Kings In The Alhambra, Tanks In Barcelona

 

 

Published by Novara Media

Re-published by Edge of Humanity Magazine (abridged version)

 

The latest independence referendum in Catalonia has been declared illegal and central government has offered the region a simple choice; abandon the plans for the referendum or lose all their budgetary powers. This battle for Catalonian independence is among the latest in a long history of cultural struggles in Spain, where individual cultural, religious and ethnic groups find themselves at odds with authorities wishing to impose a monolithic, centralised vision of Spanish history. 

Decapitating history in Barcelona.

Judging by the decapitation of the late Spanish dictator last October, the past is still contentious between Spain and Catalonia. The assailant, and Franco’s head, was never found. The headless statue remained stationed outside El Born’s Cultural Centre of Memory, housing 18th century archeological remains from Barcelona. The centre’s objective: “to promote the memory and reflection of local and national events“.

Franco’s caste-iron silhouette atop his horse, stood close to the door leading to the hundreds of Catalan artefacts uncovered 27 years ago. The ceramics and metal-work evidence Catalonia’s artisan history. The fragments disrupt Franco’s myth of Spain having a unified national identity. Under the dictator’s 36 year rule, Catalonia’s cultural identity was strangled.

Cultural difference was erased in the many distinct areas of Spain, namely the Catalonian and Basque regions. Catalan was banned, spoken largely only in closed quarters, while ancient Catalan traditions, from Correfoc to Els Castells, were made illegal. Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium, was one of the only places where Catalonians could speak their language. Even now, the crowds at the games are peppered with independence flags.

 

cat1A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

To see the placing of the two statues of Franco so close to the centre’s doors as a provocative statement is only my reading. The figures were part of an exhibition entitled, Franco: Victory, Republic and Impunity in Urban Spaces. Their stated purpose was to encourage a re-interpretation of Spain’s Francoist history.

During the Spanish Civil war of 1936-9, Franco’s Nationalists forcefully took power from the Republican party, ending the country’s democratic rule. The death toll proliferated when Franco invited Hitler to test his bombs on Republican civilians. Barcelona was the centre of Catalonia’s historically Republican population.

The city’s current mayor, Ada Colau, gained her political experience in street protests and city activism, not in parliament. Barcelona has a long history of revolutionary anarchism, further evidenced by the controversy of the exhibition’s gesture. Civilians passing through El Born would have parents who were on the Nationalist or Republican side during the regime, with these divisions still kept alive in many families.

The responses to the statues materialised not in introspective meditations but in physical acts of violence: the decapitation, the eggs and graffiti decorating his body like farcical war-ribbons, the pig-head placed on the severed neck. A Catalonian, whose family had been Republican under Franco, had to be restrained when he tried to punch a worker installing the statue. The figures were removed after only 48 hours of their showing.

On October 1, the Regional Catalan government will hold a de facto independence referendum whose results could see an immediate split from Spain, despite a lack of national government sanctioning. The question on the draft legislations is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state that is independent from Spain?”

Many Catalonians want independence not simply to re-affirm their separateness and explore their recent history without the censorship of central government, but to distance themselves from the way that this past still lingers within Spain’s current government, the conservative Christian-Democratic Partido Popular (PP), which was founded by a former minister under Franco’s regime. This past haunts the party, sewing historical devisions that the PP have not addressed, and leading to efforts to control the way this past is remembered.

 

dog2A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

The ‘Pact of Forgetting’.

The PP is not the pioneer of Spain’s historic stitching up of the past – rather, it’s a faithful heir. This official approach to the past began in 1977, with the passing of the ‘Pact of Forgetting’to facilitate the move into a fledging democracy. This law made it illegal to persecute any of Franco’s officials. Investigation or official condemnation of their crimes were also prohibited, unlike the rest of Europe who’s fallen dictatorships saw extensive trials. As a result of this law, still in place today, the way that the history of the regime and civil war can be officially taught is highly controlled in state syllabuses.

The current Spanish government’s website echoes the centralised version of the nation’s historical memory, claiming that the transition to democracy in the 1970s showed that “all the wounds from the civil war had been healed”. History textbooks today still refuse to indict Franco’s Nationalists for shedding more blood than the Republicans, stating that both sides are equally culpable: “In a graveyard far off there is a corpse, who has moaned for three years.”

 

span4A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

The Pact has more tangible effects than how history is recalled. The law limits the allowance of families to exhume the mass graves within Spain where their relatives are buried. Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned Spanish poet rumoured to be one of artist Salvador Dali’s lovers, lies beneath the country’s soil. Killed by a firing squad in 1939, Lorca was buried in a mass grave, alongside thousands of other Republicans. Since 2008, Baltasar Garzon, one of Spain’s most renowned jurists, has unsuccessfully called for a repeal of the Pact three times. Garzon had tried to call for the exhumation of 19 graves, one which may have hidden the poet.

Fiscal controls over historical memory.

The PP’s support of this law, which they claim prevents groups with historical Nationalist and Republican roots from re-sewing divisions, embodies their desire to protect the memory of Francoist Spain. This desire manifests through the wider measures the party takes to limit the self-scrutinising excavation of history. The PP have little political incentive to disturb the allegedly still waters of Spain’s historical memory.

Conservative values consolidated under Franco’s regime survived its collapse. To this day, public institutions lean heavily on Castilian language and culture, traditional Catholic church values and the symbolic power of the monarchy – values which play well with the party’s  large conservative votership.

