Saturday, March 26, 2005

Easter in Rome....

His greatest performance

In his agony, the Pope invites us to share something truly instructive

Martin Kettle

The Guardian March 26, 2005

In spite of all the dramas and distractions of the modern world, I bet that right now there are millions of us whose attention is repeatedly - and sometimes unwillingly - drawn back to the most public private ordeal that many of us have witnessed.
Even for those, like me, who are neither Catholic nor even Christian, these last days of Pope John Paul II - for that is surely what they are - have become an inclusive and shared drama. It is more than the 21st-century habit of voyeurism that makes it difficult to turn our eyes away from the Vatican this Easter weekend. For the ailing Pope is speaking to all of us, saying things about life and death that touch everyone in some way.

It is nearly two weeks since John Paul was driven back to his apartments from the Gemelli hospital in Rome after a tracheotomy operation. Vatican aides, and the Pope himself, put on an extraordinary show, especially considering his age and physical weakness.
They did everything they could to imply that the pontiff had made a strong recovery. He sat upright in the front seat of a grey Mercedes van, in full view but with his papal robes drawn tight around his neck to conceal the tube that had been inserted into his throat to ease his breathing difficulties. Behind his left shoulder, a camera crew captured the 84-year-old Pope waving to delighted roadside crowds.
It looked - and it was intended to look - as though everything was normal. But of course it was not normal at all - and we knew that too. It may, after all, have been the Pope's final earthly journey of significance. It was in many respects an El Cid moment - a form of defiance through faith that John Paul has gradually perfected through his career - suggestive of the climax of the Spanish epic when the dead Cid is strapped into his saddle to lead his troops into battle against the infidels one last time.
Since then, the Pope has made five very brief public appearances, either in person or on video, all intended to create the illusion that he remains vigorous and fully in charge of the church. At the start of this week, on Palm Sunday, he appeared at his window, silently waving an olive branch to pilgrims below.
Yesterday, Good Friday, he was due to participate by video link. Tomorrow, of course, comes the greatest challenge of all when the Pope has promised to be present in person to deliver the traditional Easter Sunday blessing, perhaps for the last time. The Italian press is calling it his Calvary.
Each of these appearances, though, only serves to underline the fragility of the Pope's real condition. The day before he left hospital, he spoke just a few words - first in his native Polish and then in Italian - from a sheet of paper in front of him.
But the Parkinson's disease from which John Paul has suffered for more than a decade has now robbed him of his ability to speak comprehensibly, even in private, never mind in public. Biographers such as John Cornwell suggest that this has been going on for some time. Speech was already a struggle when he received Archbishop Rowan Williams in October 2003. I know this stage in the progression of the disease. I saw the same thing happen to my own father 20 years ago.
John Paul II has conducted a very public battle with mortality for a large part of the past quarter century, ever since the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca shot him in the stomach in St Peter's Square in 1981.
About 10 years later, after a recovery from his wounds that provided evidence of his physical and mental strength, John Paul's Parkinson's was diagnosed. Since then, the signs of his age and infirmity have gathered in on him inexorably: at least three falls, increasing knee problems, intestinal difficulties and the growing vulnerability to flu and other viruses that comes with degenerative weakness.
The determination not to give in is palpable and, given who he is, also intriguing. Like the Queen - whose authority in some eyes is also divine - there is not a thought of retirement. Personal convenience is dismissed as irrelevant. Christ, this Pope once told a group of pilgrims, did not come down from the Cross. John Paul has no intention of coming down from his.
But nor, in spite of the show of normality that he sometimes puts on, does the Pope intend to slip quietly into the shadows. He could easily withdraw, allowing a fiction of health and alertness to be maintained by the practised Vatican spinmeisters. It was what they did when Paul VI became ill in the mid-70s. John Paul, though, has chosen to ensure that we witness his passion. Every appearance at the window must, when you consider it, be a gruelling ordeal. But that, surely, is why he does these things, because he wants us to know and wants us to think about them.
However stricken he may be, even and especially now, John Paul clearly wants to leave no one in any doubt that he is fighting with death to the very end. He was described this week, by a senior cardinal, as "serenely abandoning himself to God"; but that is not the impression he conveys at every opportunity he gets.
His very insistence on showing himself to us is part of the struggle. It reached an eloquent climax on Palm Sunday, when he gripped his forehead as though in pain, then beat his hand on his lectern as if in frustration.
It is an extraordinary performance. All priests perform, of course, as all politicians do. And it is important to remember that the young Karol Wojtyla was stage struck. He trod the boards of the Rhapsodic Theatre in Krakow 40 years before he trod the world stage.
All the biographies make clear that Wojtyla had a large ego, too, long before he sat on the throne of St Peter. If you believe that the Virgin Mary interceded to deflect Agca's bullet from his vital organs, as John Paul does, or that you are the subject of one of the visions of the three seers of Fatima in 1917, as he also does, then you do not go gently or quietly.
Everyone fights for life. None of us seeks death. People always want to survive. John Paul, it turns out, is no different from the rest of us. He may be the vicar of Christ but even he does not want to go before his time.
But John Paul is also doing more than fight for his own life. He seems to be using his position and fame to make a statement about all lives. He is saying that he is unwilling to be shunted off the stage before he is ready to go. He is saying that his suffering is universal. But he is saying, above all, that all lives are valuable, and that he is entitled to live his life to the very end, however hard it may be.
Believers will, of course, look for more - and find it. John Paul undoubtedly wants the faithful to draw lessons from his agony: lessons about euthanasia and assisted suicide, lessons about abortion, lessons about compassion, lessons above all about faith. Some non-believers may draw those lessons too.
But you don't have to embrace any of these to recognise that we are witnessing not just something remarkable, but something rare and instructive. All significant moments in life are hard to anticipate, but death is the hardest of all. John Paul is allowing us to share the enduring nature of that truth, even for a Pope. We are not just entitled to look. It is important that we should.

Friday, March 11, 2005

End of a tradition....

Vodka made from grapes? That's just fine

By Jeremy Smith

Yahoo Daily News 11 March 2005

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's vodka drinkers can rest easy knowing that EU law will allow them to buy their favourite tipple made from a bewildering array of farm produce like grapes and sugar cane -- not just potatoes and grain.

EU experts have spent the last five years trying to nail down exactly what vodka should be made from. They now look close to reaching a conclusion, rejecting an attempt by four northern EU governments to protect their versions of "traditional vodka".
In a draft law due to surface later this month, the European Commission (news - web sites) will define how vodka should be distilled but not limit the products used in the initial yeast-aided fermentation. Minimum alcoholic strength by volume will be 37.5 percent.
The bill will then be discussed by EU ministers and is almost guaranteed to spark controversy. An earlier version had stipulated that vodka should be fermented with yeast from "raw materials based on grain, potato, sugar beet and/or molasses".
Estonia, Finland, Poland and Sweden recently wrote to the Commission saying that vodka should only be distilled from the traditional origins of grain and potatoes, against the wishes of several countries that want to make vodka from other items.
"They want to keep people out of their market," one EU official said. "This is all about national protection, to keep traditional vodka," he said.
"The definition of vodka is clearly an issue," said one diplomat. "Some traditional vodka producers want a restricted list of goods out of which you can make vodka. But a number of other countries would prefer a looser list to allow innovation."
In the past, the Commission has proposed a separate product class called "traditional vodka" based only on potatoes, but this has always been rejected by the industry, officials said.
"We're not defining what it can be made from ... or trying to squeeze anyone out," said one Commission official, adding that the draft law would avoid making illegal any products that were already on the market.
This is a reference to a long-running campaign by Diageo, the world's largest spirits group, which launched its Ciroc vodka in 2003 -- made exclusively from French grapes.
"We can't allow technical barriers to trade to be put up that take perfectly legal products off the market," said Graham Bateman at the UK-based Gin and Vodka Association.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

