Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

31/08/2012

The Bridge Over The Drina by Ivo Andrić.

Back in 2004, during my time studying for a history masters degree, I wrote a relatively short academic piece looking at 'The Clash of Civilizations' by Samuel Huntingdon (the original article can be viewed here) as part of our focus on futurology. At that point the world was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks by Islamist groups and the US-led response of NATO, an alliance made up mainly of traditionally Judeao-Christian countries. 

There were many, as there are today, who believed that this was as Samuel Huntingdon had apparently predicted - that following the end of the Cold War stand-off between communist and capitalist political ideologies people were now returning to 'civilizational identity', that a clash between Islamic civilisation and Western Christian civilisation was inevitable, that the Balkans civil wars of the 1990s were both a microcosm for European society and harbinger of what was to come in terms of worldwide events. At surface level, this appears to be a realistic, if incredibly depressing, reading of humanity's current path.

My response, which formed the basis of an article published in the UCA's Herald journal shortly after, basically argued that the civilisational blocs proposed by Samuel Huntingdon took little account of the diversity of identities and beliefs, and the competing realpolitik interests, within them. The Ummah is no more united as a single bloc than Christendom is - the current situation in Syria, in which we see a primarily Shia Alawi regime pitted against primarily Sunni revolutionaries, in a civil war increasingly bending towards the genocidal, is the latest in a long line of recent intra-Islamic conflicts. It should be no surprise then that al-Qaida's victims are reported to be 85% 'non-Western' (a strange classification but we reasonably can take this as, for the most part, meaning Muslims in Asia and Africa) between 2004 to 2008, with the figure rising to 98% post-2006.

In short, the theory of a 'Clash of Civilizations' simply does not hold water theoretically or at ground level.

Nevertheless, my interest in the Balkans continued pretty much from this point - particularly the situation of Bosnia-Herzigovina. This lead to me and my significant other embarking on one of our typical hybrid holidays, mixing relaxation with exploration, during the summer of 2010 in which we took in Croatia (Dubrovnik and Korčula) and Bosnia-Herzigovina (Mostar and Sarajevo). Two years on, at a beach resort in Cuba, I have continued this interest with a reading of  Ivo Andrić's 'The Bridge Over The Drina'.

Ivo Andrić's novel is not based on one central character but rather, on a series of characters and situations occurring in the Bosnian town of Višegrad over the course of 400 years - told primarily through their interactions and actions on the town's monumental Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. The chronicle begins with the story of Mehmed Pasha Sokolović, a Christian boy forcibly taken away by Turkish soldiers to serve the Ottoman Empire. The story goes that the pain of his separation never left him, particularly the journey across the Drina river, and sixty years later - now immersed in Turkish culture, a convert to Islam and a high-ranking official - orders a bridge to be constructed. Not simply the nostalgic whim of a local-boy-done-good, the bridge also proves to be a strategic move by providing easier passage of military might and trade between East and West (in this sense Huntingdon is right, the Balkans are historically a 'faultline' between Christian and Islamic lands).

The construction of the bridge is quite significantly overseen by officials sent from Turkey (with bloody consequences) yet the hard labour is provided primarily by peasants from the surrounding area. This theme continues throughout the book, with outside forces dictating the periodic rises and falls of the town, first the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (supported latterly by their German Realm allies).

Meanwhile, perpetually caught in the middle, are the residents of Višegrad who are divided between Muslims (referred to as Turks, now known as Bosniaks), Orthodox Christians (referred to as Serbs), Jews and Roma (referred to as Gypsies). In this patchwork town, the bridge becomes symbolic, with the seating area and miniature plaza at the centre of it - known as 'the kapia' - acting as a meeting point. Reading around on the internet about the book, and the bridge, it would seem this is typical of many Bosnian and Turkish towns.

When we visited Mostar back in 2010, we were immediately drawn to the bridge there and found - just like Višegrad - that, although smaller, it had taken on a similarly iconic role as the town's nexus. The Stari Most, again built in Ottoman style,  has its own story of tragedy and hope from the most recent Balkans conflict. But as with the bridge over the Drina, its centre remains a focal point with young men proving their worth, and attempting to earn a few convertible marks from gawping tourists in the process, by jumping off it into the freezing cold waters of the Neretva river nearly 30 metres below.


