Saturday, August 26, 2006
I breathed out deeply, and pale fog escaped my mouth, disappearing into the surrounding air.
It had suddenly become that cold, but I didn't realise it. I stood there on the beach and watched the sun and sky paint yet another evening canvas with all the colours and shades of blue, orange and crimson they can find and blend together.
Dense clouds clustered on the horizon, reflecting on the calm sea looking like a colossal island with lofty peaks jutting out of the grey mirror. I took a moment to capture this moment, one that will go and never return. The air felt brisk and dry.
Another day ended on this quiet Summer's eve, on the brink of the dawn of Autumn.
Friday, August 25, 2006
I opened my closet to get clothes, and right by my hand, a giant house spider the size of a small boy's hand!
Quickly I grabbed a towel and my hand swooped down on the creature and closed around it.
Gently I releashed my grip and off the spider went, eight legs tip-tap-toe on the balcony, walking toward freedom.
If Minister Verdonk ( Immigration and Integration ) had her way, by 1 January next year, every allochthone (my definition: any foreigner with different skin colour) would be forced to complete a “basic integration examination”, regardless of how long they have lived in the
This “basic integration examination” (basisexamen inburgering) tests the immigrant on their knowledge of Dutch culture, including values of democracy, society and politics, as well as knowledge of the Dutch language, which should proficient enough to listen and understand daily conversations.
Now I do not have a problem if new comers who would like to live in the
What I do have a problem is forcing people who have lived in perhaps for the most of their lives, or were even born here, to undergo demeaning and discriminatory examinations. I’ve seen the kind of questions they ask:
Hello?! People are not idiots, and they did not just come to this country and been raised in a savage reserve with no exposure to the values and virtues of the ‘civilised’ world. If even old immigrants and naturalised citizens are to be tested on their knowledge of Dutch history, politics, culture and society, why not test every single citizen of this country? Ask any one randomly on the street to name three ministers of the cabinet, and chances are you’ll get a blank stare. Ask people when the
Why single out people who look or appear foreign, because of where they were born or their race, culture and religion? Because this law that Minister Verdonk is proposing is exactly that: it is discriminatory and violates the very first article of the Constitution. The law does not apply to “autochtonous” people (my definition: whites), but strictly to allochthones (my definition: non-whites).
Thank goodness the Supreme Court decided today in an opinion that people who have already received Netherlandership cannot be compelled to complete the ‘integration examinations”. This would be in conflict with the pricniples of equality. Autocthones are eqaul to allochthones the moment that they receive Dutch citizenship. That is the basis of equality, and can go no other way.
Besides, under existing social security and education legislation, the government has not provided adequate means for naturalised citizens to undergo integration examinations. The law would only be applicable to immigrants coming from outside the countries of the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EER) .
This is apparently the second time that the minister has had her proposals to force immigrants to integrate rejected. The minister says she will respect the opinion, and work toward amending the legislative proposal.
(I can’t get my hands on the official opinion, because the confidential news was leaked by a TV channel. Maybe soon)
UPDATE 26 Aug 2006
- In 2004, Minister Verdonk claimed that people immigrants born outside of the European Union are not equal to those born in the EU: "Unequal groups can be treated unequally." And had she had her way, some 800 000 'old comers' would have been forced to complete integration examinations, or face a hefty fine. The minister's proposal was turned down.
'Michiel Kruijt, 'Inburgeringswet sterk verwaterd' [Integration law strongly watered down], p3, 26 August 2006, De Volkskrant
Thursday, August 24, 2006
A war against a defined enemy can end; a war against an undefined threat can't.
In late November 2002, appearing on the "Washington Journal" program, retired US Army general William Odom told C-SPAN viewers: "Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It's a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we're going to win that war."
Continuing his heretical comment, Odom said: "We're not going to win the war on terrorism. And it does whip up fear. Acts of terror have never brought down liberal democracies. Acts of parliament have closed a few."