About Gombrowicz

Art of self-defence
Witold Gombrowicz's duel with ideas

Adam Zagajewski

BookForum Feb/Mar 2005

At Houston's Menil Collection, a beautiful cream-and-gray building designed by Renzo Piano, there is a large room devoted to the Surrealists, who were greatly admired by the founder of the collection. Here there are almost all the sacred painters of European Surrealism, and the canvases depict their fantasies—mountains, mirrors, umbrellas, apples, and hats. A viewer such as myself, no great fan of Surrealism, is struck by one thing: Among all these sophisticated fantasies there is no trace of the true nightmares of the twentieth century, either in anticipatory foreboding or in subsequent recapitulation. Could the widely extolled imagination of the Surrealists have fallen short of expectations? Defenders of this school will naturally say that this is not so, that only a simpleton could expect Surrealism to portray real historical upheavals, and that the artists' concerns were with inner reality. Yet my doubts remain—to me those hats, apples, umbrellas, and mirrors seem almost comical when juxtaposed with the horror dreamed up not by artists but by the executioners of the twentieth century.
Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish novelist who died in 1969, at one time attempted to understand and comment on this horror. He was not a Surrealist, though certain features of his sensibilities and style could have placed him on the fringes of that movement. But there exists a paradox, one more of his biography and his fate than of his writing. For Gombrowicz—with his brilliant sense of what he himself called the "interpersonal church," which he defined as the ongoing psychological shaping of people in interactions and in their behavior toward one another—could potentially have been an invaluable witness to, and commentator on, the historical catastrophe of the last century. Yet fate wished otherwise, and this potential witness found himself transported, irony of ironies, to ahistorical Argentina, right at the last moment before the outbreak of war, by chance in the form of an ocean cruise on the Boleslaw Chrobry. In his Diary (1953­66), Gombrowicz himself mounted a vigorous defense against recurring accusations that he had not seen history in action and therefore did not know what that grim history was like; he argued that those who had witnessed the horror were mostly unable to understand it and even less able to express it. He defended himself wisely and well, and after all, he did not lose his immense talent in Argentina, but on the contrary, nurtured it. So I am not taking up this matter in some critical fervor, and I absolutely do not hold this against Gombrowicz—as did some hot-blooded Polish patriots, who attacked him for not returning to Europe in September 1939 to fight against Hitler's army in uniform and with rifle in hand (Gombrowicz with rifle in hand!).
I mention this matter for a different reason, one that is in a sense more abstract, precisely in the spirit of reflections on Surrealism, as well as the fact that the great imaginations of the twentieth century so rarely encountered the great monsters of that time. In his long poems Rilke did not record what was new and horrifying in World War I, and Claudel believed that even Proust failed to register what was truly essential in recent French history, reporting instead on "le papotage dans le salon de Mme Verdurin." Whereas, if we consider a case where there was in fact an encounter between imagination and history, namely, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz—and Milosz is surely an appropriate partner, friend, commentator, near-contemporary, polemicist, and, one is tempted to say, counterpoint of the author of Ferdydurke—one can hardly imagine art without his magnificent war poems: without "Campo dei Fiori," without "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto," without the cycle titled "The World."
Enough on this subject, though. We will never know what Gombrowicz might have written had the Boleslaw Chrobry not borne him to the flat land of Argentina, had he remained in occupied Warsaw (and survived). And the fact, the intellectual fact, that in that flat land the writer did not fall silent, did not let his talents go to waste, when it comes down to it, is a greater miracle than the miracles our speculations can show us in the conditional mood alone.
Let's return for a moment to Milosz. It is always instructive to consider Gombrowicz's work against the backdrop of Milosz's commentaries and accomplishments. Plainly, Milosz is fascinated by Gombrowicz—attracted, irritated, and intrigued by him. It would take another essay to provide a detailed description of this long-lasting—and mutual—fascination; here let us say only that Milosz admires much of Gombrowicz's analysis of the present-day state of the human soul, while at the same time firmly rejecting his general philosophical line. In The Land of Ulro, for example, Milosz says critically that, for Gombrowicz, a person is like an onion. One can remove layer after layer and still not reach the metaphysical center. This is probably so—Gombrowicz did not believe in the metaphysical center of a person, at least in theory, as seen in the sharp light of his intellectual argumentation. But he may have believed in it as he wrote certain fragments of his Diary, as he meditated on death, on pain, on sickness. . . .
* * *
There are at least two roads that lead to literature. The first finds a trustworthy point of entry into existing literary genres and forms: In this way, beginning poets often see in the sonnet, the elegy, or the villanelle ready-made rooms for their own creative work (it's not for nothing that the Italian word stanza in fact means "room"), houses built by their illustrious predecessors and waiting for the young blood of a new generation, for new tenants. An example of the kind of writer who trusts literature is Joseph Brodsky, who believed in the unbroken continuity of poetry, from Ovid to Auden, from Catullus to Akhmatova—and to himself.
The second road is one of mistrust: It finds expression in a perpetual suspicious questioning of the full range of inherited literary genres. Indeed, Gombrowicz—that member of the Sandomierz gentry on whom the spirit of the age descended like a hawk, as Constantin Jelenski aptly put it in one of his essays—lent no credence to tradition: He had no faith in either the sonnet or the elegy; he did not believe in the novel; he did not really believe at all in literature as something given.
Gombrowicz didn't believe in painting either, especially not abstract painting; nor did he believe in, as he called it, "versified poetry." He had no truck with public concerts, or with the flashy displays of musical virtuosos (indeed he wrote some hilarious descriptions of such events, portraying them as musical horse races). He put no trust in exaltations over works of art (all of which, in his view, was affectation). In his first novel, he created the character of the "cultured aunt," who—predictably—always goes into raptures over art. He had no confidence in the sincerity of either Marxists or Catholics. He did not believe in maturity; in his writing, as we recall, he promoted immaturity and youth.
This is strange: Why would a novelist have so many opinions? Wouldn't this multiplicity of views and convictions be more fitting for a philosopher of culture? And yet Gombrowicz's novels—Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Cosmos, Pornografia—are they really novels? Each was written using a different kind of language; each presents a different "problem"; none opens trustingly into the river of life, the ocean of reality. In them Gombrowicz acts rather like Fernando Pessoa, the outstanding Portuguese modernist, who sought to speak in different languages and created the theory (and practice) of "heteronyms," those invented poets designed to give voice to the various facets of the author's personality. This too was strange—as if it were not enough to speak in one language (which after all is actually the most difficult thing). Surely, everything can be expressed through the medium of a single diction alone.
Gombrowicz's Diary, however—and here I must confess that I am one of those who regard this work as his masterpiece—begins with a widely cited passage:
The reader thinks, Very well, this is probably going to be an endless analysis of subtle mental states, as with philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel, the Genevan chatterbox of the inner life, and his Journal intime. But this isn't the case—and besides, for the moment, we learn nothing about this "me." Friday already brings a sudden change of tone: The "me" of the first half of the week disappears and we find an analysis of the aberrations of the (Polish of course) émigré press.
But where did it come from, this distrust of Gombrowicz's, his skepticism of tradition and literary genres? Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, in his autobiographical essay, that World War I created in the younger generation a sense that the existing forms of European culture were not to be trusted—this, he said, was how one should understand the beginnings of Heidegger's philosophical journey. We find something of the same in the figure of Gombrowicz, who also displays an aversion to the insistent patriotism of nineteenth-century Polish literature—but something more as well. I believe that he was not driven by historical motivations alone; one is tempted to risk the thesis—which of course cannot be proven—that Gombrowicz's artistic talent found its most perfect fulfillment in the constant questioning of various forms and substances. For it was not only literary forms or cultural behaviors that provoked his dissent; his fundamental contrariness and his analytic curiosity also manifested themselves in his contacts with religion and with God, with Poland and Polishness, and with the Polish émigré community.
In a sense, Gombrowicz was the perfect modernist. Modernism's tendency to distrust and reject nineteenth-century rhetoric and unreasoning pathos—it was not accidental that T.S. Eliot thought so highly of the poems of Jules Laforgue—found in Gombrowicz an exceptionally powerful voice.
* * *
In Gombrowicz, too, was the cunning—or perhaps the clear-headedness—of a writer from a minor country, a country with a minor language not represented in the mythical parliament of world literature. In his nonchalant way, Gombrowicz anticipated the famous debate concerning Central Europe that was initiated by Kundera in the 1980s and taken up by Milosz and other writers from the region, as well as the discussions about the Western literary canon that took place on American university campuses.
Gombrowicz did so not for political motives but out of his own quasi-aristocratic and exceptionally individual reflections on artistic creativity. How very different he was from writers and poets of a Parnassian bent, whose gaze is fixed firmly upward, on the heavens, on the Greeks, and who scorn all that is trivial, incidental, untutored. Gombrowicz, though far indeed from naturalism or from a fascination with the language of the street, was captivated by what he described as secondary, inferior; nothing bored him more than the deliberations of some worthy literary academic. On the other hand, he adored endless disputes with eighteen-year-olds and—especially in Argentina, which was his homeland; the second perhaps chronologically, but so intensely experienced—he was surrounded by youngsters with whom he was friends, with whom he bantered and argued, whom he sought to impress, with whom he fell in love. Of course this had to do with his homosexuality, which is only discreetly mentioned in the Diary. But I'm convinced that there was more to it, that it was also the result of an undying amazement that the life of the mind is so ephemeral, fragile, and susceptible to "alienation," fossilization, even distortion. And in that case, there is significance in the conditions and topography of creation—that famous inferiority, or immaturity, in Gombrowicz's private philosophical vocabulary. According to him, it should accompany youth and spontaneity—a clear echo of Nietzsche.
This too, in Gombrowicz's view, is why provincial literatures, which do not yet have their Tolstoy, their Shakespeare or Goethe, have a special opportunity, an opportunity for sincerity or honesty, provided they acknowledge their provinciality aloud and even come to regard it with affection. Only then will they be victorious. Here it would be interesting to juxtapose Gombrowicz with someone like Sándor Márai, a Hungarian writer who was also the author of an extraordinary diary—and also a representative of a minor language. How very different these two authors are! And in what interesting ways! First, in a formal sense: In Márai's journal, many of the entries take the form of crafted aphorisms or mini essays ending with a memorable punch line. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, liked to record the entire thought process, along with its hesitations and its dialectic, not just the result.
But the principal difference lies elsewhere. Márai was aware of one obvious thing—that Hungarian literature, which he loved and to which he belonged body and soul, was virtually unknown in Europe. Often in his diary he expressed regret at this fact, yet he never attempted to seduce anyone with his provinciality—quite the opposite, he had a strong and well-grounded sense of belonging to Europe, conceived as a great cultural tradition. Márai was a confirmed, unquestioned European, and his sorrow was primarily linked to his perception of the decline of this small and once so accomplished continent—as well as the collapse of the Western world in general, and ultimately the victory of modern barbarism. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, was also a European, but in a completely different way—one who presented a willful gesture of challenge: rebellious; ironic; derisive, even. Yet, at the same time, without apocalyptic presentiments, and with an expectation, perhaps a little theatrical, that his extensive analyses of his own second-rateness would be noticed by the right people—namely, by first-rate critics.
A writer in a minor language has to create diversions. He has to say that a sonnet may not be a sonnet at all, that "Parisian beauty is curiously artificial," and Proust is a hothouse product; he has to demand frankness; he cannot accept the phraseology of "European culture." He has to be like a strict tax inspector who obliges us to present detailed receipts. Márai would not have understood Gombrowicz.
* * *
In a certain sense, Gombrowicz was more than a writer. With his books he influenced to some degree the shape of Polishness—too little, it's true, as any observer of political life in the new Poland can see. A strange adventure befell him. For in essence Gombrowicz belonged—or rather, was in danger of belonging—to the family of those exquisite avant-garde prose writers and playwrights who are praised and esteemed yet whom hardly anyone actually reads, aside from conscientious critics and juries of literary prizes, and a handful of loyal fans.
Of course, it was his Diary that stepped boldly beyond these narrow confines to turn him into a writer of a different rank, an author who spoke to a wide public. Thanks principally to the inspired diatribes scattered throughout its pages, Gombrowicz became almost a legislator, a prophet of the Poles (or at least some of them). Expressions such as "fixing a mug on someone" became part of the spoken language. In Polish now, things can be spoken "in Gombrowiczian," and there are "Gombrowiczian situations." Furthermore, he left a mark on at least two generations of Polish intelligentsia, instilling in them his own distrust, his own skepticism, his own vision of Polishness—less provincial, more self-critical, more rational, and capable of laughing at itself.
I clearly remember my own early readings of Gombrowicz. Even then I had the impression that I was dealing with two separate authors—one, a subtle avant-garde writer and the narrator of strange enchanting stories; the other, a seasoned pedagogue, a teacher of levelheadedness and self-irony, speaking directly to his readers without the use of allegories or puzzles. I remember too that I was not the only one with such a reading of Gombrowicz's books—which were not entirely legal in Communist Poland, and had been brought there hidden in overcoats or at the bottom of suitcases, making them all the more sensational in their iconoclasm. And also all the more effective in their pedagogy.
* * *
Some might ask, This Gombrowicz of yours, who was he? And why should we pay attention to him? Because you seem to have so many doubts concerning his work, so many questions. You disagree with his views, or at any rate you look upon him skeptically. So why Gombrowicz?
It's true that I have more and more questions for him, and that I sometimes lose patience with his theories. His concept of form is interesting, but his praise of immaturity is hard to maintain, if one discounts the element of provocation and anti-academic recalcitrance. With every year I become more distinctly convinced that Shakespeare was right—"ripeness is all." Maturity is so very much richer than immaturity; it is also capable of containing within itself the exhilarating energy of immaturity, while immaturity is never any more than what it is.
In Ferdydurke, a youthful Gombrowicz mocked the grammar-school teacher of his creation, Professor Pimko, who could say no more about the Polish Romantic bard Juliusz Slowacki than that he was a great poet. But perhaps we shouldn't laugh at this helpless pseudo-definition; perhaps it's true that we can say little more about truly exceptional writers, overwhelmed as we are by their strength, the power of their presence, a presence that no critical categories—especially not the categories of fashionable literary theory—are capable of capturing. And so Gombrowicz was a great writer; he was great even in his ramblings, his ideas, his theories. He was great; he was able to intrigue us; he was able to write magnificent sentences and enthralling pages.
And yet, despite all his theories, polemics, and quasi-philosophical and anthropological lectures, it is not in the sphere of ideas that we should seek his greatness, but deeper, in a more elementary realm. Through all of his disputes and debates, Gombrowicz, a restless spirit provoked by time, by modernism and recent history, expresses himself, and speaks—not straightforwardly, which is precisely what is so engaging—about himself, his adventures, his sufferings; about pain and about joy. He is like an Everyman for our time; he is our fellow, tormented not only by sickness, emigration, poverty, and loneliness, but also by ideas.
Gombrowicz's lifelong duel with ideas can be interpreted variously—for instance, as the intellectual ambition of a writer who sought a clear orientation in the landscape of modern thought. After all, in the modern world, theories have also become torture devices. They can make us suffer, entirely literally, in totalitarian states; less painfully and more comically in rising and failing democracies. And there is perhaps no one who has better showed the tragicomedy and anguish of this new state of affairs—a philosophy that has taken over on the street, on television, and in the police barracks—than Gombrowicz.
This usually dry, sophisticated, derisive mind exposes itself to us in the Diary—in the helplessness of aging and pain, in the troubles of an émigré and the adventures of an involuntary traveler who leaves Poland for Argentina and then, many years later, returns to Europe, to Paris, lives in Berlin and in Provence, is sick, and is never, can never manage to be, at home. Gombrowicz exposes to us his life in fragments, with a profound, moving lyricism. And it is precisely in these numerous fragments that he forgets completely about his theories and obsessions, making use of a language of the purest poetry, and becoming a great poet of existence.
Witold Gombrowicz was, especially toward the end of his life, like a modern-day King Lear, a Lear in exile in Argentina and in France; a Lear abandoned by the Elizabethan dramatist, left to the mercy of international literary scholarships, and writing, in accordance with the dictates of our time, his ironic, painful autobiography.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Supervolcanic eruptions

