Tuesday, 27 November 2012

the elephant in the room

When you meet a local in Poland, it is likely that they will speak to you about one of two subjects: the partition of their country, or the Holocaust. The latter figured more prominently in my conversations with the various people I met for obvious reasons—one of which was simply the fact that it happened just 70 years ago.  

Poland once had one of the biggest Jewish populations in Europe. The Second World War and their calculated extermination by the Nazis reduced this number to a mere fraction. Since the fall of communism, it seems there has been some sort of a Jewish revival in the country. The construction of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw is but one testament to this.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust weighs heavily on the Polish psyche. During the Communist era, the government preferred not to discuss the Jewish question because it was simply uncomfortable. Properties abandoned in the process of Jewish expulsion were redistributed after 1945. But the fall of the Communist government did not make things any easier. Jews who had left started coming back, partly to reclaim what was theirs. In Krakow, Maciek showed me some of the apartment blocks that had been occupied before they had been ghettoised. He added that many of the descendants have since engaged good lawyers in a bid to set things right. But what about the communities that have sprung up in those areas since the late 1940s and early 1950s?  

Beyond the legal tussle, it is the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust that remains a difficult subject. The Nazis built six concentration camps in Poland. Some were used as transit points, others had death written all over them. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau though initially I had decided against it. The experience was not an easy one, even if I did not get particularly emotional.

I spoke about my visit to the camps with Przemek the next night. I told him how there have been times when I questioned the Holocaust – did it really happen? Why was it necessary to keep reminding the world? Haven’t there been other genocides before and after? Think Rwanda, Armenia, Ukraine, etc. I personally believe no statistic or duration of an atrocity makes one more grave than the other. But perhaps the systematic manner and the scale with which it happened, and the world’s preference to ignore the elephant in the room, offer some answers.

A recent documentary on the History Channel deals with the ghosts of the Third Reich, as does Daša Drndić’s novel, Trieste. Both touch on the descendants of the Nazis and Jews whose lives have been shaped by the events of the Second World War. A common thread that binds them is guilt: the Germans, for what their parents or grandparents did, and the Jews for having survived the Holocaust. One German woman found out about her grandfather’s involvement at a concentration camp. Another sterilised herself for fear of passing down the poison of hate. Elsewhere, the theme of survivor’s guilt is brilliantly explored in the 2010 French film Sarah’s Key. While talking to Przemek and other people I met in Poland, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying hard not to betray a personal link, albeit a very distant one, to the Holocaust.  

One link they definitely were distancing themselves from was the one established by US President Barack Obama sometime before his re-election. He described the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish’. To say this statement ruffled feathers barely scratches the surface. ‘It suggests that we had something to do with it,’ Przemek told me. ‘It was a Nazi camp, not Polish.’ I believe as much. But in this generation of bite-sized information, who takes notice? All that matters is that Poland is where a physical manifestation of Nazism stands. It is indeed unfortunate that geography was assaulted by politics and produced a history that the Poles continue to negotiate with.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Four days in Kyiv

Statue under the
Friendship of Nations Arch
(Арка Дружби Народів)
Kyiv (kee-uhv) is the capital of Ukraine and the birthplace of the Eastern Slavic civilisation. It was part of Russia for much of about 200 years from 1775. The city underwent intensive Russification before finally becoming the capital of independent Ukraine in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Someone told me that Kyiv is the most Russian city, even if it's no longer in that country. Why not find out for yourself? :)

Kyiv's Top Sights (in my opinion at least)

St Sophia's Cathedral (right): This is the oldest remaining church in the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photography in the Cathedral itself is not permitted, but you're free to snap to your heart's content from the wedding cake of a belltower at the entrance. Note however that separate fees apply to climb the tower.

Khreshchatyk (Хрещатик) Street (left): The main street in Kyiv is where you'll find Stalinist-era buildings and several international brands. The street is closed off to traffic on weekends. 
a painting on one of the walls of
the Chornobyl Museum

Chornobyl Museum: Don't worry if you can't make it to the site itself (tours can be pretty pricey, depending on how many people are in your group), this museum in Kyiv provides a decent insight into the events surrounding the accident in April 1986. There are some signs in English, but the photographs should speak for themselves.

Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew's Descent (left): At the top stands the baroque St Andrew's Church, while the street itself is lined with souvenir sellers, restaurants and galleries. There are a couple of museums here too including one for internationally acclaimed  author, Mikhail Bulgakov (it was closed for renovations at the time of my visit).

one of the churches at the
Upper Lavra
Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Cave Monastery--Печерська лавра): This is the most popular tourist site in the city and arguably the spiritual heart of the country. The site is divided into two sections: the Upper Lavra (museums and churches for which there's an entrance fee), and the Lower Lavra (where the cave is located) which is free. The cave houses the mummified remains of monks. You'll need to purchase a candle to light your way down there. It's a pretty short walk, and in that time you'll see pilgrims kneeling and praying at the coffins. There's also an underground church but it's accessible only to believers (don't bother trying to sneak in). Do note that it gets pretty crowded on weekends so it'd be best to visit the cave during the week, especially if you're claustrophobic. Oh, and please dress conservatively.

Further down from the Lavra are the Motherland Statue and War memorials. The Museum to the Great Patriotic War is a must if events related to the Second World War are your thing. Right above museum stands the 62-metre tall Rodina Mat or Defence of the Motherland Monument (right), which is visible even as you enter the city from across the Dnipro River.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності) or Independence Square (left), located on Khreshchatyk Street. The area is now famous as the place where supporters of the Orange Revolution gathered and camped in October 2004. It is a central meeting place and all around are cafes, souvenir stalls and the post office. Get off at either the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Kreshchatyk metro stations.

