This Virtual Nomad stop is a bit different. A (10) and I drive 190 km south to spend a Barbados night with a dear, dear friend. My friend CS is half-Bajan and a gorgeous, beautiful soul. Even if the Virtual Nomad Barbados stop means leaving nearly all the other nomads behind, it is a good excuse for me and A to visit CS and her family.
But first, Barbados.
Barbados is an island micro-state in the Caribbean, a few islands south of Antigua and Barbuda that the Virtual Nomad has already visited. Barbados is currently world famous for its most famous export, superstar Rihanna.
Night of talking
The Barbados night consisted more of talking and sharing, than eating. Tales of pig tails, goats and cheap meat cuts with overcooked vegetables, but not actual eating. CS says that as a child, she lived on fast-food burgers, rather than the pig tails, rice and peas. The decision to skip food this time seems like the right one. Instead we talk about cocktails and drinks, and childhood memories.
A brand new republic
Barbados had an Indigenous population of Arawaks and Caribs before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived – and named the island Barbados, the bearded ones (barba=beard). The Iberos were not interested in the island and it was basically used for slave collection from time to time until, in 1627, Britain claimed it. The Brits settled plantations, mainly for sugar, and imported slaves from Africa. The slaves rebelled several times, the most famous slave leader being called Bussa, who is a national hero. Once slavery was abolished, it still took more than a hundred years for living conditions for the Barbadians to improve. Barbados became independent in 1966, and a republic in 2021 when Sandra Mason was elected as the First President of Barbados.
The capital of Barbados is the colourful city of Bridgetown. 90% of the population (around 280,000) is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. English is the official language but Bajan Creole is the language of everyday use for most. Since independence, the country has been relatively peaceful with strong economic development. Barbados, together with Japan, has the highest proportion of centenarians per capita.
The struggles of brown girls
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall was published in 1959. Semi-autobiographical, it is a story of Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn. It is a coming-of-age story in the context of immigration, identity and belonging. Divided into four parts, the book covers several years of young Selina’s life and her awakening as an adolescent/young woman. She has a hard working, determined mother with a life goal of owning a brownstone house and a drifter father who has never found a purpose for his life. An immigrant’s life is not easy, and black Caribbean immigrants find themselves as objects of discrimination and racism.
This is one of the books I would love to love, and feel guilty for not loving. It tangles masterfully in the experience of alienation and racism, and the experience of black immigration and generational clash in a country that is foreign and not welcoming. There is a true biographical sense to it which reflects the author’s own background as a child of Barbadian immigrants. The themes of immigration, race, education and a woman’s role still resonate in the contemporary context.
But I did find it a hard and slow read, and it took me many pages to somewhat engage in the lives of the characters. I still think it is a relevant, important book and I am glad that I pushed myself through its description-heavy, slow text until the end, where things are pulled together.
Cherie Jones is a Barbadian lawyer, author, single mother or four and a domestic violence survivor. Her debut book How the one-armed sister sweeps her house was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2021) award. It is a harrowing tale of violence, captivating from the very start. It is set in Barbados in the 1980s, with the stark contrast of the poor natives and the people that exploit them, from spouses to tourists. The storytelling is of five star quality because you just cannot put the book down. But the relentless cycle of violence, from domestic to incest, the never-ending cycle and everything between, becomes slightly suffocating. It is an intense novel and the description of (domestic) violence is written with knowledge and experience. It’s a never-ending festival of misogyny, poverty and hopelessness even for those who have found the means to survive. It is being in the wrong place and the wrong time, loving the wrong people but above all, it is about the power of the predator over the weak, and of life without an escape.
It is another book about the clash of two worlds. Two sisters are sent to Barbados from Brooklyn to live with their grandmother for the summer. They explore the island until tragedy strikes and they are faced with a difficult decision. In the book there are several references to Annie John, the book I read for the Antigua and Barbuda stop.
“Loving another person, she knew well from watching and knowing Avril, was the most dangerous thing of all. Loving a country besides the one you lives in was a recipe for heartache.”
It is captivating at the start, boring from the middle and nearly ridiculous towards the end. Basically a good story wasted in a silly resolution.
Freedom and crime
Vigilante – the Crossing (2015), directed by Marcia Weekes is a story of an ex-con gone good à la Barbados. Marcia Weekes is a Jamaican-born Barbadian dancer, director and producer who has won several awards and is the founder of the Caribbean School of The Arts. She also has a show called the Marcia Weekes show that discusses issues relevant to the black community and African Diaspora.
The movie itself is not an original story – a reformed criminal returns to his homeland and finds himself needing to clean up his village of thugs while crossing paths with a white woman who wants to help the community to be better. The partially interesting elements are the references to class and race tensions, and the fact that the action takes place in Barbados.
More interesting is Barrow – Freedom Fighter (2016) from the same director. It is a partly fictional ‘docudrama’ about Errol Barrow, the first Prime Minister who was instrumental in Barbados gaining its independence in 1966. It won the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary in 2018. It reflects on the birth of a country in a slightly messianic way, but one can understand its importance to a country such as Barbados. The docudrama combines fiction and interviews with people who knew Barrow.
By far Barbados’ most famous export is Rihanna. She is a multi-awarded singer, the second best-selling female singer of all time (and 8th of all musicians) and a business woman. On Barbados’ first day as a republic, Rihanna was declared a National Hero of Barbados.
She does not really need a introduction but there are several sites that describe her path from the lower side of Bridgetown to global stardom. Her father was an abusive drug addict and alcoholic but young Ri Ri was talented enough to catch the attention of US producers and the rest is history.
My favourite clip is Rihanna and Seth Myers engaged in some daytime drinking – can be found here.
Squeezed between India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a densely populated fertile delta that receives the waters of the Himalayas. In the ancient times, these lands were occupied by different kingdoms and empires that introduced and reintroduced Buddhism, Hinduism and finally the Muslim faith (that was to stay). Today Bangladesh is nearly 90% Muslim, 10% Hindu and other religions form a very small minority. The capital is Dhaka, the fourth most populous city in the world (2023).
There are three main areas for Bangladeshi restaurants in Sydney: Lakemba, Rockdale and Ingleburn. While we first look into restaurants in Rockdale, booking becomes too difficult and we turn our attention to Lakemba in Sydney’s outer west. There are several Bangladeshi restaurants on the same street and we opt for Dhanshiri that has the highest rating. And we are very glad we do. While the restaurant’s decor is quite basic, the food is outstanding, or ‘sensational’ as one of the members of the group says. It is indeed one of the best of the Virtual Nomad stops so far – very rich in flavour and taste. We have a party of 13 with some seasoned Virtual Nomads but also four newbies, which makes the experience even more enjoyable.
It is a very successful night. We choose some shared entrees and then individual plates but end up sharing all the food, which is a good idea as the food is wonderful and every plate is a delight. There were several flavours that were unknown, exotic and exciting. Some of the dishes are quite spicy but even if spicy, the rich flavour pulls through. This is majestic food and the whole party is gobsmacked by the quality.
Cricket and Bengali tigers
Bangladesh shares borders with India and Myanmar, and is one of the most populated countries in the world. To be exact, it has the eighth highest population, a whopping 167 million!) The official language is Bengali – an Indo-Aryan language – the seventh most spoken language in the world.
Bangladesh was part of India until 1947 and when India and Pakistan (1948) became independent from the United Kingdom. British rule had brought some benefits but in general did not do much good for the Bengali people. As a parting gift, Britain destroyed 60,000 fishing boats as a “precaution against Japanese invasion”.
Bangladesh was named East Pakistan and became part of the newly established country of Pakistan. The two parts of the country were vastly different, not least in terms of the language. While West Pakistan made Urdu the official language, most people in East Pakistan spoke Bengali. Pakistani rule was not any better than previous rulers and the growing tension between the two grew gradually stronger, culminating in the 1971 liberation war backed by India. Three million people died. This is also the first recorded conflict in which rape was used as a weapon of war in massive numbers.
Independence did not bring peace and political prosperity as several prime ministers and politicians were assassinated. There have been 29 military coups in Bangladesh between August 1975 and December 2011. The current government has been accused of human rights violations and disappearances, and the 2018 Digital Security Act has been used to limit freedom of expression and target Government critics. While Bangladesh is the second largest economy in South Asia and poverty rates have been steadily decreasing, corruption is rampant.
Bangladesh has the longest unbroken sea beach in the world, is home to the largest mangrove forest and its national animal is the Bengali tiger. Bangladeshis also love cricket.
Five books of clash and grief
I end up reading five Bangladeshi books (or five books from authors of Bangladeshi origin). I’m not sure how that happened, but it did. Maybe it is that I received recommendations and then could not decide which one to select, so I ended up reading them all. This is how I rate them:
Book 1 *** Book 2 ***** Book 3 ** Book 4 **** Book 5 *****
Upstaged by a Messiah (book one)
Tahmina Anam is an awarded (Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, O.Henry Award and shortlisted for several more) Harvard-educated author born in Bangladesh and residing in London. I decide to read her latest book, the Startup wife. It is a story of a trio of friends, a young married couple and their gay friend who start an app that offers rituals for non-religious people. In the trio the wife is of Bangladeshi origin and attends MIT. Then she and her white husband and friend move to New York. At the beginning of my read, I am a bit unsettled and annoyed by the book’s desperate attempt to be funnier and cleverer than it really is. It does not start well and the main character’s fascination with his messiah-like, slightly creepy husband is frustrating. The beginning of the story rushes through the love story that makes it feel shallow – and ends up not feeling like a love story. Fortunately, nearly half way through, the story kicks in much more effectively and becomes a slowly constructed story of whitewashing, misogyny, boardroom sexism, creative madness (sometimes more madness than creativity), ethics and the modern quest for cults and ‘answers’ that hits its target in an entertaining manner. I grow to enjoy the book a lot and towards the end I am nearly fully engaged.
The clash of two worlds, part 1 (book 2)
Fascinated by the unevenness but the gradual cleverness of The Startup Wife, I decide to read another of Tahmina’s books – her well-rated The Good Muslim, the second of her Bangladeshi trilogy. I should read the first book (A Golden Age) first but in the search for the book, this one is easier to access so I go there. I understand that the Good Muslim takes off where the first book ends. The first book focuses on the time during the Bangladesh War of Independence (1971) and the second book is about the rise of religious fundamentalism through the intimate lenses of two siblings – a brother and a sister – who are worlds apart. One is a religious leader scarred inside and the other a doctor trying to make wrongs right while not always succeeding. It is an astonishing, superb book, well-crafted and built in two different timelines. It is nearly poetic in its depiction of the aftermath of an armed conflict, even a victory and the moral implications of living with guilt. The book has an intense crescendo towards the devastating end. It is a study of faith, religion, moral, class and violence – and a world where the most vulnerable are always the most exploited and suffer the most.
The clash of two worlds, part 2 (book 3)
Brick Lane by Monica Ali is a story of a young Bangladeshi woman who is sent to London through an arranged marriage to an older man. Monica Ali herself comes from a Bangladeshi and English background. Brick Lane is her first novel and the name refers to a street in London considered the heart of the Bangladeshi community. The book was a huge success, highly praised and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction (2003). On the other hand, Monica received criticism when the book was published as she was Oxbridge-educated with limited time spent around Brick Lane.
The book follows the passive Nazneen’s story from Bangladesh to London and occasionally the story of her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. Nazneen is young, naïve and inexperienced, and her world, at first, is narrow, suffocating and dominated by patriarchy and the weight of traditional roles. The story follows her awakening as a mother, a woman and a sexual being (the latest through her affair with Karim, a radicalised young Muslim who predictably ends up being a fundamentalist disappointment). It is a coming-of-age story with a substantial share of tragedy, loneliness and the sense of helplessness.
While I found the book moderately interesting, I was not thrilled with the style of writing that seems to drag unnecessarily for pages before getting to the point. The book was definitely interesting but there was also something artificial about it that bothered me. Therefore I was interested to know what people of Bangladeshi origin think about it. An interesting review (although giving away the whole plot) is by Sanchita Islam, a recently passed London-born artist of Bangladeshi origin. Another review (that also reveals the plot).
Senseless hate (book 4)
Lajja (Shame) by Taslima Nasrinwas banned in Bangladesh but became an international bestseller. And it is easy to understand why. The author herself is a physician, human rights activist and feminist known for her criticism regarding women’s oppression. She lives in exile due to the numerous fatwas placed upon her. In the preface of Lajja she says: “Religion drives people to madness, at which point they do not hesitate to abandon even basic humanity… Lajja can be seen as a symbol of protest. It is a protest against the violence, hatred and killings that are going on all over the world in the name of religion” and “Lajja speaks not of hate but love. Lajja asks for equality, not discrimination. Lajja waits for a time of equality, empathy and freedom.”
In a nutshell, it is a simple book. It is a story of a Hindu minority in a Muslim majority country after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in India. A story of religious intolerance, hate and discrimination based on religious differences. It is not different from other religious conflicts or discrimination and it shows how fundamentally senseless it is. Little girls get abducted because they are Hindu, an aging doctor comes to the realisation that he will never get a promotion because he is Hindu, entire Hindu families are killed, women raped, Hindu young people are shut out from opportunities. Pages of atrocities and wrongdoings, injustice and unfathomable cruelty. It is easy to understand why the Bangladeshi authorities wanted the book banned. It contains a lot of accurate and recent history (the 90s) and probably half of the book documents attacks on Hindu minorities (and also a few incidents by Hindu), so at times it reads like non-fiction with a story of a family loosely woven around the sad history. The state terror is ever present in the book, with the police an accomplice to terrible violations as the violence escalates to unprecedented levels. And then there are girls who disappear and never come back.
It is a tough, sad book to read. A review of the book said it is a “documentation of collective defeat and portrays the incomprehensiveness of religious extremism, mob mentality and heinous crimes men are capable of inflicting on each other.”
Loss, longing and war (book 5)
My final book of Bangladesh is I Remember Abbu, by Humayun Azad. The author was a professor of Dhaka University, author, novelist and many other things. A self-proclaimed feminist, he wrote what is considered the first feminist book of Bangladesh, Naree (1992). He was also a vivid supporter of freedom of speech. Critical of religious extremists in Bangladesh, he suffered an assassination attempt in February 2004 (that an Islamic fundamentalist organisation took responsibility for). In August 2004, he was found dead in Munich, Germany. The attackers of the February 04 attempt were later sentenced to death.
The book is listed as one of Humayun’s novels for teenagers but it feels like a beautiful storybook for children about parents and children, and war. The foreword, written in 2018, is by Humayun’s son, written in exile from Bangladesh, who longs for his father. It is a beautiful and haunting foreword to a beautiful and haunting book. ‘Abbu’ in Bengali means ‘father’. The book is a story about longing and absence, but above all it is a story about the senselessness of war and conflict, and the profound sentiment that despite everything, most people are good. A beautiful, warm book that with very few pages manages to say more than many other far longer books.
Then to movies….
Fundamentalisms and tragic loves
Matir Moina (2002) with an English title The Clay Bird is one of the most acclaimed and highly rated movies from Bangladesh, and when released was first banned in the country and later showed in limited screenings. It is directed by Tareque Masud and influenced by his childhood experiences in the turbulent times of the 1960s. Anu, the main character, is sent to a Muslim boarding school, which like many boarding schools is not a warm and welcoming place. Anu’s father is deeply immersed in ultra conservative Muslim faith and rejects all Western influence. This includes rejecting western medicine for his sick daughter, choosing instead to blindly trust religion and homeopathy as solutions for political unrest and the family’s health crisis. The background is the political changes preceding the 1969 Bangladesh Liberation War.
It is a remarkable, subtle and effective movie crafted with skill and symbolism. It is not without its flaws (editing, uneven script at times) but its core message pushes through regarding how damaging fundamentalist ideologies can be, whatever they are. The silence and longing in the eyes of Anu’s mother, married through an arranged marriage at the age of 14, is telling and haunting at the same time.
