In the winter of 1979, shortly before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, my family went on holiday in Kabul. We were living in Pakistan at the time and, even though my English grandmother was visiting, my father wanted an adventure. So we piled into our old white Datsun, drove past the pine trees and boulders of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, crossed the border at the Khyber Pass without plunging over its precipices, and wound our way into Kabul. My father wanted to stay at the German guesthouse near Chicken Street. His plan was to drink Pilsner, eat a few sausages, get back in the car, and hotfoot it to Tajikistan and then back to Karachi.
Good plan, poor execution. First, it was winter. I have never been in a winter as miserable as Afghanistan’s. You go to bed wearing gloves and still wake up frozen. And it snows—great sheets of it. Enough to make an ancient white Datsun get stuck on its way to Tajikistan and have to beetle back to Kabul in surrender. Second, a war was coming. Large parts of the countryside had rebelled against Afghanistan’s Marxist-led government; in Herat, thousands were dead. But that didn’t affect us much. The incident that really foiled our plans was my grandmother and her upset stomach. It started churning and wouldn’t stop.
There was only one thing for an elderly English lady with a delicate tummy to do: check into the InterContinental. Perched on a hill outside Kabul, the hotel was white and spruce and shiny. It was the kind of place you could eat steak with maître d’hotel butter (all expensive Third World hotels then served steak with this herb butter, made with minced parsley, lemon juice and pepper), drink brandy and listen to tinkling piano music in the lobby. The women wore chignons and danced round in chic knee-length skirts. It didn’t matter that the lobby was full of Russians lurking about in trilby hats and overcoats. The hotel was clean and smart.
It was certainly too posh for me and my grubby brother, and we went back to throwing snowballs at each other in front of our modest guesthouse once our grandmother was cloistered away. Our bed & breakfast, in contrast, was a faux Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house with temperamental heating and horrible taxidermy on the walls. At least my parents didn’t have to worry about us embarrassing them here.
At the InterContinental, by far the best hotel in Afghanistan, my grandmother was free of such worries. She could lounge in an easy chair and look out at the garden, imagining the rose bushes beneath the snow. She could order tea from room service and lie in bed nibbling almonds and dried mulberries. She may have even circled the outdoor swimming pool and dipped her toe in to check if it was heated.
Fast forward to 2007. En route to Kabul, where I was sent to monitor a village-run social investment program for an international development organization, I flipped open my guidebook, Afghanistan, A Companion and Guide, and was surprised to read the following assessment of the InterContinental: “In 2002, this was definitely the worst hotel in the world.” The author went on, “I don’t mind no hot water, but I felt that paying $65 a night for no cold water was too much… When I wanted to use the swimming pool I was told I couldn’t because two guests had recently drowned.”
Could this really be the fabled hotel where my grandmother had recuperated so long ago? I didn’t remember much from my childhood, but my parents’ descriptions had led me to imagine soothing sheets and swish carpets, not an Afghan Fawlty Towers. Since the hotel was outside my organization’s “Security Perimeter,” I couldn’t stay there this time anyway. (Perhaps this was a good thing, now that I read the frank review in my guidebook.) But when I arrived in Kabul, my curiosity got the better of me: I immediately Googled the hotel. A New York Times article written a month after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 appeared. “The guerrilla rockets started to hit the eastern districts of this capital shortly after 3 p.m. today, sending great clouds of dust rising into the still winter air,” it said. “At the Kabul InterContinental Hotel, a man sweeping the tennis court paused for a while to watch, then calmly resumed his work.” Though the article made it sound like the hotel had been left unscathed, I suspected that after years of guerrilla rockets and bombs, the InterContinental had undergone drastic changes.
I finally visited the hotel on my last weekend in town. I had driven past it a few times and knew it had been renovated by a Dubai company for millions of dollars. Still it looked ordinary: a Soviet-style concrete block on a hill brightened only by billboards advertising Coca-Cola and Afghan Wireless. The woman in the Coca-Cola ad had a perky sideways ponytail. “This cannot be an Afghan woman,” my Afghan colleague sniffed when I commented on the ad one day. “Must be from Pakistan.”
The hotel’s guards waved our car through the security gates. The driveway was lined with flowerbeds and topped by a faux waterfall. A poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” hung by the entrance above a sign banning AK-47s. Portraits of Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader killed by Al Qaeda a few days before September 11th, 2001, are ubiquitous in Kabul. In this one, he stares out dreamily from under his pakol hat, looking moody and heroic.
