Sunday, 19 October 2014

Palestine - Better Together?

It was interesting, last Monday evening, to watch the televised backbench debate from the House of Commons, on whether or not the British parliament should recognise a Palestinian state.  It wasn't a surprise to see Labour MPs speaking in favour of the debate but, the idea of a two-state solution for Palestine/Israel has gained such common currency in Britain that even Conservative MPs were speaking in favour of recognition, which surprised me.

International recognition of a Palestinian state

Free Palestine by James_London
The outcome of the vote for symbolic recognition was overwhelmingly in favour (274 ayes and 12 noes) and, although this vote doesn't officially change the British government's approach to Palestine, it's seen as a historic moment, atoning for past mistakes in British policy on Palestine and the first step towards official recognition of the Palestinian state by the UK government, which would then join the 134 other countries who currently recognise Palestine.

Since I started blogging about Palestine just over a month ago, Grenada and Haiti have officially recognised Palestine and the newly-elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Loftven, has announced that Sweden will recognise Palestine, becoming the first European Union country to make this commitment.

Parallels between Palestine and Scotland?

Pro-Palestinian protest in London by James_London
I can't help but draw parallels between the campaign to gain recognition for the Palestinian state and the recent referendum on the question of Scottish independence.  I don't really believe in nationalism, however, in the case of Scotland, it seems so obvious to me that Scotland is a country, that I unreservedly support the right of the Scottish people to have their own nation.  Having said that, people voted as they did and the majority in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom was clear, so it would seem that independence is not really what Scottish people actually want . . . well, certainly not right now.

The reality is always a lot more complicated and how we understand the nature of a nation very much depends upon the times we live in.  There are pluses and minuses for Scottish people, in terms of independence and, unlike in Palestine, a 'no' vote in Scotland won't necessarily lead to repression of the Scottish people or their being denigrated to second-class citizens (although there has been some anti-Scottish sentiment in the media 'south of the border').

Demonstration at Houses of Parliament by James_London
Of course, the situation in Palestine is very different and whether or not Palestinians have control over their own affairs is crucial to protection of human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.  Unlike Scotland, Palestine isn't an equal partner in any kind of union with Israel and, in reality, it's difficult to compare the need for independence in these two countries, as their contexts are not the same.

As with Scotland, it's always been obvious to me that Palestine is a country and, logically, should have its rightful place at the table of nations.  Until I started researching for this blog, I never really questioned the two-state solution for Palestine/Israel, however, I'm beginning to see another side to this situation that hadn't really been obvious to me before.

The Palestinian population of Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank

One thing I didn't really grasp before I started researching for this blog, is the fact that 20% of Israel's population identifies as Arab/Palestinian.  After the 1948 nakba more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes and sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where they remain to this day.  However, many Palestinians didn't flee, but chose to remain, particularly in places like Nazareth, which is still predominantly Arab-Palestinian.

As I've been researching the literature, movies, music of Palestine, time and again I'm coming across Palestinian culture originating from the modern state of Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Whether it's the music of the Palestinian rappers DAM, who grew up in al-Ludd/Lod, just a stone's throw from Ben Gurion International airport, or the movies of Elia Suleiman, who was born in Nazareth - the culture of Israeli-Palestinians seems incredibly vibrant and sure of itself and gives me some hope for the future.

I'm now wondering what would happen to Israeli-Palestinians in a two-state solution?  Not to mention, the post-1967 Israeli settlements that have been built in the West Bank, which put more than 300,000 Jewish settlers within what is traditionally defined as the West Bank and, under international law, would be part of the new Palestinian state.  By deliberately 'colonising' the West Bank, Israel has, in a way, bound the two states together for the foreseeable future.

Would Palestine and Israel be better together?

Perhaps a single, bi-national state would be better after all although, similar to the situation in post-apartheid South Africa, it would have to be a state where the Arab/Palestinian population plays as great a role as the Israeli/Jewish population.

Israeli flag in Palestinian colours
This isn't a popular idea at the minute - certainly not for right-wing Israelis, who are living according to the principles of a Jewish homeland and I understand how a single state with equal rights for Palestinians wouldn't appeal to them, as that goes against everything they believe in.  Equally for Palestinians, the idea of belonging to a single state where Palestinians might end up becoming second-class citizens isn't really a solution.  The legacy of the 20th century for Palestinians is so full of injustice, that it would be hard for any Palestinian in the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere to accept anything less than full nationhood.

