Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Chokta Lobsang: in memoriam

                                  Chokta Lobsang, a kind and warmhearted young Tibetan monk who was a writer and advocate for freedom of expression has been brutally murdered. He told me that when he was 16 going on 17, he left Tibet in winter and with a group of 56 people crossed the Himalayas through the deep snow into India. He knew his life wasn't safe in Tibet. Two of his nephews had immolated themselves, to keep out of the hands of the Chinese secret service: The ultimate form of resistance, out of free will and choice. People working for the latter dis-service raped and killed his young niece. During two PEN-Conferences I met this amazing young man and we had several warm, personal and serious conversations. He told me then that a couple of times a years - not having seen his mother for 17 years - he would call his mother. Yet then they could not speak freely, seen the aforementioned 'service' was always listening in. With a kind of code, they managed to at least a bit of personal  exchange. Probably the biggest joy for this young man was hearing his mothers voice.
He was an unwavering Vice-president of PEN Tibetan Writers Abroad always defended colleagues in trouble, literature and freedom of expression. Many of us having met Lobsang at PEN meetings over the last number of years, including the PEN International Congresses in Reykjavik (2013), the WiPC Conference in Krakow (2013) have been touched by this thoughtful and kind person. In India he was a teacher to the young monks. His murder was gruesome. And we might never know the full story of who did pull the strings. Heavy hearted, saddened yet also grateful to have been touched by this extraordinary person I want to remember our last meeting when he offered David, the then president of PEN-Flanders and myself a white scarf which we both hold dear and cherish.
Thinking of you in gratitude for having known you.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fatena in Zedelgem and St Niklaas

After the long drive to Zedelgem, we were rewarded with an interesting bunch of people who had braved the rain and darkness. Karl introduced Pen-Flanders and the work we do for authors who had to flee their country. Fatena is from Gaza and she read from her book "Gods bedrog" (freely translated in English as "Gods Cheating").

The  question and answer part was very interesting and also the texts she wrote by pictures taken during the last 51 days war in the Gaza strip. It was heart wrenching to see the children who has been killed and the unsurmountable grief of the parents... People asked question also about religion. Fatena having read the Koran and the bible spoke about having worn the hijab and how by reading the koran
she stopped being 'so radical'. Her performance in Arabic is haunting, her rendition in Dutch by Karel was heartfelt. Here to the right you see him next to the very enthousiastic Misses "Hemelwater" as we accidentally called her.
The young people were very inquisitive and asked questions, not only about the Koran, and the war in Gaza, but also about PEN-Flanders. Some private talks with the students afterwards were quite interesting too.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Occupied city

Police patrol vans on both sides of the street, the military in the streets with para-commando's in full gear patrolling the neighborhood ... isn't quite something that makes me feel safe. Granted, I live at the edge of the Jewish quarter, cross it regularly walking the dog, going to the supermarket... I can't show you the pictures: it isn't even allowed to take a picture... It would be a bit intimidating if one would try. I think violence begets violence. Non-violence is the only way to live in a civilized society. Talking to all kinds of people and trying to understand the other is always a good start. Understanding the needs of an other human being makes one feel their anguish. Kindness doesn't kill. I know these words are poor in contrast to the beauty and respect I would want to share. Hate begins with exclusion, by being uncaring, unthinking of the plight of 'others'. We are all others, different and have the right to be so.
We would loose such beauty, such song, such poetry, such alternative ways of looking at the world, if we don't strive for inclusiveness.
The New years reception of the Flemish Fund for Letters was inclusive: Three writers who all three spoke a different local version of Arab talked and laughed and gave us great poetry and prose. One musician gave us foreign sounds and longings. This choice was just the right thing at the right time...
keeping the flame of hope and togetherness burning.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A chilling African perspective

Yesterday I translated into Dutch a poem by an African poet and learned about the almajiri... I must admit I have also been thinking about the 200 girls boko haram took and cannot possibly imagine their life, if they are still alive... We know also about the horror of Baga.
A friend of mine, Arlette, has lived in Senegal for almost nine months and she told me about the marabouts forcing the young boys to beg... So I recognised the cruel fate of the boys in the poem... I guess it is a sad Pan-African image. I hope that once the translations are published in Dutch that tons of people will get the education I am getting by doing this work. I gain a deeper understanding. The news isn't just a snipped of news but another injustice, another violence from one human being to an other.  I learned from a friend that in Nigeria, the casualty figures from the past 72 hours run as high as 2000 dead and countless injured, several people now refugees in their own country. I guess this is what the mass murderers want, for peaceful people to be speechless. It is obvious that Europe is in shock at the barbarity of this outrage in Paris. The far right xenophobes will make some gains no doubt and there will be repercussions on otherwise innocent people, that is the human reaction to outrage. What I hope emerges from the ruins of the world as we knew it to be, is a better awareness of the evil now roaming the world. It seeks to kill inquiry, humour, pleasure and dissent. It has no sense of proportions for, if the four terrorists in Paris had access to an atom bomb, we all better believe that they would have used it. The same is true for the ones in Nigeria and Sudan.
That reason and balance will win eventually, my friend is sure of. It may take some time but reason will prevail. My friend has gone back to reading Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) and is actively campaigning for a change of government (the  president went to a wedding this weekend).
The poem I referred to:

In Sokoto‘s kitchens, ecstasy staggers the pulse
With rare legumes, ricemeal, cabbages and roasts.
Outside, suya, peppered over with panache in the false
Light of paraffin lanterns where every evening boasts

Fresh kills and the kindness of instant noodles
Served garnished with lettuce and a choice of eggs.
A youth, almajiri, receives a serving of tea and huddles
With the waiting troop, all standing on spindly legs

And their chatter continues into early morning
Going over happenings and also boko haram.
There is no consensus, a few cigarettes burning,
And each hoping to be the famous last Imam.

