Room of Masks


I went to visit W. and K. because for several years I had done translations for their website, but I’d never met them. I had only spoken to them over the phone or exchanged emails – though they had invited me to come and stay with them often enough.

They lived in the south of The Netherlands near the Belgian border.

They were successful. W. was a surgeon working in a big hospital; K. worked in a medical research organisation. They lived in a big, comfortable home with a roof of cut reeds.

They were running an NGO in Ghana; it administered a series of clinics, schools, medical centres and homes. Twice a year they went out to Ghana to check to see how things were going. They were planning on eventually retiring to Ghana.

 On arriving at their place, they showed me to my bedroom. It was on the second story, at the top of a flight of creaking wooden stairs.

On the way to my room, we walked through a large room filled with masks. They came from different countries; Nigeria, Congo and Mali. They were for sale. Many of them had price tags next to them. The proceeds went to the N.G.O.

The prices varied from 1 – 5,000 Euros.


On my first night there, eating dinner outside in the garden, I began peppering W. with questions about the masks.  

W.’s interest in African artefacts began in the early 1980’s when, after graduating from medical school, he spent several years working in a village in Ghana. Sometimes his patients – they were helped free of charge – gave him carved wooden artefacts as a present. He collected them and back in The Netherlands, began doing some research. These artefacts, he discovered, belonged to a traditional, village Africa – which was rapidly vanishing.

On regular trips back to Ghana, during which W. set up a clinic and school, he collected more artefacts.

By the late 1990’s, there weren’t many of them around, leastways not the genuine articles.

There were a lot of false artefacts appearing on the market.

The traditional masks, which no longer meant much to the Africans, were drawing the interest of the Europeans, who were willing to pay (especially by African standards), enormous sums of money for them.

In the meantime, fake artefacts had become a thriving industry. One had to be careful.

Over the years, W. befriended reliable dealers in various African countries. They alerted him if something turned up.



In recent times however, the main source of African artefacts for W. and K. was not Africa; it was elderly Dutch people, many of them former missionaries, who had collected artefacts during their years in Africa between the 1950 and the late ‘80’s. Their artefact collections symbolised their connection to their past, to another very different Africa: a continent which they were no longer able to visit and not only because of their physical frailty but because the Africa they had known, no longer existed.

They were not interested in selling their collections to private dealers. Their lives had never been devoted to the commercial impulse. They had gone out to Africa to do God’s work and God had meant: helping the less fortunate in the world.

Donating their collections of artefacts to an organization like W. and K.s was a desirable option;

‘We get phone calls from people who say ‘I’ve got a few boxes in the attic, you’re free to come and have a look around.’ 

‘K. and I will go out there and unpack all this amazing stuff…sometimes from around the turn of the century. One old bloke, a former Catholic missionary, had tried to set up a museum in the Congo, but no one came because the Africans weren’t interested in ‘old relics’. He closed his museum and boxed up the artefacts and brought them back to The Netherlands, where they stayed boxed up for over 10 years. Those artefacts were worth tens of thousands of Euros.

When we get a bequest like this, we send the donor photos of how the money is being used, a new clinic or school…. something like that…these people have spent the best part of their lives in Africa and they want to remain involved…’



The bathroom and toilet nearest to my room was at the end of the mask exhibition room. This meant that to take a piss in the middle of the night, I had to grab my torch, navigate my way down the steep flight of creaking stairs, and then find my way through the room of masks to reach the bathroom door.

On my first night, on my to the bathroom, my torch illuminated a row of masks.

I stopped and shone the torch on the other masks around me.

They looked eerie lit by torchlight. It was as if I was in a tomb filled with departed spirits. There was something primeval about it. The carved wooden faces metamorphosed into ghostly forms such as the eyes of a person living in Africa centuries ago might have seen them.

And worshipped them and feared them.


Back in bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. It was as if I was in a haunted house.

With the images of those masks in mind, memories came back to me of experiencing magic rituals in villages, especially in remote areas of the Himalaya during the 1980’s. I’d seen whole villages fall under the spell of shamans. Seen animal sacrifices and flagellation ceremonies.