Our second Bangladeshi film is Monpura (2009, directed by Giasuddin Selim) that was a critical and commercial success and the 7th highest grossing Bangladeshi movie of all time. A tragic love story of injustice and betrayal, a contemporary Bengali Romeo and Juliet of a young man framed for murder and his beloved, promised as a bride to the real murderer. It’s slightly melodramatic and predictable, but still very sweet. The island scenery (of the island Monpura) is beautiful.
The third Bangladeshi film that I watch is a 2019 movie about the underpaid female garment workers in the sweatshops of Bangladesh serving the global fashion industry, Made in Bangladesh. It’s a poignant, feminist take on unionisation with an uplifting ending. The movie was made in the aftermath of several tragedies in the sweatshop industry, most notably the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse that killed over one thousand people. The movie has a very different feeling to it than the reality which makes it, of course, land in the ‘feel-good’ category.
The stop in Bangladesh finishes in the form of a personal acquaintance, and an inspiring human Shahidul Alam. He is a photojournalist, public speaker, teacher, social activist and an incredibly warm and welcoming person. He has been critical of the Bangladeshi Government and in August 2018, Shahidul was arrested and taken into custody. International campaigns followed to call for his release and he was finally granted bail in November 2018.
Bahrain is one of the countries the kiddos have heard very little about. The guesses vary from Africa to different parts of Asia, which isn’t wrong,but when asked to place it on a map, the task becomes trickier. This is the beauty of our Virtual Nomad– this time the kids learn about a country they have heard barely anything about. Enter Bahrain.
Photo: Radio Farda
The Kingdom of Bahrain is another island-state, this time around far removed from the Bahamas, located in the Middle East. It’s the third smallest country in Asia, found on top of Saudi Arabia and connected to the mainland by the King Fahd Causeway (built in 1986). Bahrain is made up of 50 natural islands and 33 artificial islands, with a population just above a million. The capital is called Manana, a name that makes you want to roll your tongue..
Manana is found in the largest island (about 83% of the land mass), called Bahrain, where the name of all the islands of the country Bahrain together comes from.
60-70% of Bahrain’s population is Shia Muslim, while the ruling class is Sunni. Interestingly, less than 50% are Bahraini nationals, the rest being expats from countries such as India and the Philippines. Due to the mainly male immigrant workforce there are many more men than women living there. Furthermore, Bahraini women gained the right to vote in 2002 – well, to be exact, there weren’t any elections from after independence from Britain in 1971 until 2002).
The flag of Bahrain has five white triangles: the white represents peace, and the triangles embody the five pillars of Islam, matching the red which symbolises the blood of martyrs. It is very similar to the flag of Qatar, a country Bahrain has not always had the easiest relationship with. ‘Bahrain’ comes from the Arabic word ‘two seas’ which reflects the connection to water – both the sea and freshwater springs.
As for the economy, Bahrain has not put all its eggs in one basket, having a more diversified economy, with financial services and tourism rather than relying solely on oil as a source of wealth.
The Bahrain night
Since the Bahamian dinner, the Virtual Nomads have become an aging group as most of the youngesters have turned a year older. As the adults, JK, CH (Virtual Nomad Special Advisor who has been to over 140 countries) and I myself stay the same age, we recruit the growing tween and teens, A (10), FK (14), L (16) and L’s boyfriend NA (17) into the mix.
The menu for the night includes:
Machboos is the national dish of Bahrain. It is a spiced chicken and rice dish with rich flavours of spices and toasted nuts. JK prepares it the night before to make sure the chicken is tasty and juicy, as the dish takes time to prepare.
Baid Tamat is traditionally a breakfast dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes with the flavour of cumin. The name comes from Arabic words for eggs (baid) and tomatoes (tamat). We prepare on the night and we find it yummy with its exotic taste.
Kabeb Bahraini are vegetarian appetizers prepared with chickpea (besan) flour added to tomato, onion and spices.
Ogaili is a tense saffron cake with two types of flour, which I prepare the previous night. It has a very strong taste that some of us enjoy whereas others find it too intense.
With all the food, our Bahraini night is very successful. We find no Bahraini music lists on Spotify, and we are equally unsuccessful on our other platforms, which means there will be no music for this Virtual Nomad entry. Nevertheless, FK holds a trivia for us and we learn several things about Bahrain such as:
Bahrain has no personal income tax. Instead, there is a social insurance contribution (7% for Bahraini employees; 1% for expats).
Healthcare and primary/secondary education are free
Bahrain has the world’s largest underwater theme park, Dive Bahrain
There is an over 400-year-old tree in the desert called the “Tree of Life”
Once upon a time, Bahrain was green with flourishing nature, part of the ancient Dilmun civilization that dominated trade in the region. Different rulers followed (Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, Iranians, Persians and others), and in 1783, the Al-Khalifa clan stepped in to rule Bahrain, which they still do to this day. Bahrain has longstanding links with the UK (and later with the US) and in 1892, Bahrain was annexed to the British Empire. After becoming independent in 1971, times were turbulent and human rights violations were rampant. The first emir of the independent Bahrain, Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, was a key figure in herding Bahrain into a modern nation and financial hub, but he dissolved the parliament and installed an initiative called the State Security Law. This law was applied widely by Ian Henderson, a British head of the Bahraini General Directorate for State Security Investigations. Henderson adorned a charming nickname ‘the Butcher of Bahrain’. The law permitted the arrest, killing and torture of thousands of people without any political accountability for over 25 years.
The 1990s (1994-99) saw an uprising in Bahrain, the “uprising of dignity”. The uprising was a joint effort between different groups (such as leftist, liberal, Islamist groups) to demand political reforms and an end to repression.
This did not end until the new emir, Hamir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa stepped into power after his father’s death in 1999. He fired Henderson, reached out to opposition groups, invited exiled Bahrainis back from overseas and promised political reforms in the shape of a widely supported referendum regarding the National Action Charter in 2001. But Hamad had other changes in mind as well, and the new constitution of 2002 was very different from what he had presented to the people, and what had been approved. Essentially, he basically made the new referendum a vehicle to grow his own power. Until 2002, the Al-Khalifa rulers were referred to as ‘hakims’ (meaning emirs), but Hamid decided to opt for absolute monarchy ( proposed as constitutional monarchy) and rule the country as a king, giving the Al Khalifa family even more power and control. The country changed its name to a Kingdom, but nothing changed, and by 2010, the Bahraini people had grown tired.
The Arab spring
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests that swept across several Arab nations starting in Tunisia in 2010. In Bahrain, the Arab Spring started on 14 February 2011 with intense protests and frequent clashes between police and protestors with police raids from 17 February (Bloody Thursday) onwards. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to Bahrain in fear of the protests expanding.
I decided to readSectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t by American scholar Toby Matthiesen. While reading a book by a scholar and an ‘expert’ outsider is always risky, reading it offered some information about the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Bahrain. Although interesting, some of the information is outdated as it is 10 years old (2013). The book presents background information explaining sectarian tensions and how Saudi Arabia and Bahrain declared the Arab Spring as Iran’s plot to help the Shia population. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have strong political and economic links (and more ‘liberal’ Bahrain remains a weekend holiday destination for Saudi parties). As the protests in Bahrain were mainly Shia-led, the Shia population in Saudi Arabia was strictly prohibited to enter Bahrain. Matthiessen visited Bahrain several times around 2011 and was a witness to the protests and the aftermath.
The Bahraini royal family did not take the protests lightly. The Bahrain Independent Commission concluded that some of the tactics used were classified as torture, psychological abuse and other human rights violations. The situation for the opposition has not improved much since 2011 despite promises of reforms. In 2019, the King reinstated nationality to hundreds of people, however excluded members of the opposition. Several opposition members have received jail sentences. Rights activist Nabeel Rajab was incarcerated from 2017 to 2020 for accusing Bahraini authorities of torture. The royal family still holds the absolute power they have had for the past two centuries.
The book by Matthiesen is not enough for me so I decided to read Yummah by Sarah A. Al.Shafei. It tells the story of Khadeeja, a young girl sold away as a child bride to an older man at the fragile age of 12. She starts to procreate with the husband from an early age and has eight or nine children (her first at 13). She faces numerous deep losses and tragedies in her life and is abandoned at 25 by her ‘loving’ husband whom she then takes back when he returns to her in a wheelchair, with no one else to care for him. I was prepared for a heart wrenching, emotional and self-reflecting book on a tragic life of someone silenced of her own will. Instead, it is mostly a simple book that in my eyes romanticizes forced marriages and child brides. Yummah is written in a naïve, nearly childish way, with many details regarding dresses and possessions and how to be a good wife. There is a darker tone towards the end when Khadeeja faces hardship and the political times are changing. Her firstborn daughter is sold as a bride at 13, but her younger daughters marry much later in life, and by choice. It is hard to say whether I like the book or not – it is an interesting description of a woman’s place in a changing country, however it reads as very child-like and infuriating at times (especially when it comes to Khadeeja’s devotion to her deceitful husband). The last passage reveals that the story is probably a recounting of Sarah’s grandmother’s life that Sarah has written and self-published. Even if her book is not very well written, we forgive Sarah as it comes from a place of love.
“When Kariya knew about Alkooky’s search for a bride, I was the first one to come to mind. We had the same background and she believed I had all they were looking for. We were both from well-off families, we were from the same class, we were both Sunnis and our grandparents were both religious leaders. I had all the beauty, reputation, smartness, manners and character they were looking for and he was rich so she knew he’d pay her good money”
You spent all these years giving all you had for others, all your strength and courage, even your beauty, dear friend’, she seemed to say
It’s fate, Layla, it’s God’s fate and I am happy
‘You only think you are, but reality is quite different. I know you miss him.
He is my life, how can I forget my life?
But he forgot you.
No he didn’t, even if he is in the arms of another woman his heart is thinking of me. I know it, I see him in my dreams, I feel him every single day, he smiles when I’m smiling, he aches when I cry. My heart tells me he’s still there for me and I know he knows I’m still here”
Photos of the heart
The movie industry in Bahrain is practically non-existent as there is no public or private funding for production. There have only been a handful of Bahraini feature films, but a number of short films by independent filmmakers. One of the few ( 3-5 depending on the source) feature films is ‘A Bahraini Tale’ by Bassam Al-Thawadi, an award winning director. It is somewhat interesting, albeit has too many faults to be really compelling. The setting is intriguing – it’s 1967,the time of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The main theme of the movie is freedom in unsettling periods of instability. It is also a story about gender inequality and the limiting freedom of Bahraini women at the time. The main protagonist Fatima lives through a series of disappointments and her own sacrifices in life. The setting and premise are attractive but the realisation itself lacks focus. The story has good intent but the plot is unfortunately uneven.
As for the short stories, I watched ‘Yesterday’ by Ammar Al-Kooheji. “Life is a series of photos that pass quickly and we rarely remember them. Yet dear photos are different. We keep them deep in our heart,” says a character in this melancholy, very amateur 17-minute video of loss and longing.
To finish the Virtual Nomad stop in Bahrain, JK and I watched the documentary ‘The Defenders’ by Matthew Bate about Hakeem Al-Araibi, an Australian professional football player. Born in Bahrain, he was part of the national senior team playing for the country . Like many other athletes, he took part in the anti-government protests of the Arab Spring, was arrested and tortured, and applied for asylum in Australia. When travelling on honeymoon to Thailand in 2016 with his wife, he was arrested at the airport and taken into custody (and prison) to wait for extradition to Bahrain on terrorism charges. Led by sport broadcaster Craig Foster, an international campaign followed to free Hakeem, which ultimately saved his life. The documentary is a testimony of the corruption and destructive power of absolute monarchies and international sports associations, but also of the power of the people. It is a highly recommendable, powerful documentary.
“I concentrate on riding this wave of cool blueness, being inundated by it. It occurs to me that we must come up with words for the blues that appear in the Bahamas; the ones in the dictionary were made before anyone who recorded things in writing had seen the waters and sky of this country.”
The Bahamas sounds exotic, exquisite, luxurious. For the kids it sounds like a place where very wealthy people go for a holiday, own holiday houses or hide their money. This is not far from the reality, but the Bahamas is of course, much more than that. It’s a young country surrounded by beautiful waters, sublime weather and exposure to cyclones and hurricanes.
A lot can be said about the sea around the Bahamas. While the entry of Antarctica was full of snow and ice, and inspired us to find abandoned penguins while ice-skating, the focus of the Bahamas is the sea. It is a country spread over 233,000 square km of water.
Sydney Sealife has a virtual experience that welcomes the virtual visitor to immerse in the sea around the Bahamas. That sea is very blue due to high levels of chlorophyll and the Bahamas not having much plankton.
The Bahamian flag represents the sand of the beaches (gold), the surrounding blue seas (blue) and the strength of the Bahamian people (black).
Cooking Island Food
There is no Bahamian restaurant in Sydney, which leads us to organise another fun cooking night at home. We try to avoid the mistake of making too much food and decide for five dishes. All core Virtual Nomads are present – that is JK; CH (the Virtual Nomad Special Adviser who has been to approximately 140 countries); the kiddos L (16), FK (14) and A(10); and me of course. This Bahamian dinner is special as we have a new delightful addition to the group that is NA, L’s boyfriend (16).
We decide for five dishes prepared by three different teams. The menu consists of the following:
Team 1 (JK with occasional moral support from FK) prepares an excellent Bahamian curry chicken while Team 2 (CH) creates a yummy mac and cheese. Team 3 (L and NA) team up to create outstanding Johnny cakes and my team (me and my moral supporter A) use our magic to make peas and rice, and fruit salad. We could have also prepared boiled fish dishes that are typical to the Bahamas but no one was too keen on the idea.
The Bahamian night is very lovely. The food is delicious and CH tells travel stories of different places she has been to, including the Bahamas. These tales capture the attention of the young nomads of the group. It is another lovely virtualnomading event and we are transported into the blue skies and waters of the Bahamas from the gloomy skies of winter Sydney.
Where the Pirates Are
The Bahamas is an archipelago of nearly 3000 islands, islets and rocks in the sea (30 of them are inhabited) with the capital Nassau on the island of New Providence. It was inhabited for centuries by Indigenous Taino in a relatively peaceful state until 1492 when Cristobal Colon (known in English as Christopher Columbus) with his troops set foot there. The Bahamas was the first landing place of the Spaniards and, as expected, they were not friendly and supportive of the ‘natives’. Instead they used them as slaves in mines and other back-breaking activities. The Spanish did not bother to colonise the islands but left that to the willing Brits who established a colony, initially as a safe place for puritans.
In the early 1700s the Bahamas became the pirate centre for the world and Blackbeard himself resided there. The British took control and made the Bahamas a British crown colony in 1718. Slavery was widespread with American Loyalists moving to the Bahamas in the aftermath of the American Civil War. While the slave trade met its end in 1807, it persisted in the Bahamas until 1834. Economic hardship remained a curse until the 1960s when tourism and tax free offshore deposits (for millionaires) allowed the Bahamas to build wealth. The Bahamas became independent in 1973 under the rule of Sir Lynden Pindling who was the PM for 23 years.
Today the Bahamas has the second-highest GDP in the region with tourism and offshore finance as its main industries. More than 70% are employed by tourism. The Bahamas is currently a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with predominantly a two-party system. The Panama Papers revealed that the Bahamas has the highest number of offshore companies of any jurisdiction in the world. English is the official language of this Caribbean island state of around half a million inhabitants.
Tales that we tell
The Bahamas is said to have strong Afro-Bahamian folk literature based on popular folk tales. Some of these tales are reproduced in Patricia Glinton-Meicholas’ book An Evening In Guanima: A Treasury of Folktales from the Bahamas. Patricia Glinton-Meicholas is the first winner of the Bahamas Cacique Award for writing and also the recipient of a Silver Jubilee of Independence Medal for Literature. She’s an author, lecturer, cultural critic and academic, and a fierce defender of Bahamian history, culture and tradition. Her books include a strong sense of Bahamian identity and place in the world.
That sounds like the right place to start submerging in Bahamian literature.
In the introduction of An evening in Guanima the author explains the importance of storytelling to the Bahamian culture and the culture’s roots in the Senegambia tradition (85% of the population derives from Africa). Bahamian storytelling is a wonderful hybrid mixture of tales from the mother continent, colonial and European influences. Patricia explains to us the purpose and format of these stories and the main themes she mentions are:
Cleverness is the key to problem-solving / overcoming adversity, rivals etc.
