How are EU? A view from 2004

In 2004 I made a radio programme about the enlargement of the EU. The pieces traced the history of the EU and its impact on Ireland. It’s seems timely to post these pieces now in post-Brexit waters. They were broadcast at the time on WLRfm and won a PPI award that year – despite the phone-audio. Hopes for the European project were still high.

Waterford Faces and Faiths

In 2005 I made a series of short radio documentaries about religion in Waterford. It wasn’t a comprehensive outlook of the situation but it explored some emerging and changing themes within the religious landscape of Ireland at that time. It was a lot of fun to make and a real labour of love. The series went on to win the New Adventures in Broadcasting Award 2005. The piece ‘African Voices’ was shortlisted for the Media and Multicultural Awards 2005 (MAMA). The pieces were grant funded by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (now the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) and were broadcast on the wonderful WLRfm.

This year I’m planning to dive back into radio and realise those old pieces aren’t available anywhere. So I’m posting them here for anyone who would like to hear.

  1. ‘Monastic Nuns’ – this is my absolute favourite radio piece that I ever made. It’s about the monastic community of nuns at Glencairn in West Waterford. You can stay at the guesthouse which is open to the public and perfect for some quiet time out. You can get a sense of the peace from this piece. Take a listen if you fancy. Feedback is always welcome. 
Glencairn

I took this on an October morning many years after making the radio programmes. I returned there after my world at that time had fallen apart. The nuns looked after me. 

 

2. ‘Monks at Mellary’ – a piece about the monks at Mount Mellary

3. ‘African Voices’ – these two pieces looked at new African churches and the impact of the presence of African groups on an existing religious group. I remember that the singing of the Ghanaian group at the United Presbyterian and Methodist Church blew me away.

4. ‘Declaration of the Bab’ – the Baha’i community in Waterford

 

5. ‘The Way we Were’ – this one is about Catholicism in Ireland in the 50s and 60s. It features, amongst others, the wonderful Eddie Wynberry. It also includes the voice of my own Dad who at 73 can still recite the Catechism, something which he does sometimes to entertain.

 

Duiske Abbey and the Deacon’s cure for skin cancer

A very modern Jesus on the wall of the church

I grew up with stories of a man called ‘the Deacon’. He wasn’t a religious deacon but he did have, the story goes, the cure for skin cancer. He examined moles, cysts, freckles, skin-tags, pimples, spots and warts. He’d diagnose … Continue reading

Bahá’ís in Ireland and the ‘Education is Not a Crime’ campaign

bahai star

There’s something beautiful about the Bahá’í beliefs. In a world where identity is too often made up of simple dualistic divisions that result in lots of usses and thems, here is a group which considers humanity as one. Even boundaries between religions are transcended, … Continue reading

The Liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years on

Tomi with his mother, Judith and his older  brother Miki in Bratislava in 1941.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp and to mark the date I’m posting four radio documentary-shorts that I made to mark the 60th anniversary and which were broadcast at that time on WLRfm (Waterford Local Radio) … Continue reading

Makhmury’s story – ISIS, Iraq, Irish connections

God isn’t dead and religion isn’t dying. Even a cursory glance at global events in recent months illustrates the ongoing relevance of religion and religious beliefs for shaping contemporary social space, influencing political ideologies and fuelling international conflict. According to the historian Tom Holland, even the core presumptions of western secularism are shaped by religion (in this case Christianity). Religion is embedded in our societies and ideas of God embedded in men’s minds.

The actions of religious groups in distant and diverse parts of the world today can send ripples and after-shocks that stretch across national boundaries, sometimes instantaneously.

The actions of the radical Islamic group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes called ISIL the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have ramifications which span the globe. The group, who more recently called themselves IS after claiming to have established an Islamic State or caliphate, are based primarily in Iraq and Syria.

The latest report about ISIS is that they have killed five hundred Yazidis in Iraq and have taken three hundred women captive. Some of those killed are reported to have been buried alive. Tens of thousands of Yazidis have fled and are camped on Mount Sinjar where children are dying of thirst.

One of the interconnections between ISIS and Ireland is likely to be an interest (at the very least), of a small number of Irish Muslims, in joining their ranks. Irish Iraqis who have family members living in Iraq are also likely to be impacted upon by their actions.