The Mythical End to the Politics of Fear
My opinion exactly when all this talk of 'war' on terror began after 911. I knew, just days after graduating from high school, that the world was going to be very different. The world had just recovered from the silently devastating traumas of the Cold War, just rejoicing in the years of unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s, but terrorism on a scale and exectuted like a horribly exciting and dreadful way that easily rivalled Hollywood special effects changed everything.
Whereas the other -isms of the 20th Century were tangible, visible and credible threats to peace and security (think Nazims, Communism to name but two), terrorism of the 21st Century (though admittedly not a current and modern phenomenon) is the ultimate enemy, the ultimate warfare, where there are no boundaries, where there are no rules of engagement, let alone rules governing war and peace.
A target with no shadow, let alone a body that can be captured, jailed or terminated. And therein lies its strength, for it is a ghost enemy, one that can be seen and can only be conjured by those who want to see it, and those who want to believe it. It is a ghostly presence that haunts and threatens people everywhere and at every moment, and its best tactic is to be unseen and unheard until it strikes again, sending fear and yes, the word itself betrays its objectives all too well, terror, into the lives of innocent people.
(King's Cross station, site of one of the London tube bombs)
But it is also a chameleon at the same time, able to 'move like fish through water', able to blend into any where, and take the body and face of anything and anyone, making everyone and everywhere a potential target, as well as threat all at once. An all-encompassing and all-consuming strategy that instills fear, distrust and dependence on governments who claim they can protect people from such fears.
And it is this dependence in governments that makes this threat even a greater one to democratic values and freedoms. Terrorism can blow up buildings, can crash planes, can blast trains to smitherines, but it cannot undermine the very values and founding principles of a democratic society and polity. But the response to terrorism can. And we have seen how random searches, detentions without cause, spying on citizens, large databases containing the minutest details of each and every one of our habits and lives have encroached our freedoms, in a way that terrorists themselves probably never realised was possible, but are probably rejoicing at.
- Talk about overreaction: Twelve Indians were arrested after a NorthWest Airline plane was escorted back to Schiphol Airport by two F16s, because they were arousing suspicion by fidgeting with their mobiles.
"[the men] western attired, but with beards; clearly Muslims--were irritating during take off. They continued to call with their mobile phones, despite requests to stop."
- On the use of planes as tool of terrorism:
"[...] Exactly on the place where everything should have been well organised, the enemy [must] strikes a sensitive blow . In stead of the actual number of victims, it is maybe more important that the terrorist succeeds to seize control of some ten airplanes and thereby becomes ten times as smart as the authorities.
[...] Flying is in differnt ways special. Flying is a symbol of western arrogance. I see aspiring terrorists in the mountain villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan staring at the sky already, at the silver birds. They swaer revenge on the unbelievers who use technology in order to reach the heavens. This facade triumph of man over God can be nothing else but punished. Just as the sun made an end to the arrogant attempt of Icarus to fly the skies with wax wings, the terrorist similarly makes an end to the arrogance of the flying westerner.
[...] The strategy behind the terrror campanges appears to be aimed at sowing fear by puncturing holes in the protection shield behind which the westerner shelters since he no longer believes in God: the government and the techology which protect his properties and live on a daily basis."
Roland van der Vorst, 'Icarus', pg79, 19 August 2006, Vrij Nederland
Just watched a very touching report on Somalian children who were smuggled to the Netherlands as children on Netwerk. The current affairs programme revealed back in February this year that many young Somalian children were smuggled into the country in the early 90s by 'parents' who for financial gain. By taking their 'children' to the Netherlands, these 'parents' can claim social/child wellfare benefits, which can amount to significant amounts of money. But out of fear of being discovered as the children grow older and towards mature age, they are often dumped in their home countries, with no means of survival and no support.
One such child was taken to the Netherlands when he was just 5 years old, and his 'mum' told him when he was 14 that they were going on holiday. She took him to Somalia , and dumped him there. Luckily, this young man has been able to appeal for help at the Dutch embassy in Ethiopia (because Somalia has no Dutch embassy). He was able to prove his case and was granted the right to return the Netherlands and stay here as a citizen.
