Monthly Archives: December 2007

Out of Town on a Eurail

The Far Outliers will be on the road again for the next month, traveling by air, shank’s mare, and Eurail pass. Today we fly to Boston to visit our daughter for a week, then fly on to Frankfurt on Christmas Day on our way to Strasbourg to visit my historian brother who’s supervising a study-abroad program there. We plan to visit friends in Brittany the weekend of 4 January and make a return trip to Bucharest the weekend of 11 January, with a stop in Miklósvár in Székelyland, Transylvania, on the way there.

My brother speaks pretty good Central African French, and I’ve been working on reviving and expanding my high school French—il y a quarante ans! (I also passed a graduate reading exam in French.) Mrs. O and I can get around a bit in our high school German, and we will make a pilgrimage to the Black Forest town of Pfalzgrafenweiler from which her paternal ancestors emigrated to Ukraine during the Napoleonic era, only to emigrate to the Dakotas during the third Tsar-Alexandrine era and first or second President-Clevelandic era. I haven’t been working on my Ceauşescu-era Romanian, but I’m pretty sure it’ll come back enough to get around. We had hoped to branch out in more northerly and southerly directions from Strasbourg, but our long east–west jaunts won’t leave us much time.

While we’re away, you can get some interesting perspectives about where we’ll be by exploring Europe Endless (formerly Rhine River), Notes from a Tunnel, and the always entertaining travels of Dumneazu. If you can’t ignore Asia for that long, the latest Asian History Carnival at Frog in a Well should provide you with a lot of good reading.

Auf Wiedersehen, au revoir, şi la revedere.

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Uganda’s Abayudaya

Nathanael of Europe Endless recently posted a few fascinating excerpts from a long interview on Afropop about the Jews of Uganda. Here are a few excerpts of his excerpts.

Now, in contrast to [other Jewish] communities [in Africa], the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, “Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root.”

Presently, the Abayudaya number of approximately 750 people, and live in villages surrounding Mbale in eastern Uganda. Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher, and pray in Hebrew. Since the community’s original self conversion, and through the difficult period of Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s, the Abayudaya have been distinguished by their commitment to following mainstream Jewish practice, an approach that’s been amplified since their increased contact with Jews from North America and Israel since the mid-1990s.…

I’ll tell one story. I was with the community in 2002, right before their official conversion, and the discussions in the community were really interesting at that point, because here were people who had practiced as Jews, many for four generations. I was sitting in a meeting of the Abayudaya Leadership Council, and one member said, “I have a question. We are talking about conversion here, but I’m Jewish, my father was Jewish, my grandfather was Jewish. Can you tell me exactly what I am converting to?” And the leadership, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki, were very thoughtful here. They said, “We understand. We are not saying that we’re not Jewish. But there are formalities that need to be practiced in order for us to be recognized by world Jewry.” So the community decided not to call this a “conversion.” Internally, they called it a “confirmation” of their Judaism. They were confirming their Jewish identity, but they felt that they had been Jewish since the initial conversion by Semei Kakungulu in the early 1920s….

In many ways, Kakungulu’s self conversion to Judaism was an act of rejection of the British. A rejection of the British. A rejection of colonialism. It was Kakungulu and his followers saying, “No longer will we followed your directions here. We are going to follow our own spiritual path.” The British didn’t know what to make of Kakungulu’s Judaism. The book to read on this is Michael Twaddle’s book, “Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda—1868 to 1928.” But basically, Kakungulu’s adoption of Judaism was very much him going off on his own path, not only religiously but politically, asserting his separation from the British, who were totally identified with the Anglican Church.

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To Ceausescu and Back: Notes from a Tunnel

I recently discovered a new autobiographical blog called Notes from a Tunnel by someone who “was born as a member of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, a child during Ceausescu’s dark 1970s, a teenager during the surreal Romanian ’80s, a student during the radical ’90s and a visiting émigré in recent years.” Here are some of the blogger’s earliest recollections about life in Romania during those years.

The First Glance Back

The following recollections though, from the Romanian pre- and post-Revolutionary years, are street-level snapshots with often surprising similarities between the old and the new country. They come together not as a grand portal into the past and quasi-present, but a small window for just one head at a time to peer through it….Having left that country eleven years ago, returning there regularly to this day, I can still meet and converse with many ghosts, ghosts cosily nesting in the altered, recently became ultra-material(istic) world of the Carpathian mountains.

