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The Guanyin Pavilion was built to last. And last. And last. This temple has sat atop a large reef rock in the middle of China’s Yangtze River in Ezhou for 700 years. When the water rises and covers the foundation, it looks like the structure is floating. Also known as the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion, the temple isn’t open to the public nowadays. But we’ve captured a glorious bird’s eye view of this historical treasure, holding its own against the swirling current.
Weaving through the rooms of my Brisbane childhood home, carried on the languid, humid, sub-tropical air, was the sound of an Iranian tenor singing 800-year old Persian poems of love. I was in primary school, playing cricket in the streets, riding a BMX with the other boys, stuck at home reading during the heavy rains typical of Queensland.
I had an active, exterior life that was lived on Australian terms, suburban, grounded in English, and easy-going. At the same time, thanks to my mother’s listening habits, courtesy of the tapes and CDs she bought back from trips to Iran, my interior life was being invisibly nourished by something radically other, by a soundscape invoking a world beyond the mundane, and an aesthetic dimension rooted in a sense of transcendence and spiritual longing for the Divine.
I was listening to traditional Persian music (museghi-ye sonnati). This music is the indigenous music of Iran, although it is also performed and maintained in Persian-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has ancient connections to traditional Indian music, as well as more recent ones to Arabic and Turkish modal music.
It is a world-class art that incorporates not only performance but also the science and theory of music and sound. It is, therefore, a body of knowledge, encoding a way of knowing the world and being. The following track is something of what I might have heard in my childhood:
Playing kamancheh, a bowed spike-fiddle, is Kayhān Kalhor, while the singer is the undisputed master of vocals in Persian music, ostād (meaning “maestro”) Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He is singing in the classical vocal style, āvāz, that is the heart of this music.
A non-metric style placing great creative demands on singers, āvāz is improvised along set melodic lines memorised by heart. Without a fixed beat, the vocalist sings with rhythms resembling speech, but speech heightened to an intensified state. This style bears great similarity to the sean-nos style of Ireland, which is also ornamented and non-rhythmic, although sean-nos is totally unaccompanied, unlike Persian āvāz in which the singer is often accompanied by a single stringed instrument.
A somewhat more unorthodox example of āvāz is the following, sung by Alireza Ghorbāni with a synthesised sound underneath his voice rather than any Persian instrument. It creates a hypnotic effect.
Even listeners unfamiliar with Persian music should be able to hear the intensity in the voices of Ghorbāni and Shajarian. Passion is paramount, but passion refined and sublimated so that longing and desire break through ordinary habituated consciousness to point to something unlimited, such as an overwhelming sense of the beyond.
Beyond media contrived images
The traditional poetry and music of Iran aim to create a threshold space, a zone of mystery; a psycho-emotional terrain of suffering, melancholy, death and loss, but also of authentic joy, ecstasy, and hope.
Iranians have tasted much suffering throughout their history, and are wary of being stripped of their identity. Currently, economic sanctions are being re-applied to Iran’s entire civilian population, depriving millions of ordinary people of medicine and essentials.
Traditional Persian music matters in this context of escalating aggression because it is a rich, creative artform, still living and cherished. It binds Iranians in a shared culture that constitutes the authentic life of the people and the country, as opposed to the contrived image of Iran presented in Western media that begins and ends with politics.
This is a thoroughly soulful music, akin not in form but in soulfulness with artists such as John Coltrane or Van Morrison. In the Persian tradition, music is not only for pleasure, but has a transformative purpose. Sound is meant to effect a change in the listener’s consciousness, to bring them into a spiritual state (hāl).
Like other ancient systems, in the Persian tradition the perfection of the formal structures of beautiful music is believed to come from God, as in the Pythagorean phrase, the “music of the spheres.”
Because traditional Persian music has been heavily influenced by Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, many rhythmic performances (tasnif, as opposed to āvāz) can (distantly) recall the sounds of Sufi musical ceremonies (sama), with forceful, trance-inducing rhythms. (For instance in this Rumi performance by Alireza Eftekhari).
Even when slow, traditional Persian music is still passionate and ardent in mood, such as this performance of Rumi by Homayoun Shajarian, son of Mohammad-Reza:
Another link with traditional Celtic music is the grief that runs through Persian music, as can be heard in this instrumental by Kalhor.
