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Interview by Q. Lei
In the spring of 2015, journalist and filmmaker Matthew Cassel began an extraordinary journey with 31-year-old Syrian father, Aboud Shalhoub. He spent a year documenting Aboud’s trip from Istanbul to the Netherlands, his long journey to reunite with his wife and two children after they were separated by the war in Damascus. Matthew believes that the portrait of refugees by the mainstream media is missing real human stories, He hopes that his documentary The Journey to Europe will give viewers an insight into what the refugee crisis means on an individual and personal level.
Refugees, migration and wars in the Middle East are among the most discussed issues in the last two years. Matthew’s documentary stands out as one of the few, if not the only, accounts of the refugee crisis that focuses not only on numbers but features real human stories. How many families were separated by the wars like Aboud’s? How many are now in ill-equipped boats or walking across the continents only to be reunited? Once landed, how can they be integrated into a new community? There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered in order to gain insight into the refugee crisis. The Journey to Europe is a journalist’s attempt to understand what is really going on in Europe and in the Middle East by asking sincere questions and not being afraid of where these questions lead him.
Commissioned by Field of Vision and published in English by The New Yorker in May 2016, The Journey to Europe is around 80 minutes in total, split into six parts. The entire documentary can be found on The New Yorker website:
BLYNKT spoke to the filmmaker about his own journey in the making of it.
QL: How did you meet Aboud?
MC: I met him through Syrian friends. At the beginning I had no intention of following or filming him. Aboud and his friends came to me because they thought I could help them with my United Nations contacts, so that when they made the trip from Turkey to Greece, someone in the UN knew that they were making this trip. They thought it would prevent them from being detained and sent back by the Greek border guards to Turkey, which actually ended up happening.
They came to me, an American journalist with the hope that I could help them. That’s how I met Aboud. It was actually Easter Weekend, 2015. In Greece on Easter everything shuts down. So when I was making these phone calls friends of mine, who work in the NGOs and the United Nations, said, “ok, but it is Thursday afternoon, we are going to leave for the next five days for the Easter holidays, so no one is going to be in the office.” I told Aboud and his friends that maybe it is a bad time to go, because no one works on the Easter weekend in Greece. But they were so impatient. When Aboud made the decision to go to Europe to be with his family, he just wanted to get to that place as soon as possible, because every minute he waited, every day he waited, it was one more minute, one more day away from his family. I understand that impatience. They ended up trying to go anyway.
QL: How did you start making the documentary
MC: It was a very organic process. It’s wonderful. Sometimes when I do journalism, I feel really bad afterwards, especially when it is not my project, because with my projects, I have control.
I have done producing, translating, shooting, all kinds of positions for different news outlets. You talk to someone for an hour, and you see it end up being made into literally a five-second sound bite. I feel so bad that I make this person give us so much, and in the end we use five seconds of that.
The process of making this documentary was much more organic in the sense that it all just happened, and I wasn’t trying to get that sound bite. I was trying to explore who this person was, why he was doing this trip, what he had to go through in order to get where he wanted to go.
When I finished the project, I had absolutely no negative feelings about the experience. Thankfully, it is a positive story in many ways. But I don’t feel bad about my own involvement as a journalist.
During the past year working on this story, I do find myself hating this industry more and more. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues, but there are some serious problems in the way we conduct journalism. It is an important tool to inform people, but we sometimes take the tool for granted. It is often about getting the story out there quickly and not necessarily telling it as truthfully as we should be.
I tried to pitch Aboud’s story to different media I was working for at the time. One in particular, the editor there told me straight up, “I am tired of refugee stories. Find something else.” This was in April or May, 2015. It was still ahead of the big wave, the 1.2 million that would end up traveling through Greece to Europe later in the year. There was still little coverage of the refugee crisis. But my boss told me that he wasn’t interested in it. I just thought, “Aboud is such a nice guy. He reminds me so much of myself in so many ways.” So I decided that I would follow him and see where it goes. And that’s what ended up happening. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him from one day to the next. And I had no idea what kind of project I would end up producing. Maybe I’d do a five-minute video, maybe a twenty-minute video. I had no idea that it was going to be a six-part series of about an hour and twenty minutes in total. I just took it one day at a time, and that, again, was an organic process - just seeing where the story developed and following this person as he went through this pretty extraordinary journey.
QL: What is journalism to you?
MC: In today’s journalism, the editors decide beforehand what the story is, rather than let the story tell itself. It is backward, right? I am doing this assignment now here in Athens for example, they want very specific things, so they tell me to go get it. I feel a little bit bad in the way I am doing it, but at the end of the day I will be giving space for the refugees to talk about their predicaments, their lives, etc., and that’s important as well. To be honest, I am a bit torn about it because it is not a real way of doing journalism. The real way of doing journalism would be: “hey, why don’t you go see what the story is and come back and tell us about that. Then let’s build a report based on that.” No, that’s not the way journalism functions now, which is why I am increasingly frustrated with the industry. We are exploiting people. I did this trip with Aboud and all these other refugees and migrants over the course of a year. I have a different passport and all kinds of privileges that they don’t. But at the end of the day too, they are making this journey for a better life. I am making this journey because I care about this story, but I am also getting paid for it. It is a very strange feeling. I am part of an industry that profits from people’s suffering. I struggle with that but I also want to be able to keep doing this work, because I think it is important to tell people stories. And I need to be able to make a few bucks, otherwise I won’t be able to keep doing journalism.
QL: What is your relationship with the people in your film?
MC: When I first met Aboud, you can see him at the beginning, he had this big beard. He intimidated me. I thought, this guy looked like he came straight out of the battlefield from Syria. But then I spent a couple of days with him and I realized that he is one of the nicest, gentlest people I have ever met. He is so patient. He never raises his voice. We are roughly the same age. I have lived in his region for many years, I know the culture, we would have been friends under any other circumstances. Aboud and I could really connect and that definitely made a difference. It is also one of the reasons why I have chosen the Eastern Mediterranean region to do a lot of the work that I do. I like being able to fly beneath the radar, I learnt Arabic so I can sort of blend in and I have dark hair like most people in the area. I can operate without drawing too much attention to myself, which I think is really important for a journalist. On the journey, for example, when we were crossing these countries, I blended in with the group of refugees. When police saw us, they just assumed that I was also a refugee.
I established personal relationships with these people, and of course, it is a fine line. I was definitely friends with Aboud and other people in the group. But at the same time, I had to remind them (that I am a journalist), because I didn’t want to trick them into thinking, I am just their friend. Of course I am their friend, but I also had my own motivations for being with them, I am a journalist making a film about them. And they should know that, because I don’t want them to open up to me as friend and me taking advantage of that by possibly documenting something that they gave to me as friend, not as a journalist. It is a delicate balance.
And I want to make sure that anyone I film is aware that I am filming them, and whatever they are doing in front of the camera will be captured on the camera. At least, when the camera is rolling, they should know that they are not just talking to me, they are also talking to a lot of strangers. I think it is important that they know their actions could be made public later.
QL: What is the message that you hope to convey to the public via your documentary?
MC: There is not one specific message that I want to convey. The refugee crisis has been an issue we have all seen on all of the front pages of the newspapers, TV, and networks over the past year, non-stop. As someone who has spent time with these people, I felt that what was missing was real, human stories.
As someone who has spent time in these parts of the world it is clear to me that the front-page stories about refugees lack depth and do not humanize them. I know that back in America, or back in England, people are not getting an accurate picture. What’s missing from the picture is the pure humanity that we all have, regardless of where we are from. When we see coverage of the Middle East, or coverage of the refugees, it is (only) about the conflict. It is very superficial. For me, it is important to document the things I have witnessed. Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, they are the same as any of us. They have a different culture, a different language, but at the end of the day, they are just people like the rest of us. They have just been placed in some pretty extraordinary circumstances, and that’s what makes them a little different.
I find it important to show the kind of basic humanity, the little things, the jokes that people make, the way they get tired, the way they laugh, the way they miss their family, all of that. Once you start capturing that on camera, you allow for viewers to empathize and understand who these people are. That’s what I want to capture. That’s the message, if you will. You know, the complexity of these people. They have stories, real stories, complex stories, deep stories that need to be told. Unfortunately they are not being told enough, at least not in a very accurate way. I want to tell their stories, and people can take whatever message they want to from that. Regardless of where you come from politically or geographically, if you want to formulate an opinion on another place, you need to understand the people in that place. That’s why I think it is important to use feature filmmaking or feature journalism to get a little deeper and capture who these people really are.