This is about both the past when those ghosts still possessed powerful bodies in my weathered homeland, making Europe seem just some distant mirage, and the present when that world, still silently and slowly being kneaded by these ghosts, has gone through hasty re-decorating for its welcome party into a suddenly so reachable and tangible Europe…

It is also about the surprising and worrying parallels that one sees between that, thought to be defunct, world and the present day experiences in a historical democracy, the latter paradoxically resorting to exponentially increasing amounts of control in an attempt to safeguard its values…

Home

My home town, Marosvasarhely… A medieval city in Transylvania, comfortably resting in the valley of river Maros, in just one of the many valleys which spread themselves on the map like half-open protecting hands… Valleys that so often were not protective enough, but at least were able to soften the sounds of thunderstorms and too numerous battles into a gentle rumble that used to reverberate along the many rivers of that bruised land… A town that in peacetime used to gaze down on lively markets unfolding their tents on the plains outside its old walls… hence its name, ‘marketplace on river Maros’ ….

All this sits pretty much right in the middle of Transylvania where eminently non-fictional creatures have been spilling and consuming blood for too many centuries. They did this in broad daylight, totally immune to garlic, casting onto those hills and plains of ever-changing colour very long and dense shadows which persist to this day in political life, in the ethnic tensions arising from the echoes of annexing the former Hungarian territory to Romania… These shadows are also present in the collective psyche that only in the last few years was freed from the most recent non-fictional, demented, but so calculated Evil.

I grew up there, during Ceausescu’s ‘Golden Era’… and can’t recall whether there was a certain moment when I realised that everything surrounding me was a tragicomic absurd play, set in a theatre made to seem considerably smaller than the world entire.

I still find it difficult to reconcile those two sides of me… One, the small kid opening his eyes and ears tentatively and initially very fearfully, a happy kid enjoying to the max a very minimalist childhood, accepting the food rationing and powercuts, propaganda and fake celebrations as the normal and, above all, the only possible reality. Then there is the other person, the grown-up looking back and finding that weird reality filled with funny and sad absurdities, contradictions still tying the mind into a confusing identity-warping knot.

Light

My school days and years came after I learnt the fundamental physics of light and heat. Not the complex laws defining and governing them, but how ideological darkness and cold calculation can alter them when it came to what I then perceived as normal everyday existence. The joyous and by all means luminous play of the mind that took over for brief hours my early school days was quite opposite to what came after school, when due to shortages of class rooms we started doing ‘afternoon shifts’ alternating with our normal weeks of 8AM daily start…

I was finding my way on streets rendered pitch black by power saving measures, with constellations of warm orange and yellow and reddish dots, daubs and flecks of lights coming through the windows, coming from kerosene lamps and candles and the occasional battery-powered torches, projecting shadows of tired bodies animated by tired souls inhabiting the houses and block flats.

The economics of these cuts didn’t make any sense, as the consumption of the population was infinitesimal compared to what was engorged by old-fashioned, hopelessly obsolete industrial monsters. For example, the aluminium plant at Slatina was making deplorable quality aluminium with old electrolysis methods, soaking up every electron that the also inefficient power plants around it could squeeze out of low-grade coal or methane.

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Tessaku Seikatsu: Postwar Delusions

From Life behind Barbed Wire [鉄柵生活 Tessaku Seikatsu]: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai‘i Issei, by Yasutaro Soga [1873–1957] (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2008), pp. 202, 204-205:

A memorial service for the war dead was sponsored by the Buddhist federation and held at the theater on the night of September 14 [1945]. Rev. Joei Oi began the evening by saying that the service would honor the war dead of both sides, which was commendable. However, in his sermon, Rev. Enryo Shigefuji of Fresno expressed opinions that clearly showed he did not understand the current situation. I was surprised at his ignorance. First he attacked the United States for its unlawful and unjust use of atomic weapons. This was admirable. Then he reported, “Japan was so incensed at the inhumanity of this act that it wiped out the entire American expeditionary force in the Far East in three days and forced the United States to surrender.” Rev. Shigefuji was said to be a highly learned priest, so I wondered what had happened. Outside after the meeting, Mr. Komai, Rafu Shimpo president, and I were so dumbfounded that all we could do was exchange stunned looks. We were so amazed by his remarks that we were practically speechless.