The hotel lobby was quiet. Too quiet. The signs for the hotel’s restaurants were jaunty, though, and the young male receptionist was cheerful. “During the Taliban time there were mostly Taliban staying here,” he announced. “Also some Arabs.” After September 11th , he told me, guests were mostly Americans and journalists. If I wanted to know more, he said, I should come back tomorrow to meet Haji Nassar in accounting, who had worked at the hotel since 1972.
Haji Nassar greeted me the following day. “This hotel has changed so many times,” he said when I told him my grandmother had stayed here in the late 70’s. “In those days we served everything—wine, everything. Anything you wanted we could get.” He gestured at the faded blue chairs and buffet tables in the restaurant. “It was the first five-star hotel in Kabul,” he said, wistfully. But during the worst parts of the ensuing war, he said, it was more like “minus five.”
During the first round of war, the nine-year Soviet occupation (from December 1979 to February 1989) during which three million Afghans fled as refugees, Haji Nassar stayed put. He slowly worked his way up from busboy to accountant. But after the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahideen resistance was unable to form a united government, and a civil war ensued. “The hotel was fired at with rockets during the mujahideen time,” Haji Nassar said. “It was 40-50% destroyed. The mountain side of the hotel was completely out of order.”
At that point, in the early 90’s, the hotel had been long since abandoned by the InterContinental group and was owned by the government. The main mujahideen leaders all passed through. “Massoud would come and have meetings here in the hotel,” Haji Nassar said. “He would give his people their orders. Rabbani stayed here, as did many ministers.” Burhanuddin Rabbani, a notorious mujahideen leader, was president of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996; Massoud was his defense minister.
By 1996, the violence had become so bad that when small groups of Saudi- and Pakistan-backed extremists calling themselves the Taliban started taking over towns in the south and imposing their own brand of order, local populations accepted them. But the Taliban’s harsh moral codes were alien to many Afghans. “It was a farce,” Haji Nassar said. “Women were banned from working in the hotel.”
After the fall of the Taliban Afghanistan’s future seemed bright. Foreign aid flooded in; millions of refugees returned; and Kabul even got a rival five-star hotel, the Serena, with a spa and a swanky weekend brunch. The TV show Afghan Star, the country’s own version of American Idol, held its final contest at the InterContinental. But the future now looks grim. The Taliban are back in force, corruption is at record highs, and Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin. In January of this year, in a sign of the growing strength of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, militants stormed the Serena’s seemingly impenetrable barricades in a suicide attack and shot foreigners, leaving seven people dead. More and more, Afghanistan looks like a failing state.
After a few days at the then-luxe InterContinental, my grandmother improved, and we returned to Karachi. A few weeks later, sitting at our kitchen table on Christmas morning, my mother opened Dawn, Pakistan’s English language daily, and read that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal, a Marxist, as president. “It’s a good thing we went when we did,” she said.
When I read about the Serena attack this January and the security restrictions for foreigners that followed, I was glad I had gone to Afghanistan when I did, too. My grandmother is ninety-six now. Over the past decade, her memory has gone. For a brief moment at the InterContinental, I was able to recreate a time we had together, a time she has now forgotten. I may not be able to go again in her lifetime.
Andrea Woodhouse was born to an English father and an Indonesian mother. She grew up in Burma, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Jordan and the United States. She has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and is a founder of Avaaz.org, a global policy advocacy group.
At 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, students wait anxiously to be buzzed in through the heavy, wrought-iron gates at 142 Rua Dr. Gabriel dos Santos. Beyond lies a large, colonial house with a broad, wrap-around veranda. As students march upstairs to the old-fashioned classrooms, the wide-plank steps creak noisily underfoot. By 3p.m., schooled in the basics of documentary film making, they’re back on the street—shooting their first video on a digital video camera.
While this scene might sound typical, these students are not from New York University’s illustrious film school, nor the well-funded School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They won’t be driving off to Sundance anytime soon. (If they go, they’ll be taking a 10-hour international flight.)
Rather, these students are enrolled at Academia Internacional de Cinema (AIC), a small, independent film school that’s located in the residential Higienópolis neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil.
Chasing a dream, AIC’s founders Steven Richter (an American), and Flavia Rocha (a Brazilian), co-founded the Academia in 2004 with their friend Ram Devineni (American). Richter, who had worked as the Production Director for Trafika Films in the U.S., briefly considered opening the school in Brooklyn. But when Rocha met some generous Brazilian bureaucrats at a Manhattan cocktail party, the couple decided to base the school in Brazil.
“Our goal was to launch an independent film school that developed independent filmmakers. It was to empower individuals to go out and have a vision and the know-how in all the areas in the art and craft of filmmaking,” says Richter, 36, who is AIC’s director and majority owner with Rocha, 34. (The couple are married.)