QL: What kind of change do you want to inspire with your documentary?
MC: We have some serious issues in the world right now. Racism and xenophobia in Western Europe and North America are very frightening, especially for someone like me, who grew up with plenty of stories about racism and xenophobia in Europe in the twentieth century. I see so many similarities in that period I grew up learning about to what’s happening now. Just take out the word Muslim or Islam and replace it with Jew or Judaism, and ask yourself if that would be something ok for you to say. Of course not. But people are saying this kind of islamophobic and racist stuff day in and day out. It’s being published by mainstream media. It’s being said by mainstream politicians. I think we are at a crucial moment right now. By humanizing refugees, I very much want to directly confront those racist trends which are emerging right now in Europe and in the United States. I don’t want this to be seen just as a document of these people’s lives for people to sit and say, “oh, ok.” I very much hope that this spurs people into actions of some kind. I am not suggesting a new movement necessarily, but I hope to encourage people to get active. If we live in a democratic society, it depends on everyone being active. I hope that people will become active on some level and fight the kind of right-wing racism that is becoming so prevalent in our societies today.
QL: You left religion out of your documentary. Was that intentional?
MC: I very intentionally left out religion from the documentary, because, first of all there was a mix of religions in the group I traveled with, and that, to me represents Syria. People aren’t leaving Syria because they are Christian or Sunni. They are leaving Syria because there is a war that affects everybody. And second of all, the sectarianism, these inter-religious conflicts, is not something ancient in the region - it’s something new. I don’t think it was necessary to highlight that in this story and also, I don’t want people to say, “oh he or she is like that because of his or her religion.”
I also asked the people in the film, I left the decision up to them, I asked them directly, “Are you practicing? Is that something I should highlight or not?” People chose that it was not something that necessarily needed to be highlighted. And at the end of the day, the thing they identified most as is Syrian.
QL: So in your documentary what you want to highlight is family instead of religion?
MC: The documentary is a story about a family that has been torn apart by conflicts and the difficult journey that a father and a mother have to make in order to reunite, to make the family whole again. I think it is really important to break it down to the simplest level, especially with how much coverage we’ve had of the refugee stories in the past year. Like Aboud said in the film, he didn’t even want to go to Europe. As Americans, or as Europeans, we think everyone wants to come to our countries. But I am American; I chose to live in the Middle East for twelve years. I love it over there. The pace of life, the culture, the warmth, we don’t have that in Western Europe or in America. There’s something extremely nice and hard to describe about these places. It is a really nice place to live. I would never have left, if I didn’t have to. I am not a refugee, but I wish I could continue staying there. I would have continued to live there if I felt that it was still a safe and sustainable place for a journalist to live, but it’s becoming difficult for me for the same reasons that people had to flee their homes. I think it is important to show that these aren’t people who are coming to Europe because they want “the amazing things that we have.” They are coming because we have security and safety. They want the possibility to live away from conflicts.
QL: How do you think we should deal with the refugee crisis today?
MC: The conversation now surrounding the refugee crisis is not based on facts. One side says this, the other side says that. And everyone just ignores the evidence. So I think in order to have a real conversation, I think that European states need clear policies now, especially in the past few months since they closed their borders. In the so-called “democratic states,” there needs to be a conversation that the entire population should become engaged in. In order to do that people need to be better informed. My job as a journalist is just to provide some information, and to provide a document of people like Aboud and others, so that people can better understand the situation. Then they can and actively take part in the discussion about how to deal with this issue, whether it be how to welcome refugees, and how to help integrate them into the new societies, or more importantly, how to put an end to the conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. How do we prevent people from killing so they have no other choice but to leave their homes? Like I said, most people wouldn’t make that decision if they had another option. But with all the racism and polarization, we are very far away from having those real concrete conversations that we should be having.
More information on Matthew and his work can be found on his website: www.justimage.org
BLYNKT will host a screening of The Journey to Europe at Princeton University in October 2016, where Matthew will present and discuss his documentary. This will be followed by a panel discussion on the refugee crisis.
A more in-depth conversation with Matthew about the process of making this documentary and his views on the refugee crisis will be available on the BLYNKT podcast now.
By Julie Rea
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
The fireworks accident happened a week after Becca made her father cry.
Becca, age six, and her father played a game when she was in the bath and he was in the bathroom with her, shaving or using the toilet. She would say sternly that she didn’t want to be friends anymore; he would pretend to be devastated. Then she would say that she was kidding, and he would act like he had heard the best news of his life. But one day, Becca told her father that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, and he started to make high-pitched noises. It took her several seconds to realize that he was crying.
Covered in suds, she sat in the bath, watching her hands squeeze a plastic doll, not knowing what to do. She had never heard her father cry before. It was like she had thrown him a ball, his arms had fallen off when he went to catch it, and she had seen his insides in a way she shouldn’t have.
She listened to her father tear toilet paper from the roll and blow his nose, flush the toilet, and exit the bathroom with a loud clearing of his throat.
She looked at her bathwater with its islands and frothy coasts of soap bubbles, trying to understand what had happened. She had wanted to make her father laugh, not cause more upset. Her parents had fought the night before, fought worse than ever. From her bedroom, Becca had heard the raised voices, the front door slam as her father went out, and her mother crying. Now, her father was home from work because it was Saturday, and he and her mother mostly weren’t speaking to each other. When they did, their voices were low with anger. Becca had spent much of the day in the backyard in order to avoid the thick tension of the house.
When Becca was done with her bath, her parents went for a long walk in the woods behind their house. When they came back, they were holding hands. Her mother told Becca not to say mean things to her father.
Becca said she was sorry, but she was embarrassed for her father. He was a big man who played basketball and taught math at a troubled Portland high school. He was the toughest man in her world. But now, he made her think of that boy in kindergarten who had cried in class. And in the days after the bathroom incident, her father didn’t pick her up and swing her around after he got home from his summertime job at the Parks Department, like he usually did.
A week later, Becca’s father drove the family to the fern-carpeted hills of Northwest Portland and her mother’s parents’ house. They were celebrating Becca’s parents’ birthdays, both of which were in July.
In the back seat of the car, Becca looked out the windows at the bridges and buildings of Portland. She was glad to be going to her grandparents’ house, where Becca’s grandmother, after whom Becca was named, doted on her.
Strawberries grew in front of the grandparents’ house. It was dark, and Becca and her parents followed a trail of stones, illuminated by lights at foot-level, through the strawberry patch to the front door. In the living room, scattered couches and easy chairs were upholstered in pink fabric. On the walls were mirrors, clocks, and prints of Oregon flowering plants in pink frames.
Both of her grandparents were thin and athletic. They spent lots of time playing tennis at the Club (although her grandmother had done so much less since her knee surgery). Her grandfather was a vice president of a bank. Her father responded seriously to his questions, as if doing his best to answer a teacher. Her grandmother, who had skin the color of milk, wore silky cardigan sweaters and habitually pinned back her bobbed red hair in a particular way.
The family ate in the dining room that had a view of Portland and Mount Hood. There was a white tablecloth and old dishes with intricate patterns. Her grandfather sat at one end of the table; her grandmother sat at the other. Plates were handed around carefully. Everyone knew to mind his or her manners.
After dinner, Becca went downstairs to the finished basement, where all of her grandparents’ old things were. On the floor were baskets of glass Japanese fishing weights that had washed up on the Pacific Coast and polished agates, also found on Oregon and Northern California beaches. Fishing rods hung on the wall. Pieces of rose quartz sat atop books and photo albums. In the photos, her grandparents appeared in France, in Belgium, in Hawaii, and in a series of camping sites from their trips around the American West.
Becca found an old volume of fairy tales and sat on the floor, reading as she waited for her grandmother to fetch her to decorate her parents’ birthday cake.
