Thirteen Reasons Why: A remake of An Inspectors Call?

I first heard about the series Thirteen Reasons Why from my students whilst I was teaching English in Sicily, and one of the very first things I learnt about it, before even knowing about the plot, was that Selena Gomez was the executive producer. Growing up watching Selena Gomez on the Wizards of Waverly Place and starring in Princess Protection Program film, I couldn’t help but feel like this series would be sprinkled with a touch of ‘Disney-star-trying-to-grow-up’. In the end I decided to watch the series, approaching with the attitude of ‘you can’t judge until you’ve seen it for yourself’ and I was actually pleasantly surprised to be so captivated with everything from the script, to the directing style, and the actors’ and actresses’ performances. 

Whilst the series definitely had a more ‘modern’ touch, I couldn’t help but feel like the storyline was one as old as a time. The demoralisation of an individual, malicious acts, coupled with the perhaps seemingly harmless ‘unkind’ actions that cuts deeper than expected, all sound like the base plot for any allegory about restoring altruism in humanity. So where had I seen this all before? Back in my GCSE English Language class of course, studying J.B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. 

Not only does Tony’s character fit the bill of the Inspector’s role, seemingly just as enigmatic and mysterious as ‘Inspector Goole’, and sent of behalf of Hannah to torment the conscience of the other characters, but also the strong resemblance between the two main female characters, builds for a streamline correspondence between the two texts.

Hannah Baker, just like Eva Smith, does not appear onstage in the ‘real time’ of the narrative, but rather both are absent figures around whom the action of the narratives revolves. The protagonists are both subjected to mistreatment at the hands of others, and although the realities and setting of the narratives are widely different (Eva Smith is an unmarried, working class woman in the 1912 and Hannah Baker is an unpopular, new girl at high school in the 21st century), they both unfold through their ‘diaries’ (in Hannah’s case, in the form of a tape collection). Both women have been drastically let down by society, so much so, that they feel that their last resort is to commit suicide. It is no surprise then that the theme of ‘responsibility’ is central to both narratives, and the dangerous repercussions of not upholding our social responsibility we have to one another is exhibited in both texts. Throughout the course of the stories unfolding it becomes increasingly clear that the characters act as a microcosm of the people in society who change and those who don’t, and so both women serve the ultimate overriding purpose of  embodying the lessons which each of the guilty parties must learn individually. 

“One Eva Smith has gone– but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hops and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” (An Inspector Calls)

Essentially, the underlying lesson to be learnt in both pieces are one and the same, and one which is highly important, irrespective of time: not assuming our social responsibility towards one another can ruin an individual’s life. Eva and Hannah die because no one takes responsibility for their actions against them. Just as the Inspector’s final speech is not only directed to the characters, but also to the audience, we too are expected to reflect and learn that each and every single action, no matter how big or small, has a consequence and potentially, a repercussion. 

When Home breaks down

Amongst one another, it is often hard to identify and experience the full sadness, happiness, or pain of another individual. We reply on what others report to comprehend their pain and we often try to relate this to a time in our own lives in which we felt that way. 

Since the longest time that I can remember, reported pain and mishaps seem to take up a large bulk of the news. I can only say that I came into semi-consciousness of the reality of it when I was around the age of 16, but even then, I didn’t feel like I was fully able to appreciate others’ suffering. 

Not the war in Syria, not the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, not the droughts in Eastern Africa, not the attack in Manchester, not the attack on London Bridge, not the pain and suffering anywhere else in the world urged me to do much more than just donate money except the inferno that took place in Grenfell Tower yesterday morning. Waking up for suhoor, I tend to scroll through my news app on my phone and the event unfolding at that time had been reported as another ‘fire block outbreak’. It made me think back to last August when a fire broke out in another block of flats in Shepherds Bush Green and finishing my meal and getting ready to sleep again, I didn’t think much more than that– until I woke up later on that morning to the devastation. 

Seeing first hand the West London community’s (and beyond) efforts to help those effected by the fire was really breathtaking. It made me think back to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy that blew up in the news last November, where even though I was outraged, when a friend on the ground recounted her own experiences attending the protests, I felt so detached and disconnected from the actual action and reality of the situation. 

For the first time yesterday I actually did something more than sending money to help. It was so heart-warming and encouraging to see the community come together and not simply brush aside other people’s pain and suffering. It was through perceiving this suffering firsthand that I realised that if everyone showed this amount of care and concern for everyone’s suffering worldwide, then there would be a much bigger driving force for collaboration and change. Ultimately, however, I think it takes the action literally hitting home for us to be jolted into action, because when it happens at home you cannot just change over the news channel or continue scrolling through your Facebook feed. ‘Far way’ pain is hard for individuals to connect to and appreciate apparently. 

Seeing the Grenfell Tower ablaze yesterday really bought alive for me how this is the only reality for the hundred of thousands who are living in war zones everyday. One tower block was on fire and it devastated a whole community- can you imagine thousands of buildings alight? How many friends and family members, how many lives lost, how much suffering. 