One person in Ireland whose family are in the Kurdistan area of Northern Iraq is Makhmury.

Two days ago Makhmury was watching the Kurdish news on satellite TV in her home when one of her brothers and a cousin unexpectedly appeared on the screen. Her brother and cousin were being interviewed in Makhmury’s home city of Makhmur in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.

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The TV with a list of Kurdish stations available

‘They were on the news saying that they were preparing to fight ISIS. ISIS weren’t in the city yet but they were close. All the women and children had been evacuated’.

Makhmury says she went into a kind of shock and has been crying so much since then that this morning she had to use eye-drops to reduce the swelling. She says that she is now watching the news day and night and sleeps little. Today her husband and her son insisted she got out of the house for a break from the news. Her phone is constantly by her side.

Makhmury came from Makhmur to live in Ireland twenty-seven years ago. She has three grown-up sons and an Irish husband. Her only other family member in Ireland is a nephew. Most of her family are still in Iraq and many of them live in Makhmur. Her sister, brother, in-laws, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews all have homes there and they have all either left or are preparing to fight.

‘They had to leave very quickly’ she tells me. ‘They had to save themselves. They were worried about their daughters and the women. That was the priority – to bring them to safety. I’ve seen eye-witness reports from people who saw what was done by ISIS to the Yazidi in Shengal – women were raped and then their throats were slit. Hundreds were taken away. They separate the beautiful ones and they take them away. Thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains.’

Kurdish fighters, called the Peshmerga (guerillas) are now involved in battles against ISIS in Northern Iraq. Some of Makhmury’s family are fighting with the Peshmerga. Makhmury explains that ninety-five percent of Kurds are Muslim and the other five percent is made up of Christians, Yazidis and other religions including Jews. She estimates that there are around two thousand Kurds living in Ireland.

Kurds come from an area called Kurdistan which spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Kurds come from an area called Kurdistan which spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Makhmury manages to keep in daily contact with her family in Iraq via mobile phone. She can sometimes hear the children crying in the background. She says everyone is anxious and upset.

When I sit at her kitchen table her nephew calls from Iraq to update her. All her family are safe and in Erbil at the moment. Makhmury is very hopeful that they will be safe because Erbil has a large international community including many Americans. She tries to reassure her sister-in-law over the phone. ‘It could be worse’ she tells her.’ At least you can stay with relatives, you are not on the mountains, you have food and drink’.

ISIS model their behaviour and style on what they believe to be that of the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet’s companions from 7th century Arabia. Non-Muslims have been persecuted by ISIS as well as Muslims who do not agree with their specific brand of Islam. Christians in areas under their control have been given a choice to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. The Yazidis, a minority religious and ethnic group, have also been told to convert or face death.

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A Kurdish flag and Kurdish decorated basket in Makhmury’s home

Although ISIS are in Iraq and Syria their influence is not limited to geographical space. Reports of their actions also influence Irish understandings of Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. These reports have the potential to fuel Islamophobia which in turn leads to isolation of the Muslim community in Ireland amongst other things.

Makhmury’s own attitude towards ISIS is clear. ‘They are terrorists’ she says. ‘They are not Muslim. Muslims have to bring peace. To be a good Muslim you have to bring peace to everybody. You don’t hurt anyone. You can’t be a Muslim and slit throats, rape women, destroy people’s homes’.

* Since writing this blog yesterday, Makhmury has been in touch today to say that ‘the city of Makhmur has been recaptured by the Kurds Peshmerga and guerillas and this is a great relief for me and my family and everyone else in the north of Iraq. Well done to Peshmerga and guerrillas and all the courageous fighters’.

 

Anyone interested in reading Tom Holland’s views on Christianity and western secularism can, for starters, check out http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2009/04/muslims-essay-islam-state

 

 

 

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Watching the Kurdish news in Makhmury’s home

 

Israel and Palestine – A Brief History

israel and surrounds

History – or hi-story, or his-story – is essentially a story about the past. It is not necessarily a true reflection of what happened. It is what is said to have happened. There are different versions of what happened. That’s … Continue reading

WORLD HIJAB DAY 2014

In 1920s America it was considered socially unacceptable for women to smoke. The tobacco industry wasn’t happy about this because they were losing out on 50% of the potential market. And so, one day, a man called George Hill – the then president of the American Tobacco Corporation – approached a guy called Edward Bernays and asked him for help ‘to persuade women to smoke’.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He was also the founder of ‘public relations’. He was influenced by his uncle’s psychoanalysis and used it to transform objects into emotional symbols that tapped into unconscious desires and feelings. By organising a cunning publicity stunt which involved attractive young ladies smoking cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ he made smoking for women not only socially acceptable, but desirable. Sales of cigarettes rocketed.

