Tag Archives: Galicia

Ireland told-you-so: “I don’t think there’s any real support for violence, but you can see how quickly things can unravel…It’s very bleak, and it is something to worry about.”

21 Nov

New York Times piece about things coming to a head in Ireland: “Northern Ireland Is Sinking Into a ‘Profound Crisis’” :

As the standoff drags on, and polarization increases, people find it harder to envisage Northern Ireland as an autonomous entity. “We’re back to this binary situation where people either see it as a problematic part of the U.K. or as a part of united Ireland,” said Graham Walker, a politics professor at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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My previous Ireland posts, the top more Ireland-specific, at bottom a broader look at nation and minorities:

Is England ready for fresh Irish blood on its hands?

15 Sep

This is not a question I ask glibly or to be deliberately provocative.  In fact, I think I was a little too glib in my earlier opinions about the issue of Brexit and Ireland and I’ve been sobered up a bit.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017

And it’s The New York Review of Books’ excellent piece by Fintan O’Toole, Brexit’s Irish Question“, that made me think a little more carefully about the whole issue.

I suggest everybody read the whole article since it’s open to the public, but I think even it pulls its punches a bit too much and doesn’t realize the degree of danger this “question” poses.  This is not “Brexit’s Irish Question.”  This is England’s Ireland Problem.  AGAIN.  STILL.  A reversion to form.  Before 1999.  Before 1921.  So all parties, but especially England, not Britain, should tread very carefully.

A good if rather lengthy summary/call out are the following three paragraphs from the piece:

“The Republic of Ireland was one of the most ethnically and religiously monolithic societies in the developed world. Its official ideology was a fusion of Catholicism and nationalism. The anti-homosexuality laws reflected the dominance of the Catholic Church, which was also manifest in extreme restrictions on contraception, divorce, and abortion. While the vast majority of its population was repelled by the savage violence of the Irish Republican Army’s armed campaign against British rule across the border in Northern Ireland, most agreed with the IRA’s basic aim of ending the partition of the island and bringing about what the Irish constitution called “the reintegration of the national territory.”

“But the Irish radically revised their nationalism. Three big things changed. The power of the Catholic Church collapsed in the 1990s, partly because of its dreadful response to revelations of its facilitation of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Irish economy, home to the European headquarters of many of the major multinational IT and pharmaceutical corporations, became a poster child for globalization. And the search for peace in Northern Ireland forced a dramatic rethinking of ideas about identity, sovereignty, and nationality.

“These very questions had tormented Ireland for centuries and were at the heart of the vicious, low-level, but apparently interminable conflict that reignited in Northern Ireland in 1968 and wound down thirty years later. If that conflict was to be resolved, there was no choice but to be radical. Things that nation-states do not like—ambiguity, contingency, multiplicity—would have to be lived with and perhaps even embraced. Irish people, for the most part, have come to terms with this necessity. The English, as the Brexit referendum suggested, have not. This is why the Irish border has such profound implications for Brexit—it is a physical token of a mental frontier that divides not just territories but ideas of what a national identity means in the twenty-first century.”  [My emphases]

The passage’s conclusion pretty much says it all.  As the second decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, and as Ireland approaches 100 years of freedom from almost 800 years of English rule, Ireland will enter the historical record as having taken a step forward and England as having taken a step backwards.  Good riddance, to be frank, as I have to say so against some pretty deep Anglophile sentiments.  It took me till much too late in life to realize that the best thing to do to an irate lover who loudly announces he’s not talking to you anymore is to ignore him, but that is what the European Union is rightly and justly doing to Britain.  And Britain is doing exactly what the “irate lover” always does when you call his no-talking bluff: trying to somehow work his way back into the position where he can regain at least some of the power that he forfeited with his drama so that he can manoeuver a bit.  But it’s not going to work.  Europe is genuinely tired of the drama.

The issue here is that it’s unconscionable that England’s drama should again be made Ireland’s.  Here’s a political map of the past two decades of Northern Irish life:

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What the map shows really clearly is that, as the percentage of Protestants in Northern Ireland has declined, the two groups have actually — during almost twenty years of what we have liked to imagine was peace — grown further apart and polarized into staunchly Sinn Féin Republican constituencies and Protestant DUP constituencies.  As the Review article points out Sinn Féin supporters in a non-EU Northern Ireland will now be deprived of the ability to have either or both Irish and British citizenship, something to which I cannot see them taking to very kindly.  I also do not see supporters of DUP, a corrupt bunch of thugs that represents the absolute worse of the English Reformation’s traditions of Guy Fawkes’ Day, anti-Catholic hatred and racism (no, Catholics aren’t always the bad guys), easily giving up their attachments to London.

But that’s exactly what London has to do.  England left Ireland in 1921 with a sizeable chunk stuck between its teeth that, like a pitbull, it would not let go of and which is why we find ourselves where we are today.  It left India in 1947 like a teenager who sheepishly goes off to sleep at his girl’s after his friends have trashed his parents’ place while they were away.  It left Cyprus in 1960 exactly the same, a time bomb ready to go off — which did.  Under no condition should England be allowed to leave a similar mess this time.  Time for the international community to make the English clean up after themselves.

The international community and NATO more specifically did not support Portugal in its attempt to hold on to Goa after Indian independence.  That means the UK neither, obviously.  It’s now time for the world to tell the UK to entirely and finally Quit Ireland, its closest and perhaps most deeply brutalized colony.  I’m usually not so intransigent on these issues, but the historical record calls for a complete rejection of any attempts by Irish Protestants to keep England involved in Irish affairs by “protecting” them or their rights; complicated compromises only kick the can down the road.  The historical record calls for a complete rejection of even a syllable of their “position.”  The historical record calls for a referendum, which Unionists will lose, and calls for London to make it clear to them that they are being cut loose.  Let them keep British citizenship if they want.  Come up with a resettlement scheme for them if that’s what they want, immigrants that the English can live with since they can’t tolerate detestable, lazy, dirty Poles.  Otherwise, bye-bye guys…

But if Theresa May and her government of buffoni were ethical enough or had the balls to do something like that, they would have started that process already, instead of still talking gibberish about everything like they are.

This might end badly.  Let’s hope not.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

26 plus 6 equals 1

Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

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I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

Rebecca-West

(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

img_0973 BLGF worn

Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

spain_910_1492

Spain4 autonomous regions

Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

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Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: “¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Bodegas

10 Oct

Spanish flag demonstrators

I’ve been color-numbed by the red and yellow of both Spanish and Catalan flags recently.  As a consequence though, a theory I once had that the color scheme of New York bodegas comes from the colors of the Spanish flag has resurfaced in my consciousness.

bodega 3.jpg-shot4 Philly or NYC

It’s not that far-fetched an idea.  The first large group of Spanish-speaking immigrants to New York originally came from mostly Galicia and Asturias in northwestern Spain in the late nineteenth century and settled in what are now the streets north and south of West 14th Street and in the meat-packing district.  That’s why there are still so many mediocre Spanish restaurants in the far West Village and Chelsea and there’s also the still spectacularly good El Cid on West 15th.

