5th exchange

Dear Jan,

To speak with one voice. How does this work?

Last week I think I had a glimpse of how it’s possible. Perhaps it was afata morgana or a simple illusion, but it did happen – and without any outside pressure.

While opinion-makers, Euro-sceptics and nationalists talk about the dissolution of the shared Euro, the Imagining Europe festival at the Balie in Amsterdam consciously chose for the opposite direction. The ideas that were shared there became so intimately intertwined that by the end of the night, I no longer knew which idea came from where.

For a week, the Balie became a miniature Tower of Babel. Artists, thinkers and debaters were squeezed so tightly into this cultural shoebox that there was no other direction to go but towards each other. Thinking power and virtuosity were unified. And the calm, almost serene, way intellectuals can turn complex connections into words became almost erotic in its tangibility. ‘Yes!’ thought my inner on-demand nostalgist. ‘This is what Paris in the fifties must have been like – but then without cigarettes!’ Perhaps this is what the 19th-century Italian nationalist Mazzini meant when he spoke of his dream for a future world government: ‘The call for international commitment connects all people.’

It was a great night if only for the fact that I was surrounded by people who regarded Europe as a given and not as criminal or the cause of all suffering. We’ve had over sixty years of relative peace – with our nadir being the shame of Yugoslavia’s wars when all of Europe’s idealism proved incapable of making a fist.

I believe one can learn more from eavesdropping during such an impromptu gathering, than from reading ten editorials in Le Monde. Some people had just flown in from a crisis region, others had been ripped away from their writing tables (I recognised their crazed expressions), yet others were in search of a subject, a theme or an ideal, and yet others were just wandering around in a haze unable to make any connections as they encountered one surprise after another. From Minsk to Ankara, from Birmingham to Damascus – if the European map was defined by these interactions and not by Brussels, then this continent would be a true community and not a mere trading zone.

One would expect that such an array of strange birds engaging in open debate would create an unintelligible cacophony. However the opposite occurred. Propelled by the winds of urgency, we instinctively found each other. Dialogue ex nihilio.

The invited speakers embodied the utopian vision of a Europe acting as a good example for the world. This strong drive came from the public itself: utopians, idealists, dreamers, ‘Luftmenschen’ and those from troubled homelands who could only dream of Europe’s peace. If there had been a Euro-sceptic in the room with a couple of sharp questions, the bubble would have burst. If such words as ‘bureaucratic juggernaut’, ‘Srebrenica’ or ‘Greece’ had been used, the mood would have turned. But isn’t every ideal that’s not protected and supported by an army, a police force, censorship, a parliamentary majority and/or a newspaper magnate, as vulnerable and fragile as morning dew on snowdrops? Let’s be that morning dew!

There was a plea from the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh (perhaps you know him from his fist-thick novels) to Europe’s leaders to go beyond economic and cultural exchanges and include healthcare and climate as part of their quest for sustained peace. In contrast to languages, political moods and food, climate doesn’t stop at any border. It’s a global phenomenon that links everything with everything, at least that is how I understood this – and yes, I know I am not saying anything new here.

In his sweeping reading, Amitav explained why Europe should take the lead and not China or the US. The Yankees are too busy retaining what they have, while the Chinese are too busy with getting what they want. In addition, the Chinese are still so caught up in their learning process that one should not expect much from them – eggs get broken in the making of an omelette. So it comes down to Europe who has heaps of experience when it comes to crisis management. I noted all this in my mental notebook. It was strange that it took a man who divides his time between Brooklyn in the US and Goa in India, to hold up this mirror for us. It was also strange how no one in the room thought this situation to be strange. I liked that.

It was a pithy reading, both clear and stimulating. However the snake in the grass remains the difficultness for the EU, with its image problems, to come out as a fighter. As advertising veterans describe it: a brand without an image will spark no movement…

Also, for an organisation to exist it should not be detached from society’s problems even from such a universal one as climate change. In other words, if the European bond has been so weakened by the financial crisis, how can it deal with a more abstract theme such as climate change?

And then there were these countless encounters between people from EU’s bordering regions at the Balie. I never thought I would regard Syria as part of this region until I witnessed the duo performance of Eric Vloeimans and Kinan Azmeh. The seamless sounds of the Orient and the Occident coming together acted as a perky declaration of war against today’s polarisation.

My friends brought news of intellectual hunger, war and corruption. Like travellers who keep going until they reach the North Pole so they can plant their flag next to those who had come before, these troubled travellers ended up in Amsterdam to plant their flag. It was as if the Balie was the last stronghold and they were expecting much more than they wanted to admit – or so I gathered from their sense of urgency. ‘Please Europe,’ they seemed to beg, ‘play the role on today’s world stage that you were destined to fulfil. Let these words of unity, peace and stability mean something more than dead words.’ Their views were in extreme contrast to the shaky one-liners spouted by our uptight polder politicians. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast: in the Balie where the flame of an idealistic Europe was being relit, while outside a cold, sceptical and harsh wind was blowing.

I met a Turkish journalist who, just before we were introduced, was explaining to a Bulgarian how Turkey would react to Syrian attacks. Throughout the evening cross-references were made. More than ever, the European intellectual represents the spider where all the strands of the web meet – strands that are being continually blasted by political and social winds. These restless time travellers are looking forward into the future. Twenty years isn’t worth counting and distances are being measured in time zones and not kilometres. This is also Europe.

