Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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Nostalgia… when the past is a better country

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The majority of Europeans do not want to let bygones be bygones and pine for a past which they believe was better than their present. This is problematic for Europe’s future.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 13 November 2018

A new report charts European’s feelings of nostalgia and how this “sense of loss for times bygone” affects political views. The results of a survey just published by eupinions reveals that two-thirds of Europeans think that the world used to be a better place, with Italians leading the pack at 77%.

Our evidence suggests that those most likely to harbour feelings of nostalgia are men, the unemployed, those who feel most economically anxious, and … the working class,” notes the report, entitled ‘The power of the past: how nostalgia shapes European public opinion’.

This matters because nostalgia is commonly triggered by fear and anxiety fuelled by sometimes rapid personal or societal changes. Nostalgia makes a potent political tool which has been skillfully used by what the report calls “populist political entrepreneurs” on both the right and the left – though, on average, those identified as nostalgic favour the right of the spectrum.

Fears of a “populist” revolt in elections this year (Italy, Sweden), and the Netherlands and France before that, are tangible signs of a political system in flux, with political elites at national and European levels being put through the proverbial ringer by electorates fed a steady diet of diatribes that the past was “more pleasant, untarnished and predictable”.

Marginalised by digital technologies, anxious electorates are being pandered to by a new wave of politicians who have witnessed first-hand the power of simple tropes mostly aimed to advance what the report calls “in-group favouritism and ethnocentrism” in order to tackle trumped-up fear of other groups and the new.

Nostalgia closely coincides with increased concern about migration and terrorism, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Isabell Hoffmann who led the study: “The fear factor is driving Europeans to the edges of the political system.” And external shocks, she points out, tend to result in increased support for the EU by both nostalgists and non-nostalgists.

Nostalgia is thus a powerful political tool, the report concludes, as references to a golden era are manipulated by populists to “fuel dissatisfaction with present-day politics and anxiety about the future”. These findings could well prove to be a predictor of political sways during European Parliamentary elections coming up in May next year.

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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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The road less travelled, part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Hamburg has been minded by many nations but owned by none. This is visible in the city’s openness, resourcefulness and rebelliousness. 

Thursday 2 August 2018

Resilient, tolerant, refreshing, defiant. These four words sum up my brief but captivating day in Hamburg. I know it is impossible to truly get a feeling for a place in such a short time, but the whole idea of my ‘road less travelled’ tour is to stop and fuel the senses a bit in some random and some not so random places on my way from Brussels to Stockholm.

These by-ways and my-ways saw me drift across Belgium, taking in Hasselt with its fancy car-free city centre which is famed for its jenever (gin) and a quaint Japanese garden, which I admit not to have visited, and up through Holland. A stop in Overloon with its gargantuan World War II museum, and overnight in Groningen saw me through the Day One. A leisurely start to Day Two including possibly the freshest, healthiest, tastiest breakfast I’ve had in a very long time set the pace for a saunter across to Hamburg in northern Germany, after a coffee and wander in Oldenburg (charming and worth a return visit).

Hamburg was a milestone destination along the myways route for several reasons – none of which necessarily involved the city’s notorious St Pauli district.

First drawcard for Hamburg is that I have driven past the city many times in an apparent rush to be somewhere else … catching ferries, meeting deadlines that I probably had full control over but never realised at the time. I even recall skirting it at probably 200 km an hour in a lime-green Porche 911 (long story but it was the best and worst lift I got while hitch-hiking across Europe in my 20s – best because it was my first experience of German autobahns as they were intended to function; worst because it was my first frightening experience of German autobahns, seated, as I was, beside a crazed Dutch drug-lord, or so my imagination ran).

Second, it is one of a very few European cities, Brussels being another, that can claim to have been ‘minded’ by many nations (for example, Denmark and, by default, Sweden, I presume, France for a time under Napoleon, and the Allied countries post-WWII) but ‘owned’ by none. Its resilience and flair for flourishing even against the odds throughout history are well heralded. Less known, perhaps, is Hamburg’s pioneering and democratic spirit, its embrace of modern urban imperatives (livable cities with green corridors, smart transport and an eye on the future) without casting aside its industrial heritage steeped in maritime tradition.

Third, it is where the Beatles famously honed their craft playing show after show in the bars of the port area, which by no coincidence is also the St Pauli red light district with its outsized reputation for sleaze. Hamburgers like to claim that their love of jazz and later swing played in the dance halls, despite crackdowns against such blatantly American ‘decadence’ by the social nationalists and later Nazis, was their own little battle for democracy during a time where there was little on offer in Europe.

Hamburg remains unrepentant when it comes to its racy reputation, preferring to see it as a product of its openness and adaptability, which is rarely a bad thing. It’s sniffy defiance is part of its historical tolerance of others (the minders, visitors and mariners of the past). You walk a few hundred metres away from the seedy Reeperbahn back to the centre and the business of propriety instantly takes over. Swank eateries lap the waters of the canal. Tour boats ply the Binnenalster and Aussenalster lakes, which give the city endless breathing space.

There are two sides to the Hamburg story. And I look forward to discovering more next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

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The road less travelled: Navigating without algorithms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As I embark on my summer travels, I have resolved to ignore the recommended routes on my satnav and to get off the beaten track. Join me.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Literature and popular culture are littered with mentions of the ‘road less travelled’. It is ensconced in our lexicon like a tick between the toes, so much so that its meaning becomes more baffling for every new song or misquote.

