The Tombs of Hyderabad Part 2

 

 

It was a problem.

Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.

Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.

I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.

Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.  

 

The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.

The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.

On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.

He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.

Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards. 

I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?

It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.

Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.

I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation.  For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?

The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.

 

There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.

This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.

When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.

In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.

The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.

For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.

 

 

 Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.

I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.

Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.

In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.

There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.

Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.

How nervous they must have been.

Why?

Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?

Or because I was a foreigner?

Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food. 

Perhaps this young couple  – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.  

I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.

Which was why they were so scared of intruders.

Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.

Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.

I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting. 

The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.

As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.

That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.

 The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.

From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.

 

 

 

Italy: a Nation Divided Part 2


 

Dating from the 15th century, the old centre of Gioiosa Ionica formed a stark contrast with its outlying suburbs. It was a maze of old buildings and narrow cobble stone streets crammed into a small area on a steep hillside. At the perimeters of the town, the remains of defensive walls and turrets could be seen.

Walking up and down steep, narrow cobble stone streets, illuminated by the strong southern mediterranean sun and lanced by dark shadows, it seemed hard to imagine that such a charming historic town could give rise to a ruthlessly efficient OCG.

In one of the streets, the sound of someone playing a piano sonata on a harpsichord wafted out of the open window of a third story room.

I stood there transfixed.

What a wonderful sound!

Here was the other side of Italy: a land of culture and art. A land with a history of producing great musicians and composers and philosophers, writers and poets and painters; magnificent architecture and statues. Here was the Italy which had, through the ages, immeasurably influenced and enriched Europe.

The metamorphosis from the inhabitants of a small, remote town into the operatives of a billion Euro international business was at the risk of understatement, a dramatic one. It was clear to me that this metamorphosis couldn’t have happened within a short time frame: not years, not decades, but rather, centuries.

It had deeper historical origins.

I picked up hints of this during my aimless tourist wanderings.

In this medieval town there was unmistakable evidence of a past characterised by anarchy and violence and the absence of any effective form of government.

This was the historical environment from which the Ndrangheta clans arose.

In the following days, after a good deal more reading , I was able to expand on this theme.

 

In Southern Italy, there had never been an occupying power which had introduced a modern legal or economic system – unlike the north, which during the 18th and 19th centuries was ruled by the Napoleonic French and afterwards, the Austrian Hungarian empire. Consequently the north had made a rapid transition from feudalism to capitalism. A basic pre-requisite for this transition is an established system of government underpinned by a rule of law, a bureaucracy, and a civic culture.

The south of Italy had failed to make this transition. It had remained a backward feudal area. Historically it had been ruled by one invader after the other – including the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, none of whom had introduced a modern system of government. In the meantime, the area had also suffered the ruthless incursions of violent mercenaries from a diverse plumage. In this setting, family clans, an alternative system of loyalties, along with a ruthless addiction to violence, dominated in an area where ‘society’ in a larger sense, had failed to develop.

There was a profound irony involved in the formation of the country called Italy. In 1860, the supporters of the idea of Italy succeeded in bringing to an end the domination of the north by Austria-Hungary (not by force of arms – Austria Hungary came under pressure from the Bismark and Prussia). With the end of the foreign domination of the north, the way was clear to declare Italy an independent nation.

What price independence?

There were 8 different regions with precious little in common besides the language, but underlying this anarchic jig saw of a nation was the division between north and south. The regions in the north were capable of making a rapid transition to a modern, capitalist society. The regions in the south, especially Calabria and Sicily, were irrevocably locked into a past of anarchy, feudalism – and family based crime.

Irony of ironies: if the France and Austria-Hungary had occupied the entire Italian peninsula, Italian unification would have been far less problematic.

There would have been one Italy, rather than two.

There would have been no O.C.G.’s

 

Walking around the backstreets of the old town of Gioiosa Ionica, I got a historical perspective on the O.C.G´s of Calabria. Travelling around in Sicily, a week later, I got a somewhat more contemporary – and sinister – view.