Unfortunately Riomar — on the corner of Greenwich Street and Little West 12th, one of the most ambient-blessed bars that this city has ever seen: a real dive, with horrible food, stale potato tortilla and sweaty chunks of bad chorizo tapas and Goya jarred red peppers you ate with toothpicks, dirt on the floor, a dismal wine list and great jukebox, the feel of a real sailors’ bar in Almería with a “manchado mostrador” out of a Concha Piquer copla, where you went to have an after-dinner argument with your girlfriend which no one paid attention to because everybody else was having their own vicious spats, interrupted only by a good merengue or when Don Can’t-Remember-His-Name from Burgos, chef and owner of El Cid, pulled out his guitar — left this world about fifteen years ago.

Riomar was one of those bars that got busy with after-shift restaurant workers (including those of El Cid) who needed a post-combat drink and the scene would really pick up after around midnight or 1:00 a.m. when the kitchens let out, and if you hung out long enough, the Nuyorican meat workers would come by for a caña before work (guess like Sheryl Crow, they liked “a good beer-buzz early in the morning”), and then you went for breakfast with the other meat-workers and the drag queens at the much-loved Florent around the corner on Gansevoort Street (three over easy on a roll for the butchers, eggs benedict for the gay dudes; this old diner managed to cater brilliantly to both its clienteles for decades), also now gone.  Infuriatingly, Riomar was replaced by some over-priced piece of mediocrity called Serafina Meatpacking with the gallingly named Gansevoort Meatpacking NYC Hotel across the street (“trendy hotel with a rooftop bar & pool, wi-fi, 259” says Google Maps).  Actually, have you seen the size of the rooms in most of these ’boutique’ hotels? “Meatpacking” might actually be the most accurate term.

Florent has been replaced by something called Bubby’s High Line.

(Grrrrrrrr….  Why did I let myself go there?  Now I’m pissed.  Does anybody even want to live in this sterile Manhattan that’s replaced that one anymore?)

Vanishing New York Jeremiah Moss

Ok, bodegas.  A lot of the Galician and Asturian immigrants who settled in that neighborhood often came through a generation’s or less immigrant experience in Cuba or Puerto Rico, Spain’s last Caribbean colonies; if you know Havana (saludos to my pana Yusuf who does) you know two of the most imposing buildings in the city’s center are the Centro Gallego and the Centro Asturiano.  One of the innumerable fascinating things about Cuba is that while it has perhaps the richest and most vibrant Afro culture of any society in the Americas, it also has some of the closest, organic ties to Spain of any Latin American country as well.

They bring the red-and-yellow color scheme?  Why?

The only place in the Spanish-speaking world where “bodega” means a cruddy, smelly grocery store that you can’t live without is New York.  Why?

And what you call the dank grocery is the same word as the word on the label of your $300 bottle of Rioja.  Why?

Because “Bodega” in Spanish simply means warehouse or cellar.  That’s why your wine, sherries especially, comes from “bodegas” in Spain.  But in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the sugar plantation or ingenio/refinery company store, where first slaves collected, and then indentured workers later bought, their basic food stuffs, was the company’s warehouse — the bodega.  And take a sec even today to look at the merchandise in your corner bodega, other than the beer, cigarettes and soft drinks, that really moves: plantains, yuca, yautía, malanga and other tubers, the bags of rice, beans, lard, and if it has more than just grocery pretensions, pig feet and salt pork in the counter fridge.  Slave food.

So when the guajiro plantation overseer or the Cuban-Galician neighborhood businessman came to New York in 1910, he called the little store he set up that sold Cuban food staples a bodega, and I’m guessing figured the best colors for it were Spain’s red and yellow.  And then it stuck.  And then became tradition practically.  You look for the bodega’s red and yellow lights in the streets in New York at night when you need a smoke, or a seltzer to rehydrate after drinking too much, and when you remember there’s no coffee in the house for tomorrow morning; just like you look for the flashing green pharmacy cross in a European city at night after drinking too much and when you remember there’s no ibuprofen in the house for tomorrow morning.  And though the economy that produced the term has disappeared in the islands, and if you tell anyone today in Cuba or Puerto Rico or the D.R. who hasn’t visited relatives here in the city to go down to the “bodega” and buy some milk he won’t even know what you’re talking about, it survives in New York, our huge φτωχομάνα and warehouse of the world’s darkness and exile that run a constant lament under the city’s exuberance and energy and often forced-feeling hedonism.

Bodega 10

bodega 1

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Bodega 4

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Bodega 6

Bodega 7

Bodega 8

platanos

Yuca

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”

22 Sep

“…and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

  • Are Catalan nationalists like Carles Puigdemont Founding Fathers or Confederate separatists?
  • I’m not convinced by the “causes which impel” Catalans to separation.  Are you?
  • I’m hoping Catalans don’t goad Madrid and Rajoy into doing something stupid.
  • Read .  But especially scroll through the comments; the scariest ones that should give you more pause and where the dangers of Catalan separatism become clearest should jump out at you.  There you’ll see the racist self-righteousness of “little nation” nationalism in all its smug, bourgeois glory.
  • Whenever a Catalan uses or writes “Castille” that means reactionary, Catholic, Black Legend Spain where — as one comment gallingly states — “things haven’t changed much since Franco.”  Andalucía is cool and Moorish.  The Basque Country is wealthy, enterprising and progressive like us, even if they’re a little too Catholic for our tastes.  Galicia is the sweet, melancholy home of Celtic troubadours.  It’s Castille and Aragon — oh, and Asturias, which gave birth to the ugly ideology of the Reconquista — the kingdoms of the barbarous “Reyes Católicos”, that are oppressing us.
  • Substitute “Serbia” for “Castille” and you’ll get an amazing repro of Croatian gripes.  We’re European and forward-looking — even if kinna the kings of post-Hapsburg noxious fascism; don’t leave us to the mercy of obscurantist, Orthodox, Serb savages.
  • Read Vasily Grossman in …the nationalism of little nations on Armenians and what the nationalist is really about.
  • Read Vargas Llosa about how …Nationalism effaces the individual…“.
  • Where’s Almodóvar, the face of the Madrileña “movida” from La Mancha, where “nothing has changed much since Franco” to give us his opinion?  I’m sure he has one.

Catalan independence protestor

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Spain and Catalan domino effect and Barca: has the European Union encouraged orgy of separatism and regionalism?