The point here is that objects are rarely just objects. They are imbued with the significance of symbolism. A headcovering for aesthetic or functional (to keep the head warm) purposes is usually unproblematic but when a headcovering is connected to an idea or is a symbol it has the potential to rouse strong emotions and initiate vigorous debate.

Headcoverings are part of many cultures and religions but it’s the Islamic headscarf which has caused most controversy in recent years. Ultra-orthodox Jewish women are expected to cover their hair and generally do so by the wearing of a wig. Up to around the 1960s Irish women used to cover their hair with scarves and there is a ‘headcovering movement’ for Christian groups in the US who cite extracts from Corinthians.  None of these attract the same level of attention as the Islamic hijab.

The hijab is simply a piece of cloth that covers the hair (as opposed to the niqab which only leaves the eyes visible or the burqa which covers everything). The hijab is banned in France. In Turkey and Tunisia it’s not allowed in public buildings or schools. In Ireland, although there are no legal restrictions, it has been the subject of debate.

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Lorraine of the Muslim Sisters of Eire showing me how to fold the scarf

I’ve spoken to many Muslim women in Ireland, including Irish converts, who have felt discriminated against on the basis of wearing the hijab. I’ve met women who were stared at, called names, told to go home to their own country, who were forced to take off the hijab if they wanted certain jobs and who were even spat at. One Irish convert stopped wearing the hijab because of how she was treated in her social circles.
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And so, when I got a phonecall last week from Lorraine of the Muslim Sisters of Eire asking me to wear the hijab for World Hijab Day ‘to walk in their shoes for a day’, I was delighted.

On Tuesday I headed up along the motorway that brackets Dublin and
20140202-221658.jpglanded back in the lonesome tiger-suburb of Clongriffin to meet the Muslim Sisters of Eire. The current ‘mosque’ where they meet is in a floor-level retail outlet of the huge but vacant shopping centre. Outside, the pavements are empty, the bicycle parking area is just shiny bars and there’s no-one waiting at any of the bus stops.20140202-221707.jpg

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With some of the Muslim Sisters of Eire with my first hijab

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A shoe box filled by the Muslim Sisters of Eire for the Syrian shoe-box appeal

The room was cold and bare. Around eight colourful prayer mats were facing one of the corners. There were just three other women there when I arrived – all seated on the floor close to the radiator which was just heating up. But the room filled up to about a dozen women and a handful of young children and babies. A talk was given by one of the ‘sisters’ about ‘manners in the mosque’. It included instructions not to eat garlic or onion before going to the mosque and to not go with smelly socks either.

After the lesson Lorraine showed me how to fold my scarf and wrapped it around my head. It was my first time ever wearing a proper hijab. My immediate impression was that it felt surprisingly snug and that my hearing changed. Sounds were slightly numbed by the cloth against my ear. The women told me that I’d get used to that. They smiled when they saw me with the hijab on and told me it looked good on me ‘mashallah’ (which I think is the equivalent of ‘thank God’). I headed off as the women sat down to wrap dozens of shoe boxes that they had filled with goods for people in Syria.

Later, at home, I watched a few videos online about how to wear a hijab. All the hijabs looked beautiful and stylish. My cotton green pashmina seemed plain by comparison. I searched online for where to buy hijabs in Dublin but had no success so I decided to make do.

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Me trying to photograph myself on World Hijab Day

Saturday morning was stormy so my intention to visit the nearby Marlay Park market was scrapped. We were planning on a traditional Irish dinner of bacon and cabbage with a glass of wine for dinner so my husband did the dinner shopping as I reckoned it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to buy pork or alcohol whilst wearing the hijab.

It took me a few trial runs to get the hijab on snuggly. Then I set off myself to a supermarket nearby to get a few things and to gauge reaction. I did feel slightly nervous as I drove there. I’d no idea if people would react or not. But no-one even noticed me.