Manuel Fraga’s role as senator of the PP until 2011 was a prologue to the party’s multiplying efforts to protect the legacy of the Francoist past. Fraga was the Tourism and Foreign Affairs minister under Franco. He ordered the execution of the Communist leader Julian Grimau by gun shot. After Franco’s death, he earned the epithet “¡La calle es mía!” (The streets are mine), due to his ardent repression of street protests through police violence. When he died in 2012, the El Pais newspaper awkwardly proffered the following take: “He was famous for his seemingly endless energy” – delicately skirting around his violent past and keeping to his political achievements of the 21st century. Their retelling of Fraga’s history, through euphemisms and polite omissions, reflects the government’s own approach. In 2009, the European Parliament wanted to include Francoism as part of their day recalling European totalitarianism. The PP refused to join the discussions, while the Conservative Spanish MEP, Jaime Mayor Oreja claimed that “it would be historically foolish” to disrupt the fabled peace of Spain’s transition to democracy. The past’s physical remnants are also guarded. Public funds still pay for the maintenance of The Valley of the Fallen – a vast mausoleum in Madrid that houses Franco’s body with a public mass each year held to commemorate his death.

In 2004, José Zapatero’s left-wing government stood to challenge . With less stake than the PP detoxification of public memories of the Franco regime, the party took the first legal steps to begin dredging up the crimes of the country’s past. Zapatero introduced The Historical Memory law in 2006.  For the first time, the law funded the exhumation of mass graves of Republicans, awarded rights to Franco’s victims and removed hundreds of Francoist monuments. The law also allowed for Spain’s different regions to advance their own understanding of history in school textbooks, shattering the centralised version of previous education administrations.

However, with the PP elected to power in 2011, the need for such a law was openly denied by its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The past was back in the hands of the right. “I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldn’t give even a single euro of public funds for that”, he told Spanish media, following his election as president. Withdrawing all government funding to the program was one of the first things he did in his ascent to power in 2011; the offices involved were closed.

 

 

IMG_0942A political pero in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain (Pro-Spanish unity march)

 

Spain’s unstable foundations.

The PP’s control over the way history is remembered, should be read in the wider context of their handling over how Spain’s national identity is understood. The PP is the natural heir to five centuries of governmental efforts to centralise and homogenise the question of what – and indeed who – counts as properly Spanish. Diverse groups who might disagree with this monolith vision of Spanish identity have historically been silenced, and still are today; from geographical and cultural groupings of the Catalonians, Basques to religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims and Sephardim.

We must understand contemporary wranglings over Catalonian independence as part of a longer historical struggle, even if this articulation of separatist groups only mobilised in the early 20th century. Equally, this tradition of control inherited from Franco by the PP, stretches back from the first rulers that pioneered the formation of modern Spain.  To look at the formation of the nation itself contextualises current devisions over the proper answer to the question of who is Spanish.

The Alhambra is a palatial fortress sitting on the hills of Granada in Southern Spain. Before Spain claimed this region, it sat within the lands of the Iberian Peninsula, and was part of the regional Moorish kingdom of the 13th century.  The building’s geometrical patterns and Arabesque aesthetics were constructed by Muslim, Jewish and Christian craftsmen. These religions lived in the Iberian Peninsula in a complex, pluralistic society: three cultures under Muslim and Christian rule. Conflict existed between the groups, but there were no forced conversions. When the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile united in 1492, the compound identity of the Iberian Peninsula became Catholic. The monarchs had been slowly claiming the lands of the Peninsula from its Muslim rulers, until the inquisition of the 15th century when the remaining Moors fled. The Catholics had demanded conversion, or expulsion. With the clearing of the peninsula, the process of the formation of Spain’s nation-state identity began. Isabelle and Ferdinand eventually made the Alhambra their royal court, and its symbolic power as a testament to a multicultural society was co-opted. Spain’s identity formalised with the union of the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492.

The Castilian’s gradual imposition of a national identity expanded to its neighbours. The laws of Castile were eventually imposed on Catalonia in 1716. Castilian, one of the many languages spoken within Spain, came to mean Spanish. Spanishness became synonymous with being white, Castilian and Catholic. After two short-lived republics, and a long line of Catholic monarchs, Franco intended to continue writing this story into the 20th century:

The costs of not being considered ‘Spanish’ were steep, when these characteristics became pre-requisites to being incorporated into the nation’s corpus. I spoke to Victor Sorrenson, in his office in the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Barcelona, about post-Inquisition Spain: “It is not surprising that in the period after the expulsion the notion of “blood cleansing” appeared, where forced conversoes with a Jewish past were ‘stained’.”

This act, lead by the Catholic church, entailed the systematic torture and interrogation of suspected Jews up to the 18th century:

In the twentieth century, the discourse of pure blood especially nourishes the undemocratic right, like the Falange española

Franco brought the propagandistic discourse of Castille’s pure blood and a rigid cultural prototype into the 20th century. During and after the Civil War, large-scale concentration camps housed ex-Republican servicemen and political dissidents. Those seen as ‘un-recoverable’ were shot.

 

cat3A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

In a history where race, religion, ethnicity and cultural-geographic groupings overlap with each other, we shouldn’t attempt to map Catalonia’s marginalisation onto patterns of racial and ethnic oppression. But they do offer us a glimpse into how profoundly committed the Spanish central government is to maintaining a unitary identity by using force and sanction to bring to heel all those seen to deviate. A unitary identity becomes a powerful way of exercising control over a population; a false idol of monolithic so-called Spanishness to unify a population in a time where many have staked their political and economic futures on a unified Spain. Catalonia is one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, and independence might threaten to plunge the remainder of Spain into economic chaos. In these circumstances, a tool as urgent and powerful as a sense of unified Spanishness is one worth defending at a high cost. Though it has shocked many in the international community, Spain’s move to starve Catalonia’s budget into de facto submission is by no means beyond the pale of this logic.