I find myself in the strange position of supporting recognition of the Palestinian state whilst also acknowledging that this could possibly prolong nationalist agendas on both sides for at least another century. Ultimately, even with a two-state solution, the question of living together peacefully remains.  I also find it hard to stomach the idea of any nation based on a religious or racial identity, so it's hard for me to see how a purely Jewish state of Israel will be sustainable in the 21st century.

Universal human rights

Getting back to Edward Said's ideas on humanism - it would be better to facilitate the basic rights of people and their access to recognised citizenship in Palestine/Israel, rather than think along religious or ethnic lines.  We're all human and the fact this fact alone should entitle us to basic rights regardless of which part of the world we happen to have been born in.

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member James_London - James is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya and you can see more of his images on his Flickr photostream.

Thanks James for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Palestine - How I made Musakhan

Although I've cooked Arabian and Yemeni dishes before, like Kabsa and Saltah, this was my first attempt at making proper Middle Eastern food. I was spoilt for choice in terms of Palestinian dishes, but settled for Musakhan in the end, as I needed something easy after my recent experience trying to make a Mexican mole!

I looked at two different sources for inspiration - the first, a very entertaining and enjoyable book called Classic Palestinian Cuisine (2001) by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.  Nasser tells the stories of the dishes and recounts his personal experiences, which makes this so much more than just a book of recipes!

Ground cardamom, sumac and cinnamon
If I'm being honest though, I was more influenced by the recipe in The Middle Eastern Kitchen (also 2001) by Ghillie Başan, as this recipe was a bit simpler and less labour-intensive.

I really love the format of The Middle Eastern Kitchen as it focuses on the individual ingredients and, perhaps not surprisingly, the recipe for Musakhan comes under the section on the spice called sumac.

My first time using sumac

Apart from sumac, the main flavouring for this dish, I was pretty sure I would find all of the ingredients I needed in my local area.  As it turned out, it was quite easy to find sumac as well and I think it's much more commonly available than I realised - I've just never noticed it before.

Sumac is made from dried berries and quite often sprinkled on salads or cooked meats to give them a kind of citrus flavour.  It's very tasty and I can see myself using this flavour a lot in future, as it adds a satisfying piquancy, if you don't want too much heat in your dish.

The ingredients

For the Musakhan

Musakhan ingredients
Olive oil - زيت زيتون
Butter - زبدة
2 onions - بصل
2 chicken breasts - دجاج
sumac - سماق
cinnamon - قرفة
cardamom (ground is best) - هال
1 lime - ليم
Mint - النعناع
Coriander - الكزبرة (although I decided not to use coriander in the end, as I wanted a more minty flavour)
4 pitta breads - خبز (actually it would be best to use real Palestinian bread, known as tabun which is the name of the oven it's cooked in, but I didn't have access to this, so pitta was a good substitute, especially as it's hollow inside and can be easily filled)

For the salad

2 cucumbers - خِيار
4 tomatoes - طماطم
Red pepper - فلفل حار
Yoghurt - الزبادي
Mint - النعناع
1 lime - ليم

How I made Musakhan

I started by making the salad, so I could chill it in the fridge whilst cooking the main meal.  I must admit that I'm not a massive fan of cucumber which I know sounds ridiculous, as it's probably one of the world's most inoffensive food products - I think I ate too much cucumber when I was living in Uzbekistan and it put me off!

Lovely, refreshing cucumber

Anyway, I first chopped the cucumber into chunks and mixed it with the yoghurt in a big bowl.  I then chopped up the tomatoes, pepper and mint, mixing these ingredients with the cucumber and put this in the fridge to chill.  Before taking it out of the fridge to serve with the main meal, I added lime rind and juice.

Red pepper added to cucumber and yoghurt mix

Cucumber and tomato salad
I added lime rind and juice to my salad, as well as to the main dish

To make the Musakhan I started by frying a lump of butter in some olive oil, then adding the onions and frying these until they turned a soft golden colour.