The story Becca read was about the brotherhood and rebellion of a peppercorn, an onion, and a lemon that were trapped in a cupboard. All expressed a determination to fight their captors until justice was achieved. They lined themselves at the edge of the cupboard, ready to leap to freedom. But the cupboard opened and a hand reached for the nearest ingredients: the peppercorn, the onion, and the lemon. The pepper was crushed, the onion was diced, and the lemon was sliced and squeezed into tea. That was it. Nothing else but the beginning of the next tale on the following page.
At the sound of her grandmother on the stairs, Becca put the book back in its place on the shelf and got to her feet, feeling a little sick.
Her grandmother stopped halfway down the stairs, a firm grip on the banister for balance. She said, “Ready, honey?”
Becca picked up her backpack and followed her grandmother up to the stairs to the kitchen.
In the backpack was a sooty metal box that smelled a little bit like eggs gone bad and was about twice the size of a Rubik’s Cube. It had a big smile and triangle eyes cut into one side, like a metal Jack-o-Lantern. It had been the hit of their family fireworks 4th of July celebration a couple of weeks prior: the tallest fireworks fountain Becca had ever seen, the sparks shooting out of the box a good five feet or so into the air. And after the sparks ended, the box glowed from explosive heat. Orange eyes and an orange mouth floated in the dark. Becca, her mother, and her father laughed in happy surprise.
The morning after the Fourth, her father had asked her to help him dispose the carcasses of the fireworks that littered the street in front of the house. She had kept the foul-smelling smiling box because it was shiny (where it wasn’t sooty) and neat looking.
Now, Becca wanted to use the smiling box as an ornament on the birthday cake to remind her parents of that happy night, of how it had been before the fighting, her father crying, and the awkwardness.
Her grandmother led her into the kitchen. Aside from the cake and the plates on the counter, the kitchen was spotless and smelled of lemon-scented cleaner. The only sign of dinner was the hum of the dishwasher.
Her grandmother narrowed her eyes as Becca carefully placed the smiling box on top of the frosted cake.
“That smells a little funny,” said her grandmother.
“I know,” said Becca. “But we can take it off as soon as they blow out the candles.”
“I think they’ll like it; I really do.”
As always, her grandmother looked at Becca like Becca’s opinions were significant. “Okay, honey,” said her grandmother.
Her grandmother encircled the smiling box with candles and lit them. The long flames of the candles lapped the box as she picked up the cake.
Becca went into the dining room to turn off the lights. She opened the door for her grandmother, who carried the cake to the dining room table.
Becca worked the dimmer so the lights came half-on.
“Well—my goodness,” said her grandfather.
Smoke was coming out of a corner of the smiling box.
“What is that,” said her father.
That was when the smiling box began to spout sparks. The sparks became a fountain of colored fire that reached the ceiling. Sparks rained down on the white tablecloth and cloth napkins and fell into glasses of wine and cups of coffee.
Becca screamed, “Fire!” Her mother yelled at her father to do something and pulled Becca back from the table.
Her grandfather went into the kitchen and came out with a fire extinguisher. He tugged futilely at a plastic ring that locked the extinguisher. Her father went to help by sawing at the ring with a dinner knife.
Meanwhile, sparks left slash marks all over the tablecloth, napkins, and dishes. Part of the carpet was smoldering. A finger of sparks touched the window, and the drapes began to smoke. Red, white, and blue sparks blackened the ceiling.
As Becca’s grandfather barked, “Rebecca, wait!”, her grandmother approached the smiling box with a large rag.
The tower of sparks sputtered at if it were running out. Seeing her chance, her grandmother rushed toward the box on the cake, holding the rag before her like she was going to smother a wasp’s nest with it.
But then the tower violently spewed sparks. Her grandmother lost her balance and fell, grabbing the tablecloth and pulling everything on it towards her as she did so. The movement of the plate caused the smiling box to fall off the cake and onto the table.
The box’s fall didn’t stop it from belching a fire of sparks. Her grandmother fell to her knees, face-to-face with the box, her head and hands enveloped in a shower of sparks. It was like she was facing the firing engine of a tiny rocket.
Becca and her grandmother screamed.
Her grandmother was admitted to OHSU’s burn unit. Becca saw her the next day, when she visited with the rest of the family. The doctors were going to operate to try to restore sight to her grandmother’s blinded eye. Her hands and her entire face, aside from her mouth and nostrils, were bandaged. She wasn’t conscious.
Becca’s mother was on one side of her grandmother’s bed; her grandfather was on the other. Her mother was crying and telling her grandmother how much she loved her, how everything was going to be fine, and how the doctors were going to fix her. Her grandfather stared into space, refusing the chair Becca’s father kept offering.
Becca waited with her father on the side of the bed nearest the door. Her mother and her grandfather stood with their backs to them. Visiting hours were almost over, an announcement on the PA told them. Her father said that maybe he should take Becca to the car. Her mother, not turning, told him to go; she would be there in a minute.
Becca walked by her father, feeling like she was choking on the guilt that filled her mouth, black as tar. “It’s all my fault,” she said. But she wasn’t alone in the doghouse: her mother was enraged at her father for letting Becca sneak off with the smiling box. Her mother had screamed at him until three o’clock that morning.
Her father took her hand. “You were trying to do something nice,” he said.
She started to cry then. As she cried, he continued to hold her hand. She wondered if the kitchen ingredients in the old fairy tale, who had met their fate because of their resolution to do something good, had had any time to hate themselves for their stupidity before they were eaten up.
Julie Rea’s work has been published in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Otter and Vol. 1 of Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women. Her essay “Keying a Car” will be published in Vol. 6 of The Nude Bruce Review. She is a graduate of the City College M.F.A. Creative Writing Program and the N.Y.U. School of Law.
Currently, she lives in the Philadelphia area and writes about life in a wheelchair and other
By Zeljko Svedic
It caught me by surprise. It was a nice skiing day in Flachau, and I had taken my six-year-old daughter to her third day of ski school. “She is excellent!” the ski instructor had said the day before. “Tomorrow we can go to a real slope!” So I had brought her to the school the next morning and tucked a child ski pass in a pocket of her pink jacket. “Just show this pass when you go to the button lift,” I explained. She nodded. We sat down and waited for other kids to arrive. After few minutes of silence, it started.
“Daddy!” she said.
I turned around and saw tears streaming down her face. I hugged her tight and tried to comfort her.
“What is the problem, sweetie?”
“I don’t want to go to school today. I am afraid of the button lift,” she wept.
Here we go, I thought to myself. Fear of the button-lift monster, the one that suddenly crosses your skis on the way up so you fall and get dragged by the lift while spectators laugh at you. It’s funny because it is harmless—nobody gets hurt on the kids’ ski lift. Landing your butt in the snow doesn’t really hurt. But I knew my daughter’s fear was real—because that same monster has been chasing me.
Some people are born lions and some deer. I was born a chickenhearted deer. I was shy and scared of being hurt. Hurt physically or, even worse, socially. Therefore, while other kids were playing outside with balls and sticks, I was reading encyclopedias at home. I especially liked the “R” section because it had rockets. Some encyclopedias put rockets under “S”, in the space article. As a kid, I always thought such amateurs shouldn’t be allowed to write encyclopedias; rockets deserve a separate article. I was quite a happy child, doing my exciting and non-scary things. But adults were not happy with me. I was too shy.
“I am really afraid,” my daughter cried. I was holding her, while tears were relay-racing down her cheeks.
“Don’t worry sweetie; everything will be fine.” I tried to comfort her. “Look at all these kids around; nobody is scared.” True, there were five kids in the same group. A younger kid was looking at her in surprise: “Ski school is fun!”
She was not always like that. As a baby she was loud and she started walking early. She would fall down, bump her head, and in a few minutes try to walk again. But then, after the age of three, kids in kindergarten separated into loud ones and shy ones. She went to the shy side, same as her father. I read later it was something genetic connected with the amygdala. I felt guilty.
“I am going to be there next to you. Your ski instructor is going to be next to you. And the guy running the lift is going to stop it if you fall down.” It didn’t help. If it is so easy, she thought, then why are there three adults helping her?