Plastic national identities.

That the state remains invested in heavily policing Jewish and Muslim life in Spain chimes to the same anxiety; that repressing certain groups has proved so politically and economically useful, any identity which granted them full Spanishness threatens to undermine a project of exclusion. To guard Spanishness, white Catalonians must be forcibly brought in, whilst racial and ethnic ‘Others’ are cast out. Under the PP today, the ease with which groups can be included, or excluded, from Spain’s national identity evokes the power of Spain’s historic leaders to manipulate at will the concept of Spanishness.

Last year, Spain offered a Law of Return to the many expelled Sephardic Jews, officially claiming they were a crucial component of Spanish identity. The law is designed to make the naturalising process highly expensive and complicated, despite it being a Law of Return, which many see as a way to filter out less affluent Sephardim. It is important to note that this same definition of Spanishness was not expanded to include the many Muslims expelled from the land in the 15th and 16th century.

 

Bayi Loubaris, the president of the Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double-standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”. The rigid definitions of Spain’s identity were felt more recently in Catalonia. In Place de Jaume of Barcelona, there is a man ensangrado(bloodied) most days of the week (or to use the Catalan for bloodied, ple de sang). He stands with posters of mauled bulls, slaughtered by a matadores. Catalonia’s regional government passed a law in 2010 which banned bull-fighting in the region. But Spain’s government annulled the ban in October of last year, deeming bull fighting a “national heritage”.

 

span5A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

 

These cultural battles become the shibboleths for grander – and altogether more violent – battles over which kinds of government have the right to make and enforce laws on the territories of Spain. What can be seen as a paranoid enforcement of a unified, centralised identity fuelled the notorious Basque separatist terrorist group, ETA, standing for “Basque Homeland and Liberty”. Between 1986 and 2010 they killed 829 people, both politicians to civilians.

Just as laws prevent history textbooks from teaching diverse understandings of the 20th century, the will to limit a pluralist understanding of Spain’s national identity can be seen in the academic field. I spoke to a recent PhD graduate, Angy Cohen, from Madrid University. She specialises in Sephardic Jewish identity, through which she explores the historically shifting identities of Spanishness. She is frustrated at a culture still hostile to deconstructing definitions of Spain’s identity, reflected through funding restrictions:

It’s interesting that Spain has some of the best historians I’ve ever seen, the level is extremely high but Spain’s national identity is blocked – so if you trying to re-define Spain’s national identity – it will be a struggle. It’s all bound up because these questions lead to the claim of certain regions of Spain for self-determination. Its a very complex question that has to do with this inability – this very long history of persecution and repression of Spain’s national identity.

Tanks in Barcelona?

Under the PP, a centralised identity enforced through multiple legal and institutional formations has become a conduit for re-articulating deeply conservative values; the heritage of Franco’s reactionary governance. Thus, it is unsurprising that the fight for independence is seen by many Catalonians as the fight for a more progressive, democratic Spain. Spain’s current constitution states that for any regional law in Catalonia to be changed, the Spanish parliament must vote. Catalonia, with a small minority of representational seats in the national government, will side-step legality to ensure a referendum goes forward this October 1. Its draft legislation is clear:

If the Spanish state effectively impedes the holding of a referendum, this law will enter into effect in a complete and immediate manner when the [regional] parliament has verified such an impediment.

Catalonian’s are far from unified in their opinion on independence. Reasons for wanting national autonomy vary widely; from the primarily economic, to those of a more cultural or historical nature as discussed above. But many Catalonia’s are uncomfortable with voting for an independence that has no clear independence plan. To anyone spectating the fallout from Brexit, this may seem hauntingly familiar.

Though Carles Puigdemont does not have the unanimous support for the illegal vote that he claims, Catalonians are largely unified in their belief that they are entitled to a vote. Despite the fact that the vote is unlikely to swing the way of independence at this stage, the very fact of the referendum re-articulates lines of division and in declaring autonomy and difference, even as it looks to re-sign up to the uneasy contract at the heart of the modern Spanish state, a detente between the unified state and its fractious regions.

If the vote goes ahead, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets of Catalonia during the voting period. Once again, central state power has failed to fully realise itself through a monolithic cultural identity and so has resorted to the old reliables; money and guns. Catalonian independence is no guarantee of prosperity or liberty for Catalonians, many of whom would likely face just the same ethnic or religious discrimination as is handed down by governments past and present. But the simple fact of holding the referendum tests the limits of what states will do to protect their territorial integrity. A firm fist on the national wallet and tanks on the streets of Barcelona.

 

catA Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

The Clash of Barcelona’s Jewish leaders

 

Published by Jewdas

   Re-published by the Jewish Renaissance 

 

The Israeli Times was the site of a less-public conflict in the aftermath of Barcelona’s attack last week. Its pages perpetuated a time-worn pattern: In times of conflict, Jewish communities’ relations to their diaspora are challenged un-constructively by Jewish leaders.

After a van plunged into the teeming Las Ramblas, killing 16 and injuring 100, two pillars of the community clashed in their public response to the attack, amplified by the paper.

Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Ben-Har, portended Europe’s ‘doom’ and asserted that ‘Jews are not here permanently’. The Rabbi called for Spain’s 40,000 Jews to ‘buy property in Israel’, as their home was a ‘hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe’.

After The Israel Times published the Rabbi’s statement, Victor Sorrenson, a spokesman for the Jewish community, sent a loaded email to the paper’s inbox.

‘Barcelona is not afraid, its Jews join them in this stance’. His definitive message was ‘social action’ from Barcelona’s community, not departure.