Goodness will always trump evil in the end
Elders are repositories of wisdom and must be respected
Good manners, good deeds and correct behaviour win out in the end
Love can overcome death
Pride goes before a fall
Greed / intemperance brings about loss rather than gain
Strangers are not to be trusted.
Based on this information, I proceed to read the book. It is fascinating and slightly old fashioned. The stories that Patricia has created/collaged are simplistic and magical, as folk stories often are. All these stories carry a strong symbolic meaning and a lesson to learn while also including universal values of bravery, honesty and humility – be that the ghost of a loyal dog that punishes a wicked suitor of a good-hearted widow after his master’s death, or a hardworking mother with one grateful and one greedy and rude daughter and the lessons they learn from an old witch, or the smart boy who saves the children of uneducated children from being eaten by a devil disguised as a teacher. These are charming little tales if not very different from the archetypes of folk stories around the world. It is an easy read but not excessively memorable nor impactful. Nevertheless, it’s an enchanting and a wonderful expression of the cultural heritage and a testimony to its rich oral traditions.
As lovely as the folk stories are, I long for something a bit more substantial before moving onto the next country. I proceed to read another book from the same author, this time autobiographical ‘fiction’ named A Shift in the Light. It is a wonderful, well-narrated book of memories of a sun-filled childhood with colourful anecdotes and interesting characters. It is a warm reflection on a happy childhood with a best friend (and cousin), sister and several family members, and then a reflection on growing into an adult in a more uncertain and unequal environment. While the childhood period is carefree and beautiful, there are darker underlying themes such as parents’ unhappy marriage, global events or the rampant racism felt and experienced by the different Bahamian characters in the novel.
The book starts in the 1950s in the changing Bahamas and concludes in 2000. It is a testimony to a carefree childhood but also a love letter to the Bahamian spirit and identity. It is a story about decolonisation, defining the Bahamian nature and defining the future of the country. Patricia Glinton-Meicholas grows up to defend the uniqueness of the Bahamians, who are not Africans nor Europeans but a little bit of both. It is a wonderfully written book, rich in language, symbolism and story – a narration of family ties and friendship, tradition and modernity, racism and national pride.
Another Bahamian author that I am keen on reading is Natasha Rufin but her books, especially Sunflower, are not available on any literature platforms so I will place it on my reading wish list for now.
Beautiful setting for painful things
“They lied to me when they told everyone deserves a chance to succeed” (‘Passage’ by Kareem Mortimer)
The Bahamian film industry is not huge. The most prolific current movie maker is Kareem Mortiner who has directed and produced numerous tv series, documentaries, feature films and experimental art films. Kareem is an awarded filmmaker whose works tackle important societal themes from immigration and racism to LGBT rights and gender identity.
One of his most awarded films is ‘Children of God’, the first Caribbean film with LGBT themes. ‘Cargo’ is about human smuggling, ‘Wind jammers’ about racism and ‘I am not a dummy’ is about disability. His 2022 documentary on a Bahamian real estate ‘icon’ Sir Harold Christie won awards in the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts (AIVA) Communicator Awards. The trailer is available on Youtube . His 2014 short film Passage was awarded the Best Short Film from the Diaspora by the African Movie Academy.
I decide to watch those that I can find access to and, after a search, I find the awarded short film ‘Passage”, and the feature film Children of God.
Passage is available on Youtube – a story of Haitian refugees being smuggled on a boat towards North America. It is incredibly powerful, haunting and unsettling, and with its mere 16 minutes, worthy of all the awards it has won. It has been a long time since I have seen something that keeps you at the edge of your seat every second.
Kareem’s first feature film Children of God is quite a milestone. Despite occasional clunkiness in some of the acting and the unevenness of the script, it deals with homophobia in the Bahamas and is beautifully shot. In 2006, Brokeback Mountain (a movie about gay cowboys that failed to win the rightly deserved Oscar for best movie) was banned in the Bahamas but Kareem’s film has been well received. It shows the Caribbean like a painting, beautiful blue skies and seas – a dreamy background to the pain and struggle depicted in the story.
About homophobia in the Bahamas, Kareem says in an interview:
“I think the Bahamas is a microcosm for what happens in the larger world, it’s just more intense and smaller,” Mortimer said, adding that he does not think that Caribbean people are intrinsically homophobic. Instead, he thinks much of the hostility can be blamed on pop culture imports, like the popular reggae dancehall song “Boom Bye Bye,” which advocates for the murder of gay men and women, and the influence of some “outlandish” religious groups who use anti-gay rhetoric.”
Most of the audio-visual material from the Bahamas though is far removed from the social commentary of Kareem Mortiner. I learn that several of the Bachelor and the Bachelorette series were filmed there, as were some of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Brettina is a jazzy young artist with an acclaimed debut album (released in 2010). Bob Baiye is a fusion of jazz with Caribbean sounds. More mainstream but with a happy beat is Wendi. Her song Visage sounds like a Caribbean Eurovision song – happy and upbeat.
There are other places, regions and areas that are not sovereign but have a distinctive nature, culture, governance or identity. We know that countries are diverse and the world is diverse, and the Virtual Nomad does not completely give credit to that diversity by going through a list of only sovereign countries. We recognise this fault and therefore we have decided to introduce a bonus after each letter.
In the A group there are places like Aruba, Anguilla, American Samoa and many others that are not independent states but have their own identity and flavour. It would take the Virtual Nomads even longer to go through all these places so for the ‘other As’ the Virtual Nomad chooses one place.
Everyone knows where Antarctica is. A land of snow and ice without native human inhabitants. Antarctica does not really belong to anyone or belongs to everyone, but some states claim their share of the icy cake.
It never snows in Sydney so in order to have a sense of an icy environment, we opt for ice skating at Ice Zoo. There is a lost penguin on the ice.
Tin can party
Let’s just say that Antarctica is not a place for foodies. There is no distinctive cuisine or food culture. Farming is not an option meaning food choices are very limited, and most of the food is shipped in by governments. The most ‘popular’ food in Antarctica is seafood, especially shellfish. The isolated winters mean that what has been shipped in is the food that you can consume. Fresh vegetables and fruit quickly deteriorate and packaged food is the most convenient option for the long isolated months.
We decide to do an experiment in order to do homage to the isolated months of canned food. Each of us can bring two tinned cans of food and one other ingredient, and then we will put it all together.
The selection is hilarious – A (9) brings martini olives, coconut milk and Nutella, L (16) chooses lychees, cheetos and corned beef; JK has opted for tuna, baked beans and dolmades and my choices are organic beans, curry paste and brown rice. FK (13) is away as is the Virtual Nomad Special Adviser CH.
We then put it all together for a wonderful tinned food dinner that is great for winter and would serve the Antarctica researchers very well.
No landing without a permit
There are tales of Antarctica that include mixtures of mystics and science. The truth is that it is a continent of extreme weather and no permanent human settlement. It is not permitted to land in Antarctica unless you are part of a scientific expedition. It is governed by the Antarctica Treaty System (established in 1959) by ten countries. About 42% of the territory is under the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT), which is more than any other nation. A fun fact is that Antarctica has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world as all 11 babies born there survived. Emilio Palma, born in 1978, was the first child to have been born in Antarctica.
Stranded in the land of snow and ice
I decide to read two very different books on the experience of being stranded in Antarctica. Both are famous stories, and somewhat tragic. First is the famous tale of the struggles of the Endurance, a doomed expedition to the Antarctic. The other is the story of Dr Jerri Nielsen who discovered a lump in her breast while in Antarctica and had to operate on herself.
The story of Jerri Nielsen, ghost written by Maryanne Vollers, is fascinating but also unsettling. Dr Jerri is a busy professional at the top of her medical game who decides to go to the South Pole to escape the after effects of a failed marriage. She takes the opportunity to revaluate her life and put some distance between her and an ex-husband, who she describes as manipulative and toxic. But there are also children left behind. This is the unsettling part. Jerri is estranged from her children and accuses her ex-husband of emotional abuse but the relationship with the children is never restored, not even in their adulthood (or around the time of Jerri’s death ten years after the cancer was discovered), so there is a sense of a story left untold. All of this is, of course, speculation on someone’s private life, and the more important – and interesting for an outsider – part of the book is Jerri’s stay in the land of perpetual ice.
The book strips the reader of any desire to spend the southern winter at the Pole. The South Pole is not an easy ride for Jerri and the penetrating cold is present everywhere, all the time. Jerri is a busy doctor working long hours and making friends with other people who also stay on the Pole during the winter. She describes the customs, the daily routines, the struggles and the joys of working in the land of ice. Life is not easy but it is interesting, and she finds a sense of self purpose. In the middle of winter she discovers a mass in her breast and life at the Pole becomes a different struggle from there.
It is an interesting book for sure. Winter at the Pole is an intense, life changing experience and Jerri’s story includes many elements from people to emails and conversations. Some of her most meaningful relationships are formed during those winter months and the Pole is a place where she has felt truly herself. The sad post script of this book is, of course, and it is not a spoiler, that Jerri passed away in 2009 after a cancer relapse had invaded her brain and most of her body. Unfortunately it looks like that she never recovered her relationship with her children which is, in my opinion, a bigger tragedy than anything else that happened to her.
While Jerri was very sick with cancer at the Pole, she read the book that I have reserved as my next Antarctica book – Endurance, by Alfred Lansing that promises to be “the true story of Shackleton’s incredible voyage to the Antarctic”. For Jerri, it gave solace in the rapid decline of her health – that there was someone else who survived the polar winter with unbelievable skill and ‘endurance’.
Ernest Shackleton was a British Antarctic explorer who, at the dawn of the First World War, embarked on a journey with 27 men to the Antarctic. He personally chose the men to accompany him from 5000 candidates (including three girls). The gorgeous vessel, Endurance, got stuck in thick ice and was slowly swallowed by the icy waters during a gruelling month. The men first found refuge on the ice where they camped for months. Then the breaking ice forced them to travel to Elephant Island on small boats, where they were finally rescued after Shackleton’s 16-day journey with three others to George Island. All the men survived. It is an extraordinary tale of resilience and endurance. Shackleton’s ambitious (and somewhat crazy) plan was to walk across the continent from shore to shore but then, of course, the plan went horribly wrong. Shackleton’s leadership, through a period of despair and hardship, was apparently so amazing that his decision making processes are still taught in business schools.
It’s an extraordinary story worth knowing, even if the whole idea behind the expedition makes you shake your head in disbelief. But an adventurer’s spirit is an adventurer’s spirit. The book itself is skilfully written and relies strongly on real materials – documents and diaries of Shackleton and others. It is an intense, fascinating story of hardship and struggle, but also a testimony to their strength, team spirit and ability to endure. The men survived unbelievable situations from attacks by sea lions to resisting unbearable cold, day after day.
“Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet, too, and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded, and filthy with blubber soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic he seemed almost on the point of weeping.
Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug. Then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Ker, Orde-Lees, and finally Blackboro. They finished in silence.”
It is an extraordinary tale that drills into the character of the different people, but above all paints Shackleton as a silent unbreakable hero. He manages to get all his men out of the cold, wet, freezing hell to safety, but not without sacrifices. One loses toes, another is forced to shoot his dogs. Shackleton did not live a long life but he surely knew how to put together a team where everyone bought into something special.
Bad horror on ice
Only one movie has been filmed in Antarctica and it is a very bad horror movie. Sound of Sanity was filmed entirely in location with an amateur cast and what makes this movie remarkable is that it was filmed in such conditions. The trailer of the movie is available on Youtube, and an interesting article describing the process can be found here.
However, there are several documentaries that are far more interesting. The Youtube rabbit holes on offer vary from travel blogs to conspiracy theories, from science documentaries to national geographic.
The Virtual Nomad is slowly approaching the end of the A territory with its last sovereign entry being Azerbaijan — the other half of the neighbourly tensions with a former Virtual Nomad stop, Armenia. At this stage it is also healthy to acknowledge that the time between Virtual Nomad stops seem to have increased, as has the amount of text. With this stop we are trying to return to a more compact format, whilst doing justice to the destination by providing the attention it needs, of course.
The landscape is varied from lowlands to mountains. Winters are mild and long, summers hot. Azerbaijan has 14 economic districts with the Baku region being the most populated. An interesting fact about Azerbaijan is that about half of the world’s mud volcanoes are found in the Gobustan region of the country.
Azerbaijan is mainly a Muslim country (96% in 2010), 75% being Shia and the rest Sunnis.
90% of the population are Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis. The Turkic strain is said to have arrived in Azerbaijan in the 11th century. The Arabic script was in use until quite recently (20th century). The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1939 and since 1992, Azerbaijan has had a Roman alphabet as the official orthography.
The tricolour Azeri flag includes a blue line (symbolises the Turkic heritage), red (progress and social democracy) and green (Islamic civilization).
The Azerbaijani food services in Sydney are another victim of the global pandemic and this sad fact forces us to prepare the food ourselves. This time I recruit the Virtual Nomad Chief Editor and fellow nomad, JK, to help me with the ‘fooding’ as his talents are not limited to proof reading overlong texts. He has an excellent understanding of the order in which ingredients are introduced in cooking. Virtual Nomad Special Advisor (who has been to over 140 countries) CH joins us in the preparation of the Azerbaijani night.
We reserve a warm autumn Sunday for five delicious dishes from Azerbaijan. A (9) is away but L (16) and FK (13) join us for dinner but leave cooking for JK, CH and the non-Master Chef, me.
Preparing the food includes leaving Toyug Kebab meat to marinate overnight. Toyug is made of chicken thigh fillets. The marinade includes lemon, oil, salt, pepper and sugar. I manage to do that and the result looks awesome.
The preparation for the Azerbaijani night involves a lot of chopping and coordination. While JK prepares the lamb pilaf, I make the dough for the noodles and pancakes and CH prepares the chicken skewers. JK knows how to cut (almost) perfectly shaped noodles so I hand it over to him once the dough is ready and I turn to herb-filled pancakes. I struggle to make the pancakes crispy and thin but am having more success with dark greens.
Then after a couple of hours of cooking we are ready for dinner. FK (13) says that this might be the best Virtual Nomad so far as the meat is so good. As I am the only vegetarian of the group, I cannot verify this statement personally but the rest of the party agrees with FK (on the quality of meat, not necessarily on the order of the Virtual Nomad dinners). The lamb dish is particularly well received as are the skewers. Dark greens are very good and have an exotic taste but they are noodle-heavy and the greenness disappears as the floury taste dominates. Nevertheless, the home made noodles are excellent. The least successful dish is the herb-filled pancakes as they are a bit too thick. The traditional Azerbaijani pan cakes are much thinner.
We have another wonderful Virtual Nomad night. CH tells about her four month sole-woman trip along the Silk Road that included Azerbaijan. Her experience of Azerbaijan is a tale of friendly people and an interesting mix of a very modern capital with heavy nightlife and traditional slow-pace life in the countryside.
We have a second part of the dinner a few nights later as the ingredients for the yoghurt and herb soup are still waiting to be cooked. FK (13) and A (9) are both away so JK, L (16) and I decide to do two versions of the soup; the traditional one with mince balls and a vegetarian-friendly one for me. The result is a delightful combination of unusual taste that is surprisingly fresh and interesting. This might be my personal favourite of the five Azerbaijani dishes.
Keeping it in the family
Who were the first people of Azerbaijan? No one seems to know except for the fact that they lived in places like the Azock Cave. There are records of Scythians and Caucasian Albanians living in the area around 8 BC, with the former building the large empire of Scythia. In the area that is today Azerbaijan also lived Persians who left a permanent mark on the culture and gave the area the name Atropatene, named after Aturpat, a ruler who served many military leaders (such as Alexander the Great) and then founded his own kingdom.