A possible geological hazard....

Full text of a report by the Geological Society to the UK Government’s Natural Hazard Working Group is under
The caldera in Yellowstone National Park (the size of Greater London) is one of the dormant supervolcanoes.

The BBC's web pages for Supervolcano and the associated two-part documentary (both to be shown 13 and 14 March 2005) are under
There are many links to other websites from these pages.

From Poland for temporary work

Workers of the world

More than 73,000 people from Poland have signed up to work in Britain in the past year. And they are doing the jobs we don't want to - plumbing, cleaning, building and driving. Stuart Jeffries reports

Guardian 9 March 2005

"Female wanted for massage work," says the advertisement in the newsagent's window. "No experience necessary. Earn up to £400 a day." A man with a luxuriant moustache elbows his mate in the ribs and points at the ad, and soon a ripple of giggles passes among the 30 or so Polish men and women noting down details of vacancies from the shop window in Hammersmith, west London, on Monday morning.
What's so funny? "In Warsaw you could move that decimal point over by two digits and that would be a reasonable daily wage," says Karen, aged 25. Come off it - £4 a day? "Does that surprise you? But I wouldn't do that kind of work for any money. Massaging? No. I have my dignity." And so do two other Polish women who have put a notice in the same window: "Two girls looking for full-time job. We are interested in everything. Except nudity. Telephone Henni on ..."

This is the Sciana Placzu, the so-called Wailing Wall, where all kinds of Poles gather to look for work. It is a venue better known in Poland than in Britain, and one of the first ports of call for Poles newly arrived from the motherland. Here you will find PhDs scribbling down details for work in catering and cleaning, for ironing opportunities and for the seemingly unlimited chances to deliver pizza takeaway leaflets that west London has to offer. You will also come across immigrants with next to no English or skills. One man takes a note of an ad that reads: "Newspaper distribution. Every day work. Start tomorrow. Bad English no problem." Like most of the ads, it doesn't say what the hourly rate will be. There are many builders, carpenters, and plumbers; there's even a film-maker here who is making a picture called Postcard from London, about two Polish girls who come from Warsaw to the Sciana Placzu. "These two girls idealise London. They come here hoping to become part of the arts scene and become cleaners instead," says Ania Dykczak. "It's partly about the shattering of illusions, but it's also about what drives young Poles to come here in the first place. The Polish government is still very corrupt and a lot of the money from the EU is not going to the people. One thing that is driving younger people to leave is that you still have to suck up to the older generation. Communism may be dead but the old school is still very much alive and that's very dispiriting if you're young and at the bottom of the food chain."

Ania, 27, is a Polish-born but Cambridge-educated artist who, by her own admission, has not suffered at the fuzzy end of Europe's economic lollipop. Most Poles who come here have been driven by economic imperatives. Indeed, since Poland joined the EU last May, 73,545 Poles have signed the British government register of migrant workers: nearly half of that figure is made up of new immigrants, while the remainder overwhelmingly consists of hitherto illegal workers who have registered to legitimise their presence in Britain. Poles are by far the largest national group to have come from eastern Europe in the past year - there have been 20,000 from Lithuania, 13,500 from Slovakia, and 9,000 from Latvia. According to the Home Office, only 21 of the 133,000 east European migrant workers registered have signed on the dole. So much for those pre-accession stories of Britain being flooded with east European benefit scroungers.

