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Peeling the orange

velden

Hans van der Meer/Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields)

By Harry van Versendaal

If you’re lucky enough to fly to Amsterdam on a cloudless day, your gaze will inevitably be drawn to the unusually geometrical, handmade mosaic that is the Dutch countryside. Endless stretches of rectangular fields are demarcated by a dense network of drainage ditches and roads. Space has never been in abundance here. The Dutch have never had the luxury of wasting the tiniest bit of land. About a quarter of The Netherlands famously lies below sea level. Hard work, inventiveness and team spirit were required of the people if they wanted to keep their feet dry.

This spatial singularity is often considered as the origin of the consensus-based decisionmaking process of the Dutch, known as the “polder model.” In his book, “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” which was recently made available in Greek (Diavlos), the English author and journalist David Winner argues that this very condition was at the root of what locals call “totaalvoetbal.”

Developed by manager Rinus Michels and spearheaded by Johan Cruyff in the late 1960s and early 70s, Total Football was a ground-breaking system based on speed, stamina, technical skill and intelligent use of space. “Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it,” Winner writes. “In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

The game had to be effectual but, most importantly, it had to be beautiful. Cruyff, who transformed Ajax and later Barcelona both as a player and manager, has often been likened to Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Dutch masters. Fascinated by his elegant, ballet-like stride, Rudolf Nureyev always said Cruyff should have been a dancer. Former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp, one of the most technically gifted players to grace the Premier League (ex-Newcastle defender Nikos Dabizas probably still has nightmares of the Dutchman’s pirouette goal 17 years ago), was often criticized of lacking that killer instinct. “I suppose I’m not that interested in scoring ugly goals,” Bergkamp quipped – a statement that sums up “totaalvoetbal” philosophy yet is, at the same time, a very Dutch way of disguising weakness as moral superiority.

Winner’s writing is reminiscent of the system’s architecture. The author jumps back and forth from history to social change to the arts and to architecture, enriching the theory with interviews with ex-players and managers, as well as anecdotal passages. The only steady reference is Cruyff, the talisman of the Total Football revolution (sportswriter David Miller famously described him as “Pythagoras in boots”) whose unconventional personality and ideas shaped modern football as well as the personality of a nation.

In his effort to develop an attractive, holistic theory, Winner appears a bit too tempted at times to discover meaning and symbolism – like when he draws parallels between former Feyenoord midfielder Wim van Hanegem and the curved arched structures of Rotterdam architect Lars Spuybroek.

For the Dutch, of course, Total Football never really brought total success. In several crunch moments, the squad has appeared to come out onto the pitch with a self-destruct button. In the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, a combination of overconfidence and arrogance led to defeat against an inferior West Germany. After scoring the opening goal, the Dutch players began to mock their opponents with fancy footwork instead of finishing them off with a second goal – hubris of sorts. “There is still deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It’s a very living pain, like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst says in the book.

When the Oranje reached a third World Cup final in 2010 sacrificing the virtues of “totaalvoetbal” on the altar of a pragmatic, often cynical, style (the stamp of Nigel de Jong’s studs on Xabi Alonso’s chest was the painful souvenir from the Johannesburg final) the custodians of Total Football reacted to the ultimate fall of the Dutch side with a sense of self-righteous vindication. In their eyes, the Spanish tiki-taka of close-touch possession play was a more faithful reincarnation of Cruyff’s legacy.

As the young players with the iconic vertical red stripes upped the pressure on the Juventus defense inside the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first quarter final of the Champions League last month, the English sportscaster could not hide his admiration for their unique ability to create a pitch within a pitch: “It’s like Cruyff is still here,” he said. A few weeks later, what would have been an all-Cruyff Ajax vs Barcelona final would turn into a total nightmare for both clubs.

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Sense and sensibility

joshua

Joshua Coombes, a 31-year-old hairdresser-turned-activist from Devon, defends his decision to join forces with a private business.

By Harry van Versendaal

AMSTERDAM – Joshua Coombes is as straightforward as he is charismatic. He raises his voice above the dance music blaring from the adjacent hall of De Hallen, a refurbished tram depot east of the city center. Toms is unveiling its latest campaign, and this 31-year-old hairdresser from Devon on the southwest coast of England speaks with palpable enthusiasm about his role in it: “I am an amplifier for people who have no voice.”