Christian faith became the official religion around the 4th century. The Arabs invaded the territory in the 7th century and ruled for some time. Then came the Turkish tribes that brought their language with them. But there were other invaders and rulers as well — Mongols (13th century, and they were not nice to the locals), Turkish Mongols (14th century, also not nice), Ottomans, Russians and then Persians again until the Russian rule in the 19th century. The Russian rulers had a clear preference for Armenians which the Azeri population resented. Economic recession led to violent conflict between the two (Armenians and Azeris, who else.) The 20th century brought little respite to the country. Following the declaration of independence, Russians came again in 1920 and invaded, attracted by the prospect of oil wealth (Azerbaijan was the world’s biggest provider of petroleum). In 1922, Azerbaijan was incorporated in the Soviet Union and it was not always an easy ride. It became a constituent republic in 1936. Azerbaijan went through economic hardship in the 60s and became an independent state in 1991 —which then led to conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, that is majoritarian Armenian.
The market economy made an entrance in the 1990s and oil remained the primary export. The first president, Hyedar Aliyev (ruled from 1993 – 2003) was followed by his son Ilham Aliyev, who was so charming that he decided to get rid of the presidential term limitations in the constitution and limit free speech and the press. The 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018 elections that Ilham won with over 80% of the vote have all been declared fraudulent. The election app in 2013 showed the election results before the election had even taken place. Political corruption is rampant (Transparency International scores Azerbaijan as low as 30) and the Aliyev family has enriched itself with public money and placed it in offshore accounts. Human rights activists are persecuted (such as Anar Mammadli), LGBTQ rights violations are severe and bribing of international politicians and business leaders is standard practice.
Love across boundaries
Azerbaijan has an important literary tradition. Nizami Ganjavi is Azerbaijan’s most influential author. Despite the fact that he died 800 years ago, his influence is far reaching in the development of poetry in Azerbaijani, Arabic, Turkish and Persian. His main work is called the Five Treasuries (Khamsa). Part of this masterpiece is the famous story of Layla and Majnun which has been compared to Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, but written a thousand years before. This tragic love story has inspired literature and music for centuries, including the song Layla by the disgraced musician Eric Clapton.
Another important figure in the Azerbaijani literature is Mikayil Mushfig, father of the new Azerbaijani poetic style in the 1930s.
I decide to read the most famous novel placed in Azerbaijan and maybe, or maybe not, by an Azerbaijani author.
Ali and Nino is a love story between an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, and a Christian girl, Nino, from Georgia. The author, Kurban Said, is a pseudonym whose true identity has never been completely revealed. Different theories attribute the authorship to different people including Austrian Baroness, Elfriede Ehrenfels, who signed the publishing contract. Other potential authors include Muslim-turned Jew, Lev Nussimbaum, Azerbaijani author, Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, or a Georgian author, Grigol Robakidze. Published in 1937, the book is now considered a modern classic. It was out of print for three decades.
Ali and Nino meet at school and fall in love. They are devoted to each other while being products of their religions, customs and traditions – two vastly different worlds that, in the end, provide the underlying landscape of the novel. What makes Ali different is that he falls in love with a girl that “has a soul”. Older Muslim men, including his father, teach him that women are empty vessels for child bearing and they do not have a soul, but Ali wants to marry for love and wants to marry a woman of a different faith. The beginning of their courtship — despite barriers of beliefs and cultures — is fairly carefree as they both come from affluent families and Baku is a city of cultural diversity and has an active culture life. The first interruption is the kidnapping of Nino — an ancient tradition that brings not only shame but also the burden of tradition through blood and sacrifice. Then World War I breaks out and brings uncertainty, worry and hardship. Their world is pushed into turmoil and now includes finding a balance between loyalty and personal freedom, nationalism and security, loss and devotion. War becomes a reality, as does Azerbaijan’s very short independence before forming part of the Soviet Union.
“if the Russians despise me, Nino will not take me as a husband. But I must marry Nino, even though she is a Christian. Georgian women are the most beautiful in the world. And if she refuses? Well, then I’ll get some gallant men, throw her across my saddle, and off we go over the Persian border to Teheran. There she will give in, what else can she do?”
And then, much later in the book when reality bites…
“then she made plans for the Toy’s future [their child] in great detail, with tennis, Oxford English and French languages courses, all European. I did not say anything, for the Toy was still very small, and there were thirty thousand Russians at Jalama”
The story is definitely compelling and a wonderful read from the start. The author gently smiles at Ali’s youthful energy and his blossoming masculinity while Nino grows from a girl with big eyes and slender figure — who is a victim of her own gender and therefore always inferior to Ali — into someone of her own mind and desires. Their love and commitment goes through several trials, not only due to their different backgrounds but also their different sense of belonging between the Asian and the European worlds, modernity and tradition. Their worlds and backgrounds clash, not the least regarding the role and place of women but they are able to overcome this through nearly unbreakable love. But the world is changing and challenging around them and that weighs on them both and their destinies.
In 2010, a Georgian artist, Tamara Kvesitadze, built a kinetic sculpture in the Georgian city of Batumi of a nameless woman and a man. It has been nicknamed Ali and Nino. The statue has the two figures kiss each other every ten minutes only to be torn apart again. The statue is said to symbolise love despite nationality or belief but also the fleeting nature of everything in life.
As the mystery of the authorship of Ali and Nino remains, I decide to read another book by an Azerbaijani author. Ali and Nino finishes with the ending of the Azerbaijani independence in 1918 and the looming Soviet occupation. The book by Rustam Ibragimbekov, an award winning screenplay writer, Solar Plexus: A Baku Saga in Four Parts commences in the 1940s, deep into the time of Soviet rule. The story is told from the perspective of four different characters but they share the same origin — a courtyard where they grew up in Baku. The story spans several decades and generations from the 1940s through challenging times to the dawn of independent Azerbaijan and the violence of the early 1990s.
It is a long book that is interesting in parts but generally quite uneven. The first part relates to the weight of family pride and sacrifice, and how carrying that family pride can have devastating and life altering consequences. The second part feels like a filler and has very loose connections to the first story, or maybe it just was not compelling or engaging enough for me. The third is interesting again as it returns to some of the events of the first part but from another perspective. The fourth pulls the childhood friends together around a violent event and describes their life stories and destinies. Life in the Soviet Union is not easy and the Soviet rule mixed with traditional manly pride does make the courtyard, and the life after that, a complex place to live. Women in the novel all seem crazy in one way or another and their life purpose is related to the men around them. The societal changes and events push through the story from Stalin’s purges to the war with Armenia in the 1990s. Baku is one of the characters, even more important than some of the five friends (as some of them are more defined than others) and its changing nature from a more multicultural and accepting human landscape into more narrow-minded, exclusive and nationalistic is well portrayed.
“What made him follow all the others? Certainly not courage, he knew that now. He was probably driven by fear. Not the kind of fear that can be overcome with an effort, but a different kind, more powerful – the fear of losing people’s respect.”
Pomegranate Orchard is said to be one of the most successful movies of independent Azerbaijan, representing the ‘new’ wave of Azerbaijani cinema. Filmed in 2017, the movie was subjected to some censorship in the home front. Directed by Ilgar Najaf, the movie is very hard to find on streaming platforms. Najaf was born in Armenia but became a refugee in 1988 when his family was expelled and they moved to Azerbaijan. He is winner of two Asian Pacific Screen Awards, one of which was granted for this movie.
When I finally find it, the movie promises but does not fully deliver. The story is not unusual – a prodigious son who abruptly left 12 years ago returns to his native rural village to meet the family and the wife + son he left behind. His old man is suspicious him while fighting the interest of others to buy him out of his farm surrounded by pomegranate orchards. There is some family trauma, of course. It is the story of the clash of modernity and tradition again, the duty and the free will, the family and the individual, and the little choice that women have when tradition, authority and expected sacrifice hold a hard grip on them. The willingness of the wife (who looks much younger than the husband even if they are meant to be the same age) to forget and forgive no questions asked makes me almost angry. The pace is slow and the resolution somewhat unsatisfactory. There is of course beauty in the rural Azerbaijan and great effort in the symbolism and unspoken dialogue.
Due to the fact that I have read Ali and Nino, I decide to watch the movie of the same name, based naturally on the story that I have just read. It does not achieve the magic of its material and falls flat. If a word of advice is allowed, I would not waste time with this movie but would read the book. And yes, one of the producers is the perpetual president’s daughter.
I decide to watch another Azerbaijani movie and I am glad that I do. Steppe Man (2012, available on youtube), a fascinating, minimalistic story of a literally nameless young boy/man living in a steppe with his father. They live far away from the civilisation and hold their livelihood by raising camels. The slow rhythm of his life changes at the
sudden apparition of a young woman escaping from her past. The movie is filled with stillness and very little dialogue. The shots are long and the pace is slow but there is certain effectiveness. It is an interesting movie with raw and unfiltered take on human nature and the clash between the life styles and forms of traditional and modern way of living, the innocence and betrayal, the gain and loss of hope.
Finally, whilst I cannot get hold of a movie ‘Dolls’, I place it on my watch list and hope to see it one day. The reviews are very good and the description of the movie states that the “powerful anti-war message was not welcomed by Azeri authorities, who found it embarrassing to depict their soldiers crying. Despite the censorship, however, the film remains a solid portrayal of life in those turbulent years and demonstrates how quickly peaceful relations between different communities can degenerate into awful sectarian violence.”
World heritage and Eurovision
The Azerbaijani night invites to put on the Spotify playlist of Azerbaijani music but the result is lukewarm and forces us to find Azeri music elsewhere. The Spotify Azerbaijan top 50 (May 2023) is dominated mainly by Russian pop and recent Eurovision entries.
British musician Sami Yusuf has strong Azerbaijani roots. He was born in Teheran in 1980 to Azerbaijani parents – the family left Iran after the Islamic Revolution. His grandparents had left Baku at the dawn of the Soviet rule. His music has strong spiritual and ethereal nature. He plays multiple instruments and sings in Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, Turkish among several other instruments. Here is Ateshgah and his song Azerbaijan.
The art of Azerbaijani Ashiqs combines poetry, storytelling, dance and vocal and instrumental music into a traditional performance art that stands as a symbol of Azerbaijani culture. Characterized by the accompaniment of the saz, a stringed musical instrument, the classical repertoire includes 200 songs, 150 literary-musical compositions known as dastans, nearly 2,000 poems in different traditional poetic forms and numerous stories. The regional variations may include other musical instruments, but all are united by a common national language and artistic history. Ashiqs take part in weddings, friendly parties and festive events throughout the Caucasus and appear on concert stages, radio and television, sometimes synthesizing classical melodies with contemporary ones as they continue to recreate their repertoire. Their art is considered an emblem of national identity and the guardian of Azerbaijani language, literature and music. Even as Ashiqs represent the consciousness of a people, they also help to promote cultural exchange and dialogue: Kurds, Lezhins, Talishes, Tats and other ethnic groups living in the country often perform the Ashiqs’ art, and their poems and songs have spread across the region.
“Have you ever realised that life itself is all just a memory except for the fleeting moment that is present” (Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate)
Once I stood in line for hours to get a new Medicare card and when I finally got to the desk, the woman at the counter told me that she was going to Vienna in Austria in a week’s time and she was so excited because she loves the Sound of Music. I asked her if Vienna was the only destination she was going to visit and she said yes. Then I had to tell her that the Sound of Music takes place in Salzburg, not Vienna. She was not happy.
I have an Austrian friend TM – a very friendly Austrian – in Sydney and she advises against the Austrian Club and instead suggests that we go to Una’s in Darlinghurst. I also have two local friends, AX and RX who lived a few years in Vienna and immersed themselves in the local culture. AX thinks Una’s might be the best Austrian option available even if still not authentic enough.
On a windy and chilly winter Friday, once A (9) and I have played badminton and then collected L (15) from theatre, we head to the charming and bubbly Darlinghurst, full of people. JK and FK (13) are waiting for us at Una’s door. They have not been given a table and they have been asked to step out of the queue and wait outside until the kids and I arrive. Over the phone, I have been told that the restaurant does not take any bookings but when we arrive, we see reserved tables. JK, who also has lived in Austria, comments that this is just the way Austrian customer service works. Not the greatest start.
The restaurant is full. We get a corner table next to another table with very large people with very large plates. This is heavy cuisine and the portions are very big.
Most of our party proceeds to get schnitzels – pork schnitzel to be precise – and weisswurst with mashed potatoes. I get a vegetable strudel with mashed potatoes that is ok but not outstanding. As we have observed, the portions are very large and look homemade, which is probably the intention.
Una’s seems popular with all tables full and most people with very large beers. It reminds us what an Alpine Austrian restaurant would be like and you almost expect the waiters to wear lederhosen. But they don’t – even if most are young, tall and blond.
The party agrees that the food is ok and quite heavy but not an outstanding culinary experience.
For food, atmosphere and the (rude) service Una’s gets 6.5/10 from us.
The hills are alive
For an easily digestible and quick history of Austria, we turn again to Mr History on Youtube. Austria has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times. There was a Celtic Kingdom called Noricum around 400 BC, famous for its Noric steel – cool steel stuff that everyone wanted to have their swords made of. When Noricum peacefully became part of the Roman Empire, the Romans built cities including Vindobona which became Vienna. Later there were German invasions and other tribes dominating parts of the land. In 800 the land joined the Carolingian Empire as the ‘Eastern Kingdom’ – Österreich’. Several combinations followed until Rudolf 1 of Habsburg took over, which led to the Habsburg Dynasty that reigned for over 600 years (and included marriages between close relatives that resulted in a somewhat problematic genetic inheritance). What followed was plenty of fighting including the Battle of Vienna in 1683 which marked the end of Ottoman Rule in Europe. The legend says the Croissant was invented to commemorate the victory by having Austrians devour the Turkish half moon.
The Habsburg Dynasty was the most powerful house of Medieval and Renaissance Europe and ruled over a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918. The inbred dynasty ruled over vast territories in Europe (and overseas) and extended their tentacles into most of the European royal houses. There were as many as 71 marriages among close relatives. I then read Danubia by Simon Winder (see below) where I learned even more of their strange ways.
The Habsburgs linked Austria with a large portion of European history from Spain to France to England to The Netherlands to Germany to Hungary to Romania, and so on. It is an unnerving history of endless wards and absolute power in the hands of incompetent people. It all came to an end in 1918. The 20th century saw the decline of the Habsburg Dynasty and its demise, the atrocities of World War I, the experimentation of the First Republic (1919 to 1934), the annexation by Germany under Hitler, the occupation of the Allies after defeat (1945 to 1955) and then the birth of the new Austria in 1955 by the signing of the Austrian State Duty. This was the same year Austria joined the United Nations. Chancellor Bruno Kreisky dominated the political arena for more than a decade in the 1970s and former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986. Later it was discovered that Waldheim had lied about his military past as an officer of the German Army, deployed in the Balkans during the Second World War.
In recent decades – the last 30 year or so – Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and saw the rise and fall of a flamboyant ultraconservative and very controversial politician, Jörg Heider, up to his death in a high speed drink-driving accident. There was also the heartbreaking case of J.Fritz who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and had numerous children with her.
The Habsburg Dynasty strikes again
I plan to read the Man without qualities that dominates “the Best Austrian books” lists and seemingly does not have a well defined plot. But when I found out that it is over 1000 pages, I decide otherwise.
I turn to TM, my Austrian friend in Sydney, for advice about literature but she is indecisive, which is completely understandable. I then ask AX and RX, the wonderful couple who lived years in Vienna and are well acquitted with literature. RX recommends ‘Danubia’ by Simon Winder. Even if written by an English author, it deals with the Habsburg Dynasty in a fairly entertaining way.
In Danubia, Winder has done extensive research on these strange and rich monarchs that ruled large tracts of land in Central Europe for centuries. Simon has a true passion for what he is writing about, incorporating personal anecdotes of himself in the text. I learn that he prefers to holiday in the north rather than in the south and, if forced to be in a sun-drenched country, he prefers to stay indoors in a hotel and read. But I also learn about the enormous procession of kings, queens and emperors of the House of Habsburg. There are many Ferdinands and Marias – monarchs with enormous jaws due to intensive inbreeding.