I believe what has really given strength and some possible comfort to the community is the effort, emotional support, and resources that have been pulled together from all over London and the UK to help those affected. Hope in the hardest of times is the one thing that keeps us going. My heart sinks to think of the individuals in war-stricken zones receiving no help– they must feel so alone and so helpless. How do they keep on going? Who is going to help them keep on going?

This event has really opened my eyes to the importance of community- and not just in times of need. Our community should not stop at just 20 minutes down the road. Our duty and our love for one another should and must run much deeper because misfortune can fall on anyone of us. 

Why it seems like the world is falling apart

If you turn on the TV to watch the news, I can completely understand why you might quite literally think that the world is falling apart. We are bombarded on daily basis with terrorist attacks, attacks which cause terror but aren’t labelled ‘terrorism’, Donald Trump supposedly making America great again, and friction in the European Union becoming more deep-seated– the list goes on. But is any of this really news?

A graph created by Statistia for the Huffington post shows that in fact the number of fatalities from terrorists attacks in Western Europe between the 1970s and 1990s sum up to considerably more than those killed between 1990 and 2015. Yet people still seem to believe that things have never been this bad, that the world has reached a point of no return. Perhaps our historical perspective might just be a little bit distorted.

One only has to think back to the fact that the Holocaust, one of the biggest atrocities of human being’s history, was committed in the 20th century to realise that perhaps this rise of terrorism is not much more than a revival of a dark time in history, when various political groups though it acceptable to massacre thousands of innocent people. Not much has changed today. Although ISIS and many similar groups may be ‘religious’ by name, the birth of these groups and the way in it which they have been continually sustained has very little to do with religious endeavours and much to do about politics and the power tug-of-war. Put into context, perhaps that golden age is much more further out of reach than we first thought– perhaps it never existed to start with. 

If you still aren’t convinced that things aren’t as bad as the media makes out to be, then you only have to put all of this into perspective with terrorist attack carried out in other parts of the world. Since the beginning of 2015, Africa, Asia and the Middle East have experienced almost 50 times more deaths from terrorist attacks than both Europe and America. Between 2001 and 2014 Iraq had seen one of the worst period of terrorism with over 40,000 people dying. In that same period, over 100,000 people were killed worldwide due to terrorist attacks, of which 420 deaths occurred in Western Europe. So if we really want to denounce terrorism, we first need to broadened our scope much farther than the shocks just felt at home, and if we really want to ‘pray’ for the European cities trouble-ridden with terrorism, we ought to start including all those other places in our prayers too. 

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be concerned or don’t have the right to fear terrorism. Of course we should not just sit back and accept these terrorist attacks as the new norm. If anything, I think it’s important to acknowledge the past history of terrorism, and with the lessons which we’ve (hopefully) learnt, find an effective way to deal with it– one which doesn’t simply including feeding more terrorism abroad, because we all know how that ends. 

If you’ve taken anything from this at all, I would like it to be this, to ask yourselves: who benefits from my fear?

Don’t wig out

Following on from one of my previous blog post, Cultural Appropriation? An American Invention (which if you haven’t read it already, be sure to check it out), this post continues down the slippery- slope of Euro-centric features, focusing specifically on the trending issue of wearing a wig. About a year ago now, I conducted a “social experiment” (used in the slightest of terms) to divulge whether wearing a wig is really a Western taboo, or if it actually depends on who the wig wearers are. It’s undeniable that we’ve all seen in the media the increasing trends of celebrity postiches, and even more so by the unusual suspects in recent years, with it becoming more common for white people—celebrity or not—to be fashioning weaved or braided hairstyles. The trend, which arguably leaked into popular mass culture through the cumulative appearance of RnB, rap and hip-hop singers in the early 2000’s, has lead to the standardised use of braids in mainstream fashion.

Exhibit A:

Pictures: Left: Bo Derek ; Middle: Christina Aguilera; Right: Fergie 

Sadly, what has come with the modification and diffused use of traditional ‘ethnic’ hairstyles, is the lost of meaning and value behind various hairstyles. Ted Gibson, celebrity stylist and salon owner elucidates the thorny subject in an article posted on the Huffington website of how traditionally, braids were worn in Egypt as a sign of royalty, or if they were to be worn by the ‘commoners’ only during ceremonial events. He continues to explain how braids even played an important in social classification in the Native American culture by distinguishing between those who were married (hair would traditionally be worn down) vs. all those single ladies who would have their hair braided up and often adorned with flowers as a means to ‘seduce’ men—you can see how wrong Disney got it in Pocahontas by not doing their research.

When I was 11, my Gambian aunt, a hairdresser and salon owner, showed me a documentary, called 400 Years Without a Comb– most probably unknown to many of you. I don’t think I appreciated it as much at the time as I do now, and I can only say that I’m glad that after all these years I have still been able to rediscover it and hopefully this time, fully grapple with its important message. The documentary is itself a long and hard journey through the years of slavery in which, forced to travel across oceans, Africans left behind, amongst many of their cultural relics and traditions, the comb. Yes I know, today a comb might seem to be a banal object and hardly one worth crying over, but under the category of a ‘simple’ object is most definitely not where the comb fits in. These combs were not only crafted specifically for Afro-textured hair, but perhaps more significantly than this, each comb told a story of its owner. Traditional carvings in the handle of the combs often held pockets of information about the individual’s occupation, social grouping (otherwise known as ‘tribes’) and interests; often a gift from a beloved.

