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[The following piece appeared Aug. 30, 2012, on The Mantle.]

Graduates of the July 2012 Foreign Correspondent course decompress afterward. Seated center is TOL Director Jeremy Druker. (Photo: mjj)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Foreign correspondence is dead. Long live foreign correspondence!

So wrote the British journalist-scholar Timothy Garton Ash not long ago. I couldn’t agree more, as a freelance foreign correspondent who has trained hundreds of young, aspiring colleagues in Prague – and just guided my 17th batch of trainees in how to secure their first foreign-datelined article.

Despite the plummet of foreign-reporting budgets and rise of the not-quite-a-journalist “Citizen Journalist,” various traditional and online media continue to allocate space for serious contributions from abroad. As Garton Ash rightly noted, there’ll always be a need for credible correspondents to do the “witnessing, deciphering and interpreting” of global events and trends for audiences back home.

What I can’t guarantee wanna-be correspondents, though, is that you’ll find full-time work abroad. Or can live exclusively off freelancing. Or will always be paid for material many editors now expect for free. You’ll surely have to hustle, as many do in a city like Istanbul. Or you may ultimately settle for a bit of foreign reporting on the side, coupled with a teaching, editing or PR-writing job.

But that said, nothing should discourage the hardier of you to at least try. Some surely will, to judge by the burgeoning of journalism programs world-wide, many of which seek to “internationalize” both curriculum and practical experiences for students. (See here and here.)

With this in mind, my latest training in Prague for the Transitions Online Foreign Correspondent Training Course gave me pause to consider how I myself broke into the business – and how I’d modify it today if I were to start over again. Here, then, is a revised roadmap to foreign correspondence.

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[The following commentary appeared June 7, 2012, in The Global Post. For my earlier election coverage and photos, click here and here.]

A tiny mountain nation’s peaceful election and transfer of power is a lesson for all of southern Africa.

Rosina Moiloa, who had warned, “No change, no peace,” got what she wanted this week. (Photo: mjj)

THABA BOSIU, Lesotho — It was election day in Lesotho, and after almost three hours of standing in line, Rosina Moiloa had nearly reached the doorway of the threadbare school that doubled as the polling station in this village. But Rosina, a first-time voter, wasn’t griping about the wait.

The textile worker earns $140 per month, but spends nearly half that on the 30-minute taxi commute to her T-shirt factory in the capital, Maseru. In a country of 1.8 million, where half live in poverty and three-quarters lack electricity, she craves affordable educational opportunities for her two children.

So in the latest test of democracy in Africa, Rosina, 42, withstood the early-winter chill in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, to reject the 14-year reign of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.

“We’ve been told that one vote can change a nation,” she proclaimed, with hands stuffed in her coat pockets for warmth, as other queuing villagers nodded. “I want to see if this is true.”

The May 26 balloting was hailed by political observers as one of the most transparent elections southern Africa has ever seen. Moreover Lesotho appears to have achieved a relatively smooth power transfer. The election resulted in the country’s first opposition victory and the formation of a coalition government. There were no accusations of vote-tampering. There was calm in the streets. And it appears that Mosisili will step down peacefully this week.

In a corner of the globe with little tradition of compromise and power-sharing, the election challenges notions about the dire fate of democracy in Africa and reminds me that many of the oft-derided “Western values” are in fact universal values. What society wouldn’t want to hold its leaders accountable for their words and deeds?

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[The following article was published June 1, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor, then republished on Yahoo News.]

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent / June 1, 2012

Some Basotho outside Maseru say they waited up to three hours to vote. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho – the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates – is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power.

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho’s first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament – with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries — such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

“If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa,” says Nqosa Mahao, a coalition-government expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. “It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials – and set a tone for the rest of the region.”

Setbacks in African elections — notably the four-month civil war in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down — have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world-class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty and rugged terrain.

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[The following article appeared April 30, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was republished on Yahoo News, and posted May 22 on The Mantle.]

Political violence has flared ahead of May 26 Lesotho elections, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges candidates to keep the peace and respect election results.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor

Bishop Tutu exhorts Basotho politicians to keep the peace. But will they listen? (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, LesothoArchbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel laureate, is officially retired from public life.

But he made an exception Friday for the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Political violence in the enclave encircled by South Africa has flared up ahead of May 26 elections – an ominous sign in what one analyst calls the latest “stress test” for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Cracks have emerged here with high-profile assassinations, rumors of a “hit squad,” and clashes at campaign rallies.