I spoke to Victor from his office in Barcelona, to find out how two community figures can have such a polarised reaction to the event, and his view on the future of the diaspora in Europe.

Victor opened by explaining that the Rabbi’s view was not ‘representative’ of the community, unfortunate considering that the newspaper had jumped to publish his response:

‘The Rabbi should not have attended the media the same day of the attack. Beyond the fact that the media may have exaggerated their position, I think it is a mistake for a religious leader to take sides that way. He has been in Barcelona for six years, the community, one hundred’

Victor expanded on the logistics of the post-attack community response, as there had been a an elected ‘crisis committee’, and Victor was appointed as the ‘spokesperson’:

‘The message was very clear: Condemn the terrorist attacks, give all our support for the authorities and participate in the social fabric of Barcelona to show our commitment to the city’.

The Rabbi’s response, siting the imperative for the community to move away from the diaspora as opposed to solidarity, is a tired motif. Such soothsaying undermine the diasporas’ efforts, and success, in re-inscribing their identity into Europe.

European leaders heaped critique on the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, following his response after the Paris Kosher-supermarket and Copenhagen attacks last year. His message was clear: ‘Israel is waiting for you with open arms’.

Accusations of Netanyahu’s strategically-timed damning of the future of Europe rippled across the media’s international waters.

Chief Rabbi Bar-Hen, echoing the view of many vocal zionist Jewish leaders, claimed that the community in Barcelona was ‘not permanent’. Victor counter-acted this pessimism:

‘There is a growing interest in the general Catalan population in Jewish matters, an interest that we see translating into spiritual, historical and intellectual curiosity. In short, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life in Barcelona. This will be the trend for the future. I do not know anyone, either before or after the attack, to consider leaving for security reasons’

The Rabbi, ignoring Spain’s sociocultural specificity, had warned Jews not to ‘repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late’. Outside of drawing parallels with other continents, he claimed that ‘Europe is lost’.

Victor, when this was re-sited to him, argued that: ‘Each country has a different history. To encompass all on the same label “Europe”, is reductionistic and shows an ignorance of the reality that is being lived politically’.

Despite its pervasive anti-semitism, Spain has not had a violent attack against Jews for years, unlike France. Victor suggests that in the face of new terror threats rising in Spain, the Jewish community feels supported:

‘What I can say is that our relationship with the security forces is excellent. We work with them on a regular basis, since as in so many other places, Jewish spaces had been targeted before the terrorist threat.’

The disregarding of Barcelona’s place-specific security-levels forms part of a mind set that undermines diasporic identity by homogenising it within Europe. The diasporas’ sociocultural idiosyncrasies are a distraction to Israel, seen as the only true Jewish homeland.

The Rabbi seemed impervious to the irony that thousands of Israeli’s had been trying to pass Spain’s Law of Return of 2015. If an applicant can prove their ancestor’s Sephardic origins they can be nationalised as Spanish. A writer from Haaretz evokes the reaction in Israel:

‘Normal countries, with normal people, don’t go crazy just because an economically-challenged country offered them citizenship. But Israel did’

The Chaplin-esque image of these paradoxical movements sites the insecurity of Jewish life, where is safe? Israel certainly isn’t.

However, expanding on the future of the diaspora within Europe as a whole, Victor has a restless energy:

‘One of the projects I coordinate is the European Days of Jewish Culture, where 324 cities from all over Europe participated simultaneously last year. I think it is representative that Judaism in Europe goes beyond anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

We Jews are an active part of European society, we are not a museum object.’

 

IMG_2390

A light shines on a hole marking where the Mezuzah stood 500 years ago in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, until the Inquisition sent Spain’s Sephardim from Cairo to Amsterdam. Since the late 19th century, Sephardim have returned to re-build their identity into Sepharad

 

 

Victor’s vision for the role of the diaspora within Europe is one of social activism and building more presence for Jews in public spaces.

He co-runs the Berlin-born initiative Salaam-Shalom in Barcelona, organising workshops between the cities’ Jews and Muslims. Victor also founded Mozaika, a journal publishing academic papers and pioneering archival research on Jewish history and culture in Catalonia.

What one sees as an offering of support, others see as a strategically placed call to Israel when a community is vulnerable. The reconstruction of the diaspora’s identity into post-Shoah Europe is advanced by their show of solidarity in events such as the Barcelona attacks. Such responses ensure a reciprocation from their neighbours in the likely event of their own targeting.

Montjüic Cemetery – Right of Return

‘Make room for us! The Jewish people are part of the network that created this country, this nation. We have roots in this land, and no one acknowledges them’, Dominique Tomasov asserts. The trained architect has redirected her expertise into ‘trying to get more respect’ for the Jewish community through revitalising Barcelona’s awareness of their Jewish Heritage, that she fears will otherwise be ‘forgotten’. The protection of the archeological remains of Spain’s Jewish heritage is central to Dominique’s mission: she founded Zakhor in 2005, a small NGO that successfully campaigned for the Jewish cemetery of Monjüic to be officially designated as a Historical Landmark, granted in 2007.

The Spanish government issued a Right of Return law last year that grants citizenship to Sephardic Jews who can prove their Spanish origins prior to the Inquisition. However, Dominique Tomasov feels frustrated at the lack of knowledge regarding Spain’s present and historical Jewish communities. Following their mass expulsion within the Inquisition of the late 15th century, Spain’s Jewish community has become one of the smallest within Europe.