Pictures: Left; Middle; Right.

More detrimental than losing a cherished cultural object are the repercussions, which are still felt today. Perhaps some of you will find it an exaggeration or a ‘leap too far’ in my suggestion that the change of mental state to one of dislike or complete rejection of afro-textured hair is somewhat rooted in the experiences of African ancestors being consigned to an environment, whereby their hair type was seen as ‘other’- but other in a bad way. Without proper access to the correct and warranted care for their hair, the idea of their hair being ‘bad’, and ‘unruly’ was really only just a matter of ill-equipment, perverted into the impression that their hair was inherently disagreeable. Of course, each individual has his or her own personal reasons for modifying their natural hair texture, however speaking from my personal experience, when at the age of 5 I kept begging my mum to ‘make my hair straight’, I think it would be very ignorant to believe that the media doesn’t have any power or influence over the hierarchy of what is viewed as ‘beautiful’ hairstyles in society- but hey, this is just my opinion at the end of the day.

And so after this mini-detour, this post regresses back to its original topic: the interviews about wigs. The interviews themselves were conducted in the university library, whereby I, along with the help of a couple of friends, stopped random library-goers and asked them their opinions and experiences with wigs. I think the video speaks for itself in terms of people’s general thoughts. Given the limited scope of these interviews (e.g. generally the same age range of people answered the questions), I decided also to carry out a survey to widen the recipients, the full details of which are available in the video’s down-bar.

Concluding words? If any, it should be this: Don’t wig out (unless you really want to). You’ll just get an itchy scalp.

References for this Article:

http://blacknaps.org/2011/05/10/400-years-without-a-comb/

Aching

Everyone’s journey is unique. I tell myself this all the time. Especially when it comes to personal success– I mean it’s called personal for a reason right? And yet I sometimes find myself tangled in my preoccupations with how well others are performing, forgetting that everyone has their own measuring stick, as my mother would say. That said, I can understand why we get so caught up with how successful we are in relation to other people. Society has been built up in such a way that our brains are programmed to interpret success as equal to acknowledgement, display of public gratification, and figures. What I’ve never really understood though, is why people compare their own spirituality and tailor made journeys to others. How can something so largely intangible be manifested in material, and therefore be put in comparison with others?

I and another 1.8 odd billion people are Muslims by name, but by no means, shape or form are our journeys entirely parallel. I don’t wear a headscarf. I don’t know Arabic very well. I didn’t always eat halal meat in past. Despite what may seem to some as haram (sinful), I still pray five times a day, observe Ramadan, pay zakat, and try my hardest to lead an ethical life on a daily basis.

My spirituality is however like undulating waves which peak and then recede. Some days I am consumed with the daily happenings of right now that I forget to take a minute to step back, breathe, and reflect, and so I am always thankful for that twitch upon the thread that draws me back into contemplation. Often, I feel closer to God in times of need and perhaps postmodernists might see this as a ‘comfort mechanism’ but we humans are naturally quite self-centred in that we often search for love and reassurance from a loved one when we cannot give it to ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care for our loved ones in other periods, but it might just mean we need their presence the most then. I know I am guilty of this when it comes to my relationship with Allah.

And so in an effort to keep those waves culminating, I’ve been trying to read the Qu’ran every night before I go to bed, even if it’s just one surah and even if that’s in translation. Tonight when I was reading the Qu’ran I came across a beautiful passage, which has been lingering in the forefront of my mind for the last couple of hours:

“Those who are already firmly established in their homes [in Medina], and firmly rooted in faith, show love for those who migrated to them for refuge and harbour no desire in their hearts for what has been given to them. They give them preference over themselves, even if they too are poor: those who are saved from their own soul’s greed are truly successful.”

– The Gathering [of Forces] 59: 9-10

Although this passage refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH mission to spread Islam in 626CE, there is still so much that resonates with present day in terms of lessons to be learnt, especially in our treatment of refugees internationally. And so to go back to the beginning of this post, what it means to be truly successful is to not be controlled by your own volition and insatiability. It has nothing to do with the outward appearance of ‘success’ but everything to do with the battle and the victory over one’s own soul.

I often read the Qu’ran when I need solace, which I cannot find within myself, but tonight when I was reading it I in fact felt sad and hurt for the first time. How can so much beauty, both in meaning and language, so much peace and altruism be overlooked? How can so many killings be carried out in the name of Islam when the Qu’ran teaches that to kill an innocent person is like killing the whole of mankind (The Feast 5:32)? How can a book, which has the very purpose of “healing” (The Night Journey 17:82-83), be the cause of so much pain?

I’m currently reading Malala Yousafzai’s book, I am Malala, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone and everyone. As well as talking about hers–and many others’– on going fight for their right to education, it also gives a good insight into the complex nature of Islam, and demonstrates how easily a religion can be corrupted and used as a political weapon.