For years, Coombes would roam the streets of London after work, giving free haircuts and shaves to the homeless, posting before and after photos on his Instagram account hashtagged with his animating principle #dosomethingfornothing. In late 2015, at the peak of Greece’s refugee crisis, Coombes brought his scissors and street cuts to Athens’s Elliniko camp and Victoria Square. He has also couch-surfed across the world from the US to Mexico and Ecuador, to France and Germany. Until he received that phone call from Toms. Coombes is now one of the firm’s so-called changemakers – social activists selected to spearhead the California-based company’s new #standfortomorrow campaign on homelessness, female empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

“It is not just a campaign,” Coombes says. “They are living it. Sure, they spend money on an event like this, but they also work with people.”

The story behind Toms is more or less known, elevated as it may have been to the status of inspirational fable. As its founder, Blake Mycoskie, writes in his autobiography, “Start Something That Matters,” the idea hit him during a trip to Argentina back in 2006. The Texan, then aged 30, was spending his time playing polo, learning the tango and drinking Malbec. That was until he started to notice lots of kids with no shoes who were suffering from injuries to their feet. The spectacle spurred him to action.

He decided to import the alpargata, a local version of the classic espadrille, to the US and for every pair sold to donate a pair of new shoes to a child in need – a policy that came to be known as “one-for-one.”

“And so Blake started a purpose-driven company long before purpose-driven companies were a thing. And now they are quite ingrained in the business model for lots of companies,” says Toms chief giving officer Amy Smith.

We are sitting at a boutique hotel in De Hallen. Smith, with past experience at Apple and a nonprofit, handles questions cautiously, glancing every so often at her laptop screen. “I think a desire to do good turned into a movement. I don’t think he or anyone at Toms would say that the outward intention was to create a movement – the intention was to give back to a community and to people he saw in need,” she says. The brand’s mantra, she adds, is “Toms’ mission is to improve lives through business.”

‘Ethical consumer’

Almost 13 years and 86 million shoes later, the social entrepreneurship landscape has changed radically. Smith admits that the company, 50 percent of which is now controlled by equity firm Bain Capital, is too “humble” to claim it actually invented a new type of consumer, the “ethical consumer,” as it were. To be sure, hundreds of companies followed in Toms’ footsteps. Others offered a poor imitation. Greenwashing, a practice whereby companies style themselves as more environmentally friendly than they genuinely are, is still widespread as many established businesses, often slow-moving bureaucracies, are struggling to make a substantial transition or see no economic sense in doing so. Data, however, show that treating socially minded commerce as a fad is not good for business. In the past few years it has become something consumers ask for – and reward.

A Clutch survey published in the US earlier this year found that 68 percent of consumers said the social profile of a company was more important than price when choosing a brand or product. That share climbed to 71 percent when it came to environmentally friendly practices. In the same poll, 75 percent said they were likely to start shopping from a brand that promotes an issue they agree with, whereas 59 percent were likely to stop shopping at a company that supports an issue they disagree with.

“Your millennial and Gen Z customer is going to vote with their wallets, they are very savvy consumers, they expect companies to address issues in the world and to take a point of view for the big issues facing communities,” Smith says.

The business landscape has changed for everyone – Toms included. Standing on the event stage, global CEO Jim Alling is trying to fire up the audience with sugar-coated corporate soundbites. His enthusiasm, however, fails to disguise the firm’s concern that it has perhaps grown too big for its own good. “We can’t get tired, we can’t get boring,” he warns. Clouds have gathered on the horizon due to the brand’s limited diversification and the rise of cheaper competition. “People need to recognize we’re committed to creating a platform where positive social impact can take place, but they also need to understand that, without purchases, we actually have no ability to do that,” he says.

Can Toms expand without turning its back on its culture and core values? Smith has no doubt. She describes how the company evolved its give-back model, expanding into eyewear, apparel, handbags and coffee. In return, it provides vision-related medical treatment, the conditions necessary for a safe and sanitary birth, and safe drinking water in developing countries.