M Scott Peck’s eponymous book, which came out in 1978, probably started the confusion with its focus on what it takes to be a fulfilled human being, venturing into forests of soul-searching stuff like love, discipline, ethics, religion, spiritual growth, serendipity, grace, lying, suffering … and evil. With the knack of an acupuncturist’s needle, Scott’s book had anticipated the ailments of an emerging ‘self-help’ generation.

To Scott, a psychiatrist by trade, the potted road of spiritual development could be travelled in four stages, from chaos to blind faith to scientific scepticism and finally reaching the end destination where you can enjoy the mystery and beauty of nature and existence.

Evil, he suggests, is understood as much by what we do as what we don’t do: evil fuelled by self-deception as people try to maintain perfect self-images, to which they must deceive others, the scapegoats of their lives…

Confusing? Well, I think so. Why can’t the road less travelled be simpler or perhaps more literal, something like not being afraid to get off the beaten track or swerving away from the high road, for the sake of keeping the metaphor going.

This occurs to me as I plan my road trip to our cottage south of Stockholm, an annual summer pilgrimage, that the life of order, routine, comfort (for many) is rooted in arterial thinking. The idea being to channel as much stuff through the major arteries, or motorways of life, to be sure we get from A to B with the least disruption or disharmony. There are only so many hours in a day, only so many foreseen or unforeseen alternate passages for this ‘lifeblood’ before we revert to form, take the easy way out, the fastest route.

That’s fine, most of the time, because even the most free-spirited souls still need some regularity. They have to eat to live, sleep to dream, imbibe to create … But for the vast majority of people it means narrowly interpreting what an alternate route would look like, the points of interest along the way and what may or may not constitute something ‘scenic’.

The long way round may once have been wise to avoid highwaymen, but today it strikes most ‘busy’ people and casual observers as wasteful, unnecessary, and costly (in time, money and perhaps spiritual ‘energy’). And besides, plying the byways of life has become so damned hard when easy options abound.

More and more of us delegate life-planning to artificial intelligence, the neat algorithms like Google Drive that navigate our journeys for us – complete with eerily accurate deviation ‘costs’ in terms of the time it takes out of our lives. We are left wondering whether we are really in charge. It seems almost impolite to ignore the recommended readings by Amazon’s helpful AI assistant and the suggested viewing by Netflix’s digital curator, or ‘Lord Netflix’ to the truly flix-addicted whose numbers are growing by the minute.

So, the ‘road less travelled’ today could simply be ignoring the recommended route to Stockholm, avoiding the trending films or suggestions, reading books picked up at flea markets … It could mean choosing slower means of transport and, by default, taking longer to get from A to B.

But that sounds okay to me when the main arteries get clogged up with everyone else making a beeline to Peck’s stage four of spiritual development, sustained just barely by a gut-full of gas-station grease and coffee. Join me as I find out what is in store as I venture off the algorithms.

_____

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

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Alt-jihad – Part II: Delusions of grandeur and persecution

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the second in a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines the far-right’s dual sense of superiority and inferiority, as well as its persecution complex.

Source: https://lorddreadnought.livejournal.com/69990.html

 

Tuesday 17 April 2018

In the previous piece in this series on the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, I examined the emerging phenomenon of far-right suicide attackers and far-right political violence in general. In this, the second article in the series, I explore a number of other parallels, namely the bizarre blend of supremacist convictions combined with a sense of inferiority, an overpowering mentality of victimhood, a persecution complex centred around a rogues’ parade of imagined enemies, as well as a related belief in outlandish conspiracy theories.

Inferiority-superiority complex

Extremist Islamist and jihadist discourse is dominated simultaneously by a dual inferiority-supremacy narrative. On the one hand, they view Islam as innately superior to other religions and political philosophies, lament Islam’s loss of global dominance and dream of the restoration of its hegemony. On the other hand, they are convinced that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and victims. Even in situations where conservative Muslims are the dominant political force and wield enormous political clout, Islamists often believe they are oppressed, their beliefs are under attack and their way of life is threatened with extinction.

A similar narrative has emerged in white and Christian nationalist circles, though, given the continuing might of the West, superiority outweighs inferiority when compared with Islamist discourse. This sense of entitlement was best summed up by Richard Spencer, the spiritual leader of the alt-right movement in America. “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward,” Spencer told the audience at an alt-right conference in Washington, DC. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Nevertheless, unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West directly ruled most of the planet and required an ideology to justify its global dominance, instead of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden. In fact, these far-right movements, as well as some segments of more mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree, have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule.

At one level, this shift in rhetoric is opportunistic and cynical, with the aim of turning the tables on the truly marginalised minorities living in the West and on those who have suffered under the boot of western hegemony by suggesting that the real victims of racism and imperialism are whites, and especially the Christian right, who supposedly suffer under the multiple tyrannies of political correctness, liberalism, immigration (which is regarded as a sort of invasion by stealth) and Islam.

However, it would be a mistake to view these attitudes as merely rhetorical devices. Many on the far-right absolutely believe, their sense of supremacy and privilege notwithstanding, that they belong to an oppressed, repressed and persecuted group. At times, this can be a reflection of their sense of personal isolation. “I didn’t have many friends at school, I wanted to be a member of a group of people that had an aim,” admitted Kevin Wilshaw, who was a well-known organiser for the UK’s National Front in the 1980s and later joined the British National Party, before renouncing his former life and coming out as gay and of Jewish heritage. “Even though you end up being a group of people that through their own extreme views are cut off from society, you do have a sense of comradeship in that you’re a member of a group that’s being attacked by other people.” This sense of camaraderie, as well as a desire to stand out and be noticed, appears to have been a spur for Andrew Anglin’s transformation from a vegan anti-racist into the American extreme right’s most outspoken and outrageous troll, through his creation of the rabidly racist website The Daily Stormer.