Richter, who had taught film to underprivileged students in the Bronx and was also an educator and course developer for the Seattle Film Institute, designed AIC to meet the needs of students who wanted to learn all aspects of filmmaking by actually making films. In Brazil, where major film schools typically require years of coursework before filmmaking begins, the Academia’s hands-on approach was a welcome change. (It was the first and is still the only independent film school in Brazil to offer a full-time program.) As of 2007, the school—which increases its programming by 15-20% every year—had 80 full-time film students and 300 part-timers taking workshops and intensives.
“Most programs available in Brazil are geared towards people who can afford it,” says Devineni, 35, who handles international relations for the school, fostering important connections with industry insiders in the U.S. Devineni also recently established Bollywood Brazil, bringing Bollywood films and productions to Brazil and vice versa. “We wanted to make it more open and democratic—anyone can apply—and if they’re diligent they can do well.”
The Academia is not unlike other Brazilian film schools in that it’s mostly comprised of middle and upper-class students in their mid-twenties. But while most film schools accept only 10-12 people, AIC accepts anyone—even if they don’t have an extensive portfolio. The school also makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, offering bolsas (scholarships) to low-income students, some of whom come from favelas in São Paulo and Rio (known for their poverty and drug and gang activity).
Lured by government incentives, Richter and Rocha originally opened the Academia in the southern city of Curitiba. But soon after renovating a building in an old industrial neighborhood, they discovered the limitations of this relationship and decided to relocate the school to its current spot in São Paulo. (Devineni stayed in
New York to develop the school’s U.S. contacts.) “The school is now 100% private money,” says Richter, “That gives us freedom but makes things difficult, too.”
The school relies exclusively on student tuition and grants to help them bring in international faculty such as Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel (“The Holy Girl”), Polish cinematographer Grzegorz Kedzierski, American Allison Anders (“Gas, Food, Lodging” screenwriter), and Steven Hopkins (director, “Trembling before G-d”). Most of the Brazilian faculty continue to work in film.
Brazilian writer Marcelo Carneiro da Cunha, 50, whose 15th book will be published this May, teaches scriptwriting at AIC. He says the Academia is important in the landscape of Brazilian film, “because it has a very practical view of filmmaking. It is not academic, and this helps improve the quality of the students’ films enormously.”
Former student Érico Rassi, 35, adds that because students work all crew positions (lights, sound, directing, etc.) on one another’s films, they quickly become very skillful. They also make connections that last well beyond school. “It is a college of art so you get to know a lot of people who have the same lines of thought as you. You make connections—your friends become your colleagues.” Rassis’ 10-minute film, “Um Pra Um” (One to One, 2006) made during his one semester at the Academia, has been shown in festivals throughout Brazil and won first prize at Rio’s International Short Film Festival in 2007.
Despite its emphasis on the practical side of filmmaking, the Academia sees itself as an art school that teaches filmmaking rather than a technical school that teaches craft. Students have created over 1,000 short films to date, with full-time students directing 14 films in both film and video, and acting as crew on at least 15 others in their graduating year alone. The majority of students are just beginning to enter festivals, win prizes, and get distribution for their projects.
Aside from Rassi, who continues to work full-time in advertising (as many Brazilian filmmakers must to support themselves), graduate Cristiano Burlan’s work is getting recognition: his first feature film, “Corações Desertos” (Deserted Hearts, 2006) was selected for the New Directors competition in the 30th International Film Festival of São Paulo, South America’s biggest film festival. His documentary “Construção” (Construction, 2006) was accepted to Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) an important documentary festival held (simultaneously) in São Paulo and Rio, as well as other festivals in Brazil and Cuba. He now teaches at AIC.
To help bring in new students and diversify their offerings, the Academia added a one-year creative writing program in February 2007. The program, Criação Literária, has a broader curriculum than the ones available at other schools in São Paulo, the seat of some of Brazil’s most powerful literary publishers. Already it has 30 full-time students.
“There are only small workshops in São Paulo,” says Rocha, who directs the writing program and has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her bilingual book of poems “The Blue House Around Noon/A Casa Azul ao Meio-Dia,” from Travessa dos Editores, was published in 2005. “This is a different kind of commitment, much more extensive,” Rocha, also a working journalist and the former director of communications and publicity at the school, invites writers she admires to run the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction workshops. “There are some talented students in the course and we hope that it will have an effect on the São Paulo writing community.”