Grief and sorrow always work in tandem with joy and ecstasy to create soundscapes that evoke longing and mystery.
Connections with classical poetry
The work of classical poets such as Rumi, Hāfez, Sa’di, Attār, and Omar Khayyām forms the lyrical basis of compositions in traditional Persian music. The rhythmic structure of the music is based on the prosodic system that poetry uses (aruz), a cycle of short and long syllables.
Singers must therefore be masters not only at singing but know Persian poetry and its metrical aspects intimately. Skilled vocalists must be able to interpret poems. Lines or phrases can be extended or repeated, or enhanced with vocal ornaments.
Thus, even for a Persian speaker who knows the poems being sung, Persian music can still reveal new interpretations. Here, for example (from 10:00 to 25:00 mins) is another example of Rumi by M.R. Shajarian:
This is a charity concert from 2003 in Bam, Iran, after a horrendous earthquake destroyed the town. Rumi’s poem is renowned among Persian speakers, but here Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings it with such passion and emotional intensity that it sounds fresh and revelatory.
“Without everyone else it’s possible,” Rumi says, “Without you life is not liveable.”
While such lines are originally drawn from the tradition of non-religious love poems, in Rumi’s poems the address to the beloved becomes mystical, otherworldly. After a tragedy such as the earthquake, these lyrics can take on special urgency in the present.
When people listen to traditional music, they, like the singers, remain still. Audiences are transfixed and transported.
According to Sufi cosmology, all melodious sounds erupt forth from a world of silence. In Sufism, silence is the condition of the innermost chambers of the human heart, its core (fuad), which is likened to a throne from which the Divine Presence radiates.
Because of this connection with the intelligence and awareness of the heart, many performers of traditional Persian music understand that it must be played through self-forgetting, as beautifully explained here by master Amir Koushkani:
Persian music has roughly twelve modal systems, each known as a dastgah. Each dastgah collects melodic models that are skeletal frameworks upon which performers improvise in the moment. The spiritual aspect of Persian music is made most manifest in this improvisation.
Shajarian has said that the core of traditional music is concentration (tamarkoz), by which he means not only the mind but the whole human awareness. It is a mystical and contemplative music.
The highly melodic nature of Persian music also facilitates expressiveness. Unlike Western classical music, there is very sparing use of harmony. This, and the fact that like other world musical traditions it includes microtonal intervals, may make traditional Persian music odd at first listen for Western audiences.
Solo performances are important to traditional Persian music. In a concert, soloists may be accompanied by another instrument with a series of call-and-response type echoes and recapitulations of melodic phrases.
Similarly, here playing the barbat, a Persian variant of the oud, maestro Hossein Behrooznia shows how percussion and plucked string instruments can forge interwoven melodic structures that create hypnotic soundscapes:
The roots of traditional Persian music go back to ancient pre-Islamic Persian civilisation, with archaeological evidence of arched harps (a harp in the shape of a bow with a sound box at the lower end), having been used in rituals in Iran as early as 3100BC.
Under the pre-Islamic Parthian (247BC-224AD) and Sasanian (224-651AD) kingdoms, in addition to musical performances on Zoroastrian holy days, music was elevated to an aristocratic art at royal courts.
Centuries after the Sasanians, after the Arab invasion of Iran, Sufi metaphysics brought a new spiritual intelligence to Persian music. Spiritual substance is transmitted through rhythm, metaphors and symbolism, melodies, vocal delivery, instrumentation, composition, and even the etiquette and co-ordination of performances.
The main instruments used today go back to ancient Iran. Among others, there is the tār, the six-stringed fretted lute; ney, the vertical reed flute that is important to Rumi’s poetry as a symbol of the human soul crying out in joy or grief; daf, a frame drum important in Sufi ritual; and the setār, a wooden four-stringed lute.
The tār, made of mulberry wood and stretch lambskin, is used to create vibrations that affect the heart and the body’s energies and a central instrument for composition. It is played here by master Hossein Alizadeh and here by master Dariush Talai.