I learn that Maximilian I (King of the Romans 1459 -1519) was a geek interested in the latest developments in military technology (utilised in many of his unsuccessful battles) but also had a PR team to pour out propaganda about how great he was. He was an inconsistent figure, in the habit of initiating and then dropping projects. He also loved his first wife, Mary of Burgundy, very much, treated her as his equal and was crushed when she died in 1482. Their son, Philip the Handsome, (his good looks seemed to be his primary asset) became the King of Castile and married Juana of Spain (Juana la Loca). She had the reputation of being mentally ill, which may or may not be true. Their son, Charles/Carlos, ruled from east to west, a territory that included Habsburg Austria and its territories, Spain, the Netherlands and southern Italy. But he abdicated in later years to leave Spain to his son Philip and Austria to his brother Ferdinand (who had been born and raised entirely in Spain). He was also not very fond of Protestants – particularly Martin Luther – and kept himself busy fighting them.
I also learn that some of the castles had bear moat (yes, bears in them). The Habsburgs fought long and hard for centuries against the Ottomans. Ferdinand’s grandson, Rudolf II, (Holy Roman Emperor 1576 – 1612) was a hoarder who collected exotic animals and other rarities, was partly a recluse interested in the occult and religiously tolerant (or indifferent). He is widely considered pretty ineffectual as an Emperor as the Long Turkish War (1503 -1606) shows. Poor Rudolf just wanted to study and collect ‘stuff’ and was not suited to military action, as was necessary in those times. He died childless and his ambitious brother Matthias, ultimately proved to be a weak Emperor. Matthias was also childless and desperately tried to marry a much younger woman in the hope of producing an offspring and heir, but the poor girl died soon after. The disastrous political movements of both Rudolf and Matthias led to the Thirty Year War (1618 -1648) that has been described as one of the most destructive conflicts in Europe, resulting in the loss of between five and eight million soldiers and civilians.
The Habsburg continued to intermarry close relatives. One of the daughters of Matthias’ successor Ferdinand II, Cecilia Renata, married her first cousin who was the King of Poland (Wladyslaw IV). Another married her uncle, Maximilian I of Bavaria. Ferdinand’s son (Ferdinand III) married two of his first cousins. Ferdinand II’s granddaughter, Maria Anna, at the tender age of 14 married her maternal uncle, the King of Spain. Then Ferdinand III’s only surviving child (of several children from three different wives), Leopold I, married his Spanish niece and first cousin Margarita Teresa (Maria Anna’s daughter), most of whose siblings had also died. Margarita Teresa is, in fact, the 5-year old child in the very famous painting of VelazquezLas Meninas.
Leopold and Margarita Teresa were not beauties as they both had inherited distinctive features of intensive inbreeding. Our author Simon bluntly states that it does not surprise modern biologists that so many children died. For them, other people just were not good enough so the best was to marry close family. Ugh.
Margarita Teresa died in childbirth at the age of 21 and only one of her six children (that she had with her ‘uncle’, as she rightfully called her husband) lived past infancy. The author, Wilder says: “A book could be written which told the Habsburg story just from the point of view of the disregarded queen mothers, the terrified wives, the daughters used as trans-national pawns, the widows and daughters who vanish from history as they are put in convents or into little-frequented palace wings, all those moments of bored irritation when the child being born proved to be merely female and the grant witnessed of the mother’s agonizing labour hurriedly dispersed.” And then there is the story of dead children – only between Ferdinand III and Leopold I there were eleven dead children.
Habsburg possession in Europe circa 1700 Source: Wikipedia
The burials of the Habsburgs were curious as their bodies were often buried in a different place than their hearts for religious reasons. Leopold I lived quite a long life and most of it was battling Ottomans and having a rivalry with his first cousin Louis XIV, the Sun King and long-lived King of France. Leopold I fought three wars against France and several other wars so he was quite busy on that front during his nearly 47-year rule. He was married three times with two of his wives dying in childbirth. The third one (Eleanora) did not want to marry him, preferring to become a nun, but could not say no to her parents. She brought that religious joy to her court, which was described as quite gloomy and strict. She also gave birth to ten children and did finally manage to live as a nun after her husband’s death.
A couple of Holy Emperors (as they were termed) followed. Leopold’s eldest son, Joseph I, was Holy Emperor for a mere six years and died of smallpox (after giving his wife a STD that made her sterile). Our author Simon describes Joseph as “startling and inspiring – hard-drinking, reckless, adoring warfare, sexually chaotic – hard to imagine a less Habsburg Habsburg”. Joseph’s only surviving children were girls and therefore his younger brother Charles VI made it to the throne. Charles then loved a man called Michael Joseph and procreated out of duty. He also only had girls but then decided to challenge the traditional male-line succession and became obsessed with issuing the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 (it took him 29 years). This was designed to ensure the Habsburg lands could be inherited by a daughter (he also made clear that his girls were favoured over Joseph’s girls), but also led to multiple wars over the issue of succession in different territories. This made his unprepared daughter, Maria Theresa, (that Charles hardly ever talked to) the ruler, but not without wars and conflicts, and division of territories and hardly anyone recognising her right to rule. She was the last direct Habsburg heir, ruled for 40 years and had 16 children, many of whom died young. Her youngest daughter was a famous woman called Marie Antoinette.
Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph II, believed in absolute monarchy (enlightened despotism / absolutism) and was described as “over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support that revolts broke out and his regime became a comedy of errors”. He was followed by his brother Leopold II who, according to our boy Simon (and other historians) was an exceptionally capable ruler – for a Habsburg. Simon says of his 2-year rule that it was “capable, flexible and thoughtful rule without precedent within the family” and that his death basically marked the downfall of the family. “His completely pointless death (ushered in by doctors messing around with him in an unknowingly dirty and infective way) marked him out too as the last ever genuinely shrewd and resourceful (but not disturbing) Hapsburg ruler. His successors were a narrow dullard, a simpleton, a narrow dullard and a non-entity and those four get us to 1918.”
Leopold II was the first ruler in modern history to oppose capital punishment (which was abolished in Tuscany in 1786 during his rule). He was a supporter of the arts and science, and campaigned for better treatment of the mentally ill. He had 16 children, one of whom burned to death when playing with fireworks. His successor, son Franz II, fought Napoleon, losing almost every time and had to give his attractive 15-year-old teenage daughter, Marie Louise, as a wife to Napoleon (fearing of course the same destiny as his aunt Marie Antoinette.) When asked for her consent, she replied: “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish.” She had a son with Napoleon, outlived her husband, married twice more and died at the age of 56 in Parma.
Franz’s son, Ferdinand I, (the numbering beginning again) was the next ruler and the result of more awful inbreeding between Franz and his double first cousin. Ferdinand was physically and mentally incapable of ruling, despite being the king for 13 years. He was followed by Franz Joseph – nowadays probably most well known as Sisi’s devoted husband. Franz Joseph was not a great emperor and not a lucky man. He resisted the growing nationalism of his nearly 70 years of rule, his (highly fictionalised in movies and tv series) wife was assassinated, his brother Maximillian executed, his son Rudolf committed suicide with a young lover and his nephew (that he strongly disliked), Archduke Franz Ferdinand was also famously assassinated. This assassination, of course, was the catalyst for a dreadful and tragic event called World War I. Franz Joseph gave Hungary greater autonomy, created the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary and died in 1916 – two years before the end of the Hapsburgs and the with world around him in war. The Habsburgs saga came to an end in 1918 under the rule of Franz Joseph’s grandnephew.
I learned all that from Simon’s massive (+500 pages) book (and from further reading). The book is well researched, very detailed, covers a lot of wars, has a critical and sometimes amusing take on things and talks a lot to the ‘reader’. It is a huge effort which is at times extremely interesting and at times tedious. It is not linear enough to be completely clear, but then very detailed and slow in parts. Nevertheless, it offers a huge amount of information that I was only superficially aware of and for that reason it is worth a read.
By then I had had quite enough of silly royals and the whole weird system that a monarchy is. Before Virtual Nomad moves on, there is time and space for one more book. Eric R Kandel is an Austrian-born Nobel Laureate in Medicine who was awarded the prestigious prize for his ground-breaking work on memory and neurobiology. Kandel has had a complicated relationship with being born in Vienna (and for a long time identified as Austrian-American rather than Austrian) but has since reconciled with his past. I decide to ‘read’ his book In Search for Memory – the emergency of a new science of mind as an audio book. It is a fascinating blend of autobiography, neuroscience and neurobiology. I learn about Eric’s childhood in Vienna, his parents’ toy store and them fleeing from Nazi Vienna. I learn that bourgeoisie Viennese families used to choose their maids with their teenage boys’ sexual needs in mind. I learn that Eric was an excellent student, a dedicated researcher and an absent father and husband (his wife sacrificed her own scientific interest and career in favour of his). I learn about psychoanalysis, neuroscience, molecules and proteins, brain cells and the origins of mental disorders, genetically modified mice, long-term memory and learning, where thoughts come from and how genetics affect the ways how we memorise and remember things. Eric presents the history of brain science and psychology, the sensory processes and the experiments he and other researchers have done. He laments the greed of many researchers who are not driven by the advancement of knowledge but competition and rivalry. He explains how our conscious actions are affected by the unconscious. Above all, it is about his love for science and his fascination with the brain, with how memories are created and fed. It is a fascinating book that is better read than listened to due to the complexity of concepts, scientific developments and names of researchers. My brain has changed after reading it, as he predicted, and I also understand now why women and men give directions in a different way.
Ok then. One more book. Some Austrian contemporary literature so that I can at least claim I have really read something from an Austrian author. I end up choosing ‘Vienna’ by Eva Menasse. It is a tale of a family at the heart of a changing world with its members spread around countries. The story jumps back and forth in time, and several people travel through the pages to the point that it is difficult to keep track of who is who. Its feel the intention is to build a plentiful narrative as in the 100 years of solitude, but this book is a far cry from the magical tale of Macondo. It is slightly confusing and a bit boring, and the story or the writing style never truly gets off the ground. The people and their motivations are mostly pointless and almost irrelevant, and I struggle to finish the book. The Austrian entry of the Virtual Nomad takes more time than expected for the sole reason that I force myself very slowly through the dense narrative of the nearly 400 pages, and I am relieved when I put the book down.
Old age, silent cruelty, shallow empress, deep connection and hopeless existence
Michael Haneke is an Austrian filmmaker whose films are often dark and unsettling, and sometimes controversial. I have seen several of his movies that are uncomfortable but fascinating, especially the highly awarded The Piano Teacher and Cache. I have had two other movies on my watchlist for a long time but have postponed them, consciously or unconsciously. With Virtual Nomad now stopping in Austria it is time to face them.
First, I watch Amour, which to my surprise is an understated and quiet movie about old age, love, commitment and ‘managing the suffering of someone you love’, as the director says himself. Set in France (and in French), it is slow and beautiful and sad at the same time. It is a story of an older couple – the husband becomes the carer of the wife after her stroke, and then she gradually declines. It is a movie about riding not so graciously into the sunset – the path that inevitably we all will take. The actors (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are magnificent. The director had the idea in his mind for a long time and it is loosely based on something that happened in his own family.
Next on my list is the White Ribbon. Again, not set in Austria but in Germany. I know that this movie is a masterpiece and I have postponed watching it because I also expect that it will be unsettling. I decide to watch it with JK and I am happy we do. It is a mesmerizing movie – much less unsettling than haunting, set in the years before the First World War and about the generation that grew up to be Nazis. In fact, the director has stated that the movie is not only about fascism but also about radicalisation in general. The movie has the subtitle of ‘A German-children’s story” (Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte) but it is only for German audiences that can understand the “roots of Nazism”, whereas the theme itself is universal.
The movie is in black and white, which is effective in its stillness. The viewer is left defenceless with the understanding of where the incidents of cruelty and malice come from. The director states that although the town is fictional, the story is based on real incidents that took place in Austria and Germany in the 1920s-1940s.
AX and RX, the wonderful couple that lived in Vienna and who I happily call my friends, recommend watching The Empress, a German Netflix series about Sisi, the Austrian empress. The series is interesting and intriguing enough and I watch the six episodes in a week. Everyone in the Austrian court seem to be really pretty and dominated by their desires more than political motives, which makes the series reflect human experience. There are many links to the true story even if it is strongly romantised.
But what about something in Austria? I make JK watch Before Sunrise, the first part of my all time favourite movie trilogy, set in Vienna. It is not an Austrian movie but an American one with beautiful and mesmerising young Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as leads – two young people who meet on the train and decide to spend one day and night together walking around the streets of Vienna. Vienna is the third main character in this movie and is generously portrayed in this wonderful small movie about connection by Richard Linklater. I have seen the movie several times and again it does not disappoint.
After two films by an Austrian filmmaker but set elsewhere and an American film set in Austria, I decide to watch an Austrian movie set in Austria and preferably in Austrian German. I decide to go for Import/Export by Ulrich Seidl whose film Dog Days depicting brutality and humiliation in the Viennese suburbs won the Gran Prix at the Venice film festival. Seidl is known for his harsh and unsettling movies of spiralling lives that depict a cruel and colourless reality of the less fortunate. Import/Export is no exception. It is a dark tale of people trying to find a better life; a Ukrainian nurse involved in low paying sex work and an Austrian security guard at the other end of that sex traffic. One of them heads towards the West and one of the them heads towards the East, each for a better life. Not much light or laughter in this movie, and not much hope of a better future for the exploited and humiliated.
Ulrich Seidl is also famous for his Paradise trilogy, with the second part winning the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. An interesting fact is that Ulrich Seidl is married to Veronika Franz, a horror movie maker. Their breakfast conversations must be a cradle of joy.
The sounds of music
Vienna has been described as the Music Capital of the World, which is probably well deserved when it comes to classical music. Austria was the cradle of great classical maestros; Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Strauss, Schubert,Schoenberg, Bruckner and several others. Austria has several classical and folk music festivals around the country and highly regarded classical music conservatories.
When it comes to contemporary music, Falco, an unmistakably 80s-beat musician remains Austria’s most prominent and famous musician. His biggest hits include Rock Me Amadeus (1986) and Der Kommissar (1981, an early non-English rap song). Described as an eccentric, controversial and complex person, Falco died in a car accident in 1998. When his mother was pregnant with him, she was expecting triplets and miscarried the identical twins. While Falco survived, he would later describe how he felt the presence of his deceased siblings.
As for other musicians, Wanda is a popular band in Austria but for Virtual Nomads their music is not engaging enough. Experimental art project Soap&Skin is interesting but inconsistent. There also seems to be quite an appetite for metal music, judged by the Austrian music website that lists musicians and their number of monthly listeners.
While navigating the musical waters of Spotify, Virtual Nomads seem to take a bit of a liking of the sound of some of the songs of an Austrian Indie band Leyya (eg. the song Superego). The conclusion was that they offer a varied musical landscape with some clever and quite nice songs, but nothing extraordinary.
The Kiss by Klimt
Virtual Nomad farewells Austria with a painting of Austria’s most famous painter, symbolist Gustav Klimt. The painting is ‘the Kiss’ (1908) – one of the most visited paintings in the world and thought to represent the artist himself with his lover Emilie Flöge. The painting was considered ‘pornographic’ but enthusiastically received by the public and the Austrian government that purchased the painting. It can be visited at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.
Next stop: Azerbaijan
Thank you JK for your editing of the very long Virtual Nomad stop in Austria.
Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that I am writing this in the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and I would like to pay my respect to the traditional custodians of this land.
Yes, Oz it is. The current homeland, the birthplace of my second child A and a vast, vast continent of its own. Australia, where constellations are different from the northern sky and the flushing toilet water swirls in a different direction. The place we now call home.
So much to say about Australia. As an immigrant, I admire many things and then there are things that I am not crazy about. But this is not about me. This is about approaching Australia as an experience – there is so much, so it’s hard to decide where to start.
This is going to be a long entry.
Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that I am writing this in the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and I would like to pay my respect to the traditional custodians of this land.
Yes, Oz it is. The current homeland, the birthplace of my second child A and a vast, vast continent of its own. Australia, where constellations are different from the northern sky and the flushing toilet water swirls in a different direction. The place we now call home.