Many more of those who were smuggled as children who have undergone similar fates are not so lucky. The Dutch embassy insists that they should have proper identitification documentation and prove that they indeed had lived in the Netherlands. But how do they do that when they are stuck in Somalia? One young man wrote to his former school by email asking for assistance, but the school said that they cannot provide any help because they cannot be sure who wrote the email. With no family to lean on, no one to support them, no job and prospects, these victims of child smuggle are made to suffer again.
After details of such horrific practices were exposed back in February, Parliament conducted an emergency meeting, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Bot) and for Immigration (Verdonk) were pressured to relax rules on granting these former smugglees right of return.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs wrote the embassy in Addis Abbaba saying that such cases should be handled within 8 weeks and taken seriously, and that the Dutch authorities should do all they can to assist these people. Minister Verdonk, in her typical inhuman and staunch hardheadedness, however does not see how their victim status should automatically grant them the right to return and stay in the Netherlands.
Two people interviewed in the programme said they have been waiting for more than 6 months for a response from the Immigration Service. Clearly, the '8 weeks' and 'take-this-seriously' were just tough talk. However, surprise, surprise, right before the programme aired on television tonight, the two were suddenly called by the Ethiopian embassy and informed that they do have the right to return.
Was this a rash one-off decision made under public and media pressure, or has the Immigration Service come to realise finally that these are victims who are being made to be even more victimised because of their horrendous experiences as children?
Let's hope, for the sake of so many more out there, that it's the latter.
So I went into my new university to ask what happened. Surprise, surprise they did send me registration forms and everything else....but to an address I have no idea where they got from. No big problem, the man at the students' centre assured me, it's happened before. He'll send out my registration forms again, and he gave me my student ID number and details so that I could log into the university sites. That way I can access information on lectures and register for courses.
How long would it actually take to register me after filling in the forms, I asked. Oh, two weeks. Only two weeks. But he reassured me that I'm now 'de facto' a student at Leiden, so can turn up next week at lectures and don't have to fear being thrown out by security. To be a 'de jure' student, I must wait. I'll do that.
The moment I got home today, I got a letter saying that my travel card is ready to be picked up! Months of no news, and suddenly just as I was wondering (and worrying) about what happened, it appears out of the blue. See...waiting does have its rewards.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
I was that tired.
I wanted to get off and walk around a bit, make the most out of my train ticket, since from Brussels to the Netherlands takes just two hours, and I could catch any train I want on the same day. The main reason for staying was to visit the Europarliament and other European Union institutions. I mean, the grimy metro, rude people and run-down streets and public amenities in Brussels (or any other big Belgium cities) are things I’d not like to be reminded of. Though the centre of town is always nice to visit, especially the Grote Markt (market), which is surrounded by beautifully gilded, decorated and carved merchant houses and town hall from the heydays of the 16-17th Century, when this part of Europe experienced its ‘Golden Age’. Feeling adventurous and having a couple of hours to kill before the tour through the European Parliament, I headed towards the Atomium—this gigantic structure shaped like an atom, on the outskirts. From there, I trekked back to the city centre, through dense woods and parks.
The weather wasn’t too kind, and rained almost continuously as soon as I arrived in Brussels. At first a slight drizzle, and made me wrongly believe that I could brave it. But it got a lot worse, and I scrambled to protect my backpack and the free posters I picked up at the EU Info centre from the rain. It was cold and damp, and for the first time in a long time I was reminded of what it feels like living in Europe, now that autumn is approaching fast. Those days of scorching heat and rainless days in the past few weeks seemed like distant memory.
Whereas in New York citizens complain about lawless UN diplomats, in Brussels it’s tax-exempt EU bureaucrats. Not to forget that NATO is also headquartered in Brussels too. There are over 4000 alone working for the Europarliament, and many thousands more for the Commission, and other bureaus and EU agencies spread across the city. This part of the city, earmarked the ‘European Quarter’, has streets, squares and buildings named after the people and places that made this huge project of human unity never before seen possible. Schuman, Luxembourg, Spinelli, Spaak to name but a few. All buildings of marvelous architectural design, out of steel, glass and concrete, employing and displaying the modern and artistic and creative elements this continent has to offer. Not sure how much money was spent building all these structures, and they don’t seem to have finished yet.
