Tag Archives: culture

Carnival here and there

This week, 9 of my acquaintances are on holiday or have taken days off from work to participate in carnival activities. One of them lives in Binche, Belgium, where every year during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (i.e. today) there are street performances, dancing and merry making. The Shrove Tuesday’s parade includes the throwing or giving away of oranges to spectators by the Gilles – famous participants colourfully dressed with wax masks, ostrich-feathered hats and wooden footwear. The oranges are considered to bring good luck because they are a gift from the Gilles and it is an insult to throw or give them back. (Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, Pancake Day or ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French as it’s the last night of eating rich and fatty food before fasting during Lent, which is 40 days before Easter).

According to http://www.carnivalpower.com/history_of_carnival.htm, the Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed by, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and the practice spread to France, Spain and all Catholic countries in Europe.

Two years ago, I was at the Notting Hill carnival in London and it had a fully Caribbean flare with lots of feathers, and I have since found out that in Africa feathers are used in masks and headdresses as a symbol of humans’ ability to overcome problems, pains, illness and difficulties. I’m certain you’ve heard a lot about the spectacular carnival bonanza in Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago, and the lavish Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, Sydney, Venice and other cities.

During my early days in Luxembourg when I read everything from billboard notices to free newspapers, I remember seeing something like “You haven’t lived in Luxembourg properly or fully until you’ve sampled the country’s magnificent array of carnival processions and parties.” Indeed, in Luxembourg, carnival is a serious and month-long celebration with various Luxembourgish associations organising a host of festive events and cavalcades (tradition that goes back to 1870); and February 27 was a no-work day in some companies.

During the carnival period, people enjoy tasty doughnuts, pancakes and other local specialities, such as knots of pastry sprinkled with icing sugar (Verwurrelt Gedanken) and small cakes made of scalded pastry (Stretzegebäck).

I did make some pancakes last weekend. As well, I was in a fancy-dress party organised beautifully by a lovely Polish-French couple, which included games, dancing that lasted till dawn and devouring on bigos (made of cabbage) and faworki ‘Angel wings’ (a yolk-base dough well aerated, kneaded then fried in deep oil, which are traditionally eaten on the last Thursday of the carnival).

Often, we hear about disorders and drunkenness that result from carnival festivities. Generally, however, there are more ups than downs: they liven up arts and cultures, vitalise local economy, provide employment and attract tourists. They encourage community spirit (e.g. one of my students serves as a volunteer First Aid personnel in his German-speaking hometown in Belgium); social integration; self-esteem; optimism and happiness. They also provide opportunities for authorities to showcase their organisational skills in terms of security, safety, transport, etc.

If you want to go beyond the carnival atmosphere, check the following local and world events in March: concerts and shows in your towns and cities, Water-Drawing Festival in Japan, Festival of Colour in India and Nepal, Bali Spirit Festival in Indonesia and Semana Santa in Mexico.

Language, identity and global necessity

Language is a cultural, political and economic tool, and English has shown great success in this domain. The spread of English internationally has been aided and abetted by the advancement in technology, forging of international organisations, and bare economic and political necessities. On the other hand, languages have been (and can be) taken over by one which is spoken by those from an economically, politically and socially dominant nation.

People who speak English as a second language do so because either they want or are obliged to (it is imposed from the outside). These days, they represent more than two-thirds of English speakers in the world, and the distinction between native and non-native speakers is not that significant anymore.

In the Philippines, for example, English is used in government, private and public dealings. Although Tagalog is the official language, English is the medium of instruction in schools and universities and is used lavishly in the mass media. This country was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years; however, it’s the Americans who have had the recent influence on its culture. Its proximity to Australia – another native English speaking country – has been a convenience. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines has the largest population of English-speaking inhabitants (over 102 millions).

The majority of this year’s Eurovision songs were in English. Even the winning title by Jamala of Ukraine has more English than Tatar words. For the first time, Spain’s entry was also in English which aroused criticisms from its Royal Academy of Spanish Language (RAE), the official body that oversees language use. The French entry was also mainly performed in English. (In Eurovision’s earlier days, contests were dominated by francophone nations – e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg & Monaco – and by entries in French). These days, contestants believe that English gives them a better chance to win because it is more widely understood than other languages; as well, successful songs have English lyrics.

