From the Land of the blondes to that of the Two Niles

I left Copenhagen a few days ago and find that my experience of that city was quite underwhelming even without having expected much on arrival. Perhaps it is because I was there for too short a time to appreciate anything more than its architecture and its tourist face. But even on the level of the gut, I only felt a mild stimulation and it usually takes me a very short time to appreciate the pulse of a city. This pulse, when faced with the foreigner, especially the African, beats fast from hostility and defensiveness. The Africans that I met there told me horrific stories of the racism and xenophobia that they had suffered since their arrival. Their variety of stories had in common an inward looking Danish culture that feels vulnerable to the outsider while simultaneously feeling superior to him.

A Ghanaian professor who took his doctorate from the University of Copenhagen and later taught at the same school told me of students who walked out during his introductory class: they refused to be taught by an African, thinking that there was no possible way he could be qualified. He would start his classes with the painful joke that he ‘had not come to play music.’ This was said to me with a laugh but I could tell that it still hurt him all these years later. He observed that early in his sixteen-year stay Copenhagen, he was criticized for not speaking Danish. Immigrants had to integrate into this new society and learning the language was the first and most important step. But once this was done, he said, the charge became that skilled migrants like him were there to take jobs from the locals. It is the same refrain heard in many European countries that reflects a fear of a world that those same countries have benefited so much from by trading with or conquering it in the past.

A Nigerian taxi driver told me repeatedly of the slurs that he had suffered there, the provocations. The Cartoon Controversy according to him was less an assertion of free speech than a much publicized provocation that all those who are not white and Danish feel in their new home. It seemed a great shame that a society so accomplished would lack confidence to the extent that it fears people who are merely seeking a brighter future for themselves. But let me not make it seem like all was doom and gloom.

The Danes know cocktails. I had the best margarita of my life there: the phi phi. The magic ingredient in it is chili so that the slight burn of the tequila as it went down my throat was followed by the warmth of the spice. The lounge in which I had numerous phi phis was like a million others in any major city that you care to go to. It had low lighting, jazzy music playing and a hum of conversation at the exact pitch and volume as New York or Nairobi or London. There is a convergence of desire I have been arguing to all and sundry, a decades-long rise of an urban elite that is essentially global in its outlook. And it is this very elite that I think can be argued, even without the benefit of the phi phi, to be managing the convergence of state norms and operations. This has led, especially in Europe, to governments that appear cut off from popular consensus and drawing their legitimacy from a kind of internationalist elite worldview. It is the calm cover to a roiling and boiling sea.

There is a tradition of gift giving to the state and the country in Denmark that fascinates me. The queen’s residence is four palaces contributed by seventeenth century merchants. They face – across a small body of water – the city’s opera house which was built for half a billion dollars contributed by Mærsk Møller of Maersk shipping fortune. I wonder why this same tradition has not taken root in Kenya. Perhaps it is because the way the idea of the public space is constituted is as a trough from which to grab wealth and not to deposit it. You take from the center, a center that no-one seems to believe that they occupy (you will notice that Kenyan politicians and bigwigs wear a perpetual cloak of victimhood and a sense of operating from the margins.)

For the days I spent in Copenhagen, I run every morning. And got lost each time. Running in a new city tells you a lot about it. In New York for example, where I lived for some years, runners will nod to each other. I used to feel free to sidle up to a fast running one and ask whether we could push each other. The answer was invariably an enthusiastic yes. But in Copenhagen, I felt watched and suspected of some crime. Perhaps I was just a surprising sight. But in a city with pretensions of sophistication, I felt like I was in a rural town, what with the wide-eyed ‘who are you?’ stares and the averted ‘I am not seeing you’ gaze.

Next post is on Khartoum, Sudan where I have been for the past twelve hours.


Up North in the Land of the Blondes

Back to the land of high-speed wireless internet. Otherwise known as heaven. I must post about Copenhagen even if it is only about my initial impressions which are shrouded in a heavy fog of ignorance. Before I do that though, do you believe that there is such a thing as destiny when you meet people? On the flight from Alexandria to Heathrow, I met an architect from Oslo who specializes in building villas from the simplest materials who was coming from her project in Ethiopia. It was just as I was thinking of having a small place somewhere in the Rift Valley that I could visit when I am in Kenya and need to get away from it all. Well, after a long conversation on books, the relative merits of one duty-free perfume versus the other, we started plotting a villa that would be cheap and made very simply. Watch this space since if this plan, which I have had with a few friends of mine gets underway, I intend to blog every single step of building my own little out-of-town heaven 🙂

It took just under two hours to fly here from London but no two airports or cities seem more different. Heathrow of course is much bigger and perhaps because of that is so much more impersonal. Full of grey carpeting and scowling staff while you step off your plane onto parquet floor in Copenhagen, and it a much friendlier and intimate space. Instead of taking a taxi to my hotel I took the train to the city’s central station. Because night had fallen by the time I landed, I could see very little as I pulled up to the Copenhagen Strand. But I had to get something to eat and decided to do some late night foraging.