When I was five and I had cut my eyebrow in an amusement park. I was bleeding but not scared while my parents drove me to the hospital. Once inside, the doctors had me lie down on a bed and put a local anesthetic over the cut. They told me it would not hurt but I didn’t believe them. If it is not going to bloody hurt, then why were two doctors holding my head and a third one leaning over with a light on her head and large stitching needle in her hand? I totally flipped. Fortunately, a few weeks before, I had spent a weekend with my grandparents in the countryside. My grandpa was disappointed that such a big boy still didn’t know how to swear. So he took a weekend to teach me every juicy Croatian swear word he knew. I could now defend myself. By eyewitness accounts, with every stitch that went into my eyebrow, my profanities increased by an order of magnitude. By the time the last stitch was in, I was comparing the doctor’s vagina with slutty farm animals and her mother’s vagina to well-known religious figures. Christian religious figures. The hospital staff had never experienced anything like it. Neither had my mother, who was standing in the hospital room. We lived in a small city and for the next month she pretended not to recognize acquaintances on the street if they worked at the hospital. My father checked if my comic books had any swear words. He only found “@#$%&!”
Back on ski slopes, my daughter was still in tears but at least she was not making a scene like I did in the hospital. I decided to play it cool. “You are crying for nothing. It’s easy. You will see.” The ski instructor said we could start walking toward the slope, which was five minutes away. It looked like my daughter was crying less as we walked hand in hand. She just needs to cry it out, I thought. She can’t quit now. What kind of life lesson would that be—to just quit every time you have an irrational fear? The other five kids would learn to ski and she wouldn’t.
This fear was similar as singing is for me. I always found it dreadful. Our music teacher in primary school had demanded that each of us sing in front of the class to get our mark. She would randomly open the class register and read the name of some unlucky bastard. When it was me, I refused to sing. No matter if the three previous kids sang, I didn’t want to do it. Just give me an F and continue with it.
One time we learned how to intonate rhythm, which was quite easy because you sing te-ta sounds instead of words. When it was time to sing, she looked at me. She skipped the usual class register routine, so I didn’t have time to start panicking properly. I decided to give it a try. With a lump in my throat, I started singing: ta te ta fa te fe, ta fe te ta ta te, ta te ta fa te fe. I finished without a single pause or error. Then she said to the whole class, “Zeljko did it without an error. Which means that all of you can also do it—it’s that easy.” My cheeks blushed. I guess that everybody’s good for something, even if it’s just to be a bad example. To this day I refuse to sing.
My thoughts moved back to the present time. My daughter was still crying and I was getting annoyed. Is that the way she is going to lead her life? Hiding from irrational monsters while everybody else is having fun? I decided I would not let that happen. No way. “Stop crying. You are just being a baby!” I raised my voice. I needed to push her so she could overcome her fear. You always need to push yourself. Don’t give up to the fear, fight that monster. I pushed myself that way when I was younger.
Take the time I had asked a girl on a date for the first time. I was in high school and I had been seeing her every day. We had a really nice communication going on. She would smile and I would get goosebumps. I thought it was obvious I fancied her. I would offer to come and study at her house. She would make me a sandwich. But that is all I would get, no kisses or anything. Not that I tried. I was too scared. So I decided to take it to the next level, to ask her for a date. I contemplated my fear for days. One day I decided to call her on the phone; I didn’t want her to see me nervous. I put my red phone on the floor and sat in front of it. For thirty minutes I looked at the phone digits in silence. They looked back at me. My heart was pounding. The scene looked like an advert for cheap long-distance calls. But I decided to fight the monster. I picked up the handset and dialed the number. She answered the phone.
“How is your day going?” I tried to be cool.
She started talking about homework, as that was often the topic of our conversation. I was thinking, though, this conversation wasn’t going well. I mean, mathematics is sexy but not in that way.
“Do you have any plans for tonight?” I said.
“Actually no, I am free tonight. Why do you ask?”
“It’s a nice day, maybe we could go to the city for drinks?” I replied.
“Well… yes, I guess we could go. Were you planning to invite somebody else?”
She was clueless. After all that math and all those sandwiches.
“No,” I said, “I wanted only the two of us to go for a drink. You know, like a date.”
“A date?! You are kidding, right?”
“No, I am serious.” I decided to go all the way. Fuck being cool. “I like you. I like when you smile, I like when we talk. I think we would be a nice couple. That is why I am inviting you for a date.”
There was a long pause. The beating thing in my chest wanted to jump out. Onto a silver platter, maybe? Then the silence stopped.
“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”
She was laughing.
“Ha ha ha ha!”
I really wanted her to stop.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“It’s funny! I’m shocked! Why did you think we had something going on?”
“Well… I thought it was obvious that I like spending time with you. Doing homework, talking in the class. Didn’t you notice?” I asked.
“Listen, I like you as a friend. I don’t want to go on a date. Nothing is going to happen with us. I can’t believe you asked me that! Let’s finish this conversation and talk about it when we see each other.”
That was the end of the conversation. After she hung up the phone, I held onto my handset for some time. It was the first time in my life I had asked a girl on a date. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.
People in high school noticed I was a bit sad that month. I guess she noticed it too, but she never said anything. She avoided conversation about it. To this day we haven’t exchanged a word about it.
Standing in the snow, I couldn’t understand why my daughter was afraid of the stupid button lift. Even if she broke her goddamn legs on it, that would be minor pain. Physical pain is nothing compared to emotional pain caused by other people.
She was still crying. My strategy of being tough didn’t help. I realized I was an idiot. Why am I pushing her to go on the lift if she doesn’t want to do it? So I can make her a “strong” person? So I can cure my childhood frustrations through her? I am a fucking idiot. Let’s just ask the ski instructor for a refund and call it a day.
But as I was facing the ski instructor, I remembered something. As a kid I panicked the most when I had a choice, that is, when I thought my panic could stop the scary thing from happening. When I was faced with something certain, I would often accept it.
“You know what?” I said to the ski instructor, “She is only crying because I am here. She knows if she cries a lot I will take her out. What if I go and hide behind that building for five minutes? If she doesn’t stop crying, just wave to me and I will come back.”
The ski instructor nodded in agreement. I kissed my daughter on the cheek, said goodbye, and pretended I was going away. I hid behind the ski storage shack and found a hole to peek through. She was still sobbing. But after a minute she was sobbing less. And after another minute even less. She accepted the inevitable. The ski instructor sorted them out and all the kids went to the ski lift.
She is all good, I thought. The ski instructor will call me if she panics again. I took my skis and went off to an adult ski lift.
On the ski slopes, I was getting nervous. It was close to noon and I was wondering if everything had gone well with the ski class. I approached the bottom of the ski lift but nobody was there. I checked my phone. There were no calls or messages. Then I saw a small parade of kids in oversized helmets coming down the hill. My daughter was one of them. She was skiing like a pro.
“Daddy, daddy,” she said with a smile, “It was great. We went on the lift, and we skied down and again and I was not afraid. Can we go again? Please!”
I thanked the ski instructor and went with her on a few more button-lift rides. After five trips, she got quite sad because my ski pass had expired and we needed to go. I couldn’t believe the change in attitude.
But in my heart I understood.
When you are shy, you need to fight your fear monster every day.
Photos by Zeljko Svedic
Zel moved to Berlin to become a philosopher, a writer and a Weissbier addict. So far, Weissbier part is going as planned. Zel publishes his works on a personal blog, a professional YouTube channel and a crappy Youtube channel. Sometimes people invite Zel to give various talks, which, as any aspiring philosopher, he is delighted to give for free. And don’t be fooled, this short bio was also written by Zel, it is in the 3rd person because editor asked him to do so. Which probably puts him in the same category as selfie stick owners.
By Carly Dee
All photography by Niki Boon
Photographer Niki Boon lives surrounded by nature on a ten-acre property in rural New Zealand with her four children. All around them is natural beauty: bush, rivers, hills and coastline.
Niki grew up in a similar surrounding in the North Island of New Zealand with her three siblings. When they weren’t attending the local rural school they were free to spend their childhood roaming the farm. “I have wonderful memories of catching eels in the drains and making tree huts”.
It was these rich childhood memories which partially inspired her decision to raise her own children away from modern technology such as TV and electronic devices. This might seem unusual to some in this fast-paced, highly technological society but Niki replies “I believe my children are right where they belong covered in mud, running and living through nature”.