Ivo Andrić's portrayal of Christian-Muslim relations between 1500 to 1914 in Višegrad is one primarily of begrudging coexistence, cordial on the surface but with deeply-held prejudices and clear religio-cultural boundaries preventing greater integration with one another. The residents of the town find union primarily on an economic level but tend to socialise in their own enclaves and act politically as separate blocs.

This runs contrary to the viewpoint of a young Bosniak man we spoke to on our train journey from Sarajevo to Mostar. We had found in Sarajevo, once declared 'The Jerusalem of Europe' for its religious diversity although now with a clear Muslim majority, a city that continues to starkly straddle the 'East-West divide' with quaint Turkish bazaars running into modern, cafe culture plazas and streets seen throughout the rest of continental Europe (and increasingly so in Britain). The most striking example of this was observing a young Muslim woman leaving the busy Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, pausing to take off her hijab to reveal flowing blond locks, before determinedly tottering off in heels towards the high street.

Having decided to leave our cabin which had frosted toughened-plastic windows (keeping in mind this particular journey is meant to be one of the most scenic in a country blessed with a Swiss-style landscape), we found ourselves sat opposite an older lady who couldn't speak English, instead smiling and nodding in a friendly way, and a young Bosniak man who, it transpired, was on recess from studies in the United States. Striking up conversation with small talk, the Bosniak man came to speak passionately and in great detail about his country, regaling a depressing tale of how Bosnia-Herzigovina was a united country before the 1990s with schools, politics, nightclubs - and relationships - all seeing a mixing of religions. And yet now, the constituent peoples of the country - the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats - were living segregated lives, erecting minarets and church spires to demarcate territory, and apparently even actively adapting their shared language to create further distinction. At the end of the journey he lightened the mood by taking us to a cafe for a slice of 'pita', a large spiral shaped pie cooked in a covered pan placed under hot stones and served with yoghurt, describing it as a local delicacy - interestingly, the history of this dish places it in the börek family of pastries found across Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa, with this specific version having a mix of Turkish and Croatian influences.

A few days after this encounter, we found ourselves sat on a coach next to an exuberant Washington lawyer who was attempting to "do Europe" in three weeks. During our discussions about Balkans history, he insisted that the differences between the peoples of Bosnia was one that stretched beyond culture and the most recent war, and that it included noticeable ethnic differences (his theory was somewhat undermined by him pointing loudly to the coach driver's 'Serbian nose' and reminiscing even more loudly about the apparently distinctively large breasts of Bosnian Muslim girls in Sarajevo).

Although we tried to distance ourselves from our coach buddy's very public remarks, prior to this we had privately discussed how the obviously Bosniak peoples sometimes appeared darker in their hair colour and general complexion, with the obviously Serb peoples having more angular faces similar to the Slavic peoples we had encountered during our stay in Prague. This is a topic of great controversy, with Bosniaks apparently denying the 'Turk' label sometimes used by Serbs and Croats to describe them - the implication being they are somehow foreign to the land. Yet it is also worth noting when Turkey defeated Croatia during the Euro 2008 football tournament, there were reports of violence in Mostar between the Muslim residents, waving Turkish flags, and Catholic residents who self-identify with Croatia.

Ivo Andrić's own re-telling of the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina - through the keyhole of Višegrad and its spiritual heart, the eleven-arched bridge - ends with the First World War and the first major act of damage to the bridge since its completion.

His voice is strangely prophetic on two accounts. First, we witness in the final chapters a lengthy discourse between two of the Serbian residents, school friends and now love rivals, about the future politics of the country. Stikovic is a young man from a wealthy Serb family returning from studies in Sarajevo whereas Glasicanin is a young man from a Serb family fallen on hard times and confined to working within the lower echelons of the local state bureaucracy. The discussion starts with the charismatic Stikovic proclaiming a new world based on nationalist and seemingly Marxist principles but rapidly becomes a heated exchange about the nature of ideology - with the usually quiet Glasicanin finding his voice to condemn the dangerous individual vanity of those who proclaim grand ideas for benefit of the masses.