Fry the onions until they turn golden

I then added the chicken pieces and a couple of spoonfuls of sumac and stirred until the chicken had cooked through.

Add the chicken pieces and the sumac
Then I added the ground cardamon and cinnamon, along with lime rind and juice and chopped mint leaves, leaving the dish to simmer gently, only stirring occasionally,

Add the mint and spices

Let the dish simmer for about 20 minutes
As the main dish was cooking, I halved the pitta breads, opening up their central cavities before putting them in the oven for a few minutes to soften them up.

Halve the pitta bread and open the centre

A stack of pitta bread
Once the pitta breads had heated a bit, I took them out and spooned the Musakhan mixture into each piece of bread, before returning them to the oven to cook for around 8 minutes.  

Fill the pitta bread with the cooked Musakhan mixture

Bake in the oven for around 8 minutes
The end result was very yummy and the cold salad made a nice contrast to the warm bread and musakhan.  This was an easy dish to make and I'd highly recommend it!

Musakhan with salad

My Palestinian dinner
Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Palestine - Accidental Orientalism

Edward Said was one of Palestine's most famous sons.  Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he was brought up in Mandate Palestine and in Egypt and he was educated in the US (Princeton and Harvard).  I'd heard about him before I started researching Palestine, of course, but I'd never read his key text Orientalism (1978), so I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to do so.

Said's theory on orientalism

Moorish bath (1870) by Jean-Leon Gerome
To be honest, I already had enough material to write a blog post by the time I'd finished his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism and I immediately connected to the theme and understood the main arguments behind Said's theory, i.e. that Orientalism is a fake area of cultural study, which says more about the Europeans who invented these ideas about their eastern neighbours, than those who actually live in the Middle East/Far East, outside Europe and 'the West'. 

According to Said, orientalism isn't merely a West/East division, it's an our culture/Other division that has served to justify wars, colonisation and inhumane behaviour.  Interestingly, he puts forward the case that every Empire claims that it is working in the best interests of the people who are being colonised and that each Empire claims that its circumstances are different than the circumstances of previous Empires.  How true that is!

The link with occidentalism and cannibalism

I've blogged about orientalism before, when I was researching Xinjiang/Uyghuristan in 2011 - strictly speaking, that blog post was more about occidentalism (i.e. the Middle Kingdom's view of exotic lands like Turkestan, which lies to the west of China), but the principle behind orientalism and occidentalism is pretty much the same, i.e. projecting your own culture's fears, desires, expectations onto another culture you don't really understand.  I also came across this 'cultural projection' when I was blogging about cannibalism in the South Pacific.  

The West and the non-West

Harem bath by Jean-Leon Gerome
I agree with Said's point of view, as I think our image of the Middle East/Far East/non-Western countries says more about who we are than the people who live in those places.  Our concept of the Middle East probably wouldn't mean much to someone living in Palestine and the problem with generalisations, of course, is that they assume that other people's cultures are monolithic, that everyone there is the same and there is no diversity in terms of how people see the world or interact with it.  This is the basis of prejudice which can quickly become racist and patronising.  

However, as Said argues, our tendency to propagate an East/West dichotomy is so strong that we do it without even thinking.  I've talked about 'the West' many times in previous blog posts which, whilst this recognises diversity in non-European cultures, still imposes a West/non-West understanding on the world.  It's only after reading Said's book that I'm starting to question what 'the West' really means and whether or not it's useful to continue using this kind of false dichotomy?  

A new world of humanism

Said promotes an approach which he calls humanist - which means that when we try to understand people from other parts of the world, we shouldn't immediately fall into the West/non-West distinctions, but look at each culture/situation/tradition with the understanding that we are all human. Israel/Palestine is a good example of how orientalism colours the debate - we think Palestine/East and Israel/West, which usually also means Palestine/Muslim and Israel/Jewish, rather than thinking purely about human beings who lose their homes, their loved ones or their lives.  

In the unravelling of his opening chapter, Said shows that European fear of the East is deep-rooted and steeped in centuries of misinformation and prejudice. He goes right back to the time of Euripedes' Bacchae and Aeschylus' The Persians.  Invasion from the east was a very real fear for most of Europe's history and still manifests itself in modern Europe in the guise of Islamophobia and racism.