21 Sep

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The most thuggish, corrupt sport on the planet chimes in on Catalan independence.  Bloody everybody’s got an opinion.

Apparently there were rallies for a Basque referendum all over the Vascongadas in recent weeks as well, and soon the pendejito of Spanish regionalism, Galicia, will want independence too.

Is there anyone out there who knows of any studies of how European Union ideology and policy have supported regionalism and separatism in the past decades?  That a German “go-ahead” on Slovenian and Croatian independence lit the fuse on the Yugoslav bomb has, I think, become a commonly accepted view in recent years, even for the most anti-Serb-minded Westerners.  But is it the EU’s promise of support — meaning funds — what feeds these movements?  i.e., is the idea: “If I have a direct line to Brussels then I don’t need Belgrade or London or Madrid” at the root of most of it?  That would mean that Catalans are really not separatists but a form of closet centrists (which certainly proved true of Croatia); that they think they don’t need a tie to this parasitic peripheral center — Madrid — when they themselves can be parasites on a more central center, Brussels.  Any thoughts?

And Brussels, of course, is not doing what it should be doing: telling Catalans that if they want out of the borders of a EU country then they’re out of the EU entirely, which is also the secret message that the West refused to send to Croatia in the 80s, sending it on its merry path with the consequences we all know of.

Something for all you enablers of Catalan delusions of grandeur who supported them with your tourist dollars over the past couple of decades to think about.

See Ryan Heath’s Josep Borrell warns of Catalan ‘domino effect’ in Politico (“The veteran Spanish Socialist politician — himself a Catalan — says that the independence argument is based on a myth.”)

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Michael Eric Dayson: “Facing this unadorned hate tears open wounds from atrocities that we have confronted throughout our history.”

14 Aug

In a truly disturbing op-ed piece in the TimesCharlottesville and the Bigotocracy“, Dayson makes the same point I made in Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion“.

dyson-master768White nationalists and neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Credit: Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.

“They [white supremacists] cling to a faded Southern aristocracy whose benefits — of alleged white superiority, and moral and intellectual supremacy — trickled down to ordinary whites. If they couldn’t drink from the cup of economic advantage that white elites tasted, at least they could sip what was left of a hateful ideology: at least they weren’t black. [my emphasis] The renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called this alleged sense of superiority the psychic wages of whiteness. President Lyndon Baines Johnson once argued, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.””

From my post:

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the contemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.”

But since we’re talking about the dangerous, delusional myths people need to believe, I might as well take this moment and take one tiny issue with one point in Dyson’s piece:

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt.”

People might not like me saying this, or at least think it’s the wrong time.  Oh well…  Of course African slaves were made “to toil for no wages in American dirt.”  But they were not “stolen” from their African homeland; they were bought from other Africans.

Am I blaming the victim?  No.  But if that’s what it seems like, like a lot of people think I’m anti-semitically blaming the victim if I say that the idea that there’s only one God and everybody else’s is false, and on top of it that one God loves you more than anybody else, is bound to get you kinna disliked by those around you sooner or later, then that’s cool.  (Another favorite idea of mine: if Christianity makes Jews so uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have invented it.)

I wrote my M.A. thesis in Latin American Studies on Cuba, particularly on abolition, and the complex interaction between the Cuban wars of independence from Spain, a vicious struggle that lasted three decades from 1868 to 1898 when the United States stepped in and annexed all of Spain’s remaining colonies, and the abolitionist struggle to end both the slave trade and slavery itself (the Spanish slave trade ended in 1868, and slavery itself wasn’t abolished, and then only gradually, until 1886).  In brief, and with clear echoes in the American South, a creole class in Cuba was ambivalent about independence because they were afraid of being over-run by the Black Cuban majority, while a bourgeois pro-independence class didn’t think Cuba could be a democratic republic while so many Cubans were enslaved.  In the end they did what most ex-slave societies did: free the salves and import indentured workers from the English-speaking Caribbean and immigrants from Galicia, marginalizing native Black Cubans, so that all groups together could be kept in a state of seasonal semi-employment which kept wages depressed and created enmity between the ethnic groups that should have felt some socioeconomic solidarity.  Let’s not forget that the “Danza de los millones” — “the Dance of the Millions” — when sugar generated unprecedented wealth for Cuban planters, surpassing anything the nineteenth-century slave economy could produce, and made Cuba one of the richest countries in Latin America, when the beautiful Havana we now see was largely constructed — happened in the 1910s and 20s, decades after abolition.

My thesis involved a heavy dose from my advisor of reading in West African history.  So any one who knows something about that history knows that almost none to absolutely none of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade — by some estimates 12 million human beings — were hunted down by slave-hunters Kunta-Kinte-style; it would have been logistically impossible to carry so many people across the Atlantic by that method.  African slaves were bought in huge numbers, in en masse cargo-loads by European slave traders, from West African kingdoms who had enslaved them in the course of warfare between those kingdoms.  There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the European slave trade made warfare between those kingdoms so profitable that conflict between West African states became endemic.  Doesn’t absolve anybody though, not Africans, not Yankee do-gooders, who didn’t need slaves anymore because they had already gotten rich off the trade (as that great song from the musical “1776” points out: “Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?” — see below) and could afford to get moral on the rest of us, not Protestants or Catholics or any Christians, or Muslims for that matter.

Here’s some other un-fun truths:

* Black slavery in the Muslim world never and nowhere reached the scale that it did in the Christian Western Hemisphere, but that may simply and largely be because the agro-industrial infrastructure was not present, not because Islam was more enlightened on the idea of slavery generally.  East Africa supplied the Muslim eastern Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula with plentiful slaves for centuries.  I don’t remember when the Ottomans abolished slavery, but I think it wasn’t even during the Tanzimat, but at some point in the 1908 constitutional revolution, i.e. early twentieth century.  I’m always amused at “religion of peace” Islam apologists who try and make us understand how many passages there are in Muslim scripture that deal with the fair and “humane” way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement, and I wanna think: “gee, if there are so many passages that deal with the right or wrong way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement then those things must be mighty important to this religion of peace.”

NO monotheism is innocent; let’s get that through our heads once and for all.

* I hate to burst the bubble of Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X’s souls, or that of the wacked Nation of Islam, but Islam was not the religion of your African ancestors.  (They may not have been called Cassius Clay, but it’s for sure that they weren’t called Muhammad Ali either.)  Islam took a while to penetrate as far south as the coastal regions of West Africa.  And actually, your ancestors almost certainly were the still polytheist inhabitants of the coast who might have been sold to European slave-traders by the newly Muslim kingdoms of the Sahel (currently Boko Haram country), the belt between the Sahara and the coastal jungle/savanna.  If Afro-Americans anywhere in the Western Hemisphere are at all interested in the religion of their ancestors, they should look to Cuban Santería or Brazilian Candomblé or Haitian Voudon to re-establish a historical connection; when I was researching Santería in the 90s in Brooklyn, there was a real culture war between those Black Americans who were attracted to the Cuban religion of Yoruba origins — an amazingly relaxed, open-minded group, since polytheism is an open system, where you got to experience great music and dance, once you got past the practice’s defensive boundaries — and those Black Americans who were recent converts to Islam: puritanical pains-in-the-ass, like most converts, who had learned enough Arabic to call everybody else Kafirs, and who irritated the Senegalese and Malian immigrants in New York to no end.

