and continuing throughout April, Japan is cloaked in a flurry of cherry blossoms. Delighted Tokyoites will be out en masse, carrying with them the obligatory items for a proper cherry blossom viewing party. Ueno Park is the place to be to spread out your blue tarpaulin, munch on some snacks and – naturally – consume copious amounts of sake. After all, who could resist getting gloriously drunk with friends under a starburst of pink and white flowers?

If you’re low on greasy food, you can check out the cramped, seedy and all-round awesome Ameyoko alley, right underneath the train tracks of Ueno. Sellers will shout at you in a hoarse voice, praising their fresh lobsters, fake Pokémon watches, freshly cut pineapple or flip-flops. Take your pick of the cheap and delicious street food like yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) or yakisoba (fried soba noodles with some vegetables and lots of gloopy brown sauce).

FOTO CIf you are lucky enough to be in Tokyo on an unclouded, nicespring day, it’s definitely worth heading over the financial district of Shinjuku to get an overview of the city. Shinjukuharbors the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (or simply Tochô), which offers a panoramic view that will leave you almost as dizzy and light-headed as a cup of sake in the park. Completely free of charge, you can drink in the city sights and maybe even catch a glimpse of legendary Mount Fuji in the distance. Compared with the ridiculously expensive Tokyo Tower (a red and white replica of the French Eiffel Tower), this is an excellent early morning stop.

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FOTO EOne thing that is very noticeable from the topmost levels of Tochô, is the massive Yoyogi Park. Walking into the park through the giant wooden Shintô gate, you are enveloped in a peace and quiet that seems oddly out of place in such a big metropolis. Wander onwards underneath the centuries-old trees that were donated from all over Japan, until you discover the serene and stately Meiji shrine. At the entrance, you will find all the attributes of a typical shrine: a water well to cleanse your hands and mouth with a bamboo spoon; small votive tablets on which people write their prayers and wishes; and a rack with rows upon rows of white paper strips fluttering in the wind. These little fortune notes are taken home by people when they contain good fortunes, but tied to the rack and left behind by worshipers who draw a fortune paper with a bad prediction. A convenient way of dealing selectively with messages from above! On a springtime weekend day, your chances are also quite good of witnessing a typical Shintô wedding at the Meiji shrine, with the couple beautifully dressed in traditional garments.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERATo discover the difference between a shrine (the Shintôism place of worship) and a temple (where Buddhists pray), switch from perfect peace to the bustling atmosphere of the Sensôji temple. Located in the down-to-earth, residential neighborhood Asakusa (a far cry from the skyscrapers and office buildings of Shinjuku), the precincts of this temple are a world of their own. You’ll be met by the scent of joss sticks, ferocious lion statues, paper lanterns towering over you…and hundreds of believers. Whether they worship at the altar of bodhisattva Kannon or in the rows of little food and souvenir shops might remain a matter of some doubt.

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Photo: Cory Doctorow

In stark contrast to these spiritual matters is the craziest and perhaps most Japan-ish neighborhood of Tokyo on the edge of Yoyogi park. Harajuku is the natural habitat for lovers of fashion and cosplayers, who congregate especially on weekends to admire each other’s outfits and swap the latest fashion news. See and be seen! Guys dressed like Dracula in tophats and waistcoats sit next to lolita girls with teacups in their curly hair and dresses straight out of Alice in Wonderland. 18th Century princesses shriek in delight over Hello Kitty shoelaces, while Visual Kei fans with insane hairstyles will make you realize how Japan got its cutting edge reputation. Wander up and down Takeshita Dôri street (a must for lovers of claustrophobic crowds!), assemble your own outfit or simply allow yourself to be enthralled. Of course you also have to pick up a Japanese crêpe along the way, complete with Nutella, bananas, strawberries and agenerous helping of whipped cream.

 

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re suffering from sensory overload, head over to the Tokyo-Edo museum. This high quality museum provides a most enlightening overview of the capital city’s history, including a huge replica of a traditional Kabuki theatre. If anything, the fact that the exterior of the museum looks like a spaceship straight out of Star Wars should be reason enough to go check it out.