Second, as we turn to the closing pages, we are given conclusion to the story of Alihodja who appears frequently throughout the latter stages of the book as the bridge passes through the 19th century. Alihodja is portrayed as a steadfast, stubborn-minded Muslim cleric fiercely resistant to the changes sweeping through the town. Alihodja becomes a figurehead for his co-religionists who seek his counsel for affirmation of their own fears and reassurance. Unrepentantly reminiscent of a time when the Muslims of the town were the ruling class - with the Ottoman bridge a sign of their power - he witnesses first-hand the Austro-Hungarian bombing and destruction of one of its arches, severing the structure into two. He interprets the damage caused as a sign of God's abandonment and subsequently dies of heart failure, face down on the road leading towards his home. 

The book, reportedly recommended reading in high schools throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a mesmerising chronicling of the huge historical 'tidal wave' events that have swept this distinct part of Europe over the previous five centuries yet it is also a moving collection of fictional tales about ordinary people, with needs, trials and fates repeated across the world over and over.

Ivo Andrić has been accused of anti-Muslim bias, and of furthering a myth of the Bosniak peoples  as aliens - dropped not long ago into Serbian and Croat lands by a Turkish mothership. Like all nations with such drawn-out, bitter conflicts - Northern Ireland and Israel both being examples that immediately spring to mind - the origins of the peoples there are incredibly complex and as hotly contested as issues of the present day.

As well as providing an insight into the psyche of Balkans, especially the Serbs who have perhaps been demonised somewhat in Western media having been on the 'wrong end' of two NATO interventions there (not without good cause), the book leaves you with unanswered questions: Have past empires caused irrevocable damage to the lands and peoples they made colonies? How do peoples of different religions go beyond cold coexistence? Can any lessons be drawn for our own societies?

Whilst the Clash of Civilisations theory remains debunked, the book does leaves you thinking that the peace and prosperity in the Balkans, as with South Africa, is fundamentally important to every single one of us during this age of globalisation - because if a genuinely cosmopolitan society can be achieved there, then there is hope for humanity as a whole (for there are very few societies in the 21st century that do not face similar challenges).

Looking to the UK, particularly northern England, at segregated towns in Lancashire such as Oldham, Nelson, Rochdale and Bolton, and similar towns in neighbouring Yorkshire such as Bradford and Dewsbury, it is easy to draw pessimistic comparisons. Yet it is also a challenge to act, a call to our society to proactively avoid the long, slow march towards the kind of bloodshed that occurred in Višegrad. No doubt there will be those who say "not in our country, we're not like that", just like Alihodja who insisted the bridge would never fall, but history is one of unintended consequences and if The Bridge Over The Drina serves any educational purpose, it is to remind us of this and of the deep roots of ethnic and cultural conflict which often go ignored, or simply unnoticed, until it is too late.

27/08/2012

The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy


How does a small island nation maintain cultural independence and political-economic dignity whilst living in close proximity to the world's superpower? This is a question as familiar to Britons and their relationship with the United States as it is to Cubans - even if the contexts and answers are very different. 

On our recent honeymoon trip to Cuba with my new wife, a trip that was naturally much more about relaxation than education, we agreed a deal - we would spend our first 5 days immersing ourselves in Havana and Cuban life, doing the heritage and cultural trail thing we love so much and which has taken us tramping across the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia to the Great Wall of China over the past few years -  but then we would do what we've done very little of before, go to a luxury resort and try to switch off completely from the outside world for 10 days.

As well as the standard Lonely Planet guide to assist with the first stage of our trip, before flying out to Havana I decided to buy a further book on Cuba to help develop my understanding of the country's unique political situation. Having studied the history of Latin American politics at university, with a partial focus on Cuba and Che Guevara, I knew a little of why and how the 26th of July Movement and subsequent revolution emerged - and that the Castro government was not your classical dictatorship which we now see toppling like dominoes across the Middle East. Growing up in left-leaning political circles, I'd also often heard Cuba casually cited as an example of a country where socialism works - usually with reference to its enviable record on education and health care.

