Year of Grace, Day 67. Repeating history, Part 2.

My Uncle Jose – my mother’s younger brother – got more than his fair share of beauty — and brains as well. He was the most good-looking of all 6 siblings, with deep-set eyes and a fine sculptured nose on a narrow face – throwbacks to the family’s Spanish genes. He went to join Uncle Mariano, who preferred to be known as Uncle Bob, then living in the States, and studied criminology there. When I was 10 or 11, I cannot recall exactly, Uncle Jose came to live with us briefly in Manila. I remember him now because he actively encouraged my bookishness. Every week he gave me a set of words to look up – of those I remember “apostate”, the very first one; “lagniappe”, and “pecuniary.” This must be the very first time I have ever used all of those words in one sentence! One day he brought me a book – The Diary of Anne Frank: it was my introduction to the Holocaust. When I’d read it, I was left disturbed and then relieved that at the time — the 1960s — wide-scale persecution of Jews and other minorities was no longer official policy in Germany and that the Jews had established a haven of safety in their own homeland, Israel. That was over half a century ago.

On my birthday this year I received a book on netsuke – those exquisitely carved toggles that secured a pouch or small box when tucked into a kimono – written by the English potter Edmund de Waal. He had inherited a collection of over 200 from his uncle then living in Tokyo. In tracing the history of those intricately carved treasures in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he uncovered his mother’s family’s personal experience of the Holocaust in Austria and France. Of the Ephrussi family’s collection of paintings, sculpture and other art, as well as furniture, only the tiny netsuke had survived intact, secreted by a faithful family maid under her mattress throughout the war.

The Dreyfus affair – that infamous persecution and inhuman exile of a French Jewish army officer in the 1890s of which I learned in my World History class in high school — had a part to play in de Waal’s book. One of the Ephrussis – Charles — had supported Parisian impressionist artists by buying or commissioning paintings when hardly anyone was prepared to buy them. But when French society was sundered between those who sympathized with the unjustly accused Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – and the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards, artists who had previously benefitted from Charles Ephrussi’s financial support turned against him. All except Monet. It is against this background that I can now make sense of various references throughout Monet’s biography (read years before) to the troubles that Clemenceau, one of the Dreyfusards, went to Giverny – Monet’s famous garden — to seek a restful haven from.

In my previous post, I wrote of having read halfway through Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy – given me by a German friend. I have finished it now, and it ended on a happy note: the narrator of Harris’s fiction – Colonel Picquart — was vindicated in the end: appointed a Cabinet Minister by Clemenceau and promoted to Brigadier General. Dreyfus was eventually declared innocent of espionage in 1906, once a Count Esterhazy was confirmed as the actual guilty party who had passed on notes and copies of a weapons manual to the Germans, as proved by Picquart’s investigation. But perhaps the anti-Dreyfusards had the final word decades later – very few French Jews survived deportation to the Nazi concentration camps.

Why am I writing about this now? Because yesterday in Paris, 3 men broke into a house where a young Jewish couple were staying, raped the  girl, withdrew all the money from their bank account, and took all the jewelry and valuables from the house. The reason? Because they were Jews. Worldwide in 2014, it is open season on Jews. Even in American university campuses – in a country where once Jews found a place of safety. Especially so in Israel – also once a haven of safety for Jews from all the world’s continents from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and expressly established for that purpose. Every single day anti-Semites come closer to their avowed goal of total annihilation of Jews. When they cannot do it physically, they assassinate verbally in the international media and other fora. Just over half a century after 6 million Jews and uncountable other minorities were exterminated by the Nazi regime, there has resurfaced the same age-old hatred for this one race. No longer confined to one country such as France or Germany, Jew-hatred has become a global pandemic.

One has to ask why there is so much hate towards Jews and Israel worldwide. And you perhaps are  asking, why should I, a Filipina, care? I care because I care about injustice. I care because one group of people is unfairly treated. All over this world, there are those who care about wildlife and biodiversity and their disappearance from this earth. As a researcher of social ecology interested in the preservation of biodiversity, I care deeply about the earth and its biodiversity – its biodiversity in the widest sense — not merely of plants and  wild animals, but also of the genus Homo sapiens,  an animal speciesI am beginning to doubt that specific “sapiens”  in light of all the unsapient acts humans have been and continue to be capable of. Here is one ethnic group, one among the diverse groups that make this earth and this world of ours a richer and more interesting world. And we – who care about our pets, the orangutan in the forests, the lions and elephants and whales and other charismatic wild animals in the forests and savannahs and the seas; who denounce the cutting down of forests and age-old trees – shouldn’t we care as much about one of our kind that is a similarly threatened and endangered species? Isn’t this a convoluted form of self-loathing – hating one group of humans?

One group of people that has contributed much – so overwhelmingly much in all spheres of human endeavour – in diverse aspects of culture and science, business and philosophy, ethics and religion, popular entertainment and medicine, information and other modern technology. And yes, philanthropy too – wherever in the world disaster strikes – an earthquake, a tsunami, typhoons, and recently Ebola — there is unfailingly an immediate humanitarian Israeli presence. Perhaps therein lies the root of all this focused human self-loathing – unadulterated envy of the unfair share of talents and skills showered in overflowing measure on them by the Creator of the Universe: manifold blessings in compensation for their being unjustly despised from generation to generation.

My journal of gratitude is in its 67th day. What do I have to be grateful for on this day in the light of this unfathomable and sickening state of affairs in our world? Perhaps gratefulness is not an emotion I can rise to at this moment. I can merely remain positive and hopeful. I would like to think that we – the human species, Homo sapiens – are capable of rational, sapient thinking and behaviour. I would like to reserve a space in my heart for hope – hope that all that is good and positive will prevail and triumph over the evil and negativity that threaten our species and our world. Because we, as a species, are the lesser for hating one of our own, for killing one of our own, for trying to obliterate one of our own.