Close to this museum lies Akihabara: a mecca for electronics collectors, with hundreds of stores filled with weird Japanese gadgets and video games. Especially at night, this area is magically lit up with neon advertisements and flashing colors – the Japan of legends. Akihabara is also where you can have a drink at one of the notorious “maid cafés.” The waitressesthere are dressed in French maid-uniforms, talk to customers in the most incredibly polite Japanese, act cute, and will basically live up to your horny fetish dreams of being treated like a lord. It’s no problem if you don’t want to venture into one of the maid cafés themselves, since you’ll usually bump into one or two maid girls on the streets already, handing out flyers for promotion. Apparently maid cafés take on non-Japanese girls as waitresses too, so if you’re a bit short on cash and need a summer job: you know where to send your CV.

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Another breathtaking location at night in Tokyo is the hip and glitzy Shibuya area. Excellent for shopping and dining, this is where a famous scene with Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation was shot. Follow in her footsteps and stand on the junction of seven streets and countless pedestrian crossings, surrounded by an impressive wall of towering neon commercials.

Photo: Guwashi/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Guwashi/Wikimedia Commons

If you’re getting hungry from wandering around the concrete jungle, going to an izakaya café is highly recommended. The best izakayas are often stylishly decorated in the traditional Japanese way (with sliding doors separating the rooms, tatami mats and low tables). Instead of being just an ordinary bar, izakayas can serve as high class restaurants, business meeting places, pre-karaoke hangouts or the setting for a romantic date. When Japanese friends go to an izakaya at night, they’ll usually eat a full dinner there by ordering a variety of small dishes like sushi, sashimi, noodles, or dim sum. The fun starts when people sign up for “nomihôdai” (all-you-can-drink), which usually includes anything from cocktails to jugs of warm sake. Since many Japanese don’t seem to tolerate alcohol very well, you can imagine they’re in for a lively night…

Photo: Lloyd Morgan
Photo: Lloyd Morgan

This is why late at night is a good time to round off a day in Tokyo by going people-watching – a free and most interesting way to study Tokyoites when they’re out and about. Or an anthropological goldmine if you’re trying to find out how drunk Japanese (returning from an izakaya party) attempt to navigate through Tokyo’s busy subway system. The awesome blog Tokyo Damage Report (your number one insider’s guide to Tokyo, including a search for the legendary Japanese vending machines of schoolgirl panties and vacuum-wrapped used sanitary pads – complete with Polaroid photo by the previous owner) does a hilarious report on this practice:
http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2008/02/24/people-watching-in-shinjuku-station-drunks/ and http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2008/02/10/more-shinjuku-station-war-stories/.

In the space of less than two hours, you could witness people getting into fights, slipping and falling grandiosely, sobbing tragically under the influence of alcohol, or friends bowing to each other when saying goodbye, thereby bumping butt-first into another passerby.

Since any sentence or blog on the topic of “Meanwhile in Japan…” can lead to the craziest, most baffling, amazing stories, a single city guide can hardly cover the myriad wonders that Tokyo has to offer. Do yourself a favor and include springtime in Japan on your bucket list – you may find yourself addressing the spirits next to a Shintô priest, fighting with schoolgirls during a pink tutu sale, or getting advice from a suit-clad salaryman directing you to the best sushi joint in town. Either way, it will be “cool!!”

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Text: Eva Corijn
eva.corijn [at] utblick.org
Photo: Eva Corijn and others where noted

Krakow

800px-Cracow_view1The past week has been insane. Or perhaps I should say the past 10 days to be more precise. Part of the insanity has been the destination of my last conference – Krakow. As a European city, Krakow has been underrated and definitely under-marketed as a tourist destination. Krakow is evidence that good things hardly make it to the news – it is one of the few cities that survived the looting and destruction of WWII no damage, while majority other cities were bombed to the ground.

Having visited the city in the winter I had the opportunity to appreciate the -12 degrees C that loom over the populace. However, all is not to a loss. Constant snowfall coupled with the cold degrees, turned the central city park into a mini Narnia, where the trees complemented the white snow with dark silhouettes. The park in itself spans most of the inner city, so one is able to avoid walking next to traffic when making their way from one end to the other.