One does, out of that horde, become
The priapic king of that harmattan evening.
He won‘t tell the story; he has made it home,
His store of memories, his final swan-offering.

A desert‘s diaspora whispers in scattered gardens
Where plants like kept women swoon with watering
And the aseptic present bearing dark burdens
Conspires to kill the renegade seed. There is muttering

In the wake of vanished arbors, the plains
Playing dead like Sahara‘s volcanoes. Windborne
Charms are balms to the earth‘s perpetual pains,
Her stripping and rape, her hope forlorn.

Friday, January 9, 2015

We are all Charlie in the silent vigil in Antwerp

 The venue for the vigil had been chosen well, in the center of town, in from of a wall with a huge cartoon. It seemed appropriate to honor the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo in such a location A few hundred people showed up. Holding their pen or pencil, a candle, a  in cartoon... There was solemn quietness and in the sadness also joy at seeing friends one hadn't seen for a long time, knowing they belong to 'one's tribe'. Writers, members of PEN-Flanders were present and our president was interviewed. She spoke out eloquently about free speech being a fundamental element of democracy.

 A guest from Poland was there, poets en route to the poetry café where they had performance after the vigil. It was a solemn gathering, yet one could feel a quiet determination not to succumb to fear. At the end of the gathering we left the candles in two safe places, letting the light shine in the darkness of a cold and wed winter's night. Joan Baez sang it right so long ago:
We are not afraid!
We shall overcome... one day...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I am Charlie

For my American friends I want to explain what the magazine Charlie
Hebdo represents. That is where the heinous attack happened yesterday in Paris. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine. They use humor as their tool, they are brave and have always defended freedom of expression whether in a cartoon, or as free speech which is the pillar of democracy. When the first cartoon was published by a Danish newspaper, remember the Prophet with a turban as a bomb, the editor in Chief of Charlie Hebdo immediately published the drawing as a gesture of solidarity. Free speech is important and the genius of this particular magazine is that they had four hugely talented, courageous and humorous cartoonists: Charb, the editor in chief, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, Maris who is a renowned left wing economist and also the several wonderful writers and the editor and the staff where extremely brave. They did not let anybody intimidate them. Twelve people lost their life. Eight people are in hospital. 35.000 people went to the Place de la Republique to stand in silence, peacefully, respectfully in a spontaneous gesture of solidarity, showing they are not intimidated. This morning the Belgian newspapers printed a lots of cartoons, since we too have a few sharp penned, smart cartoonists in solidarity with their colleagues in Paris. Tonight there is a silent memorial in Antwerp. I'll be there in the rain, so will be the President of Pen-Flanders...

Yes: We are Charlie, we defend freedom of expression. The pen is mightier than the sword. We all will show our pen. I am member of PEN-Flanders.

Saturday, December 20, 2014



 Luxury means something different to different people. To inmates in the Antwerp jail it are poetry books in a language the prisoners can read as City Poet Laureate Stijn Vrancken found out when the he looked into what category of books were most borrowed from the jail's library. And yes, to his astonishment, it was poetry. So Stijn asked his fellow poets, writers and readers to bring their books to the 'Letteren huis' (House of letters) in as many languages as we had. I brought a stack consisting of Dutch, French, Cornish, German, English and Italian. Walking through the city with my the emptied caddy, I came upon a magnificent place, totally in period, tastefully restaurated. I asked whether I might take some pictures... I was, as I often do, wearing black. So the owner of the shop explained I shouldn't wear black, that doing so is cheap. One should only wear silk and real cashmere and color, and pattern... In other words to buy stunning clothing one can wear but few times on social occasions because otherwise people would say: Oh, there she is with that gorgeous dress, again and again... He then showed me some mindbogglingly beautiful dresses, one with a coat lined in the same silk pattern as the dress itself. I said: I obviously could never afford that lifestyle. His answer surprised me: I should find a sponsor... I can't figure out what he really means. Was he seeing Elisa Doolittle whom he could turn into a lady? Was he suggesting I should invest in one such dress and find a lover with good taste and money to burn?

So I have been wondering what my personal luxury would be: A pretty colorful, aging hippie hoody? Or is it rather being in the warm company of interesting people even if they are penniless, impecunious and without funds, had to flee their country for speaking out, for being at risk because of poems they wrote. My luxury is knowing, Tade, Déo and Hazim, and reading their work... Knowing Rollean and his always nonviolent stand for justice and peace.
May they all be safe. To them safety is luxury.

To me luxury is being with four people in a room and each one is from a different continent...