Thursday, August 31, 2017

An Egyptian called Stiegelmair

Andreas Bourani
I spend a lot of time following German politics and have no trouble instantly recognizing dozens of political figures on sight. I know people in the public eye who appear regularly on talk shows to discuss current events, Turkish-Germans and others, for example, who shed light on the phenomenal changes in German society since I went there to school back in early 60s, back in the early days of the "guest workers" from Turkey, Yugoslavia, and other places. To go back now requires serious bracing against severe future shock. Germany is not the place I knew as a kid.

It's a much better place, in my view, in no small part because it has opened itself to the world. It is a land of immigration. It now has excellent relationships with all nine of its neighbors and is a leading force, with its one-time nemesis, France, in fostering the concept of European unity. It is alive, and an exciting place to be.

I remember being in a streetcar one time in Kassel, an out-of-the-way town better known for its copper statue of Hercules than for its world sophistication, when I spotted two black kids sitting across from me. I assumed they were the kids of American GIs and was about to speak to them in English when they started talking to each other in the local Hessian dialect. They weren't Afro-Americans; they were Afro-Germans. Hitler, eat your heart out.

This was many years ago - about forty now, if I remember right, and I ought to be used to people of color speaking in Bavarian, or the Berlin equivalent of Cockney, but it still catches my attention.

Today I tuned into a talk show* which featured among its guests a man named Andreas Bourani. He was born in Egypt but adopted by a family named Stiegelmair** in Augsburg. He spoke beautifully about a favorite cause of his, the problem of children who have been "shaken." We know a lot about the sexual abuse of children. We know much less about the problem of children abused, usually by their parents, by being shaken, sometimes to death, thrown against the wall, kicked, burned, abused in all manner of physical violence to their person.

It was a horrible account of the dark side of life, and I might have turned the program off if I were not so taken with the striking looks of the handsome man telling the story. I didn't recognize him as a popular singer - German pop music is not my shtick.

I remember struggling with all the jokes about how ugly the German language sounded as a kid.*** It was (and I think to a large degree still is) a deplacement for a way of disparaging Germans - for their Nazi history, for their stodginess, for whatever reason. And I remember being on a student bus to Paris one time during my students days in Munich. The bus guide was a stunningly beautiful woman, and I remember being taken with the sounds coming out of her mouth. I grew up with loving people who spoke German, but I had never thought of the language as beautiful before. I suddenly became aware how much your view of what constitutes a beautiful language depends on any given speaker.

Obviously, what grabbed me wasn't just that Stiegelmair/Bourani's German was easy on the ears; it was also that he spoke so passionately for his cause, calling attention to child abuse. In any case, I decided to check this gorgeous man out.

Turns out I'm way way behind the times. You can trace Bourani (I'll go with his name choice) back some fifteen years or more now. Here he is sporting an Afro, singing "Nur in meinem Kopf" (Only in my head) in 2011, for example.

But here's the song he's known for most recently, a marvelously upbeat number which translates to "Here's to us!"  The lyrics include:

Here’s to what lies ahead
The best is yet to come
Here’s to what keeps us together
Here’s to now.

Bonus feature. Unless your heart beats for Berlin, as mine does, the shots of all those ferociously ugly Stalinist buildings in what was once East Berlin may not tickle your fancy. But to counter all that, for LGBT people, don't miss the several shots of gays and lesbians smooching it up.

What's not to love about an Egyptian named Stiegelmair feeling positive about the modern Germany where gay men and lesbians are part of the mainstream.

Meanwhile, back in the US of A we've got us a president who thinks the neo-nazis and KKK have some good sides to them.

Excuse me. It's time for my future shock pill.

photo credit: photo from Andreas Bourani's Face Book page (advertising an upcoming benefit concert for those suffering from blood cancer)

*The show was yesterday's Markus Lanz show, available on YouTube

**He gave up the name Stiegelmair and went back  to his original name, according to his German Wikipedia page, "to keep his family name out of the public eye." Maybe so. Methinks it's far more likely his public would find it harder to take him seriously as an artist with the name Stiegelmair.