Unlike the grid designs of Manhattan, Krakow is planned in pear drop shapes. In the middle is the historic Rynek Glowny (Old Town), housed within the walls of the fort that surround the inner city. It reminded me of the old Town of Tallin. Not far from Glowny (perhaps a 10 minute walk) up on Wawel hill, looming above the city, is the old castle – Wawel along with a beautiful cathedral. Around this, flows the main river – Visla. Old town, main square

Fact 1: The Wawel housed the royal families of Poland but also one of the last Catholic Swedish monarchs – Sigismund. In fact, he is buried in Krakow.

The city’s former diverse mix of ethnicities is evidenced by the numerous synagogues found within the old Jewish quarters of Kazimierz. This was most probably my favourite part of the city, with little bustling shops and restaurants sprawled out. As a Swede reading most of the signboards became one of my main forms of entertainment, as more than one, would read as crude or embarrassing words.

Fact 2: Roughly 90% of the Polish population is Roman Catholic.

Being a foodie, I’m always curious as to what the local foods are and can’t wait to try them. I had recently seen a documentary about pirogues and their commonplace in Poland. However, I remained unprepared for the fact that I would NOT be able to try most foods, you see, Polish are big on pork. . As a non-pork eater, I had a difficult time getting pork-free food. So for majority of my stay, I was vegetarian – except of course in the Jewish quarters where there was plenty of kosher food available. By the end of the trip my summary of Polish cuisine, in one sentence; “Would you like some pork with your pork?” This is not an exaggeration. Having ordered a chicken schnitzel (as replacement of pork) I was caught off guard when there were tiny pieces of bacon chopped into my sour croute. The appetiser had been pirogues with a dip sauce – the dip sauce contained tiny pieces of bacon. And the soups were mostly based on meat bouillon, wouldn’t be surprised if it was pork. Even more, they are big on breading and frying their food.

The lack of non-pork options did not bog me down, because the restaurants offered great salads at great prices. The fact that one can still eat a whole lunch under 50KR, this too including your drink, was a pleasant surprise indeed. The silverlining however lay with the numerous bakeries to be found at every little street, offering delicious treats – ranging from cheesecake to simple pastries stuffed with some form of cheese.

Fact 3: Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Europe, dating back to the Stone Ages.

The city is rumoured to have more bars per square meter than any other in Europe! And true to its reputation, we ended up being out at bar until 3 am, sitting next to a live fireplace (which are very common in bars there) warming us, while listening to music watching the flow of people that kept streaming in. Even as we exited the bar, people kept coming, reminding me that the night was still young. All this helped negate my earlier prejudice that had led me to believe such partying only to possible in London.

The point I’m trying to get across: catch a flight to Krakow, because Poland is about to surprise you.

Text: Aiysha Varraich

Dubai – the Desert City

Mid-december and the sun stands high over Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. The Pakistani taxi driver shoots through the traffic, zig-zagging the six lane highway that cuts the city lengthwise. Driving by the districts Downtown Dubai, Internet City, Media City, Dubai Marina I lose count on the number of skyscrapers we pass.

“If you would have come fifteen years earlier this would only be a desert”, the taxi driver says while pointing towards the Gulf as we take off at the last exit at Dubai Marina. The road we just got off continues south-west to United Arab Emirates’ capital – Abu Dhabi.

Thirty degrees and humid air surrounds me when I get out of the taxi on the Jumeirah Beach Residence’s and I begin to understand that Dubai city is truly the city of development. The concrete has merely dried on one side of The Walk and another one, closer to the beach, is occupied by rebar structures and construction cranes.

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Construction work at The Walk in JBR

This record-breaking city holds so many world records that the achievement in itself is a world record. The easiest one to spot is the world’s tallest man-made structure: Burj Khalifa. With its 829.8 meters Burj Khalifa leaves the world’s second highest structure more than a hundred meters below. So how do you start to build such thing?