This sense of alienation and the desperate desire to bond this produces is also something that afflicts many who fall into the embrace of radical and jihadist Islamism. “For most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons,” observes Kenan Malik, the Indian-Britisher writer and intellectual. “The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect.”

Paranoid confusions

This sense of living in a world which deprives them of their perceived God-given right to dominate society and to rule the world translates into an increasingly outspoken and irrational victimhood mentality. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented in the speech mentioned above, echoing the jihadist extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

This sense of being embattled has led to the paranoid conviction that the modern-day white conservative is surrounded by foes, both near enemies and far ones, to borrow from the jihadist lexicon. The far horizon of Enemistan is dominated by Muslims, who are closing in so rapidly and decisively that the very survival of Western civilisation and Christendom is at stake. At home, the alt-right fears migrants and other minorities, including a resurgence of classic Judeophobia, leftists, liberals, journalists and media professionals, experts, academics, feminists and the LGBT community.

This paranoid sense of being surrounded and besieged by enemies on every front has led to the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories. In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race. What is most infuriating about the white genocide myth is that many who subscribe to it deny the historical reality of actual genocides, such as the Holocaust or extermination campaigns against native populations.

The purported white genocide is not just confined to Europe and America, it is also allegedly taking place in Africa. The alt-right blogger Laura Southern has even produced a ‘documentary’ entitled Farmland which claims to highlight the plight of supposedly persecuted whites in South Africa. Needless to say, no such extermination programme is occurring in the country where the legacy of Apartheid still lives on in stark racial inequalities, unless by ‘genocide’ she means the relative erosion of white privilege.

The army of Islam

In Europe, the end goal of mass immigration, according to far-right conspiracy theorists, is not only ‘white genocide’ but also a stealthy conquest of the West, its complete Islamisation and subjugation and its conversion into ‘Eurabia’, the mythical European Umma. And Eurabia is apparently making major inroads in America too. The far-right myth that there are “no-go zones” in Europe where the police do not dare enter and Islamic law prevails has made it across the Atlantic, and has been spread by both Fox News and the NRA, amongst others. A similar narrative of a crusade/war against Islam is a common refrain amongst Islamists. However, this notion amongst both conservative Muslims and Christians that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations does not hold up to scrutiny, as I reveal in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

How far this dastardly Muslim conquest has advanced is a matter of some disagreement, however. The most pessimistic on the far-right believe the war is already over and the West has lost, others believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end, while some, like the founder of France’s Front National (FN), are convinced that it is the “the beginning of the beginning” of the Islamic subjugation of Europe. “It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism,” he claimed. “The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

The most recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees who have been entering Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with the Richard Spencer mentioned earlier.

In its self-righteous panic, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of terror usually expressed by the defenceless towards an army of ruthless conquerors. Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word, yet, this army without soldiers or arms is somehow mounting an invasion.

They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and found itself on a major transit route, until it built a wall to keep the refugees out. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” echoed Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran. A related myth is the notion that Muslim asylum seekers are obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to violate and rape western women – they are not refugees but “rapefugees”.

Away from the high-security fortress of far-right perception and in the real world of hard facts, the influx of refugees into the European Union from 2012 to the peak of 2015/16 represented under half a percent of the EU’s population. Since then, thanks to government reactions to knee-jerk xenophobia or to the xenophobia of politicians, the numbers have tailed off significantly, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Moreover, and contrary to the ‘sponger’ image of refugees, an analysis by the Brookings Institute revealed that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees – which raises the perplexing question, if migrants are out to destroy the West, why are they making it richer?

More confoundingly still, if the aim of Muslims in Europe and America is to destroy Christendom and wipe out the infidel, either with actual bombs or with demographic time-bombs, it appears inconceivable that any Muslim fanatic worth his salt would head the other way. Yet this is exactly what they are believed to be doing, with overstated and exaggerated hordes of European Muslims heading to Syria and Iraq to heed the call of jihad, so sensationally covered that you would be forgiven if you had the impression that Europe was being depopulated of its Muslim population.

Master puppeteers

Despite the fixation on Islam, it would be a mistake to think that Muslims have replaced the Jews in extreme right discourse – their presence appears to be a complementary one. A special place remains reserved for Jews in far-right narratives and conspiracy theories. For decades following the Holocaust, these narratives had become marginalised or had gone underground (such as the transnational Malm Movement), often only mentioned in hints and suggestions. But with the rise of the far-right, they have enjoyed a comeback in recent years in a number of countries, from Hungary to the United States.

Many Judeophobic conspiracy theories are recycled or adapted traditional anti-Semitic canards revolving around how Jews represent some kind of homogeneous cabal which runs the world clandestinely by controlling the financial sector and the media. This includes the renewed vogue the discredited hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the fantasy that the Rothschild family controls the world’s central banks and causes war by financing both sides of every conflict enjoy in the growing far-right movement. More recent variations on this theme include the troubling mainstreaming in conservative circles of the narrative, which is especially popular in Hungary, that the tycoon and philanthropist George Soros is behind all kinds of sinister conspiracies to destroy Europe in order to be able better to rule it. Another is the conspiracy theory that a shadowy Zionist Occupation Government (‘Zionist’ here refers to Jew, not political Zionism) controls governments in the United States and Europe.