Dominique associates the lack of knowledge regarding the Jewish people and their history with Spain’s anti-semitism. Members of Dominique’s Reformist congregation express their sense of vilification under Spain’s prominent anti-Israel movements, through the common conflation of Judaism with Pro-Israeli politics. Dominique feels that only through education concerning Spain’s Jewish community, within the past and present, will there be a growing cultural sensitivity regarding Jews and a new space for their self-determination within present day Spain.

Culture Cuts: Sri Lankan Tamils

Culture Cuts: Sri Lankan Tamils

 

*All names have been changed, and photos obscured, to secure the subjects’ anonymity. There are no facial photos of the interviewees. Place names and specific information are included to the degree that the interviewee was comfortable with..

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Published by Novara Media

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“I want to show you a cemetery”, an unexpected endnote to an interview about teaching the Tamil language in the borough of Newham. Lashani pushes open the door of a disused room, three flights up. Light enters from a window yawning over a communal space, encased by a block of houses. Our viewpoint is through the back of the London Tamil Sangam of which Lashani is the head teacher.

“Its a disused Jewish cemetery from before the 2nd world war, you can only see it from these houses,” Lashani tells me. She points to the dignified epitaphs and faded Hebrew script. The cemetery’s gates have been closed to the public since 2003, after 386 of its tombstones were defaced. Their crumbling facades recall the bombs that swept across London.   

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.            The Sangam center, founded in 1936, is one of the oldest Tamil organisations in London.

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The centre teaches the Tamil language to second-generation Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, many of which are Newham residents. A small proportion of Lashini’s student’s parents came to the UK during the course of Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war. The economic reasons for immigration in the 70’s became the seeking of asylum in the 80’s following the country’s growing instability.

Today, there are close to 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in England, with the majority living in London.

Although Sri Lankan Tamils have found employment in financial and medical fields since the 70s, many refugee and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka seek emotional and practical support from community centres. Offering financial advice, legal aid, free meals, English lessons and counselling, these centres are fuelled by donations, volunteers and council grant schemes.

However, councils across London are drastically reducing their funding to the centres that support this diasporic group, despite growing demands for their services under the last five years of the Conservative’s austerity measures. In London’s most deprived communities, social care has fallen by £65 per head since 2010, while charities have lost over £3.8 bn from Government funding over the last decade.

Before travelling to Newham to find out about how local government cuts are affecting London’s Tamil community, I went to Murugan Temple in Highgate to learn about Sri Lanka’s past.

26 Years of Civil War

Bali sighs. This conversation is at best recycled. New revelations are not unearthed. He treads with expert feet along the timeline of Sri Lanka’s past violence. He is a Tamil, and left Sri Lanka in 1976 following the country’s civil unrest.

Nearing his 80’s, he tends to circumvent political discussion, volunteering every weekend at Highgate’s Murugan Temple. “As long as your heart is clear you can come to this temple. We ingrain no politics – God can punish those who are bad, that is my philosophy.”

We walk along the 12 inward facing shrines of the temple’s body. Worshipers perform parikrama: making circles around the statues of Gods. “We bought the deities over from Southern India”, he whispers, not to disturb the Sanskrit chants emerging from the temple’s inner sanctum. He ushers me to the ticket office, our conversation interrupted when he gives me a placard displaying the Tamil alphabet. 

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tamilalphabet

The Tamil language is spoken from Southern India to Malaysia, and by Tamil diasporic communities across the globe. Online forums contest whether the language is older than Sanskrit.

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In 1948, Britain’s colonial rule of Sri Lanka ended. During their regime, ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil population   emerged, exacerbated by Britain’s unfair advantaging of the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese, mainly Buddhist and Sinhala speaking, make up roughly 75% of Sri Lanka’s population, while the Tamils, mainly Hindu and Tamil speaking, make up just under 12%.

“The Tamils were in the top posts during Britain’s rule. When the Sinhalese came into power following Independence, they wanted to stop the Tamils from going to university”, explains Bali.

Over the course of the following few decades, a series of reforms were implemented by the Sinhalese to disadvantage the Tamils, beginning with education. “The Tamil’s entrance marks were made higher than theirs, making it very difficult for them to get into higher education”. In 1956, Sinhalese was made the country’s only official language.

After nearly three decades of Tamil oppression under Sinhalese rule, 1976 saw the formation of the Tamil Tigers. Prabakaran, who led and founded the military group, became the unfiltered microphone that amplified thousands of disillusioned Tamil voices. The group’s main objective was to secure a separatist state for the Tamils, within Sri Lanka’s borders.

A few months following the Tiger’s formation, The Tamil United Liberation Front, a Pro-Tamil rights parties, entered their first general election. Bali started to cry as he told me about the democratic party, holding its biography. With 70% of the electorate being Sinhalese, the party stood little chance of instigating reforms.

With the chances of peaceful political reform for the Tamils minimal, the Tigers became the vanguards of Independence. They attacked both Sinhalese and Tamils to secure this title. Freedom fighters quickly morphed into terrorists on the international podium.

“They slipped a letter warning that they would kill my father if he remained in Northern Sri Lanka in 1985. He was a District Chairman for the government. While he was sleeping, they came and shot him in the head. They didn’t have a plan, they just shot”.

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.Hindu Priests are traditionally Brahmins, the highest caste within the Hindu System. The Tamil Tigers fought to dissolve the caste system, advocating for an egalitarian and Communistic mode of governance.

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.The main duty of the Pujari is to act as an intermediate between the worshiper and God. They traditionally wear a Janaeu, or white thread around the body. The knot symbolises the priests’ pledge to to be pious.

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The Tigers’ Separatist nation was gradually secured in the North and East of the country, with its own functioning government, bank and television station.