Smith says the company reached the point where it was time to take a step further. “It was the sort of pause moment, of ‘What else can we or should we be doing?’” she says. “Humanity thrives when you have opportunity for all people, when you have equality and justice, taking your piece of environmental responsibility and you provide ways for citizens to be in action… From basic needs [we move on] to basic human values, or basic support for issues that go beyond these basic needs,” Smith says, as she paints the outline of the new campaign. “It is a natural progression for our brand and our culture.”

In a rather bold move, Toms launched a campaign late last year to curb gun violence, supporting the drive for universal background checks. Some see a risk of the brand being identified with a specific political agenda – a progressive liberal agenda, in this case.

“It could become very political,” Smith admits. “We have chosen to say this is not a left or right issue, but a life or death issue – people are losing their lives in such huge numbers as a result of gun violence, because individuals did not get background checks,” she says.

Company sales have soared by an estimated 20 percent since the campaign launched.

Along with success come mistakes and criticism. A pair of alpargata are as simple as their production and supply is complex: fashion, profit, sustainability, transparency, ethics all come into play. The give-back model, its critics say, is little more than an ego boost; it only helps us Western consumers feel better about ourselves. At the same time, the practice undermines local economies by fostering dependency on outside aid. Who really can compete with a free product?

“We are always listening to the critics. We want to hear what they have to say and we want to learn from what we are doing, how we are executing and ensuring that we’re having the greatest possible impact,” Smith says. Toms carried out an extensive impact study on local communities. It opened a factory in India and enforced stricter regulations governing working conditions and the sustainability of materials. It was recently certified as a B Corporation for its social and environmental performance.

The fact remains that Toms is and will remain a for-profit company. As Sebastian Fries, one of Smith’s predecessors, said in 2013, Toms is “not in the business of poverty alleviation.” This, however, does not mean that the company has a smaller impact compared to a nonprofit with more benign intentions.

Moral compass

Coombes, for one, seems to think so. Some inside his old punk band were not too happy with his decision to join hands with a private company. He prefers a more pragmatic approach. “It is not grassroots, but it is another way of doing it. Can a bank do this? I do not think so,” he says.

He insists his conscience is clear. “Success is measured by the people I meet on the street, my interaction with them,” he says as he leaves the table for a group photo. “I’m always learning. I do not have complete solutions. I try to keep my moral compass in check.”

The journey and the sacrifice

A child is fighting in the breadline at the port of Mytilene island.

By Harry van Versendaal

Odyssey, tragedy, deadlock. The three words that sum up each of the chapters in Nikos Pilos’s 17-minute black-and-white documentary trilogy “Dying for Europe,” which makes its Greek debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki festival, have been routinely used by international media to describe Europe’s refugee crisis.

However, there is nothing cliche about the crisis itself. And this powerful and emotive film lays bare the harrowing reality of displacement in a way that inevitably makes the mind cling to the project title’s eerie, literal interpretation. When the boat carrying Youssef Hamo and his family sinks off the eastern Aegean island of Kos, the 56-year-old Syrian refugee has to grapple with the loss of his wife, son and daughter, while another son is missing.

Shot over a period of eight months, the short chronicles the perilous journey of the wretched masses, the tragedy of loss, and the eventual closure of the so-called Balkan route that left thousands of people stranded on Greek soil.

Yet although human suffering is the dominant element in the whirling vortex of Europe’s refugee crisis, it is not the only one. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with the award-winning photojournalist for a discussion on the personal and professional challenges that come into play in documenting a theme where ethical, humanitarian, political and aesthetic issues intersect.

Born in Athens in 1967, Pilos has over the past three decades documented conflicts, natural disasters, poverty and cultural shifts across the globe, including the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the breakdown of former Yugoslavia and the Iraq war.

His work has featured in major media publications including The New York Times, Time, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. It has also brought him numerous awards, most recently second place in the 2017 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest’s Short Form category for his film “Trapped,” on the shutdown of the Balkan refugee route to Northern Europe.

Although coverage of the refugee crisis has brought Pilos closer to home, the stakes, he says, are nothing less than the very survival of European values.

What compelled you to explore this subject? How long did the project take and what was its goal? What does it add to an issue that has been so widely discussed already?

I was driven by the fact that members of my family and close circle have emigrated and I still have relatives in America. I have been interested in this subject since the 1980s, when thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe came to Greece looking for a better life. I dare say we did not treat them in the best possible manner.