Snippets my conversation with W. and K. that evening came back to me.

The strange faces in the room of masks were the product of an ancient spiritual world which was collapsing before forces such as urbanization, modern communications, nationalism – and the imported foreign religions of Christianity and Islam.

Ghana, like so many of the neighbouring African countries, was becoming increasingly divided between the adherents of these two religions. Traditional African beliefs, based upon the village, which had been passed down through the generations by word of mouth, songs, rituals and dances, were vanishing. In the fast-changing modern times, they were no match for the missionary religions, which had a written text, a doctrine, and formidable sources of foreign finance behind them; they were unable to offer Africans any coherent way of understanding and dealing with the contemporary world.


In W. and K.’s description of what had happened to the traditional village culture in Africa, I noted that there was a certain sense of uncertainty, even fear, mixed with optimism. They were worried about the future.

In many African nations, there was a state of simmering hostility between the world’s two great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam. Outbreaks of violence were not uncommon, though often not reported by the foreign media. With the rapid growth of the population in Africa (the top 20 nations of the global population growth index were African), the tensions between the two religions might intensify. In the nations neighbouring Ghana, there were some grim examples of this scenario – e.g. Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria.

Ghana also was home to large communities of Christians and Moslems. If Ghana went the same way, W. and K.’s work in Ghana, everything they had built up during decades of hard work, might become tendentious – along with their plan of renouncing everything in The Netherlands and devoting their lives to their projects in Ghana. For W. and K., this was an unbearable prospect.



I went to sleep thinking of something I had read in a travel book by V.S. Naipaul.

In ‘The Masque of Africa’, Naipaul had suggested that it was the remnants of the African culture which could provide an antidote to the epidemic of religious extremism.

It was odd notion.

That the ancient past, which Africans had rejected, the past of superstition and witch doctors, might hold the key to a regeneration of African identity.

That in the room of masks, rather than the pages of the Bible or the Koran, lay the best hope for avoiding the descent into civil war.



The Immigrant City

One day in 1957, the father of my partner Anya, dressed in a suit and tie, waved goodbye to his wife and his kids and got on the local bus and went to a railway station and took the train to Rotterdam. Leaving his family behind in a small village in the north of The Netherlands was the last thing he wanted to do.

Like immigrants all over the world, he went looking for better life for his family. There was no work in the village.


Two old photographs of the village where Anya’s father grew up in and later, after the war, lived with his wife before immigrating to Rotterdam:







Today, Rotterdam is the economic heart of the nation. This is where The Netherlands earns much of its national income, enough to make it one of the most prosperous nations in the world. It’s a ultra-high-tech city, with cutting edge architecture – it draws tourists from all over the world.

But in 1957 Rotterdam presented a very different picture.

It was bombed flat by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, it began rising from the ashes, like the legendary Phoenix. Only there was nothing romantic about the rise of this Phoenix.

Rotterdam must have been a shock for a man who had grown up in a small village where the only structure higher than one level was the local windmill.

Rotterdam in 1957 was like a big engine, something mechanical, noisy and smoking. The wharves were operated by cranes and thousands of men moving crates and sacks manually. The factories and refineries poured thick billowing clouds of smoke into the air. In the heart of Rotterdam, left as a desert after the Nazi bombing blitz, thousands of men worked to construct new buildings and a metro system. In the outlying polders, thousands of others worked to build new satellite suburbs.

Everywhere one turned, one heard the jarring echoes of pile-drivers incessantly driving cement pylons deep into the watery ground. This was a city where the need for workers far outstripped the supply. It was the place where a poor person could find a decent existence. So was it then and so it is today; a great force called Hope drives human beings in search of a better life, like a God calling forth pilgrims to a temple on a distant mountain.

In those days the immigrants came from the north of The Netherlands; today they come from just about every corner of the world.

Anya’s father got a job and a year later the family joined him. The first thing he did was take the family to a photographer’s studio and have a photo of the family made. Black and white and it’s on the shelf in our little apartment above my notebook.

Anya’s father settled here in South Rotterdam in a block of working class apartments.

He and his wife are long dead – but this is where Anya and I are today.