I was tempted to buy Fidel Castro's 'My Life', having read excerpts and found it a real page-turner, but felt this maybe a little too one-sided! I'm aware it's easy to get caught up in a romantic view of a country like Cuba, particularly when there on holiday, and so tried to seek out a more balanced viewpoint. This search eventually lead me to Dervla Murphy's 'The Island That Dared'.

Dervla Murphy is a famed Irish travel writer known for her skill of blending historical and political commentary with observations of people at grassroots level. The Island That Dared is no exception, a 400+ page journal of her several visits to Cuba - initially on holiday with her daughter and grandchildren, and from there, travelling alone to roam around the country faraway from the well-worn tourist tracks, as is her style.

The travelogue is particularly powerful in bringing to life the vibrant, hopeful nature of the Cuban people, which in our own interactions, was confirmed time and time again. Cubans appear as a diverse bunch - a kaleidoscope of descendants from European settlers, African slaves and Taino indigenous farmers. Yet in a relatively short time, as a 'new world' society, they have developed a distinct shared identity based around community life, music and the arts. Cubans, despite their isolation, are also surprisingly worldly approaching foreigners with open arms (albeit sometimes with a view to making a quick Tourist Peso in the process - another interesting Cuban quirk), genuinely wanting to share their country, and to engage with the outside world. 

On the surface, by Western standards, Cubans appear to possess very little and to have lost a lot - Havana is striking in its beauty as a historic transatlantic port with all the architectural features of your classical European city - yet appears locked in a process of widespread, seemingly unstoppable decay. The term 'faded jewel' continuously sprung to mind as we spent our days wandering the city, yet this also felt like an understatement on repeat. The gleaming classic American cars buzzing up and down Havana's otherwise quiet highways seem to be the only aspect immune to the rot. That and the Cuban demeanour - generally presenting as naturally attractive, bright-eyed, well-dressed, with an easygoing temperament and air of confidence. Perhaps walking around Cuba without a Dervla Murphy to provide commentary would leave you with the impression that this is yet another Communist experiment gone wrong, and that another Berlin Wall moment is needed in this tiny corner of the Americas. Instead, through her regular reference to and re-telling of Cuba's recent history - in particular, its relations with the United States situated just 90 miles away - it becomes clear that this country is yes, an experiment, but no, not a failed state and no, not your typical Soviet outpost (it was hard to shake this preconception, having seen the grey monolithic blocks in East Berlin and the Prague outskirts).  

What you are left with, as a Western tourist looking in, is a changing of perspective of what prosperity really is - does owning (a large mortgage on) a hi-spec apartment, having the latest designer clothes and phone technology, possessing hundreds of followers on your Twitter of Facebook, and so on, meet the definition of prosperity? Should our collective prosperity be measured solely by GDP and economic growth or by other more human measures such as how peaceful our society is, how communal our society is, how educated people are in general (not just in terms of university graduation statistics), how healthy people are physically - and mentally?

Certainly Dervla Murphy makes a very good argument that Cuba has rapidly evolved from banana republic status over the previous five decades, although in her passionate defence of the revolution (which there is much evidence to suggest was, and in many ways still is, a popular movement) - coming from an already deep-rooted leftist political stance - she tends to sweep over too much of the darker side of the Castro years. And in turn, tends to instead spend great time detailing the alleged crimes of Cuban Americans and drifts towards simply presenting Cuba as a socialist utopia in comparison to The West as a capitalist dystopia. As the book progresses, this theme appears to become more and more laboured, and certainly towards the end I found myself slipping into skim-reading and wondering what Nick Cohen would have to say about it.

In particular, Dervla Murphy offers no real answer to the question of what happens if Cubans decide en masse they've had enough of their paternalistic, predominantly white old-school leaders and want something radically different? She also pays no attention to the question of whether Cubans, for all their achievements in music and arts, and science, are intellectually stifled in the sphere of philosophy and what implications this has for the future when Castroism inevitably ends. (This is not just a question for Cuba, our visit to China last year raised this particular question also). 

Dervla Murphy also seemingly misses a glaring fact - as a visiting travel writer, she has to break laws to wander around Cuba and speak to Cubans freely. And were she to be a Cuban-born writer, she would be unable to leave her country without passing through a politicised bureaucracy - and may even face exile or imprisonment. The case of Yoani Sánchez, author of the Generación Y blog, and other persecuted Cuban writers documented on the Reporters Without Borders site bear testimony to this.