The answer is money. Rumours have it that the building was initially named Burj Dubai. However, after a shortage of capital during the building process a sponsor, president Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi contributed with a humble amount of money. In return he wanted the building to be named after him. (Read more)

Burj Khalifa by night
Burj Khalifa by night

Another way to express extreme wealth in this country is by holding a low number on your license plate. Businessman Saeed Al Khouri might have taken this too far when he bought the coveted plate with number one on it. The price? 14.1 million dollars. (Read more)In this steaming hot environment, both in terms of the desert wind’s temperature and the economic growth, the inequalities and everyday differences between rich and the poor are clearly exposed. The contact between two different worlds makes Dubai a unique place on earth. Or as the Moroccan-French expat Maryam explained it “Here the Filipino waiter earns almost nothing when he serves some of the world’s richest people.” The question is to be addressed, who pays the highest price?

Moreover, the United Arab Emirates is estimated to be the safest country in the Middle East when it comes to order and security, and was placed fifth in the world on the Rule of Law Index given by the World Justice Project. (Read more)

The Sharia law is effective. In shopping malls, in the street or lounges you must obey the law of not showing overt display of affection. Meaning no hands are held and no kissing is allowed. If you are lucky enough to have found a partner on the dance floor or in the relaxing lounge sofas – or if you are here on vacation with your partner – you can be sure guards will make sure you do not show affection. This might be the preferred alternative since, strictly juridically speaking, showing affection could lead to jail. Having guards present in public places does, however, entail benefits. While sitting in a restaurant you’ll never have to worry about your handbag, cellphone or wallet. If someone happens to see an old friend they just leave their valuables on the park bench or dinner table, without a single remnant of doubt.

The 2nd of December UAE celebrated its 42nd national day since having become independent from the former British rule in 1971. This year, a couple of days prior to the 2nd of december, it was announced that Dubai will hold the world exhibition EXPO 2020, which means Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s city will be the world’s centre of attention. This was a very symbolic and important step for Dubai. The whole city was in ecstasy and Burj Khalifa turned into a burning volcano as the show of fireworks continued during the celebrations.

One of many reasons why Dubai was selected to hold the EXPO in 2020 is its geographical position. A circle with Dubai as its centre point and with a radius of an eight hour flight time covers almost two thirds of the world’s population: From Japan and Indonesia in the east, stretching over the Sahara desert down to South Africa in the southwest, over to the United Kingdom and Ireland and including both Scandinavia and a most parts of Russia in the north.

Aviators show their skills over Palm Jumeirah
Aviators show their skills over Palm Jumeirah

A well-suited man gives me a couple of minutes of his time. His name is Yossuf “I came here in 2006 and it felt like paradise, but after a while I realized something was missing.” He wanted to live in a “normal” city with parks and green areas. “So after a couple of years I went to South America. It was such a difference!”. But as time passed he wanted to go back to Dubai “I’m back now and I work at an insurance company. It’s good, but there are still no parks here. And no old people or teenagers”, he laughs while saying this, but inside I see he’s a bit sad about it. The lack of an old and a young population is just as noticeable, as it is strange – everyone you see are in their thirties, in the middle of their careers.

Maryam, the Moroccan-French woman again “I hold a masters degree in Public Relations. But in France I couldn’t find a job”. On the question why Maryam moved to Dubai, she answers “In France we have something called racism. French is my mother tounge but I have wrong name in the passport. So Dubai was a good option, I thought. Here racism is not a problem and I can hopefully find a job”.

Text & photo: Mikael Boberg

The realities of adventure



The Society of Foreign Affairs’ magazine, Utblick, mostly features serious, thought-provoking articles about political struggles, ideas and revolutions – anything officially “foreign affairs” related. While this interests me a great deal, I also enjoy the more individual side of international relations. Perhaps some of you have had the experience of living abroad for a prolonged while. If so, then I hope you enjoyed yourself and look back on it with fond memories. As for me, I feel that my triple exchange student experience has given me invaluable insights that probably will keep influencing my life for a long time. Obama’s policy decisions and Kim Jong-Un’s antics might make it to newspaper headlines but for me these personal experiences abroad are really how international affairs come into play in our daily lives. So let’s get personal at the end of this year, and allow me to share some of these insights with you! (Every exchange experience is different though, and one should be careful with broad cultural assumptions – so consider this just one perspective: that of a Belgian girl who is no expert, but breathes restlessness whenever she has stayed in one place for too long.)