Two days later, I heard a sermon by Rev. Shuntaro Ikezawa of the Christian church in the east classroom. The weather was very bad—rain, hail, even thunder. There were only a few priests and about a dozen people present. As I expected, Rev. Ikezawa had grasped what was happening. In his sermon, “Truth and Love,” he talked about the atomic bomb: “What was wrong was not the invention of atomic energy, but the thinking that led to its use in war. If we use our inventions for good, all human beings benefit. His Highness the Prime Minister said to General MacArthur, ‘You must forget Pearl Harbor and we must forget the atomic bomb.’ These were wise words.” The Reverend then prayed for the birth of a new Japan. I felt what he had to say was well worth listening to. Over the next few days the internees could not stop talking about Rev. Shigefuji’s sermon while Rev. Ikezawa’s was never mentioned. Rev. Shigefuji was praised for expressing his opinions without fear and was regarded as a hero….

Even those who should have known better were misinformed or deluded themselves. Around this time I met an uneducated but admirable young man… One morning in early October, the two of us were taking a walk. I asked if he wished to return to Japan. He answered that, because he was poor, he could not go back and wanted instead to remain in the United States, where many jobs would be available in restaurants. He continued: “Actually, one of my friends advised me to return to Japan with him. I said I would if I had the kind of money he had. He said looks were deceiving; in fact he was penniless and that was why he was returning to Japan. Since Japan had won the war, internees could expect reparations from the United States. Internees who went back now could receive as much as fifty thou- sand dollars. If they returned later, the money might no longer be available. My friend repeated that I should go back with him. I did not know what to say. There are so many such fellows who think Japan has won the war.” And so many of them were greedily waiting to return to Japan.

On October 1 all residents of the sixty-sixth barracks boycotted the Santa Fe Times and suspended their subscriptions.

After Spain withdrew its offer to represent Japanese interests, Switzerland took over the responsibility. The Swiss representatives visited the camp with State Department officials on September 27. Mr. Fischer was among them. They met with General Manager Koba and other camp officers. A report of what had transpired, written in question-and-answer form, was mimeographed both in English and Japanese and circulated to all barracks on October 2. U.S.-Japan relations, the surrender of Japan, and the changed conditions in Japan were outlined in detail. I quietly noted the internees’ responses to the report. Many said that talks between representatives of a small country like Switzerland and State Department officials could only be propaganda. They showed no further interest in the matter. The prevailing attitude toward the report was indifference.

On October 2, the camp population was 2,027, of which 106 were in the hospital and 3 were in the temporary holding cell. Those of us in the “traitors group” estimated that the number of internees who had any real understanding of the war and its aftermath was less than a hundred. Even Nisei who visited their parents in the camp around this time advised them not to worry, because Japan was winning the war. The purpose may have been to bolster the spirits of the internees, but it also seemed to provide fuel for the diehards who refused to accept Japan’s defeat. In the end this sort of thing did more harm than good.

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Hijab vs. Koteka: West Papua Culture Clash

From Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), pp. 224-225:

From the air, my first view of Wamena was a broad, grassy valley dotted with traditional Dani hamlets surrounded by incredibly neat and extensive sweet potato and vegetable gardens. Then came the town itself: an untidy, rusting conglomeration of tin-roofed buildings whose streets were laid out in a grid pattern. The silver minaret on the mosque gave it a distinctively Javanese appearance, even from above.

In the streets of Wamena, you see an extraordinary mixture of humanity. Proud Dani men, still holding fiercely to their traditional dress of koteka (penis gourd) tied at its base to a protruding testicle, stalk down the street, beards thrust forward and hands clasped behind their backs. Nervous-looking Muslim women, the oval of their face the only flesh visible in a sea of cotton, whisk gracefully by, while military men in immaculate and tight-fitting uniforms swagger confidently down the middle of the road.

Surely it is a perverse twist of fate that has put a nation of mostly Muslim, mostly Javanese, people in control of a place like Irian Jaya. You could not imagine, even if you tried, two more antipathetic cultures. Muslims abhor pigs, while to highland Irianese they are the most highly esteemed of possessions. Javanese have a highly developed sense of modesty. They dress to cover most of their body and are affronted by overt sexuality. For most Irianese, near-nudity is the universally respectable state. Moreover, men from the mountain cultures of western New Guinea wear their sexuality proudly. The long penis gourd often has the erectile crest of the cockatoo attached to its tip, just in case the significance of the upright orange sheath is missed.

Javanese fear the forest and are happiest in towns. They attach much importance to bodily cleanliness, yet pollute their waterways horribly. Irianese treat the forest as their home. Many are indifferent to dirt on the skin, yet, through custom, protect the ecological health of their forests and rivers. Javanese respect of authority is typically Asian in its obsequiousness. Irianese are fiercely intolerant of attempts at domination. No Dani man would ever let another lord it over him as a tuan (prince) does a Javanese petani (peasant).

