The road less travelled, part V: Shakespeare in Sweden

 
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By Christian Nielsen

In his final stop on his ‘road less travelled’ tour, Christian Nielsen uncovers the possible prototype for Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a Swedish hamlet.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Tuesday 28 August 2018

The first thing you notice as the ferry docks in Varberg, in present-day Sweden, is the impressive fortress built between 1287 and 1300 by Jacob Nielsen, an outlawed Danish Count, to rebuff likely attacks by Eric IV of Denmark who sought revenge for the murder of his father, Kind Eric V. Sounds like familiar territory methinks … except Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place further south between royal antagonists in Helsingor (Demark) and the Swedish city facing it is called Helsingborg.

Vargerg’s ramparts overlook the township to the East and a quiet sandy beach facing the Kattegat sea area enclosed by Denmark’s Jutland peninsula to the West, with a quirky boardwalk and pavilion resembling something Aladdin had started after a few shots of Absynth.

Inside the fort are some private houses, a youth hostel nestled beside a cosy bar and restaurant called ‘Happy Fish’ (not so happy customers though … tasty but tiny dishes). The Varberg County Museum inside the inner courtyard tells the town’s story and boasts having the remains of a fully clothed victim of foul play in the 13th century. Experts say the so-called Bocksten Man had been impaled and weighted down in a lake which became a bog that preserved the body and garb from the period.

I’d arrived by ferry from Grenaa in Denmark, as part of a byways and myways tour from Brussels to Stockholm, in time for the World Cup quarter final showdown between Belgium and Brazil. The town had set up a big screen on the main square facing the port. Viking-style long tables were weighted down by out-sized beers. With no real skin in the game, the Swedes were more interested in watching the greats of Brazil do their thing, perhaps sizing up what they might face should they get through England the next day in what would be a 60-year grudge match (Brazil beat Sweden in the 1958 FIFA World Cup final, which gave the world its first glimpse of 17-year-old debutant Pele).

But a page had been torn out of that script because Belgium shocked the brilliant Brazilians, helped by the star of the 2018 Word Cup, the VAR play review technology, and the referee’s disdain for Neymar’s diving performances. (Postscript: England also put paid to it by beating Sweden the next day … a country in mourning, but only briefly … it is the stoical north, after all).

I returned to my semi-homestay for the night, which bills itself as a ‘bed and kitchen’ rather than ‘breakfast’. The arrangement is reasonably typical in Sweden, where families pitch up to these large purpose-built houses with all their own food, linen and toiletries (you can rent sheets and towels for a little extra). It’s not a hostel per se, because the places are more comfortable and the sleeping rooms are not communal, but you share bathrooms, and the clean kitchens, dining facilities and lounge areas set these homestays apart.

Outside at Anna’s Bed and Kitchen is an expansive garden with clusters of chairs and tables, summer games, a rabbit hutch and ample birdsong (from about 3:30 am onwards, when the sun starts coming up). Just over the road is a great bakery and what looks like a boutique brewery. They did a great breakfast (very reasonably priced), which fortified me for the home stretch up to Stockholm.

About halfway up the E4, the forest opens up to the city of Jonkoping, which borders the massive Vattern Lake. I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop at Granna, about 40 km further north along the scenic lake-side drive, a town made famous for its red and white ‘polkagris’ lollipops, invented by Amalia Eriksson in 1859. Today, the neat little town tucked between a hillside and lake, plies its many visitors with hand-rolled candy canes in all shapes, sizes and flavours. You can watch the candy-makers shaping, layering in the colours/flavours, then twisting and rolling the sweet treat. Timing is everything, as the whole blending and rolling process has to be done before the mixture gets too hard to work. Then it is cut to perfect length using a template and wrapped and folded by hand. You can taste the different flavours, and sometimes even buy the batch just made.

From Granna it’s a hop and a skip to our cottage south of Stockholm, and honestly, I was keen to just get there. Of course, there were many other interesting places to stop on the way, including the Swedish Airforce Museum just outside Linkoping and the Rok Runestone, reportedly the longest runic inscription on record, and located just a couple of kilometres off the main highway. But no doubt I’ll be driving that section again in years to come, so maybe it’s not really the ‘road less travelled’, which means it doesn’t qualify for this particular series of stories.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

 

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Egypt: When the opium of football sharpens the pain of existence

 
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By Khaled Diab

Instead of acting as a pain killer for a traumatised country of heroes treated like zeroes, the World Cup has provided a painful reminder to Egyptians seeking escapism of just how desperate their situation is.

While in Chechnya, Mohamed Salah was exploited for photo ops by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, something which reputedly outraged the Egyptian striker.

Thursday 5 July 2018

When the final whistle blew on Egypt’s encounter with Russia at the World Cup, the sense of national deflation was palpable, even as far away as here, in Tunis, where I had gathered with a group of Egyptian friends and Egypt lovers to watch the match.

At kick off, the mood was fairly optimistic. The team’s performance in the previous match, against Uruguay, had been dignified, only losing at the last minute. Egypt had managed to dominate play for large chunks of the game, but was unable to convert possession into goals.