Relentless invasion  

It's interesting to note that, even in modern times, we've retained this fear of the East. Whether it's Youtube videos of the (real) North Korean army marching, or a depiction of the (fictional) march of the Unsullied in The Game of Thrones, the armies of the East are seen as relentless, numerous, faceless, voiceless.  

I think the 2007 action film 300 about the Persian invasion of Europe and the Battle of Thermopylae captures the essence of European fears, echoing down the centuries to a modern-age that still struggles to come to terms with cultures that are 'Other'.  You just need to watch the trailer to get a sense of how we perceive the Other to be frightening, freaky and threatening.

Accidental orientalism

The words accidental and occidental are from the same root, meaning 'to fall' - accidental when you fall over and occidental meaning that the sun falls from the sky (in the West).  By contrast, the word oriental comes from the verb 'to rise' - you can also see it in the word aurora which means 'dawn'.  I thought I would play with the words in my title for this blog post, as I feel that I've been an accidental orientalist.  

Thinking in terms of West/non-West is second-nature to many of us and I want to get away from that and understand cultures from their own point of view. Of course, language is a real barrier, as I'm trying to understand most of the world through English, which has already inherited an ingrained cultural orientalism.  

I guess my main experience outside all of this is in relation to Russian culture. I speak Russian and can read source materials without any need for translation.  I've always thought that Russians are misunderstood by most of the world, because the way things sound in Russian and how they translate into English is quite different, but perhaps it's the case that misunderstandings happen between all cultures, as we depend on languages and concepts steeped in centuries of orientalism to make sense of the modern world?

Palestine and Egypt

Reading Said's book has made me more aware of the strong cultural connections between Palestine and Egypt.  I've also got a heightened awareness of orientalism and I've been looking out for it in my everyday life. As I just happen to be listening to Kate Bush's third album Never for Ever (1980) at the moment, I couldn't help but notice the blatant orientalism in her song Egypt (and the accompanying video).  I'm going to leave you with this, as evidence of how orientalism works in our culture, but also because I love Kate Bush!

Image credits:

Both paintings are by the French artist (and orientalist) Jean-Leon Gerome and are in the public domain.  With increased European colonisation in the East and new opportunities to travel, the 19th century saw an explosion of interest in the 'exotic' East and Gerome's paintings made the promises about the sensuality of the East that would attract European men to travel there and administer the colonial governments.

It's interesting that we now criticise the East for being too conservative - whereas, in the 19th century, Eastern women were seen as shamelessly sensual, now they are depicted as religiously repressed.  I think that says a lot about how we project our understanding of the world onto other people.  

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Palestine - The Cause of a Country

I've known for some time that I would be blogging about Palestine and it's interesting in recent months to see how the Palestinian Territories, particularly Gaza, have come and gone in the news. Palestine has become a real cause célèbre in the past hundred years, particularly on the left of the political spectrum and it's fair to say that most of us will know more about Palestine than we do about other places I've blogged about, eg. Eritrea or Kiribati!

Or do we? 

As I've started researching about Palestine and started trying to see the world through Palestinian eyes, my first conclusion is that Palestine is a place we think we know, through news headlines and politics, but what do most of us really know about Palestinian culture, beyond the political sphere? I don't want to criticise the well-meaning solidarity that exists for Palestine around the world, but I'm coming to the conclusion that Palestine is a cause for most people when, what the Palestinians really need, is a country.

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict - A Very Short Introduction

The Dome of the Rock by F.R.L.
I've always wanted to read a book that would explain the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a concise and clear way and Martin Bunton's The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict - A Very Short Introduction (2013 - part of the Oxford University Press series that I love so much!) does just that.

Like most people out there, I had a rough idea of the history of Palestine/Israel and a sense of the reasons for conflict, but Bunton's book helped me order the events and understand the important milestones, particularly in the 20th century, when Palestinians saw their mandated territory shrink from 75% to 22% of the land currently recognised as Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The issues are complicated, needless to say, and I don't have time to go through all of them, but I will share one interesting thing that I learned regarding Jewish settlement in the eastern Mediterranean towards the end of Ottoman rule and during the period of the British Mandate (1920-1948).  At first the need for a Jewish homeland was so strong that most Jewish settlers bought land in the plains between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea, rather than the ancestral Jewish homelands in the mountains of Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the West Bank).