Most of the other people living in our apartment block are immigrants – from far beyond the borders of The Netherlands. 

Rotterdam: the immigrant city.



See also: Devastated City: the bombing of Rotterdam:

And also, from Serious Travel Images:

Rotterdam – The Cutting Edge City



A Clash of Civilisations


Turkey’s self-styled Sultan and dictator for life: Recep Erdogan


In early 2013, an incident involving a 9-year-old boy named Yunus led to a rapid escalation in tensions between The Netherlands and Turkey.

Yunus was born to Turkish parents living in Rotterdam. He was taken away from his parents when he was 6 months old by the Dutch Child Welfare Department after evidence of severe mistreatment. The decision was not taken lightly. Removing a child from his parents is a measure of the last resort. The parents of Yunus were, like many of the Turks who have immigrated to The Netherlands, poor, semi-literate, and hailing from a conservative, traditional village in an outlying area of Anatolia.

Yunus was placed in the care of a lesbian couple. There were no Turkish foster parents available. In The Netherlands, gays have the same rights as heterosexuals – and this includes the right to get married, adopt children and, as in this case, to serve as foster parents.

So Yunus was taken away from his biological parents when he was six months old and raised by a lesbian couple.

The women who cared for Yunus were sensitive to his cultural origins. They learnt Turkish. Every summer they took him on vacation to Turkey.

They also regularly took him to meet his biological parents and his two brothers (who had also been removed from their parents’ care and later returned after the parents were able to show that they could care for them).

In the care of the two Dutch lesbians, Yunus did not fare badly.

Had he stayed with his biological parents, his prospects in later life might have been considerably worse. As the statistics show, the children of parents with a low education/skills level and, belonging to a non-western culture are greatly over represented in the ranks of those young people who drop out of the education system, end up in low paying jobs or on unemployment benefits – and in the case of the young men, entering the crime statistics. To this very day this bitter socio-economic reality bedevils the Dutch multicultural society (and not just the Dutch) and has led to endless discussions and debates. In other words: the Yunus raised by his lesbian foster parents had a far better chance of getting a good education and aspiring to a good job than if he had remained with his biological parents. Furthermore, that same Yunus had all sorts of horizons opened to him which he would not have otherwise experienced: fluent in Dutch and Turkish, he was on course to becoming a truly multicultural citizen and a bridge between two very different cultures.

However not everyone was positive about the prospect of a boy born to Turkish parents becoming a multicultural citizen.

One of them was Recep Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey.



Yunus and his Turkish family in happier times


The biological parents of Yunus decided that they wanted to get him him back. They were not content with him visiting them regularly. They evidently weren’t too concerned about his wishes in the matter either. Instead of going through the Dutch courts, they decided on another tactic. They flew to Turkey and lodged a complaint with the Erdogan government. Their hope was that Erdogan would then put pressure on the Dutch government to have Yunus returned to them. In the past, a tactic like this would have had little chance of success. A Turkish Prime Minister would have regarded the affair as an internal matter for the Dutch. But things had changed in Turkey and changed very much thanks to Erdogan.

Recep Erdogan was the leader of the Turkish Islamic fundamentalist party (the AKP). He was not interested in diplomatic protocol or international conventions. He was an authoritarian xenophobe who had transformed the Turkish political scene by systematically dismantling the secular heritage of Kemal Attaturk. He had steered Turkey away from its western liberal democratic course and aligned it with the reactionary regimes in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia in particular. His vote bank lay outside the big cities – such as Istanbul – and in the rural areas inhabited by people like the parents of Yunus; people with a low education and low skills, steeped in conservative, traditional values. In the cities, where there was a large, educated, middle class, there was far less support for an Islamist party, but these people comprised only a small minority of the overall population. The rural Erdogan supporters were far more numerous and had large families.