Language is part of our identity, i.e. we identify and communicate with each other through it. Without language, a society and its culture do not have strong and unifying foundation upon which to exist. It is sad that sometimes this identity is sacrificed in favour of financial gain and/or career ambition.
Bilingualism or multiculturalism is definitely advantageous, particularly to access job and education, improve relationships or open opportunities. What is disconcerting is putting aside our native language (heritage) in favour of another; for example, parents insisting on their children to speak only the language of their new country or place of residence. Without practice, the ability to speak a language (native or acquired) gradually vanishes.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk.languages seen 30/05/16) has reported that there are 7,000 different languages in the world; 90% of these are spoken by less than 100,000 individuals; of which 2,200 are in Asia and only 260 in Europe.

Sadly, many of these languages (e.g. Romani in Europe, Austral in French Polynesia and Native American Hupa) are disappearing, which has global consequences. Reports published by UNESCO have expressed concerns that if nothing is done, half of the languages spoken today won’t exist anymore by the end of this century; and with their disappearance, humanity would lose cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. This is an absolute worry because local knowledge, which is mainly transmitted orally, is linked to timeless wisdom on health, wellbeing and biodiversity (i.e. their wise understanding of the environment can be lost during the change in language).

Therefore, there is an urgent need for well-planned and implemented policies on maintaining or revitalising mother tongues and pass these on to younger generations. Every small effort in this regard is an extra mile. UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” is a useful guide in monitoring the status of endangered languages and creating awareness on the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. On individual level, let’s continue teaching and speaking with our children and family our native language as this is a heritage issue and not a hindrance to life’s success.

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At 5am on 14 November 2015, I was awaken by a phone call from Australia. My sister was so relieved that none of my family and friends was in Paris. My brother-in-law continued the conversation with information on deaths and damages unfolding on their television screen the whole day.

We were in Luxembourg that Friday evening watching Spectre, and as soon as we got home at 11pm we went to bed oblivious to the terrorist attacks in the city of lights, where my first son was born and I resided for 2 years. Though we don’t live in Paris any more, I’m affected by this insecure state and threats of terrorism, which I had never seen in my life before. Last week, one of my students was at the funeral of his cousin’s son who was one of the Bataclan victims. For 2 weeks now, I’ve been coming home late, missing dinner with my family as it takes 2 hours to get home due to traffic jams and security checks. These days, I spend more time commuting than teaching.

Terrorism threatens our existence and that of the civilised world. This has ramifications on every aspect of our society: psychological (limit our activities & choices/create fear), political (e.g. State resources are redirected from social development to security measures), social (relationships are redefined, suspicions arise, and stereotypes prevails) and economic (increased expenditures on health and security; loss of income – e.g. shops in Brussels were deserted last November 21-22).

As the saying goes “If it doesn’t kill us, if will only make us stronger,” and this is exactly what our democratic world has become. There has been an outpouring of support and solidarity. This write-up is my contribution to ensuring that such support and solidarity continue even after families and friends have buried their loved ones and the injured have left their hospital beds.

Solidarity is best described as a fellowship due to common or shared feelings, interests, purposes and responsibilities. Thinking about solidarity, I was reminded of my undergrad lecture more than 3 decades ago on Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), a French-born academic who’s known as the Father of Sociology. He put forward the concept of mechanical and organic solidarities. In the former, people have common values and beliefs (i.e. they have the same jobs and responsibilities) that constitute to a collective conscience leading to cooperation between individual members of the group or community. In the latter, there is specialisation of tasks (division of labour) so the society is more secular and individualistic hence people rely on each other to achieve and maintain unity.

Yes, we depend on each other to keep our world safe and democratic – i.e. solidarity. There is a need to intensify our efforts to stay connected to people in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. We must be proactive in dealing with friendly and hostile encounters, especially within a diverse and multicultural environment. As well, let’s not forget that poverty, ignorance or misinformation, discrimination, absence of communication, lack of political will (or their opposites) contribute to the kind of society we have and leave for future generations.

There are enormous examples of individual and group solidarity. « Je suis Paris » was written on t-shirts, walls and banners in many countries, and some individuals have collected money to help the families of victims.

Likewise, there are commemorations, fund-raising events and social/political gatherings (e.g. last week’s Domestic Violence Day and Climate Talks in Paris) when we can give support beyond monetary terms. We shouldn’t wait for the loss of lives, natural disasters, accidents or gloomy situations to demonstrate solidarity. Every day we are faced with circumstances and people that provide us with the opportunity to show sympathy, cooperation and a sense of humanity.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful and happy festive season. This is my last article in 2015, and I hope that there have been more ups than downs in your life this year.