View from the Garden of Gethsemane by F.R.L.
The plains contain some good farming land, particularly for citrus fruits, with easy access to the port of Jaffa and European markets, however, this part of Palestine was also vulnerable to Bedouin raids, so the majority of the Palestinian population stayed in the mountains.

Thus, the Jewish homeland, which is now Israel, ended up in lands that weren't ancestral Jewish lands and the Palestinian population ended up in the West Bank, which is the ancestral homeland, not just of Judaism, but also of Christianity and with sacred Islamic sites as well.

Unfortunately, nationalism has dominated the Palestinian-Israeli discourse, with each side claiming the other has no real identity and a reluctance on the part of the Israeli government to fully hand over control of the West Bank to the Palestinian authorities, usually under pressure from right-wing Jewish groups to hold on to the Jewish ancestral homelands.

Which Palestine?

Christian nuns on the Temple Mount by F.R.L.
I'll probably need to explain what I mean when I say Palestine, as well, as Palestine means different things to different people.  There is Palestine as seen by the majority of Palestinians, an historic land incorporating the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

There are the Palestinian territories, the de facto political entities of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, currently under varying degrees of Israeli occupation.

There is the State of Palestine, the nation declared by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1988.  It's the most internationally accepted form of Palestine, being an observer state at the U.N. and recognised de jure by more than two-thirds of the world's countries (United States, Australia and European countries being notable exceptions).

The Palestine I want to blog about is not so much a geographical one, as a cultural one.  More than any other place I've blogged about, it's going to be hard to get away from the politics of Palestine (even food can be political!) but I'll try to learn more about the culture of Palestine through movies, books, music and cooking.

It's hard to learn about Palestine and not learn about Israel, but my blog posts will focus on Palestinian culture, rather than Israeli culture, regardless of the geographical realities or political understanding.

I hope you'll join me on this learning journey over the next month or so, I'm sure it will be an interesting experience!

Image credits:

To illustrate this blog post, I wanted to share some photographs from Flickr member F.R.L. who is originally from Munich in Germany.  Rather than create just another slide show for friends and relatives, F.R.L. took the brave move to put his photos on Flickr!  Thanks for sharing these images with us F.R.L. and yes, they are interesting!

You can see more of F.R.L.'s photos on his photo stream.  

Monday, 15 September 2014

Happy Blogiversary! Learning about the World for five years now!

It's five years to the day since I published my first blog post on Learning about the World.  As a tribute to the 5th anniversary of this blog, I've coined a new word - blogiversary!

I've learned a lot over the past five years and documenting my learning experience has been incredibly rewarding, not to mention necessary, as otherwise I don't think I would be able to remember everything that I've learned.

To date, I've blogged about 35 countries/places around the world, including four new places since my last blogiversary: Liberia, Maharashtra, Nordrhein-Westfalen and Oaxaca.    Highlights of the past year have included discovering the works of Graham Greene, watching almost 30 hours of Bollywood musicals, falling in love with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and learning to cook a Mexican mole.

Some stats

Worldwide visits to Learning about the World
My blog has had 46,204 page views until just now and more than 10,000 of these have been in the last year.  Actually, August 2014 saw the most page views ever in a single month at 1,784 so Learning about the World is more popular than ever!

Having said that, unique visitor numbers since last September (3,670) are down slightly compared to the previous year, but the number of returning visitors has increased from 18% to 22%.  The average 'session duration' has also increased by 28.72%, which means that visitors are spending more time reading the blog than they used to - always a positive sign!

The top twenty countries in terms of visitors since last year are:

1. United States
2. United Kingdom
3. India
4. Australia
5. Canada
6. Italy
7. Germany
8. Ireland
9. Brazil
10. France
11. Saudi Arabia
12. Cambodia
13. Belgium
14. Barbados
15. Netherlands
16. New Zealand
17. United Arab Emirates
18. Spain
19. Malaysia
20. Indonesia

Whilst the United States still tops the list, the number of US readers has dropped by about 30% since last year, which is interesting and I wonder if it's related to the fact that I haven't blogged about the US during that period? The fact that there are 30% less readers from the US, yet overall visits are only marginally lower this year suggests that the blog has had more international readers than ever before.