I know that some people see Islam as being an ‘oppressive’ religion, which has no place for respecting women or their rights. There is no denying that Islam means both peace and yes, submission­. Islam is the ultimate form of submission, but for us Muslims, it is also the ultimate form of freedom, because this submission does not mean submission to material things and it most definitely does not mean submission to mankind. Islam teaches us to submit to Allah because by submitting to him we ultimately gain our freedom. We do not become slaves to our desires, to money, to corporal pleasures, to materialism, to another person.

I think we do a disservice to the Qu’ran to forget the historical context in which it was divined. Revealed in 609 CE in a patriarchal society, women of course got the bad end of the stick. The everyday women did not have autonomy in affairs such as inheritance; she had very little rights in marriage, and even less when divorced. What did the Qu’ran do? It gave women a chance to be self-governing when it came to inheritance, giving them the entitlement of half that of their male counter-part (Women 4) when previously they had none. It gave them protection against maltreatment in the case of divorce (Women 4; The dispute 58) and it showcased female strength. Maryam (Mary) is mentioned 34 times in the Qu’ran, and her strength, devotion and endurance does not go unnoticed. Hazrat Khadijah, an independent businesswoman and the prophet Muhammad’s PBUH first wife, is another strong female figure who both commanded and received great respect and has become one of the leading female figures of Islam. Perhaps looking at these examples in present day, might make them seem like a poor, sub-standard effort for women equality. Undoubtedly, it is ‘outrageous’ in our Western society that women in this day and age should receive half the inheritance of that of a man (that said, we only have to look at equal pay to really find out it isn’t that ‘unthinkable’ as we may think), but in a period in which society was essentially male-dominated, the establishment of these rights were perhaps more than a woman of that time could have hoped for. Yes, I know that for Muslims, the Qu’ran is a universal guide for all of time, but I think the essence of what was being realised can still be transferred and applied to the conditions of modern day society, without the need to apply the rigid law, or risking the lost of the meaning and sentiment– I’m still trying to figure out the balance of historical setting and cosmology so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Islam also gets a lot of backlash for Muslim women wearing headscarf. Now you might think I’m not really in a position to talk about this, given that I myself have chosen not to wear one in this period of my life, but since everyone seems to want to have a say on it (hjiabi or not) here’s mine. Firstly, I think it’s important to clear up the common misconception that ‘hijab’ simply translates into ‘headscarf’ or a piece of cloth on a woman’s head– although I have no illusions that there is no universal agreement of the translation even amongst the Muslim community. Yes, hijab means ‘barrier’ or ‘partition’ but it also has a much broader meaning– it is essentially the principle of modesty and not just for Muslim women, but also the conduct of Muslim men as well. In fact, the Qu’ran states that men need to observe the hijab even before women:

“[Prophet], tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts: that is purer for them…and tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal.”

-Light 24:30-32

In essence, the burden should not fall on just one sex nor the other.

There are so many distortions and misconceptions about Islam and the Qu’ran– many of which are fuelled by the current climate of terrorism, the language of the media and unfortunately, also by the confusion which is caused by the lack of universality even within the Muslim community.

I cannot speak for all Muslims, and being a Muslim can only speak so much for me because each of our Islam are inevitably different, because each one of our spiritual journeys follow a slightly different course.

My personal efforts of trying to eat just halah, dressing more modesty, and making more of an effort to implement the teachings of the Qu’ran in my daily life are not the result of any human figure imposing these upon me, it is through my own free will that Allah has provided me with that propels me to want to do these things.

Everyone’s spiritual journey is unique, and we mustn’t ever forget it.

The Chocolate Dilemma

I love chocolate and I want to get the most enjoyment I can when I eat it. But I know that I enjoy eating chocolate more if I delay eating it than if I eat it right now. So I always have a good reason not to eat chocolate right now. Does it therefore follow that as a chocolate-lover I have a good reason never to eat chocolate? 

The proposition that anticipation leads to an amplified sense of desire, and to an augmented gratification when such a yearning is fulfilled is a theme explored greatly in Keats’ works, and this idea is no better encapsulated than in his line “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, are sweeter”, yet this philosophy calls into question the fundamental underlying drawback- to what extent does expectation simply turn into frustration? Whilst Keats would argue that prolonging the luscious taste of chocolate from satiating your taste-buds leads to a heightened sense of pleasure, we have to ask ourselves to what extent such gesturing can be endured before desire turns into animosity.

When approaching this topic of discussion there are several viewpoints in which we may take to deconstruct this dilemma. If we are to continue with exploring this situation from a literary philosophy, I believe it is right to continue in the path of the theories established by Keats, who so often deliberated over the issue of anticipation. Most famously in his letter to Fanny Brawne, he proclaimed “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days- three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain”. Undeniably, Keats demonstrates here that ephemeral pleasure is more rewarding than banal pleasure over an elongated period. If we are to apply this notion to the example of chocolate, it would appear that in fact it is more pleasurable to indulge in a brief and limited time period before experiencing complete withdrawal of chocolate.  Such an experience would crystallise the transitory moment of hedonism, preserving a candied experience of pleasure unparalleled before the absenteeism, after all Roman poet Sextus Propertius did makes a good point that“always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows”- absence can only make the heart grow fonder. Moreover, if one were to know that this experience of pleasure would be restricted here-on-after, greater momentum and exhilaration would be built-up as one would try to savour each and every sensual pleasure for the memory box.

