The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Archive for February, 2011

Gadhafi Close to Falling

Posted by thearrow on February 25, 2011

How do I know this? Because he’s now offering $400 per family, a sure sign of desperation. Ceausescu was offering extra money to everyone, too, when he saw the raging crowd in front of him couldn’t be appeased. I can’t find the article now, but I think Mubarak did the same. It didn’t take much longer for Ceausescu and Mubarak to fall after that, so I’m pretty sure Gadhafi isn’t going to last more than a few more days , and that’s just because he has mercenaries on his side. But, the rebel troops are getting close to Tripoli and they’ve been pretty fierce and determined.

One more piece in the domino will be down soon. And what I find so encouraging about the Libyans’ future is that they are not sitting idly, waiting for someone else to govern them. At least in Benghazi, they have started governing themselves and taking care of business. That’s a great sign of a strong civil society. Of course the road ahead won’t be easy. But it has a chance to be less chaotic if people are involved.

Way to go, Libya! A final forceful push and you’ll be free!

Later edit: I’m not the only one saying this. “In a BBC interview, Interior Minister Gen Abdul Fatteh Younis says Col Gaddafi’s regime is collapsing, and forecasts that he will last only a few more days.” From http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12585174.

And the Christian Science Monitor is saying it, too:
“There were credible reports that military bases at Tajura and Misratah, near the capital of Tripoli, had also defected. If true, the remainder of Qaddafi’s 41-year reign will probably be measured in days.”
http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0225/How-Qaddafi-started-losing-Libya.

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Six-Toed Kitty

Posted by thearrow on February 13, 2011

Teo’s neighbors have this tiny little kitty with six toes on each foot. Man, that’s a lot of toes. She loves to be petted so I did that with one hand while taking pics with the other, but she was moving a lot and I couldn’t quite capture her paws the way I wanted to.

But you get the idea 🙂

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Mubarak Is Gone! Yaaay!

Posted by thearrow on February 11, 2011

I am SO HAPPY for the Egyptians! And so excited that this whole world of possibilities and hope for a better future has opened up for them. I remember how I felt in 1989, when I was 17 and Communism fell in Romania. The same exaltation and at the same time disbelief that we finally got rid of our dictator. But I think this time around it’s the rest of the world who is in disbelief that something so awesome could happen from the grassroots up, and which no one was able to predict. The Egyptians were just weary of the guy who just wouldn’t f**ing leave already!

I’m also amazed at the power of social media. Not a lot of dictatorships are going to stick around any more, hopefully, thanks to Facebook and Twitter. It certainly makes me reconsider going back on FB (heh heh). And fascinated at Wael Ghonim’s incredible contribution at helping spark the protests online. Or, rather, putting them on fire. To quote: “Ghonim played a key role in organizing the protests that have convulsed Egypt for more than two weeks. He was the administrator of a Facebook page that is widely credited with calling the first protest January 25.” What a perfect 21st century story!

Beyond all this amazement, excitement, exaltation, and other synonyms, I am worried. And not about the Muslim Brotherhood or the likelihood that Egypt will turn into an Islamic state with Sharia law. Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood had an op-ed in The New York Times saying that they won’t have a presidential candidate.  “We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September.” I have to say I’m impressed with their PR 🙂

I am worried about corruption, which seems to be as widespread as it is now in Romania, where, 20 years after our revolution, it has metastasized at all levels of society. Corruption really is a cancer for which you need very aggressive treatment. As in, zero tolerance. Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, was referring to this as “the bacshish culture.” For those less savvy in how to grease palms, “bacshish” (my spelling) means “bribe.” In Arabic, in Romanian, and probably other Balkan countries, where we had to rub elbows with the Turks for several hundred years and got influenced by their mores.

Engel was saying that Egyptians hope that the ousting of Mubarak’s regime and his cronies, who have all the business connections to enrich themselves up to the wazoo, will also mean the end of corruption. That they are fed up with having to bribe hospital staff even to change bed pans or they won’t do it.

Oh, how sadly familiar all this sounds! And how naive the Egyptians’ hope is. That’s what we, Romanians, thought was lying ahead of us. And yet, here we are 20 years alter, still bribing our way left and right because nothing at all would happen otherwise. Public servants would just sit on their ass and do squat until you bribe them. Same thing in hospitals and pretty much every other sector. It’s not like this everywhere and parts of the country might be saner, but it sure is like this in Bucharest. All levels, high and low, are corrupt. Just as an example, the uncle of one of my friends was diagnosed with lung cancer and was put through chemotherapy, only to find out from the doctor later that he actually didn’t have any cancer. He has something else, that they haven’t been able to identify yet, but now he has to try to get back to life after a brutal chemo treatment. For those who can read Romanian, here is my friend’s post.

So beware of the “bacshish culture,” my friends. It is much more insidious than you might think. It erases the concept of accountability and that turns the country into a body with no immunity. For all those who give bribes are those who take them and they may be your parents, friends, relatives. It won’t be easy at all to change people’s behavior. They’d like other people to change, but not themselves.

Be active, alert citizens and do whatever you can to establish the rule of law and accountability, and create institutions that serve you, rather than themselves. After 45 years of being told what to do by the state, we didn’t know how to do that. Few of those who were 40 in 1989 and had therefore lived all their lives in Communism were able to fight for it. Those with connections grabbed the power and privileges with a sure grip. My generation didn’t try as hard as it should have, I think. A lot of us left the country when we saw the doors of opportunity closing and I don’t think those who stayed are particularly optimistic. A few are doing the best they can.