So the United Nations invited Archbishop Tutu to bolster democracy in the land, where, before launching his crusade against Apartheid next door, he served his first bishopric from 1976-78. On Friday, his “prayer meeting” extracted a pledge among political rivals to keep the peace and respect election results.

Citing the past political violence of South Africa, Tutu urged an audience that included the prime minister of Lesotho, “Please, please, please, please do not let the same happen to this stunningly beautiful land. Nothing can be so precious that it can be bought with innocent lives.”

Lesotho’s election is more than a contested vote in a remote country rarely heard from. It comes on the heels of successful elections across the continent: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia have recently all experienced peaceful elections. There have been a few notable blemishes: a couple of coups des états in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and a contested election in Cote D’Ivoire in late 2010 that briefly turned into a civil war.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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A view that warrants the two-hour trek. (Photo: mjj)

SEMONKONG, Lesotho — It took three hours of driving through the majestic, almost monotonously majestic, mountains of Lesotho, including the last 90 minutes bumping along unpaved roads. Oh, was it worth it.

Semonkong — Sesotho for “The Place of Smoke” — is best known for the Maletsunyane Falls, which at 192 meters is one of the tallest waterfalls in Africa. But more striking is the unspoilt landscape — and authenticity of Basotho village life. I was tempted to toss a Coke can to the ground, just to remind me of home.

This is no ethnographic-museum gimmick. The Basotho are a mountain folk, yesterday and today. From a nation of 2 million – perched as The Kingdom in the Sky – just one-tenth live in the capital, Maseru, as my neighbors. So it’s no exaggeration to say most Basotho live like those you’ll glimpse below. A simple life, but one filled with hardship: HIV, poverty and malnutrition.

Hope you enjoy viewing my photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Basotho cowboys, home on the range -- adorned in the ubiquitous "Basotho Blanket." (Photo: mjj)

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[The following post was published Feb. 24, 2012, on The Mantle. Octavia Spencer of The Help went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Living overseas, I sometimes fall out of touch with the latest “buzz” within American culture. Like which Hollywood sleepers are garnering acclaim from the critics.

The indispensable Mé Anna, after I made her giggle. (Photo: mjj)

So it was that I was flying Frankfurt-to-New York in late December, on my way to spend the holidays with my family, when I found myself with hours to kill and a seemingly lame slate of movies.

I’d only settled in Africa one month earlier, and my mind was swirling with the new sensations of life in the remote backwater of Lesotho. Beyond the culture shock of living in Africa itself, in one of its poorest countries, surrounded by razor-wire-lined walls, was the startling realization we now had “a staff” inherited from my wife’s predecessor at her international-development organization.

The staff was drawn from the local Basotho tribe: a full-time housekeeper, a part-time cook, a part-time gardener-slash-Mr.-Fix-It and round-the-clock crew of security guards. As a humble freelance journalist and journalism teacher, I guiltily embraced this neo-colonialist existence. That is, until I learned how grateful our employees were just to have a job – and a decent-paying one at that.

On the flight, I wanted to unwind, watching mindless action or comedy. A flick called “The Help,” about some women in 1960s, Civil Rights-era Mississippi didn’t fit the bill. Yet for some reason, I tried it.

The parallels of blacks-serving-whites were immediate and unmistakable. With the film set to add several Oscars on Sunday to its haul of awards and accolades, U.S. audiences may view it as merely a work of historical fiction.

For us, though, this racial dynamic is the reality in 2012 for hundreds of expatriate families in Lesotho. Not to mention the countless white families in surrounding South Africa, where the specter of Apartheid surely hovers over that power relationship, just two decades later.

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Frisky gemsbok, in the mood for love. (Photo: mjj)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — At the Bloemfontein Zoo, in the provincial capital of the Free State, we were disappointed to no longer have a chance to see Charlie, the nicotine-addicted chimp. But with a little patience, my 10-year-old and I waited and waited in the hot sun until we saw something even better: gemsbok, unique to southern Africa, in the heat of mating season.

A gibbon: just hangin' around. (Photo: mjj)

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Nice, white rhino. Heel, white rhino! (Photo: mjj)

WILLEM PRETORIUS GAME RESERVE, South Africa — Among the perks of living in Lesotho are the day-trips — across hellaciously pot-holed highways — to see Big Game in neighboring South Africa. And I’m not talking the occasional impala, ostrich or mongoose.

In Willem Pretorius, after nearly two hours of motoring in our 4-wheel-drive along dusty, rocky trails — with the only highlight a pair of giraffes seen from a kilometer away — we suddenly spied this rare white rhinoceros to our right.