As John Donne concluded centuries ago in the poem, No Man is an Island: “Each man’s death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind.” Centuries earlier, a disciple of Jesus, an early humanitarian – whether you believe in his divinity or not is irrelevant — quotes him in The New Testament, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.”Jesus as a persona is not confined to Christian theology; he is regarded as a prophet in Islam.  Moreover Eastern philosophy echoes the Christian view that what affects one of us affects the whole.  As Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics writes,  “The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events…. All things are … interdependent and inseparable parts of [the] … whole….”

When we indulge in hate and seek to destroy others, we ultimately destroy ourselves.



Year of Grace, Day 66. Repeating history, Part 1

Bad Honnef is a charming little town across the Rhine from Bonn, and the other day M and I had late lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Ayuntamiento. It is a bit risky in these backwaters to try exotic cuisine, as you never know whether what you get will be the real thing, or just an approximation, and not even a close one at that. The menu had the usual burritos and enchiladas, which I didn’t even glance at, but one entry further on – pavo en pibil – caught my eye. But the German linguistic transfiguration of the original “turkey” into “chicken” (Hähnchen) hinted at similar sleight-of-hand techniques in the cooking of this Yucatecan specialty. Pibil is the Mexican equivalent of the Pacific Islander’s underground oven cookery, and common to both, the most popular ingredient is the pig (perhaps a relict from prehistoric voyages across the Pacific between South America and the Pacific Islands? — a hypothesis that ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl espoused and risked his life proving, by sailing on a balsa log raft). Authentic cochinita pibil is a suckling pig or parts thereof marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and various spices, and coloured reddish orange with annatto seeds before being wrapped in banana leaves to bake in an underground oven to a tender succulence that threatens to fall off the bone. Right!! Where in the heart of the Rhineland (Mittelrhein) can one find someone who would cook in this traditional Yucatecan manner? The Slow Food Movement is quite active in Bonn, but I doubt there are practitioners of this pan-Pacific style of slow cooking. Even in the Yucatan it is a dying art. I rest my case. So we had camarones a la plancha for starters and a mixed carne asada. To our great surprise, both were made really well, with a fine attention to pink moistness in the diverse grilled meats and seared, nicely seasoned prawns. The service was also particularly attentive, and when I asked for a hot fresh lemon juice with rum (which was not on the menu), the waitress assured me they would make it, and when it came lukewarm, she graciously brought it back piping hot. It was quite a cold day, much colder than in Bonn and I needed to thaw a bit. Perhaps, given that those two trial dishes were excellent, we might even try the chicken en pibil for next time.

We were not far from Königswinter where M’s very good friend A lives, and we decided to surprise the family. “Give them a call first,” suggested M. Which turned out to be wise, as just as I called saying we were on our way to see them, A said they were just then at the opposite side of the Rhine close to our house as well. Synchronicity and telepathy? He said he had left something for us. After taking his children ice skating near the university and some mulled wine at the Christmas market, we called it a night. And there by the door was A’s present — a bag with a bottle of wine and a book. Ever the generous and thoughtful friend is A.

And last night I decided to investigate the thick book — Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. It was only when I began to read it that I realized I now had in my hands the book that A had offered me to read much earlier. It was the retelling of the Dreyfus affair – the scandal of injustice toward a Jewish army officer in the 19th century that rocked French society. I had refused to read it at the height of the Gaza War. Having read Dreyfus’s own account of his cruel exile alone on Devil’s Island years back, I did not wish to depress myself any further, and told A so.

But last night, the prospect of a new book was too tempting and I began. Intending to read just a few pages until I became drowsy, I found myself reading it halfway through. I was saddened, as I’d expected, at the recounting of this gross injustice. And I could not help comparing that to what is happening now, wherein instead of just one country, France or Germany, the Dreyfus affair and the vilification of Jews that led to the final solution of the Holocaust are being repeated on a global scale. Jews are once again subjected to verbal abuse and physical assault, often fatal. There is a double standard and a jaundiced eye prevailing worldwide where Jews or Israel or Israelis are involved. With this depressing thought of our species’ inhumanity to a minority — our very own kind — I went to sleep.

Despite this, I had colourful and pleasant dreams, which surprised me, and for which I am thankful this morning. In my dreams I was buying fresh crabs at a market, always a delightful prospect. There was also a discussion about a tetraploid mango – no doubt inspired by a conversation with M after dinner while eating our dessert of Jaffa Sweetie. I had thought it might be a hybrid of pomelo and orange – the pomelo providing the yellowish green rind and the orange donating genes for sweetness and fine pulp. M had opined it was most likely a cross between pomelo and grapefruit.

Those dreams have lightened my heart and mind, despite the melancholy aroused by Harris’s book. I am grateful for dear, close friends like A, who is such a warm- and kind-hearted person and equally so is his wife D.

I am also so thankfully relieved that the crow is back on its perch on the fir, though it was not there when my eyes searched for it all of yesterday. I had been worried that the magpie — that avian thief —  roosting on the birch nearby, had something to do with it or its nest. M said that was unlikely because magpies are terrified of crows.

I shall read the book to the end of course, having started it. In his preface, Harris writes: “This book aims to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history….” He goes on: “None of the characters … even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs…actually happened in real life.”

I am grateful for writers like Harris who, by their popularization of historical events, can rouse me, and hopefully other readers, into a sad realization of history repeating itself in our time.