The perfecting of the suicide bomber. Massacres of Sinhalese Civilians. The utilisation of child soldiers. The murder of Tamil defectors. It was not easy for the Tiger’s to retain the core ideals of their manifesto while preventing the government’s forces from defeating their de facto state.

Sri Lanka’s majority-Sinhalese military were guilty of numerous human right’s abuses during their combat with the Tigers. Notorious for their high levels of sexual assault of woman civilians and Tiger fighters, this problem has far from disappeared. During the war, thousands of Tamil civilians disappeared. White vans would remove suspected Tiger sympathisers to faceless detention centres.

The civil war clawed itself into the 21st century. The fighting picked up speed, and international recognition, until its culmination in 2009. In the last year of fighting, the accusatory fingers of foreign governments pointed at Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former president:

During the defeat of the Tamil Tiger’s in 2009, thousands of Tamil civilians were shelled in “safe zones”. These zones had been allocated by the Sri Lankan government in the final phase of the war. The casualties proliferated on both sides. Up to 20,000 Sinhalese and Tamils were killed in the last 4 months of combat.

Ethnic cleansing! Genocide! Protests in Parliament Square surged. Calls for foreign intervention were unanswered. The final surrender of the Tigers came a day before Prabakaran’s body was found floating in mangroves.

Today, Sri Lanka’s recovery from the war is slow. Improvements of Tamil rights under the new president Sirisena lack momentum. Military camps and detentions centres are still rooted on Northern Sri Lanka’s soil. War crime allegations have not been assessed by an external judiciary. The newly elected army chief lead a key division of the military during the last two months of the war.

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The Temple’s priests, or pujaris, conduct the daily puja, a Sanskrit word for worship. There are up to 16 main steps in the worship, from washing the deity’s feet to offering them a seat.

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Bali traces invisible lines over his open palm. At the end of our conversation, he returns to the 80s:

“They burnt our library in Jaffna in 1981. There were Tamil scriptures, manuscripts. They were written on Palmera leaves – they are all gone..the whole collection was kept in the library”. Jaffna library was burnt during civilian riots. A similar dent was felt in the cultural archives of Mao’s China and Nazi Germany – the burning of books always ignites a greater fire.

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The Tamil Language – Culture Cuts

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Bali’s regret of the offensive against Tamil cultural artefacts, reverberates in Selvan’s concerns about the state of the Tamil culture under the current Sri Lankan government. I met Selvan, a Tamil refugee of the 80’s, in a Hare Krishna temple in East Croyden.

He promotes the teaching of the Tamil language in London, fuelled through his fears of its increasingly marginalised status in Sri Lanka. FreedomHouse reports that ‘the status of Sinhala as the official language puts Tamils and other non-Sinhala speakers at a disadvantage’.

Sinhala is spoken predominantly in the South, the region with the most economic growth and governmental departments, while the North, with high levels of poverty and unemployment, is majority Tamil speaking.

In the North today, efforts to improve an economy failing through the infrastructural damages of the war are minimal. Sirisena’s lack of initiative is felt by Selvan: The school of his Tamil-majority village was bombed 7 years ago. Today, the rubble has been cleared, but there are no efforts to reconstruct the building.

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After negotiating with locals MPs and gaining approval from the region’s military commander, Selvan’s charity, Sinnathurai Children Foundation was registered. We built the old school again and now it’s an afternoon school for children. When it rains they are living in huts still!” (pictured above).

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Selvan sees London’s community centres as crucial for fostering Tamil culture outside of Sri Lanka’s borders. “We are distributed everywhere now, all over the world. We have to show our children what our culture is, our religion – to teach them the language…A lot of things have been lost but even if we move to another country we still have our culture”.

However, Lashani, from the London Tamil Sangam, has had to start charging a small fee for lessons following local government cuts.

Lashani prepares her students for the Tamil language GCSE, enabling many 2nd generation refugees to speak to family members in Sri Lankan that do not speak English.

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The Sangam centre’s library houses current Sri Lankan and Southern Indian Tamil newspapers, as well as poems originating from 300 BCE.

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“Many of the elder generation are lonely and can only speak Tamil here,” Lashani explains. “People are suffering in silence.. I lost my husband a couple of months ago..I can share my sorrow with people, and speak about them in my own language”. With a further £20m cuts this year to resources teaching the English language, the center works to prevent language barriers from isolating refugees.

The cuts faced by the Sangam center are marginal in comparison to the nearby Upton and Hartley centres. Following a withdrawal of fundings from NewHam’s shrinking grant scheme, both centres closed last year. The charities hosted lessons in Hindu culture, English classes and events for the elderly.

Newham council, despite being the 6 most deprived area in England, will receive £284 less for every home in the borough as of 2017, while Richmond, a substantially wealthier area, will have its grants cuts by just £57 per home.

The effects of these cuts reverberate in North London, with New Barnet’s Sangam Centre’s facing depleting council funds, a charity providing advice to Sri Lankan Tamil women. With charity grants predicted to have disappeared by the next 4 years, this decline in funding can only sharpen.

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                 London’s Community spaces – Frontiers to Censorship

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“The Tigers are freedom fighters”, Ravi asserts. ‘Ravi’, a fake name, agreed to talk to me after I assured him that the interview would be anonymous. Community spaces encourage the sharing of sorrow, the dispersion of loneliness. They also become places where frustration can be shared without fear of censorship.

Ravi taps his hand on his knee. His gold chains vibrate with the movement. The emblems are obscured as they disappear into his white t-shirt. We sit on a soft carpet in a temple in Wembley. He is a second-generation refugee. “I know nothing, only what my Mum tells me”. His proviso dissolves as we begin talking about censorship in Sri Lanka.