We were moving along the northern coast. It was a disappointment after Calabria; more densely populated, bigger cities, more roads and far more touristy. At one point we made a deviation and went inland to a small town, probably around the same size as GI, and stayed there two nights. We went on walks in the mountainous countryside following unsealed roads and stayed in a room above a café. In an area where there was 20-30 % unemployment and where most people drove around in old Fiats and Renaults, it was striking to say the least of it, to see men in suits driving around in the latest models Mercedes and BMW’s.

 

 

As we travelled across Sicily, I kept up my reading about O.C.G.’s, though quite aware at the same time that my research would remain just that; there was no chance I would ever get the opportunity to talk to a local about crime.

Days before we were due to fly out of Sicily, we met an American-Italian man at breakfast one morning in a B and B in the centre of Palermo. Initially I assumed he was Italian. Whilst operating the coffee machine, he chatted with proprietor of the hotel – who spoke not a word of English – in fluent and accentless Italian. But when we exchanged a few words with him, whilst piling up our plates, he spoke perfect American English.

We sat at the same table and a conversation ensued.

Partly bald, he had a shaved head, and was wearing a loose black T shirt, jeans, and sports shoes.

His parents were originally from Sicily and emigrated to the U.S.after the war. He had grown up in New York. He was an accountant. He had been in Sicily for a year. He was due to fly back to New York but it was only going to be for a visit. For the time being, he was going to stay in Sicily. We talked about the differences between life in the U.S. and Italy, which in itself was an interesting conversation.

‘In the US you’re working flat out and your family life suffers as a result. You can earn a lot, and it can be exciting, challenging, but you develop a tunnel vision and forget about the important things in life. My wife and I divorced and thank God there were no kids involved, but I was pretty close to burn-out. It was time for a life change so I head to Italy to look up the relatives.

In America, work comes first. In Italy the family comes first. When I arrived I was kind of shell-shocked for a while. I stayed with an uncle. He and his family lived at the outskirts of town. Their place was kinda run down. There was a big garden and it was full of olive trees, figs, oranges and lemons; there was a big vegetable garden. You haven’t really had a meal until you’ve sat down with friends and family and taken your time to eat. That’s when you really can enjoy a meal. In the states, food for me was really just a kind of means of keeping going and my time was pretty well calibrated to the minute. It’s kinda weird but I felt a stronger family bond out here than at home.

My parents left Sicily to find a better life for their kids and well, I don’t know whether that worked out so well for them. My brother is in California and one of my sisters is in Texas and the other in Canada and I’ve come back to Sicily. Spread out all over the place. ‘

I saw my chance and I didn’t waste it. I asked him about organised crime.

‘I didn’t come here to work as an accountant not at first anyway. I was pretty happy to do just about anything. I worked in a Gelateria for a while, then a restaurant. Gave me the chance to polish up my Sicilian Italian. The pay was lousy of course. So when I figured I wanted to stay longer, I started looking around for something a bit better. Tourist season was about to start so I got a job leading groups around. It was ok, I met a lot of people from different countries. I don’t remember how it began, but I mentioned to someone that I used to work as an accountant in the U.S. and before I knew it, I was offered at a job at a big tourist hotel/restaurant/shop/café complex.

‘Who owned this place? No one seemed to know. There was a manager and he talked about a man from Messines who was the owner but no one had ever seen him. A man who owned a hotel and restaurant which was being extended but never came to look at it? That didn’t add up.

Sometimes I saw businessmen turn up, so-called representatives for suppliers, maybe they were, but still. These guys were always real friendly, polite, making jokes. I kinda noticed though that they were driving expensive cars and when they went into the manager’s office, the door was closed and no one was to disturb them and I mean no one. Didn’t take too long before I figured that the place was a money laundering machine. The hotel was pretty kind of swank, with chandeliers and luxury rooms and big dining room, like a fucking ball room, nothing spared in this place, but the room rates were definitely on the low side, as if they wanted the place occupied and didn’t give too much of a shit about the place making a return to off- set the investment.