So I did the audio tour and walk around the Parliament building. This is the first multi-national parliament in the world, with more than 732 members from 25 member states, which is supposed to represent some 455million people across Europe. The Brussels building is the main seat of the Europarliament, with branches in Strasbourg, where it meets once a month for plenary meetings, and Luxembourg, where the Secretariat is. It’s still a mystery why this one institution needs to be split up into so many countries, but I suspect it’s different member countries wanting to vie for a place…at the expense of taxpayers and pointless traveling and moving around.
The building was massive, and very empty, since Parliament is on recess. So we could actually go into the main auditorium where the members meet and discuss. 25 languages are officially used, which means everything is translated simultaneously in the many cabins around the circular auditorium. Sitting there, watching the hundreds of neatly arranged seats and little podium at the front, it felt surreal that this is the place where so many laws, regulations, rules are made, that this far off place in Brussels, the many faceless bureaucrats hold sway over our lives and livelihoods.
I’ve done the tour before, and it was somehow ‘better’ the last time, perhaps because it was more interesting the first time around, and I wasn’t so soaked to the bone from the pouring rain, like yesterday.
Dampened and wet, I made my way toward the station, and home.
Please visit the following links to my travellog for more exciting pictures!
· Sightseeing in Brussels
Saturday afternoon and Sunday I went around town a bit more. I had to visit my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies—the place I studied and worked in (not to mention dozzzzed off in) for three years. Here’s something I wrote about SOAS in the final days of uni:
Behind the grandeur of the British Museum showcasing loots and wonders ‘borrowed’ from a past of glories and conquests, I found her. She herself is a remnant of an empire lost, but today much changed in the face of a different imperial order. A vision in golden lettering, glistening on the side of a lump of concrete that could easily be mistaken for something built out of a fury of socialist construction: ‘SOAS’ spoke to me. She beckoned me to leave the streets of chaos and people, and enter a tree-lined yard behind gates plastered with posters demonising the present world order and its eunuchs. Behind these gates, beyond the reaches of a London to fast and too wild to capture, I found refuge for the next three years.
For strangers to SOAS, the revolving see-through glass-doors at the entrance screams of a pompous hotel reception. People the world over check in, check out. Some come to expose themselves to the worldly knowledge disseminating from lecture halls and seminars; others come to expose themselves to that familiar mix of (not just…) cigarettes and booze. The additional barriers to SOAS’ window-dressing are indeed the latest of high-tech: students and staff, despite countless visits to the building, are sometimes randomly left stranded at the gates…maybe wondering what it was they did or wrote that exposed them to the wrath of modern machinery. Erect a few X-ray machines, metal detectors, photographic and finger-printing machines (with the glum-looking security guards always too happy to help already present), anyone could be mistaken for having stepped into that realm of paranoia of the US of A. Behind squeaky doors, on tea-stained carpets, gum-glued furniture, ‘squatting toilets’ and within crumbling walls is a place of (quote) “intellectual excitement”.
Yes, SOAS’ flaws we all know too well, and her snail-paced bureaucratic machinery
never ceases to amaze, but at face-value SOAS scarcely does justice to the substances she has to offer. I have come to be proud of being part of this tightly-knit community of the world’s peoples and diversities. Too often I find myself (and I am apparently not alone) having to spring to defend and explain what SOAS really is all about to those (shockingly!) unaware of the fact that she even exists.