So what’s Europe’s role for our current realities? To be the world’s fortune teller and utopian is perhaps too free from obligations. And yet for me, the Indian writer Ghosh struck a sensitive chord within me and this chord resonated around the Balie and certainly found itself in the discussions around the bar later. In his strong speech, he linked climate change with migration flows. Drought forces people to move. Europe will continue to take on these climate refugees as long as Europe is not experiencing climate change’s most drastic effects. Meanwhile Europe gets fuller. It’s a fantasy to think we can avoid the crowds. The world has decided to meddle with Europe...

And Jan, I believe you were unable, like myself, to suppress a grin when you heard that Europe had received a Nobel Prize. For a moment, Oslo became the ventriloquist for the old lady's secret dreams.

Sincere greetings Jan! Wherever you may be.


Dear Abdelkader,

You assumed well, Abdel. Indeed, I could not suppress a smile when I heard that Europe got the Noble Prize. At almost the same time, the euro-scepticism of the Netherlands seemed to evaporate. And less than a month later, we got a new minister for foreign affairs. I once attended a talk by Frans Timmermans that jolted me out of two of my preconceptions: a) that Dutch politicians are unable to give quality speeches, and b) that Dutch politicians have no clue about European culture. Meanwhile, Obama was re-elected and the world looks much better now than when we began our letter exchange.

I would have very much liked to be at those Balie debates. The zeal with which you wrote about it even overtrumped your usual enthusiasm. It made me wish that I witnessed this virtuosity of these intellectuals as they transformed the most complex connections into words. I usually prefer reading over listening but this I would have liked to have experienced. I was on a long journey with a book on my lap: Travels without John. It’s a rare and invigorating book that allows you to travel and think along with Geert Mak as he continually contrasts American realities with its Dream. It’s fascinating literature that consistently documents those points in history when the American Dream turned into a nightmare and why.

While reading, I often made parallels with our discussions about Europe. Thanks to Wilders and Roemer, Europe’s image had become grey and grubby. ‘Brussels’ started to sound tired, bureaucratic, petty and obsessed with its own small personal interests; as if it’s the capital of a continent without energy, vision or a future – a zone entering its final days. But if you travel around Europe, it’s not so bad. Some regions have been hard hit by the economic crisis, but even in Spain I did not see what Geert Mak saw in large parts of the US: desperate poverty and total degradation.

Mak follows the footsteps of John Steinbeck who after his months of traveling in 1960 noted: ‘I saw very little real poverty; I mean the grinding terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No, it was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no needs. And underneath it all the building energy like gasses in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result.’

When Geert Mak arrives in Detroit, he’s back in the Thirties. ‘Detroit seemed to be asleep on 7 October 2010 when we drove in. It was if it was 8.30 on a Sunday morning, instead of 11.30 on a Thursday morning. That’s the disaster that has struck this city. It’s become a modern ghost town, the postmodern Chernobyl of the United States.’ Only concrete structures remain in Detroit, which is mostly a wooden city outside its centre. ‘There are countless ruins of 19th- and 20th-century schools, offices and factories. They are collapsed, pocked with burn holes and with trees growing out of the windows and door frames. Office buildings are surrounded by wooden constructions to protect passers-by from falling debris. In a once glorious theatre, with a stage where Frank Sinatra and other giants once stood, there are now parked cars.’

Based on all the grim election talk, one would expect the same sad hopelessness on display in Greece and large parts of Southern Europe. But I think a strange contrast is developing between the backside of the American Dream and the front side of European reality. Mak’s book makes clear that the American Dream cannot be killed off. People have been forced to give up everything: job, steady income, home and way of life. But they keep holding onto the myth. The first thing that Obama did was breathe new life into this myth when he began his victory speech with the words: ‘The best is yet to come.’ Reality clings to utopia like desert to grassy fields. Mak drives through thousands of kilometres of desolation. Not only industrial cities but also large swathes of countryside have gone up in smoke. Farms have collapsed, fields have gone wild and villages are empty except for a single house with some gathered hippies. In late autumn Montana, Mak can’t even find a motel anymore, just the occasional gambling palace.

I watched the news in four different European countries and it was all sombre. The euro sinks, investments shrink, car manufacturers are moving to cheaper countries, unemployment rises, real estate sales remain docile and purchasing power plummets. All true. But are we just talking our way into the grave? In his best Martin Luther King voice, Obama proclaimed that ‘America is more than the sum of its citizens’. Everyone swooned. Meanwhile, if you’re reading Geert Mak, you come to the conclusion that America is the sum of incredible amounts of misery.

Last week, I spoke to two entrepreneurs who had just returned from a trade show in Eastern Europe. They had been particularly impressed by the pavilions from Estonia and Latvia. These designs were clear, fresh and futuristic; made from classical elements such as wood and glass and reflecting a calm faith in the future. In short, they were ‘the best is yet to come’ made solid.

For us in Europe, the dream is half – or completely – tucked into the reality. Perhaps we writers, poets, thinkers, filmmakers, composers should more clearly formulate the European dream with words, images and sounds. But then perhaps we will only truly drive ourselves into the ground. Just as with the Americans who in four years will likely have to admit that while Obama’s slogan was all well and good, with house, city and wallet the best has still not arrived. Perhaps, the real dream does not need to be formulated as long as it comes true without too much fanfare.

Warm regards, Abdelkader. I am slowly coming closer to the homeland.