She documents their childhood using project titles such as “Wild and Free” and “Childhood in the raw”. In them we see four children interacting with nature and one another, the photographs are reminiscent of childhoods from the past. Their black and white style serves to highlight the wilds of the natural surroundings making them seem timeless and somehow wilder. The use of black and white, more traditionally reserved for static portraits contrasts with the life expressed by her children in the pictures. These elements work together to produce powerful and evocative images which draw the viewer in and perhaps question their own sense of freedom.
Niki travelled to Scotland when she was younger, it was while living and working there that she developed an interest in photography. “It was in the middle of a harsh Scottish winter when I did a course in the darkroom , I fell in love with the process of printing images , and then realized that I had to learn how to take a good image in order to be able to enjoy the process of printing them…so it was a back to front way to learn about photography…I spent a few months travelling around Europe photographing what appealed to me….but then didn’t pick up a camera again until I had my first child many years later back in New Zealand.”
Her style of documentary photography has been described as raw, honest and emotive. It is through these photographs of her surroundings and her children that we get a real sense of her photographic style. “I largely document our life here on our 10-acre property in New Zealand… most of the images are non-directed and non-posed, just life as it is, as I see it unfolding in front of me.”
While there is no such thing as a 'typical’ day in the Boon household, their day starts out quite similarly to other families. Usually starting with breakfast they go on to do their chores around the house and property and look after their animals. As the children are taught at home, the rest of the day is free and can be varied from day to day. Their day could be spent having an adventure at the river, bush or beach learning about their surroundings. It could also be spent reading indoors or working on their projects or just allowing their imaginations to run free outside. Although the children are raised without public schooling or technology, they are not isolated. They also travel into town for activities such as music, drama or sports where they interact with other children.
As the children grow older, Niki says that they are becoming increasingly aware of the camera but as it is so much part of their lives and their childhoods, it doesn't bother them. At this point her children haven't expressed an interest in technology and she does most of her work at night after they are asleep. This enables her to spend more time with them during the day.
We see the narrative of Niki’s family story through the lens of her camera. We see their natural curiosity and love of nature and their relationships with one another. Although she believes that her home life is perfect for her children and her family, she says that this lifestyle is not for everyone. “I think that ultimately everyone’s family circumstances are different ..and that every parent knows what is best for their children … for us ... this is the one that works best for us at this stage of our children’s lives.”
Niki photographs other people’s families too, using her signature documentary style in her commercial work. “I think that documentary photography is better lent to telling a family’s true story, who they really are. With documentary photography you shoot in their homes, with real interactions, capturing relationships between family members and between family and their land or home … more of their story I believe.”
She presents each of her children with a selection of the photographs she has taken on each of their birthdays. Even if her children choose to take a more urban path in the future, these photographs document their childhood which for now, remains unplugged.
By Christine Jackson
The roses of their love die first;
Soft, perfumed blooms peel away
like rotting flesh.
Baby’s breath lasts longer;
Sprays of white mini-blossoms
Until they can’t compete for water.
Dry stems snap,
Buds fall away
stiff as paper snowflakes
from a child’s scissors.
She draws the bundle of slimy stalks
From the vase,
Kisses the gangrenous leaves goodbye,
And drops the entire handful
into the trash on top of
the coffee grounds.
Christine Jackson teaches literature and creative writing at a South Florida university. She
also presents creative writing workshops for local writing communities. Her poetry has
been published in print and online publications, including The Sandy River Review, Shot Glass
Journal, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Stay Weird and Keep Writing, and A Quiet Courage.
By Christine Jackson
The fat old men thaw in the winter sun.
Thighs spread, they sit in a circle
Around the asphalt’s single patch of sunlight,
Talking of doing hard time,
Munching provolone sandwiches.
The young guy out on probation
who lives in his car
Opens the hood and slams it,
Opens the trunk,
Rearranges his furniture,
And slams it,
Then finds his place for lunch
Around the patch-of-sunlight campfire.
Christine Jackson teaches literature and creative writing at a South Florida university. She
also presents creative writing workshops for local writing communities. Her poetry has
been published in print and online publications, including The Sandy River Review, Shot Glass
Journal, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Stay Weird and Keep Writing, and A Quiet Courage.
By Pat Murphy McClelland
In the last six months of World War II
Army men with shaved heads
knock on the door
of our house filled with shadow.
My father strides down
a long thin brown hall.
I trail him toward sun glare
on beveled glass, prisms dancing
diamonds on his blinding white shirt
shining his curly hair to jet stone.
I am four, oldest daughter
middle child among the five.
In no time at all
save for his voice
he sometimes sends
on glistening black
vinyl circles we play on
our hand-cranked phonograph
worn needle skipping grooves.
Beneath the crackle, the sound
of him is faint: “Tell mom
to set your hair in ringlets
we have a date when I get home.”
In the box with his voice
comes a pink satin pillow
for mom, fringed in coral
Camp Le Jeune sewn in blue
gray-green tanks for sons
toy guns spinning
hunting down the enemy
for me a gypsy doll
in red with black lace
long wavy raven hair
shiny eyes that blink
with pointy breasts
that fascinate my friends.
At the end of year ten
of college my father stands
alone at my commencement.
My mother called in sick.
Hair now pewter gray
shades hiding hazel eyes
he sports a Christmas gift
tie, gaudy silk that argues with
his green plaid coat. Shocking
it was, his showing up
to see me finish, convinced
as he was, I never would
which drove me to it.
Through a quick dark cloud
of tossed caps and gowns
I watch my father make his way
across the campus lawn, veiled
in a blue haze of Camel smoke.
I feel his prim hug withholding
love, words do not occur to him.
I search his face for the fleet
inconspicuous tics that hide
love and pride in Irish men.
Back home, he decants champagne
calls to mom hiding out in bed –
she declines to join the celebration.
He makes a toast to my ambition.
Alcohol ends his silence and ravels
reticence that always makes me cross
the line to inference. He hands me
on the sly an unsigned Hallmark card
nods toward a pile of silver ribbon
and scarlet tissue in the dining room.
“A present,” he says with an air
of diffidence, “I found it at a pawn shop.”
His gift stunned – a primo classic
besting his inspired 1940s
avant-garde prototype of Barbie –
a pebbled leaden gray 1954
Royal typewriter with glossy
green, white lettered keys
that clacked staccato harmony
on onion skin with carbons
in between, that inscribed
my young and deathless prose
in black Times Roman, tipped with red.
Until I lost it in a move.
Despite his flair for choosing presents
my censored father stayed a mystery
until the day he died, a vet run down
against his will in a military hospital
hair thin, long, white, stringy
beard matted, bony arms poking
through the open spaces
of flimsy gowns and blankets
his face a lighter shade
of the pea green concrete wall.
Hard to please right up to the end
he spurns my goodbye gift –
clam chowder, the New England kind
memory thought he’d like.
“Too sweet,” he gripes.
The final iteration
of a lifelong point of view.
Pat Murphy McClelland is a native of New England and a California transplant. Her
poems appear in: Chronicles of Eve (Paper Swans Press, 2016); Caravel Literary Arts Journal;
Snapdragon Literary Journal; ARAS Connections: Image and Archetype; Altadena Poetry Review; Feile-Festa Literary Journal; Atlas Poetica; and a chapbook, Turnings. She has published several
children’s books, and taught creative writing workshops in LA and “Writing for Healing”
at the UC/SF Comprehensive Cancer Center. Long-time passing, she has been revising a
memoir, “The Masks of Grief.”
By Agathe Osinski
Photograph by Prima Alam
In the chaos of my uprooted life, there is nothing more soothing than listening to my grandmother talk about her childhood. Whether my studies or professional life have brought me to Brussels, London, or to Berlin, year after year, I return to Warsaw. For a weekend by train, with almost as much time spent travelling as actually seeing my family. For a week around Christmas time, in the freezing and dark Polish winter, with the only warmth emanating from steaming bowls of barszcz and the sound of laughter of my loved ones gathered around the table. For a couple of weeks in the summer or autumn, when the circumstances permit it, to take walks in the forest, hugging trees with my grandmother. “Only birches have the good energy,” she insists, waving away my invitations to embrace the pines, willows and oak trees that we pass.