It was a demographic dynamic which meant that Turkey was a deeply divided nation and which later, in June 2013, led to weeks of demonstrations by the young people in the big cities. These demonstrations were ruthlessly repressed. The police, freed of any of the restrictions placed upon them in a normal democracy, beat the demonstrators, killing several of them and wounding hundreds. Tear gas was used on mass scale; thousands of people were rounded up and jailed. Amongst the prisoners were the lawyers who had tried to defend the protestors in court and journalists whose reporting was considered insufficiently sympathetic to Erdogan. Under Erdogan, the Turkish jail system became a growth sector par excellence; Turkey could boast of having more prisoners per head of population than any other country in the world. One crime which many people found themselves charged with was ‘offending the Turkish Motherland’ i.e. Erdogan and his Islamic party. Their ranks included a leading Turkish pianist (he made fun of the Islamic fundamentalists on Twitter) and the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

In Turkey, the wave of rural based populism which brought Erdogan to office was actively encouraged by his allies in the media. Close on the heels of this populism was a new mood of chauvinism. This was encouraged by certain sections of the media. The film industry got involved also. Films glorifying the Ottomans and depicting the victorious armies of Islam defeating the Christians were churned out and were enormously successful in Turkish cinemas; they were also watched avidly by young Turks living in Europe. To say that these films were unsophisticated is considerable understatement. They were something close to the kind of propaganda movies produced by the Nazis in the 1930’s.

This unprecedented wave of xenophobia was accompanied by a wave of not only anti-western sentiment but also a campaign of virulent anti-Semitism. A week before the Yunus controversy appeared on the horizon, a Dutch social research institute sounded the alarm bell with respect to the widespread anti-Semitism – and corresponding hero-worship of Hitler – among young Dutch-Turks. The main reason cited for this development was because most Turks watched Turkish TV – and in Erdogan’s Turkey, Jews were portrayed as monsters. Erdogan had a long history of anti-Semitism, one which began long before he entered politics. Like the anti-Semitists all over the Middle East, he believed that the Jews controlled America and Europe and were conspiring to bring about the downfall of Islam. Being a hidebound anti-Semitist certainly didn’t harm Erdogan’s relations with the Saudis.

In Prime Minister Erdogan the parents of Yunus found a highly receptive audience. This was hardly surprising. In the concept of a Turkish born child becoming someone who was multicultural, a person with two identities, Erdogan and his supporters saw a threat. Identity, as a Turk and a Moslem, was something which needed constant vigilance both at home and abroad. In the western multicultural society, the westerners believed in multiculturalism, in being open to other cultures and open to the idea of mixed marriages and dual identities. Erdogan and his supporters regarded this as sacrilege; they demanded ‘the right’ of their compatriots in Europe to live as a monoculture, a segregated group inoculated against the influences of the infidel society around them. Two years earlier, on a visit to Germany, Erdogan had loudly proclaimed that for Turkish immigrants to integrate into a western nation was a ‘crime against humanity’ : an interesting definition of ‘crime against humanity’ for a man who has, in recent years especially, continually bombed the Kurds.


Yunus became a hot issue in Turkey.

The parents appeared on popular TV programs.

The Erdogan government, along with its supporters in the media, immediately began a campaign of vilification against the decadent Netherlands. An Islamic boy had been taken away from his parents by the Christian infidel and what was worst of all – horror of all horrors! – raised by two lesbians. At no point did the Turkish government or media ask themselves why Yunus had been taken away from his parents in the first place. The Turkish media proceeded to blow the story up until it became a story about a western Christian outrage against Islam and Turkey. Emotions ran high. Blatant anti- western sentiment and homophobia became a routine part of the media diet.

Coincidentally, Erdogan was due to visit The Netherlands a week later.

This had been arranged months before. Erdogan now saw his chance to use the visit to play the role of Defender of the Faith; to emphasize his Islamist and Turkish hard-line credentials. The man knew no other way of operating. A protest demonstration by the Turks living in Rotterdam was planned. When he landed, the areas where the Dutch Turks lived in Rotterdam were festooned with Turkish flags. Erdogan arranged to go to Rotterdam during his visit to The Netherlands and meet the demonstrators and of course, sound the war cry.

In the meantime, after receiving death threats, Yunus and his foster parents went into hiding.