The project was shot over a period of eight months and addresses the question: What does someone need to sacrifice to reach Europe? The answer is given by the survivor Youssef as he describes his family’s deadly journey from the Turkish coast to Kos frame by frame. The narrative closes with the fence placed on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, effectively closing the Balkan route and the path of thousands of refugees to Europe. Trapped behind the barbed wire, they unwittingly become the symbol of a modern version of isolationism, nationalist fervor and xenophobia.

Even though the timeline follows that of the Balkan route, it describes the overall collapse of united Europe’s values.

What kind of psychological impact can such a project have? How easy is it to compartmentalize it and not take it home with you?

Of course there is a lot of psychological pressure in situations like this, pressure that freelancers like myself have to deal with on their own or only with the help of their close environment, unlike people who work for major agencies that give them all the help and support they need in the field and later. When you’ve been doing this for years, there are no compartments. You just learn to cope.

Is it possible not to become personally involved in this kind of work?

Learning how not to become personally involved is a lengthy process that comes automatically as time goes on and you mature professionally. It is also the factor that helps you limit the psychological pressure and allows you to record the events around you objectively.

Which moment or scene has had the biggest impact on you?

There are so many but in this particular project what really shocked me was the stoicism of one of our documentary’s protagonists, Youssef, toward the loss of his family in the Kos wreck.

How do you respond to criticism regarding graphic images like those of the Kos wreck? Are there instances when the victim, their families or viewers need to be protected? Can constant exposure to such images lead to compassion fatigue in the public?

To begin with, let me say that I disagree entirely with the term graphic images. If you look at the global coverage, it was images such as these that influenced public opinion and changed the course of events on a number of issues. I can cite many examples, starting with the photograph of the toddler Aylan on the beach of Bodrum. Or a Greek one from in the inter-war years in Thessaloniki showing the mother of a tobacco worker mourning over her son’s body lying on a door, killed by a police officer during a tobacco workers’ protest, a photograph that inspired one of the greatest pieces of modern Greek poetry, Yiannis Ritsos’s “Epitaphios.” Or the world-famous photograph of the young girl running away from a napalm bomb in Vietnam that helped change the course of the war. Or that from Biafra of a vulture waiting for life to leave a bloated half-dead boy so it can devour him, which galvanized the United Nations into action. Or the photograph by Robert Capa of a democratic army soldier dropping dead from a bullet in the Spanish Civil War. And hundreds more.

I want to stress that this conversation started in the mid-1990s when businessmen replaced traditional media publishers. This resulted in content being more or less determined by advertisers who did not want to see such material next to their ads.

Naturally such images need to be published with caution, but I do not believe that they weaken the message. The message can be so strong that the US government prohibited the publication of images of dead American soldiers in the last Gulf war. It took three before The New York Times, I believe, flouted the ban and directly opposed the Bush administration.

There are, of course, many cases where the victims and their relatives need to be protected. I will agree that there is no reason to publicize the photograph of a car crash victim, but I would not say the same of the photograph showing [slain rapper] Pavlos Fyssas in his girlfriend’s arms shortly before he died. This was a historic event and not only should it have been published, but the photograph should serve as the main image in any march against fascism, refreshing the memories of older members of society and teaching the young ones.

In the case of the Kos shipwreck, the material was published with the surviving father’s approval.

Do you find yourself facing moral quandaries in this line of work? Is it odd to present such an ugly subject in such a “beautiful” way?

I started out in the 1980s, at a time when the media had full access to all social and political developments. There were no privacy laws, so, perforce, you had to set the limits on what was morally acceptable and what was not. It’s still a constant process.

What we are looking at here is not a spectacle but reality, and each individual has the choice whether to watch or ignore it. As for the artistic aspect, this is a matter of each photographer’s style.

Were you inspired by a particular project for this film and why did you opt for black-and-white?

Filming in black-and-white was intended as a response to the ephemeral. Images of the refugee crisis that were shown time and time again on news bulletins and others that were buried in the miscellaneous file serve as the threads of a narrative that has escaped the confines of a classical news feature and aims at sending a powerful political message to united Europe, a notion founded on the principles of open borders and democracy.