The film students have all the necessary equipment and facilities at their disposal, including two sound studios and a screening room, ten Macintosh computers with Final Cut Pro 6, and about ten cameras in various formats, including 16mm. Lighting and sound gear, plus post-sound mixing and editing equipment are also available, as is a library with more than 500 films on DVD. Quality used equipment can be very hard to find in Brazil’s relatively small film industry, and extremely expensive to purchase outright.
Additionally, Brazil’s major arts funding is closely tied to heavily bureaucratic government programs at the federal, state, and city levels that allow corporations to sponsor artists instead of paying taxes.
This can lead to problems—lack of sponsorship because of a film’s subject matter and implicit favoritism when corporations want to continue funding an experienced artist instead of supporting new artists. When funding is granted but slow to get past administrative hurdles, it can delay the completion of a project—even for established filmmakers. It took Phillipe Barcinski, the award-winning film and TV director, five years to make his latest film, “Não Por Acaso” (Not by Chance, 2007).
With the exception of big-name filmmakers such as Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener,” “City of God”) and Walter Salles (“Motorcycle Diaries,” “Central Station”), Brazil produces few films that make it beyond the country’s own borders—or that even gain a respectable audience within them.
“National production was seen as seen as third class. What everyone was watching and reading was American—better quality,” says Juliana Faria, Senior Analyst for research and acquisition at GloboSat, a pay-TV section of Globo Network.
However, citing the freedoms that digital technology affords, AIC co-founder Devineni says that he, Rocha, and Richter took inspiration from the ethos of 70’s filmmaking in the U.S., “Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese figured out how to raise money and get their films made; they worked on every aspect of them, that’s how it was.” They hope that AIC graduates will not only approach filmmaking—and secure funding—in the same DIY spirit but also gain wide audiences both in Brazil and abroad.
Acclaimed documentarian João Moreira Salles, winner of the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize for his 2003 film “Nelson Freire” (and brother of Walter Salles), says he feels optimistic not only about the new crop of film technicians graduating from Brazilian film institutes, but also about the type of artistic films new graduates might make. Especially, it seems, those who have graduated from independent-minded schools like the Academia. “I am very hopeful that something really good will come from it. Something formally different that says something new.”
Joelle Hann has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York, Poets & Writers, Geist Magazine, and McSweeney’s among others. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary venues including the 2006 anthology, Broken Land: Poets of Brooklyn. Although she is Canadian, holds a British passport, and lives in Brooklyn, she is obsessed with Brazil.
Trivia question: what do the Ploof restaurant in New Dehli, the Divan Hotel in Istanbul and the Elks Club in Panama City have in common with the Eurasia Foundation in Kiev and a Starbucks in Nongkhai, Thailand?
Answer: they were all “worldwide voting centers”—hotspots of participatory democracy U.S. style, where votes were recently cast for the next Democratic presidential candidate of the United States. Between February 5th and February 12th 2008, expat Americans who entered these and other fine establishments in over 70 cities around the globe, could participate in what Democrats Abroad, the overseas branch of the Democratic Party, has dubbed the first ever “Global Primary.”
An estimated 6-9 million U.S. citizens live abroad. As of last October, I’m one of them. After years of intercontinental romancing, I decided to join my French lover in Paris, where for the past six months I’ve been working on a screenplay and writing articles about French film and culture. As news about the tight Democratic primary race crossed the Atlantic, I felt guilty for not having requested an absentee ballot from Massachusetts, my de facto U.S. address for elections.
One dark morning while searching Craig’s List Paris for office space, I stumbled onto the “events” section and found a notice for the Young Democrats Abroad Cocktail Party. Eureka! The perfect way to connect to the drama of the campaign back home and wash it down with a stiff drink.
What I discovered that night was far more stimulating than a gin and tonic. I didn’t need an absentee ballot to vote in the Democratic primaries. I was part of a whole constituency hitherto unknown to me—the stateless American Democrats—and my expat voice would be heard, in the primaries at least. (To vote in the general elections this November, all expats still need to request absentee ballots from their last state of residence in the U.S. or from www.VoteFromAbroad.org.)
All I had to do was register with Democrats Abroad online before Jan. 31 and then I could vote via the Internet, snail mail or fax. I could also vote in person by showing up with my passport at a worldwide voting center on Super Tuesday or on February 12th.
So on February 5, 2008, another rainy night in Paris, I boarded the number 63 bus in front of Saint Sulpice Church in the sixth arrondissement, rode it past the Louvre, past the year-round lights twinkling in the trees along the Seine, past Les Invalides, Louis XIV’s military hospital all the way to the American Church at 65 Quai D’Orsay.
The room was charged with the energy of an historic election. A buzzing crowd, diverse in age and ilk, waited in line to vote. People milled about touting buttons for their chosen candidates and engaging in political banter with their compatriots, while foreign journalists taped interviews with party apparatchiks and voters.