Usually one or both of my sisters will come from France at the same time, and sometimes my uncle will join us from Spain. We fly in from across Europe to be together in Poland, in this country that continues to have significance for us despite many years spent abroad, despite feeling like foreigners at times, despite the frowns we get from the grocer when one of us makes a grammatical error that reveals our exoticism. We return, perhaps because this is where our roots are, and we need to feel them and see them and taste them, and to listen again and again to the story of how we were distanced from them.
As I lie with my head in her lap, eyes closed, my grandmother strokes my hair with her smooth hands. Her wide palms gently trace the shape of my head and her long fingers, adorned with a few simple, silver rings, explore the texture of my hair. My grandmother‘s large limbs supposedly bear witness to her Tatar heritage, and yet when I compare her legs, arms, neck and feet to my own, it is hard to believe we share a common lineage. Next to her, I will always be a child. At eight-eight (or eighty-seven, she can’t be sure – her birth certificate was destroyed during the war), she can barely see. An eternal fog has settled before her green-grey irises, but her memory is sharp, especially when it comes to those early years of her life.
My grandmother grew up in the Poland of the 1930s. This was a Poland celebrating its rebirth as an independent state, a politically chaotic but hopeful Poland with Warsaw, its gleaming capital, dubbed the Paris of the East. My grandmother’s father, Jan, was a renowned pediatrician and a man of high morals, the kind one can only read about these days. He was a devoted husband, caring father, brilliant practitioner and talented painter. His wife, my great-grandmother Zofia, was born on a large estate outside of Warsaw and studied pedagogy before marrying Jan. Despite her aristocratic background, she was deeply sensitive to social inequalities from a young age and developed progressive views that put her at odds with her own parents. Zofia had many suitors, or so the story goes, but finally chose Jan to be the father of her children.
Together, my great-grandparents lived in a spacious apartment on one of Warsaw’s busiest avenues, a flat that doubled as Jan’s clinic. My grandmother lets out a melodic laugh, shaking her head in disbelief as she tells me about the games she played with the children in the waiting room, about all the contagious diseases she caught from those little patients, about how much those kids loved her father. As always, I ask her to tell me about her brothers. I never knew them, but it’s easier to picture my grandmother as a child by imagining her surrounded by her siblings. Drawing implicit parallels between her brothers and my own sisters, I imagine their playtime, their discussions, and that unique, intimate dynamic which governs relations among kids in a household.
“Oh, Jerzy was sweet, lovable, the very essence of kindness,” she recalls of her eldest sibling.
“And Stefan?” I ask.
“Stefan was the wild one, always devising mischievous plans. But he was charming, too! Our mother loved him more than anything.”
With a note of nostalgia in her voice, my grandmother describes Sunday mass and dinner, when the family would gather around the dining room table. In the pictures she shows me, Jan is tall and dark and holds a long cigarette in his hand. Zofia is elegantly dressed with small, round glasses that have become fashionable among those of my own generation. Jerzy looks thin and pensive, and Stefan, just two years older than my grandmother, is handsome and boyish-looking. In the only remaining pictures of my grandmother’s early life, she is five or six years old, and yet she looks as she does now: stout, solid limbs, a slightly off-balance pose, a broad smile and sparkling eyes that never quite meet the photographer’s lens.
At those Sunday dinners, Jan took the time to check on the health, education and general wellbeing of his offspring after a busy week of caring for other people’s children. Zofia’s mother and sister were regular visitors to the household, and passed out marzipan treats to the kids after the meal. It’s the stories of those rituals, those traditions, those moments of unity that comfort me the most. As if, in my own unsettled life devoid of patterns, I can anchor my existence. The stories of my grandmother’s cheerful childhood help me to gain a sense of belonging to this world.
Back then, the life of my grandmother and her family was comfortable and busy in Warsaw. The real adventures came in the summertime, which was spent in their country house outside the city, near a small artist‘s village on the banks of the Vistula. For two months each year, my grandmother, Stefan and Jerzy ran free, away from the noise of the city, the traffic and their schoolteachers. I can almost taste the blueberry pierogi of those summer holidays, coated in powdered sugar and served with dollops of cream.
Their dreamlike childhood ended unexpectedly with the outbreak of the Second World War. The Nazi invasion from the West on 1 September 1939 was followed by the Soviet attack from the East on 17 September: within two weeks everything had changed and my grandmother had become an adult, aged twelve. As she narrates this part of the story, her voice grows quieter, her words sound heavier. The anecdotes are filled with stress and suspense and although I know exactly how the story ends, I follow her on the journey of unknowns and through the heartbreaks of war.
Throughout the occupation, my grandmother and her brothers were involved in underground resistance activities organized by the scouts. During secret meetings held by the family at their apartment, Jan would play vinyls loudly on the gramophone, pretending to host festive gatherings. At one such meeting, a friend of Jerzy’s accidentally fired one of the guns hidden in the apartment. The explosion roused suspicion amongst the neighbors, who gathered worriedly in the staircase of the building. With courage, Jan joined this group of neighbors, to dispel any suspicion that the blast might have come from his apartment.
Although the Nazis had shut down the official education system (with the exception of technical schools, for which Poles were deemed worthy enough), some children continued to attend secret schools. My grandmother attended one such establishment which operated as a technical school for tailors. Whilst continuing to learn in general lessons, the school also sewed uniforms for the German army. As a sign of resistance, the students sewed seams which came undone once the uniforms were worn by Nazi soldiers.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on a clear summer’s day in 1944. Jan, Zofia, Jerzy, Stefan and my grandmother were all involved. The boys, aged nineteen and twenty-one, were part of a battalion, fighting for their city with other boy scouts. Jan and Zofia worked in hospitals, tending to the hundreds, thousands of soldiers injured each day. My grandmother worked at the hospital and helped to build barricades. On the second day of the Uprising, a stray bullet hit her best friend in the chest and passed through my grandmother’s ankle. She lifts the leg of her trousers to show me the scar but the moment passes in silence over the trauma of witnessing death in the wake of adulthood.
Another day, a missile was fired at the building where she was taking one of the rare baths of the Uprising. She ran out half-naked but safe, her wet skin untouched while flames devoured and destroyed the house and most of the surrounding buildings. By the time Warsaw capitulated on 2 October 1944, not much remained of the Paris of the East. The boys were sent in cattle wagons to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Austria. My grandmother wanted to go with them, to fulfill her duty until the end and accompany her injured fiancé, but her brothers plead with her to stay in Warsaw with their parents. So she stayed, reluctantly.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
As Yalta was signed and the war came to an end, Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. Returning soldiers – young, rebellious patriots – were deemed a threat to the infant regime which was clawing its way to power. One by one these soldiers were interrogated, thrown into prisons, tortured, and persecuted. Discouraged from coming home, charming, mischievous Stefan settled in London and sweet, lovable Jerzy found refuge in Belgium, together with his wife and their best friend Piotr, who became my grandfather many years later. None of them ever returned to Poland.
Meanwhile, in 1947, my grandmother enrolled in Engineering Studies at the Warsaw Polytechnic University, where she met my grandfather on a canoe trip shortly before graduation. As a teenager, my grandfather had dreamt of studying political science or international relations. With the new post-war world and the Communist regime tightening its grip on Poland, the best bet was to study a subject with as few links to politics as possible - Electrical Engineering seemed like a safe choice. My grandparents married in 1954, one year after the death of Stalin. The following year, my mother was born.
Decades later, as a student, my mother was involved in Solidarność (Solidarity), the trade union and social movement that opposed the Communist government. At first, Solidarity was tolerated by the regime, but in 1981 the threat of social and political change became too great and the Communists clamped down on it, plunging the country into martial law in an attempt to regain control over it. In those years, the glimmers of hope for a future in a free Poland seemed bleak, and work was hard to come by for those with close ties to Solidarity. In those years, my mother met and married the son of Piotr, who was born and raised in Belgium next door to Jerzy and his family. On one summer day, my mother packed her belongings into her tiny Fiat and followed my father to Belgium, then to Russia and the U.S., then to Germany, and finally full circle back to Poland, nearly twenty years later. But having grown up as expats - the more comfortable version of a migrant – my sisters and I never really felt at home anywhere. We studied in Belgium and in the UK, and we have lived and worked and loved in more cities that we can count on our hands. Our cousins too, are scattered across the world, and grew up speaking French, Spanish, English, German, and yes, Polish too.