Then I headed down to Dundrum Shopping Centre. I didn’t actually need to buy anything and purely went for research purposes. I noticed two or three people looking at me but their looks were curious rather than malevolent.  Usually no-one pays me any attention so it was novel to have anyone looking at me. I was hot in the hijab and reckoned I looked more like a pre-Vatican II nun than a Muslim lady.

I did have an idea that because I was wearing the hijab that I was meant to be invisible to men or that the hijab conferred upon me an invisible boundary of ‘don’t come near me’. So when a male shop assistant asked me if I needed help with anything I was taken aback and almost recoiled.

Later on that night I was in town but again, attracted no attention. Someone told me that the reaction depends a lot on the area. Next year I’ll be braver and venture into other areas but for now that was my experience of World Hijab Day this year.

For the day I felt an affinity with Muslim women all over the world and temporarily felt part of the great Muslim sisterhood – more so, even, than when I fasted for Ramadan last summer.

I did a search of the Quran to find verses relating to the hijab and did find a few verses about veils and clothing but nothing explicit to say that the hair should be covered but I’m not an expert and as a non-Muslim am not qualified to interpret the verses.

The debate about the hijab is essentially a power struggle about control of the meaning of the symbol. The hijab means different things for different people – its symbolism depends on cultural and religious perspective, gender, geographical location and social norms. For some it’s a symbol of faith and piety, for others it’s linked to oppression and patriarchy, and for some it’s about liberation, pride, beauty, sisterhood, a celebration of cultural difference or escape from Americanisation.

There is no one way to wear it, no one way to view it and no one way to decide on what the wearing of it means. For World Hijab Day 2014, it was my pleasure to ‘walk in the shoes of Muslim women’ in Ireland. And maybe next year I’ll do it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A shoe box wrapped and labelled and filled with things – all newly bought

 

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The inside of one shoe-box – this one had toys inside. Others had shoes, a coat, hairbrush, vaseline, toothbrushes, clothes, chocolate bars. Lids had to be wrapped separate so that customs officials could open the boxes

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Goods ready to be packed into the shoe boxes. One woman I met had spent over €150 euro with her family on goods to fill boxes.

 

 

 

The Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita

When I was interviewed on the Ray D’Arcy radio show last year Ray recommended that I read a book called ‘Beyond Belief’ by Jenna Miscavige Hill. The book is about a former Scientologist who lifted the lid on her life inside Scientology. It was, I think, Ray’s attempt to show me the dangers of religion and of religious belief.

I responded (uninvitedly but immediately) with a recommendation of my own  – ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, an ancient Hindu scripture which I had read for the first time in its entirety last winter. It was, I think, my attempt to show him the wisdom or beauty of some religious texts or beliefs.

Afterwards, when I got home, I realised that the Gita, as it is often called, was probably not a great choice. Within the book there is mention of things like ‘divinity’ and ‘god’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘the divine within’. Dirty words. For some.

In today’s emerging post-Catholic Ireland, a new atheistic fervour is burgeoning. Certain conversations or words, in some circles, initiate or even unwittingly invite ridicule. I would suggest that ‘coming out’ as an atheist is now passé, the new ‘coming out’ is for those who have faith. Meaning it is, these days, sometimes a brave ‘admission’.

This cutting down of conversation means there are new conversational boundaries and social norms in relation to religion or religious belief. It also means that certain texts and ideas which could open up interesting discussions are consigned to the dung-hill-heap. And this is a shame. The Bhagavad Gita, in this new Ireland, is tricky because of the ideas and words it contains. It requires a freeze-frame of preconceptions and perceptions of ‘divinity’ or what is divine in order for a reading of it to be worthwhile or enjoyable.

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God in the sky – 15th century painting ‘The Annunciation’ by Jacques Yverni on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

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Little but powerful god in the sky – ‘The Virgin Invoking God to Heal the Hand of Pope Leo I’, 15th century painting by Antonia Romano, on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

In the National Gallery recently I saw paintings from the 15th century. Where god was portrayed as a white skinned, blue-eyed, bearded MAN, looking down on earth from up in the skies. God as a ‘supernatural being’. Such a simplistic definition of the divine lends itself easily to atheistic leanings.

