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Not in our town

What makes people join neo-Nazi groups? Why do they want to purify the American northwest? What is it about us, normal, everyday folk, that lets us be selective about the causes we support and the oppression we resist?Isn’t one injustice the same as the next? When will the media stop classifying crimes according to colour, creed, ethnicity – isn’t a crime a crime no matter the pedigree of the perpetrator?

On Monday last, I attended a symposium at the Central European University where filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, founder of the Not in our Town movement spoke about a PBS documentary she made back in 1995 in Billings, Montana. The townspeople, faced with racial attacks on Jews and Native Americans, banded together and spoke with one voice telling local neo-Nazi groups that they would not tolerate hate crimes in their town. This act of solidarity was a catalyst for similar actions across the United States, and indeed all over the world. The success of the people of Billings prompted others to stand firm and say No! You bite one, you bite us all.

nOITNIOT’s mission is to guide, support and inspire people and communities to work together to stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all. In Hungary under the sponsorship of CEU’s Center for Media and Communication and the US Embassy, with Hungarian translation provided by the Embassy of Norway,  O’Neill’s presentation was shown in the face of what Norwegian Ambassador Tove Skarstein called ‘a burning challenge for Europe’ – Roma inclusion. Her visit will also include a trip to the Police Secondary School in Miskolc, and to the University there, and to the teacher training college in Nyiregyhaza.

The Hungarian government was represented by Dr Zóltán Kovács, Secretary of State for Social Inclusion, Ministry of Human Resources. He spoke of Roma inclusion as something that has been ‘put aside […] not dealt with’ for the last 20 years. He also referred to Hungary’s role in developing an inclusion strategy for the EU and the move to legislate for social inclusion at home. I found this hard to take seriously, particularly in light of the Parliament’s recent approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal. One has to wonder how social inclusion is defined.

O’Neill described herself not as an expert, but rather a ‘story carrier’ and indeed NIOT is a film that has a lot to say, even 18 years after the fact. In it, then Police Chief Wayne Inman talks of silence being akin to acceptance. When a Native American’s woman’s house was vandalised with swastikas and hate slogans, the local painters union came to her aid to cover the damage. One painter pointed out that her kids were old enough to read, but not old enough to understand and while they could paint the house and cover the damage, nothing could paint over the kids’ memory.

After watching the 30-minute documentary, audience members were asked to turn to those next to them and share which person they identified with most in the film. For me, it was the painter who said that for years he’d stood on the sideline and not done anything; but now he was standing up for what he believed to be right. I’m relatively new to activism – so new in fact that I’m still teetering on the first syllable. But I do know right from wrong, rational from irrational. And I have all but given up trying to understand antisemitism.

I was rather surprised this weekend to be asked why I wasn’t racist. I was in conversation with someone I hope will become a good friend – an American Jew of Polish ancestry who is working hard in Hungary to enable inclusiveness, not only for Roma, but also for Jews. She asked me how many Jews I know and I had to think a while. I know three… now. Perhaps more, but three that I’m sure of. That, too, gave me pause for thought. It’s not something I ask of anyone. And I was amused at one intervention during the symposium, from a Roma woman who spoke of a gay friend wanting to confess something to her. She said – hey, I’m Roma and I know you’re gay – what more is there to confess? But as a teen, he’d been a member of a skinhead group. His reason? He simply wanted to belong.

Good parenting and good education are two powerful weapons against racism and intolerance. A third is good example, as another intervention recounted. It’s not enough to stand by and do nothing. Speaking up and saying how such talk/action/behaviour offends you and that you’d rather it stop, is just one small step yet if enough people take that step, then it can have a huge ripple effect – just look at NIOT and what people and communities all over the world are accomplishing in its name.

There is talk of establishing tolerance towns in Hungary, where all society can co-exist, peacefully, without fear or hatred. There were a number of mayors present in the audience on Monday night, and admittedly, their interventions were subject to translation so I can’t repeat the intent with certainty – yet when I hear of Roma being talked about as ‘them’ and ‘they’, I want to scream. As one activist said: give us our names as it’s the faceless mass that gives rise to racism.

More on this as the project unfolds.

Severed tongues and ghettos

I’ve been dreaming a lot more than usual lately. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve been sleeping a lot more than usual lately, too. I have a bug and have had it for about 10 days now. It comes and goes and my voice comes and goes with it. So I’ve taken to my bed as often as I can and stayed in it for as long as possible. More sleep, more dreams. Hardly surprising.

Yet two dreams in particular stand out. And they’re topical enough for me to comment on them and to invite your interpretation.

In one, all the Jews and Roma in the city of Budapest were moving en masse into the VIIIth district. Streets leading into the district were being closed off with ornate Transylvanian gates. Those living here will know that the VIIIth is often referred to as the ghetto and that in and of itself is nothing new. In my dream, I was running around trying to convince people NOT to move. And not because I live in the VIIIth and didn’t want to be locked in – that wasn’t an issue. My argument was that they shouldn’t be locking themselves in but rather locking their accusers out. I’m still not sure I see a difference but in my dream there was one – quite a definite one.

