Friday, 28 November 2008

Mumbai under attack

Having lived and worked in Mumbai for a while you can not imagine how surprised and shocked I was when my London home phone rang last Wednesday. I just came back from work and was considering whether I should go to the gym or join my friend for a movie. Then my phone rang and it was my old friend Rohan, who lives in North-Mumbai. ‘Turn on your TV, you are not going to believe this’ was old he said. When I turned on the BBC I saw the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai’s posh Colaba area was attacked. The impossible had happened.

Ever since I had arrived in Mumay, this hotel is a place I came at least one a week, to meet friends for drinks, to use their excellent business centre or travel agency, to have a bit in their nice ‘Golden Dragon’ restaurant or zip a Long island ice tea in the Harbour Bar, which was India’s first licensed bar in 1903. It’s the hotel where I stayed with my family last Christmas and the place where I first went on a date after I had moved to Mumbai. I attended weddings there (right), business events and birthday party's.
'What’s happening?’ I asked Rohan, being in a state of complete disbelief. But before he could answer another reporter appeared in front of a very familiar restaurant, café Leopold’s. ‘Gunmen opened fire at the crowd less than two hours ago. More than 70 people have reportedly been killed across town.’ Leopold’s! A place I will always remember, treasure and love. I took my friend David there, had a crazy time with my friend Joseph when he came over from London and many, many nights I came down for their cheap beer and enjoyed the tourist gossip. To see that place smeared with blood and the smell of death, it is surreal. These things do not happen in Mumbai, India’s biggest city and commercial capital. And certainly not in the posh deep south of Mumbai, Colaba. The West End of Mumbai, the Manhattan of India. The Taj, the Oberoi or Leopolds, places where you meet friends, lovers, tourists, businessmen, royalty and the Bollywood A-list. They were safe havens, vibrant, alive, cosmopolitan. Watching the sunset at the Dome bar, a beer at Leo’s or a dance at Polly Esther’s, and going in between places by foot or a short rickshaw drive. No security, no guards, no metal detectors. Suddenly that does not seem so logical anymore. Strolling the streets of Colaba at 3 am, like I did dozens of times, was one of my favourite activities, since the climate encouraged me to live at night.
After having seen the images on TV and Rohan had explained me the facts, I admitted to myself I hated this happened after I had left Mumbai. As a journalist you feel a natural desire to follow and analyse the news, if not to be part of it. But that feeling was not there for long. next day, on Thursday morning, I had my Australian friend Richard on the phone. He has been living in Mumbai for three years and has seen it all. ‘It’s different man, I have never seen this before. You can feel it,’ he says ‘Nobody goes out unless you have to and all the tourists seemed to have disappeared. And this time it seems to be targeted at us.’ He confirmed what the newspapers were saying; the captors were looking for people with American and British passports. Nevertheless, random Indians were attacked too. The extremists had opened fire at CST Station, formerly known as Victoria Station, in the heart of the city. In the station hall (below) several people were killed and hurt by a rain of bullets. ‘I think things will change man’ Richard continues ‘the next couple of months will be full of hostilities. Hindu’s versus Muslims, Indians versus foreigners, Maharashtra’s versus North-Indians, and so on. I am not gonna walk around drunk in public anymore and Michiel, I am afraid I will have to stay in Bandra and Colaba all the time.’

I am afraid Richard is going to be right. I remember I visited the Indonesian Island of Bali shortly after the second bombings in 2005 and the island was completely empty. Not that I think 19 million people will suddenly disappear, but it is expected that American, European and Australian visitors especially the backpackers and expats’ families, will prefer to stay in other parts of India (like Goa or Agra) or even other countries, and they will avoid Mumbai in the near future. His second point I was not too sure about. Last Wednesday and Thursday not only westeners, christians and jews died, but also hindu's, muslims, sikhs and buddhists were among the victims. It would be naive, however, to think no more relgion and state originated riots and killings are going to take place, not to mention the risk of attempts by certain certain political movements, the local right wing party Shiv Sena in particular, to exploit the current situation and try to gain political benefits.
I guess I was lucky to have lived and worked in this vibrant, lively city in a time I could roam around freely, did whatever I liked and mingled with people from all walks of life. Seeing all these familiar streets and buildings on TV makes me miss Mumbai with all its people in it more than ever, but at the same time I realise I am lucky to be far, far away in a safe London.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Body Worlds: The Mirror of Time

Real bodies on display; the process of ageing explained
About six weeks ago, an advert for ‘a museum experience like you never had before’ caught my attention in Brussels and when I read the exhibition was coming to London I decided to give it a go. Last Saturday Set in the ageing O2 arena (the former Millennium Dome, in Greenwich) and it turned out to be one of the most impressive things I had ever seen. I realised Gunther von Hagens’ controversial and much talked about ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition had finally reached London.

