Donnerstag, 31. Januar 2008

through western eyes

perhaps it was just a bit too close to home.

the other night i stopped by a cafe to re-read a draft of an article that i was working on. unfortunately i was not able to concentrate on my paper but found found myself drawn into listening to the conversation at the table next to me. anything else would have been impossible, given the highly audible volume level of their discussion and their clear and emphatic enunciation of their main arguments. in addition, the topic which they were discussing with their eloquent, polished, nasal voices was one that's been close to my heart for a while: southeast asia.

the two men, both with obviously above-average incomes and higher-level education were discussing "the essence" of vietnam and thailand, of the nature of the thai and the vietnamese "an sich," generalising and simplifying at every turn. in all its eloquence and intellectual aspirations, the discussion struck me as being plainly arrogant and ignorant, with the two snooty young well-heeled european men being convinced of their economic, cultural and intellectual superiority vis-a-vis the south-east asian locals and other westerners, lacking all empathy for those who they felt were below them - which was pretty much everyone.

walking home i wondered what it had been about the pair had irritated me so badly. perhaps, i thought, it just really had been too close to home: the two were engaging in what i do so often, in fact, in what i do for a living: generalising and simplifying, talking eloquently on behalf of south-east asians instead of really listening to, let alone creating space for their own voices, placing myself into the position of the all-mighty western know-it-all and getting paid for it. its not always nice to look into the mirror.

Montag, 28. Januar 2008

death of the patriarch

indonesia's long-time dictator suharto died last sunday. for some he was "the butcher of jakarta," for others "the father of development," or, in between these two poles of opinion, "the smiling general."

he was feted and armed by the west and "diverted" somewhere between 15-35 billion us dollars into his own and his family's pockets (i admit that that used to sound like a whole lot more before this week's banking scandals).

thanks to his openness to foreign business interests and his proven anti-communist credentials (at least half a million dead suspected leftists) he was bestest buddies with the leaders of the free world. as late as 1995 bill clinton's administration called him "our kind of guy." more honestly, henry kissinger allegedly described suharto and the likes of him such as marcos, pinochet, duvalier and mobutu sese seko as "bastards, but at least they're our bastards." and like so many of "our kind of guys," suharto did not have to face justice for the estimated up to 1,5 million people killed during his reign or the billions he and his family are thought to have embezzled.

this morning i was asked to write an obituary of suharto, which i agreed to. coincidentally the amount of money i will get for the obituary is exactly how much my health insurance will cost me next month. i pondered the irony of paying for my own health insurance with the money that i will indirectly get thanks to the death of a man who had been responsible for having several of my friends and acquaintances jailed and decided to put that money into a fund that helps his surviving victims instead.

Freitag, 25. Januar 2008

trans-europa express

"the passenger
he rides and he rides...

he looks through his window,
what does he see?

he sees the bright and hollow sky,
he sees the stars come out tonight.
he sees the city's ripped backsides,
he sees the winding ocean drive..."

- iggy pop, "the passenger"

hues of grey, green, brown... the earthy shades of a landscape formed by centuries of agriculture and industry pass by my window. i am cocooned inside what looks, from the outside, like a high-speed silkworm, gliding smoothly across the continent with its cargo of students and pensioners, metalheads and businesswomen, migrants and those that would unfortunately rather get rid of them, tourists going skiing and conscripts heading home for the weekend.

we pass through towns of stunning beauty, of brutal functionalism, of mind-numbing mediocrity. medieval churches walled against marauders, red-brick ruins from the days of the industrial revolution and post-fordist logistics hubs consisting of pre-fab materials glide by.

a voice crackles over the intercom:

"naechster halt: muenchen hauptbahnhof..."

Donnerstag, 24. Januar 2008

alphabet city

over the past few days in geneva, i've been walking around town past the WMO, the SNCF TGVs, the WHO, ITU, MSF and WIPO, talking to people from UNOG, UNIDIR, ICRC, DCAF, UNDP-BCPR, IOM, OCHA, UNHCR, WTO, SAS, ILO, CPCC and HDC about things like SNAP, SALW, DDRR, ALD-3, MONUC, GenCap, MINUSTAH, SSR, UNMIT, BIT, MINURCAT, FDI, SPLA, IDDRS, EPA, UNMIS, OECD-DAC, GBV, DPKO, ODA, DR, P-11/PHP and SRSGs.

in addition, i've had a wonderful time meeting friends, sitting in outdoor cafes, walking in the surrounding hills and feeling like an extra in "the shining" (or in a surreal short story by kafka or harms) when wandering through the vast, empty maze of corridors of the UN's palais des nations looking for a non-existent fifth floor...

Dienstag, 22. Januar 2008

180 degrees

in a "dramatic" turn of events, i have now temporarily put down my writing and am concentrating on reading instead for the next few days - oh, the exciting life i lead!

i have also temporarily traded the "poor but sexy" streets of berlin for the "rather rich but subtly so" streets of geneva for the week. all countries have their idiosyncrasies, of course, but i often have the feeling that there's something particularly peculiar about switzerland. not in a bad way necessarily, but just slightly odd. maybe its the habit of placing brutal 1960s concrete blocks in the middle of pictoresque alpine pastures? or the quaintly antiquated habit of closing all shops (and many restaurants) on sundays, monday mornings, wednesday afternoons and saturday afternoons as well as for extended lunch breaks and at six every evening? the courteous way people interact? i will have to ponder the issue over a fondue tonight....

Mittwoch, 9. Januar 2008

cabin fever

"i think the writing is eating up my self,
preventing any togetherness with anyone,
... recycling [texts] over and over again.
how much longer, how many more?"

- iggy pop, "afraid to get close"

no worries, i haven't quite reached the stage that mr. pop described there, but i fear i might be getting there soon. as some of you might know, i placed myself under house arrest about two weeks ago in order to get through my backlog of articles and, more importantly, to finally get somewhere with my ph.d. thesis.

as far as the writing is concerned, it's been a fairly successful plan but i'm growing a bit concerned about the side-effects: cabin fever, anti-social behaviour and delusions of grandeur.

i've decided to allow myself one trip per day out of my flat to interact with reality, which usually means that i end up in a cafe somewhere around the corner. so far so good, but the problem is that cafes tend to have other customers: noisy children running around with their frustrated young mothers shouting after them, youngish men in suits discussing their investment portfolios, smokers complaining about the new stringent smoking regulations, young lovers discussing where to go for a weekend break... and all of them are conspiring to break my train of thought with their insolent, endless cacophony! all of them are conspiring to get between me and my thesis! nay, all of them are conspiring to get between Humanity and My Thesis, for isn't it humanity that stands to gain the most from the masterpiece i am creating? fools, do they not understand?!?

i drown my four double-espressos in quick succession, pay up and shuffle back into the safety of my own four walls, cursing the other customers under my breath....