India has pushed Australia out of the third place and I've seen a 20% increase in the number of Indian readers, which might, likewise, be due to the fact that I blogged about Maharashtra.

I've lost some countries from the top 20, such as Russia, Sweden and Fiji, but I've gained others, notably Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia!  The biggest increase for one country/place has been Jersey, where my number of readers has quadrupled!

The blog has had visitors from 157 countries in total (11 new countries since last year) and the newest country to appear on my readership list was Andorra in August 2014.

Popular posts

You can see a list of the ten most popular posts of all time below:

And it's interesting to compare this with the ten most popular posts when I blogged about this last year:

Sum total of my learning

Since last September, in my pursuit of learning I have:

Read 22 books
Watched 21 movies
Learned how to cook 4 new dishes
Listened to countless hours of classical music, Bollywood music, Mariachi and Son

I'm looking forward to another year of learning, reading, cooking, movie-watching and blogging - don't forget to join me!

Next up . . . P . . .

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Oaxaca - The Final Word

The time has come to say Kande tne tíu to Oaxaca.  I started blogging about Oaxaca back in June and all of the reading and research that I've done on Oaxaca and Mexico has kept me entertained during a busy summer period.

I've learned about the history of Mexico and its complicated relationship with its northern neighbour, the United States of America.  I've blogged about eye contact and the culture significance of too much or too little eye contact.  I've learned about the impact of contact with Europe and the Columbian Exchange.  I've read a novel set in the Mexican jungle and learned to cook Mole, a dish that Oaxaca is particularly famous for.  I've listened to Mexican music and learned about muxe and mezcal.

Of course, there were many topics I didn't have time to cover and I would like to have done more research into the following areas:

Juan O'Donojú - last European ruler of Mexico
- The languages of Mexico
- Apparitions of the Virgin Mary
- The influence of Gold and Silver on the global economy
- Cabrera and the Virgin of Guadeloupe
- The Irish in Mexico
- Murals
- Chocolate
- Chillies
- The Aztec Gods
- Juarez and the denial of race
- The Oaxaca uprising in 2006
- The Danza de los Viejitos
- Reasons for societal collapse
- The Zapotec and Mixtec writing systems
- Itzcuintli - the Mexican hairless dogs
- Volcanoes
- La Malinche


I'm trying to keep the number of books I read for this blog to a minimum, as I have other more general reading that I need to do.  So I managed to restrict myself to just four books this time around:

Mexican reading list by me
Mexico: Insight Guides (2010), ed. Alyse Dar. I found the Insight guide invaluable, as usual.  I generally buy these guidebooks second-hand, as they're for research only, so the edition  I read is already a few years old.  I definitely want to travel to Mexico at some point in the future and researching Oaxaca has given me some ideas of where I'd like to go and what I would like to see.  I'd also prefer to back-pack around Mexico, than spend my time on a beach in Cancun.

Conquistadors (2000) by Michael Wood, a book which accompanies the BBC series of the same name.  I loved Wood's clarity and this book gave me a very useful overview of the conquest period, not just in Mexico, but also in Peru, the Amazon region and the southern United States.  In fact, I loved Wood's writing so much, I've ordered another book by him about Alexander the Great!

The Bridge in the Jungle (1940) by B. Traven - a novel set in the jungles of southern Mexico

Sliced Iguana (2001) by Isabella Tree - a really fantastic travel book, with chapters set in Mexico City, Oaxaca and Chiapas.


Mexican cinema has really caught on in recent years and I've already seen quite a few well-known Mexican movies such as Amores Perros and Como agua para chocolate.

I couldn't get my hands on any movies set in Oaxaca, so I had to content myself with re-watching Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006).  Apocalypto is a controversial movie in many ways.  Not only does it confuse Mayan and Aztec cultures, but it also seems to be defending the Spanish conquest of Mexico, by depicting barbaric practices like human sacrifice in pre-Hispanic Mexico and suggesting that they would have all killed each other anyway, even if the Spanish hadn't brought war and disease to the Americas.