Music, gardens, and beauty
Traditional Persian music not only cross-pollinates with poetry, but with other arts and crafts. At its simplest, this means performing with traditional dress and carpets on stage. In a more symphonic mode of production, an overflow of beauty can be created, such as in this popular and enchanting performance by the group Mahbanu:
They perform in a garden: of course. Iranians love gardens, which have a deeply symbolic and spiritual meaning as a sign or manifestation of Divine splendour. Our word paradise, in fact, comes from the Ancient Persian word, para-daiza, meaning “walled garden”. The walled garden, tended and irrigated, represents in Persian tradition the cultivation of the soul, an inner garden or inner paradise.
The traditional costumes of the band (as with much folk dress around the world) are elegant, colourful, resplendent, yet also modest. The lyrics are tinged with Sufi thought, the poet-lover lamenting the distance of the beloved but proclaiming the sufficiency of staying in unconsumed desire.
As a young boy, I grasped the otherness of Persian music intuitively. I found its timeless spiritual beauty and interiority had no discernible connection with my quotidian, material Australian existence.
Persian music and arts, like other traditional systems, gives a kind of “food” for the soul and spirit that has been destroyed in the West by the dominance of rationalism and capitalism. For 20 years since my boyhood, traditional Persian culture has anchored my identity, healed and replenished my wounded heart, matured my soul, and allowed me to avoid the sense of being without roots in which so many unfortunately find themselves today.
The problem is the difficulty of sharing this richness with the world. In an age of hypercommunication, why is the beauty of Persian music (or the beauty of traditional arts of many other cultures for that matter) so rarely disseminated? Much of the fault lies with corporate media.
Mahbanu, who can also be heard here performing a well-known Rumi poem, are mostly female. But readers will very likely not have heard about them, or any of the other rising female musicians and singers of Persian music. According to master-teachers such as Shajarian, there are now often as many female students as male in traditional music schools such as his.
Almost everyone has seen however, through corporate media, the same cliched images of an angry mob of Iranians chanting, soldiers goose-stepping, missile launches, or leaders in rhetorical flight denouncing something. Ordinary Iranian people themselves are almost never heard from directly, and their creativity rarely shown.
The lead singer of the Mahbanu group, Sahar Mohammadi, is a phenomenally talented singer of the āvāz style, as heard here, when she performs in the mournful abu ata mode. She may, indeed, be the best contemporary female vocalist. Yet she is unheard of outside of Iran and small circles of connoisseurs mainly in Europe.
A list of outstanding modern Iranian women poets and musicians requires its own article. Here I will list some of the outstanding singers, very briefly. From an older generation we may mention the master Parisa (discussed below), and Afsaneh Rasaei. Current singers of great talent include, among others, Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, Homa Niknam, Mahileh Moradi, and the mesmerising Sepideh Raissadat.
Finally, one of my favourites is the marvelous Haleh Seifizadeh, whose enchanting singing in a Moscow church suits the space perfectly.
The beloved Shajarian
Tenor Mohammad-Reza Shajarian is by far the most beloved and renowned voice of traditional Persian music. To truly understand his prowess, we can listen to him performing a lyric of the 13th century poet Sa’di:
As heard here, traditional Persian music is at once heavy and serious in its intent, yet expansive and tranquil in its effect. Shajarian begins by singing the word Yār, meaning “beloved”, with an ornamental trill. These trills, called tahrir, are made by rapidly closing the glottis, effectively breaking the notes (the effect is reminiscent of Swiss yodeling).
By singing rapidly and high in the vocal range, a virtuoso display of vocal prowess is created imitating a nightingale, the symbol with whom the poet and singer are most compared in Persian traditional music and poetry. Nightingales symbolise the besotted, suffering, and faithful lover. (For those interested, Homayoun Shajarian, explains the technique in this video).
As with many singers, the great Parisa, heard here in a wonderful concert from pre-revolutionary Iran, learned her command of tahrir partly from Shajarian. With her voice in particular, the similarity to a nightingale’s trilling is clear.
Nourishing hearts and souls
The majority of Iran’s 80 million population are under 30 years of age. Not all are involved in traditional culture. Some prefer to make hip-hop or heavy-metal, or theatre or cinema. Still, there are many young Iranians expressing themselves through poetry (the country’s most important artform) and traditional music.