Some have even attempted to forge unified conspiracy theories of everything, in which various disparate and contradictory conspiracist ideas are forcibly mixed into a potently toxic cocktail. An example of this is how the mythical Zionist Occupation Government is responsible for mass migration in order to dilute or exterminate the white race so as to facilitate its satanic quest for global dominance. This blends anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white genocidal and anti-leftist/liberal conspiracy theories into one incoherent whole.

Toxic far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have drifted not only to segments of the far-left but have found their way into Arab, Islamic and Islamist narratives, which historically discriminated much less than Christianity against the Jews, with Muslim bigots traditionally regarding Jews with condescension rather than suspicion and fear. This changed dramatically with the advent of modern Zionism, the influence of fascism and the creation of Israel, and is often fuelled by a desperate need to scapegoat weakness and failure by depicting the ‘enemy’ as super-humanely powerful and evil.

The hatred, contempt and fear of Jews shared by Christian and Muslim extremists has occasionally resulted in some unlikely and troubling alliances between neo-Nazi groups and Islamists, such as has occurred in some parts of Germany, both of which “ascribe extraordinary political power to Israel and the Jews, and their goal is to fight this power,” in the words of Heinz Fromm, the then president of the German domestic intelligence agency.

Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even suggested that the Kurdish referendum on independence was a devilish Jewish conspiracy, one unconvincingly masterminded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, once memorably described as the “Donald Trump of French philosophy”. Of course, this is not the first time that Erdoğan has ascribed superpowers to BHL, as he often referred to in France: he once hinted that the French ‘philosopher’ was behind the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. Islamists often portray Arab regimes with whom they disagree as being American and Jewish stooges. Some members of the outlawed and oppressed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to a conspiracy theory that dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has a Jewish mother. Some conservative Muslims and Islamists are convinced that ISIS is a creation of western and Zionist imperialism, as are some secular Arabs. Interestingly, numerous white supremacists are also convinced of a similar conspiracy theory, even alleging that ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually a Mossad agent.

Mainstreaming falsehood

These far-right conspiracy theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed by more mainstream conservative falsehoods, which then feedback to the mainstream, pulling it ever further into the la-la zone. This is apparent in everything from the decades of eurosceptic myths that led the UK to leap off the Brexit cliff to the anti-immigrant, pseudo-fascistic rhetoric of large segments of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy. Some mainstream conservatives find the twilight zone so alluring that they take the express train to the extreme because the mainstream’s gradual drift to the former fringe was not moving nearly fast enough. An example of this is Gavin McInnes who abandoned his creation, Vice, to embrace his inner white supremacist, misogynist and racist.

Even though the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs has a very long pedigree, and has for generations been a staple of Hollywood myth-making, toxic mainstream conservative demonisation took off in earnest in the wake of the horrors of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, America and Europe’s Muslim minorities have been inextricably linked in conservative perceptions with terrorism and treason.

The same applies to other minorities and marginalised groups, from Jews to Eastern European migrants to asylum seekers. The rightwing tabloid media in a number of countries has been vilifying them for years while claiming that it the imagined bogeyman of political correctness that was enjoying the upper hand, rather than the reality, that rightwing bigotry has been the dominant voice for generations.

Read part I

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Economic recovery means little to Europe’s working poor

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Europe is experiencing an economic recovery but many of the jobs being created are keeping people poor rather than lifting them out of poverty.

Friday 8 December 2017

The latest forecasts tell a story of economic recovery. Europe is emerging out of a decade-long slump that nearly crippled a handful of countries and stung employment and growth numbers in the rest. People are working again, industry is growing and business confidence is up, except perhaps in Brexit-paralysed Britain. This is surely good news for people living in poverty.

Or not. All this economic good cheer ignores a persistent and often under-reported problem in ‘wealthy’ Europe… having a job means squat if it is poorly paid, unregulated, unstable or just plain unfair. This was the general sentiment at a recent EU-backed meeting in Brussels organised by the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) which heard from a range of people experiencing poverty, especially the working poor.

The European Union’s unemployment rate is currently around 7.5%, which is the lowest rate recorded in the bloc since December 2008. But according to a new EU report on ‘In-work poverty in the EU’, the number of European workers at risk of poverty has actually increased, from 8% in 2007 to 10% today.

Europe knows it has a problem and that there is a window of opportunity in the early stages of the recovery to tackle it. Alluding to Bob Dylan, European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, who’s responsibilities include employment and social affairs, acknowledged this. “The times, they are a-changin,” she said, and everyone — governments, industry, social partners, unions — needs to ensure no-one gets “left behind or pushed aside” in this changing world.

Yet the stark reality is that Europe’s recovery is opening up an economic no-man’s land between the ownership class and the ‘working poor’. This is a precarious place — especially for the 70 million Europeans who lack the skills or basic numeracy to take full advantage of the digital revolution — where even Europe’s much-vaunted social system seems unable to gain ground. It’s occupied by a growing class of Europeans who are not poor enough for many of the social services and not rich enough to afford decent accommodation and good health, or to start a family, move away from home… or simply to enjoy the benefits of a ‘living wage’.

We live in a world of plenty but wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” said EAPN’s Director Leo Williams, which is an “absurd paradox”, he added, in light of the recent Paradise Papers tax-avoidance scandal.

Flexibility leads to poverty

And the causes of this wealth gap are entrenched in labour market principles which are geared towards flexibility and dynamism in order to stimulate growth, new jobs and mobility. But in practice, it engenders a power imbalance between workers and employers which translates into something called ‘low work intensity’. For others, it means low-paid or minimum-wage work, and for Europe’s legions of under-employed youths and graduates it means a succession of internships and other ‘non-standard’ or exotic working conditions crafted by employers to keep labour costs in check. This imbalance has direct consequences on the working poor, ranging from difficulties meeting childcare costs and poor or no housing, to high stress and failing health.

