Recently I was reading a blog entry from @vaseemk2 on Midnight’s Children and it was like opening a door to a past that I temporarily forgot. It was 1989 and the work of Salman Rushdie received a lot of international attention. His book, The Satanic Verses was becoming a book that was banned across the world with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the supreme religious leader of Iran), issuing a Fatwa requesting the author’s death for blasphemy.
The controversy alone was enough to entice me to my local bookshop to get the book. The title, the Fatwa on the author and the protests around the world intrigued me and spiked my curiosity of what could be so offensive in that book. I began to read it and chapter after chapter I was trying to find the offensive text with great anticipation. The more I read, the more confused I became. The story was disjointed between some references to England and some dream sequences I did not understand or relate. To be really honest, I did not like the book at all. It was disappointing to find that the book that caused some much upheaval in my eyes was not the literary contribution that I expected.
I returned to the book shop, I used to go there a lot and talk to the people. Told them of my disappointment of reading something that I did not really like. It was then that I was recommended a different book from the Rushdie. It was Midnight’s Children. The book is talking in metaphor about the birth of a new nation of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. At that point, in my life I knew of Gandhi and the peaceful resistance movement. The idea of coming against a superpower with no guns, no armies but solely on conviction and principles excited me but that is all I knew. Very little for such a rich culture.
The book was a revelation. Apart from the writing the characters brought to life an unknown conflict to me in such a way I could relate to the suffering and the loss. Despite the superhuman abilities of the children the narrative had an incredibly sensitivity and humanity about the everyday people. Contrary to that those in power appear less favourably. This took away the usual history is written by the victors. There are no victors in a civil conflict. All of the protagonists are underdogs who are trying to make sense of the madness of conflict. The challenge is to continue to aim for something higher even when war brings primordial hate on to the surface.
I felt pain and sorrow not just for Saleem but for all of the children born into a world that gears up for conflict. The superpower of bringing people together is fantastic but it is not his telepathy that is endearing but his empathy. The humanity in situations of incredible cruelty is palpable and follows those Gandhi ideas of peaceful resistance. Out of a rather disappointing experience I got to know a writer that I respect and a book and that I regard as a classic. So, the lesson for me was not to judge a writer on one of his works without seeing what else they have done. Also, not all pieces of work will relate to me in that same way and to accept that not everything is a masterpiece. In life like in fiction we can only manage to succeed if you are prepare to tolerate and accept even those things that may not be tolerable. It is difficult, but Gandhi, among so many others has pointed the way.
To be reminded of that time that blasphemy carried so much offence around the world, arousing tensions and dividing communities. In the UK the law regarding blasphemy changed in 2008 but still around the world this is regarded as a very serious crime, one that to this day carries the death penalty, in several countries. In addition, the control of a writer’s freedom of expression was always the counterweight of these laws. These tension results in laws about censorship which, in some cases, can restrict the way writers and artists can express themselves. It is interesting to observe this tension vis a vis of something like the work of Rushdie now. I wonder if the changes to the law post terrorism law in the UK would have allowed its publication or not. This is a definitely an issue for another blog….
What is Christmas? A date in the calendar in winter towards the end of the year to celebrate one of the main religious festivals of the Christian calendar. The Romans replaced a pagan festival with the birth of the head of the, then new, religion. Since then as time progresses, more customs and traditions are added, to make this festival more packed with meaning and importance. The gift of the 20th century’s big corporations was the addition to the date, the red Santa Claus who travels the planet on his sledge from the North Pole in a single day, offering gifts to all the well-behaved kids. The birth of Christ is miles away from the Poles but somehow the story’s embellishment continues.
In schools, kids across the world will re-enact the nativity scene, a romantic version of the birth of Jesus, minus their flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the infants. The nativity, is for many, their first attempt at theatre and most educators’ worst nightmare, as they will have to include all children regardless of talent or interest to this production. The play consists mostly of male characters (usually baby Jesus is someone’s doll) except for one. That of the mother of Jesus. The virgin Mary is located centre stage, sitting quietly, the envy of all other parent’s that their kid was not cast in such a reverent role. In recent years, charlatans tried to add more female roles by feminising the Angels and even giving the Inn keeper a daughter or even a wife. In most cases it was the need of introducing more characters in the play. Most productions now include barn animals (cats and dogs included), reindeers, trees, villagers, stars and even a moon. All castable parts not necessarily with a talking part.
The show usually feels that it lasts longer than it does. The actors become nervous, some forget their lines, others remember different lines, the music is off key and the parents jostle to get to prime position in order to record this show, that very few will ever watch. The costumes will be coming apart almost right after the show and the props are just about holding on with a lot of tape and superglue. The play will signal the end of the school season carrying the joyful message from the carpark to the people’s homes. This tradition carries on regardless of religious sentiments and affiliations. People to commemorate the birth of a man that billions of people consider the head of their faith.