National and cultural identity for Iranians is marked by a sense of having a tradition, of being rooted in ancient origins, and of carrying something of great cultural significance from past generations, to be preserved for the future as repository of knowledge and wisdom. This precious thing that is handed down persists while political systems change.
Iran’s traditional music carries messages of beauty, joy, sorrow and love from the heart of the Iranian people to the world. These messages are not simply of a national character, but universally human, albeit inflected by Iranian history and mentality.
This is why traditional Persian music should be known to the world. Ever since its melodies first pierced my room in Brisbane, ever since it began to transport me to places of the spirit years ago, I’ve wondered if it could also perhaps nourish the hearts and souls of some of my fellow Australians, across the gulf of language, history, and time.
DARIUS SEPEHRI is a Doctoral Candidate for Comparative Literature in the Religion and History of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
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ens of millions of Shiite Muslims from around the world will visit Iraq on Sept. 10 this year to see the shrines of Hussain, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas on the day of “Ashura.”
This annual pilgrimage marks the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic new year. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, the day of Ashura changes from year to year.
Muslims visit the shrines to observe the martyrdom day of Hussain, who was killed in the desert of Karbala in today’s Iraq in A.D. 680. Shiite Muslims believe that Hussain was their third imam – a line of 12 divinely appointed spiritual and political successors.
Muharram may be an ancient festival, but as my research tracing the modern-day impact of Islamic pilgrimage shows, its meaning has changed over the centuries. What was once a commemoration of martyrdom today inspires much more, including social justice work around the globe.
Martyrdom of Hussain
The story of Muharram dates back 13 centuries, to events that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed.
After the prophet’s death in A.D. 632, a dispute emerged over who would inherit the leadership of the Muslim community and the title of caliph, or “deputy of God.” A majority of Muslims backed Abu Bakr, a close companion of the prophet, to become the first caliph. A minority wanted the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Those that supported his claim later came to be called Shiite Muslims.
Even if Ali was not made the caliph, Shiite Muslims would consider Ali their first imam – a leader divinely appointed by God. The title of imam would be passed on to his sons and his descendants.
Political leadership largely remained out of the hands of Shiite Imams. They would not be caliphs, but Shiites came to believe that their imam was the true leader to be followed.
By the time Ali’s second son, Hussain, came to be the third imam, divisions between the caliph and the imam had further deepened.
In A.D. 680, during the holy month of Muharram, a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazīd, ordered Hussain to pledge allegiance to him and his caliphate – a dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from A.D. 661 to 750.
Hussain refused because he believed Yazīd’s rule to be unjust and illegitimate.
His rejection resulted in a massive 10-day standoff at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, between Umayyad’s large army and Hussain’s small band, which included his half-brother, wives, children, sisters and closest followers.
The Umayyad army cut off food and water for Hussain and his companions. And on the day of Ashura, Hussain was brutally killed. Among the men, only Hussain’s sick son was spared. Women were unveiled – a violation of their honor as the family members of the prophet – and paraded to Damascus, the seat of Umayyad rule.
Passion plays and performances
This history is reenacted throughout the world on the day of Ashura.
In Iraq, millions of pilgrims fill the streets to visit the shrines, chanting poems of lamentation, and witness a reenactment of violence in Karbala and the capture of the women and children.
From New York and London to Hyderabad and Melbourne, thousands take part in Ashura processions carrying replicas of Hussain’s battle standard and following a white horse. This symbolizes Hussain’s riderless horse returning to the camp after his martyrdom.
Persian passion plays known as “taziyeh,” music dramas of the many martyrs and tragedies of Karbala, are performed across Iran and many other countries. Taziyeh performances are meant to evoke deep emotions of grief in the audience.
A powerful set of themes
In the 16th century, a vast majority of the population across Persia, or today’s Iran, would be converted to Shiite Muslims. In this region, the passion plays evolved into a popular form of religious and artistic expression.
The character of Zainab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter, has also come to play a central role in remembrance of the Karbala story.
Scholars have drawn attention to speeches in which Zainab denounced the violence in Karbala and lauded Hussain’s “martyrdom.”