That’s how crime is working here now, it’s a matter of the sums not adding up. Profit and loss and overheads and income, none of it balances up. The heavy stuff, the violence, that lurks around in the shadows, it’s the unstated assumption behind the system. The days of assassinating politicians and police and that kind of shit, its pretty well over. In a straight out contest, the state is going to win.’

I asked about the Mafia tax system.

‘Does every business pay a tax?

He answered: ‘Who knows?

They have this campaign going, the shopkeepers and small businesses put a sticker on the window saying ‘I don’t pay tax to the mafia’, so lots of places put this sticker on their windows and the public likes it, sure, who wouldn’t, but whether you can trust these stickers that’s a whole different ball game. I wouldn’t put it passed them to put the sticker on their window and pay the tax anyway. Doesn’t matter how cynical you get in this place its hard to keep up that’s for sure.

See no one is going to be honest about this. Not even your closest friends or even your family. There’s this wall of silence. There’s no trust. People will take a stand but what they’re doing in their private lives, that might be different. No one wants trouble. You can kinda understand that. They love their families and friends, they’re gregarious, social. Life’s bigger than the sludge.’

We got on to Italian politics.

The present government was a coalition of right wing populist parties from the North and the South. The party from the south was called the ‘Five Star League.’

‘The Five Star League!’ he laughed.

‘They’re in a coalition with a bunch of populists from the north. The only thing they’ve got in common is that they blame Italy’s problems on immigrants and the E.U. Other than that, nothing. The Five Star League represent southern chauvinism, the belief that the south is too dominated by the north; the northern league represents all those northerners who want to secede from Italy because the south is so corrupt and backward. That’s Italy for you, it hangs together somehow but it’s a nuthouse. ‘

A thought occurred to me. I said:

‘There’s no hope of effectively combatting crime in Southern Italy if the southerners are somehow convinced that they are being repressed by the north. Things will only change when their culture changes. The Five Star League represents the very opposite of this. Would it require a great leap of imagination to suppose that it was being financed by crime money?’

‘Sure, why not? After all, national Prime Ministers such as Berlusconi and Andreotti were financed by the crime. ‘

I asked him:

‘Isn’t it hard to live with this, to accept that nothing can be done?’

I went on about the negative effects of organised crime on the economy.

‘Hey look I can’t do anything about Donald Trump. I can’t do anything about the fuckin’ N. R. A. (‘National Rifle Association). These school shootings get all the publicity, sure they do, 10, 20, school kids shot because of some fuck-up student who’s getting bad grades and can’t make out with the girls go outs and buys a semi-automatic, but actually if you look at America, guns permeate the society and a whole lot of people get shot, 1or 2 here, maybe 3 or 4 there, because someone has got a hassle or is screwed in the head or has got a grievance and then they grab a gun…a lot more folks die that way.

Can I change that? Am I gonna try? Email my congressman?

You know America is no better and certainly no less violent than Sicily. Probably more violent I’d say. You go along with the shit and make your own life.

I’m not a hero, are you?’

I had no ready answer to that.

Later I did, but by then, I was on the flight back to Rotterdam.

 

 

 

 

 

Italy: A Nation Divided – Part 1



When Anya and I got on the local bus to the small town of Gioiosa Ionica, we didn’t know what we would find. It was a dot on the map. 

On my part, there was a general – perhaps better said vague – purpose in visiting Gioisa Ionica.

I was interested in organised crime.

It was something which began shortly after we arrived in Southern Italy. We flew in to the city of Lamazia, where we stayed for 2 nights. Whist there, I read on an Italian news website in English, that 6 months previous, the city council was dismissed by the central government because of its connections to organised crime. It was a completely novel concept to me: an election campaign was held, people went to the effort to vote and the result: a coterie of puppets was elected, people who would make sure to divert public funds and money from the central government – and the EU – into the pockets of criminals.