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First, the concrete exchange facts! One year in a small, dry, northeastern Thai town near the Mekong river and the Laotian border, communication with smiles and little more took place, to shape a loving bond with three host sisters. Next; half a year on the west coast of Japan in a city that specializes in tea with gold-leaf flakes floating in it. Living in a traditional Japanese house, I once crashed through a paper sliding door while attempting to elegantly enter my tatami-mat bedroom. Finally; two years here at seventy-five degrees north, eleven degrees east – Gothenburg.

What I always find remarkable and amusing when abroad, is the speed with which you can adapt to foreign ways that struck as utterly baffling when you first arrived. In Thailand, I was convinced I would die every time I crossed the street with my friends. They had a way of blindly throwing their bodies into traffic, zigzagging through cars with nerve-wracking calm while I covered my eyes and prayed to the gods. Only a few months later though, I was equally traffic-suicidal and convinced that those same gods would shape a divine path for me to reach the other side of the street – never mind the bus that passed within inches of me! Here in Sweden, the opposite thing happened. I was initially surprised at how often drivers stop gallantly for pedestrians crossing the street. Now though, I catch myself casting angry looks at those daring not to stop, muttering vile things and almost shaking my fist at them when they drive on.

FOTO 2_Miki Yoshihito_CC

My wardrobe also seems to change imperceptibly to adapt itself to the country I’m staying in. During my first days in Tokyo, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed The. Shortest. Skirts. You. Have. Ever. Seen. Sometimes I even wondered if they were skirts at all or rather fancy belts with pink ruffles! No one is immune to Japanese fashion though, and soon I had my own lovely pair – with rhinestones and a satin bow! (The secret, I discovered, was that the shortest skirts have hotpants attached underneath – to respect the owner’s modesty, I happily assume. I still don’t dare to wear it back home, though.) Here in Sweden too, some of my Belgian fashion-rules have been flushed down the drain. Wearing sneakers underneath a dress, a Michelin-man style down jacket, and a winter hat that makes your face look like an egg? You must be kidding, right? Enter the awesomely practical Swedish mentality, which throws silly fashion concerns to the wind when faced with Nordic temperatures and distances to be covered briskly! I’m still not sure whether I should snigger from the sidelines or admire your good common sense. But I am learning, that’s for sure.

FOTO 3_Christ 73_ Wikimedia Commons

No matter how easily you adapt to certain outward things, there are always some issues that continue to puzzle and even sadden me. Like Japanese public transport. That can get insanely crowded, so you would expect people to throw themselves at the last available seat and gladly sit down besides whoever is sitting there. However, I noticed that a whole bus would sometimes collectively regard one seat as the “outcast” seat and people would mysteriously refuse to sit down next to the poor student beside it, regardless of who this was. As if standing with your nose pressed into someone’s armpit is still preferable to sitting on the doomed-seat-of-the-day! I continue to wonder why this occurred: perhaps a herd-mentality, if everyone follows the others’ choice of not sitting there? A collective decision to reject and dislike the lone student? An unwritten need for an emergency seat in case somebody faints? I never found out.

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A similar thing confuses me here in Göteborg: social rules. Back home, I think we have a back-and-forth way of getting to know people: I invite you, you invite me, and then we keep repeating this pattern and become better friends through our fika dates. Never taking initiative would thus be code for: “Dear person, I think you’re kind of annoying and would love for you to get my hint that I do not want to hang out with you, ever again. Only I’m too polite to say it.” Here though, it almost never seems to happen that a Swedish acquaintance proposes something first. Yeah, I see what you’re thinking: they are hinting! Well, I feared so too, and asked these Swedes in a little voice whether they would like me to leave them in peace. But they appeared surprised, said they’re having a good time and don’t know what I mean. Very strange! One thing is for sure though: the social struggle has multiplied my gratitude exponentially for the people I have gotten to know so far here, and for their initiative when they propose something out of the blue.