Today, Zainab is seen as a strong female model of resistance.
In the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of Karbala became a rallying point for opponents of the shah, who were fighting against the shah’s brutal and oppressive regime. They compared the shah to the caliph Yazīd and argued that ordinary Iranians had to stand up to an oppressor, just like Hussain had.
Zainab’s resistance to oppression helped emphasize the role of women in Islamic society.
Today the story of Karbala has become a powerful tool of fight for social justice in Muslim communities.
“Who is Hussain?,” a social movement with chapters in over 60 cities worldwide, carries out charitable activities and blood donations in the name of Hussain. Volunteers are encouraged to organize around events that will be meaningful in their communities and will tie into social justice issues that Hussain is believed to have fought for.
In 2018, local volunteers donated tens of thousands of bottles of water in Flint, Michigan in remembrance of Hussain and his companions, who were denied water for three days before they were killed.
As historian Yitzhak Nakash points out, the tragedy of Karbala gives Shiite Muslims a common narrative to pass on to the next generations. And commemorating it in multiple ways is an part of their unique identity.
NOORZEHRA ZAIDI is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
In San Francisco, there is an an 800-ton monument that retells California history, from the Spanish missions to American settlement. Several bronze sculptures and relief plaques depict American Indians, white miners, missionaries and settlers. A female figure symbolizing white culture stands atop a massive stone pillar.
The design of the “pioneer monument” was celebrated in newspapers across the country when it was erected in 1894. Today, however, activists have argued that the monument – particularly its depiction of a Spanish missionary and Mexican “vaquero,” or cowboy, towering over an American Indian – is demeaning to American Indians.
Should the city take down part of this 125-year-old monument?
Many cities are removing or reinterpreting their Confederate monuments, with the understanding that they commemorate racism. But few Americans realize that pioneer monuments placed across the country are also racist.
Confederate and pioneer monuments
Since at least 2015, cities across the United States have debated what to do with more than 700 Confederate monuments.
After the Civil War, grieving widows raised funds to place monuments to soldiers in southern cemeteries. But most statues of Confederate leaders and foot soldiers were put up around 1900 by heritage organizations to honor the “Lost Cause.”
The “Lost Cause” is the idea that that the Civil War began as a heroic defense against northern aggression. In fact, the Civil War was primarily fought to defend slavery.
In the past few years, cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Baltimore, Maryland have chosen to remove their Confederate statues. Activists tore down a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, North Carolina last year.
By contrast, there has been far less attention on the roughly 200 pioneer monuments erected for similar reasons around the same time.
The earliest pioneer monuments were put up in midwestern and western cities such as Des Moines, Iowa and San Francisco, California. They date from the 1890s and early 1900s, as whites settled the frontier and pushed American Indians onto reservations.
Those statues showed white men claiming land and building farms and cities in the West. They explicitly celebrated the dominant white view of the Wild West progressing from American Indian “savagery” to white “civilization.”
Deviations from that script produced public controversy. For example, Denver residents in 1907 vocally opposed prominent American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies’s plan for a pioneer monument. MacMonnies proposed a large stone pillar surrounded by bronze hunters, miners and settlers similar to San Francisco’s celebrated monument. MacMonnies’s model included a mounted Plains American Indian warrior atop the pillar to show American Indians yielding to white settlement.
But Denver residents expected the figure at the top of the pillar to represent the pinnacle of progress, like “Eureka,” the female figure representing the spirit of California on San Francisco’s monument.
Denver’s residents argued that the monument needed a white man on top, so MacMonnies revised his design, replacing the American Indian warrior with frontiersman and American Indian fighter Kit Carson, on horseback.
By the 1920s, whites controlled most western lands, and they stopped depicting American Indians in their pioneer monuments. New pioneer monuments from Maryland to California focused on western women. Pioneer mothers in sunbonnets stood for white “civilization” winning in the West. And they offered a conservative model of womanhood to contrast flappers wearing short dresses and bobbed hair and women’s growing sexual freedom.
More recent monuments, such as Goodland, Kansas’s “They Came to Stay” and Omaha, Nebraska’s “Pioneer Courage,” do not directly engage racial politics. As their titles suggest, these statues honor pioneer families’ grit, and they teach local history.