And Black Southern Baptist or Pentecostalist  Christianity may have originally been the “slaveowner’s religion,” but its “getting the spirit” is a purely African phenomenon that has its emotional-devotional roots in the same parts of West Africa as Santería/Candomblé/Vodoun.  Read the second to last chapter of James Baldwin‘s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which takes place in 1930s (I think) Harlem and then the last chapter of Maya Deren‘s Divine Horsemen on Haitian Vodoun.  They mirror each other totally and both pieces still blow me away whenever I read them with the closest possible artistic representation of deity possession, the most impressive discursive capturing of a completely non-discursive, intangible experience, that I know of.

Divine Horsemen

* Another bubble to burst is the “Kwaanza-ism” bubble. No African-American before President Obama had any connection to East Africa, Kenya, or Swahili.  Another geographical term — Africa — turned into a completely artificial cultural construct, as if anything that happens on the African continent is somehow connected to African-Americans.  The BBC is currently running a series on “The History of Africa” — so modest those folks over there — that, as had become common-place but I thought we had moved on from (turns out we haven’t), lumps together Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco into one “African” history instead of placing them in the history of the Greco-Roman-Christian-Arab-Muslim zone.  (Does anyone remember the height of this absurd argument: the Newsweek magazine cover with the picture of an Egyptian relief and the screaming caption: “Was Cleopatra Black?”  To Newsweek‘s credit, however, the article didn’t take its own title seriously and after going into an analysis of the African-American kulturkampf that gave rise to this question, ended simply with: “And Cleopatra?  She was Greek.”)

And does anybody still celebrate Kwaanza?

I always chuckle when people call Constantinople the city on two continents, as if the quarter-mile crossing of the Bosporus into “Asia” is some kind of massive, marked civilizational change, like the people in Kadiköy are Chinese or something because it’s in “Asia.”

Newsweek Cleopatra

This was a real train-of-thought, free-association post — many think that everything I write is — so thanks for sticking with me.  Below are some videos selections based on my continued free association process:


“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a real shayne Yid (beautiful Jew) if there ever was one.  Read the NPR story on him that I’ve linked to.  He also adopted the Rosenbergs‘ children, Robert and Michael, after that closetted scumbag Roy Cohn (a real self-hating Jew and queen if there ever was one) had their parents electrocuted.

6-abel-meeropol-robert-michael-with-train-set-1954-_wide-3cb2d45bee8bab3d344570df91679295419dbb20-s800-c85Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set. Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

And Maya Deren’s beautiful documentary footage of Haitian Vodoun:

See also Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s beautiful documentary, Ilé Aiyé on Bahian Candomblé.  It’s the best introductory “text” I know.  In reference to the dancing, drumming and singing, and animal sacrifice, food, alcohol and tobacco offerings that are meant to bring the god (or orisha in Yoruba) down into possession of his or her devotee, the narration includes the precious line: “They threw a party for the gods — and the gods came.”

And — on a lighter note — the great Celia Cruz below singing “Guantanamera” (you have to watch her move…wasn’t it great when women were allowed to have bodies like that? and if you have any idea what those silly kids who appear at the end are doing, please share) a song based on a poem of José Martí‘s, Cuba’s national poet and a man revered by Cubans of every color and political stripe anywhere.  In the end, Black Cubans played a significant part in the Cuban struggle, personified most in the person of Antonio MaceoAs Celia sings: “Freedom was a trophy won for us by the mambí [largely Black guerilla fighters], with the words of Martí, and the machete of Maceo.”  Yikes.  The Cuban Wars of Independence were truly brutal, often really fought with machetes, the symbol of Afro-Cubans’ cane-cutting bondage become an instrument of rebellion, but Spain’s imperial ego simply did not want to let go of “la siempre fiel” — “the always loyal” — and extremely profitable island.  1898, the year Spain had to give in, was a year that became a byword for disaster for Spaniards, and Cuba was the most lamented loss; there’s still a common expression in Spain: “Más se perdió en Cuba” — “There was more lost in Cuba” — when you want to say that “oh well, things aren’t so bad, not, at least, compared to the loss of Cuba.”  Ironically, Cuban independence was followed by a massive wave of migration to the island from Spain, largely from Galicia and Asturias, so in a weird way Cuba is the most connected to Spain of Latin American countries; a great, very unresearched musicological subject is the reciprocal exchange of musical influences from Cuba to southern Spain, especially for the gypsies of Seville and Cádiz, both port cities that were gateways to the Americas or “the Indies”, the flamenco genre “rumba” being just one indicator.

Celia was an initiated Santería priestess of the Yoruba male fertility deity Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name or you see lightning); her performances often contained dance moves associated with Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name); whether she was “mounted” by him at the time — which is the expression used to indicate deity possession, de allí Maya Deren’s reference to “horsemen” — is something only she can have known, though mostly devotees have no memory of their trance after they come out of it.  Most salsa singers since have been initiates — have to stay competitive and you only can if the gods are helping you — and the improv vocabulary and dance gestures of salsa performances are heavily derived from Yoruba Santería.   There’s one video of her singing “Quimbara” (below) where I think it’s really happening — the bending down and touching of the floor especially.

Here:

Finally, a NikoBakos memory.  Mambí was a chain of 24-hour Cuban restaurants, Mambí #1, Mambí #2 — I think there were five of them all over once heavily Cuban Washington Heights and Inwood — that used to provide me and friends with some early morning, post-salsa sustenance.  The food, like the neighborhoods, had become pretty Dominican by then, but they still made a mean Cuban sandwich.  All the Cuban restaurants I knew as a kid in New York are now gone, in Manhattan and Brooklyn replaced by Dominican plantain places, and in Queens, by one more mediocre Colombian bakery.  Schiller’s on Rivington Street still makes a good Cuban sandwich, but it’s $18.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

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Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

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I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

Rebecca-West

(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

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Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

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Spain4 autonomous regions

Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 6.56.34 PM

Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: ¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

IMG_0779

(click)

This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

Rustem pasa tiles

Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

Eugénie;_keizerin_der_Fransen_(2)

The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

Fish20140522_214540(click)

But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

Lebpic1340611232r779452Leblebi

So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

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Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Un Verano en Nueva York*

13 Jul

Queensborough Bridge (photo: Matt Lawson)

I don’t often get the chance to aimlessly stroll around the City much anymore – I mean Manhattan, not that City – but especially in the summertime, when New York is hot like it is today but not unbearably so, so many of it’s sensory delights, especially its human ones, are on display everywhere that if I get the chance, I can’t stop walking, eating, drinking things, and checking people out — the perfect tourist in my own city.

