09/22/14

The Forgotten Gulag


The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

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08/16/14

The First Dark Age


End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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08/8/14

My Grandfathers’ War


WWIOne hundred years ago World War I began, a war that started as a clash in a tiny, almost unknown Balkan state and blossomed into a violent, gruesome war that spread across Europe, the Middle East and reached into Africa and Asia. Within a few years, tens of millions would be dead, the political face of the world changed and almost all of the great royal houses of Europe would be deposed and broken. An entire culture, a society of class and place, was overthrown.

The timeline of the origins of WWI is complex and, from this century of temporal distance, confusing and obscure. As Keven Drews wrote in the National Post,

It’s been 100 years since Europe’s major powers, and their colonies and dominions, went to war, but the passage of time has done little to settle the debate about who or what was responsible for the First World War.

Prof. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said some blame those who held political power at the time, and their divergent systems of government, while others insist it’s difficult to assign blame at the feet of any one culprit.

“If anybody goes looking for simple causes, they’re going to either be disappointed or they’re going to reduce the history so much that it won’t make sense anymore — 1914 was an unbelievably complicated world,” said Neiberg.

It began on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in Sarajevo. That event – for political reasons few of us today know about or understand – was followed by a month of drum beating, armies mobilizing and nationalism being tightened to a high pitch throughout Europe. Alliances solidified between the powers. Tens of thousands of men enlisted in a nationalistic fervor.

War seemed glorious, exciting, patriotic.

A steamroller of events followed that shooting. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and on August 2, Germany invaded Luxembourg. On August 3, it declared war on France. A day later, the UK declared war on Germany, while the USA would stubbornly declare its neutrality (not declaring war on Germany until April, 1917 and on Austria-Hungary in December, 1917).

My grandfathers would both enlist in that hot blush of youthful patriotic passion; my mother’s father serving in Canada’s fledgling navy and my father’s father in the King’s Royal Rifles. Unlike so many of their friends and companions, they would survive, although not necessarily unscathed – the emotional impact must have been enormous.

The whole world changed in those few short years. A new world emerged, one we recognize as our early modern culture, but one that shed the skins of so many social structures that were left in the mud of the trenches.

Some say that was good; that what emerged was a better, stronger and more vibrant world. Colonialism and class were on the wane. Individualism, feminism, workers’ rights and a more open society were on the rise. So some good emerged from the rubble. But along the way, we gained terrorism, fascism, military dictatorships, communism, and a mannerless, self-centred culture.

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07/10/14

Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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07/5/14

A Cup of Dragon Well


TempleLegend has it that, in the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong (1711-1799 CE), the grandson of the Emperor Kangxi, went on a holiday to the West Lake district, in the Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province, China. He stopped at the Hu Gong Temple, nestled under the Lion Peak Mountain (Shi Feng Shan). There, he was presented by the monks with a cup of green tea made from the temple’s own tea bushes.

He was so impressed with the tea that, when he became Emperor himself, Qianlong gave these 18 tea bushes special imperial status and the tea became “Gong Cha,” or Imperial tea. Those trees are still living and, according to Wikipedia, “the tea they produce is auctioned annually for more money per gram than gold.”

The green tea he sipped is known as Longjing or Lung Ching – “Dragon Well” in English, named after an eponymous well located in the nearby village, itself with an interesting story to tell.

There are other parts to this legend:

Since the first cup of tea served, he was very impressed with its beautiful appearance, elegant fragrance and mellow taste. The monk who served the tea, brought him to the tea garden, where 18 tea bushes were planted. Being enamored with the work of women picking the tea, Emperor even decided to try it by himself.

When the Emperor was enjoying gathering the tea leaves, urgent news came saying that his mother, the Empress Dowager fell sick and asked for his immediate return to the palace. When the Emperor came to see his sick Queen Mother, the aroma of tea leaves, which he kept in his pocket, attracted her attention. At once, he served the tea to her, and the Queen Mother fell in love with its amazing taste and flavor. After drinking tea for a few days, the Queen Mother was cured. The Emperor was so grateful to the tea that he granted the 18 tea trees under the Lion Peak Mountain the name of the Imperial Tea Tree. Since then, Dragon Well tea became a tribute tea to Chinese emperors.

Tea SommelierGabriella Lombardi, writing in The Tea Sommelier, says it is the “most famous of all Chinese teas.” (I found this wonderful, beautifully illustrated book on sale at Indigo, Eaton Centre, last weekend; a real steal for anyone interested in tea.)

But the tea from that region was known long before Qianlong. It was mentioned by Lu Yu (733-804 CE) in his famous “The Classic of Tea.”

There were other books about tea produced in China after Lu Yu, such as Zhu Quan’s Manual of Tea from the late 14th century CE. Tea drinking in China is itself at least 2,000 years old, and the oldest tea trees are about 1,700 years old.

Another legend says the tea plants are “watered by rain from a local dragon.”

Tibettour.org tells us:

Dragon Well Tea flourishes in the mountainous area where mild climate and plentiful rainfall are plentiful year-round. Around West Lake, Shifeng Peak, Longjing Village, Yunxi Mountain, Hupao and Meijiawu Region offer such prime conditions. The history of planting tea trees is rather long in these areas, as the tea sage Lu Yu mentioned in his Book of Tea. The teas grown in these areas were called Shi, Long, Yun, Hu and Mei respectively in the past. Now, with an increase in production, it is generally classified into Xihu (West Lake) Longjing Tea, Qiantang Longjing Tea and Yuezhou Longjing Tea, among which the Xihu Longjing Tea is the best.

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06/12/14

The Hollow Crown: Henry V


Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

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