Words can be tricky things. The idea of ‘god’. Labels depend on perspective. On how ‘god’ is defined. The idea of ‘god’ changes over time and space. As does the idea of ‘love’. The Hollywood ‘Notebook’ notion of love is different to love as it is lived. For most. So can it be possible to discuss the ‘idea’ of god without any assumption of belief?

On to the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita is one of the (arguably the) most important and influential texts of Hinduism. Composed a long long time ago it is just one part of a huge Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The Gita is set on a battlefield and is focused on a conversation between a man called Arjuna and his charioteer who is Krishna, an avatar or embodied divine being.

When Gandhi died one of his very few possessions was a copy of the Gita. It’s the key text for the Hare Krishna movement. It’s also influenced a host of western thinkers including Henry David Thoreau.

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Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland, Rosse Court, Lucan

And so, today, I headed off to the new Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland in Lucan where, every Sunday, there is a talk about the Bhagavad Gita.

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Shrine area

The HCCI centre in Lucan is located in a small flat-roof building rented for use as a temple and cultural space. There are around 10,000 Hindus living in Ireland there is no purpose built Hindu temple – this is the closest they have to it.

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Swami Purnananda

The main room of the building has a large shrine area where there are lots of idols of different gods (or aspects of the divine). The idols are made of marble and hand carved in India.

There was some confusion today about keys and the building was late opening for the talk which was due to start at 2.30. There were about five people attending the talk which was given by a guy called Swami Purnananda who was wearing orange robes and a white-ish beard and had blue eyes and is originally from Zimbabwe and has been a monk since 1970.

The event officially began with everyone chanting ‘om’ together three times and then a recitation of a mantra called the Gayatri mantra. Then Swami Purnananda began his talk by saying that today is an important day as it is the 30th National Youth Day in India and that it is the birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. He said that he himself belongs to Vivekenanda’s tradition. (Vivekenanda is attributed with bringing Hinduism to the west and he gave a real important talk at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.)

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Tables with offerings and lamps in front of some of the idols

Swami Purananda talks about the god debate – saying it’s an important debate in the occident but not so important in the orient. He says that ‘in Hinduism theoretically there is no requirement for god’. He talks about the importance of concentration and the ability to not be easily distracted.

A man comes into the temple in his black-stockinged feet and rings the bell at the entrance to the shrine area, clears away empty night-light holders from in front of the idols. He then lights fresh little candles and places one in front of each idol. Another man reads from the Gita in Sanskrit and the swami translates and gives some interpretation. They are reading from chapter 10. It is their third week covering chapter 10. There are 18 chapters in the Gita in total.

The talk today finished promptly at 3.30 as a group, new to the temple, arrived. The new group were all connected to Kerala in India and told someone that up to now they had met to worship in a space over a supermarket in Lucan. News of the new temple, it seems, is still only reaching some of the Hindu community of Ireland.

Beyond talk of god and divinity, the Bhagavad Gita talks about selfless action, impermanence, reality, duty, ego, peace, detachment,  greed, fear, anger, karma, reincarnation, death.

If I could turn back time, not like Cher (and apologies for putting the song in your heads) I would instead recommend to Ray ‘Chuang Tzu In a Nutshell’. No mention of god or divine in that one. Much easier to discuss a thing called ‘the way’. Taoism. But the message seems the same. The butterfly life of illusion and no need to grieve a dream.

Some quotes from the Bhagavad Gita

‘Do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits’.

‘Meet the inevitable good and bad of life with an even mind’.

‘Concentrate on freeing yourself from the tyranny of the so-called pairs of opposites. Release yourself from always trying to evaluate and judge everything. Disentangle from your habit pattern of seeing things as good or bad, lovable or hateful, pleasant or painful, and so forth’.

‘Work performed with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done in a state of calmness’.

(There are many different versions and translations of the Bhagavad Gita – I have ‘The Bhagavad Gita; A Walkthrough for Westerners’ by Jack Hawley which was recommended to me by my cousin Shelagh who teaches Hindu philosophy for yoga teachers).

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Idols representing aspects of the divine – note the ‘om’ symbol and the swastika (which Hitler adopted and twisted the meaning of)

 

 

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Kali

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Durga

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Door into temple entrance

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A poster in a window – visible from outside – the only indication that the building is used as a temple/Hindu cultural centre

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Ganesh

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Shiva and Parvati

 

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Krishna and Radha

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Shiva Parvati Lingam Yoni