A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


I went and saw Babel (the British have had too much influence on me, I keep calling it bay-bul in my head instead of baa-bul like it should be) tonight after much waiting. I’ve been desperate to see it since it first came out in London during the London Film Festival in October or November but hadn’t had the chance until now. I enjoyed it so very much, though it left me in a mood.

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard of the movie was that the apparently disparate stories that it tries to weave together into one overarching tale had tenuous links at best. And while I agree that the stories could have happened unrelated to each other, it made me appreciate the connections even more. That’s what our globalizing world is all about after all, innit? The small ways in which we are inextricably linked to each other.

I also thought that it made an important point about how people (in this case the Americans were the evil perpetuators, though they are not alone in this I assure you) approach the Other and how that affects those relationships at a fundamental level. ‘We did something wrong because they think we did something wrong’, explained one of the main characters, for example.

Which was possibly why the guy next to me made me so angry. I’m not sure where he’s ‘from’, but he was speaking a mixture of Spanish and English throughout the film. And as if the fact that he was talking throughout the film wasn’t annoying enough, when it came to a part where an older gentleman in the film was freaking out about all the ‘terrorists’ in a Moroccan village, the guy turned to his girlfriend (or whatever), whose hand he kept slurpily kissing throughout the film, and said something like, ‘oh those stupid Americans, they’re always like that, worried about terrorists’. Which I suppose was more or less what I was thinking too, but I was frustrated a) with the fact that he didn’t recognize that he had an American sitting right next to him in the theatre (I was decked out in jeans and a Yale hoodie and everything), but more importantly b) that the guy in the film to whom he was referring had a markedly British accent. I just fumed, thinking, ‘fine, generalize about Americans, but at least do it based on actual Americans, not characters in movies, and especially not British ones!’

The story of the ‘lead’ Japanese character probably attracted me most, and I particularly enjoyed the cuts between her perspective that had no sound and the raucous club around her. And the end really tied it up for me, though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. You’ll just have to go see it to know what I’m talking about.

I know I don’t usually do film reviews here on my blog, but all in all, I would highly recommend this one, and thanks for indulging me this once.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bosnia as a Globalized End Point?

Let me preface this argument by indulging in a bit of quasi-diasporic nostalgia, for although it’s not what led me down this track originally, it has certainly informed my argument.

In 1906, my (great?)-great-grandfather left his little village of Goranci tucked away in the hills near Mostar in what was then still part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Within the year, he ended up in Chicago, Illinois, USA, an Eastern European immigrant among many. In 1907, his wife followed suit.

In 2003, almost a century after this journey, I found myself hiking the 15km from Mostar back to his village in search of my so-called roots.

Growing up, my surname stuck out in a crowd for its difficult pronunciation, and often people asked where it came from. ‘It’s Croatian,’ I would reply, usually having to explain where Croatia was, never mind how it was related to Yugoslavia. And so, little by little ‘being Croatian’ crept into my identity.

Which is why it came as a shock to me when, during my junior year abroad in France, I started planning my Spring Break trip to Croatia only to find that Mostar, the city of family lore, was not there. Rather, history had left Mostar in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. I felt suddenly vulnerable, my identity threatened. Was I now Bosnian or, god forbid, Herzegovinian? I could hardly spell the latter let alone pronounce it (turns out Mostar is the capital of the Herzegovinian half of the country of course). 怎么办呢!

When I eventually arrived in the verdant valley of Mostar, after an almost epic train and bus journey from France, I was surprised by what I found. In my home in Colorado (USA) we had a small tile mosaic of the city brought over on one of the family’s subsequent sojourns back to the mother country. Growing up I always thought that one of the focuses of the picture was a church steeple. Upon arrival I discovered that I was sorely mistaken.

The city itself is divided roughly in half by a river that meanders through the bottom of the valley. But beyond a geographical division, this river is a symbolic division. Ethnic Croatians (Roman Catholic) live(d) on the north side, ethnic Albanians (Muslims) on the south. The Stari Most (Old Bridge) was also then a powerful symbol, for beyond its architectural splendor, it was the point of contact between these two disparate factions. And though the bridge featured prominently in my family’s tile mosaic, it was mosques that actually filled the background, not churches.