  • "French is clearly the most beautiful language in the world," says the Frenchman. "Just listen to how we say "butterfly" - papillon!
  • "No no no!" says the Spaniard. "That's nowhere near as beautiful as the sound of mariposa!"
  • "You've both got it wrong, " says the Italian. "Nothing can compare with - farfalla!"
  • To which the German responds, "Und vot's wrong mit Schmetterling?"

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Calling a spade a spade

"His Struggle: Neo-nazis, KKK, racism:
How Donald Trump stirs up hatred
in America,"
with an obvious play on Hitler's Mein Kampf.
It was once considered "over the top" to call Trump a fascist. People would hedge, say something like "he shows fascist tendencies," or "OK, he's not an actual fascist, but..." or remind us you can't be fascist unless you're invading Poland or some such. 

But the gloves are coming off. Leading the pack at the moment is the German weekly Stern (Star).

There it is, folks. Donald Trump as the American Hitler.

I'm amazed, actually, at how unrestrained the criticism of Trump is in the German public discourse. I watch talk shows and news reports all the time and hear German political leaders talk about Trump as a walking disaster. In a recent interview, Martin Schulz, when asked how he would approach Trump if he were to beat out Angela Merkel in the coming election in September, called Trump a danger to the entire world and suggested what was called for was a German leader who could say no to him.

That's, of course, not the same thing as comparing him to Hitler. For that, you still need people not constrained by the need for diplomacy. The leftist media, for example.

Stern has a patchy history of going out on a limb. They were once badly wounded when they published what was known as the "Hitler Diaries," which turned out to be forged. It took them ages to recover from that.  Generally associated with the Socialist Party, they also made headlines back in the 70s for publishing a list of women who had had abortions, to protest the law in effect at that time against abortion. But this direct reference to Hitler is new, even for Stern.

This image of Trump as a fascist will likely strike many Americans as going too far. I'm not talking about the lockstep Trump supporters but about ordinary people across the spectrum who read and write. Yet the parallels are undeniable.  For starters, just as we speak now of how Germans read Mein Kampf and took note of Hitler's intentions to make war and to exterminate the Jews, but went ahead and elected him anyway, we listened to Trump trash Obama and claim his presidency was illegitimate because he was actually born in Kenya. We ignored his racism and his encouragement of violence. We overlooked the way he narcissistically pushed himself as the "leader" who alone can fix things and made the scapegoating of minorities the center point of his campaign.

And now we're surprised when Nazis and KKK march together, that he claims there are problems "on many sides?" Don't forget we live in a time when everything that happens is filmed 24/7, and the whole world can fact check that statement and see that there weren't "many sides." There were only two: the fascist side and the other side. And the other side was simply protesting the marchers who were shouting things like "Jews will not replace us" and "blood and soil" - the Nazi slogan "Blut und Boden."

It's at this point when I feel the need to urge caution. Calm down. We don't want to overdo it. That only gives the Tucker Carlsons and Ann Coulters more ammunition to belittle the hothead "libtards" as we are called. But when you see the pace at which Trump's fascist tendencies have accelerated, seen how he made that stupid "many sides" remark, and then recalled it, and then recalled the recall... And then had another of his Nuremberg rally events, this time in Phoenix, with his select crowd of "my leader, right or wrong" types, well...

Let's not get caught up in arguing over whether it's premature to slap the fascist label on this wretched man in the White House. But we definitely need to keep the lights on. Fascism is as fascism does.

And lest you think it's only the German media shouting fire, take a look at the latest covers on The New Yorker and The Economist.

new yorker/economist covers:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Discovering Artem Kolesov

The short version:

I hope you can find the time to listen to a young Russian who sums up his life so far in seventeen minutes. Here.