Then he (she?) spied us … hard. Too hard. For a moment, we wondered if our Land Rover could outrun him. We’ll never know, as the rhino soon turned and sauntered into the bush.

Just another ordinary Sunday afternoon in southern Africa.

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She has a head for business: peddling peaches among traffic. (Photo: mjj)

LADYBRAND, South Africa – An unexpected surprise about living here in Lesotho is that we’re also sampling small-town South Africa – within the agricultural “breadbasket” of Free State province. In particular, the farming town of Ladybrand is a scenic 10-minute drive from Maseru.

Historically, Ladybrand was a base first established in the 1860s by the Dutch-pioneer “Voortrekkers” while warring with the Basotho people – who now comprise Lesotho – and later used by the British against those same Dutch farmers during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Today, it’s perhaps best known to foreigners in Maseru as a pleasant place for weekend brunch. On this occasion, road work enabled us to stop and soak in the view.

If it weren't for road construction, no pause to enjoy Ladybrand below. (Photo: mjj)

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[The following post appeared Dec. 5, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve bemoaned my struggle to learn the language of countries where I’ve lived, be it my horrid Hungarian, survival Slovak or café Cantonese.

The Sesotho greeting of "Hello, brothers!" facilitated this photo of young Basotho cattle-herders at rest, minutes from our home in Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

But there’s no denying an irrefutable fact: mastering a few words in any country will garner you grins and goodwill. This is particularly crucial for a foreign correspondent like me.

For starters, Hello, Thank you, Goodbye. Or gimmicky responses like Delicious! (Even if the food is nothing to blog about.) Or Really? (To appear more engaged than you could possibly be.) Or No problem! (When things go awry, but eliciting a smile is the best response.) Or Cheers! (Which requires no explanation.)

So it is I’ve begun to study Sesotho: the language of 2 million Basotho, known individually as Mosotho, who live mostly in Lesotho, and just across the border in … South Africa. (The rhyming ends there.)

English is actually one of two national languages in this ex-British protectorate. But relying on my mother tongue wouldn’t be much fun, especially since we’ll be here three years. It’s a wise decision, says my Sesotho tutor, for learning some of the language is more than a question of being polite and respectful.

“It’s also important to know how to get yourself out of certain situations,” she tells me. Like, if I have to repel the advances of mooching cops, scheming prostitutes or superstitious witchdoctors.

Witchdoctors?! Missed that bit in my guidebook. The tutor now has my undivided attention.

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Young Basotho raising awareness of HIV prevention on Dec. 1, on the streets of Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – For most of us, AIDS in an abstract affliction. In southern Africa, it’s an inescapable reality. In fact, the world’s top four infection rates are found down here: topping the list is Swaziland, followed by Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa. Lesotho, at 23 percent, is my home for the next three years.

So today when I happened upon a demonstration in downtown Maseru today to mark World AIDS Day, it resonated that much more. The young people out in force weren’t only chanting in support of their parents, siblings and friends struck down by the infection – they demanded vigilance by their peers. With good reason: their generation is disproportionately affected.

A young Mosotho spreads the word to a passer-by. (Photo: mjj)

[More photos posted inside.]

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[The following post appeared Nov. 29, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago; it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories. (There’ll be plenty of time for both.) I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

On the Lesotho side of the South African border, a poster warns of human trafficking. (Photo: mjj)

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.

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One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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[For Part I of this post, click here; for Part III, click here.]

HONG KONG – I’m not a professional photojournalist. Yet as a freelancer in the field, I recognize the value to being able to offer clients what I humbly refer to as “decent, usable” photos to package with my articles.

This semester, among the hours I spent with 14 separate groups of mostly Chinese students – cramming in myriad advice on how to professionalize their journalism blogs – I included a quickie tutorial on how to snap a no-frills portrait of their subjects. With their IPhone.

After all, if you’re off in an interesting place, interviewing interesting people, odds are your client will not muster the resources to send a photographer to retrace your steps. A headshot, at least, will a) make the story more visually appealing and b) help readers connect with your subject. Oh, and it may put a few more dollars in your pocket.

Two essential tips, then, I was taught long ago. First, turn your subject 45 degrees – get some angularity in their pose, rather than a straight-shouldered mug-shot. And second, like a hunter, don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes – the proverbial “window onto their soul.”

Naturally, I experimented with a guinea pig in each tutorial, to show the others. The result, it turns out, is a cherished memento for me — and a photo essay of the next generation of Chinese journalists:

Thirteen more below …

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 7, 2011, in Time Out Hong Kong. It was written by my former student — and published with four of my photos.]