As hard as it was, Mubarak’s ousting is just the beginning.  Egypt has a lot going for it, though, not in the least the fact that half the population is under 24. It will be a long slog but hopefully you guys will be able to have a functional country where you have free and democratic elections, and where you don’t have to bribe the hospital staff to change bed pans any more.

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Virtual Museum Visits

Posted by thearrow on February 3, 2011

Later edit: The Work of Art in the Age of Google, from The New York Times.

The day has come when you don’t need to spend a gazillion Euros or dollars to actually “visit” the top art museums of the world as if you were walking in them, thanks to Google’s Street View technology. You just go to http://www.googleartproject.com, sit back with a cup of coffee, and take in the beauty. Wow. Not only is it quite a technological feat, but it’s an absolutely brilliant project that opens up the art world to millions of people who might never be able to see those museums in person. Pretty effing amazing.

Which brings back my own art museum-going memories and the struggle to stay as close to them as possible. During Communism, when there was no hope of getting out of the country other than every two years and only to another Eastern block country, I had a class on comparative literature in high school. I was privileged enough to go to a humanities high school, of which there were only two in Bucharest and very few others in the country because the regime was hell bent on decimating the humanities and instating engineering as the only thing worth studying. The comparative literature teacher was talking about the Renaissance and Michelangelo’s magnificent sculptures, and said that The Pieta was in the Saint Peter Basilica in Rome, “on the right as you go in.” I was amazed at how someone could remember that detail and also a bit jealous that she had this familiarity, almost intimacy with the sculpture, and that  she got to see it while I had no idea if I ever could.

Fast forward seven-eight years later, after Communism fell and we were free to go anywhere, and I’m in Rome with my college friend, Teo, whose parents were incredibly generous to invite me over. It’s still the most wonderful trip abroad I’ve had and I will be forever grateful for it. Teo and I were avid museum-goers and loved ancient stuff; she had already been there a couple of times, so I had great guidance about where to go–a double treat! I walked about 12-13 hours a day and saw everything I could absorb in 10 days. Obviously, one of the things was the Basilica, with the much-treasured Pieta. When I turned my head and saw it, I got weak in my knees instantly, realizing it really was “on the right, as you go in,” just like my teacher said.

Back in 1994, I had the chance to go to London, a trip whose potential I royally squashed by focusing on buying books instead of visiting the heck out of it for the six weeks I was there–a chance I can’t dream of having again. London is a sore spot for me. The second time I visited it, three years ago, also invited by a friend, was pretty much a disaster. I’m very grateful to her and her husband for inviting me, but our long friendship crumbled with a bang and a lot of pain. I love the city; I’m just afraid a third attempt would be even worse. But I digress.

One of the few things I did was to see the British Museum, where I couldn’t help myself and touched the Rosetta Stone (which, incredibly, wasn’t encased in any protective display back then), Tate, and the National Gallery. My visit to the last one touched a raw nerve that still triggers a response today.

Before I get to that, I just wanted to remind you that this was happening at a time when Romanians still needed visas to travel pretty much anywhere in Europe. When you got to the U.K., you had to pass an interview with a customs official who tried to sniff if you were there to work. I was together with four of my college friends and the interview took us by surprise. Obviously, the group that invited us there had no clue this was going to happen. For once, I had the presence of mind to advise my colleagues to say that we were there to learn computer-assisted translations. Ha ha! As in, you type your translation on a computer. Remember, this was before the now-ubiquitous Word. We were interviewed standing in front of some narrow desks, each of us by a different customs official. I can’t describe the disgust on their faces when they saw us, poor college students from Eastern Europe. Ugh. But, my scheme worked and, after being surprised when hearing why we were there, they let us pass. With a stamp on the passport saying that we were not allowed to work even if we were unpaid.

But back to the museum story. Strolling through the National Gallery, I get to a room with five Van Goghs on a wall, one of them a Sun Flower. My breath and heart stopped for a moment. I just couldn’t continue to breathe while avidly trying to absorb the painting. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school kids with their art teacher walk by and sit down on a bench in front of it. The teacher asks them if they knew that one of his Irises was (at that time) the most expensive painting ever sold. “But to whom do his paintings belong now?” asks the guy. After some thought, the kids said that they belonged to everyone. “That’s exactly right! Anyone can walk in this museum any day and admire them,” he said.

At which I started yelling in my mind, “Well, I can’t!” I have to spend a lot of money and go through your shitty customs before I have this chance. I got so mad that I left that room immediately. Now I’m sorry I didn’t say it aloud, with a “let me put things in perspective for you a little bit” type of preface.

But, fast forward to 2001 and I’m in D.C., where most museums are free! Including my beloved National Gallery of Art, where I go almost every month. And yes, I can walk in whenever I want and see first-rate art collections. Museums weren’t anywhere on my radar when I was planning to come here. The goal was to go to grad school and change my career. I slowly realized that my other, never fully articulated, dream–of having unfettered access to museums–had also become true. Which is why I love D.C. so much.

That’s why I think Google’s Art Project is so great. It gives people who love art a way to know it and enjoy it. They will no longer feel as shut out of this experience as I once did. It might not be the same as actually walking in the real building, but it’s pretty darn close. In some respects it might be even better, because you can zoom in on the paintings and see brushstroke details. To do that in a museum you have to get much closer  to the painting than allowed. The only thing I’d add would be the little information placards; I’m sure they’ll do that at some point.

Bravo!

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