"I am not here to claim benefits," says Radek, 25. "I am here to earn money. As much as I can make and then go home. At home, unemployment is 20 to 25% and the wages are very low. So it's obvious why I came really. But there is another reason: I want to get away from parents for a while. At home, you have no work, no money and so you have to live with parents. This is not good for 25-year-old man." He notes down the number of a builder from the Sciana Placzu who is looking for plasterers, kitchen fitters and electricians. "I can do all of those," he says. What sort of training do you have? "I studied at Poznan technical college as an electrician. I have a qualification." But what about the plastering? "I can do that. I am not trained to, but I can pick it up. I am flexible worker. Not like British men."

And there is something in this. Newly arrived Poles, like many immigrants to Britain before them, are often doing the work that Britons seemingly no longer want to do. For example, when Tesco needed 140 new lorry drivers recently, it hired Poles because of the dearth of British applicants. Similarly, when Aberdeen city council recently sought to hire brickies, plumbers, joiners and electricians, they scoured Eastern Europe for labour, allegedly because there were not enough local people.

Metropolitan dinner-party conversations - long dominated by middle-class people bemoaning the impossibility not just of finding a decent plumber/carpenter/builder within the M25, but one who is temperamentally able to return phone calls - have taken a bizarre new turn. "We can get a new kitchen installed before Easter thanks to this lovely chap from some Polish town with oodles of unlikely consonants and not one vowel! A Lech Walesa lookalike did a superb job of grouting the bathroom and did it ever so cheaply!"

To test this point, I note down the number for a Polish carpenter from the Sciana Placzu, and call on him to come round and give me a quote for a little cupboard I would like in the the downstairs loo. Of the four people whom I ask to present their professional credentials, he is the only one who returns my call, let alone turns up. And when he arrives, he suggests that if I want the room repainted that he can do me a special deal. Cash in hand. No questions asked. There is only one sticking point: Can we take your picture for the newspaper piece we're doing on Polish workers in Britain? "Don't be silly," he says. "Don't use my name either." But he does concede that he is making a great deal of money from such jobs. "I am not taking work from British men, though," he insists. "They don't want to do these jobs in the first place. But if there is competition with them, I think I win sometimes."

Why are such Polish workers becoming so successful in British home repairs? Is it just because some of them are working off the books and thus can easily undercut the competition? "Not at all," says Justina Jacob, of the Polish City Club, an organisation established last June with the support of the Polish Embassy to represent the growing number of Polish finance workers and lawyers in London. "One reason is that under communism there were really excellent colleges to train men and women in manual professions like these. So you have very good, well-prepared craftsmen, and also a tradition of people going into those kinds of work."

Ever since the novelist Joseph Conrad, Britain's most eminent Polish immigrant, wrote, in a letter to a compatriot who had also chosen to settle here, that, "When speaking, writing or thinking in English, the word 'home' always means for me the hospitable shores of Great Britain," hundreds of thousands of Poles have settled here. Thousands came after the first world war, many of them prisoners of war formerly held in camps in Alexandra Park and Feltham. In 1940, after the fall of France, the exiled Polish government and at least 20,000 soldiers transferred to London. Many remained after a communist government was installed in Warsaw. Few managed to have their professional qualifications recognised and so a majority worked in manual trades. Indeed, the existence of so many Polish social groups and businesses (especially building firms) has helped new Polish economic migrants to find it easier than other ethnic groups to live and work in Britain. The vast majority of Poles live in London; but of those who remain, most seem to end up in the Midlands

But recent Polish immigration has also caused a range of problems, perhaps mostly poignantly for Poles themselves. "We help a lot of Poles who sleep rough in London when they first arrive," says Jan Moktzycki, president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. "If a newly arrived Pole tries to check into a homelessness shelter they will be told that they cannot stay because they are not allowed to receive benefits, which includes staying in a shelter. I think that is inhumane." Moktzycki has written to immigration minister Les Browne, calling for a change to these regulations.

Then there are issues of worker exploitation. "Many Poles get taken on in casual work and the conditions are pretty dreadful," says Union of Construction, Allied Trade and Technicans spokesman Jonathan Green. "The big issue in the building trade is non-payment of wages, and some Polish builders fall prey to that."

Ucatt also points out that there have been cases where agencies have preferred to hire labour from Poland rather than indigenous workers, and that eastern European workers have been hired at rates below industry norms, at a time when construction companies are reluctant to take on new apprentices - all of which causes resentment.

The influx of Poles is not confined to those who work in manual trades. "I am part of another Polish invasion," says Rocksana Ciurysek, 30, a derivatives trader in emerging markets for Merrill Lynch who has been working in London for the past six months. What brought you to this overpriced, dirty, rain-soaked corner of the world? "There simply aren't these opportunities in banking in Poland at the moment - I'm working in an exciting area that even my mother, who has an economics qualification, doesn't really understand. It's cutting-edge stuff and I'm well remunerated for it." Surely the high cost of living here eats disturbingly into that salary? "It does, but I'm still very comfortable financially here. At least for the moment." And London is "one of the most exciting cities in the world. I came here to study English and found it culturally really thrilling." It is a cultural life to which the Polish contribution should not be underestimated: last month, for example, Polish-born film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski won best director at the Baftas and his film, My Summer of Love, won the best British award.

But Sciana Placzu, for example, is under threat from local councillors who think that it is patronised by people who are a public nuisance. Conservative councillor Greg Hands claims that residents need to be protected from the scores of people - overhelmingly Polish immigrants - who gather outside the newsagent's. They block the pavements, litter the street with beer cans and wine bottles, and make passers-by and residents feel threatened, he says, adding that there have been cases of public urination nearby. The only negatives I can report from several trips to the Sciana Placzu are widespread taciturnity, outré facial hair and vodka on the breath of some of the men. Yet Councillor Hands is now lobbying the police to establish a dispersal zone, in accordance with the provisions of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Asbos for immigrants: there's nothing so warm as a good old British welcome.

As if to return the compliment, nobody I spoke to at the Sciana Placzu intends to live here permanently. In that sense this most recent wave of immigration to Britain bears scant similiarity to previous, post-colonial waves, whereby various ethnic groups - Caribbeans, Africans, Asians - sought to settle down and stay in the mother country. Many of the Poles working here now have no such allegiances. "Poland has always been in my heart," says Ania Dykczak. "I went back to Poland once to find a boyfriend to fall in love with and I did. He's a film director and I'm marrying him later this year. I have a romanticised view of Poland, it's true, but I want to live that easier, more fulfilled life, with a house in the city and a second home in the forest. I can have a wonderful lifestyle there, but not in London. I think a lot of Poles ultimately feel the same way."

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Springtime blooms for Democracy....

The Arabian spring

Suddenly, the political tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. Why is George W Bush being so modest about it? Jon Swain in Cairo and Sarah Baxter in Washington explain

