Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The History of Cold War in 100 Objects

The Museum of the Allies - Alliirte Museum - in Berlin hosts until the 28th of January 2018 an exhibition aimed at telling the history of the Cold War in the divided city through 100 objects. 
The museum in itself - which can be visited for free - is an interesting testimony of the post-WWII times, with interesting stories and artifacts told through an interactive, well documented exhibition which includes movies and extensive documentation. In the case of this exhibition, the accompanying leaflet was extremely heavy, at least 100 pages - explaining every artifact in English, German and French - the main languages of Western Berlin during the Cold War. 

Only one quarter of the artifacts are part of the permanent exhibition. As a historian of the mentalities, I am always fascinated by the small stories told by every single simple object, even as humble as a road sign. Or the small pocket shaped piece of paper with the credo of the American soldiers in Berlin. Both the West and the East are covered in the exhibition, which make it a full picture of those times, through the small daily things in life.
You can write perfect Cold War novels by only matching some of the objects. The famous tunnel discovered in the 1990s in the Pankow area of Berlin, aimed at being used as a listening station or for sending spies to the East, is part of the permanent exbition at the Museum and it has its well deserved place among the other 100 Objects of the Cold War. 

For me, it was very interesting to notice how each of the three communities stationed in this city - French, British and American - settled, by the re-creation of their home communities. The French, for instance, had Quartier Foch, which I visited a decade ago, after its residents left long ago. It looked like a ghost city, with its supermarket and street names in French abandoned in a rush, but still there to remember of the recent times. West Berlin was a city with many cities inside, and this exhibition outlines some of the physical - not only mental - border of the time. 
A must see for anyone interested in the Cold War history and histories and Berlin in general.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Review: Rescue. Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time

As Foreign Secretary in Gordon Brown's government, David Miliband was an atypical chief diplomat, especially by introducing social media into the daily life of foreign service, a domain that is usually very reluctant when it comes to transparency and public exposure. 
After finishing his mandate and losing the political battle in his own Labour party against his brother, Ed, he is currently the CEO of the US-based International Rescue Committee (IRC). In this quality, he become acquainted with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and often visited the various conflict areas in Africa. Out of around 25 million official refugees and asylum seekers in the world, only 4 million of them are in camps which creates a need for offering support, especially at the policy level for those seeking a new citizenship status. 
His experiences and warnings in this respect are the subject of a book recently published: Rescue. Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time, which outlines pretty accurately the main challenges and reform directions in this field. Easy to read and appealing to a diverse public, the book is especially recommended to anyone interested to get an idea about the problem, but further development and references are more than necessary. It outlines the historical processes and the need to have a coherent response to populism, but equally a bussiness mindset aimed at obtaining adequate funding. 'Support for refugees is not only about high ideals and global leadership. One of the complex challenges for countries in this crisis centers around responsibility'. The more countries, institutions and individuals are involved the better for offering a proper answer to the current crisis and challenges, shaped not only by political circumstances, but equally by social and human responsibility.

Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jerusalem of Gold

The announcement of president Donald Trump officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city of the state of Israel confirmed a situation the facto, creating more noise than necessary. When all the main institutions that made the backbone of a state are situated in a city which happens to be the most important place on Earth for Judaism, mentioned in prayers for thousands of years, it means that this city is the capital city, regardless what America or other countries say - or not.
The moment is important from many points of view though which might complicate the aftermath of the historical announcement: the competition between different Palestinian factions is harsh and only a conflict against the eternal enemy could separate the winners from the losers; the official division lines between the Muslim countries in the region - never in fact great allies, but never so openly expressing their inanimities either - are bigger than never and, as usual, the common 'enemy' is what they need to assume in the face of the world their common front; the distance between the president and the other institutions like State Department and intelligence community is getting wider, with an opposition between the two block which cannot lead to a win-win situation - it happened in a milder form during the mandate of Pres. Bush Jr. The embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - and the way in which various bureaucratic evolutions would take place is the most interesting so far, because the success or failure of relocating the diplomatic mission is the litmus test of the political determination to officially recognize the capital city of Israel. The fact that other countries - such as the EU-member Czech Republic and the Philippines - announced a similar move might be only the beginning of a step-by-step progress towards accepting the reality. After all, the accreditation letters of ambassadors are received in the same Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv.
Will the 'peace process' undefinitely put on hold? Long before the declaration of president Trump, the negotiations were blocked as, among others, president Abbas was incapable to calm down its own people and convince any potential partner that he can really bring peace. This is less likely to happen in the near future. The different terror Palestinian groups were already set for a war for a couple of months, at least since the summer tensions regarding the metal detectors at Temple Mount. The fact that tensions are reignited those days is just a trick aimed to offer more and more fuel to a Western media set against Israel because the journalists are mostly used to see a black-and-white reality, not necessarily because lacking the proper sources of information.
On the Israeli politics home front, prime-minister Netanyahu and his close allies are facing file after file of corruption accusations. Bibi is a maven when it comes to conflicts and he is smart and fierce enough to get the best credentials in successfully managing a security crisis. And this is just how things are on the ground, in the capital city of the state of Israel, Jerusalem. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A journey into America's Alt-Right