Of course, when I arrived in 2003, the bridge was in the middle of reconstruction, having been completely destroyed (neither side claimed responsibility) during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Indeed, half the town was under reconstruction. Bombed out shells of apartment buildings stood next to newly finished flats. The United Colors of Benneton stood proudly in the center of town, a nod to the future aspirations of the city. The hills that loomed over the valley were covered with cemeteries, and it was recommended that one not go wandering in the hills for fear of landmines. NATO forces were discreet but omnipresent—at one point I even chatted with a French soldier in army fatigues.

And so as I sat at a café overlooking the bridge, sipping Turkish coffee and listening to the chants of the imams broadcast over PAs at evening prayers, I couldn’t help but wonder how it all came to this—a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The answer that I arrived at just last week is globalization. This is what globalization looks like at its extreme end point. I was arguing that recent balkanesque impulses around the globe were examples not of a maintained power of the nation-state, but of a resurgence of the importance of the regional/local. And so, Yugoslavia was divided as a direct result of wars, redefining nation-states to coincide with local cultures—divisional units which arguably make more sense than arbitrary geographical ones.

But then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the leftovers, the remainder, the odd one out. Croatia pulled away from Yugoslavia because it was mainly (though it’s important to note, not entirely!!!!!) Croat. Albania shared Islam. Slovenia had its own unifying language. Serbia was the heart of the Yugoslav ‘regime’, and as such tried to retain as much of its geographic integrity as possible, but ultimately, what was left convened around Serbian identity (except perhaps Montenegro and a few other regions). But then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Here, in the center of all these other ‘countries’, it became the meeting point, the juncture of metissage, and so how could it be divided except by artificial geographic boundaries? Indeed, what relation does Bosnia have to Herzegovina besides an outwardly imposed bed to share, enforced by NATO troops and tied to its Austrio-Hungarian roots via the continued use of the Deutsch Mark.

It was global forces that brought B-H to where it is today, it’s mix of cultures and ethnicities indivisible in its recombination. A home to a vast diasporic community, many of whom were forced out by the atrocities of war, some of whom left at the prospects of better economic opportunities elsewhere.

The ultimate symbol of Mostar’s globalization? Red Bull adverts that are played in London’s double-decker buses which show men diving off the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Stari Most (Old Bridge)—the symbol of connection now the symbol of capitalist hegemony.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Globalizing Maroc

It has been argued that the ‘national identity’ is perhaps the biggest and most successful myth perpetrated on humankind during the modern era. Morocco might be a good example of this.

Originally home to nomadic Berber tribes, Arab influences were introduced to the area early, and Carthage established not long thereafter. And though the French had a major role as the main colonizing power of Morocco, one doesn’t have to look far to see the influences of other European states. In the north, where only a small stretch of water separates Morocco and Spain, Spanish sway is evident. Or, a tour around the port town of Essaouira will make apparent the power the Portuguese once had in the area. And with it’s role as one of the most important slave ports on the North African coast, the influence of Sub-Saharan slaves who never made it farther than Morocco is obvious in the Gnaoua tribe that still inhabits the area.

“Every grand civilization is a metissage,” once said Leopold Sedar Senghor (at least according to the Routard), and perhaps this is because, as Salman Rushdie said in defense of his controversial Satanic Verses, “ mélange, hotchpotch [by which we assume he means hodgepodge?!], a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the word.”

And so what does it mean to be Moroccan? Does one identify with Berber roots (of which one might have none)? Does one look to Islam which has organized the society? And if we go that far, must we then look to the French who have left an indelible impression on the politics, economy, and culture of the country? The answer is, probably a little bit of all of these, depending on the time, place, and person. And this is exactly why the myth of that nation-state is so powerful—no matter one’s personal leanings, one is above all else Moroccan. Dwell on that thought a while with regards to your personal context (what does it mean to be an American [especially], or a Chinese, or a Mexican, or a Pilipino, or ad infinidum anyway?).

And while you do, let me continue with two other questions with regards to the Moroccan case: a) is this Marocaine metissage of the past any different from what we experience today as globalization? and b) how is globalization experienced in Morocco today?

With regards to the first question, I can only start with the same argument that most proponents of a globalization thesis start with: the idea of intensification. Indeed Anthony Giddens, one of the pioneering globalization theorists defines globalization “as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.”