Perhaps the most important factor does not remain to be the time restriction which makes eating chocolate so alluring than the fact that the chocolate would subsequently be forbidden. As good old Ovid astutely said “we are ever striving after what is forbidden, and coveting what is denied us”: the more an object of desire is forbidden, the more an individual will crave it. It might seem that (some) humans have a lack of ‘self-control’, perhaps because we tend to think that it is unnatural to have rules that are externally imposed upon us, conflicting with our inners most desires.

As seen from the beginning of time, Adam and Eve were supposedly drawn to the apple in the Garden of Eden because of its illicit nature rather than the fact that they intentionally wanted to disobey God. This explanation could however be undermined with yet another explanation at hand; humans do not like to feel as though their freedom is limited and therefore gain adrenaline in the thought of rebelling against nomos– the laws of mankind and reinstating physis– the laws of nature. As a chocolate lover, one would not have good reason to never eat chocolate, as this is a free choice made by the individual, therefore making the action appear as a self-infliction of suffering. Rather if chocolate were to be forbidden, then would the chocolate-lover have good reason to attempt to eat it, because the drive in knowing that you are seeking a prohibited object is arguably one more satisfying than asceticism.

Asceticism in itself is however an important theory to consider. Many religious groups incorporate the idea that self-denial of material goods leads to a more recompensing experience of spiritual enlightenment. Keats would certainly agree with this belief to an extent, with love being his “religion”, he questioned his brother in a letter, stating “do you not see how necessary world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” By this it is evident that Keats had a teleological approach to life, believing that pain should be endured so long as the consequence was one of greater contentment and knowledge. In the case of the chocolate-lover it may be argued that it is indeed right and proper for the chocolate-lover never to eat chocolate as in paining oneself with the deprivation of chocolate, it may in turn allow the individual to gain more pleasure in the building of character and resistance to one’s corporeal desires. Robert Kane characterised such actions as “self-forming willings”, which if exercised regularly could lead to humans gaining greater control over their actions and desires. Therefore, this individual’s pleasures would no longer be one of base bodily pleasures but rather of the “higher pleasures of the intellect, of feelings and imagination and of moral sentiments” as suggested by John Mill Stuart in his utilitarianism.

Keats held that whilst the best moment in a romantic relationship was just before one was about to kiss one’s lover for the first time, for all the eagerness and anticipation leading up to this moment would be lost within seconds of the act, and that we should therefore stop and reflect on the moment, it does not mean that we should prolong it to the point of exhaustion. If a chocolate-lover declared that they were never to eat chocolate again, such energy and anticipation could not be built up as there would be no end-point of release. 

Fundamentally, chocolate lovers do not have good reason to never eat chocolate, for whilst theoretically pleasure is increased from abstaining from eating chocolate, in reality humans cannot experience the same anticipation and yearning for chocolate if there is no end point by which such a craving will be fulfilled. If the chocolate lover does however wish to discipline themselves and maintain superiority over their desires never eating chocolate would allow an individual to develop their will power thus providing the individual with a perfectly good reason never to eat chocolate.

Clearly a highly important question for my 16 yr old self.  

The Italian Bubble: How culturally clued up are Italians?

I’ve been mulling over whether I should write this blog post for a while now. What has prevented me from writing this post up to date has been down to my own love for Italy and Italian culture, coupled with the warm reception I’ve received. I found it hard to accept that a country so splendid and rich in its history and culture could sometimes be culturally ignorant towards others, and so for a long time I tried to ignore this, in order to leave my idealised perception untarnished.

The more conversation and interactions I have with people however, the more I realise how sheltered and underexposed Italians are to different cultures. Certainly coming from two very diverse heritages and being raised in London were practically all of my friends throughout primary and secondary school were of different ethnic backgrounds, I understand how I may take for granted, the diversity which has essentially been delivered on my doorstep. Italy has remained a very homogenous race for a large part of its existence and the solidified notions of ‘casa mia‘ and ‘straniero‘ have definitely congealed. So approaching the topic from this standpoint, armed with the force of my personal experiences, let me just get this out there now: No, I don’t think Italians are racist. Culturally prejudice? Well, that’s a whole other question. 