And so it goes, the story of my broken family, the story of émigré life and mispronounced surnames. From that first generation who cut off ancient roots and replaced them with the seed of restlessness, passing it on to their children and grandchildren. The first of many lives spent settling, re-settling, endless travels and continuous shifts, from city to city, from country to country. Poland is an independent state now, and so much has changed since 1944. And yet, we continue to wander. But from time to time, my wandering brings me back to Warsaw, to where it all began.
There, I lie my head in my grandmother’s lap and close my eyes.
Agathe is a modern day nomad, splitting her time between Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin.
She holds degrees in economics from the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)
and politics from the London School of Economics (UK), and recently left her job in
consulting to focus on writing, travelling and yoga.
By Ying-kit Chan
When Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of independent Singapore, passed away on March 23, 2015, some Singaporeans, amidst a nationwide outpouring of grief, wondered if his death would destabilize the nation or have an impact on their future. This may sound absurd to foreign observers. Yet for many Singaporeans, it is a legitimate question, given that Lee created Singapore out of his unique view of the world. Even after Lee’s retirement from actual policymaking in 1990, his visions of personal excellence and national progress continue to shape the mainstream bureaucratic opinion about how the nation should be run.
Contrary to popular opinion, Lee did not have absolute power over Singaporean politics. For one, Lee knew that many of his views were controversial, and only revealed them in his memoirs after he had retired from active politics. One of the few ideas Lee let loose before stepping down from premiership was that IQ is hereditary and largely immutable. To him, IQ manifests itself in academic performance and the caliber to govern a nation. Good genes breed merit, which is essentially synonymous with intelligence and implanted in a person from birth. Genes make elites out of children and adults. Genes determine who would succeed in life and staff his meritocratic government. His revelation came long after the tumultuous phase of nation building in the 1960s and 70s. With his political acumen and keen sense of the situation, Lee knew that stating his personal opinions explicitly would risk censure or create a divide in the society. After all, it took him and his aides-de-camp quite a while to construct the nation from an amalgam of racial categories created by the British colonial authorities.
Lee was educated in the finest British tradition and could have inherited some of the Victorian-era assumptions about class, gender, and race in his thinking. No foolproof method exists to prove this nebulous thing we call “influence,” but knowing about Lee’s background may be instrumental to understanding how he had arrived at some of his most controversial views later in life.
In the 1940s, Lee received prestigious scholarships to attend Raffles College (Singapore) and the London School of Economics for a while before transferring to the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), where he graduated with First Class Honors in Law. He returned to Singapore in 1950 armed, as historian Michael D. Barr observes, with Arnold J. Toynbee’s progressivist ideas and cyclical view of history. Toynbee was a professor at the London School of Economics, famous for his magnum opus A Study of History, which discussed how the rise, progress, and decline of civilizations stemmed from the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Toynbee asserted that a successful civilization was one in which its established elites could respond creatively to challenges. When these elites failed to cope with crises, new elites took over and revitalized the civilization through means that were more creative than those of their predecessors. Since his party the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to office in 1959, Lee had regularly quoted Toynbee’s “Challenge and Response” thesis in cabinet meetings. Dismissing the fatalism of Toynbee’s argument, Lee believed in a pattern of behavior whereby ruling elites can perpetuate themselves by staying creative and adapting adequately to new challenges.
An elite himself, Lee wanted his children to become elites too. He sent his sons first to Chinese-medium schools and then to the University of Cambridge in the 1970s. Despite the popularity of the Beatles at the time, Lee’s sons maintained their crew cut without him instructing them to do so. He attributed this to their Chinese upbringing. Lee had been an excellent student. His sons were equally successful in college. He attributed this to their good genes. Later in the 1990s, he would pass his opinions off as “Asian Values,” a set of thinly veiled Confucian ideas about how economic success of a nation could be attained through the dominance of altruistic elites, who were naturally endowed and nurtured from a young age to succeed and lead a compliant and diligent populace.
To Lee, intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture. As early as the late 1960s, just a few years after Singapore’s independence in 1965, Lee revealed his views on the relationship between genes and talent. In one of his speeches, he argued that unless the better-educated citizens reproduced at a higher rate, the future of their progeny would be at stake because less economically productive people—the “social delinquents”—would live off the nation’s scarce resources. In his National Day speech in 1983, Lee made his ideas about heredity, intelligence, and their implications for future social policies explicit. Convinced that the innate qualities of elite Singaporeans had created and sustained the nation’s impressive economic growth, Lee stated that his government would sift out the talented students through the educational system and focus its limited resources on grooming them for economic, political, and social leadership in adulthood. In his opinion, these selected few should constitute no more than five percent of the entire population. Approximately 150 of them would form the core of political leadership and steer the nation toward further progress. Beginning with education, Lee instituted in 1984 the Gifted Education Program (GEP), which held the Ministry of Education responsible for recognizing exceptionally intelligent students and developing a special, high-level curriculum to educate them and develop their learning potential.
In 1984, the Singaporean government also launched the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme to boost fertility among married, educated women and a sterilization program to decrease fertility among the uneducated. The government prioritized college-educated mothers for housing and their child’s school admissions and subsidized their deliveries in hospitals. As sociologist J. John Palen points out, such programs emphasized the educational level of the wife rather than that of the husband. According to official figures released in 1983, 69 percent of Singaporean men with tertiary education married wives with a lower educational level. The government hoped to rectify this “problem” by ensuring that both marriage partners would be degree holders in order to pass their genes forward to the next generation.
In the 1960s and 70s, Singapore had requested parents to “stop at two” to curb overpopulation, and a series of government incentives and disincentives in family planning led to low birthrates in the 1980s. Lee was alarmed that as of 1983, 16 percent of graduate women remained single compared to 5 percent of men. Also in 1984, the government set up the Social Development Unit (SDU), which organized dating activities such as all-expenses-paid-for love-boat cruises and social events akin to mass matchmaking sessions for graduates to interact with fellow graduates of the opposite sex. The National University of Singapore, then the nation’s only university, was instructed to even out the male-female student ratio to create dating opportunities for both male and female undergraduates. The second component of the eugenic-based policy, the sterilization program, offered married women whose educational level was not beyond junior high school and whose monthly household income was less than 750 Singaporean dollars a grant of 10,000 Singaporean dollars to undergo sterilization of their own accord.
There was a backlash against these pro-natalist programs which favored college graduates. Thousands of female polytechnic students signed petitions and wrote articles to the government-controlled local newspapers critical of these programs (that the editors decided to publish such pieces was remarkable). Unmarried female college graduates themselves were frustrated with the government for publicly airing their singlehood and implicitly accusing them of prioritizing their own interests over national ones. They argued that the root of the problem was deeply structural, complaining that their juggling of both career and family duties was difficult in the implicitly patriarchal Singaporean society. They said that this was compounded by a lack of empathy for their difficulties from their male Singaporean counterparts. In fact, male Singaporeans had unflatteringly joked that SDU implied “single, desperate, and ugly.” In the General Election of December 1984, the PAP won only 64.8 percent of the votes—a plunge of 12.9 percent from its share of votes in the previous election, possibly as a result of their intervention into family planning. As Palen observes, there also appeared to be widespread, but never publicly acknowledged suspicion among the Indian and Malay minority groups that the government implemented the new programs to produce more Chinese, who were generally more educated and hence were the programs’ target audience.
The widespread discontent among the populace forced Lee and his government to generally scale down their pro-natalist programs and specifically disband the sterilization program. In the late 1980s, the government decided that it also needed citizen-workers of lower educational backgrounds to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign manual labor and extended the pro-natalist programs to include all mothers. As the number of migrant workers in Singapore rose during the 1980s and 90s, Singaporeans began to stereotype these workers by linking them to higher crime rates and the spread of contagious diseases. True to its elitist slant, the Singaporean government tacitly believed that most children of lowly educated workers would take up manual jobs as adults. However, birth rates across the board remained low as Singapore became a highly affluent and consumerist nation where having children, even if subsidized, could be a burdensome, expensive affair for most citizens.