What do you do that is different to other photographers? What are the dividing lines between photojournalism and other related forms like documentary filmmaking?

I don’t think I do anything different to my colleagues. Technology is giving us new means of expression and it is only natural to use them – this is what evolution is about, after all.

I also don’t see that there are any differences between photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. It is the same narrative in a different medium. As a photojournalist you are looking for a moment and as a documentary filmmaker you want an entire scene to tell the story. Photography and documentary film are arts that were created to reach out to a broad audience and this is precisely what photojournalism and documentary filmmaking do.

Can they bring change or are they simply preaching to the converted? Is the onslaught of fake news a defeat for documentaries?

I don’t believe that viewers have had an overdose of tough images.

The difficulty of a photograph changing something in the present doesn’t have to do with who takes it but with the fact that mainstream media, mainly, are losing their credibility and therefore have shrinking influence. In the age of social media, of course, a message can reach a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

I also don’t believe that fake news influences or is a blow to documentaries. After all, it is as easy to expose a fake photograph as it is to manipulate an image with digital technology. Also, most fake news is exposed for what it is within a very short period of time.

Thessaloniki Doc Fest turns 20 amid fake news onslaught

"Faces Places"  JR; from Cohen Media Group

By Harry van Versendaal

Nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best documentary feature, “Faces Places” by 89-year-old French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda and French guerrilla “photograffeur” JR will open the 20th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which starts on March 2.

The film (its original title is “Visages, Villages”) follows the unlikely duo as they roam the French countryside in a van equipped with a photo booth and large-format printer, chatting with people and taking their pictures before plastering epic-size portraits on multiple surfaces including houses, barns, boulders and shipping containers. Their encounters with locals – factory workers, retired miners, waitresses and so on – generate charming musings about the ups and downs of the modern world.

The tribute to Varda’s cinematic legacy is one of the treats prepared by organizers as the non-fiction event celebrates its 20th birthday.

“We pay tribute to the festival’s 20-year presence in a city which has been well educated in the documentary genre,” festival director Orestis Andreadakis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Andreadakis, who was installed in the festival’s driving seat two years ago, also commended the work of his predecessor and founder of TDF Dimitri Eipides.

“In only a short period of time, Eipides succeeded in making this one of the top-10 festivals in the world,” he said of the event which returns with a fresh crop of hard-hitting productions on social justice, culture, the environment and personal stories.

Organizers have already revealed some of this year’s highlights to be screened at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks.

Four years after his harrowing “Return to Homs,” Berlin-based filmmaker Talal Derki is back with another Sundance winner, “Of Fathers and Sons,” which chronicles the Jihadi radicalization of a family in his conflict-wracked homeland, while award-winning US journalist and filmmaker Jon Alpert follows the lives of three Cuban families over the course of more than four decades in “Cuba and the Cameraman.”

Seasoned American documentarist Joe Berlinger meets with historians and scholars as he exposes Ankara’s campaign to downplay the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in “Intent to Destroy,” while in “Cyborgs Among Us” Barcelona-born Rafel Duran Torrent explores the implications of merging man and machine in a bid to expand human capabilities.

Sara Driver

Organizers have this year given carte blanche to American independent filmmaker Sara Driver, who gets to pick 11 films (10 documentaries and one fiction film). Meanwhile, the festival will screen her latest work, “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” a profile of the poet, musician and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York.

Also, the festival will host a special section on the seismic events of 1968. Organizers have scrambled together a rare selection of films that cast light on lesser-documented events, including the student demonstrations in Belgrade and Japan. It will be the first Greek screenings of the films.

“These are extremely rare films, which draw on stunning archive material that sheds light on that extraordinary year. It was very hard to track them down and bring them here,” Andreadakis said.

“Our aim was to redefine 1968, beyond the events of May,” he said in reference to France’s student and worker uprisings. “This year was not just about the events of May,” he added.

Amid the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and social-media driven echo chambers, platforms like TDF are faced with a quasi-existential question. Asked whether the spread of fake news, widely associated with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, signaled a defeat for the promise of documentary to create more-active, better-informed citizens, Andreadakis sounded pragmatic, albeit committed to the cause.

“If that were the case, then art too ought to have made us better people,” Andreadakis said.