Map in shameful (I need to consider myself a traveler not a tourist) hand, I walked to Amager Torv, a square I was told has restaurants that serve food late into the night. The streets were quite empty of walkers and cars but I felt no sense of threat or nervousness despite never having been here before. I felt no surprise, no sense of revelation as I walked. The streets just as I expected had cobblestones and the buildings were a mix of the sleekly modern and older styles that I felt that I had seen before in many other European cities. In Europe surprise seems to have been packaged into a restrained charm. In place: obedient to the whole. The more I see of the continent’s cities compared to those in my part of the world, East Africa and the Horn, I become more convinced that it is the westerner who is the more communal being than the African despite the present wisdom which holds the opposite view. Here there is a rigid social and historical skeleton – especially writ in the architecture – underneath individual individuality. The few people I met in their variety of funky styles seemed in a way to be unable to break out from the unmoving solidity of the buildings leaning over them. This town, like the others I have seen in Europe, seems to constantly remind its citizens that IT and not them are what is enduring and worthy of that continuity.

Nairobi in contrast is a city of its people. Its physical manifestation pales in comparison. (This is half the problem if we are assessing the city’s many problems.) In a very real way in Nairobi people are the institutions, they are the buildings. That is what makes all the dirt and the poverty and the crime there co-exist with a sense of vitality that once you have tasted is very difficult to stay away from or to replicate anywhere else. Anyway, back to Copenhagen.

I had an excellent steak at Pasta Basta just after 2 am in the morning. Wonder what talented chef agrees to keep such late hours. The tables around me were filled. One notably with a group of young men who were painfully thin, had clearly drunk an enormous amount of beer if their loud shouts of laughter were any clue and who I imagined were musicians discussing their latest road trip. Another table had two women, one who kept getting up to go out of the restaurant to take mobile phone calls. She would return and they would immediately plunge into bitter condemnations (they were speaking in english) of some guy who clearly kept calling just as his rival was sending texts. Her companion, clearly the loyal support during some kind of break-up drama, kept nodding along seemingly agreeing with every rant that emerged from the other’s mouth. It was such a universal scene. I imagined that on the other side of the phone was a guy also seating in a bar with a friend who was was also nodding along in agreement at whatever analysis his injured buddy made about the mobile calls. Love, as wonderful and teary in Copenhagen as it is elsewhere. The few people I have seen so far in the city by the way are very physically attractive: fit and tanned and energetic.

Walking back to the hotel, I got lost and walked for over an hour before I finally found my way. At some point, at a distant, I saw a group of about ten youths (yuuuthhss or yuuts as Joe Pesci would say) milling about next to the canal. Behind me was a man pushing along his bike. It was the first time all evening that I felt nervous. I suddenly wondered about all the stories I have read on neo-Nazi attacks on Africans. Though I can remember hearing of none in this city, the closer I came to them, enough to see that they were observing me closely, the more nervous I got. Yet I felt unable to turn back the way I came and there were no side streets to turn into. Besides, I told myself, they had me in their sights now and if it was indeed going to come to some late-night violence, my turning down a darkened road might have made the whole matter worse. My imagination, which is ever coming up with one unlikely scenario after another, by this time was serving up horrible images of what was to come. Bloody images of yuuts tearing cobblestones off the pavement and using them to bludgeon me unconscious before throwing me into the canal. Or of me grabbing a brick from the side of the road and charging toward screaming in inarticulate rage and terror. I must confess that my eyes, as they seem to always do in situations where I suspect the slightest physical threat, searched frantically for a weapon. It is this fear of mine for violence which lends me to believe that the coward is possibly the most violent human being there can be. His fear of others allows him leeway to commit terrible crimes to assure his safety. In any case, the kids were probably just as curious about me as I them. As I passed by slowly they ceased talking so that it felt that I was inspecting a kind of Danish teenage parade of soldiers armed with skateboards and pocket keychains.

That was my first day in Copenhagen. More to come if I can work up the stamina to seat in front of this keyboard when it is summer outside.

The rudeness quotient for Copenhagen (with 1 as very polite and kind, and 10 as boorish and unwelcoming) on day 1 is a 5 since what I have experienced in my interactions so far is a politeness that emanates more from efficient professionalism than voluntary hospitality. The score may change by the time I skip town this weekend.