But these statues still represent a racist view, ignoring the cost of white settlement on Native lands. Like earlier monuments, they reinforce white dominance and erase ethnic diversity in the American West.
Pioneer monuments today
The recent debate about Confederate monuments has sparked some discussion of pioneer monuments in a few places. In April, Kalamazoo, Michigan removed its 1940 “Fountain of the Pioneers” because local residents disliked its depiction of a white settler looming over an American Indian.
After decades of protest, San Francisco debated taking down the depiction of a Spanish missionary towering over an American Indian from the 1894 pioneer monument.
In the 1990s, activists persuaded the city to place a plaque telling the dark side of California history in front of the statue. But today’s protesters argued that plaque, hidden by landscaping, is not enough. They want “Early Days” – if not the entire monument – taken down.
The San Francisco Arts Commission agrees, but the Board of Appeals blocked its removal in April.
On September 14, 2018, the “Early Days” statue was removed from the San Francisco monument and placed in storage. In April 2019, about 150 Native American leaders and youth from across California posed for photographs on the empty base where “Early Days” once stood. The photos will be part of the San Francisco Art Commission’s American Indian Initiative.
Each pioneer monument has its own history and local meaning. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But communities are beginning to consider removing or reinterpreting these monuments to white conquest.
CYNTHIA PRESCOTT is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
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Puerto Ricans wrote a new chapter in their history on July 24.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló finally resigned after 12 days of massive protests in Puerto Rico, as well as protests abroad, that demanded his resignation; all the protests used the hashtag #RickyRenuncia.
The beginning of the protests can be traced to the release by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo of 889 pages of a Telegram chat transcript that exposed offensive and unethical comments made by the governor and his inner circle.
But the chat was only the latest blow. A series of natural and human-made disasters have caused turmoil and trauma in Puerto Ricans’ lives, including the more than decade-long recession that started in 2006; the financial crisis and subsequent enactment of the PROMESA law in 2016that reinforced Puerto Rico’s colonial status; and the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
Whereas personal trauma “involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual,” by cultural trauma, we mean what sociologist Jeffrey Alexander says “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”
The chat’s transcript served as a catalyst for Puerto Ricans to come together in indignation.
Personal and cultural trauma
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, approximately 159,000 to 176,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the continental U.S. This major movement is expected to continue, with an anticipated 14% of the island population leaving over the next two years.
We wanted to understand the conditions under which post-disaster Puerto Rican migrants successfully integrated into continental U.S. society, and the challenges they face. We will soon begin a two-year study on how those leaving the island after the hurricanes have fared in Central Florida.
Some Puerto Ricans not only lost family members or everything they owned, but, even a year after impact, many in Puerto Rico still lacked access to basic necessities such as potable water, warm food, shelter, medicines, and electricity.
Of the 19 Puerto Ricans we have interviewed so far, as well as over 100 surveyed, many were deeply impacted by Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For those in our sample who lived on the island during the hurricane but have since moved to Florida, many felt traumatic loss in leaving their homes and families behind to survive the slow recovery.
Many told us that they lost their jobs, suffered health problems and, upon migration, faced racism and downward occupational mobility in the continental U.S.
Members of the diaspora also experienced personal trauma during the days and weeks after the hurricanes, not knowing about the status of their loved ones in Puerto Rico.
One of the Puerto Ricans we interviewed, John, explained the agony he felt in the aftermath of the storm waiting to hear from his father in Puerto Rico: “I talked to my dad the night before it was supposed to hit and he said he’ll call me as soon as he can. And then I didn’t hear from him for a couple days, so it was definitely stressful,” he said.
His father finally called; John said, “That was one of the most important phone calls I ever received… I cried because I was just excited to hear from him.”
In recent years, the totality of personal traumas Puerto Ricans have faced, including the recent chat scandal, amount to an arc of cultural trauma.
Resiliency and resistance
Puerto Ricans told us that they have used a range of coping mechanisms to contend with their challenges. Some of the main coping strategies to deal with personal trauma were connecting with family and friends for support; finding solace in their faith; trying to adapt to new daily routines; and trying to secure a job to provide for their families.