Open-Air Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life (Музей народної архітектури та побуту - Muzey narodnoyi arkhitektury ta pobutu): Find out how rural Ukrainians in different parts of the country used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries in this sprawling complex. You'll find restored villages, mills (as shown on the left) and churches , as well as thousands of household and traditional artefacts. To get here, take the metro to Vystavkovy Tsentr station and hop onto bus number 172 at the bus station right above the station. You might have to ask around for the line for the bus because there's no indication as such where the pickup point is. It would be best to have the bus number and your destination penned down for someone to direct you to the pickup point.

Other museums that may be of interest

National Art Museum of Ukraine - dedicated to Ukrainian art ranging from medieval icons to portraits
Mikhail Bulgakov Museum - located at No. 13 Andriyivsky Descent, this museum is a collection of things belonging to the writer
The National Museum of Taras Shevchenko - dedicated to Ukraine's best known poet/writer, this one has 24 halls containing original artworks by Shevchenko, documents about his life and work and rare photographs.

Recommended duration of stay

4 days

Getting In

Flights: Several major airlines fly into Kyiv, including Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and KLM. There's also AeroSvit, a national carrier, and LOT Polish Airlines.
Trains: There are good international connections from Central Europe and Russia.

Things to take note of

Money: You can exchange some grivna (гривня) at the airport for the bus/taxi into the city, and the rest once you're in the city centre. Money changers are available in many places such as supermarkets. Do have your passport on hand though because some places require identification.

Language: Don't worry too much about the Cyrillic alphabet. There are English signs on the streets, metro stations and most major establishments. Staff at cafes generally speak/understand English as well. But having said that, it won't do you harm to familiarise yourself with some Cyrillic and Ukrainian, both spoken and written. It might seem like hard work but at least you'll know what you're looking for. Plus, it would amuse the locals.

Racism: Much has been said about racism in Ukraine against people of colour. One guidebook I referred to even mentioned how an African guy was stabbed several times at a metro station. But rest assured that Kyiv is as safe or as dangerous as the next European city. In fact, most Ukrainians I encountered were more curious about why I'd chosen to visit their country than to cause any form of harm. As in any other city you visit, exercise common sense and you'll be fine (e.g. stay away from dark alleys, etc).

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pop Patriotism

This article was first written on the 28th of October 2008

The car ride to the Wagah border was symptomatic of several South Asian, and in fact most developing, countries. We were on a narrow two lane road where might is right. Our driver, however, was on a mission to prove that he had what it takes to show the huge TATA lorries who’s boss.

In the backseat, Sanyam’s mother was not too amused. ‘Bhaiyya, we’re not in that much of a hurry,’ she said as she leaned forward. He did not care to respond although I noticed an imperceptible acknowledgement on his part. I turned back to give her an assuring smile: I, the visitor to this chaotic country, the one more accustomed to orderly driving. My eyes were largely unperturbed by the horns whistling past us and the risk of smashing into oncoming traffic. My gaze was fixed on the fields on both sides of the road. On the left, the sun was suspended well above the trees and fields of sugarcane and the like. I was a tad nervous, but overwhelmingly excited: this was the closest I was going to get to Pakistan. 

 I got out of the car and looked around. There were fields stretching beyond the limits of my sight. In the direction of the setting sun, I saw fences and barbed wires separated by a few metres of earth – no man’s land. We walked away from the parking area on to the main road. Most of it was occupied by colourful goods trucks waiting to cross the border. I was told dried fruits and other eatables change hands in these parts. Not too far away from the parking lot was an area that served as a dhaba, a roadside eatery. There were also stalls selling items with the Indian flag emblazoned on them – pins, caps, etc. Others were crowded with candy floss, drinks, and samosas. At some point a group of men in saffron robes starting singing to the beat of a dhol as they walked towards the border. They were joined by a small group who sang and danced along. The guide books were not exaggerating when they said there’s a carnival atmosphere here. But this was only scratching the surface.

About a hundred metres ahead we reached the beginnings of the road into Pakistan. On the left were the stands where spectators could sit and watch the border closing ceremony every evening. We found a spot about six rows from the front. Not too bad, I thought to myself. I could see, fairly well, the soldiers standing at attention in front of me, and beyond them the gates that separated the two countries. On this side was a festival in full swing. People were waving flags and clapping and singing along to patriotic songs being blasted from loudspeakers all around us. As if on cue, some of the girls in the first row climbed over to the side of the road and began dancing. The crowd went wild, as did flashing cameras.

‘You don’t seem impressed,’ I said to Sanyam who was hiding behind his shades.
‘It’s pop patriotism. It’ll die out once the evening is over.’
‘You really think so?’
‘Listen to the song selection. Where does Dil Chahta Hai’s Koi Kahe fit into nationalism? It’s only about sounding better and louder than them.’
He had a point. Every now and then afterwards, a voice would boom over the loudspeaker with pro-India chants: Hindustan, Zindabad! Vande Mataram! The crowd naturally responded with gusto.

On the Pakistani side, things were more subdued. I could faintly hear a song being played, but the spectators seemed more solemn. Perhaps one flag was flying over the crowd’s head. They look just like us on this side, I thought to myself.

The speakers on this side blared a song from the 1955 film, Naya Daur. It was about the land of Punjab: it was romanticism of the kind that Yash Chopra later sought to repeat in his films, most recently with the 2004 Veer-Zaara, about a love that transcends the difficult border. It was his attempt at healing wounds that have divided the subcontinent. 

My thoughts drifted to my grandma. She was born in a Punjab that breathed under an undivided India. The country was born again in 1947, but that independence indirectly forced her out of the country. I don’t remember when my throat began feeling lumpy. As the crowd rose to its feet in patriotic fervour, their fists punching the sky, I quickly wiped away the tears that had slid past almost undetected.