Nativity is symbolic but its meaning changes with the times, leaving me wondering what our nativity will be in the 21st century. Imagine a baby Jesus floating face down on torrential Aegean waters, a virgin Mary hoping that this will be the last client for the day on the makeshift brothel maybe today is the day she gets her passport back; Joseph a broken man, laying by the side of the street on a cardboard; the angel a wingless woman living alone in emergency accommodation, living in fear, the villagers stunned in fear and everyone carrying on . Not as festive as the school production but after all, people living for year in austerity, and a lockdown and post-referendum decisions make it difficult to be festive. Regardless of the darkness that we live in, the nativity has a more fundamental message: life happens irrespective of circumstances and nothing can stop the birth of a new-born.
Merry Christmas to all from the Criminology Team
There is expectation in hope that things will change. Every personal and social issue that is not going according to plan, all the adversities and the misfortunes, are placed on the anticipation that eventually, things will change. The conviction for the change is hope. Hope is a feeling based on emotions, irrational and inexplicable.
Hope is a refuge for those whose lives are wronged and feel unable to do anything but to hope. Millions of people hope for better days, better health, better relationships, better lives. This hope keeps expectations high even when you are told of the opposite.
Consider the following dialogues:
“The environment is changing, global warming, the pandemic and the economic recession. It looks like we’ve had it! We are one meteor away from a catastrophic event”. “I agree with what you say, but I hope that despite all these we will find a way out of all these.”
“Your crime is too serious; looks like you are going to jail”. “I hope the judge is lenient and maybe I will not go to prison”
“The tests indicate that your health has deteriorated, it is unlikely to change; I am afraid you have only a few months to live”. “I hope that God will listen to my prayer and cure me”.
“I do not love you anymore, I want to leave you! “Don’t break my heart; I hope you change your mind.”
All these have one thing in common. The respondent’s hope for something, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This unwavering conviction comes at a price! The entire world is built on an industry of hope. Institutions, systems, “experts” and many more who profit from the misfortune of others. One of the main benefactors in this industry is undoubtedly religious institutions and belief experts.
Some years ago, in one of my trips, in found myself in a monastery that has a tradition of snakes appearing on the day of the ascension of the Virgin Mary. The revellers regard it as a sign of good fortune and favour from her grace. I was in the monastery on a different day, when a group of boisterous Russian tourists were trying to buy some grace. The lady in the church was clear; a small bottle of holy water 3 euros, a small bottle of oil 5 euros. There were bigger sizes and of course for more certainty of hope, a purchase of both is indicated. Since then, it got me thinking; what is the price of hope?
Faced with a terminal disease, how much would any of us will pay to live a little bit longer? The question is merely rhetorical, because each of us is likely to pay according to what they can afford. There are those who may care less for themselves, but are willing to sacrifice anything for someone special; or a great idea.
Since the discovery of electricity, Victorian scientists dispelled the expertise of those charlatans that spoke with the dead and commuted with the spirits. Even though there have been mounting evidence against them, their industry of hope is still booming. People like to hope. They embrace its positive message. After all Dum Spiro Spero.*
There is of course the other side; Nikos Kazantzakis famously said; “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” It is liberating not to hope, but it is very difficult to achieve. Personally, despite experiencing negative situations, and even after meeting some naysayers armed with a sour face in life, I will never stop hoping that people are better inside and they can change and embrace their better selves. My hope, I fear, is incurable.
*While I breathe, I hope
In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life. We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place. Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen. That is life as it is.
Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one! On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled. Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip! At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip.
I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side. The track is leading up and down the mountainous path. The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it. The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance. Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell. The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.
As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change. On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out. Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead. Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus. According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”. I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware. The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable. “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims! Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did. Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading. The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop.
Finally, more signs. On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries. One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin). Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer. Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road! At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone. It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles. Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about. This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.
At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road. To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching. At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move. The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road. I briefly evoke the Saint. Nothing. I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing. After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort. I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism. Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her. This is when nature retaliates. A flock of goats join the cow. They meander around me and the stubborn bovine. The road is now akin to a petting zoo.
I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films. I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds. The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back. After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road. That’s my opportunity to leave. As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry. The road is clear, and I am on my way.
The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea. I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park. One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”. The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor. The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular. There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough. After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable. Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew! I think the Saint is testing me!
On the way back, the road is empty. The cows rest on the side of the road. I slow down, I look out…they look away. At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee. I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind. He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”. I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow. The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips. There was nothing spectacular about it. There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own. It is what we remember of them that matters. In the last months millions of people went into lockdown. Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.