So much to say about Australia. As an immigrant, I admire many things and then there are things that I am not crazy about. But this is not about me. This is about approaching Australia as an experience – there is so much, so it’s hard to decide where to start.
Everyone knows where Australia is. It is down under, far from everywhere. Australia has 10,000 beaches, more than any other country in the world. That makes a lot of beaches. When visitors come to visit us, we would like to remind them of the charming Australian wildlife
Kangaroo meat and bush food
Australian cuisine is not famous. Even the kids look at me puzzled and say: “So we will have a barbie [barbecue] and tim tams for dessert?” They omit vegemite, the Australian culinary gift to the world. A black yeast paste that has an indescribable taste – you have to be born to it to like it. There are also Anzac cookies, pavlova but no, there is not really such a thing as an Australian cuisine.
We should not forget that Australia hosts the oldest living culture, over 60 000 years old. So this is where we turn for an ‘Australian’ cuisine experience. Bush food, also called bush tucker. Bush tucker has been the source of nutrition and medicine for First Nations people in Australia. Bush food consists of animal meat, seafood, vegetables, plants, fruits and spices.
For the bush tucker lunch, it is just the three of us – my children L (15), A (9) and me. We find an Indigenous-owned café in Glebe that serves bush food from Far North Queensland and has a very good reputation. It is called Lillipad Café, after another Lillipad Café in Cairns.
We head to the café one busy Saturday morning and pass by the wonderful Glebe markets. The café is full but the incredibly friendly staff finds us a table at the back. We walk past many groups of people and others waiting outside to be seated. The lovely back area is charming, as is the whole restaurant. There is a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait symbolism. The atmosphere is wonderful, accepting and inclusive.
The food is delicious. L takes a Wild Country Platter (that has kangaroo salami, chorizo, roasted cauliflower, spices, vegetables and halloumi) and I have a vegetarian plate (that I share with A) with bush vegetables and halloumi, and A has a pancake with berries. The taste is rich, delicious and fresh. Lillipad gets 10/10 from us for food, service and atmosphere – and we are very likely to be back.
The world’s oldest living culture
Australia is a country of many nations and immigrants. More than half of all Australians are first or second-generation migrants. SBS states: “The results of the 2021 Census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), showed 48.2 per cent of Australians have a parent born overseas, and 27.6 per cent were born outside Australia”
Australia is also a country of nations. There are many different nations of Australian First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait), each with their own unique language. The 2021 Census recorded 167 Aboriginal or Torres Strait languages used at home. The First Nations people form around 3.3% of the current population in Australia. AJATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) has a map of Indigenous Australia that cannot be reproduced without permission.
As for history…
The story is well known. Australia hosts the most ancient living culture, shared by different nations, clans and around 250 different language groups. These people are thought to have come from East Asia around 60,000 years ago. The Aboriginal storytelling, art and understanding of the environment was developed during thousands of years. The different groups did not always coexist peacefully and clashes were common.
The Spanish and Portuguese did some exploration of the northern coast but did not see much of interest and retreated. The Dutch went a bit further and a fellow named Abel Janszoon Tasman ‘discovered’ Tasmania, and called it Van Diemen’s Land after his superior.
The ones to come with force were of course the Brits. Captain Cook and company did three expeditions, claiming New South Wales for Britain in 1770. Colonisation followed with the First Fleet arriving in 1788. As with colonizers everywhere, many awful things followed. The treatment of the First Nations was atrocious and well documented, and some of that carries on to this day.
Matthew Flinders gave the vast land a name ‘Australia’ and undertook several expeditions, including circumnavigation. The Brits established several colonies and claimed the land. Wool was a major industry product and in the 1850s gold was found. The colonies united to form a Federation in 1901 with Edmund Barton as the first Prime Minister. Aboriginal people were excluded from different civil and constitutional rights such as vote, maternity allowance, pensions and employment in different institutions such as the post office and Armed Forces.
The Australian government established in 1901 a charming initiative called the White Australia Policy to keep the country primarily British while expecting the First Nations to slowly die out. The Stolen Generations refers to a policy of forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait descent children from their families to state care between approximately 1869 and 1969. The exact number of removed children is not known but the impact of the forced removals and the intergenerational trauma is still visible today.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gained the right to vote in 1962. The following decades brought acknowledgement of other rights related to things such as land, native title and deaths in custody. The National Sorry Day to commemorate the Stolen Generations was launched in 1998 (26 May) and has been celebrated ever since. Following events such as Cathy Freeman’s historic Olympic Gold, a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people – long refused by the conservative party in power – was finally delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (Labor party) on 13 February 2008.
Australia is a country of immigrants and multiculturalism. In 2020, nearly 30% of Australia’s population had been born overseas, representing 7.6 million people. The largest groups are English, Indian and Chinese. Australia is the country with the largest Chinese population outside China (5.5%). The median age of the English immigrant group (58 years) is more than 20 years older than the Indian immigrant group (35 years). The oldest median age is from Latvia (78 years) and the youngest the Cayman Islands (14 years). Western Australia has the highest proportion of overseas born immigrants (35%), whereas Tasmania has the lowest (13%).
But, this time I will focus on one artist only, the one that has been on A’s playlist for months.
In May 2022, I took A to his very first real concert at the Qudos Arena in Sydney Olympic Park to see the Australian superstar The Kid Laroi. He is an 18 year old from Waterloo/Redfern (inner-city neighbourhood in Sydney famous for flourishing Aboriginal culture) and the first Australian-born male singer to hit the number 1 spot on US Albums Chart and Billboard Hot 100 in 40 years.
The day we attended the concert was the National Sorry Day and The Kid Laroi – a Kamilaroi man – acknowledged this when he took the stage and shared that his family are members of the stolen generation. The 18 year old sang for a sold-out arena and commanded the stage. He has incredible talent, stage presence and charisma. He also is quite young and that shows in his language with the prolific use of the word f**k, to the point that the word loses its power.
It was a wonderful concert and a wonderful experience. People around us were into the music as much as we were. The public was delightfully varied. We sat next to three young men of South-East Asian background and in front of us were a group of six young people – all of different ethnicities; next to us were a young couple of differing skin tones, and behind us a Polynesian dad with his two young kids. Around us, mums and dads were with boys like A – boys that got up and sang their lungs out with The Kid Laroi. He is an incredible stage performer with palpable charisma. The concert was short – just over an hour – but I was not complaining (A did) as it was a good duration for a first concert.
We make lists of our favourite songs by The Kid Laroi. So Done is our shared favourite but I also love Where Does Your Spirit Go, that he made for the fallen Juice Wrld, who had taken him under his wing. I asked A to put his favourite The Kid Laroi songs on my playlist. I find there are now 179 of them. It would be an understatement to say that I have heard this artist a lot. The importance of the Kid Laroi in my household (and on long drives with the 9-year-old A) is demonstrated by the fact that out of the 621 artists that I listened to on spotify in 2022, the Kid Laroi was number 1 and ‘So Done’ the number one song.
What really makes Larissa rise above so many other important people is her connection to people – her connection to country, to community, to people around her. She brims with intelligence, warmth, presence, wisdom, style and knowledge. She is eloquent, charming, incredibly bright and approachable. She has a palpable charisma that affects everyone around her. I have been in the same room with Larissa, grateful to be able to enjoy the effect she has on those around her.
I know Larissa through work, so when L wanted to do a school project about Larissa, I asked if she would be available. Despite being incredibly busy, Larissa found time to be interviewed by a 15-year old. She squeezed in time between important engagements to sit and answer all of L’s questions. She listened attentively and responded with commitment, respect and warmth. These are human attributes you cannot fake. Larissa was probably unaware of the impact that she had on my 15 year old, who has since then embarked on a journey to champion for justice, equality and girls’ right to education.
For all these reasons and more, I decided to read Larissa’s latest book of fiction, After life. The book is about a difficult relationship between a mother and a daughter, and the phantoms of the past. In the story, a mother (Della) and a daughter (Jasmine) embark on an organised literature trip around England. They not only learn about the heavy weight of English literature but also reflect (each in their own way) on their relationship with each other, their community, the past and the disappearance of Jasmine’s sister Brittany thirty years prior. It is a fascinating book that moves on two levels – the past and present and everything between. What makes it rich is the relationship between the two, the weight of grief, loss and trauma and also the life of the Aboriginal community in a small town.
It takes me a while to get into the book but when it happens, the book crawled under my skin and swallowed me with force. The stories of the past (Della and Jasmine’s) are fascinating from the start but the interaction between the literary tour participants is less engaging. At first, I find myself wanting to skip over the dialogue between the different people taking the tour and the long explanations of the life and creative process of some of the English writers but it all starts to make more sense half way through. In the end I found myself weeping.
Larissa’s book talks about the strength of being open about trauma. Jasmine says to her mother Della “I guess it made me realise that things happen in families and trauma impacts on one generation to the next. And even if it’s not spoken, it’s still there and it has repercussions. I’m just saying people don’t need to talk about it unless they’re ready, I just mean – we shouldn’t be ashamed. There’s strength in saying things.” I think about how, in recent times, I have coincidently come across people – some very close – who have disclosed traumatic elements from their past, and been brave and courageous by telling their story. This is the strength of saying things.
Larissa’s book should be sufficient for the Virtual Nomad Australia entry but several people have recommended for me to read Why warriors lie down and die, so I do.
This is a very different book written by Richard Trudgen. The book focuses on the history of the Yolŋu people in Arnhem Land and the challenges First Nations people face in modern Australia. From the devastating histories of first contact and the loss of land, life and culture to the challenges of poor health, unemployment, low life expectancy and other obstacles to living a fulfilling life with equal opportunities and the chance to prosper (not only in economic terms). This book ties in brilliantly with a movie, Charlie’s country (see below), that is also set in Arnhem Land with the same themes.
The book talks about the same issue of communication that Larissa’s book does – how things do not translate from one language to another, and that is one of the causes of the Aboriginal health crises. When English is used, a patient might understand the words but not the real meaning behind them. I have always wondered why more Aboriginal languages are not taught at school. I once asked this and got the answer that it is not useful. Hmmm. I have never come across a language that is not useful. The book says: “For readers who don’t speak a second language, it must be said that there is no such thing as literal translation of languages. In other words, a word in one language does not always have a different equivalent in another language.”
Because – through work – I have been exposed to much material on Indigenous research and culture – a lot of the things in the book do not surprise me. I also find myself longing for a more Indigenous voice – not Indigenous stories told by others. But I do recognise the merits of the book and do understand why it is considered essential reading. But it should not be the only entry to understanding Indigenous realities. There is so much material that is equally important. A good place to start is Jumbunna or AJATSIS.
Caught in between two realities
One of my dearest friends in Sydney is SA, a woman in her late 70s who has worked in film all her life and is very well read. SA knows Australian film and literature inside out, she and her husband NH, love film, art, food and travel. They are people with curious, young and adventurous spirits, and a never-ending thirst for knowing, learning and experience. I have learned so much from SA about Sydney through her childhood and the vivid life of independent media in the 60s and 70s. Her life itself is a book that I would love to read.
I had a glass of wine with SA and NH and asked them for their opinion of what other book I should read in addition to these two. She promises to reflect on it and come back to me. In a day or two she provides a list of suggestions that I reproduce here with her permission, but have removed her comments. Many of these have been made into movies.
I cannot read them all (or the Virtual Nomad journey would be even longer) so I place them on my books to read list and choose to go for number 1 on this list, just because SA made it number 1.
Sumner Locke Eliot was an Australian novelist and playwright and Careful He Might Hear You is his most famous book, bringing him the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The book is based on his childhood where he was the object of a bitter custody battle between his aunts.
The book is lovely, and very long. It is a story of a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings within a family, and the conviction of knowing what is the best for others. The main character is a six year old boy caught in between two aunts fighting for custody. The aunts are the sisters of his mother, who died in childbirth, and both seem to think they know what is best for him. Set in Sydney during the Great Depression, it is a study of family dynamics and urban life through the eyes of the child. I find it very lovely but slow at times.
An Australian Movie Marathon
One night I have dinner with some friends and we realise that there are several quintessential Australian movies my eldest child L (15) has not seen. I feel like a bad mother and decide to proceed to correct this error immediately. We draw up a list of some of the heavy weights of Australian cinema – most I have seen, some I have not. Many of the movies are not suitable for my younger child A (9) but some are. I also realise that there are classic movies that I have not seen. That makes me also a bad citizen.
I also discuss this with SA and NH who have worked in media and Australian film all their life. They approve of my list and give me a couple of other titles. I also check with GdS, my young colleague who is of Garrwa, Barunggam and Māoridescent and gives me a fresh perspective of a First Nations man. After all this consultation, I feel pretty confident the list of movies includes the must-see ones.
All this leads us to embark on an Australian movie marathon.
We start with the most essential.
The Adventures of Priscilla, the Queen of Desert is the first on the list. This is the movie that everyone I know in Europe, if asked to name an Australian movie, would come up with. I have seen it several times but this is the first time for L. L loves it. It’s colourful, it’s hilarious, it’s thought provoking, it’s inclusive and it is a must see. Apparently, when it came out, people overseas saw it as an important representation of the LGBTIQ+ community in cinema, whereas in Australia it was seen as another movie about the Australian way of life. It is a wonderful movie about tolerance, belonging and community. It also gives homage to the Australian outback, the red centre and the breathtaking scenery. And it of course has Hugo Weaving in drag. Very suitable for L (15), not yet for A (9) – not because of the drag but for the (very occasional) violence.
Next on the list is Picnic at Hanging Rock. It was my first Australian movie ever and it had an enduring effect – to the point that I still have the ‘Hanging Rock’ where the movie was filmed on my list of places to visit. It is some 80k north of Melbourne and I intend to finally go there in January 2023.
This time around, it was less impactful and less haunting than I had expected. A generation Z person (L) finds it slow and without a satisfactory resolution. It is a story – mistakenly thought to be based on a true story – of schoolgirls that disappeared on a school picnic trip in 1900s Victoria. It is still considered to be one of the best Australian movies and is one of the first directed by Peter Weir.
Rabbit Proof Fence(available on Netflix and Youtube) is a difficult but important movie to watch. Set in 1931 Australia, the child removal policy (in use until approximately 1967) authorised the removal of ‘half-caste’ First Nations children from their families into the custody of the state and to ‘educational facilities’.
These people are known as the Stolen Generations. The movie follows the story of three girls removed from their mothers who escape from the Moore River Native Settlement and start a long journey back home (2,400 kilometres) by foot along the rabbit-proof fence to their home in Jigalong. It is based on the true story of the mother of author Doris Pilkington Garimara, Molly Craig, whose real life story is tragic and hard to read. “In spite of himself, the native must be helped”, says the white officer in the movie, the Chief Protector of Aborigines who becomes the custodian of the stolen children. I first watch it with L, and then again with A. A cannot believe that anyone would ever take a child from their mother, and he holds onto me a bit tighter for the rest of the day.
Walkaboutis a 1971 movie about two English siblings lost in the Australian outback where they are found by a young Indigenous man on a ‘walkabout’ (an initiation ritual and rite of passage for some young First Nations men, when they might travel for several months). The movie is strong in symbolism, hidden emotions and suffocated desire, as well as strong repressed sexual longing. David Gulpilil plays the Indigenous boy. His bio states that this is the first time in film that an Aboriginal person was portrayed in film as sexually attractive. It is incredibly multilayered, mesmerizing and effective in its stillness, silence and atmosphere.
Another important movie that I have not seen yet is Samson and Delilah. I watch it by myself. An amazing, disturbing, visually stunning movie that is very difficult to watch. The lighting in the movie is astonishing, all stills are like photographs but the shattering story is unsettling, almost in a good way. The movie deservedly won the first Feature Award Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is an amazing piece of moviemaking and even if the acting is clearly amateur, the movie is a winner. The strong themes include alienation, isolation, discrimination and racism, but also hope, connection and resilience. It is directed by Warwick Thornton who is also famous for his 2017 movie, Sweet Country. Thornton is currently filming ‘The New Boy’ with Cate Blanchett.