In ‘Body Worlds & The Mirror of Time’ – as it officially is called – authentic human specimens, transformed through plastination, show the form, beauty, function and potential of the human body. Real human bodies, donated by organisations and individuals, are on display and it made me realise that we are not ‘one’, but actually consist of thousands of little organs, body parts, connections and processes. Without oxygen no brain function, without veins no heart beat and without muscles no movement. At any stage of our life cycle, the human body experiences changes and milestones. The changes that take place as the body moves through different experiences in its lifetime: at its most radiant and as it changes, matures and finally wanes. The exhibition shows the complexity and vulnerability of the human body through anatomical studies of the body in distress, disease and optimal health. The effects smoking and disease have on the human body are explained and illustrated. And what happens to your body if you drink away your problems for twenty years? What causes migraine and why do people get fat and what kind of effect do mental issues have on your physical state? All these questions are answered by real bodies, organs and other body parts.

German born Von Hagens, a scientist, is the inventor of plastination – the anatomical specimen preservation method that makes the presentation of aesthetic anatomy possible. Through ‘Plastination’, the post mortal body is transformed into spectacular anatomical figures – plastinates – that allow the public to see the human body as it has never been seen before.
As Gunther von Hagen (who likes to be called ‘the Plastinator’) recently said on BBC news ‘Body Worlds invites the visitor to navigate the inner terrains and outer borders of the human landscape.’ One of the most interesting bodies on display is the basketball player. This plastinate derives from the most muscular body donor plastinated to date. It demonstrates the skin modeling muscles of our body in a dynamic posture. While looking at it I suddenly did not feel so attracted to a fit body anymore.. The intestines have been removed in order to show the large back muscles at the rear of the abdominal cavity. The urinary bladder rests at the bottom of the small pelvis. The skull has been opened to reveal the brain.

Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds is an unique anatomical exhibition around the world, stemming from an established body donation program and using donated bodies. The bodies are currently also on display in Houston, Salt Lake City and Brussels.
(pictures by myself, and were - and need to be - taken with the permission of Von Hagen's management)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

London to New York

This giant telescope doesn't actually cross the deep soil, but it does allow citizens from New York and London to see what is happening in each other's city. And in live video. Not through a tunnel, but thanks to a transatlantic Internet connection with high definition cameras on both ends. While on the banks of the river Thames it's cocktail hour, New Yorkers are just finishing their lunch. Londoners have to pay 1 pound to look at the big Apple, New Yorkers can look at Londoners for free. The idea was created by British artist Paul St. George, early 2008.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Once again Russian questions will not be answered

A few days ago there was speculation that the trial of the three men charged with the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya would be open to the public and the press. Delighted and thrilled, for a minute I could not believe what I read. Was there justice in Russia after all? Could everyone finally see and hear what has really happened to the Douma critic when she was shot on October 7 2006 in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building?

It was naive to think that. It would have been too good to be true. Today a Russian judge announced the trial of the three suspects will now be closed to the public. When the trial opened on Monday the judge had said it would be open, but Judge Yevgeny Zubov reversed his decision on Wednesday, saying jurors had refused to enter the courtroom in the presence of the media. Does that mean jurors decide how transparent a court hearing is and not a law or a lawmaker? Mrs Anna Politkovskaya’s family criticised the judge's decision: "Of course we do not like the closed trial. There is nothing wrong with having journalists there," Ms Politkovskya's son Ilya said. "I am very disappointed. I think this trial should have been open, not only because all trials should be, but because she was a public figure and the public should know the circumstances of her killing," said Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer for Ms Politkovskaya's family (BBC). Mrs Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist to be killed in a contract-style killing in Russia during Vladimir Putin's period as president, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CNN).

The three men who went on trial on Monday are former policeman Sergey Khadzhikurbanov and two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov. It is expected the rest of the trial will be secretive and that there won’t be too many legal and public checks and balances. A court spokesman said ‘he could not specify exactly what charges the men were facing. After a verdict will be reached this will be made public.’ Isn’t that a bit too late? Another man, a former KGB officer, also appeared before the military court. Pavel Ryaguzov is charged with abuse of power and extortion.