With Egypt’s not-so-secret weapon, Mohamed Salah, the world-class striker who has won himself a local, regional and global following, deployed in the second game, it was hoped that his talent for scoring would lift the curse of the pharaohs that has so long plagued the national side at the World Cup – which despite being the first African, Arab and Asian side to qualify in history has never won a match at the tournament – and give us the edge over Russia.

These hopes were to be sorely disappointed. The Egyptian team was disorganised and in disarray, with none of the focus of the Uruguay game, and Mo Salah was unable to deliver what was so desperately desired by his compatriots, who hero-worship him as the man who made dignity, principles and kindness great again, with his “sudden assertion of human values within a dehumanising system,” as Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali explains in this essay.

Perhaps the weight of the expectations of nearly 100 million Egyptians proved too much for his injured shoulder to carry, and his nerves buckled under the pressure in the biggest game of his career to date. Or Salah may simply have not been ready to return to the pitch following the banned judo move Sergio Ramos used to bring the Egyptian forward down during Liverpool’s encounter with Real Madrid in the Champion’s League final.

When it became clear that defeat was to be Egypt’s lot, yet again, the previously festive atmosphere turned heavy. “I wish there was something we could take pride in as a nation,” one of the Egyptian friends remarked, somewhat crestfallen, after the match had ended.

Her point was echoed, or should I say amplified and magnified and bellowed, by an Egyptian social media sensation known as Ali Saed. In a Facebook monologue (diatribe, actually) which was viewed over 1.8 million times at the time of writing, Saed asks: “As Egyptians, why can’t we have a joyful moment?”

يارب خدنا من الكوكب ده بقا

Posted by Ali Saed on Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“Look at the street around you,” he asks viewers, as he drives through traffic. “Everyone is troubled and pissed off.” He then launches into a tirade during which he lashes out at the Egyptian celebrities flown out at state expense to Russia, the players and the coach.

“You’ve boiled the blood of 100 million Egyptians; a hundred million Egyptians want some joy. There is nothing to make us happy in this country,” he yells out. “I hope a car hits me while I’m driving and puts me out of my misery.”

It is difficult to see whether this is an entirely genuine meltdown or an expression of very dark humour, but the biting sarcasm is very real. For anyone, like me, not terribly interested in soccer, it is hard to comprehend how someone can be so upset about a match that he expresses suicidal tendencies, even if it is in jest.

But a traumatised, disappointed, disillusioned nation desperately needed the escapism football can provide. Instread, they got the sight of a humiliated squad returning home after losing even to Saudi Arabia, with rumours that Mo Salah’s planned to quit the national team because he did not appreciate being used as a political pawn by the regime and was angered at the mismanagement of the national team’s campaign.

Saed basically admits that he regards football as the opium of the masses and one that he is more than willing to consume to “help us forget” and “make us happy for a while”. It is a sad testament to how desperate a situation is when even escapism does not offer the opportunity of escape.

“I don’t get it. What’s happening to Egypt? Everything in Egypt is black,” Saed laments.

And for all but the hardiest and most diehard of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s supporters, the situation in Egypt appears bleak and desperate indeed. Not only has Egypt witnessed the most concerted, systematic and brutal crackdown on opposition and dissent in living memory during Sisi’s reign of terror, the economy is in tatters, the value of the pound has plummeted, inflation is way up and, as if that was not enough, severe and extreme austerity measures have acted like pain-enhancers administered to Egypt’s weakest and most vulnerable.

This intolerable cruelty is being piled on a population which had enjoyed a euphoric period of heightened pride and dignity and a fleeting sense of hope for the future, when Egyptians rose up en masse, in 2011, and deposed a tyrant, the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Back then Egyptians did not need a superhuman hero on the football pitch, because they were collectively the very human heroes of their own heroic story, in which they would shape their destinies.

Although the military and its various civilian facade have been been trying to bottle up the genie of revolution ever since, this campaign reached an unprecedented intensity under Sisi, as if not only to punish Egyptians for having the audacity to dream but also to eradicate the very idea of and hope for self-determination and popular decision-making from their minds.

The trauma of revolution and the even greater trauma of counterrevolution has resulted not only in titanic levels of despondency, disillusionment and despair but also in a mental health crisis that is looming menacingly, all the more so because it is largely unrecognised and undiagnosed.

But despite the regime’s best efforts to do its worst, it is unable to silence dissent and assassinate hope entirely, as is visible by the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience languishing behind bars.

Recently, “Sisi Leave” was trending in Arabic on social media, due to public anger over austerity measures. With the relentless brutality of the regime, its divide-and-rule strategy and the PTSD suffered by the population, it seems highly unlikely that people will take to the streets to demand the toppling of the regime… at least not in the foreseeable future.

Instead, frustration and pent-up anger will continue to erode the psyche of Egyptians, individually and collectively. In such a depressing climate, it is scarcely surprising that Egyptians seek distraction, escape and pain relief in soccer, or that a talented, principled and a-political footballer should be elevated to the status of near-saviour.

The feel-good buzz the regime had hoped the World Cup would deliver to placate the masses has instead been replaced by an even greater level of seething frustration and anger. But at least shallow, superficial Sissi, Egypt’s self-appointed savior, will no longer need to feel threatened by and jealous of Salah’s popularity.

_____

This article first appeared in The Washington Post on 25 June 2018.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.

 

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