Sunday Times 6 March 2005

In a faded Washington mansion with a grand circular staircase, the formerly elegant ballroom is now cluttered with desks and telephones. The lines were busy late last year with calls to Ukraine. Now they are connected to dissidents and reformers in Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East where democracy is stirring.
This is the headquarters of Freedom House, a little known but increasingly effective outpost of American soft power. When Ukraine went to the polls last November, Freedom House quietly drafted in election observers, ran exit polls that exposed the corrupt government’s ballot rigging and advised the young activists of the Orange revolution on the art of pamphleteering and street protest.
Its office in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet republic, had its power cut last month because it was printing the only independent newspapers and election leaflets for opponents of the government during the country’s polls. The American embassy quickly stepped in to provide two generators.
Freedom House’s new target is its most ambitious yet: the Middle East, where a display of people power in Lebanon has drawn the world’s attention to a phenomenon few thought possible — the stirrings of democracy in a region notorious for its tyrants, despots, religious bigots and obscurantist royal families.
It is too soon to say that there is a domino effect under way in the Middle East as powerful as the one that ended the Soviet Union 13 years ago. But the recent elections in Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, and now President Hosni Mubarak’s first significant move towards Egyptian political reform in decades — under pressure from Washington he is allowing other candidates to challenge him in a presidential election — are indicators of a political shift.
So, too, is the stunning resignation of Lebanon’s government and the street protests in Beirut demanding free and fair parliamentary elections this spring and an end to Syrian occupation following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
For both the Arabs and the Americans, this dramatic political awakening offers a difficult paradox.
Sixteen months ago Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, described Paul Wolfowitz, the American deputy secretary of defence, as a "filthy son of a harlot of Zion" and hoped for the early death of "people like him in Washington who are spreading disorder in Arab lands, Iraq and Palestine".
Yet it is Jumblatt who, as demonstrators took to the streets around him, galvanised the world’s attention by publicly recognising the role of these hated Americans as a catalyst for democratic reform. "It’s strange for me to say it," he told The Washington Post last month in an interview that has reverberated around the world, "but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq."
He went on: "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8m of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." For all that Iraq remains in dangerous turmoil, Jumblatt’s remarks lent iconic status. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraqi election is now a benchmark from which there can be no turning back — just as President George W Bush’s neoconservative allies had predicted.
The White House is celebrating this astounding political vindication with a restraint that was markedly absent from its handling of Iraq. For Bush faces the paradox that he would trample such democratic stirrings at birth if he were to claim to be the father of them.
Washington won the open and lasting plaudits of nations liberated in the collapse of the Soviet empire; but in Arab countries America remains, if not the Great Satan anathematised by the Iranian mullahs, then certainly a cause of fear and resentment. No budding Arab democrat wants to be publicly associated with Israel’s friend (or, if they are Egyptian or Saudi, with the friend of their own undemocratic ruler). This need to deny America its celebration was demonstrated by Michel Nawfal, a respected Lebanese political journalist, with his analysis of the Iraqi election.
"Saddam Hussein’s style of regime and practices furnished the West with the justifications to invade and enforce a regime change," he said, "and when Iraqis participated in the elections in Iraq, despite the dangers and threats from insurgents, they did so out of personal choice and not as a result of American choice or demand. "If anything, most braved the dangers and participated in the elections as a means of installing a government that they hoped would speed up the withdrawal of the American forces and bring about an end to occupation."
In Damascus, where the recent emboldening of opposition intellectuals is the only sign of the liberalisation expected of President Bashar Assad when he succeeded his father four years ago, anti-Americanism remains de rigueur among his critics.
Ayman Abdul Nour, a political analyst who a week ago sent the president an open letter asking him to quit Lebanon or face looming dangers, insisted that Syrians "were not affected" by the Iraqi elections. "Most say if having democracy means being occupied by the Americans then we would rather live without it," he said. "This also includes all of the Syrian opposition."
In Cairo’s chaotic streets nobody seems to have a good word for Bush. Long before Iraq, America’s credibility had evaporated because of its support for Israel and dictatorial Arab regimes — such as Egypt’s — which have comprehensively failed their people over many years.
But in the past few days some prominent people in Cairo have acknowledged that Bush’s steadfast policy to advance democracy and freedom in the Arab world seems to be paying dividends and that the region is potentially on the verge of changes of tectonic proportions. Hisham Kassem, publisher of Egypt’s newest newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm (Egypt Today), talks of on "Arabian spring".
"History will do Bush justice after he has left the White House," Kassem said. "With his advisers he is today the most unpopular American president ever in the Middle East. But he is really a man who did this region good. "The Americans have done a wonderful job. It is because of their pressure that we have had this opening in Egypt. Criticising Mubarak was forbidden prior to the pressure they put on him."
But in a theatre just a few streets away from Kassem’s office, America’s role in Iraq is being attacked on stage to rapt audiences and critical acclaim in a play called Vietnam Two by Ahmed Abu Haiba, a moderate Egyptian Islamist. In Egypt, as across much of the Arab world, it is believed that America wants to take control of the Middle East for its oil. The theatre audience claps and praises Allah every time the Americans suffer a setback.
Washington appears to understand this Arab ambivalence. The result has been a significant silence about the "Arabian spring". From Tony Blair to Kenneth Adelman, a neoconservative bulwark of the administration and patron of Freedom House, there has been no crowing from the president’s friends. Bush has confined himself to a firm order to Syria to get out of Lebanon. There was no mawkish leap onto the Lebanese democratic bandwagon.
Just as Ronald Reagan’s "evil empire" rhetoric, which so upset his west European allies, led to a private diplomacy that fatally wore away the Soviet carapace, so Bush’s first-term "axis of evil" megaphone diplomacy and military interventionism seem to have undergone a second-term transformation into subtle statecraft to coax the Middle East towards peace and democratic stability.
Even to articulate such an amibitious goal is to invite ridicule, however. Unlike the Soviet empire, the Arab lands are not one bloc but a vast swathe of discrete communities from the Atlantic to the Gulf, each with its own history, blood feuds, power elites and distinct response to local political pressures.
There is no coercive ideology to unify against or a central authority that, once shattered, would set the entire Arab nation on the road to democracy. Islam, with its Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, both unites and divides. The one unifier — outrage at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — has been exploited by Arab demagogues for half a century to keep themselves in power.
In his inauguration speech in January, Bush singled out Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Washington’s chief Arab allies, as targets of reform. So it was that just over a week ago, in tandem with the arrest of Noor, Mubarak opened the door a fraction for Egypt’s first competitive election for president. Although it is almost a certainty that Mubarak will stay in power, his decision has aroused excitement in Cairo.
"I still can’t believe I am talking about an open presidential election in Egypt," said Kassem, who is also vice-president of Noor’s party. "If I don’t get beaten up or arrested or dumped in a cell, I now think I may actually see democracy here within my lifetime."
General Sir Peter de la Billière, the British Army commander from the first Gulf war and an Arabist with long experience of the region and its rulers, warned against euphoria last week.
"There’s a degree of change unthinkable five years ago, but it’s not dramatic and it’s not going to change the Middle East overnight," he said. "Going from a tribal system to a democracy needs to be done gradually and in an ordered way. The rulers in Saudi fear Islam because they know it’s going to cause unrest. The fundamentalist elements in these societies are lined up against the more liberal parts and you have to see order and discipline somehow. "Iraq may have had a great election, but it’s not order out of chaos; if anything it’s the other way round. We’re not out of the tunnel by a long way.
"Lebanon is okay — it’s a special case. It has always been a liberal country, despite the Syrian involvement. It’s always had a government; it’s quite different from Saudi Arabia and even Jordan.
"Kuwait was already moving down the democratic path and Bahrain has introduced elections; but we wouldn’t see either as being particularly democratic. These are different people with different heritages. To think that we can impose western democracies overnight is wishful thinking."
Within this contradictory political landscape, even some of the shrewdest observers are baffled.
"You have a wind of change," said Andre Azoulay, adviser to the king of Morocco (and the only Jewish adviser to an Arab head of state). "There is a breath of fresh air in the region. But I can’t tell you quite what it means. "Is it coming from one place? It’s not being imposed from above — it is more a conjunction of different situations with a convergence now in a certain direction. It is not the answer or result of what the United States government is expecting, because it comes from inside these countries. There is an emergence of civil society. From Mauritania to the borders of Asia there is a new wind."
If not from America or Iraq, where does the "breath of fresh air" come from — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the quietly reforming Gulf states? Many Arabs tend to believe that all change in the Middle East is anchored in Cairo, so political developments in this ancient city of 18m are monitored closely. The old proverb "Misr umm al-dunya" — "Egypt is the mother of the world" — may be an exaggeration, but it is the largest and most populous Arab country. While no longer the pan-Arab leader that it was in the Nasser era, Egypt is indispensable to any political progress in the Middle East. But Egypt’s own part in the Arabian spring is plainly the consequence of a nudge from Washington.
Cairo remains a city of contradictions. Women covered head to toe in hijabs walk past shops filled with skimpy lingerie. In the summer the city is brimming with Gulf Arabs who, despite having exported Wahhabist Islamic conservatism to Egypt in the 1980s, come to the city for the good time they cannot find in their own countries. There is also, for all its outward vibrancy, a pervasive sense of drift. "It is like riding a helter- skelter in a too-heavy car that just keeps going down and down towards the bottom," says Wael Nawara, a businessman.
Amid the shifting moods and customs, however, there has been one constant over the past two decades. With strong American support, Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency laws — with increasingly pharaonic tendencies — since the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.
Under Mubarak, Egypt is a mere facade of democracy. There is no genuine freedom of speech and some 15,000 political prisoners are held in jail. A few weeks ago an opposition journalist was picked up by government thugs, bundled into a car, driven into the desert outside Cairo, stripped and left to walk naked back to the city.
Ayman Noor, a lawyer, popular member of parliament and leader of Al-Ghad, or the Tomorrow party, was arrested on the steps of parliament last month, stripped of his parliamentary immunity, allegedly beaten and jailed. Noor has been remanded in custody for 45 days on charges that he forged signatures needed to achieve official recognition for his party. Noor’s party members say the charges are trumped up and aimed at preventing the emergence of the first real secular alternative to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic party. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist opposition, remains outlawed.
Noor’s arrest is evidence that Mubarak’s regime still has teeth and is not afraid to use them despite American pressure to reform. Paradoxically, one of the ways it has tried to rubbish Noor is by saying that he is an American puppet. The response of Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has been openly to rebuke Mubarak and to cancel a visit to Cairo.
The Egyptian president, now 76 and with a question mark over his health since his public collapse during a speech to parliament in 2003, has had four terms in office. He was preparing for an uncontested fifth term when Bush decided to make democratisation and freedom in the Arab world the hallmark of his second term in office — an attempt to eradicate the incubus of terrorism by political means.
Some, though, are casting a wary glance at Tunisia, where a constitutional amendment that appeared to make way for competitive presidential elections turned out to be a sham. Zein al-Abidin bin Ali, the president, faced a few hand-picked opponents and won 96% of the vote instead of his usual 99%.
The spectre of Tunisia’s neighbour Algeria — which cancelled a general election in 1992 when militant Islamists were on the point of winning — is a warning of how things can go wrong, according to Abbas Shiblak, director of information for the Arab League. "There was no gradual transformation," he said. "There was no chance for groups to be empowered through municipal and local council infrastructures — they all have to be in place before you have elections."
The gradualist approach — so gradualist that it is almost imperceptible — is the Saudi royal family’s response to America’s pressure. Municipal elections have been held successfully in the Riyadh region and the Eastern Province and another round will take place on April 21.
Only 7% of those eligible to vote have registered, however. This may be due to a reluctance to commit to the process until candidates have come forward. Outwardly a modern technological society in the urban centres, Saudi social structure — and political affiliation — still depends on tradition, family connections and religion. Top of the list of considerations for the voter is whether the candidate is Shi’ite, Sunni or reformist, followed by a possible family connection, however distant. "I don’t believe that a highly educated man would serve my interests better than my cousin," said one registered voter, Fahd Al-Qahtani.
Although voting is limited to men and candidates so far are from the affluent upper middle class and mostly over 50 — in a country where 60% of the population is under 25 — the elections are seen as a significant step forward, particularly by women who have been promised the vote in the next elections in four years’ time. "We have to keep the new momentum rolling," said Fatin Bundagji, the recently appointed director of women’s empowerment at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "The process has started and we have to continue raising the profile."
The tensions that arise from attempting democratic reform in an oil-rich society under absolute monarchy were demonstrated last week in Bahrain, where three internet "bloggers" were thrown in jail for insulting the royal family.
Bahrain held parliamentary elections three years ago — women were allowed to vote — but the 70% Shi’ite majority population has continued to complain that the Sunni ruling family retains control through an appointed upper chamber of parliament. Without a fully free press, according to critics of the family, the internet has emerged as a forum for dissent through weblogs. "Every village in Bahrain has one — even the most remote villages," said a blogger in her twenties. "You get a lot of different opinions on there and you really feel the pulse of the street." However, government officials also scan these internet forums and the bloggers were arrested last Sunday accused of defaming the monarch, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, spreading false rumours and spreading hatred of the regime on a site ( that gets an average of 80,000 hits a day. They could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Last November, however, the king ordered the immediate release of a human rights activist jailed for a year for inciting hatred of the government.
If the Bahrain bloggers have transgressed in a relatively benign climate, young Arabs like them are seen by the Americans at Freedom House as the key to democratic mobilisation against tougher regimes.
Copying the tactics deployed in the former Soviet bloc, its staffers hope to seek out a young generation of democracy campaigners and street activists, offer them free use of Freedom House computers and printing presses and help them to deploy catchy slogans such as "Enough!", used by Egyptian students against Mubarak last month. Freedom House acknowledges, however, that it will be far more difficult to operate in conspiracy-minded anti-American Middle Eastern countries. It is also concerned that the activists it supports may be jailed.
"It is important that Americans and other well-wishers do not think these events are about us. They are about the people who are taking the risks. For this project to succeed it has to be an Arab project," said Tom Melia, a professor at Georgetown University who advises Freedom House on the promotion of democracy and civil society. "If it is identified with Uncle Sam, it will be difficult for people to claim they are standing on their own two feet."
Melia, a Democrat, added: "You don’t have to be an enthusiast for Bush to know that many of his critics were wrong. Making democracy a strategic goal for American interests in the world doesn’t sound so wacky any more."
It is a point conceded by one of the sharpest of those critics, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, who wrote last week: "We ought to admit that the dark cloud of the Iraq war may have carried a silver lining."
Additional reporting: Hala Jaber in Beirut and Damascus; Tom Walker in London; Roger Harrison in Saudi Arabia; and Robert Smith in Bahrain