Less confusing but more exasperating, is the issue of language for me – and the way parts of my personality tend to get hidden when I end up in a foreign language environment. No matter how hard you try and study, to achieve a near-native level of fluency is no easy feat. Once you get to the point where you can happily converse with the locals, you can still be painfully reminded that you are not quite there yet. I cannot begin to count the times this happened to me in Japan, even though my major at university was Japanese. One night in the local public baths, a tiny, wrinkled Japanese grandma told me a long-winded story with great enthusiasm. I think I understood about 20% of what she tried to say, so all I could do was smile politely and hand her the soap. It made me feel detached and surreal, but mostly frustrated and sad, since it seemed my talkative and chat-happy nature had evaporated in the steam above our hot tub… Here in Sweden too, where I feel I can converse reasonably well in Swedish, it often takes me hours to get to the punch line of a story, making me despair that a loss of language also seems to entail a loss of wit, character and charm. Without further verbal progress, I feel so stuck in the moderately-interesting-people zone, helpless without tools to get me to the level of deliciously ambiguous puns or flirty humor. Abroad, I am a more quiet self, defeated by language even before I open my mouth.

So living abroad is sometimes unsettling, as part of who I am seems to get lost along the way, like luggage to be reclaimed. At the same time, when abroad, the physical distance has shown a priceless thing: who my true friends are. The people you thought were going to call you weekly, can sadly drop off the radar fast – but I have been surprised over and over by the kindness of friends I normally only seldom saw back home. Once, I got a surprise delivered in Thailand, from a girl whom I didn’t expect would send me anything. It was a package wrapped in sky-blue paper, with golden stars pasted on the inside. The contents included a wonderful letter, my favorite Dinosaur biscuits, marzipan, and a box of tampons… because my friend had heard how impossible it was to get a hold of those in rural Thailand. Her thoughtfulness and love actually made me cry from sheer gratitude. When someone sends you tampons halfway across the world, you know they are a keeper.

For me, this surprising discovery of solid friendship is worth the endless language battles of living abroad. That, and the reckless freedom that comes from being in a place where no one knows you yet – proudly singing karaoke (off key!) at the top of your voice in a bar in Japan, especially incomprehensible Korean pop songs. Going to the Swedish supermarket with mad, unkempt hair, no make-up and your best hangover face. And wearing the traditional Thai New Year’s outfit without a care in the world: a lurid shirt with floral print, straw hat, and the coolest pair of sunglasses you have ever seen. Hooray for the self you become when living abroad!

FOTO 6_own photo

Text: Eva Corijn

Photos:

Arpingstone, Miki Yoshihito, Christ 73 Wikimedia, Tim Boyd, Kristofferb, Corijn

 

 

 

Bangkok – The City of Angels

Ah Bangkok, my City of Angels!

Even before ever having visited Thailand’s capital city, you can marvel at the fact that its full name is included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest place name. A glorious string of archaic descriptions, it literally means “The city of angels; the residence of the emerald Buddha; the great impregnable city; steadfast and thriving in its gracefulness; the grand capital of the world, abundant with the nine noble gems; a pleasant, happy city; the city which abounds with the enormous Royal Palace, that resembles the heavenly abode where the reincarnated god reigns; erected by Vishnu at Indra’s behest.”

If the name feels a bit overwhelming, it’s nothing compared to the sprawling, chaotic, wonderful urban jungle that meets the eye when you arrive. I use the word jungle intentionally, because the thing that struck me instantly when I first came to Bangkok, was how tropical and alive the place is. Yes: it is humid, messy, polluted and the traffic is madness. But everywhere you look, lush green foliage creeps between the buildings; moss softly covers roofs and gutters; and the grand Chao Phraya river courses like a life-vein through Bangkok, providing it with a steady heartbeat.