In this report, in-work poverty means household income is below the poverty line or threshold despite a full or part-time worker living there. The poverty threshold is defined as under 60% of the average household income (before housing costs).

Real-life struggles told by delegates invited from all over Europe to the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting were aimed at EU policy-makers and social actors. A single mother of four spoke of a life “treading water” and feeling socially excluded in the UK. “We really want justice, not judgement,” she said, and to be “cared for, not criticised” by society.

A delegate from Portugal said that even with two household incomes one full-time and one part-time her family struggled to make ends meet. Failing health and dwindling disposable income offered little hope for her children’s future. “I want work and stability… to be able to live not only survive,” she said.

Great stock has been put in the new European Pillar of Social Rights to guide the EU towards a more inclusive model of fair jobs and economic growth. Europe’s leaders recently gathered at a summit in Sweden to discuss a wide range of issues — education, training, lifelong learning, social protection, housing, fair wages, old-age pensions, in-work poverty, etc. — and to pledge support for the Pillar.

But for the quiet-spoken Croatian delegate back at the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting, who lamented the broken financial and political systems that can’t even prevent homelessness in ‘wealthy’ Europe, the imminent future looks less hopeful. He wondered how he would be able to afford to leave the shelter he calls home when his earnings are swallowed up by his poor health and the struggle for daily survival.

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When you’re a collector… don’t give too much away

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Collecting may seem like a harmless hobby but it allows others to gather a whole lot more about us than we let on or probably even know.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Are you a collector? You get this question every now and then, especially from people who do collect things. It always takes me a bit by surprise and I’m never sure how to answer it, whether it’s a serious question or a subtle way that fellow party-goers test how mad you are.

As I’ve always subscribed to the advice once given by someone who really was quite mad, ‘don’t let the crazy show too much’, the collector question is a tricky one from the get-go.

First, how do you define a ‘collector’… by the act of collecting or by the nature of the collectible? ‘What’s the difference?’ you might well ask. Just the act of gathering objects that likely share some sort of genus, history or origin could provide a neat enough definition of the latter, but when you dig into the motivation for doing so you’re entering the realm of the former. And in the former lies a whole lot of baggage, according to experts who like to read something into everything we do or don’t do.

Psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger suggests in his seminal 1993 study, Collecting, An Unruly Passion, that people collect in order to ward off the black dog of depression that can hound them from one scruffy market stall and auction room to the next.

You see now that the question ‘Are you a collector?’ comes weighed with meaning, intended or not. Muensterberger cites a litany of historical and contemporary figures whose compulsion to buy the same object, albeit in different forms or versions, over and over, pushes the boundaries of sanity.

“Muensterberger’s roster of driven acquisition-hunters includes the dedicated, the serious, and the infatuated, whose chronic restlessness can be curbed – and then merely temporarily – only by purchasing, discovering, receiving, or even stealing a new ‘find’,” according to Princeton University Press, which still stocks his book. From eminent leaders like the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to eccentric naturalists of the 19th century to famous novelists, collecting is more than a hobby, we learn.

Books, artworks, relics, religious icons, porcelain dolls, crockery, jewellery, stamps, lace, ribbons, shells, sports memorabilia, toys, mugs, stuffed animals… you name it and people collect it. And today, with the ease of search and dedicated platforms like WorthPoint, as well as online marketplaces like eBay to hunt the objects down, it’s pure candy for the sugar addicted.

What’s more, for those who do it professionally or as avid amateurs, it can be damn good business. Antiques and collectibles are a billion-dollar industry and growing at around 3.5% annually, according to IBISWorld. Of course, for Muensterberg’s breed of collector like French author Honoré de Balzac, the drive to collect is far from a financial one. Balzac’s alter ego even reveals itself in the main character of his comedy, Le Cousin Pons, a passionate acquirer of bric-a-brac beyond anything ordinary or healthy.

Contemporary author Fredrik Sjoberg’s fascinating study of islands, insects and the joys of the small things (The Fly Trap) takes the Muensterberger line further still, as he attempts to get inside the head of the collector. Sjoberg implies a distinction between, say, a casual egg cup display cabinet in the dining room sort of hobby and an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) replete with overflowing garage, living room and bedroom: “People who collect everything, as long as it’s curious enough, are especially likely to be engaged in a form of fetishism that does indeed allay anxiety.

As an entomologist, himself, Sjoberg knows a thing or two about the pure pleasure of a rare find. In fact, he has several such coups to his name on the Swedish island of Runmaro, where he collects insects, including a large hoverfly, Criorhina ranunculi, once thought to be extinct in Sweden. So, you can probably assume he also understands the compulsive side of the act of collecting, and just quietly, he might know a thing or two about the illusive psychological spin-offs, too!

“Any beetle whatsoever that was caught, pinned and classified by, say, Charles Darwin, would be a wonderful fetish with which to cure a depression,” muses Sjoberg, “but such things are impossible to come by.”

But all this doesn’t really help us answer the pesky, seemingly no less complex question: ‘Are you a collector… and why?’

Thankfully, we have the American author John Steinbeck to help us out with some simple wisdom. His inimitable style of parsing a subject into its purist form in Travels with Charley: In Search of America helps us get to the bottom of the collector’s psyche: “If I seem to be over-interested in junk, it is because I am, and I have a lot of it, too – half a garage full of bits and broken pieces,” he writes.