All of these resilient acts bring meaning to their sacrifices and losses. Our interviewees are actively recreating their homes, whether in Puerto Rico or elsewhere.
We see the current collective protests as acts of resistance to their cultural trauma. The protests have brought about a sense of group solidarity that has strengthened cohesion among the people of Puerto Rico, regardless of where they are geographically. These protests also signal that Puerto Ricans are actively reconstructing a more democratic society.
That is why journalists and participants have compared these recent protests to the “Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques” (All of Puerto Rico with Vieques) movement that aimed to remove the U.S. Navy from using the island of Vieques – part of Puerto Rico – for military exercises, particularly, the “Paz para Vieques” march on February 21, 2000. Back then, these collective actions aimed to hold the U.S. government accountable for the damages caused by the bombings in Vieques and the poor health of its residents. The protests were successful in removing the navy, although Vieques residents are still battling in court for reparations and clean-up.
Research shows that these types of group political actions can help to foster a process of collective healing, notably when the objectives are achieved.
While the Telegram chat was the latest shock in an arc of cultural trauma afflicting Puerto Ricans, we think that Puerto Ricans have demonstrated powerful acts of resilience in rebuilding a hopeful future for Puerto Rico. A simple hashtag – #RickyRenuncia – represents resistance against more than a decade of struggles, yet it is only the beginning of what is to come.
ELIZABETH ARANDA is a Professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida.
ALESSANDRA ROSA is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of South Florida.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION.
Some of the best roses in the world bloom in Kenya. While the country is widely known for its scenic national parks and wildlife reserves, it’s also a major flower producer. Winnie Gathonie Njonge is the production manager at Nini Flowers, which sits on the shores of Lake Naivasha. She knows all there is about growing perfect roses and oversees the harvesting of 300,000 to 450,000 a day. “The ultimate goal of growing roses is to make other people happy,” she says. It brings her joy to know the roses she cultivates are sent to the United States, Japan and other countries, spreading love and beauty all over the world.
For citizens of tiny Sibiu, Romania, “watchful eyes” nestled in the city’s roofs have become a symbol of ongoing protest.
Each day at noon, in the picturesque little city of Sibiu, the red-shingled roofs and the protestors silently assembled in the streets send the same message to the corrupt government of Romania: We are watching you.
Visitors to Sibiu take note of the standard Central European attributes: the quaint, historic architecture, punctuated by the Gothic Lutheran cathedral, whose steeple looms high into the sky; the houses clinging to the bank of the river Cibin, which winds lazily down from the main waterway of Olt. But they are likely to do a double-take upon noticing the ever-watchful Sibiu eyes—narrow windows rising up from the city’s roofs, giving the impression of a perpetual half-lidded gaze. Originally designed to ventilate attics where meat, cheese, and grain were stored while keeping the harsh sunlight out, the eyes have become a potent symbol of Romania’s anti-corruption movement—specifically, a grassroots organization called V Vedem din Sibiu, or “we are watching you from Sibiu.”
V Vedem din Sibiu came about in December 2017, when the government moved to shift judiciary statutes in a way that was widely regarded as tightening state control over judges and undermining the National Anticorruption Directorate. The attempt further inflamed tensions ignited at the beginning of the year, when the ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) decriminalized a range of corruption offenses, triggering Romania’s most sizable street protest since the fall of communism in 1989. The emergency ordinance—which, among other stipulations, dropped charges of official misconduct in cases where the financial damage did not exceed 200,000 lei ($47,000)—passed at 10 p.m. local time; by midnight, more than 10,000 infuriated citizens had taken to the streets in the capital of Bucharest, and around 10,000 in other cities across Romania.
Corruption is considered a serious problem in Romania, and the country’s fragile political state is exacerbated by its status as one of the European Union’s newest and poorest members, leaving citizens concerned for their rights and constantly at the ready to mount a protest. In the years and months since the events of 2017, Romania has seen ongoing organizing against corruption and in support of judicial independence, and the government has endured criticism from the European Commission, the U.S. state department, and the centrist president and National Liberal Party leader, Klaus Iohannis, who has made strong calls for governmental transparency. In January 2018, approximately 50,000 Romanians marched towards parliament in Bucharest, waving flags, contending with riot police, and raising raucous chants of “Thieves!” And in August of that year, up to 100,000 members of the Romanian diaspora descended on Bucharest to protest the PSD—an event that took a violent turn when police deterred marchers with tear gas and water cannons.