After the election of Donal Trump as the new American president and the outburst of populist and far right discourses into the mainstream media, alt-right is a term widely - and not always correctly used - in referrence to the concotion of conservative trends predominant in the heart of the Capitol and beyond. However. as usually in the case of such movements, they did not appear from nowhere, being in fact the final result of radicalisation in American politics starting early in the 1990s.
David Neiwert is an expert in extreme right movements in the USA, and I personally expected a throughout analysis of the phenomenon, and eventual connection with the similar phenomena in Europe and elsewhere. However, most of the book is offering a very detailed repertoire of the genesis and orientation of the various movements and mental patterns associated with the alt-right. Especially if you are not familiar with the actors and movements, radio hosts and Internet tools spreading the news and fake-news. From this point of view, the book is a very valuable database that can be used for further analysis and evaluations.
The theoretical approach is made only in the last chapter where the patterns of American 'fascism' are identified and the need for a change of the liberalist approach is recommended. 'Donald Trump may not be a fascist, but with his vicious brand of right-wing populism, he is not just empowering the latent fascists elements in America, he is leading his followers merrely down to a path that leads directly to fascism. If the final result is fascism, the distinction between right-wing populism and fascism is not really significant, except in understanding how it happened in the first place'.  I have my methodological reservations about various terminological implants and extension, preferring rather terms that better describe the reality, although it might involve the creation of new terms. Especially the reliance on new media and the various targets aimed at minority groups, plus the strong religious basis in many cases made it completely different from the usual European-based movements typical for the WWII period. 
The US radical right is getting a first row on the political stage and both the theoretical approach and the activist-oriented actions are needed. 
A book recommended to political scientists and curious scholars about the historical trends of the radicalization in the USA, as well as for knowing both the main actors and the pawns of this new political trend.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Metal detectors and safety measures at religious sites around the world

After many months of relative peace in the Israel, a new artificial crisis outbursts after the decision of Jerusalem authorities to install metal detectors at the entrance of Temple Mount. The measures were set after two Israeli police officers were killed by armed Palestinians who entered the area. The metal detectors are aimed at offering highest security and preventing people to bring weapons used not for improving their concentration for praying, but for harming other people. 
This is apparently the trigger the Palestinians - especially their 'authorities' - waited for preparing a so-called 'Day of Rage'. Pretending that there are special religious requirements against going through metal detectors - apparently nothing is said about carrying weapons for killing other people - they are ready to set up just another Hollywood-inspired political soap opera. 
However, the increased safety measures are not uniquely used at the Temple Mount. Big religious sites around the world - especially Muslim ones - set up such systems to deter and prevent terrorist attacks. Given the usual high price of such a system - which starts from 12,000 and can easily reach around 73,000$, plus the usual maintenance, not all the religious sites are able to afford such an investment.
Here is a short overview of the main such measures at main religious sites around the world. 


- Mecca


Around 4 million Muslims visit Mecca every year to perform the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, and more millions are going there throughout the year. In order to offer high-security to the pilgrims and avoid armed attacks - the last armed takeover took place in 1979 at the Grand Mosque, but another possible attack was foiled a couple of weeks ago, as since 2014 Saudi Arabia is under constant threat of attacks from ISIS - and over-crowding, over 800 cameras were installed only near the Grand Mosque in order to track the pilgrims. For years, there are discussions for the creation of sophisticated metal detectors, and the guards are prepared to intervene at any time to easy congestion and jostlings. The security forces deployed during this time of the year are impressive, with over 100,000 personnel available to intervene.
Plain-clothes officers are often mingling with the worshippers to stop them from carrying unauthorized foots into the mosque. The private cars are not allowed to enter the area. Pilgrims should also wear special bracelets provided with ID and medical details, allowing the tracking of every single individuals.
Although metal detectors are not provided at the entrance to Mecca and other holy sites, the pilgrims are going through systematic controls at the border and when going in and out of the airports.


Sources: 

- Vatican and the Pope

In order to enter the Vatican Museum, visitors are going through metal detectors. Knives, umbrellas or weapons are not permitted. According to my own journalistic experience, when the Pope is visiting abroad, high-security measures are taken, especially given the repeated attacks to life of Paul II. Usually, the Pope travels in the bullet-proof Papamobile. The entry in the area near the pope for the usual gatherings is done after serious security checking, including metal detectors.