“But it can be seen that I do have a genuine and almost miserly interest in worthless objects. My excuse is that in this era of planned obsolescence, when a thing breaks down I can usually find something in my collection to repair it – a toilet, or a motor, or a lawn mower. But I guess the truth is that I simply like junk.”

No truer words to the self-confessed collector, but in the spirit of ‘don’t let the crazy show too much’, how about this as an answer when you’re next asked, ‘Are you a collector?’: “I’m inclined to answer that I don’t so much collect as acquire things that sometimes fit with other things that I have at home.”

Nothing compulsive about that response, is there?

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Trapped inside Fortress Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO, Chios

The plight of the 63,000 refugees and migrants still marooned in Greece should give Europeans pause for thought.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Wednesday 31 January 2017

In a cave below the remains of a mile-long city wall, a small band of freezing and utterly exhausted men had manged to get a fire going. Outside, the wind was turning vicious. It felt like even the ocean was exasperated, splashing onto the cliffs as if trying to smash through the huddling men’s final illusions. Seeing how these fantasies were already so few and far between, it seemed a rather daunting task, even for an ocean.

Dusk was descending over the damp stone cave in Greece. True, it was somewhat less cold inside, but the men were still shaking like leaves. All of them were Algerian migrants placed at the bottom rung of the food chain here on the modern-day Medusa raft set afloat by the European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

In the moments of relative calm before the wind picked up again, no one much felt like talking. These men had long lost their flair for chatting, and most of their hope had been buried back in the Sahara, in Turkey and somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the metaphorical mortgage on their future had been foreclosed by the European bureaucrats. By now, the refugees’ stories had become etched on their faces, especially around the eyes. Gazing back at me were the hopeless, worn-down eyes of men who had played the game and lost so horribly they could no longer afford to admit it.

At the moment, some 63,000 refugees and migrants are marooned in Greece, unable to either forge on to the promised land or return to their respective conflict zones.

For months, thousands have been waiting for their first interview after applying for asylum. Many have already had their application turned down. In reaching that decision, the local bureaucrats had decided that Turkey – a country teetering on the brink of war – is a safe country for the refugees.

The bureaucratic apparatus is excruciatingly slow to act. Its members, almost without exception, are ‘only fulfilling their duties’ and ‘obeying the law’. Their collective actions form a perfect algorithm for the banality of evil that has already led to the birth of a new Europe, a morally bankrupt continent stripped of its last vestiges of shame and empathy.

Slogging through humiliation

The Eastern Aegean island of Chios has been described as the “magical Greek island which cures all wanderlust”. It is also one of the frontlines of Europe’s war against refugees and migrants.

For a long time, the local population on Chios distinguished itself with its exemplary and at times heroic care for the incoming refugees. Then last spring, after the EU-Turkey deal on refugees was struck and the Balkan route shut down, the Greek authorities under Brussels patronage set up the infamous “VIAL hotspot“. The first of many, the VIAL was a mix of prison and latter-day concentration camp – vile like its acronym.

In no time at all, similar facilities sprung up on many Aegean islands located near the Turkish coast. Some hotspots have also been set up on the mainland. Like the Moria camp on the Lesbos island, quite singular in its combination of inhuman living conditions and police brutality, the VIAL is by far the most notorious.

On my first visit last April, the entire camp seemed poised on the brink of an explosion. A hunger strike was underway, and the authorities were struggling to quiet things down by relocating hundreds of people to the Souda camp. The improvised camp was located by the sea and close to Chios town. It was run by a coalition of NGOs, whose activists brought food to the refugees and helped them with the horrendously intricate paperwork.

Nine months ago, the fresh arrivals to the island were still filled with hope, enthusiasm and the will to thrive. They had somehow managed to survive both the devastation of their respective homelands and the infinitely treacherous journey to what they thought was the civilised world. Slogging through endless humiliations while grappling with the fact their entire past had been erased, they whole-heartedly gave themselves up to the present to find a semblance of a future.

Today, with Fortress Europe closed off and most of its lustre as the land of refuge and opportunity trampled in the dirt, things are very different.

True, many of the refugees managed to strike on to Athens, and some of them even further on. But on Chios, hundreds of people have been trapped in such shocking conditions for months.

The depression epidemic

The mornings in front of the Souda camp see dozens of refugees come out to kill some time. The camp is situated right by the sea, beside a long canal along the ancient city walls.

The men are conversing quietly and without much enthusiasm. Most of them don’t even seem angry anymore. The muddy and bitterly cold camp has been ransacked by the flu. But even worse has been the epidemic of depression – the collective form of the disease, in firm alliance with the symptoms of what is so clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nine months ago, one could still discern much empathy among the locals, even though the refugee crisis had already deprived them of their tourist-based income. But since then, things have taken a sinister turn. Both empathy and hospitality have a limited shelf-life, at least when not actively cultivated. The masks of political correctness have now fallen, and long-dormant Nazi sleeper cells are stirring back to life.

As ever, the weak and the downtrodden are bearing the brunt of it. Less than two months ago, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the refugee camp. The message couldn’t have been clearer: the island is no longer safe for the refugees and the migrants.

In the nine months following his arrival at Chios, Mustafa E became one of the most recognisable faces on the island. His excellent English and distinct flair for companionship have made him the favourite both of his fellow sufferers and many foreign activists. Yet the robust 42-year-old’s fixed smile cannot fully conceal his pain.