Relative to the chaotic, overwhelming tableau of the ongoing demonstrations in Bucharest, the soundless walkouts occurring daily in Sibiu present a stark contrast. This July, the Sibiu protesters commemorated their 500th day gathering in the city center, sacrificing their lunch breaks or school recesses to stand in silence outside the headquarters of the PSD. “Those 15 minutes every day, it is like a flame that never goes out,” said Ciprian Ciocan, one of the founders of V Vedem din Sibiu, in an interview with The Guardian. “Somebody knows that there are still people in Sibiu, no matter whether it rains or snows or whatever.”
Ciocan posts live videos of the protests on V Vedem din Sibiu’s Facebook page, where they reach more than 20,000 followers. During the events of December 2017, allies from around the world sent in more than 68 versions of the Sibiu eyes—scrawled on walls and scraps of paper, carved into sand at the seashore, inscribed with branches laid on fresh snow, from Berlin to Chicago to Kuala Lumpur. Though the initial tide of eyes has slowed, the page continues to share media coverage of the protests along with its regularly scheduled live videos. The “about” section defines the sit-in as a form of protest, stating, “We are protecting the values and principles in which we strongly believe, the state of law and the independence of Justice.”
In May of this year, under pressure from the EU and overwhelming dissent from Romanian voters, the PSD abandoned some of its most controversial measures. Even more devastating for the party was their loss of seats in European Parliament elections and the departure of the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who was jailed on May 27 and is expected to serve a three-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption.
Despite small steps in the right direction, however, citizens remain on high alert. “There are many other dangers,” Bianca Toma of the Romanian Centre for European Policies told The Guardian. “There are still things to be undone and it’s a matter of fact, not just [making] statements.” And in Sibiu, the ongoing protests have had little impact on the PSD, whose workers drew the blinds when sit-ins began and issued a statement accusing the activists of “aggressive” behavior. Still, like clockwork, citizens will keep turning out in the streets, and the watchful eyes will keep gazing from Sibiu’s rooftops, waiting for a day when Romanians at home and abroad can live without fear of corruption.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.
You may have noticed that the beverages you’ve been ordering at your favorite coffee shop or restaurant have not been accompanied by plastic straws. Chains as big as Starbucks and establishments as small as neighborhood cafes have been finding creative substitutes to plastic straws, or are just getting rid of them altogether.
What’s so bad about straws?
Straws are just one example of wasteful single-use plastic. Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year, and a large portion of that plastic ends up in the ocean. It seems like plastic straws is an interesting place to start in the crusade against single-use plastics. However, for an able-bodied person, avoiding plastic straws is an easy way to start reducing plastic use.
How are things changing?
Some restaurants have tried to be more conscious about their straw usage by not automatically putting a plastic straw into each beverage. Some establishments will wait for their customers to ask for a straw instead of serving it to them.
Other establishments—like Starbucks—have developed a new plastic lid that looks like a sippy-cup so that customers can sip their drinks without needing a straw. However, cups like these are difficult for those who aren’t able to pick up their drinks and bring them to their mouths. A straw is literally the only way for some people to drink on their own.
While finding alternatives to plastic straws can make a substantial impact, it should just be the beginning of a global campaign to reduce single use plastics. Hopefully, there will be future campaigns to reduce plastic bottles, plastic cutlery, or single-use containers.
ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur.
The videographer is Face du Monde and these are his comments on the video:
“Since I was a kid, it always has been a dream of mine to see "El dia de los Muertos" in Mexico. So last October my friend Max and I decided to travel there. It was my second time in this country I really fell in love with. We spent 3 weeks travelling around Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Campeche states. I made this video to show how this country has his own culture, his own history that you will find nowhere else in the world. "El dia de los Muertos" is an event everybody should see once in his life, it really represents the Mexican soul. I would like to thank all amazing people I met there who made this journey unforgettable.”