Compared to the online option, the worldwide voting center’s methods were archaic. There weren’t even any ancient metal voting machines. I wrote my name, address, and candidate selection on a sheet of paper, folded it over and slid it into a big clear box, overseen by two American women who thanked me with friendly smiles, a welcome touch of home in surly Paris.
After casting my ballot I chatted with Jeremy Goldstein, a television producer from New York City, and his buddies—all Obama supporters.
“Obama’s more electable,” said Goldstein. “The Republicans are eager to put Hillary on the chopping block.”
Glenn Burney, a screenplay translator from Pennsylvania, felt that Obama was “the only one who will restore international faith in the U.S.”
Ohioan Christopher Storey, a professor at Ecole Polytechnique and Sciences Po, was swayed by Obama’s rhetoric of change and was ready for a new surname to occupy the White House after 20 years of Bush and Clinton. I pointed out that France’s president, Sarkozy, recently won on a platform of change—an amorphous goal.
“When Sarkozy says change he means destroy the French welfare state,” Storey elaborated. “Obama’s change is more about political discourse. He’s a whole new kind of candidate, one who embraces the political center where consensus is possible rather than the polarized politics of the past.”
On a bench outside the assembly hall, I met Dale Novick, a Hillary supporter. A middle-aged life coach from New Orleans, Novick put it this way: “If I were ill and needed surgery I would want a brilliant surgeon rather than a brilliant top of the class valedvictorian. I believe in Hillary’s experience and her political know-how to lead the U.S. out of the treacherous waters that our current president has led us into.”
After voting, I crossed the river and made my way to the Young Democrats Abroad’s Super Tuesday party in a swanky club off the Champs Elysees. Organizer Brian Lang was working the guest list and in a chipper mood. He had expected about 200 people and already had well over 300.
There, I drank a beer with Phil Leventhal, a medical writer in his 40s, who summed up his expat feelings succinctly. “If Obama won the presidency I’d feel more comfortable about moving back to the United States,” he said.
Leventhal may be extreme in his sentiment but as the results have shown, he was not alone in his preference. There were 23,105 ballots cast in DA’s first ever global primary; two-thirds of them went to Obama and one-third to Clinton.
In reality, this global primary is not altogether a first. Democrats Abroad (DA)—a branch of the Democratic Party—was founded in 1964 by expats who lived in Paris and London. It started sending non-voting delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and voting delegates in 1976, in the same way that a U.S. state or territory does. (Republicans Abroad, which is a political action committee, does not hold a primary or send delegates to the Republican National Convention. It fundraises, however, and encourages Republican expats to obtain absentee ballots from their home states.)
The Chairman of France’s chapter of Democrats Abroad, Joseph Smallhoover, says gaining the vote for their delegates wasn’t much of a struggle. They just asked the existing chairman of the Democratic National Committee who said “sure.” Today DA is a worldwide organization that’s broken down into three regions: Asia/pacific, Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMA), and the Americas.
Still, this year’s primary is novel and DA does have real reasons to celebrate. In a race where every delegate counts, DA will have two more delegate votes at the August National Convention than before—11 votes in all. It sends 22 delegates to the convention and each delegate gets half a vote. That means DA has more clout than a U.S. territory like Guam with 9 delegate votes but less than the two least populous states of Alaska and Wyoming, which have 18 each.
Eight of these delegates are the much sought-after superdelegates, members of the Democratic National Committee who are free to vote for either Democratic candidate. Nine of the delegates will vote as their regions did in the worldwide primary. The remaining five delegates will be chosen in April at the DA’s Global Convention in Vancouver. So far, Obama’s won the sole delegate from the Asia/Pacific region and four from the Europe/Middle East/Africa region to Clinton’s two. They each won one delegate from the Americas region, bringing the current total to six for Obama and three for Clinton, (or 3 delegate convention votes for Obama and 1.5 for Clinton).
But what makes the 2008 primary newly significant is that expats can vote in one of the worldwide voting centers or online. According to the DA, Internet votes came from 164 countries and territories. Thus, this Global Primary was an election without borders—or at least without U.S. borders.
Internet voting itself is not new, but it’s not widely accepted yet, either. It has been used for elections by Australia (for its overseas military personnel), in Switzerland, the Philippines, England and during the 2004 Michigan Democratic presidential primary.