After losing his wife and two children in an Aleppo air raid, Mustafa hasn’t really stopped moving. Even here, in the Souda camp, where he lives in one of the huge tents bearing the UNHCR logo, he gets frequent flashes of paranoia. He literally can’t keep still. When he tries to do so, he gets utterly crushed under the weight of his loss. His family is the one thing he refuses to talk about. Everything else he is all too eager to discuss in an often unstoppable and obsessive fashion.

Apart from flashes of his war-torn land, he is also haunted by the future. For what future can there be for one of tens of thousands of faceless refugees here? And in Greece, of all places – a country once again sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s opportunist agenda, conscripted to serve as the continent’s human waste dump?

The answer, Mustafa feels, is all to apparent.

“Nine months of humiliation was enough. I feel I am about to lose my mind. Everything here is wrong and stupid, everything. What a farce – we are worse off here than dogs without a master. We definitely get treated worse,” he asserts. “Enough already, enough! I will do everything in my power to get away from here. Where will I go? Anywhere, I don’t care. But it is now clear I won’t be allowed to do so legally.”

I was talking to Mustafa in his very poorly heated tent. The words kept pouring out of him like a feverish litany. This man so clearly and so badly needed to state his case.

Before the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed his entire existence, Mustafa Alkhtyibe was the head of a successful marketing firm in Aleppo. But as soon as he started describing his life back then, he all but fell apart with despair. From then on, all he could manage were short, sometimes almost completely unrelated sentences detailing his plight.

His most immediate problem right now was that the Greek authorities had denied his application for asylum. He had already appealed the decision, and had lost the appeal. After all, the European and Greek bureaucrats happen to feel Turkey is perfectly capable of providing safe haven. In Mustafa’s case, being single proved a further factor against him. The fact that the war robbed him of his entire family had made him even more undesirable than he would have otherwise been. And the local paper-shufflers were equally unswayed by the fact that his beloved city of Aleppo had been razed to the ground.

“It seems almost impossible now,” Mustafa winced as he recalled the not-so-distant past. “But before the trouble started, I was totally convinced that Aleppo would be spared most of the fighting. And let me tell you, I quickly lost all faith in the revolution! Why? Because all the smart people soon got arrested or escaped abroad, and were quickly replaced by extremists, criminals and idiots.”

Alternative routes

Mustafa patiently explained to me how he was always looking for alternative routes. “Each day, at least five of my mates here move on to Athens – totally illegally, of course. But the trucks, the traffickers, the false papers, all of that costs money… And I don’t have much left,” he explained. “I’m also counting on some help from my friends. I’m one of the few here ready to stay in Greece, no matter how horrible the situation. I have many skills; I know I can trust myself to survive. But first I need to get out of this awful place.”

Mustafa was serious about getting out. Every day I spent with him served up its own plan, each one more fantastical than the last.

One morning it struck him that his best chance for smuggling himself onto a ferry for Athens would be to bring a small dog. All the attention would be diverted to the dog, Mustafa reasoned, while he himself might go completely unnoticed.

When confronted with the fact that even dogs need their own passports to travel across the European Union, he was completely shattered. “Oh my God, oh my God… What I want more than anything is to go to Luxembourg. Ali Baba-style, of course, there is no other way. They have so few refugees there and so much money… But to get there you need at least €4,500, and I don’t have anywhere near that.”

Mustafa also told me the traffickers have an actual menu. Business is booming, and one can get anywhere one wants, as long as one provides the currency. Canada – €9,000, Germany – €3,500, France – €5,000, Great Britain, €7,000.

With a violent sneeze, Mustafa poured himself another coffee. It was possibly his tenth that day.

The problem is that he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so he broods and scours the internet for possible solutions. In the morning, he would give anything not to get out of bed. “As soon as I get up, I start losing money,” he winces and finishes the coffee.

“I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

A large crowd had gathered in front of the Souda camp. The men were lining up for food, focused on getting their daily rations and bringing them to the women and children waiting somewhere further back. These mealtime conflagrations have long become the emotional fulcrum of camp life, offering the only solace to a radically impoverished existence.

“I am trying not to lose my soul,” said Omar al Salem, 28, from the Syrian town of Deir er Zur. “I’m staying away from conflict. I follow the rules. I don’t stick my neck out for any reason. But it is no good. I’m never going to get out of here this way.”

Omar has been held in the island fort the past five months. What seems like a lifetime ago, he had been lucky enough to get into college just before the war started. He studied economics in the city of Latakia, a regime bastion and, therefore, untouched by most of the war. “Life was good,” Omar remembers. “If always a bit dangerous, since war-profiteering thugs had long taken over control.”

Omar was kept busy with his studies and with his job waiting tables at a restaurant. His greatest hope was for the war to end before he completed his university education. That would free him from the ever-looming prospect of getting conscripted into the army, where he would have to kill friends and neighbours in the vilest armed conflict of our generation. But it was not to be. When Omar graduated, the carnage had only just begun in earnest.

As a Sunni in a Shiia-dominated town, he felt much too exposed to even think about staying. He certainly didn’t feel like helping a thoroughly discredited regime butcher tens of thousands of its own citizens. His other option – to throw his lot with the extremist-controlled Islamic militias – seemed just as unappealing.

So he struck out for Quamishli, a Kurdish town next to the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even though his parents had been residing there for a while, the town wasn’t safe for him. The members of the YPG Kurdish militia, which controls a large part of northern Syria, weren’t exactly welcoming to a fighting-fit Sunni Arab. And so Omar opted to follow the lead of his two brothers who, eighteen months ago, had braved the gauntlet of the Balkan refugee route to reach Germany.