Sources: 

- Imam Reza Shrine in Mashdad, Iran

The largest mosque in the world according to capacity, Imam Reza Shrine was more than once the target of terrorist attacks. The security checking is done through two separate entrances - one for men and one of women. Big backpacks are not allowed, as well as cameras. The site is permanently surveilled by cameras. 

- Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

The principal mosque of Istanbul for 500 years, Hagia Sofia, a former Byzantine cathedral allows access following the passage through complex security checkings, among which X-ray and metal detectors. Turkey, in general, set up a very strict control system of entrance to religious and institutional buildings, following the wave of Kurdish separatists attacks in the 1990s.

- Synagogues in Europe

Most of the big synagogues and Jewish institutions in Europe do use metal detectors systems in order to avoid terrorists attacks. The controls are aimed at preventing terrorism and protecting people who are visiting or praying from being the innocent targets of terrorists.

- Hindu Temples in Varanasi, India

Varanasi is the spiritual capital of Hindu, and the permanent threats and attacks on behalf of various Muslim denominations in the area lead to a severe increase of security. At Vishwanath Temple, for instance, the queues are permanently controlled by soldiers with riffles and the entrance is done through metal detectors. 

- Christian Churches in America and elsewhere

More and more churches in America decided to increase the security measures after being under threat of terrorist attacks. Hiring guards and installing video surveillance cameras are the new realities of the religious institutions. After the deadly attacks in Egypt against Coptic churches, the authorities in Greece decided to introduce strict ID controls and surveillance near the religious sites belonging to this group. During the winter holiday season, several churches in Singapore introduced bag checks and patrols at the entrance. 

Sources: 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Literary Account of the Tunisian 'Spring'

A literary account and a novelist point of view on the dramatic events at the end of 2010 and 2011 in Tunisia, Tahar Ben Jelloun's By Fire doesn't add new interpretations of the historical account. The two essays translated from French are aimed to multiply the memory of the so-called Jasmine Revolution, that started from the self-immolation act by the young unemployed graduate Mohamed Bouazizi. 
Unable to cope on his own with the injustices and corruption in the country, Bouazizi, harassed by the police for the only fault of trying to honestly gain his existence selling fruits from a cart in the market, decided to end his life in a symbolic way. By putting himself on fire he wanted to send a desperate message to the public. He died of his wounds a couple of days later, and his act made history, as president Ben Ali left the country following the revolt that spread all over the country.
The death of Bouazizi, as well as the change of the corrupt president didn't change on the long term the situation of the country, but at least opened a window for hope. Of course, hope it is not enough to bring bread on the table but this might encourage change, both individual and at the society level. Bouazizi didn't have any hope any more hence his desperate act. Ben Jelloun recognizes that one single voice it is not enough: '(...) isolated voices can never bring down dictators; it took many incidents, clashes with the police, glaring injustices and intolerable acts for the spark to finally ignite'. The 'Arab Spring' was a hope not necessarily leading to dramatic changes, but literary minds and writers in general are always tempted to dream.
However, the short essays are realistically written, more focused to describe facts and events than to make comments and projections. It offers important historical background and information not only for the novel reader, but also for anyone interested to have a short but comprehensive understanding on the 'Jasmine Revolution'.

Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book review: Daring to Drive, Manal al-Sharif

Manal al-Sharif is worldwide known for her bold decision to face the traditional anti-women approach of Saudi authorities of forbidding women to drive. But it is more than that, although, her stubborness turned her into a symbol of women self-awareness not only in her country, but in the entire Middle East and the world. 
In her memoir, Daring to Drive, she tells her story, sharing her experience about growing up as a girl and being the target and victim of men's hate and opression. I was thinking twice before using this word, opression, but this is how the women situation in this country looks like: a slave that should silently follow the rules created by men. 
Manal al-Sharif dares not only to drive, but also to challenge those absurdities, some of them not necessarily part of the religious teachings, but recent time inventions. An educated women, with a traditional background and her own history of religious observance, she is carefully observing the changes undergone by the Saudi Arabia while noticing the constant marginalization of women from the public sphere. From discrimination at school and at the market place to physical violence within the family, women are always the target and never properly protected by the law against abuses. 
But in a inter-connected world as ours, it is hard to keep the situation without raising protests and inspire online social unrest. Manal did her part, and her achievements is an example for other women in the area to dare too, because cowards have all to lose. Her resilience and decision to go forward is an encouragement for women all over the world, but particularly in women-unfriendly countries like Saudi Arabia.
A recommended read to anyone interested in this part of the world, but also curious about women rights movements in the time of the Internet.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The business of news