My shrink was unusually cute today and I had a really good time with him and that only added to my kefia and energy.  I walk straight down 5th to St. Patrick’s to give my saludos to St. Anthony, since he’s my most best beloved in the Catholic pantheon, and then turn off 5th to Madison because I can’t deal with any tourists but myself, though I’ve been finding European tourists to be significantly less obnoxious recently – and significantly less, generally — now that they don’t have any money either.

I know where I’m going anyway – at least for starts.  I’m making a bee-line for faloodeh.  Don’t ask me wtf…  I must have been dreaming about it last night and sleep-walking (which I did a lot of as a kid) when I posted that piece about faloodeh:  “This is what I want in this heat: Faloodeh”,  because it was posted at 7:00 a.m., which is the middle of the night for me, and when I got up at my usual time I didn’t even remember having put it up.  But I have faloodeh on the brain right now, man, and am heading straight for the only place in New York where I know I can get it, an Iranian restaurant on 30th St. called Ravagh.

It’s better than the fantasy had been, which usually can’t be said about almost anything in life.  Look at it; it even looks beautiful.  It’s got that perfect color palette that everything Persian does, always pushing the limits of saturation but never becoming gaudy or tacky.

Faloodeh (click)

Ravagh is a pretty good place, at least in the opinion of this non-Iranian.  The appetizers are nothing to get hopped up about, but the kebabs are great, as are the khoresh and the great pomegranate and walnut fesenjun, but I’m also a sucker for any food with fruit and nuts in it, not only taste-wise but ‘cause I’m also historically stimulated by it.  In Persian food we find tastes and combinations that have, certainly, disappeared from Greek tastes (?) (a Neo-Greek can vomit if he finds so much as one raisin in his dolma) but from increasingly flattened and simplified Turkish tastes too.  Iranians, however, are still geniuses, as I said in my trance this morning, at subtle sweet-and-sour combos, at using spices without having to overwhelm you with an indigestible quantity of onion-garlic-ginger canvass on which to use them, like a lot of Indian food does, and for appreciating the taste and aroma of every herb and green thing that this earth can give us.

(It’s also the work-place of one of the most attentive waitresses and the most beautiful Uzbek woman in the world; no exaggeration, this is one of the most gorgeous women in New York, the female equivalent of one of Hafez’ dangerously beautiful young Turkish men: “Zabaan-e-yaar-e-man torki wa man torki nami daanam,”  “The language of my friend is Turkish, but I know no Turkish.”  Ok, that’s not Hafez; it’s Amir Khusrau, but I can’t think of any Hafez right now…)

I head downtown after that to the East Village to see my favorite Hanuman in the city.  Midtown’s blank Wasps, smart-looking Jewish guys and buff borough boys in tight dress shirts and ties start giving way to sweet, ethnically unidentifiable guys with lots of tattoos and scrawny beards.  I pass Mono on the way and see its beautiful, sweaty ham sitting in the window and think: ok, maybe later.

I’m irritated again my Daddy Bloomberg’s traffic lights that tell you how many seconds you have to get across a street before you’re flattened by a flock of taxi cabs.

I see New Yorkers running, frantic, across the street; New Yorkers, as long as I’ve known them, waited till they formed a critical mass on any street corner and simply marched together into the middle of the street, stopping traffic at will.  Now he’s got us running.  I wish again he would just go back to Boston.  It’s already the city that he wants to turn New York into; why is he bothering with us?  They’ll love him there.  Give him a fourth and even fifth term, make him Czar of Massachusetts Bay colony.  Just go.  Go away.

“They save lives!”  Ok.  I don’t know if they do.  But even if they do, a civilization where the saving of life is of consistent and constant greater concern than its quality, where not only do lives need to be saved but all risk — germs in bathrooms, kids getting their knees scuffed — needs to be legislated out of them, a world where, as James Hillman put it: “quantity of life is at all costs more important than quality…” is a civilization we’re not going to be very happy to have lived so long to see.

Anyway, I adore this particular Hanuman that I’m on the way to see because it’s a gigantic brass murti and he’s in his kneeling pose, which I love, because it shows off his big thighs and his great forearms holding his mace over his shoulder and the huge chest he has to have to hold that heart so enormous that God himself and everyone He loves can fit into it.  They never dress him there either, because it’s a difficult pose to dress, so whenever you go he’s always there gleaming in all his bare muscled glory, ready to go to war for Ram and his Kingdom, or for anyone who loves Ramji the way he does.

The problem is that this temple is in the East Village and its whole community is white people, which means it’s really not a Hindu temple or mandir at all but an East Village center for non-stop yoga classes or kundalini workshops, so you’re almost never allowed in for a little bit of darshan and peace and quiet with your god.  I’ve tried to suggest in the past that maybe there should be some more “open” time for someone like me.  But you can’t complain there either because these white “Hindus” have gotten modern Hinduism so frighteningly mixed up in their heads with Buddhism and any other New Age stuff they think they believe in, that if you complain and look even remotely irritated, they look at you sadly like you’re accumulating bad karma and they have no way of helping you.  On top of that, there’s only flower offerings permitted, because – I swear – laddoo and peda and other mithai have “lots of refined sugar and saturated fat” in them, so you can’t even walk away from aarti there (yes, they have aarti every evening at least) with a good piece of prasad and its gratifying sweetness in your mouth.  I really want to ask these people what it is they’re saving their bodies for sometimes; they ever heard of that whole dust to dust bit?

Again, I don’t get to see my Hanuman.

This is the pose of Hanumanji I love most, a little one at a Jackson Heights shop.  Now imagine him nine feet tall and all gleaming brass, like he is at that temple. (click)

I remember the ham at Mono though.