Despite its suspiciously right-wing propaganda, I found myself enjoying Apocalypto, as it's a beautifully-shot movie and the suspense in the storyline is gripping.  Also, the protagonists turn their back on Spain and Mexico, in the end, returning to a simpler existence in the forest, which appealed to me.  I'm pasting in a trailer from YouTube, so you can get a sense of the movie for yourself, if you haven't already seen it.

The final word on Afro-Mexicans

Whilst researching about Oaxaca, I came across a place called the Costa Chica (Little Coast), which has a significant population of African descent.  Whilst many people in the Caribbean have African ancestry and countries like Brazil and the USA have sizable African-American populations, Mexico is not a country that springs to mind, when you talk about African-American culture.

So it was surprising to find that Mexico does have a very small African-American or Afro-Mexican population. European society in Mexico wasn't dependent on slave labour, as it was in places like Jamaica or Barbados, which would explain why there are so few people in 21st-century Mexico with African heritage.

In the cultural battle between European-descended Mexicans, indigenous Mexicans and the Mestizo majority population, Afro-Mexican culture has been largely ignored, neglected and even denied. Because the Afro-Mexican population is so small, they don't have a powerful voice in Mexico's ethnic arena and they have also tended to intermarry with other races and disappear into the majority mestizo population.

I guess the geographical concentration of Afro-Mexican communities in Oaxaca and Veracruz has helped preserve these two state's vestiges of Afro-Mexican culture, such as the Danza de los Diablos. It's believed that the hit song La Bamba has African origins!

Compared with countries like Jamaica (91%), USA (13%) and Brazil (7%), Mexico's African-descended population stands at less than 1% of Mexico's total population.

I'm going to leave you with a wonderful video by Toña la Negra, a famous Afro-Mexican singer:

Image credits:

The image of the reading list was taken by me.  The image of Juan O'Donojú, last European ruler of Mexico, is in the public domain.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Oaxaca - In Other Words

One of the books I read as background research for this blog was Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico (2001) by the English travel journalist, Isabella Tree.  Isabella travelled to Oaxaca, as well as Chiapas, Patzcuaro and the Sierra Madre, where she went beyond the usual tourist/traveller experiences, in an attempt to understand the complex and, apparently, contradictory nature of Mexican culture.  I found her book very informative and entertaining and I would definitely recommend it.

I've come across quite a few new words/phrases, both in Tree's book and elsewhere, as I've been researching about Oaxaca and Mexico.  I've chosen some of these, by coincidence all beginning with the letter 'M', which touch on important areas of Oaxacan and Mexican culture.

México profundo

Benito Juarez, 26th President of Mexico
In many ways, Oaxaca is the very definition of México profundo or 'Deep Mexico'. Something I've learned about Mexico is that, rather than thinking of it as a single, united country, it's more useful to think of Mexico as a patchwork of cultures and experiences, many of which wouldn't conform to outsiders' stereotypes of what Mexico is or should be.

Even the capital, Mexico City, isn't exactly typical of Mexico and, by all accounts, if you want to see the real Mexico, a country of charros (Mexican cowboys), tequila and mariachi music, it's better to go to Mexico's second-biggest city, Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.

Oaxaca is the other side of Mexico - a state where 58% of the population is indigenous and where some of the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Zoque, Mazateco, Chinanteco, Popaloco etc. people don't speak Spanish. An estimated 15% of Mexico's population is indigenous and almost half of Mexico's indigenous people live in Oaxaca.

It's hardly surprising then that Mexico's first indigenous President, Benito Juárez (President from 1858 to 1864) was from Oaxaca.  He famously proclaimed that:

No hay indios en México, somos todos Mexicanos
There are no Indians in Mexico, we are all Mexicans

Whilst it's noble political statement, I can't help thinking he was brushing indigenous culture under the carpet.


Mezcal bottles with worms
Oaxaca is the biggest producer of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic drink made from Maguey, a kind of agave plant which is native to Mexico and the southern United States.  Mezcal was mostly used in religious ceremonies, before it became another commodity, for sale in duty-free shops all over the world.  The most famous form of Mezcal is tequila, which is made from the 'blue agave' and produced in Jalisco, as mentioned above.