And so, it can be argued that in previous periods, Morocco was maybe subordinated to a colonial ruler, but that this hardly constitutes the close relations all around the world that apparently exist today. Colonial imperialism ≠ globalization—it is too simple a relationship. Also, to what extent did farmers in Bordeaux know and/or care about a nomadic Berber tribe at the height of French colonial rule in Morocco? Perhaps more so than vice versa, but still probably only a negligible amount.

Is this any different from the modern era? Questionable, though several scenarios can be imagined where the two disparate groups might have a large impact on one another. For example, it is much more likely today that a member of the Berber tribe might have immigrated (legally or otherwise) to France, maybe to Bordeaux even. The French farmer then would be confronted directly with this ‘other,’ who might keep in touch with relatives in Morocco via telephone (Skype?), or some other mediated form of nearly instantaneous interaction. Or a more likely scenario might be the French farmer who now has the easy ability to jump a cheap flight to Morocco to go meet (and buy a rug from?) said nomadic Berber tribe.

Framed in this way, it’s a question of intensification. But while a tourist to Morocco is more likely to be from France, or at least Francophone, s/he might just as easily be Spanish, British, Canadian, Australian, Italian, American, Japanese, German, etc. Here it is the diverse global influences, the world system, that is emphasized.

Returning to the Portu-Franco-Arab-Moroccan slave port of Essaouira then, was that not a player in a global system? Anyone with basic high school history can draw the golden triangle of the slave trade between Africa, the New World, and established European powers. Perhaps I’m being to Western-centric to call this a world system, for where is Asia in the slave game? But it’s certainly a very established, very international economic process, where actions in distant lands had very direct local consequences. How is globalization any different today? I’m a little at a loss.

And so I turn to the second question: how is globalization experienced for Moroccans today?

Again, I want to start in Essaouira, a UNESCO world heritage site, which might begin to give us an idea of how the town experiences the world today: as a tourist attraction.

For Amir (names have been changed to protect the innocent) a horse handler who comes from a small village about 3km from Essaouira, this means that beyond speaking Arabic and French (the two languages taught in school) he also must be semi-conversant in English and German. We chose to speak in French.

“Moi, je suis lycencé en informatique,” he explained during our short horse ride. “Me, I have a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology.” “Mais tu vois, je suis ici avec les chevaux,” he laments. “But you see, I’m here with the horses.” It’s the only way for him to make a living in a community which he estimates has an unemployment rate upwards of 40%. “I did create a website for my ranch. I’ll give you the address.”

As we ride through the scrub brush he points to an ancient stone bridge that had been washed away many years before during a flash flood. There are men taking laser measurements on top of the remains. “Are they rebuilding the bridge?” I ask.

“Oh, of course. You see all that scrub over there, that’s being cleared for a golf course. And the construction over there is a new resort. They need to rebuild the bridge so they have access to it.”

“It’s a shame that they’re destroying all that ‘forest,’” I reply.
“Yeah, but the one good thing I can say about it all is that it brings work for the locals.”

And so it appears that Morocco is moving to fill its global niche as a European vacation spot—France’s Mexico if you will. If we are to believe Amir, this is the only route to economic stability for the local populace, which is quite disheartening. But THAT’s globalization today.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Soyez le bienvenue

First, my apologies if there are a lot of mistakes in this post. I'm trying to be careful with my typing, but I'm using a Moroccan keyboard whose Roman character input is in the French-AZERTY style. Of course, this is made more difficult by the fact that most of the keys are so well used that I can't read the letters, so I'm trying to use AZERTY from memory, and that's just a touch difficult.

But at least I'm here in Marrakech, just meters from the central square, Djemma al-fenah listening to the afternoon prayers. I was looking at flights several months ago (which is how I ended up in France) and thought to myself: 'at the end of term, I'm going to want to escape from London's cold grey skies to some place vaguely warm and sunny.' And so, Morocco!

The funny thing is though, that it's actually warmer in London at the moment. That's not to say that it wasn't damn cold last night when I left (I spent forever waiting for a bus in 35 degree Farenheit weather...grrr), it's just not that much warmer here, and to top it off, it's raining en plus! It's supposed to clear up (and warm up!) by Tuesday, but it still makes me sad, especially since I don't have indoor heating.