It is the place where once colonial servants trained in the arts and languages of
Africa and the Orient. It is where vocal activists, socialists and crowd-followers often start their marches against war, injustices and poverty of this problem-ridden world. This is where the hijab meets the kippa, where dreadlocks meet almond eyes, where people are blind to the colour of your skin, where the robed monk meets with the shaman, where children of [quote] “diplomats, spies or gypsies” congregate. This is where, in a world where constraining structures and hierarchies threaten to stifle the voice of the voiceless, subversion is the norm rather than the extreme. Marginalised at SOAS are no longer the vast majority of the globe. In a world where ‘western-centric’ influences dwarf all else, the lecture halls, seminars, societies and pub at SOAS are filled with alternatives to the current political, economic, social and environmental structure. I imagine more gets done and said by Soasians than at social gatherings of ‘UNrepresentatives’. And yet amid this daily activism and idealism that the world could be seized, understood and revolutionised, Soasians linger the earth with such an meditative air of calm and peace. It is a school of contrasts, a school of differences and a school with a life of its own, warm with the blend of the aromas, cultures, diversities and peoples of a much greater world.
(Thornhaugh Street, where SOAS buildings are mainly located... really a tiny college of the University of London with just 3000 people altogehter, but we make up for our specialisation and uniqueness.)
Yes, SOAS meant a lot to me, and will always do. Though to be honest, the square and streets around my old uni felt so ‘empty’ this time I was there. Perhaps it was because it was summer, and a Saturday.
At least, that’s what I’d like to think.
It’s been a long couple of days, and a good change from being home the whole day. Again, like the other times when I travel, I felt so free and relaxed, as if the world lay out there for me to explore, and explore I could as far as my feet and tireless mind could carry me. It was a nostalgic trip more than anything, so a bit more blue than I had expected. I guess when you visit people and places from the past you tend to remember things that have been or could have been. And then all these thoughts of regret, sweet memories, silent flashbacks, replayed dialogues return to make you realise how long ago all that was… and how much older you’ve become.
I actually got to the railway station on Friday just in time to see the train arrive. Had I been a minute later I would’ve never made it. I got on the train, sat down and panted. Relieved, thankful and a little bit of anxiety still lingering had I been just a few moments late. As the train pulled away and gained speed towards Brussels, I laid back into my seat and watched the flat Dutch landscape roll by.
Checking in at the Eurostar terminal was a breeze. There were no long ques and no more stringent measures because of the heightened security alert. I was worried my bottle of water and orange juice, and supply of lotions and fragrance would be mistaken for potentially deadly devices. But nobody said a thing. Checking my ID took less than 10 seconds. The customs guy glanced at the card and at me, smiling, and then went on to wish me a good day. Some two hours later, at times traveling at 300km/hr, and across the English Channel, I was in London. To my surprise there was no passport control, and passengers just poured out of the terminal at Waterloo with ease while heavily armed police stood and watched. Maybe terrorists don’t like trains.
Met up with the friend I stayed with the next couple of days in London. We met in the last year of uni, and got pretty close soon enough.[...] He’s from Ireland, and I just love the way he speaks, both in the accent and the way he uses words. [...] For many months I helped him with his Chinese studies, since he’s a little disabled and dyslexic. Tutoring mostly, and also going along to his lectures to take notes for him. It was a test of patience sometimes, as he could be very bossy and sometimes didn’t really bother with the studies. But I got paid by the uni for being an assistant, well, so I didn’t mind too much. That meant on top of my own ‘heavy’ hours in the final year, I had to attend his classes too. A total of around 20hrs of lectures a week… Now, compared to the 10 or less hours of lectures I had in previous years that’s stressful!
I met him and his fiancé at the station. [...] They both met at a meeting of SGI, a branch of Japanese Buddhism which does a lot of chanting and praying. Their upcoming wedding in November will be a Buddhist one, and I was actually asked to be the best man. For the moment I didn’t say for sure if I could attend. I felt I didn’t really have what it takes to be best man, but then again I really have no idea what it takes. He said there’s no one else better for role, but I still feel a little uncomfortable.
Anyways, dropped off my stuff at their little apartment just off of Waterloo station. Had some traditional English ‘afternoon tea’, and met their fat cat. She’s really huge, unlike my own. And the times I was there she never seemed to budge from the place she occupied on my friend’s bed. The only time she walks up is to get food, or to terrorise you by walking on your pillow just as you’re trying to sleep. And when she walks her belly is big and flabby it hangs to the ground. Her purr is really loud and wheezy like an out-of-tune machine. For the nights I spent at their place I sometimes fell asleep and woke up with her tail brushing against my face, and her loud, incessant purring.