In 1996, an American political scientist named Samuel P Huntington wrote a book called ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. In the 1990’s, in the wake of the fall of communism, there was a lot of talk about the rise of a ‘New World Order’. The West led by the U.S. had defeated communism after 45 years of Cold War. In a mood of triumphalism, various American pundits predicted the emergence of a largely stable and peaceful world built around the capitalist free market and democracy. Francis Fujiyama wrote about an ‘end of ideology’, an era where there would be no great causes to divide the world. The human race would concentrate its energies on creating growth and getting ahead. It’s hard to imagine these days how the Americans could have been imbued with such hubris – which ultimately led to the fiasco of the invasion of Iraq.

Huntington strongly disagreed with this mood of triumphalism. He did not see an ‘end of ideology’ in sight. He was a bit of a party pooper in other words. In his book, he argued that the old bipolar world, the West versus Communism, would be superseded by new kinds of rivalries. These new rivalries would not be based on contemporary ideologies but instead, by far older, deeply embedded values. He identified certain ‘civilizations’ which were bound to misunderstand one another and likely to come into conflict. These civilizations were: China, India, Latin America (including central and south America), the West (north America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) – and Islam (the middle east, northern Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan etc.). Huntington argued that there were certain liberal values inherent in western societies – secular government, a free press, individualism and freedom of speech – which put them at odds with the other civilizations including the Islamic. Huntington’s book was well written and erudite and it was widely applauded and discussed.

Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001.

It was afterwards that the West, once again led by the U.S., launched a campaign against Islamic terrorism personalized in the form of Osama Bin Laden and his organisation Al Qaeda. In this highly charged atmosphere, it was the Islam part of Huntington’s book which famous all over the world, albeit in a way he never intended. Concerned about the danger of discrimination against Moslem immigrants living in Western nations, certain voices argued that the war against the likes of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda was a war on terror and not the religion Islam. Fanatics such as Bin Laden misused religion they said, whose actions had nothing to do with Islam – never mind what the extremists themselves very publicly claimed. The fears of a war against Islamic fanatics leading to discrimination – and worse – against peaceful law-abiding Moslem immigrants was far from imaginary. There were some very legitimate concerns here. Yet Huntington himself became a casualty of the post September 11 era.

In the ideological debate between those who argued that terrorism had no connection to Islam and those who argued that it certainly did – and called for the West to stand up for its values – the term ‘clash of civilizations’ took front stage. In their campaign to discredit the critics of Islam and brand them as fear mongers and racists, mainstream politicians, journalists, academics used the term ‘clash of civilizations’ as a useful catch-all term. Very few of them ever bothered reading Huntington’s book and so Huntington’s term, taken completely out of context was used as a popular means of declaring one’s multicultural credentials and to promote the idea that there wasn’t any inherent conflict between the West and Islam; it was used to advance the cause of peaceful coexistence. To publicly reject the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ became a litmus test of one’s decency – it still is.

It was during the Yunus affair that a terrible irony surfaced, unmistakable, ugly: whilst Western leaders loudly embraced the idea of peaceful co-existence, it was the Islamic fundamentalists – including Erdogan – who specifically rejected it. A ‘clash of civilizations’ was basic to their idea of Islam, to their politics and their world view. Erdogan’s Islamist party and the Turkish media used a 9-year-old boy to emphasize the corrupt, immoral values of the ‘Christian West’ (as if the people in The Netherlands were Christians) and to underline the outrage which the infidel had committed against Islam. They went out of their way to whip up mass sentiments of anger and outrage: to emphasize a ‘we’ and ‘them’ stereotype.

Behind it all was a powerful need to use any pretext possible to portray the ‘Christians’ as the enemies and oppressors of Moslems.

It was the Erdogan government which in other words, lent unequivocal support to Samuel P. Huntington – the very same man who was viewed with obligatory disapproval in Europe.


How prophetic Huntington has proved to be – this in a way no one could have imagined at the time.


With the Yunus affair dominating the Turkish media, Erdogan arrived in The Netherlands ready to ‘defend the rights of the Turkish community’. He demanded a guarantee from the Dutch Prime Minister that there would be no more cases like Yunus in the future. He failed to get a satisfactory answer. The fate of Yunus, he was politely told, was an internal affair of The Netherlands. It was really none of Turkey’s business.