Italians have a fixation with cultural background and so much so that I feel sometimes, as a stranger looking in, one might mistake Italians for being very patriotic. True it is that Italians are very aware and proud of their rich cultural heritage, but wrong it would be to mistake this pride for their culture, beautiful cities and landscapes, delectable dishes and refined arts as nationalism, or a reflection of their love for the state. This dichotomy is one which I think lays heavy on many Italians’ hearts. From my experience of speaking to ex-pat Italians in the UK, I cannot shake a pervading sense of lost hope for Italy, an Italy, which due to its multifaceted issues, has let down the young generation, has failed to provide them with a secure future.  Living in Sicily for the last 4 months however,  I have found that there still remains in the breast of Italians a strong bitter-sweet sense of ‘duty’ towards their homeland, especially amongst the older generation. It is both this bouncing self-identity and flushed disenchantment that plays a part in shaping the Italians’ conception of race and culture . 

A story was once recounted to me of a Romanian woman who used to work as a cleaner. This particular individual was described as being dishonest, uncivilised and duplicitous. What particularly bothers me about these types of stories is the fact that the race of the (non-Italian) individuals involved is always outlined, why is that? If I am telling a story of a person who is to be deemed ‘bad’, I assume that the same effect of out-rage could be evoked, irrespective of where they come from. Consequently, I can only assume then that by consciously choosing to delineate the race of the individual that it adds something more to the story. 

In Italy, it seem that the fairly rooted associations with race and culture precedes the expectations of the individual. Even within Italy, the cultural discrepancies between the North and the South can inspire prejudice. It seems only natural given that the Italians’ strong cultural heritage plays a big role in their own self-image, that Italians are then very preoccupied by the idea of cultural heritage and how it may be a reflection of an individual’s self worth. Unfortunately however, this has the possibility of resulting in the spiralling cycle of prejudice. If you only have that one story of the Romanian woman who stole, it becomes easy to project that single narrative unjustly onto every other Romanian person you meet. 

Anytime I am introduced by one of my Italian friends, I am first introduced as ‘English’, although I would consider myself to be British. I’ve found that the idea of being ‘British’ is difficult to grabble with because it doesn’t seem to pertain to a specific individual race or culture (that said, many Italians I have met, especially in the South, seem to conceptualise the UK as being just England), but even when I am introduced as English, of course my complexion betrays me. So going into my racial profile, telling them that my mum is from Gambia (or whatever West African country pops into their mind if they’re having a hard time remembering it that day)  and my dad is of Italian descent, we eventually arrive at full disclosure: I have Italian citizenship. Bam. It’s okay guys, no need to worry she’s one of us.

I often wonder how I would be treated if I had come to live in Italy directly from Africa. Would my Italian side still be valid? Would being an English mother-tongue still be appreciated? Without the association of being from England, would my societal worth be more or less?

After explaining to people where Gambia is, I am often followed up with the question, ‘are there any cities there?’ This image of Western Africa (in particular) as a ‘bush’, is still one which is quite prevalent, mainly because the principle, if not the only source of contact that Italians have with African and Asian countries seems to be through immigration– not first hand, but through the media. This distorted and often exploited image of immigrants as parasites coming to ‘steal jobs’ and ‘feed of the social welfare system’ is not limited to the Lega Nord political party supporters– much of the same dribble is diffused in the UK as well. Likewise, the fear of the ‘unknown’ or ‘different’ can be found everywhere– this is not just limited to Italy.  The biggest difference, and therefore the biggest struggle that Italy faces, is lack of common-knowledge about other cultures (on a big scale). If communities continue to segregate themselves then these pigeonholes and ‘single narratives’ will also remain fixed. 

As I mentioned earlier, Italy has been a very homogenous country for most of it’s existence, even during its time as both a colonial power and a colony. What makes Italy incredibly different to other colonial powers however, is that besides the exception of small parts of Switzerland and Somalia, no other country speaks Italian as a principal language. When an individual moves to a host country, they do not dismiss their cultural heritage, religion, traditions, language or customs, all that is bought along with them. This need therefore  to ‘preserve’ this insular, monocultural country and language is what I think sometimes propels its xenophobia, and it is through this fear of running the risk of losing such an essential part of their identity that Italians often become sceptical and sometimes, wilfully ignorant towards other cultures. 

Italy is a country of many of contradictions. Whilst it is a lawless one in many ways, the lack of attention paid to regulations, and the blind eyes turned in the bureaucratic system, the core societal values of Italian culture seem to strangely oblige Italians to be conformists in other aspects: wearing the same (local) fashion trends, eating the same Italian cuisine, celebrating the same festivals in the same mode, and generally sticking to people of the same social class. By nature, Italy traditionally isn’t a country where experiments, deviations and differences are easily embraced. 

In Italy, I am ‘different’ for a number of reasons. I am of mixed-heritage, a muslim, a straniera, and I really couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trend. I have undoubtedly bought along with me my own values, traditions and beliefs in the same way as an immigrant does. I only have the privilege of being born in a country whose culture is one that is studied and accepted in doing so.

I am no way trying to squeeze all Italians into one box. I have been fortunate  to meet individuals who are open-minded and intrigued to learn about my own cultural heritage. I have also been presented with the opportunities to pass on what knowledge I have of others’ cultures, be it through sharing my own values and beliefs, cooking a curry, wearing a head wrap, telling a story, or sharing a tradition. So no, Italy is not inherently sceptical of foreign cultures, and certainly what is learnt can be unlearnt. 