Three months after the Wenzhou train disaster shocked the Chinese nation, Shirley Zhao returns to the scene to speak with the survivors

WENZHOU, China – When a high-speed train crashed into the rear of another train on the evening of July 23 while crossing a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Li Yu was in one of the carriages that plunged from the viaduct. It was the Mainland’s first fatal high-speed train collision, killing at least 40 passengers and injuring at least 191 people. But Li was lucky. The 43-year-old businessman escaped with a fractured right foot, several lacerations to his head and temporary amnesia.

A Chinese railway worker in Wenzhou describes the crash scene. (Photo: mjj)

As news of the tragedy spread throughout China, Li was rescued from the wreckage and taken to a Wenzhou hospital. With blood covering his face and most of his hair singed off, he was ushered into a lift with a doctor, his wife, who failed to recognise him. It was not until 24 hours later that she and his relatives found him through Weibo, where millions of netizens were microblogging about the disaster.

Immediately following the crash, rail officials hastily covered up rescue operations and the government clamped down on negative media coverage. These two incidents created a wave of criticism from both online communities and state-run newspapers, and confidence in both Beijing and the national rail system was severely rocked. It was a decisive moment in a socially troubled year for China.

Now, more than three months after the accident, Li is gradually completing his physical rehabilitation, but he is still putting the pieces together in his mind about what actually happened.

“It may be a good thing that I don’t clearly remember,” Li tells Time Out from the hospital’s rehabilitation room, “because it hasn’t been my worst nightmare every night. My physical wounds will recover, but it’s the psychological trauma that may never go away. Now I don’t dare to go anywhere. I’m afraid of taking planes or trains. Even when I’m sitting here, right now, I fear the walls will collapse. These things happen all too often in China.”

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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It’s the second of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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[The following piece appeared July 22 in TOL/Transitions Online. (It was republished on The Mantle, then republished again on Roma Transitions.) This was the first of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part II here and Part III here.]

Only a few condemned homes, stained red, have yet to be demolished. (Photo: mjj)

DEVECSER, Hungary – It was just past noon last Oct. 4, and Karoly Horvath had returned home from fishing a local lake, here in provincial western Hungary. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were home to greet him, too – just as the waves of red sludge crashed through the door and windows.

Within seconds, the toxic mud was above their waist, burning the skin. Unable to move, Karoly could only watch mother and child screaming in agony.

“It was the most awful thing,” says Karoly, 38. “As a husband and father, stuck in that red sludge, seeing that happen to them before my eyes, but being so helpless to do something about it.”

His wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body. At least she survived: ten were killed in what instantly became Hungary’s deadliest industrial accident ever. Greenpeace went so far as to call it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters “in the past 20 or 30 years.”

For Hungary, the rupture of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste was one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. In Devecser, it poured trauma upon trauma for a people already battered by years of economic hardship and political hatred. Today, though, amid the gloom is a glimmer of hope: scores of hapless victims have discovered a rare source of empowerment – the courts – to pursue compensation from the wealthy, well-connected owners of the aluminum company. This reveals a surprising appreciation for the rule of law in a country often painted as fed up with its harsh brand of democracy, two decades into the post-Communist transition.

On the flip side, though, a new strain of Hungarian resentment has recently bubbled up: at the Roma living among them, known more derogatorily here as ciganyok, or “gypsies.” The venom illuminates how embittered Hungarians have grown, especially toward Europe’s most marginalized minority.

Observers may view the Horvath family as victims. But because they’re Roma, some Hungarians harbor doubts. The mantra around Devecser is, “For many, this wasn’t a red sludge, but a golden sludge.”

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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 16 on The Mantle.]

Homelessness and street-begging have become a daily sight in Bratislava. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.

Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather. Or perhaps the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I draw the line.

Suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of the city that has been my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.

As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.

First, I park near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If the public has learned one thing from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)

Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.

Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.

She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. (more…)

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English girls in Slovakia: Madeleine, 6; Charlotte, 4.

No, I’m not father to these two. But with such young subjects, this is a portrait that would please any hobbyist. The fact it was shot by my 8-year-old son, makes me even prouder. As does the poem he crafted earlier this week:

Trees were like matchsticks in the stormy night

Tumbling in the morning light

The moon cried sounding like the rain

Rain pitter pattering down the drain

Lightning cracking the sky

The wind is a whip swooping by

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A serene oasis amid Hong Kong's hustle.