“We are fortunate that there are many serious documentaries out there to combat the trend. Films can arm people by showing them what fake news is all about and how they can better protect themselves against it,” he said.

“Things would be much grimmer without documentaries.”

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Strangers in a strange land

FRANCE-ALGERIA-LITERATURE-AWARD

Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud poses on October 27, 2014 in the southern French city of Marseille. [AFP]

By Harry van Versendaal

“Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name… But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.”

Seventy years after the publication of “The Stranger,” Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud revisits Meursault, the absurd anti-hero of Albert Camus’s emblematic novel. Meursault, “a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back,” shoots and kills an Arab man lying on a beach as he is dazzled by the blazing midday sun. In his book, “The Meursault Investigation” (Patakis, translated by Giannis Stringos), which was recently published in Greek, Daoud grapples with what he considers an overwhelming omission in Camus’s narrative and sets out to give the victim name and context. The details are narrated by the victim’s younger brother, Harun, who also discloses, as it were, the name of the dead Arab: Musa.

Harun, whose life has been hijacked by the anger and sadness of a mourning mother that imposed upon him the duty of reincarnating her tragic firstborn, is seeking justice and absolution. He will finally get his chance during the 1962 massacre of Oran, where a still-unknown number of Pieds-Noirs met their death. Ironically, killing a Frenchman – this one with a full name – leaves him with an absurd aftertaste. In the aftermath, Musa is not accused of taking another man’s life, but for picking the wrong time.

“This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!,” an officer of the Algerian National Liberation Front yells at Harun during interrogation. “I didn’t see what difference that made, I replied,” says Harun. At the trial of “The Stranger,” Meursault is found guilty because he was not seen crying at his mother’s funeral.

Randomly thrown into a meaningless universe, Harun and Meursault appear immune to the values and the dictates of the judge, the priest, or the officer. Both are strangers in their respective worlds.

Although this is a post-colonial narrative about the legacy of millions of Meursaults, the author finds very little to celebrate as the setting smacks of decay and frustration. “I watched the post-independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse,” the hero says.

Daoud uses the same material as Camus – “the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind” – but he uses it in a very different way. Contrary to the cold, detached language of the Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, the book which last year won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, crackles with tension and sentiment.

Born in 1970 at Mostaganem, Daoud now lives at the port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast where he works for a French-language Algerian newspaper. Not everybody is fond of his ideas: one ultraconservative cleric has demanded his public execution for being “an enemy of religion.” Inevitably, there are times when the words of Harun appear to come straight from the author’s lips:

“As far as I’m concerned , religion is public transportation I never use. This God – I like traveling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organized trip.”

Ο ξένος του Καμύ κι ακόμη ένας

FRANCE-ALGERIA-LITERATURE-AWARD
Του Χάρη φαν Φέρσεντααλ

«Σκέψου το λίγο, είναι ένα από τα πλέον διαβασμένα βιβλία στον κόσμο, ο αδελφός μου θα μπορούσε να ’χε γίνει διάσημος, αν ο συγγραφέας του είχε καταδεχτεί μονάχα να του δώσει ένα όνομα… Ομως όχι, δεν του έδωσε όνομα, αλλιώς ο αδελφός μου θα είχε δημιουργήσει πρόβλημα συνείδησης στον δολοφόνο – δε σκοτώνει κανείς εύκολα έναν άνθρωπο όταν αυτός έχει όνομα».

Eβδομήντα και κάτι χρόνια μετά την κυκλοφορία του «Ξένου», ο Αλγερινός δημοσιογράφος Καμέλ Νταούντ στέκεται απέναντι στον Μερσώ, τον «παράλογο» αντιήρωα του εμβληματικού έργου του Αλμπέρ Καμύ. Ο Μερσώ, «ένας Γάλλος ο οποίος δεν ήξερε τι να κάνει τη μέρα του κι όλο τον υπόλοιπο κόσμο που κουβαλούσε στους ώμους του», πυροβολεί θανάσιμα έναν Αραβα σε μια παραλία κάτω από το ανελέητο φως του μεσημεριανού ήλιου. Στο βιβλίο του, «Μερσώ, ο άλλος ξένος», ο Νταούντ καταπιάνεται με το βασανιστικό για αυτόν κενό στην αφήγηση του Καμύ και αναλαμβάνει να δώσει όνομα, οικογένεια και χαρακτήρα στο θύμα. Τις λεπτομέρειες αφηγείται ο μικρός αδελφός του θύματος, Χαρούν, ο οποίος μας φανερώνει και το όνομα του νεκρού Αραβα: Μούσσα.