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Tessaku Seikatsu: Tule Lake Thuggery

From Life behind Barbed Wire [鉄柵生活 Tessaku Seikatsu]: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai‘i Issei, by Yasutaro Soga [1873–1957] (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2008), pp. 168, 170-171:

A right-wing youth group called Shichisho-kai (literally “Club of Seven Lives”) held its first meeting in the east classroom on the night of December 12 [1944]. I decided to attend. At the meeting, young people seated themselves in groups and roll was taken. Then they all stood up and chanted in unison: “We are the loyal subjects of the Emperor. We are determined to be reborn seven times and serve our country.” After that Rev. Dojun Ochi talked about the great history of Japan, beginning with the Meiji era and going back in time. It was very interesting. The leader of Shichisho-kai was apparently a man from Tule Lake….

A rumor spread that more of these “shaven heads” would be arriving from Tule Lake…. Among the internees at Tule Lake, two groups that were constantly at odds with one another were the pro-Japan or “disloyal” faction and the pro-American or “loyal” faction. Such a division in thinking could be found at any relocation center or camp, but it was especially serious at Tule Lake. The pro-Japan group set up a spy ring to gather information on those who were sympathetic to the United States. They infiltrated various groups, placing certain individuals under surveillance and using gatherings to collect information about their enemies. They selected faction members who were to take direct action against the enemy through extraordinary measures. If this proved unsuccessful, they planned to report the enemy to the Japanese government after the war. Once a person was identified as pro-American, they intimidated him by throwing human feces at his house or even boiled feces at the windows. Families were afraid of what others might think and quickly and quietly cleaned up the mess. In July 1944, after a certain Mr. Hitomi had been murdered, fear among the pro-American internees reached a panic stage. Thirteen families fled to a separate enclosed barracks, leaving everything behind. Some of the soldiers who were asked to retrieve their possessions were said to be in sympathy with the pro-Japan group, because when they went to collect one person’s belongings, they asked, “Where’s the dog’s luggage?”

The internee population of Tule Lake Camp was eighteen thousand in October 1944. There were many families, so the camp resembled a town in Japan. Because there were many young girls at the camp, romances blossomed. This, fanned by an uncertain future, led to rash and impulsive behavior. Forty to fifty babies were born every month. Japanese-language schools were not allowed at relocation centers, but there were seven at Tule Lake, two of which were specifically named First National School and Second National School.

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Father Pat’s Old-time Syncretic Religion

From Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), pp. 186-187:

Father Pat is an Irishman for whom Gaelic is a first language. He is one of the new style of Roman Catholic missionaries and is a vital force in the lives of the people of the Torricelli Mountains. As we got to know each other, I began to see what motivated Pat. He told me that his own language and culture had been banned and belittled at the hands of the invading English and that he was certainly not going to see that happen to his Papua New Guinea parishioners. They had, unfortunately, been converted in the 1930s by Catholic missionaries of German extraction who had suppressed the local culture. Pat was determined to redress that.

Under Father Pat, the region had experienced a dramatic cultural revival. The Mass was now said in Olo (the local language) by this Irish priest dressed to a turn in Melanesian finery. His cuscus-fur head-dress and bird-of-paradise plume armlets shook gloriously as he sang. Indeed, hearing Mass said by Father Pat dressed in his full regalia was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in a church.

It was with some pride that Pat told me that the revival of old traditions had gone so far that, as a special favour to the visiting Bishop of Vanimo, parish women had danced bare-breasted in procession through the church while singing hymns.

But the revival had gone much deeper than ceremonial formalities. Pat had questioned the old men closely concerning their pre-Christian customs and had incorporated traditional elements, where appropriate, into the celebration of the sacraments. Thus, traditional words from birth and initiation ceremonies, many long forgotten by the community, were now said at baptisms and confirmations. Pat also bought ochre for decorative purposes and sponsored festivals on these occasions.

For the first time in decades a haus tambaran (ancestral spirit house) had been built in Wilbeitei village and in it were stored the spirit masks, all newly made, for which the area was formerly famous. But the house now had a double purpose. Though great spirit masks, some five metres tall, were hung around its walls, at its centre was parked the new community truck, the result of an investment and savings scheme instituted by Father Pat.

Pat’s revival of the village traditions had come at a critical moment. The Olo had been influenced by Christianity for the best part of sixty years. They were a lot further down the road to westernisation than even the Telefol. It was dismaying to find that Pidgin was commonly used, even in conversations between the Olo themselves, and that only the very oldest members of the community remembered what traditional clothing looked like. Had Father Pat arrived just a decade later, he may have found precious little to preserve.

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