Casa Mono is the restaurant really; it’s part of the Batalli empire but it’s actually a very intimate place with hands down the best Spanish food in New York, and I think as good as anything I’ve ever had in Spain as well.  I always wait, no matter how long it takes, for a seat at the bar by the open kitchen because you get to see the mens’ performance there and it’s good to see men sweat and handle knives and fire and and meat and heat (the night there’s a woman behind there I won’t return, I swear; I’ll just suffer without Mono for the rest of my life**).  You also get to watch the growing status, knowledge and confidence of New York’s Mexican workers there too, their steady rise to the top, the same trajectory we followed decades before, and the way that — not only Mexican hard work — but Mexican wit and playfulness, which almost everyone now understands some of, have become the esprit de corps glue that holds together so many excellent New York restaurants like this one.  There’s often a Mexican or Ecuadorian trainee behind the counter, and a guy who I think is the line’s number two, a sexy tatooed-up Ed Norton look-alike that I really love.  But if you’re especially lucky you’ll get to see head chef Anthony Sasso back there cooking, a guy with a body that looks like he used to be an Olympic diver, who never sweats, and who cooks with such ease and elegance and what Patricia Storace (in her description of turn of the twentieth-century Greek politician Ion Dragoumis) calls “…that most erotic of qualities in a man: the capacity for sustained concentration…,” that it’s hard to take your eyes off of him, and that I, at least, only manage to do so for fear of making a total ass of myself and because I want to let the guy do his job.

But Mono is for a really good dinner when you’re feeling rich and want to drop a lot of money on good wine that Ashley, the least pretentious and most generous sommeliere in the city, will help you out with.  Today I just drop by at their annex next door, Bar Jamon, a place I also love, though if you don’t catch it at the beginning or end of the shift it’s always torturously crowded.

(It’s enough I haven’t given these places aliases; I’m not telling where they are on top of it; not everyone deserves to know.)

Jose is there today.  Great!  A Spaniard.  After being sweetly told to go away at the gringo ashram because they were cleaning their chakras or something, I need an aggressive welcome and from a people who aren’t afraid of a little aggression.  Jose always makes me happy because he’s a super-majo kid from Zaragoza in Aragon.  Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities.  It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it.  Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well.  That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of Spanish protests, mashallah; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in.  No, it’s not the other way around.  In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo.  There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.

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Jose’s bearing, humour and way of talking are the epitome of majete; I’m glad to see him, I’m hot, my feet hurt (“erkekler…pabucim sikiyor…”) and I ask him for a glass of anything cold and white.  He immediately comes up with a great Albarino, a Galician wine I usually don’t like but this particular one is beautiful.  I think of a gorgeous woman I was in love with a few years ago with blue-emerald eyes so intense they looked fake (actually her parents were Canarian – she just grew up in Santiago — so those eyes were probably Berber and certainly not Galician); she was beautiful, a good kid, and a little nuts – but beautiful.

“So a Greek and a Spaniard get together,” the joke goes — and of course these days they compare notes on how fucked up their respective countries have become.  I tell Jose that I think Spain is salvageable but that Greece seems in danger of just slipping off of the face of the earth at some point soon.  He’s not so confident.  He says people in Spain are “learning to be poor again,” getting used to a life with “un plato de alubias” — a plate of beans — a proverbial Spanish expression for just-bare-subsistence poverty.  He’s probably around thirty and he says bluntly that his generation in Spain is destroyed; that they’re going to hit their late thirties and early forties without any job experience and that unless you’ve got family money, your only option is emigration, like “old-time Gallegos” we both say in sync.  (Galicians in Spain are like Epirotes in Greece, the archetypically emigrating region, so much so that in much of Latin America all Spaniards used to be collectively referred to as “Gallegos.”)

My heart goes out to him and I respect his straight-eyed stoicism and I think he’ll be ok because he seems strong.  As hard as I try, though, my heart doesn’t go out to Greeks of his generation nor do I respect them.  I think they’re cry-babies who would be scared shitless – or worse, think it beneath them — to work in a bar in New York the way Jose does and that they deserve – richly — to relearn the cultural lessons of emigration and being poor again.  Three decades of illusory prosperity created an unbearable type of human being in Greece, a nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be – and I’m talking about Athens more than the provinces.  (Athens is a city I genuinely love, but it probably ranks first in the world in thinking itself more sophisticated than it really is.)  (Plus — I’m always confused a little by Cypriots, who arguably enjoyed a more solid prosperity for a longer time but never became so insufferable, and who all Athenians are always mercilessly condescending towards: incessantly mocking their clannishness, their still healthy respect for Church tradition, the beautiful musicality of Cypriot dialect.)  I’m pained by the genuinely poor and the old and the sick and the heroin addicts who are suffering and dying in Greece, and murderously angry at Frau Merkel (“murderously”…you can quote me; I think she’s a criminal and should be gone after), who needs to pay banks back and dresses it up as one of her daddy’s Lutheran sermons.  But that urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, twenty-five to forty-five-year-old demographic in Greece…they can just go back to washing dishes in Chicago again like our grandfathers did as far as I care.  Let ‘em start from scratch; see what kind of culture they can come up with this time.

(As I listen to Jose I remember that the terrifying Catalan Company, who are still a by-word for monsters and boogey-men in parts of the Balkans — “…like Catalani and the Devil,” Albanians say….Albanians — weren’t actually Catalanes at all, but savage Aragones highlanders: Jose’s ancestors. 

The “Companyia Catalana d’Orient,” were a bunch of murderous, mercenary nut-jobs, the Blackwater of their day (I forget what Blackwater is called today) that had started off fighting in the Reconquista in Spain.  But like the Greek-Arab Akritai-Ghazi of the Anatolian frontier, they were a mixed bag, originally mostly Arab-speaking Almogavars, an Arab word meaning “scout,” the “Muslims” eating pork and downing wine like good Iberians, the “Christians” proud that they raped nuns, looted monasteries and occasionally threatened the Pope.  The only things these guys were loyal to were killing, looting and each other, in that order.  This is their hymn:

    Aur! Aur! Desperta ferro!

    Deus aia!

    Veyentnos sols venir, los pobles ja flamejen:

    veyentnos sols passar, son bech los corbs netejen.

    La guerra y lo saqueig, no hi ha mellors plahers.

    Avant, almugavers! Que avisin als fossers!

    La veu del somatent nos crida ja a la guerra.

    Fadigues, plujes, neus, calors resistirem,

    y si’ns abat la sòn, pendrèra per llit la terra,

    y si’ns rendeix la fam carn crua menjarem!

        Desperta ferro! Avant! Depressa com lo llamp

        cayèm sobre son camp!

        Almugavers, avant! Anem allí a fer carn!

        Les feres tenen fam!

Listen! listen! Wake up, O iron! Help us God!…Just seeing us coming the villages are already ablaze. Just seeing us passing the crows are wiping their beaks. War and plunder, there are no greater pleasures. Forward Almogavars! Let them call the gravediggers! The voice of the somatent is calling us to war. Weariness, rains, snow and heat we shall endure. And if sleep overtakes us, we will use the earth as our bed. And if we get hungry, we shall eat raw meat. Wake up, O iron! Forward! Fast as the lightning let us fall over their camp! Forward Almogavars! Let us go there to make flesh, the wild beasts are hungry!

Boy, people don’t like war like they used to, do they?  Even Marine chants aren’t this hard-core.  Or do they?  And it’s just shape-shifted into something else?

