Wednesday, October 31, 2007
After evenings like this I go back to the lyrics of my life mantra, Baz Luhrmann's song Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen). I listen to it at least once a month and everything he says makes sense. I actually do strive to live my life the way he preaches. Tonight was the time for the following:
"Understand that friends come and go,but for the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography in lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young."
Amsterdam would not be the same without a few key people here. After nearly three years we are starting to reach this level where you don't need to explain everything, the other person just knows. Every single time I go back to Finland I realise how special it is to have friends who you have experienced things with and who know you inside out. And it is such a warm feeling to realise that the same is evolving here. Tonight we did not do anything special - met for dinner, a few drinks and talked - but it was still absolutely beautiful.
For me places live and die with the people. When it comes to friends, I am bloody fortunate.
Friday, October 26, 2007
A stunningly beautiful woman in a bright-coloured dress carrying a water canister on her head in the tormenting heat of a desert. A group of wide-eyed children with bloated stomachs staring straight into the camera with flies on their faces. A corpse of a black man pecked by vultures. Thousands and thousands of tents, thousands of people waiting in line for fresh water.
We’ve all seen these images over and over again. As time goes by, the killings of dozens and hundreds of people in Darfur or starvation in Ethiopia stop being breaking news and we turn for new catastrophes and new imagery. Dave Eggers’ latest novel What is the What (Hamish Hamilton 2006) follows the path of Valentino Achak Deng from the Sudanese village of Marial Bai to a suburb of Atlanta. The biography is a powerful slap on the Western face. We cannot dare to forget.
Eggers’ first novel, autobiography A Heartbreaking Work of A Staggering Genius was a bestseller worldwide. The tale of a young man in a somewhat late puberty bringing up his brother alone was praised for the extraordinary combination of wit and intimacy. The novelist’s involvement in supporting young writers through his publishing house McSweeney’s and founding of creative writing schools into American suburbs turned him quickly into a young star and a pet of the media. Although he has published a novel and short stories during the last years, What is the What is Eggers’ strongest and most passionate work since the autobiography. Valentino Achak Deng’s story is an extremely unsettling take on the human suffering behing the newsfeed. Through Valentino the common images of the conflict and famine suddenly get a human face.
Stylistically What is the What continues on the familiar path from Eggers’ previous novels. He has the patience for details whether when describing how Valentino buries his friend on the walk through the Sudanese desert or how it feels when burglars drop a phonebook right on your face. Eggers has told in the numerous interviews on the novel that he spent nearly two years with Valentino including a trip to Sudan. The intimate contact between the author and the protagonist grabs the reader firmly from the first page. Dave Eggers as a white New Yorker amazes with his skill to get skin-deep on how life is in a refugee camp or a Sudanese village. Eggers’ eye for absurdity and humour carries the book through the rough incidents for instance by describing the way the often naïve Western and Japanese aid workers are perceived by the refugees.
One cannot complete the novel without being moved and shaken. What is the What is a masterpiece in showing parallel the inequality of the American health care system and the hatred and complexity feeding the conflict in Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng’s life reminds the reader that refugees like him are not ignorant bystanders but people with dreams, anger, families and joys. During his life by now Deng has already gone through things no human being ought to experience. Teenager boys should not be seeing their friends losing the will to live or witnessing senseless killing. ”The unknown boys ran toward her”, he describes the violence feeding violence in Sudan. “Achor Achor stayed with me. When they were twenty feet from her, the woman turned, lifted a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart. I could see the bullet leaving his back. His body kneeled and then fell on its side, his head landing before his shoulder.”
What is the What shows the ambitions of the thousands of Sudanese refugees in the United States without patronising them or denying their dignity. It also demonstrates to European readers how the American society simultaneously as a system treats the weakest like dirt but on the individual level opens their homes out of the sincere desire to help. Valentino Achak Deng’s journey from Eastern Africa to the Land of Hope and Glory depicts the frustration when you are denied from stability and forced to keep on running. ”I ran past villages that had been and were no more, ran past buses that were burned from the inside out, hands and faces pressed to the glass. Damn you all. Damn the living, damn the dead.”
The benefits from the book are donated to a foundation supporting Valentino’s education and the overall situation of the so-called Sudanese Lost Boys in the United States. Even if that alone would be reason enough to purchase the book, the best reason for giving your time for Valentino’s struggle is to be reminded of our privileged situation and therefore our responsibility to help.