Lee’s idea of eugenics lived on in the education policies even after it wound down the pro-natalist program. The GEP continued into the twenty-first century, now in the guise of the Integrated Program (IP) that allows academically able students to skip the high school final examinations that are required for the mainstream students and directly take their pre-university entrance examinations. Another version of the GEP existed in the streaming exercise for elementary school students, which lasted until 2008: after their fourth year in school, they were streamed into EM1, EM2, and EM3 (English and the Mother Tongue of Chinese, Malay, or Tamil as first, second, and third languages respectively). Speaking from his own difficult experience of learning Mandarin Chinese, Lee concluded that few students would become the all-rounder bicultural, bilingual scholars who can master both English and their own “racial” language. These students, in Lee’s opinion, are genetically endowed or naturally wired to learn multiple languages. The Ministry of Education continues to offer some of the linguistically inclined EM1 students the choice of learning a third language, which can be French, German, Japanese, or Malay.
Despite the 1980s backlash, the inheritability of intelligence remained Lee’s pet topic in the years that followed, and indeed to the end of his life. He described his belief that intelligence is genetically determined as a “hard truth” that has kept Singapore going. In his eyes, no amount of government intervention and social engineering can significantly change a person’s lot in life as it has already been predetermined by the quality of the genes that they are born with. Government officials can equalize opportunity at the starting point for all, but they cannot ensure equal outcomes. For Lee, no reason exists to hold back the would-be financially and socially able for the sake of egalitarianism. In his opinion, the ablest Singaporeans, by virtue of their own success, can bring jobs and distribute the economic surpluses to the less able. Without having to enact a social welfare system, the government can delegate the task of resource redistribution to well-off Singaporeans and the charitable and voluntary organizations.
Yet one may still argue that while Lee was not an egalitarian in terms of his education and reproduction policies, he was one with respect to the distribution of resources in the society. Lee provided lower-end students with extra attention, scholarships, and tuition to ensure a level-playing ground for them, but he still believed that only a few of them could succeed financially, professionally, or socially in life. He wanted to create, in place of a welfare system, a social model in which the amount of property citizens own depends on their capabilities. He achieved his objective by giving housing ownership to citizens, who could have apartments in their name, which would enable them to increase their wealth. A self-professed and widely recognized pragmatist, Lee believed that few would sacrifice for the abstract idea of the nation. He accepted human nature as it is and based his system around it. From his perspective, Singaporeans would only fight for their nation if they had a stake in it.
The Singaporean government’s elitist policies, grounded in eugenicist assumptions, had successfully nurtured some of the brightest students of the nation and attracted them to civil service with overseas college scholarships and “super-scale” salaries that were pegged against top earners in the private sector. However, the social consequences of these policies, while not readily apparent, are dire. The government’s “selective breeding” and perpetuation of college graduates has created an entrenched class of elite bureaucrats and ministers who, in recent years, have been accused by non-PAP politicians and political commentators of having lost their sense of reality and touch with the everyday lives of ordinary Singaporeans whom they are supposed to serve. Many students who excel academically and enroll in the nation’s best schools come from affluent backgrounds and enjoy tuition and other forms of educational and institutional support.
To be fair, this is a phenomenon shared by most societies in the world. However, the Singaporean government is unique in that it justifies the legitimacy of its leadership under the banner of meritocracy, which, in its ideal form, means selecting and empowering political leaders based solely on ability and talent. Officials maintain that every Singaporean student enjoys equal access and opportunity to education, implying that the student’s failure to perform is a personal responsibility. However, as Barr suggests, Lee’s elitist logic endows his government with a false sense of legitimacy. He had designed a political system that produced outcomes that accorded with his preconceived notions. He also used the outcomes to prove that his elitism was correct. Barr presents the example of town councils, which are administrative, territorial units responsible for maintaining public works (partly paid for by residents in their annual payment of service and conservancy charges) and addressing the everyday concerns of residents under their jurisdiction. Lee argued that his government had successfully harnessed the nation’s talent pool, leaving non-ruling parties with less capable and qualified administrators and candidates. He cited the poorly run non-PAP constituencies as evidence that non-PAP politicians were incompetent. However, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which constructs and maintains the public housing blocks in Singapore, allocates less funds and services to town councils operated by non-PAP members of parliament. The performance of town councils has been a main consideration of the Singaporean electorate, and many voters choose the PAP for its perceived efficiency in running them.
The massive outpouring of grief shown by Singaporeans following the death of Lee Kuan Yew yielded the impression that he had formed a personality cult around himself, and by inference, that Singaporeans were cowed into submission and coerced to vote for the PAP in the elections. According to this logic, Singaporeans were dismissed as an indoctrinated lot whose political timidity was evident in their uncritical support for a regime that had robbed them of their personal freedoms. However, such an opinion denies that Singaporeans, who enjoy high levels of literacy and access to the Internet and social media, have the capacity to make their own informed judgments. It may be safe to say that Singaporeans have traded in some of their personal liberties for PAP-engineered prosperity and stability, somehow knowing that no perfect formula exists to balance economic liberalism with state control.
The success of the PAP political model is that despite growing income inequality, poor Singaporeans can still share in its prosperity and enjoy the benefits of economic growth in the form of cash payouts, health subsidies, and tax exemptions. Some of the foreign investment that enters the economy does trickle down to the population. Most Singaporeans genuinely believe that their government is more good than bad. In elections, even disgruntled Singaporeans agree that while they should teach the PAP a lesson by casting their vote to the opposition, they should also ensure that the PAP receives enough votes to stay in power. One common reason voters give for supporting the PAP, which has a penchant for fielding candidates with master’s and even doctorate degrees, is that the opposition candidates are too “weak,” which essentially refers to these candidates’ weaker academic credentials. This presents a glaring example of how Singaporeans have internalized Lee and the PAP’s ideology—a flimsy linkage as it stands—that qualifications indicate not only intelligence but also the caliber to govern a nation.
In an article written for The Washington Post, political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan describes how Singapore is adjusting its meritocratic system in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. In recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to acknowledge the possible association of meritocracy with elitism and sought to broaden its definition of talent to include the talent displayed in, say, liberal arts and other non-technocratic pursuits. As it stands, however, bureaucratic inertia exists to ensure that the meritocratic system with its elitist (or, even more fundamentally, eugenicist) underpinnings can only be tweaked and never be overhauled, for it legitimates the position of the ministers who are considering their own improvement. At least the system they have been running, regardless of its imperfections, is still running, and they have little reason to upset the status quo.
The idea of giftedness—in our case, the gift of genes—remains a scary proposition to have, even if it is now made less explicit. As Pierre Bourdieu mentions, it entraps the underprivileged classes in predetermined roles by making them “aware” of their “inability” that is a result of an inferior social status. In other words, a whole generation of Singaporeans, especially those who spent their adolescent years during what geographers and sociologists call the “eugenics phase” of Singapore in the 1980s, were persuaded that they owed their social fate to their individual nature and lack of gifts. It may be stretching the narrative too far to call them a “lost generation,” but it was possible that many children at the time, especially those who were branded as “EM3” students with learning difficulties, had been brought up thinking that they were intellectually inferior and should be content with their lot in life. The government might have scaled down or fine-tuned its educational system to downplay its elitist and eugenicist overtones, but certain perceptions have lived on.
In 2003, the Singaporean government launched Biopolis, a life sciences hub that aims to infuse Singaporean biomedical research institutes with global biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. In doing so, sociologist Catherine Waldby argues, the Singaporean government aimed to “recalibrate the relationships between the biological and political life of the Singaporean population.” Singaporean citizens are designated as the chief tissue donors and research subjects. Biopolis avows to work in the nation’s interest by tracking gene environment interactions in metabolic diseases—the “diseases of Western affluence”—that have developed in the Singaporean population due to rapid industrialization over the past decades. It conducts household visits to take detailed questionnaires regarding diet and family history of diseases. It also gathers volunteers who, for the rest of their lives, have to be followed up every three to five years to track the emergence of metabolic diseases. Only time will tell if Biopolis sticks to its task of helping Singapore move on from its eugenics phase, or whether it too will draw “scientific” links between genes and intelligence.
Ying-kit Chan is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. He has published several articles on late Qing China and postcolonial Singapore in academic journals, and is researching the federalist movement in Qing-Republican Guangdong Province.