Meanwhile, journalists and western diplomats say Rustam Makhmudov - who is believed to have been the actual murderer - and the person or persons who ordered Mr Politkovskaya's killing remain at large. The Moscow based reporter Grigory Pasko asked openly "How can you say the investigation is complete if you have neither the killer nor the person who ordered it in the dock?"
(Sources: BBC Europe News website, CNN Archive, Intern. version, Reuters, Adfero, DirectNews)

Monday, 10 November 2008

Nazi Germany: 'The Kindly Ones' ?

Book lovers in France and Germany can not stop talking about Jonathan Littell’s latest book ‘The Kindly Ones’. The novel takes you on a 1000 page journey through Hitler’s Third Reich, from the start till the very end; Hitler coming to power, 1933’s Kristalnacht in Germany, the occupation of Poland, the invasion of Russia and the mass murders in Auschwitz. Critics say the book is ‘scary’ and ‘intimidating’, because the writer manages to create some understanding for the situation the main character is in.

The reader experiences the Second World war through the fictional memories of an articulate SS officer named Maximilien Aue Why did he not say no? Why did he follow the Nazi regime so passively? Passage after passage, the reader starts to understand more and more of the why’s and how’s in Germany’s 1930’s.

Many readers were not only impressed but also shocked by the Littell’s writing style. "It was crazy to experience that without noticing it, you are slowly dragged into the head of an active, convinced Nazi. He is called Max and you are taken on the journey that is his life. You even start to sympathise with him and understands why he does certain things. At a certain moment you think, no! wait, I do not want to understand this. I do not want to make myself feel like I am justifying the holocaust," says an Amsterdam based journalist, continuing ‘Why did ‘Max’ undertake certain actions, why did he make certain choices: it suddenly seems quite rational and understandable. You get an intense inside look into the mind and thinking of a convinced Nazi, and that is pretty scary.’

‘The Kindly Ones’ was written in French and was published in France in 2006 as ‘Les Bienveillantes’. The English translation will be released on March 3, 2009. Littell (New York, 1967) said he was inspired to write the novel after seeing a photograph of a Soviet partisan being executed by the Nazi's. He traces the original inspiration for the book from seeing Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah , an acclaimed documentary about the Holocaust, in 1989. Jonathan began research for the book in 2002 and visited many of the sites described in the book. He went to Berlin several times, visited the former concentration camp of Auschwitz, went down to Hitler’s summer villa in the Austrian mountains, hiked outside St. Petersburg (the former Stalingrad) where Germans soldiers suffered a slow and painful defeat by the Red Army, in horrible weather conditions. Littell claims that he undertook the creation of his main character, Aue, by imagining what he himself would have done had he been born in pre-war Germany and had become a Nazi.
In some ways this novel reminded me of another book which caused quite some controversy, especially after it gained world wide attention in 1957. Primo Levi’s ‘Is this a man?’ But with one fundamental difference. Since the Second World War ended most attention, by far, has gone to the victims and the heroes from the resistance movements, understandably. A story, seen from a Nazi’s point of view and seen through his eyes, in which sympathy and understanding are not avoided, is unique - if not, never shown before.

Les Bienveillantes won the prestigious French book price Prix Concourt in and not much later Littell was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman of the Academie Francaise.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

It is a long way to the White House but 'yes we can'

I watched the election night yesterday with a bunch of Americans and must say, it stays a fascinating country. Having visited it many times and having made myself familiar with the values, attitudes and morals of most of the states, I experienced something unique last night.

So yeah, it really happened! Barack Hussein Obama II is MR GLOBAL PRESIDENT! I am so curious what he is going to do and what he is going to stand for. Will he turn out to be a visionary and a global leader or just another practical politician who sells himself to corporate America? Shall we see big mamas and disillusioned hoody’s on the street in a few years chanting 'I gave that my first vote ever and he raised taxes and cut spending on health and education! Traitor!'

Let’s hope not. I can not wait actually and dare to say I am positive. And whatever he is going to do, he sure gave us one of the best TV nights in recent history. That means, whatever the policies he is going to practice there will be enough input for us journalists all around the globe. My colleagues seemed in some sort of hysterical mental state today, running and jumping around the office, showing each other blogs and the front pages of newspapers and going for a two hours celebration lunch…
Thanks Obama! I really did feel the change at my own desk today. 'Yes we can' !