Outraged, the self-styled Sultan got on the next flight out – he had been in The Netherlands for less than 24 hours. In the Turkish media, howls on indignation went up: this was proof of the kind of oppression which Turks in Europe had to endure.

The demonstration in Rotterdam was called off.

On the face of it, in trying to force the Dutch government to capitulate to his demands, Turkey’s strong man suffered an ignominious defeat.

In actual fact, the Yunus affair marked a historic line -in- the-sand. It was the opening shot, as it were, of a war against The Netherlands and, Western Europe.

In the following years, the Erdogan government steadily intensified its influence over the Turks living in The Netherlands. It systematically interfered into the internal affairs of another sovereign state in a way it would never have countenanced if it had been the other way around. In turn, Turks living in The Netherlands rallied around the cause. Interest groups, subsidized by the Dutch government, became mouthpieces for the Erdogan regime. Separate clinics and hospitals for Turks were established. Mosques and Islamic schools became increasingly aligned with the ‘Father’ and the ‘Fatherland’. A Turkish political party, openly aligned to Erdogan, appeared and soon won a wide electoral support. Turkish journalists aligned to the Erdogan regime (the other kinds of journalists were in gaol, along with thousands of teachers, judges, soldiers, bureaucrats and Kurds) came to The Netherlands and sent back lurid reports about the ‘oppression’ of the Turks in that country. In Turkey no kind of opposition or diversity was possible – this became true also within the ranks of the Turks living in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Western Europe. In the Turkish elections held in 2015, over 70% of the Dutch Turks voted for Erdogan. Xenophobia reigned supreme within the Dutch Turkish community and those Turks who criticized Erdogan became the target of death threats and violence.

No one realized it then, but the Yunus affair was an omen of events to come.

A regime based on the notion of a Clash of Civilisations would succeed in exercising its will over an open, secular, democratic society which emphatically eschewed a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality; which embraced diversity, multiculturalism and co-existence. A nation where xenophobia and human rights abuses were commonplace would prove to be more powerful than a nation where reason and tolerance reigned.

In this setting, no Dutch couple, be they hetero or gay, would ever think of adopting or caring for a child from a Turkish family. That would be to invite trouble. But more to the point, the whole idea of multiculturalism, of people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds comingling, marrying one another, and integrating into Dutch society – was dealt a death-blow by the Turkish Mussolini.

And so the chances of there being any more kids like Yunus – a truly multicultural person – were slender indeed.


Like Mussolini, Erdogan is a popular dictator who has instituted a one man, one party state. In the meantime, western leaders turn a blind eye to this obvious example of fascism because Turkey is regarded as an ‘ally’ and ‘friend’. It is a member of Nato and is strategically important to the West.

See also Serious Travel Images, ‘Waving the Flag’: 

Waving the Flag

Devastated City

'Devastated City'
‘Devastated City’


Until May, 1940, Rotterdam was an elegant city of canals and stately historic houses in the Amsterdam style. It was a fine example of the Dutch genius for constructing beautiful cities where once, there were only water and swamps.

Then the Luftwaffe appeared in the skies and demolished Rotterdam within a few hours.

There was nothing left of it – except, ironically, the St Laurens church near the city center.

Built in the time of Erasmus, the St. Laurens church is portrayed in many fine old sketches and paintings done in the time of Rembrandt (copies of these can be seen today on a touch screen in the restored church).

The St. Laurens church with its single, tall tower was badly damaged but it was still standing after the aerial blitz was over.


The German ultimatum ordering the Dutch commander of Rotterdam to cease fire was delivered to him at 10:30 a.m. on May 14, 1940. At 1:22 p.m., German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 30,000 of its inhabitants. (OWI) NARA FILE #: 208-PR-10L-3 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1334

May, 1940: the day Rotterdam died.



Painting of inside of St Laurens Church in the 17th Century
Painting of inside of St Laurens Church in the 17th Century


The bombing of Rotterdam was the first example of an aerial bombing of a city.

Before then it was considered to be a possibility, but no one had ever done it.