FOTO 1_Creative commons - Bangkok, Thailand, view from Golden Mt. - by Milei Vencel

Due to its vast, labyrinthine-like qualities it can be difficult to pinpoint a strict center in this city of 10 million people, with its flashing neon commercials, fine Thai architecture, street food sizzling in roadside stalls, friendly monks in orange robes and crowded markets. If I were to guide you, however, I would first take you to the main commercial area around Siam Square. It’s where the two most important BTS Skytrain lines intersect, creating a puzzle of concrete overpasses, underneath which the busy Rama I road teems with taxi’s, motorbikes, buses and tuktuks.

There’s something to say both in favor and against most of these modes of transportation: the Skytrain is fast, reliable, very clean and air-conditioned (a fact you will rapidly start to appreciate in Bangkok). On the downside, it is relatively expensive and covers only a limited number of stops. Taxis are comfortable, quite cheap compared to other countries and cover every single corner of the metropolis. They do however have to face the insane traffic jams that can occur around rush hours, while the fare meter keeps ticking… Local buses deal with the same traffic situation, but they are dirt cheap, quite rickety and thus offer a more adventurous way of travelling through town. However, their network is seemingly incomprehensible and includes a bewildering amount of bus lines. If you’re feeling reckless and free, I can highly recommend hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi. Just grab hold of a driver, negotiate a price with a mischievous smile on your face and prepare for the ultimate, stomach-churning kick. Helmets are obligatory, but many people don’t seem to bother – racing through narrow gaps in traffic jams, avoiding pedestrians by seconds, and breaking both laws of nature and traffic costs you only a few coins for short distances. The one mode of transport I would not recommend, is the well-known tuktuk. As a foreigner, you will invariably end up paying a fortune for a ride in these loud, noisy three-wheelers that offer next to nothing in the comfort or scenery department.

FOTO 2 _ Creative commons - Christian Haugen_Multicolored traffic jam in Bangkok

No matter how you get to Siam Square’s hustle and bustle, if you’re into shopping, you should wander around one of the many malls the area has to offer. They range from high class, exclusive Paragon and Central World Plaza, to the huge and more local-oriented Pratunam and Platinum – a Swedish friend used to go there with two empty garbage bags which would be stuffed by the time she got out. You have been warned. MBK is the place to go if you’re more into gadgets and electronics, with the top floors offering stalls where you can order illegal copies of entire seasons of your favorite tv series. Return an hour later, and the dvds will be waiting for you.

If you feel tired of the never ending, wordly capitalist craziness, you will be delighted to discover the small Erawan shrine on a busy street corner in Siam Square. This Hindu shrine celebrates the god Brahma and is frequented non-stop by pilgrims who drape the shrine with garlands, light incense sticks that perfume the air, and sometimes even hire dance troops to perform in honor of the gods. If your heart aches at the sight of the shrine birds locked into impossibly tiny cages, you can buy one and set it free with a prayer.

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Another option is to head for the more quiet area just west of Siam Square, to visit Jim Thompson’s house – a must-see for lovers of architecture. This house and its splendid garden are an oasis of calm and silence in the middle of Bangkok and used to belong to an American architect-turned-silkdealer. Thompson’s house is entirely built up of teak wood in the traditional Thai style and filled with many precious Asian art objects. Part of the allure of the place is perhaps also that the man himself mysteriously disappeared in the sixties in Malaysia while on a walking tour, never to be seen again. Whether he was murdered or not, his legacy lives on in this graceful museum.

Continue your journey to the old Rattanakosin area close to the river, where you will find the city’s most famous temples (“wat” in Thai) and perhaps Bangkok’s top tourist destination: the large compound which includes the former Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. The palace is a maze of halls and courtyards in a mix of European and Thai architecture, abundant with intricate details and gold-leaf. Today the royal family no longer lives there however it is used only for ceremonial events. In Wat Phra Kaeo’s dazzling interior, you can see a small, very famous and very holy Buddha statue (the emerald Buddha from Bangkok’s name!) that was carved from a single block of jade in the 14th century. Every season, the Thai king himself lovingly performs the important ritual of decorating the little statue in one of his three cloaks, to ensure good fortune for the nation.