Eggers, Dave (2006): What is the What. Hamish Hamilton.
(Illustration by Hayal Pozanti)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Christiane Amanpour - CNN Comes Under Unprecedented Attack
Originally uploaded by Ziet O Zaa3taar
The best thing I saw at the festival from David Okuefuna's documentary called Racism: A History. Without the need to create a happy ending, Okuefuna showed how brutal and cruel we the whites have been towards blacks in places like Congo, South Africa and the United States. The pictures of lynchings of blacks or of a young black man beaten to death with his face bloated after having spent weeks after his death in the bottom of the river do not leave my mind. I felt guilty for being white and rightly so.
So on Sunday I crashed on my sofa with a pizza delivered to my door and instead of watching the Dutch talent competition for the main role in Evita, I ended up spending two hours watching the CNN documentary God's Warriors on Christian Fundamentalism in the US. Even if in the beginning the subject sounded slightly too heavy, I was glad that I pushed myself through it. Christiane Amanpour's incredibly powerful take on the misuse of religion is part of a three-hour series and a year of work covering fundamentalist Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Best of all, Amanpour's dedicated investigation - as well as Okuefuna's documentary - remind me how there still is a great need for journalism which is not only about speed but also about depth. All these makers were able to show something to me that I did not know. They had spent a year doing these programmes and it shows. They were able to move me and they made me talk about the issues they covered. This is something that a news bulletin or an SMS is never able to do.
Friday, October 19, 2007
I consider myself a feminist and years in student life made me quite alert and sensitive to chauvinism. I am also extremely easily irritated when people start the John Gray Mars-Venus bollocks about our fundamental differences. Very often I feel awkward when being narrowed into a man, a hunter.
Tonight I promised to meet some of the other participants for dinner and we agreed to meet first at the conference venue lobby. As I left my hotel, a young woman left at the same time. She was heading - like I was - through the rather dark shortcut to the lobby. I did not know her and she did not know me. There was no one else on the street and I could hear her steps speeding up. I was trying not to look suspicious by slowing down my pace but I think that only alerted her more. It was obvious that she was conscious that there was an unknown MAN behind her and there was no one else on the street.
I have been in this situation a few times when walking home from a bar or so. Her feeling is something men do not experience. The risk to men - risk of violence - is different as it has not sexual component in it. From the man's perspective, today's case is a helpless situation where you nearly feel like shouting "really, I am not a rapist". This is part of the gender-specific geography of fear.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The discussion went on and on. On what and with which logic - difficult to say. But we managed to cover over two courses the state of business, crisis of politics, role of images and what have you. I was excited, agitated, moved and shaken. Good people make a good evening.
We talked a lot about things and people that are driving change. My dinner dates are running big creative businesses and at the same time doing highly sophisticated (and beautiful) cultural products. They make a living with things that do not make them lose a lot of sleep. If I would be asked to describe my future now, that would get quite close: do good for the society and do good business. Start from wishes and needs, not from problems. I think this can be achieved in a way that is both fruitful and fun. Just look at Dove cosmetics: beautiful campaign on normal beautiful women led to rise in sales and questioned the way advertisement portrays beauty.
A lot of people I know have started things, made things happen and changed things. I am finding myself more and more curious towards the setting that drove them to take the risk. Like we discussed last night, the same goes for business and socialist revolution: change does not happen if you are not willing to jump and maybe even hurt yourself when landing.
Monday, October 15, 2007
After a one-night pitstop in Amsterdam, I travelled to Berlin for the annual Prix Europa festival, the biggest competition for the best public service radio and television productions. Over the next week, nearly 1.000 television and radio professionals will watch, listen, discuss and rate programmes from Sweden to Romania. Due to my job in the ECF I was appointed a member of the Steering Committee last year and just love coming here every year.
Anyway, that was not really the issue I wished to address. Last summer I decided to stop with my vegetarian diet and start eating meat again. And where else than in Germany - the superpower of sausages - one could really live it to the full?
I took my luggage to the hotel and decided to go for a walk and grab something to eat having once again skipped lunch at work. I found myself passing a full and clearly nice Singaporean restaurant and kept walking. I did not wish to admit it first but the direction was obvious - gas station's diner.