“I have friends here with bullet wounds, I can give you their number”. The offer was never followed up. What’s in it for him? To publicly discuss or protest for Tamil rights in London could place yourself on Sri Lanka’s watch list:

Under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, suspected Tiger sympathisers are detained on return to the capital’s airport. This can result in interrogation and torture without trial.

“If you put my name or my picture in a magazine, then I can’t go back to Sri Lanka..I protested in 2009 during the civil war, there were photos of me in Parliament Square – there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be caught if I went back”.

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“It is not a catch-penny book, with life like that of a mushroom”. An excerpt from the Preface of the Bhavitha Gita, the main text of the Hindu and Hare Krishna faith.

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The Home Offices August Report on Sri Lanka disclosed that family members have been questioned in Sri Lanka, following the participation of relatives in anti-government protests abroad.

Ravi has family in Sri Lanka. For many in the same position, it is fear for their protection that dictates how politically active they are in their places of asylum, meaning community centres and temples often become substitutions for street protests.

Wembley’s Hindu temples will have to shoulder increasing council tax following Brent’s growing cuts, despite the fact that many of them relieve the pressure of food banks by providing free meals on a daily basis. The council recognises this financial reality as a pattern spanning across the UK’s borroughs: ‘We are not alone, as around 86 per cent of councils are planning to increase council tax’, their website states.

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The UK’s Closing Borders

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Beyond the shrinking resources that help the Sri Lankan’s who have been granted asylum in the UK, it is also the routes for potential refugees that are threatened under the UK’s tightening borders.

Newham’s Tamil Welfare Association has been supporting asylum seekers coming to the UK from Sri Lanka since 1985. The center is a 10 minute walk from the Sangam Tamil Language School. Along High Street North, connecting the two centres, the walk of Hindus to their daily puja (worship) is soundtracked by the sound of saluhs (prayers) in the borough’s local mosques. 

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The centre’s building is small, its outreach extensive: Asylum seekers with no legal representation and stuck in detention centres while their claim is reviewed, or refugees seeking legal advice, often call Pradeep, one of the founders.

A woman in her 50’s cries in the centre’s waiting room, she is handed a letter by one of the volunteers. I question whether I should be there, taking up an hour of Pradeep’s time. The center has about 30 walk-ins a day. During our interview, he would run to retrieve a yellow legal file and deposit it on the desk of his colleagues, talking on the phone in Tamil.

The UK’s toughening asylum seeking process highlights the importance of the center. Since 2005, the majority of refugees are granted access to the UK for only 5 years, while over a half of asylum seekers are detained during their application review.

Pradeep knows the UK’s border control process intimately – he was part of the surge of Tamil refugees seeking asylum in England in the 1980’s during the build-up to the civil war.

He’s laughing. Pradeep’s response to my question of whether he thought conditions for asylum seekers had improved significantly since his arrival, which he recounts to me:

“I left on my own. Afterwards my family came here, one by one. Actually my father was shot by the Sinhalese and he survived. When I arrived here, I was detained with 58 other Tamils in the Ashford Remand center in 1985, but we started to fight. With the help of Jeremy Corbyn, the detainees were released. We initially formed this organisation as a self-help group, with a group of refugees putting money in”.

Pradeep is not overawed with Jacques Audiard’s recent film Dheepan, depicting the struggles of a Tamil refugee following his arrival in Europe. The film ends with an angelic choir. They infuse a shot of Dheepan, the protagonist, as a black-cab driver parking in his suburban driveway.

He see’s the blockbuster as symptomatic of a lack of understanding surrounding the reality facing many refugees on arrival to their places of asylum. Perhaps the recent Ken Loach film I am Daniel Blake, with its benefit freezes and food banks, is a more accurate depiction of life following the granting of refugee status.

The UK’s shrinking support for incoming asylum seekers and refugees, renders the future of Pradeep’s charity unstable. Despite the centre’s popularity, it increasingly relies on volunteers, and donations from local residents.

After its near collapse in 1994 following a withdrawal of government funding, its continuation is testament to the associations’s importance in alleviating the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, and asylum seekers, that reach out to it from across the UK. However, Pradeep, remains concerned for his centre’s future:

“There is bad media coverage of the situation and funders are withdrawing. Policy wise the government is not giving grants for asylum seekers.. the general public is a bit scared of refugees. It’s very hard to run a refugee charity..normal charities don’t face hatred”.

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Refugee centres provided advice to Sri Lankan Tamils in South-East London are also facing cuts. An employee from Lewisham’s Refugee and Migrant Network reports that ‘our charity has had to absorb the clients affected by centres that have closed down due to funding cuts’.

These centres, supporting London’s multiple diasporic communities, have experienced increasing demand: the Red Cross reports that over 3,000 asylum seekers have been living in ‘destitution’ this year.

After an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, the government grants them 28 days before their financial support is cut, despite the fact that finding a job often extends far beyond a month. As a direct result of this law, the Red Cross measured a 10% rise in refugees seeking food parcels or emergency cash from them since 2015.

  

Autumn Statement

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In 2013, David Cameron broke official protocol by visiting a camp for displaced Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka. His cameo appearance intending to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s lack of investigation into alleged war crimes. Cameron left, the news moved on but the cutting of resources that support Sri Lankan refugees in the UK continued.

Cameron’s stunt echoes Theresa May’s first series of speeches as Prime Minister, broadcasting solidarity with the working families of England. Encouraging words, often unsubstantiated.

Change, however, is forthcoming in the Home Office. As of 2016, only 14 out of 147 asylum applications were accepted from Sri Lanka. This is a distinct fall from 2015’s 45% acceptance rate of appeals.