Living in the globally connected world that we do, apathy and detachment is no longer a valid excuse for ignorance, living in casa mia is not a valid excuse for ignorance. It is our duty more now than anything to enlighten ourselves about other people’s cultures and beliefs– wherever we live. Everyone’s history and culture are worth knowing. Different doesn’t mean bad, different doesn’t mean dangerous, and poor doesn’t mean thief.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. 

Why did my Facebook become a political platform?

We all have that one friend whom we may no longer talk to but we keep on our friends’ list because of the light-hearted, funny content they repost, or that friend you can always count on to tag you in the funniest memes (shout out to Viki). Well, I’m that friend that posts all the depressing and despairing news about the neglect of our environment, the grand injustice, and our questionable political policies. It’s not because I am naturally a pessimist or that I like to dwell on the broken aspects of life, I know and appreciate the healing force of positivity and encouragement, but I also know that it’s important not to gloss over the painful sides of life. If we begin to do that, we run the risk of losing sight of true suffering

It took me quite a while to find my political voice. Whilst nowadays it seems that 14 year-olds are a lot older for their years,  deciding to become vegetarian, fighting for animal rights, gender equality, or lending their voices to fellow 14 year-olds whose own may be nothing more than a muffle swallowed up by the more ‘pressing’ politico-economic factors (lets face it, politics and economics are so intertwined that this word might as well be added to the Oxford dictionary), at 14 the only causes I thought worth agonising over were my friendships– and maybe that was because all my other friends were doing just that too. I still hadn’t fully processed the meaning of justice, let alone had consciously recognised injustice in anything other than in my lamentations of ‘it’s not fair’ when I wasn’t granted the permission to go out with friends. My political voice still needed time to bud. 

I’ve always been dubious about stories in which individuals attribute a significant change in their lives to that cinematic ‘pinpoint moment’, as if saying that all the events leading up to that one particular instance did not in some way contribute to the pivotal occurrence. Naturally, certain incidents will place more gravitas on one’s heart than others; for me that instance had come to pass when I was 16 years old, studying situation ethics in my Religious Studies class

I was intrigued from our first lesson, in which we looked at the classic ‘trolley problem’ as introduced by Philippa Foot. The problem goes that there is a runaway trolley along railway tracks. Ahead the tracks divide into two, one on side there is one individual tied to the tracks and on the other track (the one the trolley is currently on) there are five people tied down– all are unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them and you cannot stop it. The only course of action you can take is to pull the lever; if you do nothing, the trolley will kill all five people, if you pull the level diverting the trolley onto the other side, you will kill one person. You’re unfortunately stuck with the responsibility of answering the question: which is the most ethical choice?

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When faced with a decision like this, I can see why individuals might be scared to find, and exercise their political voices. Sometimes it seems that the safer option is just to remain silent, to not take action– at least that way no blame or troubles will come your way if you’ve done nothing. Ignorance is bliss.  

Equally as easy as being ignorant is the agility with which one can hide behind a screen. You can post virtually anything you like in a comment, launch abuse, shut off your laptop or computer and forget ever thinking about the repercussions. It is precisely for this reason that it seems that it is mainly those who are demeaning that have the ‘courage’ (or rather cowardice) to post their thoughts, which are perhaps are better left unshared. The majority of the rest of us either get caught up with creating our aesthetically perfect alter-ego through photos, videos and ‘yolo’ moments, or are concerned with maintaining the status quo of a clean, professional, non-aligned mind-set that we do not lend our voices to causes which need our support.

You can argue that posting these political articles online isn’t going to make a change, it’s just words and no actions and maybe you’re right. In all honesty, I’m not being actively as helpful in real life as I would like to be at this moment in time, but this doesn’t undermine the power of awareness. When people see something repeatedly enough it begins to become normalised, if we begin to treat these injustices and events as collective ‘bad things’ we will begin to lose sight of the individual suffering and pain. Sometimes our blissfulness needs to be interrupted, because sometimes we get too comfortable with others’ suffering.  

If you have an audience and a voice, no matter how small or big, use it. Use it for something other than self-gratification. Focus on the positive aspects of life, but remember that for all the good that love can do, it shouldn’t sweep aside the pain that cries for change, just because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.

The reform for other reforms: The Italian Referendum.

Yesterday night my dad thought it would be funny to play a prank on me, by telling me that he had ticked ‘si’ and sent my vote for the approaching Italian referendum. This joke played out a little longer than expected and I was quite annoyed, not because I necessarily wanted to vote ‘no’ but because I felt like it wasn’t my place to vote in something that doesn’t affect me personally on a daily basis, even if I am an Italian citizen (ironical and all that I am currently living and abiding by Italian law).