I think they were actually involved in one of the Crusades and then at one point one of our last moronic emperors had the brilliant idea of inviting them as mercenaries to help fight off the Ottomans.  What scheming idiots, except for poor, tragic Constantine, the Palaiologoi were — and poor Kyr Gianne Cantacouzino, so beloved by Cavafy, trying to hold together the mess they created.  And they weren’t even good schemers, which is one thing Greeks usually do well. Even Constantine tried to interfere in the succession of Mehmet II in a pathetic way that had worked before but by that point the Turks were on to them already.  He sent a delegation to Edirne to remind the new Sultan’s vezir that they held Mehmet’s brother Orhan as a guest in Constantinople, a veiled threat of provoking another succession civil war among the Ottomans, which wasn’t hard to do given the brutally absolutist methods Ottoman succession practices involved.  I always loved the balling-out the Greek diplomats got from Halil, Mehmet’s vizier:

“You stupid Greeks, I have had enough of your devious ways.  The late Sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you.  The present Sultan is not of the same mind.  If Constantine eludes his bold and imperious grasp, it will be only because God continues to overlook your cunning and wicked schemes.  You are fools to think you frighten us with your fantasies, and that when the ink on our treaty is barely dry.  We are not children without strength or reason.  If you think you can start something, do so… All that you will achieve is to lose what little you still have.”

This is what they were left with in 1400.  At the time of the above event, which was fifty years later, they had lost Salonica too and almost all of the Thracian hinterlands of C-town itself.  But it was still “The Empire of the Romans.”

As for the Aragoneses the century before, they succeeded in inflicting some damage on the Ottomans at first, but had soon attracted Turkic and Greek freelancers into their ranks and of course went on a decade-long plundering spree in both Byzantine and Ottoman lands, including Mount Athos, where no Catalan was allowed to enter until recently, and only upon payment of reparations by the government of Catalonia; those monks have Byzantine memories, man.  After devastating the countryside of what remained of the Byzantine empire, they established a Duchy for themselves at Athens by taking it from some other Frangoi, which was eventually absorbed by the Ottomans, of course, though the King of Spain still carries the title, “Duke of Athens,” which the Spanish Crown inherited through the Kingdom of Aragon.)

I snap out of my historic daydreaming and pay for my Albarino and my incredibly expensive plate of ham, which was totally worth it.  It was Iberico ham from pata negra pigs from Extremadura that eat free-range, mostly acorns, so the meat is grained with a velvety fat that has an incredibly nutty taste to it and a texture unlike any other kind of pork fat.  It wasn’t allowed into the U.S. until recently because the F.D.A. or whoever had concerns about the health standards under which the pigs were raised, like they’re worried about raw milk cheeses and I don’t know what else.  I think of how irritated I get when I have to fill out an American customs form when I’m coming to the U.S. and I get to that question about whether I have any agricultural products on me.  I’m like: “Are you serious, United States of America?  Are you really asking me this question?  You?  The origin of all the plastic, poisonous, carcinogenic garbage food on the planet?  You’re really worried about two lemons from a family orchard or some sausages I might have with me and the havoc they’re going to wreak on America’s ecosystem and agriculture?  Really?”

Jamon Iberico at Mono (click)

I wish Jose well, hope to have enough money to see him again soon because I’m broke these days, and head for the N back to Queens.  I expect more stimulation on the subway and am not disappointed.  But the first thing I notice is a great drawing, by an artist whose name I’m too stupid to note, that covers the entire ad space above the bench opposite me.  It’s a Bemelman-like drawing of New Yorkers on a subway bench, like the one we’re all sitting on and they’ve got it posted on both sides of the car, in fact.

I immediately do a double-take because it looks like two of the characters in the drawing are two little Dropolitisses, women from my father’s villages in southern Albania, with their distinctive white headdresses, like my grandmother here in the last photo we have of her.  (click on all)

Then I look closer and notice their sneakers and schoolbags and realize they’re two Muslim high school girls sharing an IPad.  I smile, because the implications of and reasons for confusing the two are so obviously telling.

On the bench below the drawing are two big, sun-burnt Irish construction workers, in cut-off jeans and work-boots, t-shirts with dried sweat stains on them, who are so exhausted that they are falling asleep on each other.  Somehow, though, I know they’re gonna go for a pint when they get off the train, no matter how exhausted.  At the other end are three lanky, Bosnian giants, who have to keep their legs doubled up against their midsections practically to keep them from stretching across the whole subway car.  I stare at them with a dumb unconscious stare, listening to the subtle tonality of Serbo-Croatian (or “Bosnian”), as they goof around with each other, and I think they’d be fun to drink with – if they drink (they probably drink…).  Then suddenly the image of all that manhood and youth decomposing and scattered around the ground in pieces flashes before my eyes (I’ve had Srebrenica on the brain for the past few days too, not just faloodeh), and I snap out of it.

 

In the middle of these two bunches of heavy-weights is a super-elegant Pakistani kid, with a white-stitched topi on his head, with the v-shaped opening that Sindhi topis have though I don’t know where he’s from, and a carefully trimmed beard that’s always a sign of observant-but-not-nuts to me.  He’s got cool blue suede Adidas on and perfectly ripped jeans so you can see the hair against the color of his skin on his thighs and shins.  He’s got a worn wooden tespih wound around his left wrist along with a thick leather wrist-band and about half a dozen multi-color, tie-on bracelets that could’ve been bought on the beach in Cancun on his right.  But on top of it all he’s wearing a stunningly beautiful, blindingly white, short-length kurta, completely unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest, with a dense white-on-white chikan-like embroidery around the collar and button panels that even from across the subway car I can tell is exquisite (my mom taught me to recognize good needlework; she was a very skilled embroiderer herself).  I know this simple summer kurta and its kind of embroidery can cost as much as a good sherwani, and I wonder where he’s going or coming from to be wearing such an expensive piece of clothing.  He’s also got his sunglasses balanced behind the back of his head, and they don’t slide off during the whole subway ride.  This is Desi majeza.  He’s a sight.  I wonder if they’ve found a suitable girl for him yet, or if he’s even going to tolerate family choices in that kind of thing; see, that’s the thing; his whole get-up and attitude make it impossible to gauge exactly how “traditional” he is, a frequent dilemma in a city where the cultural self is so malleable, and which – aside from how handsome he is – is what makes him so fascinating to look at.  He could be the perfect obedient Muslim son; he could be a D.J. somewhere or a dancer regular at Bhangra Basement at S.O.B.’s or an ecstasy dealer, or all or any combination of those.  I bet he drinks.  I bet he fasts for Ramazan though.  I then start wondering what Whitman, who loved the men of New York so deeply: “manners free and superbopen voices–hospitalitythe most courageous and friendly young men…” would have done with the material New York would have to offer him these days.  He wrote with such passion of a totally white city; he might’ve been overwhelmed by this one.