The longer version:

Those of us who live in the modern world like to think that the battle against homophobia is pretty much won. We measure the rights of LGBT people on a Guttman scale, where each advance implies previous advances. Agreement with any item implies agreement with lower-order items. First you have the right not to be bullied; then the right to rent an apartment and hold a job; then the right to have your partnerships recognized short of marriage; then the right to marry but not adopt children; and finally the right to full marriage equality, including the right to adopt. In countries like the United States, where the full marriage equality has become the law of the land, you can pretty much assume LGBT people have achieved their full civil rights, and that means all the other hurdles have been jumped, as well. Polls show that approval of LGBT people generally has shot up from very low numbers to the overwhelming majority in the past couple of decades. Using same-sex marriage as the final item on this Guttman scale of gay rights, we recognize that there has been a sea change in acceptance of homosexuality, and many gay people who insist on dwelling on examples of homophobia are accused of beating a dead horse. You can now marry in some twenty-five countries and have that marriage recognized in several more.

Unfortunately, it’s not beating a dead horse to point out that there are still places in the world where gay rights have yet to even enter the scale at all. Russia is one of those places. Not only in places like Chechnya are gays actively persecuted, but in the whole of Putin’s Russia there is a law against “propagandizing” in favor of gay rights. If you speak publicly about homosexuality as a positive thing where children can hear you, for example, you could go to jail. And as gay people who live in Russia can tell you, that lack of support for gay people brings out the bullies. Just as people living in places where the traditionalist authoritarian churches, whether Roman Catholic, Evangelical or Mormon, hold sway, gays have much to fear in exposing their sexual orientation because the bullies take their cues and “display their virtue” as social enforcers. This includes many people who feel homosexual urges within themselves, unfortunately, and go out “fag-bashing” to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are not like “those perverts.”

Artem Kolesov
I came across the story of one such victim of homophobic oppression in Russia the other day and, with apologies to friends and others who see this as beating a dead horse, I want to call attention to that story here. I have become fascinated – and charmed – by a young man named Artem Kolesov and by the uplifting way he illustrates not just that there is still work to do in the long slog toward gay liberation, but that young people can still persuade the older generation that there is hope.

Тhe Russian name Artyom (Артём) - accent on the second syllable - which has an English equivalent (and is actually the original Greek name) Artemis, has a bunch of affectionate diminutives: Artemyushka, Artya, Artyunya, Tyunya, Tyusha, Artyomka, Artyomchik, Tyoma, and Artyosha.

It's the name of this 23-year old kid I just discovered on YouTube. He's an up-and-coming concert violinist, currently studying music in Chicago. He goes by the name “Artem” in English (accent on the first syllable).

He caught my attention first not because of his musical skills, but because he made what I would call the coming-out video of all coming-out videos. His mother and father are among 2000 members of the Russian Pentecostal Church – both were pastors in the church – and the harm that some sects of organized Christianity have done to so many LGBT people was done to Artem in spades. The video is seventeen minutes long, but it's worth watching closely. Bring a couple handkerchiefs.

Because his story gripped me hard, I decided to dig around for more information on this kid. OK, he's not a kid anymore; he's now 23. But to me he's still got all the appeal of a brilliant young man of many talents. Not only is he clearly musically gifted; he's also highly articulate and has a gift for language in both English and Russian. He managed to get out from under the homophobia of his homeland when one of his older brothers (he is the fourth of six boys in the family), who happened to be living in Nova Scotia, played a video for someone at Dalhousie University in Halifax, which led to a scholarship for Artem to come there to study music. I have to admit that since Nova Scotia is a second home to me and I have a much-loved cousin living in Halifax, this fact only increased my sense of connection. Whether he came highly skilled in English, or acquired his now near-native fluency in North American English in Halifax, he has used that skill to publicize himself by means of a number of video-blogs, which I believe people today who are not alte kakers call vlogs.

A side note here. Many of my friends fuss over the invasion of privacy the social media era has brought about.  Search for a schedule of flights to Bismark, North Dakota, say, and you are likely to be bombarded for weeks afterwards with ads from airlines and travel agencies. But where old folk find the erosion of privacy a scary thing, young people are often only too happy to post not only what they have for lunch on Face Book, but pictures of themselves eating it, naming all their friends in the photo.

So if you're feeling some old fogey feelings about now, and want to criticize my publication of what I've dug up on this young man, forget it. I'm working almost entirely with information Artem has been happy to share with the world. And, I must say, I'm delighted he did. I'm delighted to add my name to his list of fans. Hope you will be too.