The decrease in asylum granting is not so much a reaction to some of the ‘improvements’ marked in Sri Lanka, but to the influx of refugees to European and UK borders. With the UK gaining more control over its borders in the wake of Brexit, this decrease is set to continue.

The futures’ of Sri Lankan Tamils with rejected asylum applications are unstable – they are sent back to a country they initially left over concerns for their safety. Jasmine Pilbrow, a student who refused to sit down on a flight instrumental in the deportation of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Melbourne last year, draws media attention to a process seldom reported on.

The ongoing problems in Sri Lanka should make the obstacles faced by Tamils refugees harder to ignore: the censors on freedom of speech, the difficulty of Tamils resettling in the North following their removal during the war and the threat of torture and detention are proving slow to improve.

Once asylum seekers arrive to the UK’s borders, the support of these community centres are crucial. Many asylum seekers’ visa applications are stretched from months to years, with the UK having the longest wait for a work permit in Europe. With social welfare continuously decreasing, the practical and emotional support of these centres for Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees grow in importance.

The livelihoods of these centres will be measured in Phillip Hammond’s upcoming autumn statement. As it stands, the UK’s austerity measures are set to continue into the 2020s, although Hammond has hinted at a divergence from Osborne’s long-term budget. However, the new Chancellor’s recent assurance that ‘we remain committed to fiscal discipline’ renders any substantial reversal of the Conservative’s ongoing cuts doubtful.

Constellations – Rehearsals

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Constellations: Rehearsal 

A play by Nick Payne

Playing in Jocular Theatre, Barcelona

10-20th November

(Commissioned Photographer)

 

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Ayurveda in Kerala

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Published by Edge of Humanity Magazine 

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“2…3 hours”. LL’s average sleep each night – the founder and head doctor at Kattakkada Thaluk private hospital. He’s rubbing MegaGel on a burn. An auto-rickshaw driver had just bought the cream from a nearby pharmacy. We’re sitting in a small room for dressings and injections. Patients are sedated. They wander around in their boxers or sit staring at walls in vacant rooms. Lizards and ants filter across the walls.

On average 60% of an individual’s average wage is spent to gain entry into a hospital like Kattakkada. But a public health care system exists in India? “The quality is very poor, it exists but most people will go to private”, Shabi explains, a local from Mumbai. Although healthcare is free for Indians with the lowest income, the quality of doctors and lack of resources in rural areas lead many to private alternatives. With government spending on public healthcare having fallen over the last few years, the Catastrophic Health Expenditure (CHE) has risen. The CHE is triggered if an individual’s health-costs threaten a family’s ability to live above the poverty line.

A universal health-care system is being formulated under Narendra Modi, which would provide financial coverage across India. However, following the country’s budgetary strains, its implementation was halted last year. Many query how these plans will materialise following fiscal shortages, partly caused by Modi’s increasing liberalisation of the economy and the country’s high-rate of tax evasion.

Polystyrene plates are pushed into the red soil. Remnants of mung beans and rice speak of the long journey many undertook to arrive on time at Sivananda’s health camp, a 10 minute drive from Kattakkada hospital. “Its quiet today”, one of the volunteers say. We’re part of a crowd of 800 people. Usually there are over 1,000.

The men in the shade sit and talk, the woman are in the queue fighting to get their medicine following examinations by an Ayurvedic doctor. And then they switch. The climate in the queue oscillates between laughter and urgency. When the man in charge of ushering in  the patients to the medical room permits 10 more people, the white prescriptions become flags waved to assert the individual’s right to entry.

These white sheets of paper will have prescriptions tailored to whether you have a vatta, pisha or katta dosha – the three types of body constitution in the Ayurvedic worldview. The term Ayurveda stems from the classical language Sanskrit, and the medicine promotes a herbal based form of healthcare.

The health camp is funded through Sivananda Ashram, built in the 70’s by Swami Vishnu Devananda. The building is an old Ayurvedic hospital, the conditions for repurposing the disused space was to set up a health-care charity. The ashram receives 1000’s of tourists a year, while its fees for Indian guests are half-price. The ashram donates all of its profits to the health camp, while also employing over 100 locals to work on its grounds. With India’s ever-growing tourism industry, this is a way to benefit the local community through the influx of foreign money, as opposed to exploiting the lack of local job choices through low wages.

This form of tourism is embedded in Kerala’s co-operative ethos. Driving through the Communist leaning country’s urban centres, walking in the forests, DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation of India) will be painted on tree-trunks, homes, shop-fronts. Crumbled hammer and sickle signs endure through the Monsoon rains. Che’s eyes watch passerbys from lamp-posts.

The state is known for its population’s high levels of political engagement. In the 1970s, ‘The Kerala Model’ became international regarded for instigating reforms that provided a high-level quality of life for all demographics. Land reforms and public welfare were given precedent over a high GDP, with many distribution of wealth programmes lessening structural inequality. The state’s local community care units, fuelled through government funds and micro-donations, puts the quality of palliative care far above any other state in India. Palliative care, a therapeutic way to treat sufferers of serious illnesses, is fuelled through Kerala’s co-operative foundations. With only 3% of Indian’s population, the Southern state provides two-thirds of this mode of care in India.

However, following a deficit in government spending in the mid-80’s, Kerala’s health care system has become progressively privatised, leading many to hope for revitalisation schemes from the government echoing those of the 70s. The growing privatisation of India’s economy, coupled with the delays in Modi’s welfare system, highlight the importance of community run health camps such as Sivananda Medical Camp, driven through volunteers and re-directing the potentially harmful influx of foreign money to beneficial ends.

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