Charlie’s country is my third David Gulpilil movie on this marathon. It brought him the best actor award in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It is an amazing movie about the loss of culture and feeling disconnected between the past and the present. Filmed in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, the movie is worth watching. Gulpilil is exceptional in it, 44 years after he starred in Walkabout. The movie is loosely based on his life which is a series of challenges, including when he is treated as a child by the white police officers. Dominated by a melancholy undertone and sense of devastating, gripping loss of culture and purpose, it is a powerful message of the value of diversity and deep listening.
Muriel’s weddingis considered an iconic and high-quality film. I vaguely remember seeing it and I recall it as being a comedy. This time it feels quite remote from a comedy and unfortunately, both L and I are turned off by it. The movie made us uncomfortable and unable to see the much-hyped value of the story. This is, of course, only our personal opinion and some people I talk to tell me that there might be something wrong with me that I don’t like it. Therefore, no one should take our opinion as a review. Even if we did not like the movie, we still loved Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths.
Strictly ballroomis a sentimental favourite. This movie is suitable for both kids. We actually already watched it during the lockdown but it is still a wonderful pastime. It’s Baz Luhrmann at his best. It razzles and dazzles, is corny, sweet and funny. This movie is for the feel good moments. Lotsa’ dancing, lotsa’ glitter, lotsa’ funny characters, lotsa’ fun. A great family film to watch.
Red dogis a movie that I have seen once. A (9) has seen it at least three times and loves it. A story about the importance of a dog in a mining town in Western Australia. Loosely based on a true story of a dog in the 1970s who searched for his owner around WA. In the movie, the dog is adopted by the miners and forms a special relationship with one of them. It is an emotional movie about loyalty and connection between people and animals.
L has not seen Moulin Rouge so we proceed to watch it as well. What makes the movie Australian is the director, Baz Luhrmann, and the fact that it was filmed in Fox Studios in Sydney. Nicole Kidman is one of Australia’s biggest movie star exports and she shines in this one. It is brilliant, unconventional and an explosion of colour. One critic once described the movie as like being in an elevator with a circus. I have seen it several times but L has not so we embark on the incredibly jam packed sensorial experience that is Moulin Rouge. L loved it and later said that she has never seen anything like it. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both are insanely beautiful, and good in it. Come what may!
Baz Luhrmann has another Australian movie called Australia which, despite powerhouse names such as Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and David Gulpilil, is basically quite a bad movie. The scenery is stunning and the movie could easily work as advertising material for the breathtakingly beautiful Northern Australia but the story, the plot and the uneven work of everyone involved makes it inelegant.
An Australian movie marathon without fallen hero Heath Ledger would feel incomplete so I proceed to watch, by myself once the kids are at sleep, Candy. This is a movie about addiction – specifically the addiction of a pretty, young couple in love. Addiction seems to be more glamourous and compelling when people are beautiful and maintain their perfect teeth while on heroin. The movie is not compelling enough to be credible and not harsh enough to be compelling. I struggle to be interested until the end and I congratulate myself for sitting through it. Oh, and it has Geoffrey Rush too in a weird gay professor role that introduces the young lovers to heroin. Duh!
I include Penguin Bloom on the list. It has been a while since we saw it, but it is a great family movie. The main character – played by the always so wonderful Naomi Watts – has an accident and is paralysed from waist down. The family adopts an injured magpie that becomes a symbol of healing for the whole family. It is a lovely movie with a sad undertone but a good film for talking about difficult issues with younger children.
We watched the Dish a few months ago, before the adventures of the Virtual Nomad began so we can easily add it to the list. It is very loosely based on actual events and the role of the Parkes Observatory in relaying live television footage of the moon landing in 1969. It is sweet and heart-warming – a small movie that is nothing remarkable but still a lovely thing to watch. Fact checking shows the differences between the movie and the real story but it’s still fun to watch.
At first, I do not know what to think aboutJedda, the first Australian film shot in colour by director and scriptwriter Charles Chauvel (1955). This movie was recommended to me by my colleague GdS, a young man of Garrwa, Barunggam and Māoridescent. The movie tells the story of a young Aboriginal woman in the Northern Territory whose mother dies in childbirth. She is adopted by a white mother who just lost her baby. The girl finds herself in the crossroads of being educated as a white girl but longing to belong to and know more about her Aboriginal culture. I still don’t know what to think about the movie. I acknowledge the merits of it and that it clearly is a product of its time, but ultimately it is less a movie about understanding identity and cultural belonging and more about the possession and coercive, abusive control of a 16-year-old, as Jedda gets abducted by a man obsessed with her. Her abductor exercises control over her to the point that he feels the right to decide whether she lives or dies. There is nothing romantic, nothing tender, nothing wonderful in their relationship. For me it is not a movie about Jedda’s struggle with cultural identity but a movie about violence against women.
(the photo says To cast this picture the producer went to the primitive Aborigine race of Australia and now introduces NARLA KUNOTH as JEDDA, a girl of the Abunta Tribe and ROBERT TUDEWALLI, a man of the Tiwi Tribe as Marbuk. In this film many people of the Northern Territory of Australia are reliving their roles. The story of Jedda is founded on fact”. )
To finish the Australian movie marathon, we decide on the Castle. None of us (except JK, who fully supports the inclusion of this movie as the final one) has seen it so we organise a movie night on a very rainy night. Takeaway food and a cosy sofa for five people. The movie is hilarious. It is one of the most loved Australian movies of all time – people start to smile and make references (“This is going straight to the pool room.”) when talking about the movie. It really does serve as a lovely, hilarious way to finish the movie marathon.
This is probably enough or we will never get to the next stop.
The sculptures and the colour world
The colour world of Digby
My favourite Australian artist is by far Digby Webster. I used to work in the same building as Digby and he would come around every morning to chat with all of us. His art is colourful, emotional and distinctive. When discussing Digby’s art, it is often mentioned that he has a disability but that has nothing to do with his art, that is vibrant and lively.
Digby is an accomplished visual artist who has exhibited solo and group works in many galleries and events. He is part of the Front Up group – a disability-led Arts and Cultural group. He has also worked in production design and as a performer.
Sculpture by the sea
I have lived in Sydney for many years and one of the things I love most is the annual Sculpture by the Sea Exhibition that takes place around November (except during lockdown years). Sculptures are placed by the walking path from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach.
I walk it with A (9), my very astute and clever art critic. When we start walking, the first sculpture we find is a woman trying to stay in balance. We learn this because we happen to meet the artist, Sue Corbet. She tells us about her sculpture and she takes pictures of people reacting to her art. She also tells us that this year, the organisation has commissioned four sculptures from artists from Ukraine. Those sculptures have already been sold and the money given to Ukraine (without commission).
This is the sculpture by the lovely Sue Corbet (with the artist in the background)
And these are the favourite sculptures according to A this year, with the lobster being the absolute favourite. The cherry pie piece is one of the Ukrainian art works.
It has been quite a long visit for Virtual Nomad in Australia. I thank you, the very wonderful JK, for editing this long entry. Thank you for being part of the journey.
Someone tells us that the Kardashians are Armenians. I did not know that, and I honestly do not know much about the Kardashians. We watch an episode of their reality show and lose an hour of our lives to something I do not find a word to describe. This is not the best entry for Armenia and I feel we are not doing the country much justice by starting this way.
Once upon a time, there was a great Armenian restaurant in Sydney called Seraglio. But then the global pandemic forced it to close down and there was no great Armenian restaurant any longer. As an alternative, I find an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant Teta’s in Roseville Chase. The menu has Armenian dishes mixed with Lebanese flavours so that is good enough. For the younger audience in our group the name (Tetas) is a funny one as it means boobies in Spanish.
We are 11 in our party tonight including the Virtual Nomads with a special guest MM from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and his host EB, a delightful new contact who follows a 90% plant-based vegan diet (and looks fabulous). MM, whom I have known for twenty years, is an exceptional human. He rightly defends his position that his country should be placed in the As, as ‘Scotland’ in Gaelic is called Alba. So this is a trial for Alba/Scotland in its rightful place, as it will take some time to get to S.
The restaurant is more Lebanese than Armenian and a slight disappointment. The atmosphere is beautiful with walls close to the colour of the skin and stunning, friendly waitresses who move around like elegant gazelles, but cannot recommend a dish or answer questions about ingredients. The party has two large plates of grilled meat that include a little bit of everything from the menu. What I get from the meat-eaters is that it is ok but average at best. MM’s friend EB and I share a couple of vegan plates (hummus, tahini, falafel). While the big plates are Armenian, the small ones are clearly Lebanese.
The biggest disappointment of the night is when we are told that dessert is not available because the dessert person has already left. This is surprising as we have a party of 11 people who very likely were going to order desserts. This is the lowest point of all the Virtual Nomad experiences that we have done so far, even taking into account my atrocious attempts at international cooking. I also feel that we have not done Armenia much justice by choosing an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant, which was not great value.
The food is average at best but the night is saved by the wonderful company. CH again has travel stories to tell and can show her photos from Armenia that are interesting and full of feeling. We chat and laugh, and exchange travel notes. Later when we drive MM and EB to EB’s house, we share plans for future Virtual Nomad travels and we bond across the idea.
Overall, a highly successful night, if less Armenian than we would have liked.
History – ancient and contemporary – shows that humans are awful to each other, and Armenian history is no exception. Documentaries from Armenia are not an easy piece. The history of Armenia cannot be told without the mention of the genocide in 1915, and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million people.
But first, back to the beginning of time. Mr History tells us that the first Armenian settlement, Urartu, was established around 850 BC. A few hundred years later gave way to the Saltrapy of Armenia. A patriarch called Hayk is mentioned as the founder of Armenia by the historian S. Mouses Khorenatsi. Until Armenia’s conversion to Christianity it was predominantly Zoroastrian, In 301 AD, Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianism as the official religion.
For centuries, Armenia was the battlefield for different armies and invasions by different parties, predominantly Ottomans and Persians. In 1804, Russia invaded Armenia but the tension with the Turks continued. Hamidian Massacres (1894-96) oversaw the deaths of up to 300,000 Armenian, Greeks and Assyrians. This was just the first act of something much worse that would follow ten years later.
The Armenian genocide is one of the most horrendous things to happen in human history. It was a systematic massacre of the Armenian population. Due to the failure of Turkish attacks on Russian forces in 1914, the government in Turkey viewed the Armenians as a threat. Armenians were rounded up and forced to march to the Syrian dessert. Around 1.5 million people died either as a result of direct violence (including mass killings) or starvation, heat, deportation and death marches.
Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in 1920. It achieved its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Armenia was in a war against Azerbaijan 1988 – 1994, and relations have not been good ever since.
We watch a BBC document Remembering the Armenian massacres about two women – Lara Petrossians from BBC Persia and Rengin Arian – and learn about Armenian history through their families and the experiences of different Armenian populations around Turkey. The documentary also includes the Turkish perspective on events.
What else do we learn from Youtube documentaries? We learn that:
The Armenian flag (adopted in 1990) has three colours (red, blue, orange) and has been interpreted in different ways. The red has been said to symbolise the Armenian Highlands, the Christian faith but also the struggle, survival, independence and freedom of the Armenian people. Blue symbolises the peaceful skies and orange stands for hard work.
Mesrop Mastotsinvented the Armenian alphabet around the year 405. It has 38 different letters (31 consonants and 7 vowels). Armenian is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family but uses its own alphabet. Armenian is written horizontally from left to right
We also learn that:
There are around 16 main languages and dialects spoken in Armenia. (97% of the population speaks Armenian)
Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan are not on friendly terms. This is mostly due to the dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azeri territory, but inhabited and governed mostly by ethnic Armenians. The First Nagorno-Karabah war (1988 – 1994) was followed by a recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabah conflict. The conflict has also strained Armenia’s relationship with Pakistan.
Ethereal, mystical duduk and other sounds
Armenian music has a couple of its own genres that are quite interesting and have intriguing backstories.
The Duduk is an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument made of apricot wood, often played in pairs with one person playing the melody and the other a steady drone. The duduk was listed as UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2008. The sound is quite deep, meditative, and melancholic. The instrument has a 3000 year history and was first mentioned in the ancient manuscripts in Urartu. You can log into several hours of duduk mediation music. The sound is almost unearthly, captivating and mystical.
Rabiz is a quite different genre of Armenian music that combines Armenian folk with dance music (mainly synthesizers). It emerged in Yerevan in the 1980s as the music of Armenian immigrants from rural areas and cities such as Baku. It is an interesting genre that has clear Middle Eastern influences. There are a few playlists on Youtube and Spotify.
As for Armenian artists, Armenian-Syrian Lena Chamayanhas a very clear soprano voice and her music is a fusion of Armenian, Arab and Western Music. She comes from a mixed cultural background and considers herself multicultural and multi-linguistic.
Serj Tankian is a Lebanese-born Armenian-American heavy metal singer of the band System Of A Down. He is also a trained opera singer. Serj is another diaspora Armenian artist who is politically active and outspoken. He campaigned for US recognition of the Armenian genocide that was signed by President Biden in April 2021 (also recognised by 30 other countries ). In 2015, he recorded a version of an old Armenian lullaby, Ari Im Sokhag, with Larisa Ryan. It’s melancholic and sorrowful.
Another melancholic diaspora artist is Apo Sahagian. He has been credited with reviving old dialects and Armenian history. Even if I cannot understand the lyrics, some of the song are harrowfully beautiful. My favourite is probably a song named:
Every ‘essential’ book of Armenian literature is about the genocide. The books are about generational trauma and how it endures to this day. They demonstrate the impact the genocide has had on the Armenian collective memory, the construction of identity, and the diaspora.
Roughly, half of the book is about Fethiye’s memories of her childhood and her grandparents. Around that time, she was still not aware of her grandmother’s past. Despite facing some terrible challenges (such as losing a parent), there is bliss and beauty in all of it.
Half way through the book turns grim and becomes difficult to read. Fethiye’s grandmother is stolen from the hands of her mother, never to see her again. Fethiye slowly learns about the atrocities that took place during this time. She also starts to connect the dots from her childhood, from Armenian songs to unnamed visitors. She then discovers members of her family in unexpected places and learns what happened to them.
The hard part is, of course, that it is a true story. It is an impactful tale about Fethiye and her grandmother’s relationship, and Fethiye’s decision to tell the truth and bury her grandmother under her real name. It is also a story of connection, growth and healing.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian frequently appears on the list of ‘best’ Armenian books. It is available at the local library so I reserve it, but for some reason it never finds its way to me. A book lost somewhere. Therefore, I turn to Kindle again.
The author, Chris Bohjalian, is an Armenian-American whose grandparents were survivors of the genocide. The book has the same premise as many of the others – grandchildren discovering the secret past lives of their grandparents.
It is very well written, engaging and captivating. It’s clear why Bohjalian is a bestselling author. What makes it different from Cetin’s book is that it’s fiction, whereas My Grandmother – an Armenian-Turkish memoir is a true story.
The book moves between two different time zones – the grandparents meeting and falling in love in the midst of the genocide and the grandchild navigating the past and the present. It includes Armenian and Turkish families coming together through their children dating. It is captivating, well written and carries the narrative well. I found it perhaps slightly too long and far more interesting in the parts describing the past than the grandchild in the present. The stories enmesh in surprising ways that, in some cases, are almost too hard to believe. This is, of course, the richness and the limitation of fiction.
I’m surprised to discover there are quite a few Armenian movies available. Not so surprisingly, many of the movies are related to the genocide.
Instead, I watch a movie called The Last Inhabitant (2016), set in 1988 during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. It’s the story of a man who stays behind in enemy lines after losing his home and is waiting to be reunited with his traumatised daughter. It is slow and dark, reflecting relationships between people and friendships that carry beyond enemy lines. It’s a story of loss and cruelty, sacrifice and conflict in which no one is a winner and everyone suffers. The ‘feel-good’ elements are few and far between, with profound sadness and loss dominating. It is harrowing, but also very real.