Ultimately through, we left Cuba - apart from being incredibly relaxed and re-energised - with a greater awareness of how many 'Majority World' countries have had to, and are still having to, bravely engage in post-imperial recovery and re-alignment - and with our black-and-white views of the world (which we are all prone to if we spend too long in one place or with one group of people) both challenged and enriched. And Dervla Murphy's work contributed greatly to this.

It seems obvious that Cuba will not stay as it is forever. With the passing of time it slowly edges towards a crossroads. Interestingly, Fidel Castro has built no cult of personality - instead actively cultivating the long-dead Che Guevara, José Marti and Simón Bolivar as national icons - and has not opposed his brother-turned-comrade-turned-president, Raúl Castro, who is taking a much less hesitant, stop-start approach to reform than he did during his final decade of power. From a top-down viewpoint, the question is when the time of the Castro brothers inevitably comes to pass, whether Cuba will transition to a democracy - perhaps in a similar model to its Latin American neighbours - or will enter a period of less benevolent dictatorship enacted by Marxist remnants or possibly worst still, new Batista-types from across the Gulf of Mexico. 

From a bottom-up viewpoint, the question is whether Cubans - should they embrace Western-style capitalism - can maintain their status as a diverse-yet-united, uniquely-cultured, peaceful and non-consumerist-minded people? Not just for their own well-being, but as a postive alternative (of sorts) to what we often see in Europe, North America, Australasia, and increasingly so, in Asia. Particularly if their relationship with their neighbour to the north changes and multi-nationals enter the scene (think golden M's and the like). It is unlikely we will return to Cuba anytime soon because there is so much else of the world we wish to see - but I do hope Dervla Murphy is around long enough to write a sequel documenting post-Castro Cuba, and one as equally glowing.


For a few more photos from the trip, follow the link:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattgrant361/sets/72157631277538768/

Changing Direction

I'm at a bit of a crossroads at the moment with this blog. I continue to be in an inbetween place, I feel, with regards to church membership / denomination affiliation - specifically in relation to the Unitarians & Free Christians, a denomination I hold dear yet nevertheless frustrates me. I've been here before and realise this is not going to be worked out by over-thinking it or writing about issues that are not yet clear in my mind, and which have probably been blogged about many times before. Instead, I need to just let it be. 

Many years ago I did run a blog dedicated entirely to book reviews and I often look back on this as a high point in my writing. Therefore I'm going to spend the next few weeks focusing on reviewing books I've read recently and continuing to highlight news / political items of interest.

06/08/2012

Off-Centre Cross

Last summer I wrote a lengthy post on Christian symbols which surprisingly enough remains one of the most read on this blog. I guess this could be regarded as a follow-up post.

This morning, whilst relaxing over a cup of tea, I made my periodic visit to Andrew J. Brown's excellent Caute blog and the following symbol, posted in the side column, caught my eye:


The Off-Centre Cross (also known as the Universalist Cross) is explained succinctly on the The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention including the following quote:
"The Circle is a symbol of infinity--a figure without beginning or end. 
The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism."
-- Gordon McKeeman
I like this - and more so than the Flaming Chalice which has been widely adopted by Unitarians / Unitarian-Universalists.

Speaking as a Free Christian, my own interpretation of this symbol is that the circle is in fact an 'O' standing for 'Other' - in the sense our faith seeks to point to, and to provide a conscious experience of, the 'Sacred Other' - that which we call God or Spirit. The cross represents the fact we, as 'pan narrans' or 'storytelling apes' (to quote Terry Pratchett in The Science of Discworld II), have adopted the Christian narrative as the principle way of finding meaning - and Truth - in our lives. But it remains off-centre to allow for other stories, other ways of Spirit & Truth.

05/08/2012

One Day Like This


Yesterday was a very good day. I got married!

Perfect Day

Yesterday, completely oblivious to the achievements of Team GB in London, I married my beautiful significant other at Norcliffe Chapel. The day was beyond words.