Within an hour of arriving we were out and about, armed with three digital cameras and my memories of places I’d like to visit and see again. Walked down the Thames towards London Eye (giant merry-go-around also known as the Millennium Wheel), Houses of Parliament, Whitehall (where many government offices and ministries are located), Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street (main shopping in central London), then onto King’s Cross station to pick up my tickets for the trip down south to the wedding the next day.
It took some time to get used to the crowd and noise that describes and consumes London. I guess when I left the city two years ago, I also left behind what it was like—all that traffic, chaos, constant buzzing and din, the hordes of tourists and people rushing around, so many things and events taking place at a fast pace that can leave you out of breath just watching it all go by. And waling on the ‘wrong’ (right) side of the road didn’t help if you had to push your way through, against the flow of the crowd. I felt so disorientated and a little dizzy and unwell, plus perhaps the fact that I had just made a long trip to get to London. Everything was happening so fast, and I was walking around like a little boy from the countryside seeing everything for the first time. Though it wasn’t the first time. And that made it feel all the more disorienting.
I guess all the landmarks are still there, still standing, still glorious and beautiful in their special ways. Though undoubtedly countless eyes and cameras have captured them in the past two years since I was last in London. And many more events and changes have taken place in the country, in the city that it’s impossible to recount them all, let alone imagine. It’s a funny feeling, really. Like every corner I turn, there seem to be so many memories that return, saddled with voices and faces of those I shared with, all waiting for me around every corner, all waiting for the next step I take on this journey down memory lane.
(Trafalgar Square, Nelson's Column)
That evening I went for a stroll down the river, as I would do again a day or two later by myself. It’s so quietly romantic, with all those dazzling lights and rippling water. This is the one thing I really miss about London. I used to walk down the river along the south bank and thoroughly enjoy the quiet yet buzzing calm along the way, which is dotted with traditional pubs and the occasional street artist, not to mention homeless people with placards trying to show in so many words how hungry and whatever ills have befallen them in a lonesome attempt to squeeze pity and few pennies from passerbys. [...]
From this side of the river, you can capture the old, the modern, the chic and the derelict London all mingled together before you. The bright lights of The City (banking and financial district) glows in the darkness, almost brimming and humming with the sounds of money and stock transactions even at night. St. Paul’s Cathedral and its gigantic dome towers over the city, trying to compete for space with the mushrooming skyscrapers, only managing to distinguish itself by its pure whiteness and medieval architectural style, or otherwise would have all too easily been swallowed whole into the backdrop of the urban sprawl of concrete, steel and glass.
Now and then barges and sightseeing boats sail along beside you, flashes of light appearing from inside their darkened cabins, as yet another tourist captures memories and scenes to treasure one day when he is far, far away. And then there are the bridges, some rumbling like a low cloud of thunder as trains roll on it and pull into the many stations along the river. Others flash with red and white lights as cars and double-decker buses speed across them, from one side of the river to the other.
Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern, London City Hall, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower Bridge, and in the distance three glistening towers in the Docklands…they all stand there, some after centuries, some just for a decade, others for even less of a period, but all proud to be part of the scene, part of the vibrance and life that embodies this great city. From the quiet of the river bank, you can see London, in all its shapes and sizes, in all its history and glory. You can feel and see it pulsate and wane before your eyes, and get closer to understanding why this is one of the greatest cities in the world. (View across the Thames, Charing Cross station)
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”
Please visit the following links to my travellog for more exciting pictures!
- London from the air
- Sightseeing in London: nightscape IV
- Sightseeing in London: nightscape III
- Sightseeing in London: nightscape II
- Sightseeing in London: nightscape
- Sightseeing in London: Docklands III
- Sightseeing in London: Docklands II
- Sightseeing in London: Docklands I
- Sightseeing in London: University of London
- Sightseeing in London: British Museum
- Sightseeing in London: Camden Town III
- Sightseeing in London: Camden Town II
- Sightseeing in London: Camden Town
- Sightseeing in London: Royal Parks