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Pope's reliance on the media

Now as Before, Pope Relies on Media for His Message

Ian Fisher

New York Times 4 March 2005

VATICAN CITY, March 3 - Several years ago, an American cardinal visiting Pope John Paul II here asked if a hometown television crew could film the two together.
"The pope looked at him and smiled and said, 'If it doesn't happen on television, it doesn't happen,' " Archbishop John Patrick Foley, the Vatican's chief of communications, recalled. "He is aware of the power of the media."
Now a tracheotomy has left the pope barely able to speak, but that awareness is no less evident. The pope himself, according to reports, asked to be wheeled to his hospital window last Sunday, appearing for less than two minutes but reassuring the faithful, via a huge bank of television cameras, with a wordless brush over the wound on his throat.
It was a performance fully in tune with the healthier times of his 26-year-old papacy, during which he focused less on the daily administration of the Roman Catholic Church, by most accounts, in favor of spreading its message through trips, television and even the Internet, farther and more vividly than any other pope could have.
But a week after he was hospitalized for a second recent time, many questions are rising: Can a pope who now cannot speak well, who is unlikely to keep up his grueling schedule of public appearances, continue forcefully to advance the church's message? Can a kind of virtual papacy - electronic images of him combined with messages read by others or posted on the Internet - substitute for his own once-commanding voice on issues important to the church, like war, poverty or abortion? And if so, for how long?
With so much sympathy for the ailing pope, 84, the public voices of skepticism are few, even if they echo many private worries inside the church administration and among the faithful.
"In the short term, he might be able to hold some kind of press conference in which he is able to write out his message," said the Rev. Michael A. Fahey, a Jesuit and theology professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin. "But I don't think that is really going to help meet the long-term needs of the church."
"From my point of view, the speaking is only part of the whole problem," he said, adding that he deeply admires the pope's courage in illness. "He really doesn't have the same vigor and ability to really administer and to provide the kind of on-site leadership necessary."
But others argue that John Paul's strength has always been that of a communicator, and that he does not need words to convey the role he has carved out in the twilight of his papacy - to carry a spiritual message of dignity in old age.
"I think I can live with a pope who communicates rarely, and not verbally," said Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay movement based in Rome. "We are in a situation that is new, and exceptional, but also a situation that existed in the past. At St. Peter's Square, before microphones, what did the faithful hear? They heard very little."
"It can seem a disappointment, it can seem less efficient, but the message of Wojtyla is the message of a real man, because illness is a part of life," he added, using the pope's surname.
Many Vatican watchers point to two recent events around the pope's illness as possible windows to the future: When John Paul left the hospital on Feb. 10 after spending nine days there in treatment for flu and breathing problems, he did so not in an ambulance but seated and waving behind the clear glass partitions of his popemobile.
Then last Sunday, amid much concern after he was admitted a second time three days earlier, he appeared at his window at the Gemelli Hospital complex in Rome, making the sign of the cross and touching the spot on his throat where a tube had been inserted to help him breathe.
"He was saying, 'I can still communicate with gestures,' " said Giuseppe De Carli, chief of Italian public television's division for covering the Vatican. "He's clearly saying that he can be pope from the hospital, that he can be pope being silent."
A few miles away at St. Peter's Square, his words were read by an aide, as a still photograph of a younger and healthier John Paul radiated from huge outdoor television screens.
Mr. De Carli traces much of the pope's effectiveness as a communicator to his early days as an actor in Poland.
"He looks straight into the camera; he dominates the masses, especially young people; he interrupts himself to wait for applause," he said. "He understands pauses, silences, timing. He plays on this. It's his charisma."
Even if the pope is not speaking publicly, his aides certainly are doing so for him. Throughout both recent hospitalizations, a stream of proclamations and appointments have been issued in his name. And top Vatican officials have provided a steady beat of largely positive, if brief, reports about his health.
On Thursday, his chief spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told reporters here that the pope's health continued to improve, that he was engaged in church business and that he was making progress on therapy to help him speak and breathe better. Dr. Navarro-Valls said, however, that it was uncertain if the pope would be discharged from the hospital before Easter, on March 27.
If the pressures are high on John Paul to reassure the faithful, it seems partly because of the expectations he himself raised as he transformed the public face of the papacy. Pressure on earlier popes to appear in public or on television was small. In the last few months before his death in 1978, experts note, Pope Paul VI rarely left the Vatican.
But after being chosen pope, John Paul II moved to change the ancient office's relationship with a new mass media that could quickly project itself around the globe. He met with reporters and answered their questions, as he did with groups of the faithful - and to forgive the man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who had tried to kill him in 1981.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican radio, said the pope was attuned enough to the media that he held meetings over lunch or dinner with aides after every trip, dissecting the news coverage.
"He reflects on, and if necessary learns from, how things went to improve next time," he said. "I found this to be an extraordinary lesson in how he takes his role as communicator seriously."
The aim was to project the message of the church and to spread its influence, and he has not shied away from those possibilities on the Internet. In 1995, the Vatican began a Web site (, and in 2002, he released a long document on the use of the Internet to further the church's work.
In January, only a week before he was hospitalized the first time, he released another letter on communications in which he urged: "Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank 'among the marvelous things' - inter mirifica - which God has placed at our disposal."
But there has been much criticism, from reporters and some Catholics, about the lack of openness at the Vatican, one of the world's least penetrable bureaucracies, as opposed merely to its media savvy. That criticism has continued during John Paul's illness over his exact medical condition and to what extent others are making decisions for him.
As the effects of his Parkinson's disease have taken their toll, the pope has traveled less and has has much trouble speaking. In the last year or so, he has generally read only part of his public messages, leaving the rest to an aide. He is also generally said to rely on a handful of top aides to run the church's business day to day, though Vatican officials say he remains engaged on the most important questions.
Tad Devine, a top Democratic Party strategist and a practicing Catholic, said, however, that this most recent phase of the pope's illness could still be an important moment in this papacy. He said that the world's news media were focused on the pope around the clock, even if that focus amounted to a papal death watch, and that sympathy for him was great.
"The fact that he is in the spotlight so much gives them the opportunity to convey their central message about life and death, about their vision of morality in the world," he said.
"We'll wait and see how they do it," he added. "But if the issue is, 'Is the pope's developing illness going to suffocate their message and their opportunities?' my answer is no. The opposite is true."
Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting for this article.