During the following days, more research revealed that in some regions of Southern Italy, the dismissal of regional councils was almost a regular event. 

I travel to experience something different and this was certainly different alright.

I was intrigued.

I began looking for information about organised crime in Italy on the net. There was an enormous amount of it. Much of it was shallow and sensational, but among the dross, there were some real gems – e.g., pdf reports from Italian academics and Europol. I spent many hours reading these: they fascinated me.

What soon impressed me was a reality of a nation divided.

There was a powerful economic and cultural division between the north and south of Italy and one of its most obvious symptoms was organised crime. The latter was unique to the south, especially Calabria and Sicily, whilst Italy’s legitimate industry was concentrated in the North – which was highly successful, earning enough to make Italy the third biggest economy in Europe.
The criminal organisations in the south, referred to in some reports as ‘OCG’s´ – organised crime gangs – were in their own grim way, at least as successful as the modern, high tech corporations in the North.

There was probably no other nation in the world where the contrast between two regions was so powerful.

In Calabria, the family clans composing the organised crime circuit were known collectively as the Ndrangheta. In Sicily, they were known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. There were other, smaller organisations, but these two were by far the largest and wealthiest. Their income ran into tens of billions of Euros. Outside Italy, the Sicilian mob was far better known than the Ndrangheta, in part due to books and films, but there were many pundits who concluded that the Ndrangheta were far more efficient and wealthier than the Mafia.

There were two basic dimensions to the success of the OCG’s.

1
The thorough permeation of civil society, so that there almost no economic activity possible, in the government or private sector, which escaped the parasitical attention of the OCG. It imposed taxes on every kind of legitimate economic activity. The mob milked anything where money was involved. For 10 years, for example, the mob had milked funds meant for an assylum seekers centre – EU funds – with the help of the head of the refugee centre and a priest. It was estimated that millions had been siphoned off.

2
The transplanting of networks to other countries especially those where considerable numbers of Italians had immigrated: the US, Canada, Australia, South America and Northern Europe. Italian based OCG’s coordinated their activities with the ‘branch’ organisations across a broad range of activities including narcotics, counterfeiting, cyber crime, the dumping of radioactive waste and and so on. In order to effectively counter Italian OCG activities, a high degree of coordination between national police departments was required – never easy to realise.

 

A point came in my research where a basic question occurred to me:

Why had these highly successful criminal organisations appeared in Southern Italy?

Sifting through the accounts of these criminal organisations, I discovered that the answer to this simple question was elusive. At the very least, it inspired a great deal of debate.

Journalists and writers often focused on the more dramatic aspects of the OCG’s, such as liquidations and social life. Or they wrote about the struggle of the police to track and arrest members of the OCG’s in a detective story format. Social scientists focused on the structure and operation of these organisations but only a few addressed the deeper causes.

The most attractive – and least satisfactory – explanation for the OCG’s in Southern Italy was poverty and unemployment. It was beautifully simple, but also, wrong. It was undeniably true that in southern Italy incomes were much lower than in the north and that unemployment was much higher. In June, 2018, a report on the BBC highlighed the reality: in the North unemployment was less than 5% and in the South, between 20 – 30%.

But was organised crime the result of poverty?

Where were the equivalents of the Mafia and the Ndrangheta in Mali, Bangladesh and Bolivia?

Poverty gave rise to gangs and crime but nothing remotely like the organisations in Southern Italy.  