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A ten-minute walk from these two sights, you find the more quiet Wat Pho, one of the oldest and largest temples of Bangkok. Allow yourself to soak up the peaceful atmosphere and enjoy seeing the 46-meter long golden statue of the Reclining Buddha, whose foot soles are decorated with auspicious scenes in mother-of-pearl. Wat Pho also includes the country’s leading massage school, so if you want you can book a treatment here. Beware! A real Thai massage can sometimes be anything but relaxing, with some serious, painful stretching included to improve your blood flow!

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Not far from the Royal Palace compound, you can stray into Yaowarat and suddenly find yourself in a completely different culture: welcome to Bangkok’s Chinatown. Walking along Charoenkrung Road, one store after the other sells vast quantities of shiny gold, interspersed by restaurants with all-Chinese menus or shady stores offering unrecognizable packages of medicinal herbs. Allow yourself to get lost here, without being surprised that Chinese temples FOTO 6astand side by side with portraits celebrating the Thai king;

or that a market stall seems to sell both bloody chickens, cheap underwear and sleeping dogs…

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If you feel you need a breath of fresh air, an excellent option is to hop on the nearby Chao Phraya Express Boat, a cheap and useful water ferry that crosses Bangkok’s main river. Not only is it a more efficient way to traverse the city than chartering your own long-tail boat, it also provides you with a nice view and a fun experience.

If it is now nearing sunset and you are up for a surreal experience, head to the seedy, carnivalesque red-light district of Soi Cowboy, just across the road from the Sukhumvit Skytrain station. Everyone knows about the Thai bar scene, frequented by middle-aged Western men with beer bellies and sorry life stories,

Wat Arun Sunset

and Bangkok is no exception. Writing about these areas is difficult, as they are a very ambiguous feature of Thailand. On the one hand, when you are strolling past the many venues with their pumping music and you are invited inside with the promise of attractions like “pussy cuts banana” or “pussy smokes cigarette,” you feel sick. You bite your lip and look away when you see girls dancing on bars, wearing nothing more than a bra and hotpants (or less), knowing that most of them are both very young and very poor, and often came from the arid northeast of Thailand in hopes of making a better life for themselves. At the same time, you are easily drawn to these areas, like a moth to a flame – whether to verify if the shameful stories of expat men leering at young bodies are true, to engage in gawping disaster-tourism or simply to have a drink in this most surreal area, surrounded by the energy and life of the city. I don’t know whether I should advise you to spend some time here so you know that the City of Angels includes all kinds of fallen angels, or to shake my head and lead you somewhere else.

FOTO 8 - Soi Cowboy_Wry2010_Creative Commons2

Let me finish with an almost magical, not-to-be-missed weekend destination: Chatuchak, or JJ Market! This is hands down the best market I have ever been to. I know Istanbul’s bazaars are famed, as are Morocco’s souks – but never have I been to a place where they literally have everything. Every single thing you can imagine: silk scarves, rusty Buddha statues, plastic flower lights to decorate your windows, t-shirts of Homer Simpson talking Japanese, bubble tea with cinnamon flavor, old maps turned into wallpaper, … You name it, you find it. The thing is that Chatuchak is so huge and confusing, that I can only compare it to Hogwarts – whenever you decide you like an item “but I’ll come back for it later so I don’t have to carry it around all day,” forget it. The chances are close to zero of you finding your way back to the exact stall you are looking for. Shopkeepers seem to magically vanish, little hidden alleys turn up where before there were none, and all the while you discover new, exciting trinkets that you didn’t know existed. That Homer Simpson t-shirt I mentioned? Yeah, I never did find it again and regret it until today. If you want the world’s most hardcore shopping experience, head to the north of Bangkok armed with a big bottle of water and a good pair of flip-flops, and go wild.

 

FOTO 9 - A Narrow Soi at Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand_JJ Harrison Creative Commons

 Text: Eva Corijn

Bilder: Milei Vencel, Christian Haugen,Mark Fischer, JJ Harrison and Eva Corijn