So when I was recounting what I thought would be just another silly, light-hearted story to my host family, I found that instead I was met with a more in-depth and eye opening discussion about the constitutional referendum. Up to date I have heard different snippets of discussion about the referendum floating around, whether it be via the dramatised news reports, colleagues at work, or facebook friends, every Italian I know seems to have a strong opinion on it. The majority of the responses when someone is asked which way they’ll vote, seems to be a bitter-sweet ‘No’ verging on a ‘Si’. Whenever I ask individuals why they’re so torn about this vote, they usually respond that it is due to ‘present circumstances’ which are either too vague or numerous to list and so I gradually began to lose interest in keeping up to date with the referendum. Although many sources told me that the referendum would be looking at the way laws are passed in Italy, and that Renzi and the ‘si’ campaign are hoping to ‘stabilise’ the governmental system through these reforms, I was still left dissatisfied. I now found myself in the position of those Italians who even so many months after Brexit, still ask me: ‘but why did England what to leave the EU?’ If it was just a case of the ‘official’ reason for the Referendum there would be no need to ask this question and more-so, if it was just a case of deciding whether the current constitutional system is right for Italy, there would be no hard-feeling in voting.

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Italian referendum will be on the 4th December 2016 (Photo: constitutional-change.com)

From my own personal experience with Brexit I’ve learnt that there is always more factors at play. Our referendum was meant to be whether we felt being part of the EU was beneficial for the UK’s future, but somehow it became about more than that; it became about people’s fear of immigrants  or of Germany as a European ‘superpower’– it became a way for the politicians to benefit from our fear. I find myself asking in this case, if this is not a way for politicians to benefit from scaremongering, what do they get out of this? And so from deciding not to vote, I began to find myself more drawn into a referendum that I had no intention to take part in– even from the side lines. What better way to get clued up about the situation than to go back to basic and read the very thing that this referendum sets out to change: The Italian constitutional laws. 

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President at the time, Enrico de Nicola signing the constitutional laws.

Looking at gli articoli della costituzione italiana, part of me thinks it would be an erroneous and dangerous mistake if these fundamental stepping stone for humanity were put up for modification or manipulation, yet another part of me cannot help but think that they have already been somewhat compromised. Reading article no. 7: “Lo Stato e la Chiesa cattolica sono, ciascuno nel proprio ordine, indipendenti e sovrani”; “the State and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each within its own sphere”, it’s clear that these laws sound nice on paper, but what good does that do if they are not implemented into the actual governing process?

The Roman Catholic church still exerts a disproportionate amount of power over Italy’s socio-political affairs– just remember that up-until the 1980’s it was still illegal to have an abortion in Italy due to religious doctrines, and it is precisely this grasp which modern day Italy has yet to unchain itself from. Whilst ‘religious education’ in state schools is not compulsory for students, the Italian state is still very much coerced into hiring a religious education teacher, even if ALL students have opted out of these classes. That might not seem so bad but put into perspective that many schools (especially in the south) do not have enough qualified special educational needs teachers due to funding shortage, that extra money could go a long way. Not to mention that these ‘religious education’ classes might as well be called Sunday school given that they so heavily reflect on the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.

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Inside the Vatican Church: YR 13 school trip.

The Vatican’s exploitation of tax-free ‘church hotels’ and commerce could be an entire post in itself so I’ll just cut it short at this: currently the official Vatican enterprises enjoy tax-free propertiesBearing all this in mind, just remember that on February 18 1984, the Italian state and the Vatican signed a concordat that Roman Catholic would cease to be Italy’s ‘official’ religion– at least on paper.

Back to the referendum, article no. 1 of the Italian constitutional principles states: “L’Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro. La sovranità appartiene al popolo, che la esercita nelle forme e nei limiti della Costituzione.” 

: “Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labour. Sovereignty belongs to the people and is exercised by the people in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution.” 

But what does this mean if the majority vote ‘si’ in the referendum? Well for starters Renzi proposes to change the current ‘bicameral’ system (in which the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are both equally required to approve certain laws) to a new system with reduced exertion of senatorial power, and a reformation of power relations between the centralised and local institutions. The number of Senators would be greatly reduced from 315 to 100 in the process, and with the removal of this two step system, central government’s power would be greatly augmented. In effect, this would mean one layer of this sophisticated democratic system would be stripped away, placing this ‘sovereignty’, which supposedly belongs to the people, even deeper into the pockets of the politicians.  

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So Renzi and his followers believe that ‘basta un si’ is needed to provide ‘stability’ to the Italian state as a way not only to combat ‘increasing terrorism’ (which is reality isn’t increasing as much as one might think) but also as a means to attract investment into Italy with the guarantee of a ‘sped-up’, fully-functioning governmental system. Maybe I have no place to judge, but shorter process or no shorter process, the lethargic nature which seeps into Italian politics is, in my opinion, more a cultural problem than it is a constitutional one. I agree that perhaps reducing the number of senators or the time span in which legal procedures can be carried out is an effective way to establish more consistency, but this referendum– just like the UK’s and just like the U.S Election– is no longer a sole question of what is best for Italy’s future. When politicians begin to remove and modify system which protect our democratic system, I think it’s important to ask ourselves if the motives they claim to set out for these changes are transparent and genuine. For me this referendum has become a question about personal political gain and the extent of which Renzi is willing to put at stake, Italy’s democratic system for increased power.  

Translation of the Italian Constitutional Laws/ Principles.