In actual fact, organised crime in Southern Italy was the cause, rather than the result, of poverty, low economic growth and low social economic mobility. On the one hand, OCG’s milked money from a diverse range of activities, on the other hand, they had billions which had to be laundered, often as not by investing in legitimate economic activities. Their taxation hobbled the local economy whilst their investments intensified the effect: they didn’t need to start up a firm to make a profit. The profit was only on the books. Furthermore, deep pockets meant that the bureaucracy and politics could be bought. The Ndrangheta and the Mafia had suffered set backs from vigorous anti-crime campaigns launched by the central government, but they had mutated, like a virus, and their parasitic hold on the economy and society remained undiminished. When local councils, whose members were democratically elected, were stooges for the mob, how could any effective policies be implemented at the regional level? Organised crime crippled the possibility for legitimate economic growth at many different levels. 

Another explanation for the prevalence of O.C.G.s focused on the family structure of the crime organisations. This was an important theme.

It is impossible to understand OCG’s in Southern Italy without taking into account that they are based on family relationships. The very fact that the members of an OCG belong to an extended family makes it very difficult for the police to infiltrate these organisations; bonds of loyalty are always stronger when they occur within a family setting. It is no exaggeration to say that behind the OCG is a form of primeval tribalism where the men – macho and imbued with such misogynist ideas such as ‘honour’ – do the ‘work’ whilst the women are confined to being mothers and raising the kids and, the next crop of criminals. 

The OCG family clan is based on a rigid hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy is the Godfather, who among other things, brokers deals with other family clans. The biggest threat hanging over the heads of the OCG’s is the outbreak of turf wars, which suck them into a vortex of revenge and violence – and give the police an ideal opportunity to penetrate the crime circuit by brokering deals with turncoats.

Is the deep rooted misogyny and family loyalty basic to the OCG the reason for the rise of these organisations? 

Some writers made this connection. I found it unconvincing.

To be sure, this aspect of the OCG suggested that they were specific to southern Italian society and the result of a very different history than the North.

If family was an important characteristic of the OCG, then so was territory.

The family clans had their origins – and were, in many cases still based – in the small towns in the hills and mountains of Southern Italy.

Often, as one account noted, the entire international operation of an OCG corporation was run from a small village or town. The family clan often did business with migrants hailing from their region living in a foreign country.

In the OCG with its ideas of honour, hierarchy, absolute loyalty – and territory – I was struck by the sense of the past invading the present, a feudal past, when the family and ‘men of honour’ ruled the social order. Like an Islamic terrorist organisation, the Southern Italian crime corporation was an atavistic throw-back, one which had mutated into the modern age with lethal implications.

Territory: the south east coast of Calabria was a geographic area which had spawned many of the family clans associated with Ndrangheta.

It was a rugged area dominated by mountains and hills.

For a week, Anya and I travelled along this coast by train, stopping for days at a time at various sea side places to go swimming.

The railway line hugged the coast and for most of the way, the ocean could be seen out the window.

 

 

A point came in my reading about the Ndrangheta, when I wanted to deviate from the coast and go and have a look at an inland town.

Gioiosa Ionica came up on my radar because it was relatively easy to reach by bus.

At the outskirts of Gioiosa Ionica, there was a spread of dingy suburbs, where most of the passengers got out. The suburbs were ugly, a mass of concrete apartment blocks and shabby houses. 

Taking one look at these dingy suburbs, it occurred to me that this trip was a mistake and that we would have to stay on the bus and go back to the coast.

Then the driver said something about an old centre.

We got down and began walking. It was a sunny day and warm. 

Wandering around the old centre of town –  which dated from the 15th century – I picked up clues about the historical forces which had given rise to the most successful criminal organisations in the world. 

 

 

 

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:

http://www.nrc.nl/inbeeld/2014/05/27/ganzen-rond-schiphol-gevangen-en-gedood-voor-de-veiligheid/

Also New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/15/world/europe/geese-exterminator-of-the-netherlands-enrages-animal-rights-activists.html?_r=0

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)

https://serioustravelblog.com/2016/02/08/missing-person/

 

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

https://serioustravelblog.com/2016/04/10/the-shameful-murder-of-a-shop-keeper/

 

‘Where to Germany?’ (category Germany)

https://serioustravelblog.com/2016/01/29/where-to-germany/