If you go to Artem's blog, “Artemus Prime,” and click on videos, you will find 22 links at present. Some go back a year; he’s been doing this for a while.

His latest has him talking about his DNA.

Here’s a video of him singing the Elvis Presley song, Can’t Help Falling in Love, and accompanying  himself on the piano. 

And here’s another of him singing a Spanish love song, El Libro de la Vida, accompanying himself on the guitar.  Clearly his musicality extends way beyond his talent for the violin.

But if you want to do them all from the beginning, you can start with what he has labeled his first, on May 18th, 2016 (published May 22), where he reveals that he is in Chicago, studying at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. He’s in a string quartet and they are about to make the first of two trips to China on May 26th to compete in the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition, a video of which is available here. He then does a quick tour of a couple of his favorite places in Chicago. When he gets to the water, he talks about missing Halifax.

What follows is a number of vlogs about his China trips: #2, at the airport, heading for China and then in the hotel in Beijing; #3, in Shenyang, Chicago’s sister city; #4, traveling to Jinan, a city of 700 natural springs; #5, exploring Jinan and commenting on pollution; #6, heading back to the U.S.; #7, hiking in Colorado; and #8, competing in Harbin, flying back to China.

The YAS Quartet is made up of Titilayo Ayangade, cello; Artem Kolesov, violin; John Heffernan, violin; and Yufan Zhang, viola. They have a Face Book page and look like a bunch of kids you'd like to bring home and introduce to mama. No luck so far in finding out what YAS stands for. 

To digress and go back to Dalhousie University for a minute, here he is in St. James Dunn Theater in the Arts Centre at Dalhousie, I believe, giving his graduation concert there.  It’s a two hour video. His piece begins about 17 minutes in.

After his run of vlogs 1 through 8, he takes a couple months off and then begins message vlogging in earnest. His first in this new undertaking is titled: Don’t be ‘that kind’ of believer.” In it he talks about the death of his oldest brother and the cruel comments his mother had to endure from their church. They actually suggested Artem’s brother died because of the sins their mother had committed. The cruelty in the family Pentecostal Church their family attended which later figures in his coming out tape is already present here.  

The next video is a total total treat: “Things I get asked as a Russian.

He then waxes lyrical in a lovely piece entitled, “Love Is. 

Next follows a sarcastic message to America on the election of Trump, “Trigger Warning” 

And then another sarcastic piece, more powerful this time, where he has at the organized church and their twisted message of Christ, “Bad Christian.” 

The video that started my preoccuption with this wonderful gay activist, the coming-out video, is available here.

He then produces a follow-up, a few months later.   In this one, also in Russian, he apologizes if his Russian is not up to snuff. He explains that in the past nine years he has used only English 99% of the time. He also tells his audience that he cannot use the standard Russian translation for “straight” (normalnii) because it equates heterosexuality with “normal.” He speaks to his fellow Christians, particularly, and urges everybody to speak out against homophobia.

He then does three “Bible Lessons,” explaining how the Bible-thumpers who quote scripture to shame gay people could use a bit more bible study: 1- Sodom; 2 – Leviticus; 3 – New Testament .

To sum it up, Artem is a remarkable young man. Not just for his talent as a concert violinist, but for overcoming some serious odds – a mother who believed he needed an MRI to root out the problem of his homosexuality, a brother who died when he was young and another who won’t accept him as gay even now. But he would appear to illustrate the notion that if the fire doesn’t burn you, it can temper your steel.

And he's had some lucky breaks, as well. Being able to study violin with Almita Vamos and at Roosevelt College in Chicago, for one. And when Carol and Rob Schickel learned that he had run out of money and had nowhere to stay, they invited him in to live with them. It's from their living room that he made the coming-out video.

And although I've been unable to scratch up any details, apparently he has fallen in love and married. In San Francisco, yet!

At 23 I was still in the closet, even to myself. Those were some dark ages. Artem's coming out to the world marks considerable progress for LGBT people. He shows you you can ride out the bumps in the road, grab hold of life and make it work for you.