The Nazis were the first to test the limits of the new technology. The total destruction of Rotterdam was meant to serve as a showcase of Nazi air power – and as a warning to the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, it also served as an example of what technology could do, an example which was soon emulated by the British and Americans.


Near the center of Rotterdam today, there is a statue commemorating the bombing of Rotterdam.

It is called ‘Devastated City’(‘Verwoeste Stadt’)

Designed by a French sculptor named Ossip Zadkine and erected a few years after the war, it is the most graphic portrayal of the horror of aerial bombing ever made. There is a surrealistic figure standing with its mask like face looking at the sky and its arms stretched upwards, as if it is at once pleading with the sky and at the same time, expressing its horror and fear. It is a shell of a human being, its chest and its body is hollow. The solid parts of its body are the arms and legs; they are grotesquely out of proportion, the outstretched arms longer than real arms, the legs much thicker, bent at the knees as if struggling to support the weight of the world. ‘Devastated City’ is a work of unparalleled genius and if you ever visit Rotterdam, go and see this statue.


If that’s the only reason you go there, its reason enough.

I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped at the small plain on which the statue is situated (near the Maritime Museum and a small harbor) and looked at ‘Devastated City’ and taken photos of it. Its gaunt, stark, haunting outlines are different in each kind of light, each kind of weather.

‘Devastated City’ is a timeless image like Picasso’s paining ‘Guernica’ of the aerial bombing of civilians in times of war.

It is an image which symbolizes the horror of all such bombings, wherever they have occurred. When I look at it, I see far more than the bombing of Rotterdam. I see the allied bombing of the German city of Dresden near the end of the war, a city which had no strategic value for the allies and in which over 90, 000 people, many of them refugees, died. I see the American ‘secret’ bombing of Eastern Cambodia between 1968 and 1975, during which somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Buddhist peasants died.

I see the millions of people in Syria today – whose lives are being turned into Hell.

Oh yes, believe me, Zadkine’s ‘Devastated City’ is a statue for us all.



Schiphol Geese

At Schiphol Airport – otherwise known as Amsterdam Airport – there was a problem with geese. 

I don’t need to tell you that a decent sized flock of geese in the air can present a real danger to planes landing and taking off.

And I suppose I don’t need to add that Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in the world.

What I probably do need to tell you is that The Netherlands is a paradise for geese.

You’d almost think that centuries ago, when the Dutch began reclaiming their country from the waters, they did so in order to create a Goose Paradise.

Yep, geese love this country.

Water, grass, flat; water lying in pools on grassy ground; water in canals and lakes.

Water the geese can gather upon to keep safe from enemies. Watery grass they can eat.

The best, the richest, the greenest grass in the world which feeds the cows which provide the milk which becomes the best cheese in the world.

The cows love the grass but so do the geese. 

The Netherlands: think windmills, dykes, cheese, Rembrandt, Vermeer….and geese.

Grey geese, snow geese, Nile geese, Canadian geese….to name a few.


In the geese paradise, there are inevitably problems with overpopulation. Big geese make little geese and when everything looks good, like it does in paradise, then the big geese tend to make a lot of little geese. In the past, the farmers used to shoot them. Good sport and all that. This has been banned for a long time now. These days, if a farmer has a problem with the geese, for example hundreds of them descending on his property and eating the grass which is meant for his cows, then he is compensated by the government for his potential losses. This is also incurably Dutch. A bureaucrat visits the property, assesses the numbers of geese resident on the property (how are such calculations made? With a goose-ometer?) and on this basis decides the amount of the compensation.  

 When it comes to the geese overpopulation problem however at Schiphol Airport, compensation doesn’t enter the picture. Removal is the only option.

The land surrounding Schiphol Airport and its runways is flat, watery, grass rich and swampy after a good rain. The geese love it. They don’t care too much about the noise.

A few years ago, a point came when the Schiphol Airport authorities decided to cull their numbers. Research revealed that netting and gassing the geese was the most humane way of doing this.

Hey but not so fast!

Kill thousands of geese?

The animal liberationists raised their collective voice – and loud!