More than 10 years ago, after I decided to give up my dream-job I always wanted to have - journalism - I was deeply disappointed by the business of news as such. Under the pressure to become a profitable industry, journalism degenerated in a business-driven enterprise, where economic interests were dictating the angle of news and even the coverage or not of certain sensitive information for the owners. For me, as a young dreamer, such an approach was inacceptable and thus, I decided to give up the dream.
Fortunately for me, the online medium was developing rapidly and shortly enough I've found my perfect environment to share my ideas and interests, without the pressure of the profit and enjoying the professional independence I was so hungry for before. I was my own boss, spending as much time as I wanted to document a news and writing fully about issues that I was interested in. But it was no profit involved and, at least in the case of foreign affairs reporting, I decided to avoid completely to associate any financial implications to it.
Blogging was starting to develop, and more and more people were entering this environment to share their opinions and ideas. As in the case of any beginnings, there were some funny episodes, and not all the content aired was professional. Especially if you start as a lone blogger, taking into consideration the ethical standards and the golden rule of 3 sources seems to be not necessarily a main concern for the writers. Sharing was more important and if in the case of travel and leisure news, checking the facts is easier and doesn't require too much time, for foreign and home news, creating a reliable news report is always a matter of time. The longer, the better, as in the case of the good wines.
A new category of journalism was developing: citizen journalism. With the new wave of social media and high-tech tools, anyone was able to report and create the news. The most important thing was to report and share it with the world instantly, before the crew of the classical media outlets were able to reach the premises. In war areas - with limited access and sometimes without any presence of foreign journalists - or when spontaneous riots started, the rapid share of information might be the unique available reporting. But even in such cases, the documented reporting should use those snaps of information in order to create reliable news features and check directly with the authorities about various facts. Citizen journalism doesn't have the access or the desire to do this, but can provide an important piece of information, although not the full information itself.
Observing all those developments made me happy. I was jealous of all the resources available at the time dreaming about how my hard start in the field of news reporting would have been. But I was experienced enough to notice the risks as well, but was almost convinced - contrary to the pessimistic thoughts from The Net Delusion - that the good guys - aka the good journalism will always win. After all, it was the first time in history when there were enormous possibilities to do good and keep doing your job.
But the search engines and the Internet networks such as Facebook, were silently pursuing another revolution: that of the algorithms, according to which some content is more visible that the other, often promoted in exchange of minimal fees. When the amount of information produced is overwhelming, there should be a certain order to organise it, based on categories, key-words or other relevant mathematical - cold - rules. The SEO and search for visibility weren't necessarily promoting the best, but the most read news, where the visibility of a site was calculated up to the well chosen words used, based on the most searched words and expressions. It doesn't mean that this excludes the quality content to be found and read, but it requires a lot of extra work, not necessarily of journalistic nature and very often, when faced with the choice between checking facts and figures and becoming a SEO-Samurai, you rather prefer to publish an impeccable piece of news. Again, the risk might be that no one will see your story.
The phenomenon of the 'fake news' so popular during the last American elections isn't new. It is at least 8 years old when during the presidential elections in the same USA were bombarded with information about the unclear ethnic and citizenship origin of pres. Obama. I am not taking any stance for or against him, I just notice facts. The method was used in the next elections and the fact that right now it is a matter of concern is the result of the high standards the web techniques themselves reached. The fact that president elect Trump complains of being himself a victim of 'fake news' is pretty ironic, as in the last years and months, he was the main beneficiary of such campaigns. Practically, nowadays, everyone with a basic SEO knowledge and some $$ in the pocket can play with the news and support its own version of truth. The more resourceful financially and logistically, the better for a definitive version of it, even for a couple of hours or even days. Most probably, many people will prefer to keep in mind the first variant offered, without bothering to check the further developments. It is normal too, as time is limited and our attention nowadays is extremely split.
What is to be done? It is the end of journalism as we know it and the beginning of the informational chaos? The media landscape obviously changed and challenged. The business of news were never a good profitable one, unless people used blackmail and yellow media - which was all so popular at the beginning of the news too. The 'fake' news will continue to exist alongside serious information for now on and people will keep reading it, with the same appetite as they read gossip magazines. It is not a matter of human nature, but of readability and curiosity. 
However, people in the business of news do have serious obligations. First, they need to keep respecting their standards and regardless of the pressure and the stakes, to continue offering verified quality information. Second, it is important to educate both public and producers of news discernment, through online classes, books and media reports. To share experiences about how to separate 'real' from 'fake', about how to write and read responsibly. After all, there are so many people able to distinguish between a real luxury brand and a fake, because they got the proper education to do it. And if they choose to buy the fake one, they do it responsibly, aware of their choices. It is a difficult but not impossible task.