George Bush and Superman: Naked and Powerless?

Powerful people are not powerful: they are fumblers and jivers as we used to call them back in the day. I say this after two events: George Bush’s antics during the G8 and the latest Superman movie.

Consider this slice of the off-the-cuff conversation between Bush and Blair in Russia:

Bush: I think Condi [US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] is going to go pretty soon.

Blair: But that’s, that’s, that’s all that matters. But if you… you see it will take some time to get that together.

Bush: Yeah, yeah.

Blair: But at least it gives people…

Bush: It’s a process, I agree. I told her your offer to…

Blair: Well… it’s only if I mean… you know. If she’s got a…, or if she needs the ground prepared as it were… Because obviously if she goes out she’s got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.

Blair’s words cut to the core of Britain’s role in the world: his desire now is only to present Downing Street as a relevant force, as ‘powerful’. Yet all he can do is ‘speak’ as he runs ahead of actors so that he can seem to have an impact on events – to be part of the doing in the Middle East and elsewhere, . How helpless, how sad that this man who occupies such a supremely self-conceited office should be revealed to be so…irrelevant. This is a truth that the world is catching on fast. In Kenya for example, the British diplomatic effort is sputtering. No longer can the ambassador stroll into State House as he wishes. The impulse at home is to deal with those with the best power PR machines, those who retain some ability to act decisively. But that too is where the rubber gets off the road because even the ‘powerful’ ones engage in conversations like this:

(Since the camera is not focused on him, it is not clear whom Bush is talking to, but possibly Chinese President Hu Jintao, a guest at the G8 summit.)

Bush: “Gotta go home. Got something to do tonight. Go to the airport, get on the airplane and go home. How about you? Where are you going? Home?

Bush: “This is your neighborhood. It doesn’t take you long to get home. How long does it take you to get home?”

(Reply is inaudible.)

Bush: “Eight hours? Me too. Russia’s a big country and you’re a big country.”

(At this point, the president seems to bring someone else into the conversation.)

Bush: “It takes him eight hours to fly home.”

(He turns his attention to a server.)

Bush: “No, Diet Coke, Diet Coke.”

(He turns back to whomever he was talking with.)

Bush: “It takes him eight hours to fly home. Eight hours. Russia’s big and so is China.”

That’s what power does when it is not posturing before the microphones. Its use of violence is really just an attempt to hide its confusion, its fear of having been told that it is in control when all it really wants is a diet coke and to get home in time for bed.

The age of kings, at least due to the divine link it claimed for its highest, could make a PR stab at claiming supernatural control of events. But in this secular age, where the pressure on leaders is to remain ‘in control’, they must manage the image of control more than controlling events themselves which they know is beyond them. It is this PR aspect of leadership that leads to the greatest use of violence and oppression because the one thing you can at least appear to control is taking aim at a body, pulling a trigger or imposing some draconian measure on it. So just watch out when you demand that your leaders ‘do something’ about a major crisis. Violence often follows.

Power: do you think Superman the son of Krypton had it? Having just watched Superman Returns, the atrociously boring latest chapter, I am ashamed to say that as a kid I used to love the dude. He was all that was right with the world: justice and the victory of supermen over ordinary men which for some reason as kids in Kenya we really went in for. Perhaps this was because, as I have come to reluctantly suspect, deep inside the Kenyan middle class breast burns a secret, little colonial fire of white love and an unacknowledged hatred of the underdog despite being constantly told that you are one. How could I have ever related to Superman? He was invulnerable to everything except Kryptonite; could fly ‘faster than a speeding bullet’; leap over tall buildings; and even turn back time. So what did he choose to do with these powers? He ignored all that was going wrong in the world except for small-time crooks mugging little old ladies who he punched out or wrapped in a light pole to my great delight. I cannot now understand why I considered him a hero when in fact nothing could physically hurt him. This echoes my curiosity about how exactly is America so often able to think itself a victim of bullies when it is the most militarily and economically powerful country on earth. True Americans have been hurt by outsiders in the past, but I am increasingly astonished by this ability of the powerful to claim perpetual victimhood and the mantle of heroism when they react against the ‘bully’. It seems to me that most atrocities – whether in Haifa or Beirut for example – are always committed by ‘victims’. Even Superman becomes a victim of Lex Luther whose great crime is his madness in refusing to lie down and accept that the Man of Steel is his and humanity’s natural master.

Victim. The competition to append to yourself this word, and therefore own justifications for your actions, is the stuff of every strain of politics and ideology. From progressive to reactionary, democrat to republican, the search for victimhood is on. The winner gets to kill and maim with impunity.