Too many geese in The Netherlands? What about the human beings? Too many of them!

Ok said the government, you find some other way to get them away from Schiphol Airport.

They tried, the animal liberationists.

They tried lots of things.

Plastic replicas of hawks and other birds of prey were set in place in order to scare them away.

No effect.

Then real birds of prey were brought in and released. 

No effect.

Maybe the geese figured that there was safety in numbers. 

Buddhist monks appeared and issued incantations. That must have been an interesting spectacle, especially with the constant roar of jet planes in the background.

Other things were tried but I forget what they were.

All I know is that everything failed.

So the geese were trapped inside movable mesh fences – and gassed.

I was surprised at the numbers: tens of thousands of them.

Even though I am a frequent flyer and don’t relish the idea of being on a plane whose engines are choked with geese and is forced to make a crash landing (I’ve seen all the episodes of ‘Air Crash Investigation’ on the Discovery Channel), I was moved by the fate of the Schipol Geese.

I love geese and have watched them in many different parts of the world through a pair of binoculars. Anya and I see them every day in our local park and often during our bike rides.

They’re a wonderful bird, but……


The Schiphol geese were gassed. Problem solved.

No, one problem solved – another problem created.

What to do with the dead geese?

An answer was found after considerable discussion. The Dutch way:

‘We has a discussion.’

The meat would be donated to charities, in particular: the food banks, accessed by people on unemployment benefits – and the shelters for the homeless.

A very Dutch solution: equity, charity and social justice.

Helping those at the bottom of the socio-economic shake-down.

 Schiphol Geese.


The thing about The Netherlands was that when you delved into class and inequality, you found yourself amongst people who weren’t Dutch – or at the least, Dutch only on the surface. You found yourself in the underbelly areas of the big cities, like where I live in Rotterdam (in an area called ‘Rotterdam Zuidwijk’) where most people are immigrants – or to put it in the sanitized terms of the politically correct (who live in the white flight suburbs): ‘people who belong to a foreign culture’.

10-15 minutes bike ride away from my apartment there is a food bank, a homeless shelter and an unemployment benefits office. I’ve visited these places. I know people working there. The overwhelming majority of the clients at these three places are people ‘belonging to a foreign culture’. They come from many different countries. They come to the nations of north-west Europe because these are prosperous, egalitarian welfare states; countries which subscribe to charity, social justice and helping the less fortunate. The immigrants do not head to the less prosperous nations of Europe. The nations of north-west Europe are far more preferable than those of southern or eastern Europe.

The world’s immigrants and refugees choose which countries to flee to.

If you or I were living in a village in Turkey or Morocco, never mind a hell- hole on earth like Syria or Iraq or Libya, we would make the same decision.  Make the same rational calculations.

Schiphol Geese: a symbol of our globalised world.

Schiphol Geese: a symbol of a whole plethora of politically loaded issues, controversies, debates and arguments.

Where to the welfare state?

Designed to help the ordinary working people when they could no longer work, it is now a safety net for the world’s poor.

Is this multiculturalism?

Or a costly form of third world subsidy?

Welcome to Europe!


Schiphol Geese: at one end of a small country the arrival and departure every day of 250,000 people from all over the world, a great coming-and-going, arrival and departure – at the other end of the Schiphol food chain the declining relevance of borders and the magnetism of a welfare state for the world’s dispossessed – an oasis of generosity where every human being, irrespective of their origins, has basic rights – including the right to have goose meat added to their diet.  

Schiphol Geese: an innocuous bird trapped inside mesh fences, caught in a chain of human made complexities, of a surrealistic world where the skies are filled with metal birds and the ground is filled with human beings.

And somewhere in this mesh of cause and effect, of issues and controversies, is our local park smack bang in the midst of a busy city: a haven for geese. 


See following link for photos of geese at Schiphol:

Also New York Times:

Geese in our local park:  

R'dam Feb, 2015 022


 If you interested in European multiculturalism and its attendant issues, try these blogs:


”Missing Person” (category: The Netherlands)


‘The Shameful Murder of a Shopkeeper” (category U.K.)


‘Where to Germany?’ (category Germany)