Hong Kong Island has its mountains and beaches, while across Victoria Harbor, the Kowloon Peninsula counters with crowds and neon. I’ve now lived twice in Kowloon, short-term, and the only trees you see is the forest of high-rises. That is, until I discovered Kowloon Park – the “green lung” of the peninsula.

A friendly game of Chinese checkers.

For more photos … (more…)

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Until the late 1970s, Shenzhen was little more than a Chinese fishing village, and nearby Shajing Town was known for its shuckers of “Shajing Oysters.” Then, China anointed Shenzhen – strategically situated just north of Hong Kong – as its first “Special Economic Zone.” The population exploded, swamping Shajing.

The mass of humanity in Shajing, now one of 18 districts in Shenzhen, a city whose population is officially listed at 9 million. Shajing is considered a surburb -- but a one-hour drive from downtown.

Perched over freshly shucked Shajing oysters.

Three decades later, Shenzhen is a manufacturing powerhouse fueled by millions of migrant workers from across China, with a glitzy financial district that’s one part Las Vegas, one part Wall Street. Factory workers now dominate Shajing, as I saw one weekend, though remnants of the oyster-shucking tradition remain.

For more photos … (more…)

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Taken for a Ride

Among the quirks of Hong Kong is the “world’s longest outdoor covered escalator.” To liven dinner conversation, guess where the “world’s second-longest outdoor covered escalator” resides. Hours of entertainment, guaranteed. (Photo: mjj)

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Szabolcs Szedlak’s bitter disenchantment led him to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.]

HEVES, Hungary — The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world.

Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they’d become like neighboring Austrians—a BMW in every driveway. Just don’t remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.

Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country’s most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system—especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training.

Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary’s brand of “democracy.” As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the “happiest barrack in the Soviet camp,” is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.

Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled. (more…)

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In one of the world's richest cities. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – I’ve lived in the Jordan neighborhood only three nights so far, on the corner of busy, neon-lit Nathan Road. Yet I’ve seen this gentleman every night, curled up in the storefront just across the corner from my building. Since I had my camera on me, I couldn’t help but stop and shoot.

The Chinese are celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, when families and friends gather to gaze at the harvest moon and eat “mooncakes” (a mealy, lotus-seed-paste treat — and an acquired taste). In that light, I thought about this fellow: someone’s father, or grandfather, or uncle. Living on the streets of HK.

No mooncakes for him.

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HONG KONG – I arrived here having to wait one week before my short-term rental was ready. So I accepted a colleague’s generous offer to spend the week in her village, in her family’s empty apartment. Most interesting for me, it was located in a part of Hong Kong I’d never explored before: the “New Territories” region that borders mainland China, which Britain first acquired in 1898.

One hour northeast of downtown, the village of Yeung Uk Tsuen (pronounced just as it looks!) is hardly rural. The urban sprawl of Yuen Long encircles it. Yet the village retains an architectural style and layout I’ve not seen before in HK.

What may be Yeung Uk Tsuen's oldest home, located on its main square.

Doorways with character.

To view more photos … (more…)

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Hong Kong is a city of, well, let’s call them street scents. Not all of them so sweet. They assault suddenly, when you emerge from the subway, turn a corner, or walk past an alley. One source, on seemingly every block, are open-air shops selling mounds of dried goods – whether plucked from the soil or the sea. These are a mystery to me, as I can’t distinguish which are for medicine, soup or tea.

In this case, I recognized the pile of dried shrimp. And the friendliness of the clerks.

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Chopstick technique worth mimicking. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Sept. 17 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – One unheralded pleasure of Hong Kong is eating with chopsticks, every day. This is by choice: many restaurants have fork and knife at the ready, just in case klutzy Westerners drop in. Some even serve me fork and knife automatically, like they did earlier this week in the HKBU faculty restaurant. “Chopsticks, please,” I asked the waitress. For good measure, I included my international symbol for chopsticks – a finger-scissoring motion that also works well in Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You see, I love the chopsticks. Slows down consumption. Makes eating fun. And a test of dexterity. I recall a day-trip to Lamma Island last year, eating fried clams smothered in black-bean sauce. With chopsticks, sitting alone, I kept dropping the clam shells back into the dish, spattering beans like shrapnel around the table. Free entertainment for the young women at the neighboring table. Nevertheless, the Chinese seem tickled to see me handle chopsticks. Just as they’re pleased to hear me utter a Cantonese word here and there. That’s all the encouragement I need.