The Verified Voting Foundation, strong opponents of Internet voting, call the DA’s use of online voting a “dangerous experiment” for reasons such as network failure, fake web sites, hackers (particularly Eastern European teenagers and hostile governments wanting to over throw the U.S. government) as well as difficulties with recounts. But Everyone Counts, the software company programming the DA online primary, has been running online elections in Britain since 2003 and claims its system is fully transparent, even to the users themselves.
“This system is safer than Internet banking,” says Smallhoover who explains that DA was opposed to a U.S. government effort to set up on-line voting overseas a few years ago because the system was not secure.
So why can’t we expats vote online or from worldwide voting centers for the elections in November? Because general elections are regulated by states and the federal government, not a political party. As a subset of the Democratic Party, Democrats Abroad, like the Republican Party, is a private entity that can hold its elections any way it wants. “We could even use black balls,” Smallhoover says.
But all you nomadic Americans: be forewarned. Though you can download your absentee registration from the Internet for this November’s presidential election, you still have to snail mail or fax the forms back long before November 4th (the deadline varies by state). Don’t procrastinate—you won’t stumble upon a cocktail voting party a few days before the general election.
Sarah Canner is a writer living and drinking in Paris.
Upon first arriving in The Netherlands, I found myself face-to-face with a woman I had a genuine desire to greet warmly. We had corresponded for months via email and we both felt the excitement of witnessing a person, who moments before had been only a name, materialize in the flesh. Sensing that a handshake would be inadequate for the occasion, I leaned in for a kiss on the right cheek. I hesitated barely a moment before “muh”-ing the left too (we were in Europe, after all). As I started to draw away, she pulled me back for a third peck and whispered in my ear, “In Holland, we do three.”
Oh. How quaint! How culturally specific! What a lot of work! I felt that rush of gratification that comes with initiation into a foreign culture. Now I knew something about the Dutch. Or so I thought until I met Dolph Kohnstamm. A retired professor of psychology (and friend of my late step-father), Kohnstamm is profoundly irritated that foreigners like myself are taught that the Dutch have a three-kiss policy. A few years ago he began a campaign and launched a Web site (www.zoenbutton.nl) against the three-kiss greeting. My curiosity was piqued. What kind of curmudgeon could possibly be against kissing—and why?
What bothers Kohnstamm most is the “automatism” of the ritual. He finds the practice leaves no room for a conscious expression of affection. “Originally, the kiss was an act of love,” he says. “Social kissing should still have something of affection in it and when it becomes purely automatic, it is devalued.” Furthermore, kissing thrice is not an historically Dutch practice. According to Kohnstamm, the custom is relatively recent to The Netherlands. The tradition comes from the French and Belgian countryside and arrived in the middle and northern provinces of Holland in the 1980s. Until then a handshake or one kiss was the social norm. The Dutch, he says, were more socially reserved like their German neighbors. Kohnstamm likens the practice to an infection contaminating his country. Although, ironically, the cheeky air-kisses—even given three at a time—are less likely to spread actual germs than a handshake.
There is also an element of class distinction in the quantity of kisses bestowed at greeting. The French and Belgian upper classes kiss only twice, as do the Parisians, and the Dutch Royal circle. So why should the masses be forced to submit to three? Kohnstamm resents the obligation. He argues that a greeting ought to allow one to differentiate between degrees of intimacy in a relationship. The option of giving one kiss or two, or even a handshake, instead of the mechanical head-jerking triplet, offers greater range of intimate expression. Kohnstamm calls it one the great tragedies of his life that his wife is not fully on-board with his agenda and it irks him to no end that she has been known to bestow the same number of kisses on her own children as on casual acquaintances at social gatherings. Birthday parties and New Year’s Day celebrations can be particularly burdensome for reluctant kissers when rounds of three-kisses are de rigueur.
So what can you do if you find all this kissing excessive? One of my friends—a Venezuelan-born Dutch transplant—makes a b-line for the WC to avoid certain people. Very close friends, though, she’ll kiss only once, but on the lips. All of this begs the question, what is the purpose of a greeting? Is it to reinforce the status of a relationship and map out a hierarchy of intimacy? Or is it to dispel boundaries between individuals in a spirit of egalitarianism? Should strangers be welcomed in a like manner as friends? Or is indiscriminate social kissing the domain of youth and akin to promiscuity?
I suppose how you answer these questions determines the practice you espouse. Kohnstamm proposes, only half-jokingly, that the European Union parliament ought to consider the matter. If Brussels were to decree on kissing protocol perhaps international (and even interpersonal) awkwardness could be dispelled. In state diplomacy, of course, the choreography of greeting is even more weighted. Kohnstamm noted an unhappy incident when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcomed, inappropriately for a reserved German, with three kisses by Dutch Prime Minister Jon Peter Balkenende.