But despite all this, I'm really enjoying myself already. I've been taking Arabic classes at the LSE this term, and upon arrival here in al-Maghreb (Morocco) have had a sense of instant gratification. Now, all we've spent the first six weeks doing is learning the Arabic alphabet, but it's so refreshing to study a language with an alphabet again! I'm just going around Marrakech like a little child sounding out letter by letter the words. But it works, and I could read 'Marrakech Menera Airport' in Arabic when I arrived. It's so different than in Chinese where even if I can understand what the word means, I might not be able to pronounce it unless I've memorized how to do so. Now my problem is that I can read some words, but I have absolutely no clue what they actually mean. Details, right? I also don't know how to say anything in Arabic yet, with the exception of "Peace be upon you," so that's a little less than helpful when trying to get around. Next time, next time!

And in a truly bizarre, small world moment, I was walking down the street here, when all of a sudden I heard: "Jeff! Is that you?" Travelling by myself, I was a little taken aback. And then I recognized her--it was a fellow Whittie named Molly who is just returning to the US from Senegal after her two-year Peace Corps stint there. Apparently with Air Maroc you can stay over in Casablanca for up to a month when flying between Dakar and JFK, so she thought she'd take advantage of that fact to explore a new country. She's even already started to catch me up on all the gossip about the other Whitties and people I know from my study abroad program in Nantes, France who were doing Peace Corps in Western, Sub-Saharan Africa. After just having met another friend, Mags, who was passing through London last Wednesday, I can't help but think that us Whitties are everywhere!

Now to see if I can't find a hammam (bath house) to go warm up and get a massage in...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Global Moment, I

Ok, I’m officially freaking out.

As some of you might recall, this term I have been very much focusing on understanding globalization. In fact, I’m currently sitting here at the LSE library trying to write a 5,000 word essay on the topic: IS THE CONCEPT OF ‘CULTURE’ STILL ANALYTICALLY USEFUL IN AN AGE DOMINATED BY GLOBAL FLOWS?

When it comes to writing, I’m one of those people who has to have an introduction set before I can write the rest of the paper. Once I’ve got the introduction down, everything else comes naturally. Of course conversely, if I can’t nail the intro, then the rest of the paper doesn’t come.

In this case I’ve gone through three different iterations of my introduction and am about to endeavour on my fourth because of an experience I just had.

My third introduction started with a look a the typical construction of globalization: McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and CNN. As such, I wanted to make sure I had the names right (ie is there a dash between coca and cola?), so I went to their corporate websites just to check. Chez McDo I was directed first to their international site where I started playing around. I was trying to figure out in how many countries they operate, so I went to their drop-down list and started counting (very scientific, I know). I started at the bottom and the first (last) entry immediately caught my eye: Yugoslavia.

‘That’s weird,’ I thought to myself, ‘Yugoslavia isn’t technically a country anymore.’ And so, I instinctively clicked through to explore further. Lo and behold, the website URL was www.mcdonalds.co.yu. The .yu clearly referring to Yugoslavia.

‘Perhaps it’s Serbian, they might still consider themselves the seat of what remains of Yugoslavia,’ I thought as I clicked to open the flash site.

The flash player loaded and I was confronted with Roman script which surprised me a bit as Serbo-Croatian, while essentially the same language is written in Cyrillic characters in Serbia and Roman characters in Croatia.

‘Maybe by Yugoslavia they mean Croatia then, or maybe it’s just easier to operate in Roman script in an international company.’

A notice at the top of the page caught my eye. “Novosti,” it announced. Now I’m no speaker of Serbo-Croatian, but I my skills of deduction were working well enough to associate “novo” with “Novograd” in Russia, which I knew meant “new city.”

‘Ok, so what’s new?’

Branislav Knežević (40) novi predsednik McDonald’sovog zapadno evropskog regiona.

Alright, some guy named new regional president of McDonald’s.

‘Wait, does that say Branislav Knežević?! Knežević like Knezovich? My last name?’

And then I proceeded to quietly freak out.

Apparently some guy I’m at least somehow related to is the new president for McDonald’s in “Yugoslavia.” Now, if my last name was Smith or Chan, I might be less inclined to find this a bizarre event, but given the rather uniqueness of my last name, it just really seemed like a small world kinda moment.

Here’s his picture next to mine. Whaddya think? Do we look Knezovichy?

Creepy. Creepy. Creepy!