Germans do know how to make a fantastic sausage. Having them steamed and served with a bun and some überstrong mustard kicks ass. Willkommen in Deutschland.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
It was a splendid idea to start the trip by going to our summer house for the weekend with my parents and my uncle. If I would have just stayed in Helsinki, I would not have been able to drop my tempo from the working one to a holiday one. I would have kept going from a meeting to another like in Amsterdam. Now I had good food, slept late, went to the sauna twice and finished a book, Haruki Murakami's strange but fascinating Kafka on the Shore. Big ass feng shui.
They say every Finn's dream is a house in the countryside, by a lake and growing one's own potatoes. Not mine even if I support policies that keep the rural areas alive and do not turn them into one big resort. Even if I absolutely love going to the country house for a weekend or even for some weeks, I need people around me. The suburban boy has turned into a city boy and not turning back. But as living with constant background noise, it is amazing being in a place where you stand outside around midnight, it is completely dark and fully silent. It's like charging up.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Cannot help this feeling over and over again: the Finnish foreign policy discussion is like the mailing list of of social science students during my university years. It starts with a provocative statement (in this case Minister of Defense mentioning Russia as the main security risk of Finland), it continues with the big players reacting to it and condemning the nature of the message (President, Prime Minister and of course the opposition criticising the wording), old school activists saying how things have always been done (academics and former politicians) and in the end several people questioning whether we could actually have more important issues to discuss (several headlines saying that this discussion is bloated compared to the importance of the statement).
However, the student mailing list lacks the most entertaining part in the political debate: Paavo Lipponen, Social Democrat former Speaker of the Parliament and former Prime Minister. Over the last years Lipponen's trouble with letting go has been obvious. His columns and interviews have always the same message: this is not the way things have been and should be done.
In Suomen Kuvalehti 39/2007 Lipponen attacks the National Coalition Party for their provocation on foreign politics. "It's time to get back in order", the pensioner advices."What's the reason for celebrating new debating culture if the debaters have nothing to propose", says Lipponen and goes on and on about the manner, not the message. "One should not underestimate the Finnish public", writes the man who did not want to take the euro decision or the Constitutional Treaty into a referendum.
Just a while ago the Ministry of Justice founded a democracy unit. I think it is needed if leading politicians define democracy as follows:"By provoking others the National Coalition threatens the strive for joint understanding and consensus, which is necessary if one wishes to make decisions on difficult issues."
A while ago the Financial Times published a supplement on Finland commenting harshly the self-congratulatory nature of the political climate in a country with mass unemployment and a lot of innovation but no skills to capitalise them. Lipponen's main message seems to be resistance to debate and change. There is absolutely no urgency in his message. "Handling the past is a problem completely somewhere else, especially in those Western countries that did not seriously fight against totalitarianism and left small countries like Finland to survive on their own", the political veteran states. I must say that I have also read other descriptions of Finland's role in totalitarianism.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
I often wonder out in town what people have playing in their iPods. It could be the same stuff as I have or it could be something wacko. Wacko, yes. I think that would be the word many would choose if they knew that I have been on a 100 % country mode for the last week. Yes, I am confessing it here, in public, with the risk of mockery. It’s been only Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait and of course...the man himself...Johnny Cash.
I confess that for a long time I was one of those Europeans who considered the whole music genre a pure joke. Like the American equivalent to Eurovision camp. Men in oversized hats, overtight jeans and women with oversized boobs. This summer’s trip to Texas opened my eyes to the varieties of country and reminded me of a wise statement made once by The Economist: if you wish to understand the United States in a whole (yes, the country continues beyond New York), you need to listen to country. And I must say: if you pick good country music, the beauty is easy to see.
So based on this crash course, what is America about? It is about men falling short, women standing strong, women wishing to kill the violent husband, family members passing away, pretty small towns, family (especially mothers), loving your country, standing up to what you believe in, 4 July, getting drunk, challenging marriages and above all – decent people loving each other.
Country also functions as a good measurement for the mood of the country. The case of Iraq is the obvious. In the beginning the lyrics were about standing up for the troops agains the Evil. But as time has gone by, number of casualties has grown and as this clip by megastar Tim McGraw shows, the tone has changed: it is pain about full bodybags coming back from the Middle East.
Visiting Texas, meeting people and listening to their music made my realise even stronger what great countries are about - real people living real lives. And country is the soundtrack of that documentary.