I like betting to myself where people are going to get off the subway based on sociological info, and, of course, the Irish guys and the Pakistani get off at Queensborough Plaza to take the 7 train, the Irish guys to Sunnyside or Woodside, the cool Pakistani kid to Jackson Heights or Elmhurst.  And sure enough the Bosnians follow me to Astoria.  I think to myself that I should get a camera and a business card for this blog so I look semi-professional and not like a freak asking people if I can take their picture with my lame Blackberry.

The N train (photo: Matt Lawson)

In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.

From the wall paintings at Hagia Eirene: St. Demetrius above, my patron saint, and his best army buddy, St. Nestor, below, executed together by the Emperor Maximian in Salonica in 306 A.D., because Nestor, with Dimitri’s blessing, killed the Emperor’s favorite gladiator in the arena.  Nestor was beheaded; Dimitri run through with lances — a story.  (Click)

I end up back in Sunnyside, which has become a heavily Turkish neighborhood in recent years.  The amazing thing is what a complete range of Turkish society the community consists of.  Every kind of Turk: from gorgeous young Istanbullu girls (who have disconcertingly started to destroy their beautiful faces with bad nose jobs, like Iranian girls), to old women in flowered salvar squatting outside on the steps of the neighborhood’s Art Deco apartment buildings, picking through lentils in a big sini.  On the corners are Turkish guys hanging out or you pass one every few yards as you walk down the street (“…icim sikiliyor”) and once again I curse the fact that “man torki na midaanam.”

Ah, here’s some Hafez:

“I am the slave of the eyes of that Turk who, in his sweet drunken sleep,

Has a canopy of musky eyebrows over the adorned rose-bed of his face.”

(Sorry I don’t know the Farsi.)

 Of course these guys don’t look like Hafez’ Turk would have, don’t have the eyes he would have, nor do they look like the Uzbek beauty that served me my faloodeh earlier in the afternoon.  These are “our Turks” and though quite a few do, the majority don’t bear much resemblance to their Turkic forebears anymore.  I said that once in a conversation with some Greeks – “our Turks” – to distinguish the inhabitants of Turkey from Central Asian peoples (I don’t know what we were talking about that making that distinction would have been necessary) and I got a blank stare from everybody.  But after a brief pause I realized that it felt good to say, that it was heart-warming to say: “our Turks.”  Plus, anything like that I might say that pisses off Greeks gives me a thrill that can’t be described.

I was once so mad for a Turkish guy from Sunnyside years ago that I learned how to write: “___________, you’re beautiful” in Ottoman script and graffitied it all over the neighborhood.  I thought it would be like a coded love-letter from his ancestral past and that somehow, some day, God would see to it that it were decoded for him.  Thank God that I don’t think He ever did because today I’m mortified to even remember that I did something like that — not that it’s exactly out of character.  I have much to be mortified over; and it takes much longer than you think to convert humiliating regrets into “ah-youth” nostalgia.  And I wasn’t so young either.  It’s just this guy was a knock-out.  He’d walk into a bar and my knees would get shaky; I’d have to be trashed to talk to him without stuttering.  I had to let it out somehow or I would’ve died.

I drop into my favorite Irish pub on Queens Boulevard, for a beer and to wait for a friend and, sure enough, it’s full of dusty, sweaty construction workers who couldn’t go home without a pint.  Despite the influx of Turks and Greeks and Roumanians and Armenians (it’s one of the mysteries of New York immigration that peoples who can’t stand each other back home choose to settle in the same neighborhoods when they get here), Sunnyside is still one of the city’s hard-core Irish neighborhoods, with a population of both old-time Irish-Americans and young Irish kids.  These last had stopped coming for a while, but now have sadly started again, afflicted by the eternal curse of this beautiful, heroic people.  But they, for sure, are tough enough for anything.  When you talk to them about things in Ireland, they’re attitude is basically: “Ah…young folks leaving again…things were good for a while, ya know, and now we’re back to the same old….cheers…”

The 7 train in Sunnyside.  The only attempt ever made in New York to make an elevated train attractive.  (click)

There was a genre of Ottoman literature known as the “shehrengiz,” the “shehrashub” in its Farsi prototype, which was basically a tour of a particular city cataloguing in detail all its beautiful people: men and women, but mostly young men — echoes of Whitman again.  Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli in their fascinating and highly idiosyncratic The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society translate the term as “city-thriller” or “city-disturber.”  One of the longest extant ones is about Gumulcine oddly enough (Komotene), ironic because the only thing that distinguishes modern Gumulcine from any miserable northern Greek city and makes it interesting and quite beautiful is its Turkish population.  People have called this corner of Greece the last remaining part of the Ottoman Empire and it truly feels that way.  The Turkish marketplace there is particularly fascinating, because of its abundance of coffeehouses and borekcidika, but also because of the beautiful traditional jewelry that’s still made in the city and sold in its numerous shops.  This isn’t the mass-produced crap of Jiannena; this is stuff of real artistry.  Wonder what the boys who worked in its sixteenth-century jewelry workshops looked like; they were obviously of high poetic caliber.

(Once when I was in Komotene I had spent the morning in the Turkish market neighborhood and later on, for some reason, walked back through its streets during siesta time, when all the shops were shuttered.  I saw that the iron gate of every single shop in the marketplace had “1955” graffitied on it, the year of the anti-Greek riots in Istanbul – see one of my first posts “The Name of this Blog”.  I thought it was the creepiest, most cowardly kind of nationalist intimidation that I’d ever seen; it still turns my stomach to remember it.)

Gumulcine

One more beer as it starts getting dark.  Today I lived my own New York shehrengiz.  Sorry for the rambling length of this post, or if any part of it was embarrassingly personal; feel for me.  I felt compelled to write it — my prose shehrengiz.  It started with the faloodeh.  It’s what a hot summer day in New York can do to you.

I am he that aches with amorous love;

Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching,

         attract all matter?

So the body of me to all I meet or know.

— Walt Whitman

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*The name of this entry is the name of one of the all-time greatest hits of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa band, El Gran Combo, “Un Verano en Nueva York” , “A Summer in New York:”  “If you want to have fun, full of enchantment and delight, all you have to do is live a summer in New York.”  Of course, given how hellish summer in New York can be, especially for inner-city residents, especially back in 1970, I always had this weird suspicion that this song was some kind of sick joke…

**Of course as fate would have it — or I must’ve insulted some goddess, Artemis, or Durga Ma probably — a couple of months after I wrote this there was suddenly a woman behind the kitchen bar at Mono and of course she’s great and of course I keep going.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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