Ο Μούσσα, που η ζωή του έγινε βορά στον θυμό και στο πένθος μιας μητέρας που του ανέθεσε το χρέος της μετενσάρκωσης του αδικοχαμένου πρωτότοκου, αποζητά δικαιοσύνη και λύτρωση. Θα έχει την ευκαιρία του κατά τη διάρκεια των γεγονότων του Οράν, τον Ιούλιο του 1962, και τη σφαγή άγνωστου μέχρι και σήμερα αριθμού Αλγερινών ευρωπαϊκής καταγωγής. Ομως η δολοφονία ενός Γάλλου –με ονοματεπώνυμο εδώ– επιφυλάσσει στον Μούσσα μια γεύση παραλόγου. Βρίσκεται να κατηγορείται όχι επειδή σκότωσε, αλλά επειδή δεν διέπραξε το έγκλημά του στο πλαίσιο του απελευθερωτικού αγώνα. «Τον Γάλλο έπρεπε να τον σκοτώσεις μαζί μας, στον πόλεμο, όχι αυτή την εβδομάδα!», ωρύεται ένας αξιωματικός κατά την ανάκριση. «Απάντησα πως αυτό δεν άλλαζε και πολλά πράγματα», εξιστορεί ο Χαρούν. Στη δίκη του «Ξένου», ο Μερσώ κρίνεται ένοχος επειδή, νωρίτερα, δεν έκλαψε στην κηδεία της μητέρας του.

Σε έναν κόσμο όπου βρέθηκαν τυχαία, έναν κόσμο χωρίς έξωθεν ή εγγενές νόημα, οι δύο ήρωες παρουσιάζουν ανοσία στις αξίες και τις επιταγές του δικαστή, του παπά, του αξιωματικού. Αμφότεροι είναι ξένοι στον κόσμο τους.

Αν και έχουμε να κάνουμε με ένα μετααποικιοκρατικό αφήγημα πάνω στα πεπραγμένα και στη σκιά χιλιάδων Μερσώ, το σκηνικό βρίθει από παρακμή και ματαίωση. «Είδα τον ενθουσιασμό της Ανεξαρτησίας να ξεφουσκώνει, είδα τις ψευδαισθήσεις να ναυαγούν», λέει ο πρωταγωνιστής, στα μάτια του οποίου το Αλγέρι μοιάζει με «παλιά ξεπερασμένη ηθοποιό της επαναστατικής τέχνης». Ο Νταούντ χρησιμοποιεί τα ίδια υλικά με τον Καμύ, «τις πέτρες από τα παλιά σπίτια των αποικιοκρατών», αλλά με διαφορετικό τρόπο. Σε αντίθεση με την ψυχρή, αποστασιοποιημένη γλώσσα του Γάλλου, το ύφος του βιβλίου, που πέρυσι βραβεύτηκε με το Goncourt πρώτου μυθιστορήματος, δονείται από ένταση και συναίσθημα.

Γεννημένος το 1970 στο Μοσταγκανέμ της Αλγερίας, ο Νταούντ ζει σήμερα στο μεσογειακό λιμάνι του Οράν, όπου αρθρογραφεί σε τοπική εφημερίδα. Οι απόψεις του δεν είναι αρεστές σε όλους. Ενας συντηρητικός κληρικός ζήτησε την εκτέλεσή του χαρακτηρίζοντας τον «εχθρό της θρησκείας». Αναπόφευκτα, είναι στιγμές που οι λέξεις του Χαρούν μοιάζουν να βγαίνουν απευθείας από τα χείλη του συγγραφέα: «Για μένα η θρησκεία είναι ένα μαζικό μέσο μεταφοράς που δεν χρησιμοποιώ», λέει. «Μου αρέσει να πηγαίνω προς αυτό τον Θεό με τα πόδια, αν χρειαστεί, αλλά όχι με οργανωμένο ταξίδι».


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