In Holland, fortunately for those in Kohnstamm’s camp, the kissing tide may be turning from three to one. There are reports from Belgium that the young are exchanging only one these days, while the elderly still do three. Of course, this can cause some generational confusion and dismay, as when a boy kisses his grandmother once and leaves her expecting more. It’s hard to say whether the popularity of Kohnstamm’s Web site has been a cause, or an effect, of the groundswell against the social practice. Kohnstamm is totally sold out of the lapel buttons—designed by his daughter and distributed on his site—that specify the wearer’s greeting preferences (eg. “I kiss 1X” or “I kiss 2X or “I give you a hand.”) Anti-three kiss posters may still be downloaded from www.zoenbutton.nl for free.
But the last time I said goodbye to Dolph Kohnstamm (who along with his wife, Rita, had been an extremely gracious and charming host during my visits to Amsterdam), I unexpectedly found myself the recipient of two kisses. I knew that this was a conscious choice—a clear signal of genuine affection. And I felt deeply honored.
A native New Yorker, Jody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer, dance scholar and the founder/Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance. This February she travelled to The Netherlands to mount excerpts from her choreographic work Roman Sketches on Introdans, one of Holland’s oldest and most renowned dance companies.
“We must uphold minorities’ rights if we are to maintain a free and democratic society.” Riccardo Malagoli, president of Bologna’s San Donato neighborhood, punctuates these words with a long, dramatic pause. As he lights another cigarette, a plume of smoke wafts towards the window, as if attracted by the misty gray of the mid-October sky. “It is with this truth in mind that the mayor and I made our decision.” He swivels toward the window and stares past the swirling smoke at the urban landscape beyond.
The last few months have not been particularly kind to Mr. Malagoli. Since early September he has found himself at the center of a political tempest. At its core lies his decision, along with that of Mayor Sergio Cofferati, to support the Muslim community’s request to build the first mosque and cultural center in Bologna.
The row over the construction of the city’s first mosque dates back to 2003, when leaders of the local Muslim community first appealed for permission to build a place of worship and a congregation hall. That request was largely ignored until 2006, when the Muslim community pressured Mr. Malagoli to deal with the issue in a timely fashion.
Throughout 2006, Mr. Malagoli worked with Muslim community leaders to find a suitable location for the mosque. With Mayor Cofferati’s support, he developed a proposal in the spring of this year that called for the government to sell 52,000 square meters of land in the San Donato neighborhood to the Muslim community, 6,000 of which would be allocated for the mosque while the remaining 46,000 would be used to construct a cultural center, a parking lot, a green space and walkways. Deliberations regarding the terms of the contract lasted through August, at the end of which the mayor and Mr. Malagoli decided to grant the Muslim community the right to build the mosque.
The ink on their agreement had barely dried before journalists began questioning the decision. Some reports raised concerns about the size of the mosque, declaring that the local Muslim community did not need a “mega-mosque.” They also accused the government of a lack of transparency and faulted it for not consulting San Donato’s non-Muslim residents, saying the government preferred to deal secretly with Muslim leaders.
Scenting an opportunity to obtain political advantage, leaders of the opposition – including members of Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, the extreme-right Lega Nord and the Catholic Church—called on the government to rescind the agreement. In early September, they organized rallies aimed at derailing the mosque’s construction.
Though marginal at first, the opposition groups’ efforts quickly obtained popular support. Their protests became increasingly well attended, their petitions reached an ever-widening audience, and their lobbying efforts intensified. Some agitated for more extreme measures. One politician from the Lega Nord party, Roberto Calderoli, called for Maiale Day (“Pig Day”), during which he and his supporters planned to trample on the future mosque’s grounds with their pet pigs.
By mid-September, the situation had reached a breaking point. The government, loath to lose their electoral majority, caved in to mounting political pressure, announcing a cessation of construction. The mayor called for a month-long period of deliberation during which he promised that his government would consult with citizens’ groups, opposition parties and Muslim leaders in order to develop a plan that would be palatable to all.
On October 23, at the end of the deliberative process, the mayor and Mr. Malagoli presided over a town hall meeting in San Donato that, though cantankerous at times, resulted in a compromise. After four hours of discussion, the mayor announced that an agreement had been reached: the mosque would be built, albeit at half the size and farther from the city center than had been agreed to under the original plan.
Judging by their initial reactions, the Muslim community and the opposition now seem content to abide by the new agreement. Daniele Parracino, President of the Islamic Cultural Society of Bologna, recently said that the agreement would come to represent “the first successful accord between an Italian Muslim community and the city government.” And yet the situation remains tenuous, with another surge in popular protest likely. Whether the deal holds depends in large part on the stridency of popular opposition. “One can only hope,” Mr. Malagoli sighs, “that the neighborhood’s residents will come to see the wisdom of our decision.”