It helps, no doubt, if you can wow the world with a stringed instrument. And if you have Canada at your back.

But speaking out is something anybody – everybody – can do.

Way to go, Artem!

Photo credits:

photo of Artem
Violin and rainbow


Friday, August 4, 2017

Vardø - plus ça change

Vardø, Norway. radome left, church right
A friend sent me an article the other day about the radome in the town of Vardø in Norway. Although we have never met, he and I are both on the listserv of folk who worked at the listening station at Teufelsberg in Berlin back in the 60s when everybody and his Uncle Jake were listening to the commies and keeping the world safe for democracy. That was our take on things, at least. We are now old men, cold warriors we call ourselves, keeping in touch.

Radome.  Didn't remember the word (radar + dome) and had to look it up. Those balloon-like structures covered in canvas to hide the antennas, as if there was any doubt what was under them. I guess folks just didn’t want the Russians to see what the antennas were aimed at. Who knows? All so long ago. All so irrelevant to life these days.

This article on Vardø was another story, however. That’s a listening station, unlike Teufelsberg, that is still in service.

Vardø is way way up north in Norway. Just how far north, you ask?  Well Jakarta is 6 degrees above the equator, Tokyo is 35, New York is 40, Istanbul 41, Oslo, Stockholm and St. Petersburg are all at about the 59-60 degree latitude. Vardø is 70.3706 degrees north. Way up there. Too far up for trees. Somebody brought one in and planted it once, but it died.

But that’s not the interesting measure. What’s interesting is how far east of Greenwich it is. Greenwich is 0.0077. London is 0.1278. Oslo is 10.75, Stockholm is 18.06, Istanbul is 28.97, St. Petersburg is 30.33 and Vardø is 31.10.  That’s right.  Vardø is east of both Istanbul and St. Petersburg, Russia.

To get to Vardø from the capital in Oslo, you get in your car, point it north, and drive for about 24 hours, first through Sweden, then through Finland, then back into Norway again. Check it out. A marvelous geographical anomaly.

Vardø has a history that goes back 800 years. They built their first church there in 1307. In the 17th Century they began burning witches, some 90 poor souls in all. Not an insignificant number when you consider the total population in 1789 was about 100. Today it’s up to about 2100, give or take. I don’t know how many of these are engaged in spying on the Russians, some 40 miles away on the Kola Peninsula, chock full of high security naval bases and other restricted military zones.

remains of radomes at Teufelsberg
in Berlin
In Berlin, aside from the possibility the Russians could have marched in at any moment, in which case we were fried fish, there was little danger involved. Too much beer, maybe. Too many sausages. In Vardø apparently there is such an electromagnetic charge in the air that the cancer rate is sky high, and pregnant women are far more likely to miscarry than elsewhere.

All to what end, I’d like to know. According to Donald Trump, we’re missing the chance of a lifetime to make friends with the Russians. He calls efforts to discover why they hacked our last election a “witch hunt” and insists his buddy Vlad is a great guy who, after all, runs his country admirably.

“We don’t rely on American banks,” said Eric Trump in 2014. “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” No kidding. Now it turns out, according to a story in The New Republic,

Whether Trump knew it or not, Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling and racketeering, but even as a base of operation for their criminal activities.

What’s so unreal about all this is not that Donald Trump is a world-class con man, or that a critical mass of American people, particularly those whose hearts beat for an authoritarian leader, have been suckered by this wretch, but the fact that this game we all played all through the Cold War years is still being played today. Then it was Berlin and the listening post at Teufelsberg. Now it’s a tiny town above the Arctic Circle (i.e., latitude 66 degrees). Then it was “the commies” and their KGB leader Vladimir Putin. Now it’s Russia and their president Vladimir Putin. Then it was the oligarchs in the Kremlin. Now it’s the oligarchs in the Kremlin and the White House. Different decade. Many of the same players. Definitely the same game. Military industrial corporate bosses keeping the money flowing their way. Little guys pretending to keep democracy alive.

Plus ça change.

photo credits:

Teufelsberg, Berlin Jochen Teufel/Wikimedia
route to Vardø - grab from Google maps