IMG_5221 (800x600)The answers I received to my series of whys – why are you moving, why all together, why now – were the same. ‘We need to stand together and face our oppressors as a united group.’ I thought it a little too much like easy pickings – I thought of how easy it is to eradicate a problem or issue when it’s contained. When I tried to argue more, pointing to the ghettos of yore and what happened back in the 1940s, I was told repeatedly that a) I was not Hungarian; b) I was not Jewish; and c) I was not Roma so therefore I simply couldn’t understand. This still troubles me.

It could be a reflection of a conversation I had some months ago with a 30-something-year-old professional in which they asked how long I intended to stay in Budapest. I said it depended on who won the next election. They asked why. I said that I didn’t want to live in a society that elected politicians who talked of putting Jews on registers because they posed a threat to national security; I didn’t want to live in a country that seemed so openly anti-Roma in its policy (and I’m still smarting from the Azerbaijan fiasco). They couldn’t see my point. ‘Why should it bother you?’ they asked. After all, ‘you’re not Hungarian, not Jewish, not Roma – so why should it bother you who is in government? But that was a couple of months ago….

In a second dream this week, I was taking care of two children aged about 8 and 10, boy and girl. They weren’t my kids. I don’t know how I ended up minding them or who they belonged to. We seemed to be living out of the back of a truck which was nothing out of the ordinary as in my dream, buildings were all commercial and static and living accommodation transient.Life was trundling along just fine (surprising in itself!). Then both of them decided, for no apparent reason, to cut off their tongues. Which they did. No tears, no blood, no histrionics. They came to me smiling and handed over their severed tongues, each of which had two overlapping layers. I freaked on the inside but stayed calm on the outside. I found some ice, boxed up the bits, and called the ambulance, managing all this in Hungarian (aren’t dreams great!). My biggest problem was that I forgot to label the bits and couldn’t tell which tongue belonged to which child. It was this and not the cutting of tongues that was causing my angst.

I’m left wondering whether these two dreams are related – whether there is something I don’t want to say or have said – whether I am more concerned than I think about the state of the nation… Perhaps I just need less sleep.

Any thoughts?

Why I love living in Budapest No. 4

Lomtalanítás…spring cleaning, Budapest style. Boring garage sales, yard sales, or car boots are not for Hungarians. Instead, twice a year, on a day pre-arranged by those in power, housesholds all over the city get to dump their junk on the pavement. Anything goes. Cardboard, shoes, toilet bowls, plants, books, bottles, furniture… nothing is too big or too small.  There is something quite liberating about simply dumping your junk on the street, knowing that it  has a better than average chance of finding a place in someone else’s flat, or perhaps in a bar, but it’s not the lomtalanítás (junk clearning) that fascinates me, it’s the dedication people show in their relentless search for a bargain.

I had visitors last weekend – the lovely RB was in from Chichester – so I wasn’t reading my noticeboard for new posts. I didn’t realise that my lomi was approaching (Monday, 22nd March) until I saw the telltale empty stools and chairs dotting the street on which I live. These random seats were positioned outside each building’s doorway on Saturday, 48 hours before the event itself. The ‘transport’ ,  an old white trabbi,  was parked on the path on Saturday morning. Over the next couple of days it was where the sentries ate and slept, between their shifts guarding the growing piles of junk that collected along the street.

I’ve worked for many big corporates – international companies who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds and euro to instil in their employees such tenacity and singlemindedness, such dedication and self-sacrifice. They needed to be on Ulloi út last weekend to see what I saw. For 48 hours, this clan of Roma took turns to guard their patch. They ate and slept on the job. They vetted each new addition to the piles, putting it kerbside if not worth investing time in, or buildingside if worth taking home. Anything that was of use was stripped. Scrap metals were stripped of all nuts, bolts and screws. Battered drawers were stripped of their handles. Pictures were stripped of their frames. Stuff I would have considered beyond redemption had a value.

I didn’t purge this time… I could have but I wasn’t in the mood. Spring cleaning is not for the fainthearted. You need to be in the whole of your health and the whole of your mind to make the life-altering decision about what goes and what stays. And last weekend just wasn’t the time for me. Act in haste, repent at leisure and all that. I was a little too enthusiastic last year.

They say that if you go towards the hills of Buda, to Disctrict III or even Pest side in District XIII, the pickings are rich. You get a better class of junk that you do down in the VIII. But in the VIII, everyone gets to see your stuff. 

Üllői út is the main road in from the airport. I’ve often wondered what visiting dignataries must think, driving into town on Lomi days in their sleek black cars and seeing pile after pile of junk heaped at regular intervals along the street… and on just one side of the road. The other side of Üllői út is District IX…another world.

What must it look like? And yet, to the city’s credit, when I walked out my door very early on Tuesday morning, it had all gone. Every last scrap had disappeared. Such efficiency makes you wonder.