Interesting though this debacle may be, its relevance for those living outside Bologna may not be evident. However, when one considers its implications for America’s “war on terror” and Western Europe’s struggle to integrate an ever-increasing number of Muslim immigrants, one begins to appreciate the insights that it provides.
The first lesson we can extract from this episode regards the virulence of anti-Muslim sentiment in Western Europe. If one critically examines the primary concerns articulated by the mosque’s opponents, one quickly appreciates the degree to which ‘Islamophobia’ has captured the popular imagination here in Bologna. To be sure, some of the opposition based their claims on mundane concerns regarding the suitability of such a large mosque in a residential neighborhood (insufficient parking was a frequently-cited reason); most, however, rested on claims that are entirely unsubstantiated by the facts.
For instance, opponents often claimed that Muslims were overrunning Bologna and that a Muslim “invasion” was in the works. In fact, the Muslim community numbers but 9,200 in this city of 350,000, representing only 2.4% of the city’s population. Native Bolognese also frequently equate Muslim immigrants with criminality, drugs and unemployment. Never mind that, according to a recent study published by Bocconi University’s Econpubblica, Muslim immigrants tend to be more highly educated and industrious than the average Italian.
What makes the primacy of Islamophobia in the opposition’s rhetoric so surprising and indeed so illustrative is that Bologna has historically been one of Europe’s most traditionally tolerant cities, where immigrants have been welcomed as integral members of the city’s economy. Its university—Europe’s oldest and one of Italy’s most prestigious—has long attracted scholars from around the world and instilled in the locals an appreciation for foreigners and foreign ideas. More recently, its center-left governments’ implementation of progressive policies has resulted in the establishment of an array of support networks whose aim has been to help immigrants integrate into the community. This openness motivated Francesco Petrarch, one of its most famous residents, to declare in the 1320s that “there is no place more pleasant and free in the whole world.” The recent row over the mosque’s construction makes one wonder if Petrarch would feel today as he did then.
The second implication is that it is dangerous to judge the merits of proposed policies regarding immigration based on their symbolic—rather than actual—effects. For in doing so, we distort the debate from one based on facts to one based on emotions that, in the context of immigration, often entail irrational fears. Many in Bologna oppose the mosque’s construction not because their rational faculties tell them that Muslims should not have a place of worship but because they see in the construction of a mosque a symbolic acceptance of the Muslim presence and an irreversible shift from Catholicism to multiculturalism. To these social conservatives, a minaret—any minaret—piercing Bologna’s skyline represents an existential threat to their ideal polity.
Stripped of its symbolic value, the mosque is just a place of worship, no different than a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue or a Hindu temple. So, unless we admit symbolic considerations into public discourse, it stands to reason that, if Christians are allowed to build churches and Jews are allowed to build synagogues, the Muslim community ought to be allowed to build a mosque.
Moreover, the proposed mosque is desperately needed. The total capacity of all places of Muslim worship in Italy, according to Mario Scialoia, an authoritative voice of Italian Islam, is 60,000, which corresponds to only 7% of Italian Muslims. In Bologna, there are currently eight “prayer halls,” most of them in dimly lit basements. When one considers that the city’s Jewish community, which numbers barely 300, has a synagogue near the city’s main piazza, it is incomprehensible that the (significantly larger) Muslim community should not be permitted to build a mosque at the city’s periphery.
Finally, the fiasco highlights the increasingly costly trade-offs facing policy-makers between the protection of civil liberties and the promotion of domestic security. Fortunately for Bologna’s inhabitants, its leaders have courageously stood up to popular pressure in order to protect minorities’ rights. A different administration—one guided by political expediency rather than democratic principles—would likely have bowed to popular opinion and not allowed the mosque to be built. This has transpired in numerous Italian cities, including Genoa most recently, where Muslim residents have been denied the right to build mosques.
When considering what balance to strike between liberty and security, let us bear in mind the fact that many of the hijackers who attacked the United States on 9/11 had adopted their militant ideologies while living in Western Europe. It is precisely for this reason that we must not circumvent minorities’ rights in order to enhance security, for in doing so we risk alienating the moderate majority of immigrants. More importantly, if we sacrifice our civil liberties in the name of security, we undermine the very thing that we claim to be protecting—that is, a free and democratic society.
Ilan Stein is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bologna Center. Before returning to Washington, D.C. to complete a Master’s in International Relations, he hopes to master the art of tortellini-making.