Time passes

One year on : a Madrid family's life after death

On 11 March 2004, the Madrid bombings left almost 200 dead. In the aftermath, Peter Popham met the Ruiz children, orphaned by the atrocity. As the anniversary approaches, he discovers how the family - and city - is coping

The Independent 05 March 2005

Juana Ruiz Martinez has something to tell me. But the words are scarcely necessary, the fact is engraved in her pale, woeful face. "There is nothing worse than losing your child," she says. "Saul was my only son. The pain is still unbearable."
I am in the cramped semi-basement living room where I met this family one year ago, when their grief was so raw they could hardly hold back their tears. There is the same big television and the ornaments in the highly polished cabinet, armchairs and a sofa squeezed around the coffee table, potted plants dotted about, a ray of anaemic daylight coming in through the tiny window.
Juana is here, the grandmother of the family, whose son Saul and daughter-in-law Laura died; also Lesly, Saul's cousin and auntie to his children. It was on the morning of Thursday 11 March 2004 that Saul and Laura, illegal Honduran immigrants, left this flat together and walked to Vallecas station and took the train to go to work. He was heading for the building site where he worked as a plasterer. She was off to clean offices. They had only ridden one station when the powerful bomb concealed in the backpack in their carriage exploded, killing them both.
They were two of nearly 200 who died that morning, as four bombs were set off simultaneously by mobile phone detonators, in Europe's biggest terrorist atrocity. Another 1,400 were injured.
The massacre meant different things to different people. For Europe's leaders it delivered the message that Islamist murderers were capable of terror attacks at the heart of western European democracies, and had the sophistication to time them for maximum political effect: the Madrid bombs went off three days before Spain's general election. Within less than a week of the bombs Spain's political landscape was transformed, the Socialists were in power, and the Spanish troops in Iraq getting ready to leave. Other Western leaders continue to brace themselves for similarly ambitious atrocities.
But for thousands of Madrilenos, the politics was beside the point, a meaningless distraction from the bitter pain of having family, marriage, livelihood, or as it felt to some like Juana, the entire meaning of their lives blown to pieces.
I went to meet this Honduran family in their tiny flat because their suffering, described in El Pais newspaper, was of the starkest. Saul and Laura, the couple who died, were the breadwinners. Between them, and often working seven days a week, never taking a holiday in all their years in Spain, they supported a large family: daughters Nixma and Kenya, 14 and 15, two boys called Saul (the oldest from Saul Snr's previous relationship) aged 13 and 20, and Saul's retired mother, Juana (her meagre pension barely paid her rent). They were also sending money back to three other children of Saul's in their pueblo in Honduras.
It was the original immigrant bootstraps operation. On their backs Saul and Laura took the weight of the great European promise, the dream of translating rustic Latin American poverty into urban European prosperity in the space of a generation, with all that that entailed: car, mortgage on a presentable flat, education, training, college degrees, a decent job at the far end of it. Annual holidays as a delicious mirage, glinting in the distance. Saul and Nixma were in school, Kenya halfway through training to be a beautician, the elder of the two Sauls at college studying to be an electrician.
But it was all incredibly vulnerable. They afforded, just barely, the mortgage on the flat at €600 (£410) per month, but could not afford the life insurance policy that would have underpinned it. They had a car but had to park it on the street in the raw suburb where they lived - and on the morning of 8 March someone broke into it and wrecked the lock, which was why they had to go to work by train, something they rarely did. To build up their tiny margin of security they worked all the hours they could, so when Laura's agency rang that morning to say her labour was required, she would not have dreamt of saying no. That was the series of accidents, driven by poverty and need, that led to them being on the train.
The bombs exploded, the railway cars were blown apart, the tightly packed commuters torn to pieces. By the end of that appalling day, burned into the flesh and the memory of this city, the family knew the worst. Saul and Laura were dead, identified by heroic Juana at the huge makeshift morgue set up in the new Ifema convention centre. The heart of the family, and the engine of their life in Spain, had been blown out. Three days later, 14 March, was Kenya's 16th birthday, but she had never experienced anything less festive. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she told me, "The only thing I wanted for my birthday was my parents back."
Time passes. That date is rolling round again. Spain has moved on, having disengaged smartly from Iraq. Now it has become the first country to endorse the new EU constitution. It is pushing hard, harder than any it appears, to get the 2012 Olympics. But the old Eta bogey is still around. In the immediate aftermath of 11 March the Basque separatists were blamed for the Madrid bombs. The error was quickly exposed: for all their wanton attacks and murders, they have never been so venomously random in their atrocities. But almost a month ago a huge Eta bomb went off outside the Ifema convention centre injuring 43 people.
And now the anniversary of the massacre is coming round, and the good news coming out of the family that lost its two central pillars is that they are still alive and kicking; they haven't got over the pain and perhaps they never will, but life of a sort has got under way again.
The Spanish government came to the rescue with proposals to help the families of the victims. The trains targeted by the bombers were coming from poor suburbs and many of the victims were working-class people on their way to menial jobs in the city centre. A huge number were, like Saul and Laura, illegal immigrants from Latin America. And when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government realised that many of the bereaved were failing to come forward to identify their relatives because they were living in Spain outside the law, it hastily offered Spanish citizenship to all of them. Saul and Laura's family were among those who benefited.
"They offered nationality quite quickly," says Lesly. And the reason they are not now on the street is because the government followed it up with an emergency pension scheme for those bereaved by the bomb. Kenya, Nixma and the younger Saul, having lost both parents, receive €580 per month each; the older Saul, whose mother is still in Honduras, gets only €165 because he only lost one parent "which is not fair," he says, "because my hurt was just as bad," and the death of the two left him in just as much difficulty as the rest.
Juana the grandmother, who was as dependent on her son as anyone else in the family, failed to persuade the authorities that she was a deserving case too. "They said maybe they will give me some later," she says. The amount they get is "barely enough to make do," they say, a total of just over €1,900 for all of them. The three younger children will continue to get the money until they are 24, Saul the elder until he is 22. "We expected more help from the government," says Juana, "because there were so many of us, and we lost two people."
The offer of nationality came quickly, but the reality of getting the documents processed was a different matter. "The bureaucracy was terrible," says Lesly, who took charge of making sure all the forms were filled in and that the children got everything they were entitled to. "I was asking for time off to work on getting the nationality papers for the children, and I was working so hard on that that they fired me." She was a seamstress in a garment factory, the profession she had embarked on back in Honduras when she was 14. The family's last remaining breadwinner has been jobless ever since.
She is, however, pretty busy looking after the three younger children. You feel that without Lesly the family would be in much more trouble. A comfortable, plump, serene figure, the daughter of Juana's brother, she is the one who has begun the process of integrating the family into Spain, being married to a local man, Jose, who has his own business selling and installing air conditioners. "We have no children of our own, so these are my children, this is my family," she says simply.
Saul and Laura were the only Hondurans killed in the massacre which has made the family somewhat isolated among the victims' relatives but also made them special. The Honduran government went to great lengths to help them get over their loss, flying the whole clan back home for a week for the funeral, which was the first time any of them had been back in many years. "The funeral was hard," says Juana. "It was like having two funerals, going through it all twice. It was nice to see the family again, but because of the circumstances it wasn't the same thing."
And in Madrid, Juana has struggled to get over her sense that the most important thing in her life has been torn away. And so far she hasn't succeeded. "I never went back to my flat," she says. "Only once, to collect my things. Saul used to come to my house to see me. It was a rented place. I only went back to collect my things. Because I was needed here with the children.
"In the day time it's all right, I can get on with what I have to do. But I suffer a lot during the night. It suddenly comes to me, what happened." She couldn't sleep for more than short periods at night. Now the doctor has put her on medication to help her rest.
Now in the gloomy little living room they open the highly polished cabinet and take out some albums of photographs. A year ago there was a picture propped up from their last Christmas party showing Saul at the centre of attention, roaring with laughter, clashing glasses with Nixma to toast the holiday and the family's future, Laura looking on in the background. Today we leaf through the stiff vellum of the daughter's first communion album, parents and children staring out, all properly pious and solemn in their dresses and suits. The picture with Saul the joker has disappeared from view.
Then another picture drops out, of a small baby in a babygro. "Who's this?" I ask. "This is Stefania," says Lesly. When Saul and Laura were killed, it turns out that Saul had yet another child on the way, this time by a woman called Lourdes. "Yes, Laura knew all about it," says Lesly. "She had accepted it." And on 19 April, a month and a half after the bombing, little Stefania came into the world.
I say something banal about death and life always somehow keeping each other company. Lesly and Juana nod, smiling. "We weren't sure how it was going to work out," Lesly admits, "but as it happens we all get on very well. Little Stefania comes over here at the weekends." Life goes on.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Shiites in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Shiites Look to Iraq and Assert Rights