Right before closing the entry for Armenia, I happen to meet an Armenian-Lebanese person at work who tells me that The Cut is a movie to watch. RT, my Armenian-Lebanese colleague (of very striking, distinctive beauty), tells me briefly about her visit to Armenia with her dad and the story of her family. She has a surname finishing with -ian, which is an indication of Armenian heritage. It feels like fate as I tell her that I have just finished an Armenian entry for Virtual Nomad. I would rather be educated by RT than the Kardashians, and it is fascinating.
I decide to watch The Cut before Virtual Nomad moves to its next destination. It is, sadly, not available on any of the streaming channels that I have (and I now have quite a few) so I place it on my watchlist and will return when it is available. There is an extended trailer available on Youtube as well as an interview of the director, Fatih Akin, where he recognises the genocide also as “his”. I’ve seen several of his movies in the past so I hope The Cut will be accessible at some point. It is a movie about the genocide and a man’s quest to find his missing children.
News tell us that the number of Russians citizens entering Armenia (many escaping from or protesting the war) has increased to more than 300,000 – over 10% of the population in the small country. This has put pressure on housing, increasing rents and feeding inflation.
My Virtual Nomad philosophy is to not influence our Virtual Nomad travels with my pre-existing knowledge, particularly if I have visited the country. This is because that is my personal experience and not a shared one, and the objective of Virtual Nomad is not to tell the stories of my past.
This said, I have been to Argentina so many times I have lost count and when we finally organise a Virtual Nomad Argentinian night, the Virtual Nomad Special Adviser CH (who has been to approximately 140 countries) and I are happy to compare travel notes and our experience of the country, and we find out that there is so much to say and share.
Argentina lies in South America. A huge country of 2,780,400km2, it is the 8th largest country in the world. It has the southernmost city in the world (although there is a town further south of less than 3000 people in Chile called Puerto Williams) and a climatic variety from rainforest to glaciers.
An Argentinian night
There is a fairly famous Argentinian restaurant in Sydney but a closer look at its menu does not convince the virtual nomads. I decide to organise an Argentinian night at home and find the ingredients mostly from small local producers. For an Argentinian night to be a success, we will need, at the very least, meat, chimichurri,provoleta,dulce de leche, empanadas,alfajorres and yerba mate. This will all be accompanied by an ordinary salad whose sole objective is to look pretty but be overshadowed by the Argentinian delicatessen.
I am vegetarian but there is something I have learned from meat-eaters and that is: the best, the very best, meat comes from Argentina. The consumption per capita of red meat is the highest in the world and Argentinians are proud of their asado.
The Argentinian night gathers all the central players of the Virtual Nomad adventure – my children L (15) and A (9), CH (Special Advisor), and of course the Virtual Nomad Chief Editor JK and his child FK (13).
JK gets quality meat from a butcher on the North Shore, and then I make a list of what I need for a successful Argentinian night. So exciting.
Chimichurri is an uncooked sauce that can be used with almost anything. It is prepared mostly of herbs (mainly parsley and cilantro), garlic, vinegar, olive oil and spices.
I order chimichurri and alfajorres from a wonderful small family business called Sur Direct. They are an absolute delight to deal with, have impeccable customer service, affordable prices and quick delivery in a beautiful paper bag. On top of that, the quality of the products is incredibly high. Sur Direct gets 10/10 from us. I get three types of chimichurri (mild, hot and extra hot, and also Chimichurri spices for future cooking) and beautiful alfajorres – dessert cookies that combine a delicate flour structure with dulce de leche in the middle.
As for the empanadas, there is an Empanadas Che in Drummoyne that is absolutely fabulous. I put an order in for 10 empanadas of different flavours. When I pick up my order – one rainy morning before work – my order has been lost but the woman working at the counter goes at it and produces ten empanadas in no time. Gotta’ love the Latin attitude. The Café also has authentic Dulce de Leche, so I buy a tub to go with the empanadas. I get ten empanadas of six flavours (chorizo and potato, pollo, carne, gorgonzola with ham, ham and cheese, vegetarian caprese) with criolla sauce and also a ‘choripan’ (chorizo with bread) and the Dulce de Leche. While my order is being prepared, I chat without a customer who comes by weekly and does not mind the wait.
I get provoleta from Harris Farm Market but I forget to serve it because of all the Argentinian food and desserts from both Argentina and Antigua and Barbuda (see previous entry). Provoleta is an Argentinian cheese that tastes similar to traditional provolone cheese.
We decide against Yerba Mate, which contains up to 30% caffeine. As none of us are really coffee drinkers, it would probably mean that we would not sleep for a week, But for anyone who would like to know, Yerba Mate is said to be very good for many different health issues (even if there is still very little evidence on that) and a very popular drink in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
CH brings excellent Argentinian wine, which will be mostly consumed by me as both JK and CH are not heavy drinkers. CH also brings an excellent Chilean wine but we will have to leave it for the future occasion when we get to the Cs in about a ten years time!
We have a wonderful night of great food, great company, great music and a great country trivia for the kids. We learn from the Argentina trivia that:
Argentina has both the highest (mount Aconcagua) and lowest point (Laguna del Carbón) in the Southern Hemisphere. Laguna del Carbón is a salt lake in the Santa Cruz Province and the seventh lowest point on Earth.
88-97% of the Argentinian population has European roots – mostly from Spain or Italy.
The first ever (documented) person to be born in Antarctica was Emilio Marcos Palma in 1978. Why his mother was sent to give birth in such a remote place is an interesting story.
Many years ago, I learned the basics of tango dancing but never got to the level of LRT. One of my dearest friends, who now happens to live four hours from me, looked like she hardly touched the floor when she danced tango.
Argentina in images
What to watch out of everything that there is on offer? I try to be guided by my basic rule: history, geography, people and significant events. My children and I are either native or nearly native Spanish speakers, so diving into the turbulent Argentinean history in the original language is fairly easy.
The quick histories of Mr History are usually excellent but the Quick History of Argentina does not do justice to the complicated history of the country. It is a confusing set of many events starting from the Palaeolithic era. Something we do learn is that Argentina got its name from the Latin word for ‘silver’ (‘Argentum’). At the time of the Spanish conquest, Argentina had no grand civilisations (like Peru) but rather different tribes living in the territory. Buenos Aires was established in 1580. Argentina was first part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru and then the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. José de San Martin is an important figure in Latin American political history, having liberated a huge portion of the Latin American countries, leading Argentina to become independent in 1816, but then falling into a prolonged civil war. More wars with neighbouring countries followed, as did a succession of presidents. Juan Perón is one of the famous ones, also famous for being the husband of Eva Perón. After Perón resigned in 1955, several other presidents followed until Jorge Videla became the dictator and the dirty war of 1974 -1983 saw thousands of people disappear. Argentina lived through another great recession 1998 – 2003 and the economy finally improved around the time when NéstorKirchner became president, followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The current president is Alberto Fernández. The Quick History concludes with the words: “despite centuries of social and political conflict, this country still managed to give the world tango, Nobel winning scientists, brilliant writers and sportspeople, and to maintain a very high human development rank.”
But we get it. Argentinian history is complex.
I have to think through what I should explain to the children about the (contemporary) history of Argentina. We decide that instead of trying to cover it all, I should choose different topics. I think long and hard and then decide to go for these three:
Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and children of the disappeared
During the Argentinian military dictatorship 1976 – 1983, the “dirty war”, an estimated 30.000 people died or disappeared. This is only an estimate and a full list of murdered and disappeared people does not exist. Most of these people were captured for political and religious reasons, many of them were young and a number of the young women were pregnant. There are approximately 500 children that were born to mothers that were captured and then ‘disappeared’. Most of those children were never returned to their biological families but sold or given up for adoption under a different name and identity.
Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo is a human rights organisation founded in 1977 by grandmothers of missing grandchildren, born in captivity to women that were later ‘disappeared’. The objective of the organisation is to connect the stolen children with their biological families through DNA testing and offer awareness, training and counselling. It is work that, of course, is not without its difficulties and controversies. As of 2022, 130 grandchildren have been found.
Estela de Carlotto is a human rights activist and the President of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. She became the President of the organisation in 1979 and spent 36 years looking for her grandson – son of her murdered daughter Laura, who was one of the few ‘disappeared’ whose body was delivered to the family. In 2014, Laura’s son and Estela’s grandson was found. The stories of the stolen grandchildren are not simple but have nuances of personal conflict. For Ignacio, being Estela’s grandchild has not been easy, but he still believes in the importance of finding the missing grandchildren.
There are several testimonies on Youtube from the found grandchildren. My children were able to follow these stories in Spanish but there are also several in English. These stories are dark tales of abduction and theft of identity, confusion and tragedy, but also stories of hope and growth.
Who is Evita Perón?
Evita Perón is one of the most prominent figures of Argentinian history, made immortal by the musical and, above all, the iconicsong. She was the wife of president Juan Perón and has had a strong impact on the Argentinian collective memory. She died of cervical cancer at the age of 33.
As with many historical figures, the kids find the musical more interesting than the actual story of Eva Perón. But her life story is quite fascinating and her final resting place is in the Recoleta cemetery.
Economic crisis 1998 – 2002
I chose this theme because explaining the political turbulence and corruption is difficult to place for the kids, who have no prior knowledge. Many people I know were affected by the Argentine great recession, caused by many factors including the Russian and Brazilian financial crises, a partial default of public debt, and an abandonment of the fixed exchange rate. The economy plunged, leaving over 50% of Argentinians living below the poverty line. Many people lost their savings, unemployment rose to unprecedented levels and many who could, left the country. It took the economy several years to recover.
Short stories and reflection on ‘sexaffective’ relationships
Argentinian literature is famous, varied, abundant and rich. The most famous Argentinian writer is Jorge Luis Borges (author of Ficciones, 1944 and Aleph, 1949). There is Ernesto Sabato and Julio Cortázar. Cortázar is famous for his 1963 book Rayuela (Hopscotchin English). I had a complicated relationship with Rayuela when I read it many moons agoas its open-ended structure drove me crazy. Many of my Latin American friends consider Rayuela a masterpiece. It has a unique structure that allows the reader to read it either in a linear or non-linear mode, but for me it was a book that ‘talks a lot but says very little’. I recognise, now that I am older, that I could enjoy it more and I make a promise to myself to go back to Rayuela one day and give it another try.
But for now I want something new. Something more contemporary.
I turn to two very dear Argentinian friends. AS who lives in an ecological community in Uruguay with his wife and MG who is originally fromMar del Plata but has lived in Madrid for many years. When I ask for contemporary Argentinian authors, MG comes back with the message: “I would recommend Samanta Schweblin (narrative, short stories, lives in Berlin), Mariana Enríquez (journalist, innovative, horror genre), Claudia Piňero (politico-social narrative), Gabiela Cabezón Cámara (feminist, activist), María Gainza (art related narrative), and Leila Guerreiro (journalist, short stories, narrative, sharp social focus).
Samanta lives in Berlin and is considered prodigious in her home country. She has won many prestigious awards and in 2010, she was selected as one of the best writers in Spanish under 35.
The book (Pájaros en la boca y otros cuentos) leaves me in a state of slight confusion. It could be the format – short stories has never been my favourite genre – or the open-endedness of the stories. The stories in this book are like photographs – little studies of people and human nature, situations without resolution or proper explanation. They have unusual topics that play with themes and images and much is left to the reader. For some, this might be unusual, interesting, mind-blowing and an intriguing way of writing without ready-made formulas and without chewing the content too mushy for the reader – and I get it. But for me, it’s exhausting. I still enjoy the book and the stories – some more than others – but I feel a bit relieved when it’s over. Maybe I am old and I need answers, and when I don’t get them, it frustrates me.“What the hell was that supposed to mean?” is my primary thought after many of the stories.
Feeling slightly unsatisfied, I decide to read another book. Another friend recommends a book called El Fin del Amor (The end of love) by Tamara Tenenbaum – a young journalist and academic who left the ultra-conservative orthodox Jewish community of her childhood to go to a ‘normal’ high school and university, and to live a ‘normal’ life as a young Latin American woman. That ‘normality’, of course, means a lot of headaches and pondering about heterosexual relationships.
The book is not what I had expected. I had expected fiction but the book is a study of modern heterosexual ‘sexoaffetive’ relationships in Argentina, tangled with autobiographical anecdotes from
Tamara’s life. The description of the book is:
“El fin del amor gives us a glimpse of what happens when marriage and the monogamous couple are no longer a life’s objective, and it’s a tool for the creative destruction of romantic love and the principles that sustain it so that from its ashes, a better love – one that makes men and women more free in their relationships – can rise. From the value of friendship to the culture of consent, passing through motherhood as a choice or an imperative, desired and abhorred singlehood, polyamory, open relationships, the workings of the technologies of desire (Happn, Tinder), and with a vast bibliography about these topics, Tamara Tenenbaum talks about everything in order to dive into the universe of affection, celebrate the end of romantic love, and propose the eroticization of consent.”
It is an interesting book and I can imagine how important it can be for young Argentinians and Latin Americans. Every generation seems to think that they have discovered something that the previous generations have not, and that is a bit the approach of Tenenbaum (31 years old), whose youth shines through in some parts of the book. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly well researched book with a lot of ground to cover from the history of marriage to studying the functionality of open relationships, modern understanding of sexual activity, the role of women in (heterosexual) relationships, the modern culture of worshipping youth and beauty, decisions on maternity, building the culture of consent and the examination of sexual violence. It is interesting and I enjoyed reading it. She mixes the themes with autobiographical anecdotes from her own life, and her original cultural group. I also learned there is a Netflix series drawn from this book.
Some parts of the book have incredible value, whereas others are slightly preachy. When she writes about sexual violence and building a culture of consent, she is as sharp as a knife. Tamara explains how sexual violence is not an innate characteristic of men (not every man is a ‘potential rapist’) but a product of a culture, which sees male sexuality as an uncontrollable phenomenon and admires power. She talks about women of her generation making hard decisions on career and maternity, the culture of the ‘cult of the physical body’ affecting relationships – sometimes seen as a market of flesh (due to dating apps that she seems not to be in favour of). She also calls for sexual education for young people that focuses on consent, respect and pleasure.
Tamara says that after researching all these different forms of relationships, she has opted for quite a revolutionary one in which she lives with her boyfriend but her female friends are such an important part of her life that they also have keys to her house and she (Tamara) envisions herself growing old with her girlfriends rather than her partner. It does make me smile as it feels as if Tamara believes she is the first one to discover the value of female friends in life, and also because of her idyllic ideas regarding her vision for her old age.
Where in the cyberspace are you, moving images?
Argentinian cinema is famous and abundant. There are many quality films of different genres and there are many movies that I would like to show JK and L who are less acquainted with Argentinian cinema than I am.
There is a slight problem.
None of the many, many Argentinian movies I want to show them are available on streaming platforms, at least in Australia. I go through Netflix, Prime Video, Disney, Youtube, Kanopy, SBS, Tubi, Amazon and even try to access them in other ways. I look for DVDs to order from the library or from overseas. No luck.
So, L asks, if you would have to choose five Argentinian movies to show us what would you do?
I think about it long and hard and then decide on a selection that I am not currently able to offer them, but hopefully one day I will. These are not automatically my favourite movies (although I do include the one that is) but a great representation of Argentinian cinema and a good collection for general knowledge:
Nine Queens – fast paced movie about two con artists in Buenos Aires with twists and turns. A very clever script that I thought JK and L would appreciate. Could not find it anywhere. Boo.
The Official Story – a fictional story of an adoption of a stolen grandchild. A very important movie on this topic mentioned above.
The secret in their eyes – An award winning thriller that won a swag of awards. There is an American version, but this one is better.
A boyfriend for my wife – I also wanted to include a comedy so there you have it. A man wants to divorce his wife but rather than telling her, he hires another man to seduce her.
Intimate stories – I loved this small warm-hearted road movie from Patagonia, but it has been a while since I saw it.
As I am unable to show Argentinian movies, I decide to watch one anyway. Something I have not seen before. I select Initials S.G., available on SBS. It is described as a dark comedy about a former porn actor who is trying to find a place in the mainstream cinema. It has a 100% tomatometer rating in Rotten Tomatoes. Sounds promising.
Needless to say, I am not watching this with kids.
It was not a movie for me. That is all I will say.