From comments page:

alexcia: When bushie first came to power, there was alot of concern about whether and how his low regard for intellectual rigour would impact the US.
No one is concerned anymore, no they are numbed with shock from the realization that with him, and indeed most of america, Intelligence, low or otherwise does not matter. Who needs all that when you have WILL power, when you can read souls and when god speaks to you directly.

MMK: Intellectual rigour, the lack or presence of it, is the least of the problem. The real problem in my mind is with the issue of control: the attempt to present leadership as somehow a force that can control events and plot the future with unerring accuracy on the policy and moral front. Another word for what I am trying to point out is hubris. The US has steadily bowed to the dais of science and technology which in effect are about attempting to understand nature so as to control and direct it for human purposes. Its triumphs in this sphere have in the best enlightenment tradition been inferred to be relevant in political leadership and human management as well. The thinking being if you can create all those bits of tech and bio-tech and wealth built on science, then leadership too must bow to scientific exactitude and certainty.

Anonymous said…

Victimhood is the ultimate superiority. The victim is the moral superior, the victim is the superior when it comes to initiative- no one may question why they do something, after all they are victims.

Victimhood is the aspiration of all human beings, why else do we claim it was someone else’s fault each time we find ourselves in a bit of trouble.

Victimhood takes away responsibility. If someone did something bad to me, the the world is less shocked if my reaction to the act is brutal, callous and inhuman, after all, my victimisation made me vulnerable to such extremes.

Victimhood is a tool in politics as well as in personal relations. Women who stay in abusive relationships do so because, at a deeper psychological level, victimhood gives them a sense of moral superiority to the abuser. A sense of “see how courageous and loving I can be despite all the does to me, see how much I persevere!”

Victimhood is the ultimate symptom of the key malaise in human societies, a desire to avoid 100% responsibility over our actions, the consequences and the future.v

(Friday, August 18, 2006 2:58:39 PM)

The Headbutt From Heaven and How Zizou Rocked

It was perfect wasn’t it? The moment that Zinedine headbutted Materazzi the curtain parted and revealed the immigrant’s European journey. I did not have a moment of doubt that Materazzi had made a racist comment: that he had somehow managed to bring up the subject of Zizou’s Algerian origins in a derogatory fashion, which indeed turned out to be the case. And I celebrated wildly that Zizou had chosen to openly and violently refuse to endure such insult. He did not sneakily get back at his tormentor. No, it was his final game and he was going to play it on his terms – using his rules. No more taking of a high moral ground that in reality means self abasement or a turning of the other cheek only to have it struck as well.

He had endured this kind of thing before. Listened to the Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s and other racists deride the team of immigrants he led to victory in 1998. He had grown up with the knowledge of France’s brutal colonial war in Algeria; of the racist limitations to Algerian immigrant aspirations. His millions in income and his fame did not insulate him from the knowledge that his society prized him as a football player and little else. Zizou held hands with any immigrant who has stolidly endured racist insult to try and fit into their new society while trying to achieve their goals. And so when he unleashed that headbutt, the millions who had just taken their commuter trains to whatever nasty neighborhood they live in, under the baleful stare of the police and the sneers and jeers of many of their new countrymen leaned into Materazzi’s chest with him. I felt elated that this man who had bestrode the world stage and received its every honor had chosen instead, with premeditation and commitment, to refuse to take that shit anymore. He did it when it mattered, as billions watched and with the biggest sporting prize within reach. That is why Zizou for me has taken his place with the likes of Mohammed Ali and Joe Louis in being much more than a sporting icon. In his final game he rejected the role we want for him – refused to just play and shut up – and instead decided to be his own man.

But this post really would not be complete without a celebration of the mechanics of that headbutt. The way he jumped into it without hesitation. The decision to aim for the chest and not the head which displayed a brilliant understanding of the mechanics of surprise and forward movement during an attack. If you ever attend a Vee Arnis Jitsu class in New York City (as I did for some years before I left for London), you will realize that you have to move forward on the attack. That in fact your safety, in a manner of speaking, is behind the man in front of you and that you have to get through him to find it. Zizou understood this well. He might have gotten the red card and France did lose the game, but I think that his wellbeing, his sense of having stood for himself, lay behind Marco Materazzi who he went through. Like a hot knife through butter.

What would have happened had Zizou chosen to teach Materazzi some further lessons? Clearly the stomp would have come into play. In fact that was the natural follow through to that headbutt. But let me not get gory or sink too low because in fact Zizou did not want to hurt the guy. It was more to show Materazzi that while he coveted the trophy enough to dishonor himself by making racist comment, he, Zizou, thought that the prize was not worth his honor.

(Check out a delicious post by Daniel Davies on the (sublime headbutt)