New York Times March 2, 2005

QATIF, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 25 - The Shiite Muslim minority in this kingdom once marked their Ashura holy day furtively in darkened, illegal community centers out of fear of stirring the powerful wrath of the religious establishment.
But this year Ashura fell on the eve of the 10-day campaign for municipal council elections, to be held here on Thursday, and a bolder mood was readily apparent. Thousands thronged sprawling, sandy lots for hours to watch warriors on horseback re-enact the battlefield decapitation of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in 680.
A few young men even dared perform a gory, controversial ritual no one can remember seeing here in public - beating their scalps with swords until they drew blood to mirror Hussein's suffering.
"It used to be a story that made us weep only," said Nabih al-Ibrahim, 42, a portly civil engineer running for a city council seat. "We believed we were weak. That this is why we didn't govern ourselves for a long time."
"Maybe now, after all that has happened in Iraq, we will take something political from the story of Hussein," Mr. Ibrahim added, echoing a common sentiment. "Now the issue will take another route, because Shiites have started the growth of their political culture."
Saudi Arabia's religious establishment, which is dominated by the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, still damns such rites as pagan orgies. But the fact that Shiites, at least in this city, their main center, no longer feel the need to hide reflects a combination of important changes here and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The most important include the emergence of an elected Shiite majority government next door in Iraq, the campaign for municipal elections here in the country's first nationwide polls and a relaxation in some of the discrimination that Shiites have long faced in the kingdom.
The limited municipal council elections scheduled throughout eastern Saudi Arabia are expected to earn Shiite candidates all five seats up for grabs in Qatif, an urban area of 900,000 on the Persian Gulf.
In a sight startling for Saudi Arabia, Sheik Hassan al-Saffar, a dissident Shiite cleric who has been jailed and spent the 15 years before 1995 in exile, spoke for an hour in one candidate's campaign tent on the first big night of electioneering. Even limited elections are important, he said, "because they ignited in people's minds the spark of thinking about their interests and aspirations."
Sheik Saffar also drew parallels to Iraq, saying voting was the least Saudis could do, considering the risks their brethren had taken next door to exercise this new freedom. He took great pains to say it was a question for all Saudis, not Shiites alone.
The kingdom's two million Shiites, most living in the Eastern Province, constitute about 10 to 15 percent of the native Saudi population.
The minority naturally faces the same problems as other Saudis, utterly lacking freedom of assembly, expression and most other basic civil rights. Activist Shiite women are outraged that all Saudi women are barred from voting.
But the Shiites feel their problems more acutely because they have suffered religious and economic discrimination in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the aftermath of Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979.
They were viewed as a potential fifth column, not least because Shiite Iran urged the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and violent riots erupted here in the early 1980's. The fact that the Shiite minority is concentrated right above the country's richest oil fields inspired a particularly harsh crackdown.
There has been no Shiite cabinet minister, and only one Shiite ambassador - to Iran. Shiites are kept out of critical jobs in the armed forces and the security services. There are no Shiite mayors or police chiefs, and not one of the 300 Shiite girls' schools in the Eastern Province has a Shiite principal.
Saudi Shiites believed that the government would at least start to regard them as citizens, especially after Crown Prince Abdullah met nearly two years ago with a group that presented a petition for equal rights, titled "Partners in the Nation."
The prince called for a better understanding between Sunnis and Shiites and included prominent Shiites in a couple of sessions of his "national dialogue," virtually the only public forum where Saudis are allowed to discuss ways to combat the religious extremism carried out by Al Qaeda and its followers.
In the last few years some restrictions on Shiites in Qatif were lifted or at least overlooked, including allowing limited construction of community and Shiite mosques, as well as the public celebration of Ashura rituals.
But the little that has changed outside Qatif raises questions in the community about the government's commitment to tolerance. Ashura celebrations are banned in Dammam, a neighboring city of some 600,000, including 150,000 Shiites.
There is only one officially sanctioned Shiite mosque there, and no functioning Shiite cemetery. The distinctive Shiite call to prayer is banned, and even the small clay pucks that Shiites are supposed to rest their foreheads on during prayer are outlawed.
Shiites in Dammam wish some of those issues could be discussed in the municipal election campaigns. The elections are being held in three stages in different parts of country, with the second, eastern stage scheduled for Thursday. But candidates and voters said they did not dare raise such topics in the election tents, lest the campaign be shut down.
Saudi Shiites hope that once a few of them are elected to city councils, at least in Qatif, they can discuss their problems more openly.
"Whoever is going to be elected by the people has the legitimacy nobody else has, not even the king, believe it or not," said one Qatif candidate in a flush of excitement. Exactly three minutes later he reconsidered. "It would be wise if you don't quote the statement about the king," he said, sparking a burst of laughter from his colleagues.
The full-bore hatred that the Wahhabi sect bears for Shiites spills out on Web sites, in the local news media and even in school books.
Saudi textbooks contain passages that describe Shiite beliefs as outside Islam - the original split emerging because Shiites supported the claim of Muhammad's heirs to control the faith. Wahhabis believe that Shiite veneration of the Prophet's family, including worshipping at tombs in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf, incorporates all manner of sins, including polytheism.
Such practices prompt some to revile Shiites as a lower order of infidel than even Christians or Jews.
A recent article in a Saudi magazine suggested that a form of temporary marriage allowed by the Shiites helped spread AIDS. When a Sunni was arrested for trying to set fire to a Shiite community center in Qatif, Sheik Fawzi al-Seif, a local cleric, said one writer on a Web site had asked why the arsonist had acted while the building was empty.
Web sites also urged Sunnis to vote Thursday lest they find the dreaded Shiites on their municipal councils.
Last week a prominent Islamic law professor, Abdel Aziz al-Fawzan, accused anyone who took part in any Ashura celebration of being an infidel, the rough equivalent of a death sentence.
Shiites say they have no recourse to address any manner of discrimination. "Who am I going to complain to, a judge who is a Wahhabi sheik?" said Hassan al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric.
What Saudi Shiites really seek is a clear statement from the government pronouncing Shiite Islam an accepted branch of the faith, believing that all other rights will flow from that. But the Saud dynasty gained its control over much of the Arabian Peninsula via adherents to the Wahhabi teachings, and its legitimacy rests on maintaining their support. The religious establishment considers itself the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy and holds sway over institutions including the courts and the education system.
Shiites say they have learned their lesson that riots only lead to repression, although the Saudi government remains wary that any sectarian violence in Iraq may ignite similar clashes at home. Shiites think a combination of outside pressure and changes like elections will slowly gain them equal rights.
They believe that Osama bin Laden and his ilk created an important opening, with the royal family now casting about for ways to limit the Wahhabi extremism that it has encouraged but which now seeks to overthrow Saudi rule.
More important, the minority puts great stock in what develops in Iraq, although the changes remain too raw and violent to gauge fully.
If the Shiites who dominated the Iraqi elections show that they can work with Sunnis and Kurds, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf say, it will strengthen the idea that democracy works and undermine the longstanding prejudice that Shiites are monsters intent on undermining Sunnis everywhere.
The same holds for the Shiite majority in neighboring Bahrain, long ruled by a Sunni minority, and the Shiite minority in Kuwait. There are about 112 million Shiites among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.
Fears about a Shiite wave have been expressed by such Sunni rulers as King Abdullah II of Jordan, who described the emergence of a Shiite crescent from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut as a possible threat to regional stability. (The Alawite minority that runs Syria is a Shiite sect, though mainstream Shiites regard it as heretical.)
"What is happening today in Iraq raised the political ambitions of the Shiites," said Muhammad Mahfouz, the editor of a cultural magazine in Qatif, "that democracy and public participation is an instrument capable of defusing internal disputes, so Shiites can attain their rights and aspirations."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Radek Sikorski: articles

Radek Sikorski has many full-text articles on the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. A profile of him and the articles are on,scholarID.64,type.1/pub_list.asp

'New life in a land of death', for example, describes his revisit to an Afghani village nearly 20 years later.

The AEI website is a vast one and there are on it a very large number of very diverse other articles / book reviews by dozens of other writers.