During her travels to Mexico, Isabella Tree spent some time with the Huichol people of the Sierra Madre in Zacatecas state.  Another M word I can share is Mara'akame, a Huichol word meaning 'elder', often interpreted as 'shaman' and Huichol religious beliefs, more than those of any other indigenous group in Mexico, have attracted the attention of people outside Mexico, because of their use of peyote, a cactus that contains mescaline and induces hallucinations and psychedelic 'trips'.

Tree herself consumed peyote as part of a religious ceremony overseen by a Mara'akame and many other Westerners, writers and poets like Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Carlos Castaneda, have travelled to Mexico seeking enlightenment and inspiration from this magical plant.

Despite the name, Mezcal doesn't contain mescaline, as peyote does, although people believe that eating the worm at the bottom of the Mezcal bottle will induce an hallucinogenic trip!

For many years, after the 1910 revolution and the introduction of a new constitution in 1917, religion was officially off the agenda for the newly-secular Mexico.  Shortly after his trip to Liberia in the 1930's (see my blog post about this) Graham Greene was sponsored by the Catholic Church to visit Mexico and report back on the Mexican government's secularisation campaign and suspected rights abuses against practising Catholics.  His book, The Lawless Roads, records his experience in Mexico and he was also inspired to write a novel, The Power and the Glory which featured an alcoholic priest.  Not surprisingly, this didn't go down so well with his sponsors in the Vatican!
Interior of church in Oaxaca, by einalem

Despite the lack of official support, religious practice seems to have survived in Mexico and Catholicism has remained in a strong position, where Protestantism has made more inroads in other, traditionally-Catholic countries, like Brazil.  Nevertheless, Mexico's Protestant population has also increased in recent years, especially in far-flung corners of the country, like Quintana Roo and Chiapas.  Mexico's 'other Christian' population currently stands at about 10% (compared to around 40% in Brazil).

It took a while for Christianity to catch on in Oaxaca and these days there are slightly fewer Catholics and slightly more Protestants in Oaxaca than the national averages.  I didn't come across a lot of information about indigenous religious practises in Oaxaca, although I'm sure indigenous religious beliefs still permeate Oaxacan life - my impression was more of a general ambivalence to religion in the state, which perhaps reflects a wider national trend where church attendance is pretty low, even if people are nominally Christian.


LGBT pride in Mexico City by Carlos Mejía Greene
I came across this Zapotec word when I was reading about Isabella Tree's experiences partying with the transsexual community in Oaxaca.  The word muxe (pronounced moo-shey) is believed to have derived from the Spanish word mujer meaning 'woman' and is the word used to describe Oaxaca's 'third sex', i.e. women who were born male.

Another important M word that's relevant is machismo and Mexican men are famous for their macho image, just as Mexican women are supposed to be beautiful, passive and all-suffering.  Oaxaca seems to buck the trend and, in an interesting narrative about her time there, Tree explains how it's the women who are in the driving seat in Oaxaca, not the men.

As well as having a refreshingly open attitude towards gender roles, indigenous cultures in Mexico also seem to take a much more relaxed view of sexuality and are, generally speaking, more tolerant of same-sex couples.  The situation for LGBT people in Mexico is improving all the time, but there is still a long way to go for same-sex couples to be given the same rights as male-female partners and incidents of violence against LGBT people remains pretty high.

Coahuila on the border with the USA was the first Mexican state to legalise same-sex partnerships and Oaxaca saw its first same-sex marriage in 2013. To date, only the government of Mexico City provides any legal framework for a change of gender identity, although states like Oaxaca, with large indigenous populations have tolerated the existence of muxe for many years.

Image credits:

The image of Benito Juarez is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

The image of the Mezcal bottles is from the Finnish version of Wikipedia and was shared using the Creative Commons license by Suvi Korhonen (user: Suviko) - you can see more information about the image on its Wikicommons page.  

The interior of the church in Oaxaca was taken by my fellow countrywoman and Flickr member, einalem - you can see more of her Oaxaca photos on her photo stream.

The photo from LGBT pride in Mexico City was taken by Carlos Mejía Greene, a native of the city who now lives in Canada.  You can see more of Carlos' photos on his Flickr account.

Thanks to Suvi, Einalem and Carlos for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.