I had a bit of a cultural shock last night, as I attended a French event in London, and we started the evening with a minute’s silence for the Manchester victims. In France, people love solemn manifestations and hold minutes’ silence at every opportunity.
This is however very rare in England, which is probably why I lost the habit. In England, as Kate Fox explains in her fascinating book Watching the English, “seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed; earnestness is strictly forbidden”.
Therefore, after the country performing a minute’s silence yesterday, today, in a true illustration of the importance of not being earnest rule, normal English service has resumed; and the Guardian has helped spread the wonderful English irony with a compilation of the funniest tweets:
In her book, Kate Fox was also telling about the immediate reactions to the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London in 2005, which occurred just a day after London had been chosen for the Olympic Games for 2012.
One of the survivors, who had been trapped in one of the bombed trains, reported that after the explosion, as the train filled with thick smoke, ‘Silence descended on the carriage apart from people choking and coughing. Then someone near me quipped, “Well, at least we got the Olympics!”‘
Other jokes also heard at that occasion, as a response to the over-solemn forum set up by a few well-meaning Americans entitled ‘Today I am a Londoner and Today I Hurt’:
Today I am a Londoner and Today I Got a Day Off
If you’re all Londoners today, that’s eight quid each for the congestion charge
The English are always in a state of readiness for humour, and today is no exception. Go England!
If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.
The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.
The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.
They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.
“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.
“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?
I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.
It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.
Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.
But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!
This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing
“In this country, there is nothing else to do than restaurants and shopping” said a young Saudi mum to me last week, during an in-home visit in Jeddah doing research for a client.
In such ultra conservative society, indeed there is not much fun to do in Saudi Arabia; but this is about to change, at least if you consider the Western entertainment industry as your version of “fun”.
In an attempt to overhaul its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia has published an ambitious 2030 Vision that heralds changes in all spheres of life. For the General Entertainment Authority, the objective is simple: make Saudi citizens spend at home what they currently spend when travelling abroad.
Amongst others, Saudi is expecting this year the visit of shows like the Lion King, Monster Truck, Sesame Street, etc.
The first remark you may have, is why all this entertainment just for children? Don’t Saudi grown-ups also have the right for adult entertainment? (no, I don’t mean porn, but at least something more elevated than the Smurfs?)
But you are probably also thinking, isn’t this all contrasting very much with the austerity we imagine the ultra religious Saudi society to live in, which has closed borders to tourism and won’t let women drive a car but will let men marry several of them?
Well, the contrast is to me as sharp as it is difficult to eat fettucini (the latest trendy dish in Jeddah) with a niqab.
Saudi is a “either or” society; it’s either the modesty of a pilgrimage in Mecca or the populist entertainment coming from the West; but there is nothing in between. I wish there was at least the attempt of developing a monetisable Arabic, Middle-Eastern culture; but I guess it is faster to just adopt the well-known recipes of the Western crap.
A Western crap you despise profoundly, but which makes a lot of money, and money you like very much! So who cares if it all changes the face of Saudi Arabia?
Life was so miserable in americanised Cuba that the starting point of the Cuban revolution was not just ideological: it was mostly nationalist, and aimed at getting rid of the North American occupation and all its negative consequences.
What did Cubans dislike about the North American occupation? Oh, all of it. The exploitation of the whole country to enrich just a few fat asses. The corruption that went along with it. The lack of possibilities of development for the Cuban people. The fact that rich U.S. citizens were using Cuba as a playground for short but wild debauchery breaks.
Americanisation was worth fighting against. It was worth all these years of deprivation preceding and following the revolution. Worth these violent fights and casualties. Worth these long decades of poverty imposed by Uncle Sam by means of an utterly unfair blockade.
But whilst the world is now wondering what will happen with Castro dead and Trump in charge, there are very obvious signs that the poor Cuban people are more than ready to be colonised again.
Don’t imagine that it hasn’t started already anyway. Western goods circulate a lot in Cuba: clothes of course, as Fidel’s well-known Adidas outfits, but much more than that, smuggled more or less openly from family established overseas or other non government sponsored channels. For example I found remarkable that many teenagers had smartphones from a much more recent model than mine.
The inhabitants of the cities are all gathering on public squares where public WiFi has been installed; and whilst access is granted against a fee and by using a unique code, so the government knows what you are doing on the Internet, this is very unlikely to prevent the flow of ideas from the rest of the world to permeate into the Cuban society.
What surprised me most, when I visited Cuba in August 2015 and had good discussions with the local population at several occasions, was that people felt really ready for a greater openness of their country.
There is this widespread belief in Cuban society that the blockade should be blamed for the immense majority of the difficulties Cuba is facing today – this is what propaganda says and I think Cubans are probably right to believe it is true. And what’s most: friendly talks with Obama meant that the end of the blockade, and of the problems, was probably nearby.
I visited Cuba in August 2015, before the country was opened to visits from U.S.A. citizens again; and the main form of worries I heard locally were related to the crowds management rather than ideological: how were we going to be able to host masses of additional tourists when the country was already hardly able to put up with the large current number of visitors?
But I also heard some locals who feared that the country would be pulled back to its pre-revolution situation of dependence and almost slavery to its Northern neighbour.
Alas, we live in a post-democratic society where owning an iPhone that can connect to the Internet is much more important than the right to vote for an idiot unlikely to do a good job anyway, so I doubt Cubans will massively fight against Americanisation 2.0 in the coming years.
How well off Cuba will be in this new era of economic colonisation will depend on how the U.S.A. will treat them; and with such leadership as Trump, there is a lot to fear. But history has shown it: every time the U.S.A. treat a country like shit, it ends up bouncing back against them. Can’t wait to see Revolución 2.0 in the years 2040….
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Flames
It’s hard when you’re French like me to think of something else but politics when you hear the word “Flame”. A flag-tricoloured flame is the logo of the far-right party that has been our nightmare for decades and now threatens to win – which does not seem so surrealistic anymore after the bewildering Brexit and US election results.
Flames should be a symbol for fierce, ardour or love; but to me it is synonym for terror, violence and racism. Hence the inspiration for misuses of flames for this post.
A tragic one: the flames that destroy and kill. The wars, the riots, the absence of peace, as we see on this exhibition that was displayed on Kiev’s Independence Square at the occasion of the first anniversary of the Euromaidan events in 2014.
A questionable one: trying to convince meat lovers to use their barbecues to grill vegetables is not an easy task! I am not the type of evangelist vegetarian, but I do want veggies for myself and that’s not an easy task in meat-loving cultures.
In Masuleh in Iran, I managed to convince locals to grill vegetables. They were puzzled but they did it, and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled veggies with lime, garlic yoghurt and Iran’s fantastic flatbread.
Serbia is also a country of meat lovers and on festive occasions you’ll always see a pig roasting for hours. And it’s a pleasure to see locals enjoying it so much, however to me it is quite a misuse of flames!
And finally an amusing one to finish with a light touch: eternal flames are very common in Russia where pretty much every city has a war memorial. Needless to say, once it gets a little bit cold, it’s not rare to see locals using the flame to try and feel warmer!
Example in the deep of winter in Arkhangelsk, with the Great Patriotic War memorial:
And on a summery yet a bit chilly evening in Yakutsk, with the Civil War memorial:
The Syrian ministry of tourism has released a video to invite us to visit Syria. Shame that, according to this video, you have to remain in the sea waters pretty much the whole length of your stay – possibly because the land is not safe?
Note that having travelled to Syria removes the right for any citizen in the world to travel visa-free in the U.S., so you will need a visa after that. But I am not worried, I already have one, as I have travelled in Iran which is on the same list as Syria!