The expensive help of the local smugglers got him through the heavily guarded border, where dozens of refugees had recently been gunned down by the Turkish border patrols. Omar didn’t have enough money to purchase ‘the classic’ on the smugglers’ menu. So he was forced to make do. The smugglers got him a free place on one of the outgoing boats, but in exchange he was tasked with steering it himself all the way to Greece.

Little did he know that his assent could very easily have landed him in jail as a sub-contractor for the smugglers.

It was equally likely he could have proven unequal to the task of navigating the motor boat. He had never before attempted anything like it in his life. For the boat’s 35 passengers, the consequences could have proved fatal.

“We were about half an hour out. Suddenly, I noticed a Turkish coast guard vessel heading straight for us. The sea had turned restless, water was leaking into the boat, so I revved the engine to the max. No, I didn’t feel any fear. I was running on pure instinct. The Turkish boat chose not to follow. It was only after the sea started settling down that it occurred to me how easily we could all have died.”

Omar, too, is one of those dejected souls whose application for asylum has already been turned down by the Greek authorities. He is now awaiting the decision on his appeal, but the most likely outcome by far is that he, too, will soon be deported back to Turkey. This is all part and parcel of the EU-Turkish deal. Yet in the gathering dusk over the bitterly cold refugee camp, he told me he still refuses to lie down and accept defeat.

He had already risked too much to do so. He informed me he was the only person on his boat who had not yet managed to leave Chios. He takes this as proof that it is still possible to reach at least Athens if not the actual promised land. But reaching the Greek capital would set him back €500, and he has no money left. His parents are unable to help him. Perhaps the two brothers will be able to chip in if and when they make any money. Omar proudly informed me they had both been granted asylum in Germany and were doing very well.

Omar is convinced that once he reaches Athens, things are bound to get easier. “I tried several times to get myself to an Athens-bound ferry, but I always got caught. I once bleached my hair so they wouldn’t recognise me. But I still didn’t make it. The last time around, the policemen only gave me a kind smile and redirected me back to the camp. But I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

More than anything else, this young Syrian seemed terrified of losing hope. Hope, after all, is the chief driving force for the traumatised survivors in camps like these all over the Greek coastline. Small wonder then that the European bureaucracy has long been waging a monstrous campaign to confiscate every last shred of hope and rob the incomers of the will to press on.

Second-class refugees

“I could never have imagined I would witness such horrible things – such utter degradation of human life,” says Sharif Alimi, 28, an Afghan Hazara from the Gazni province. I got talking to him as he was boarding the ancient bus regularly transferring the refugees and the migrants between the VIAL hot spot and the Souda camp.

For the previous five years, Sharif had been living in Sweden. But in November he decided to return to Greece, which had served as the first European port of call on his long and arduous path to freedom. The reason for his recent return? Two months ago, his parents arrived to Chios after spending the last years as refugees in Quetta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for the brutally persecuted Hazara people.

This forced Sharif’s hand. “I simply had to act. I had no choice but to come here and help my parents. I knew what they would be facing. I was imprisoned in many European countries – all told, they put me in jail 17 times. And without a single conviction. The worst of it was in Slovakia, where I was imprisoned for six months. Trust me, I saw very well what Europe had become. How it chooses to treat our people.”

When he got word his parents had arrived in Chios, Sharif managed to put his good job in Sweden on hold and immediately departed for Greece.

After hearing less than half of it, I was convinced Sharif’s story was worth a trilogy of both books and movies. During the 11 years of being Europe’s plaything, he was deported to Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and twice to Iran. Giving up was not an option. He was treated to an insider’s view of the various flavours of Slavic policemen, the savageness of life on the Italian streets and the recent build-up of French racism. He was only accepted by Sweden a little over five years ago, and he says the Scandinavian country has been very kind to him. He was quick to get a job, which enabled him to get the rest of his life in order.

Today, this would no longer be possible. As reported, Europe is now repatriating Afghan refugees daily, declaring them safe in a land which has scarcely seen any respite from butchery for the past 40 years.

“See You In Sweden”

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

“I couldn’t let my parents share my fate,” Sharif nodded heavily. “So I came down here to help get them to Sweden. So far we have not been successful, but I have no doubt that we soon will be.”

Foregoing the option to sleep in a hotel, this dutiful son has been spending his nights with his parents inside the VIAL hotspot. Every single day he has to crawl in through a hole in the fence that is the best-kept secret around these parts. The VIAL hotspot is otherwise heavily guarded, but once Sharif manages to slip inside, no one finds him particularly suspicious.

Talking to him, it soon became clear he has little interest in comfort and is totally committed to his goal. He had been through everything and more; his pain threshold has been raised to a previously unimaginable level. Once you get to know him, you can so clearly see it written in his face, the scarred and grizzled visage of a true survivor.

In the days we spent together, Sharif and his Swedish girlfriend Zara did everything in their power to relocate the parents to a hotel. Omar was set on providing his mother and father with at least a modicum of comfort and dignity, even if it meant running the risk of himself being jailed again. He was both dignified and fearless in fighting off the policemen and fellow migrants out to humiliate his parents. Without his Swedish passport, Sharif would be quickly and literally vanished from the continent. As things stand, he could clutch this tiny piece of paper and keep fighting for that elusive and infinitely fragile thing called human rights.

“I have made my decision: we are all going to live in Sweden, and that is how it’s going to be,” Sharif told me as we got ready to part ways. “We Afghans, we’re second-class refugees, you know. Absolutely no one here has any time for us, and this goes doubly for the Hazara people. I mean, even in our own country we are mostly seen as foreigners. But what are you going to do? I know nothing can stop us now. So I guess I’ll see you in Sweden, huh?”

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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