Tonight, though, I wasn’t up for for the whole sit-down dinner production, so I walked 15 minutes from campus to the gleaming mega-mall known as Festival Walk. Its crowded food court hosts a KFC and McDonald’s, of course. (What self-respecting mega-mall anywhere in the world wouldn’t?) But for a food court, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai counters offer quality.

As I await my grilled Japanese pork, garlic and noodle soup, I soak in the scene. It’s an enormous space, roughly the size of two football fields. Smack in the middle, jarringly, is a large ice-skating rink. (more…)

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The historic Central wet market after light rain this morning. (Photo: mjj)

Tomorrow, my workshop begins. The department has kindly been flexible to create a shorter but more intensive role for me, with a nifty title: “Super Tutor.”

What’s that? Beats me: you won’t find “Super Tutor” among faculty job descriptions. Even Google yields a paltry 7,370 hits. And I didn’t see any with journalism in mind.

So, my visionary boss at HKBU, Huang Yu, is allowing me to carve my own path. What a challenge it will be: 77 graduate students. My assignment is to provide journalistic guidance to each student. Three times. Over a six-week period. Not individually, mind you. That schedule would drive a man batty.

Instead, they’re broken into 16 groups of five, with a few quartets. For the mathematically oriented, that works out to meeting eight different teams one week, for 90 minutes a pop, then the second eight the next week. Rotate weeks until Oct. 25. With a couple of lectures for the entire community mixed in. (Then, back to my family in Slovakia.)

I could do what I did last year, when I was one of many tutors. I met with two slightly larger groups – with 6-7 students each – three times apiece. Total: 6 tutorials. This time, 48 tutorials.

Last year, the tutorial criteria: discuss whatever they want to, as long as it’s journalism-related. Lots of latitude, but limited to conversation. After all, each of the students already had me every week for my foreign-reporting course, for the whole semester. Tutorials were just something “extra.”

This time, I want more. This is the only chance I have to get to know them. So, I’ll fashion myself into a “Journalism Coach.” What better way to connect with them than through their work, nudging them in the right direction with their reporting and writing?

Tomorrow, I hold my first two tutorials. My game plan is … (more…)

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (more…)

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Old Town Bratislava is filled with peaceful spots. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – It’s been nine months since I left Hong Kong and returned to Slovakia. I continue the blog I began in HK – “From East to East” – when I documented my shift from 16 years spent in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, to a close-up view of still-Communist China.

This is part journalism, part travelogue: it tracks my journey as a foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Aside from the Slovakia posts (begins Feb. 2, “Hello, Old Friend”), visit my posts about teaching journalism in Hong Kong, plus my dispatches and photos about the region’s unique Roma minority.

Spliced in are my recent articles, from various publications.

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (more…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL’s Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. My longer piece on the early-marriage controversy, for Transitions Online, is here. For more of my photos of the Kalderash enclave in Targu Jiu, click here.]

Raluca Mihai, age 15. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Her headscarf is vibrant purple – a symbol of mourning in Targu Jiu, Romania.

But 15-year-old Raluca Mihai’s husband isn’t dead. Rather, her headscarf marks a personal tragedy that has rekindled controversy among the deeply traditional Kalderash Roma, a branch of the ethnic minority known pejoratively across Eastern Europe as “Gypsies.”

For the estimated 200,000 Kalderash in Romania, parents’ paramount duty is to preserve their daughter’s virginity until marriage.

Two years ago, however, when Mihai was 13 and engaged, her 15-year-old fiancé raped her, knowing it committed her to the nuptials. He grew so violent during their two-month marriage that she escaped to her parents. The scarf not only mourns her stolen virginity and failed matrimony, but also the unlikelihood that she’ll ever remarry.

“He ruined everything for me,” says the young woman, who had dropped out of school to wed.

In a community where virginity or its loss can mean pride or dishonor for a whole clan, Mihai’s situation is making waves. (more…)

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RAJKA, Hungary — One great annual activity out here is fill-your-own-bucket fruit-picking. In early summer, cross the Hungarian border to Eperföld, or “Strawberry Land,” outside the small town of Rajka. In late summer, it’s into Austria for apricot season. Sure, half the fruit may rot in your kitchen. Your back will ache for days. But what fun rediscovering your peasant roots! As you’ll see from my Rajka photos.

In Hungarian, prices are listed: 385 forints (or $1.70/1.4 euro) per kilo. Pick more than 20 kilos, save 35 forints!

With sweet jam at stake, wise choices require team consultation.

Heavy rains, though, have kept the strawberries small.

For more photos … (more…)

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For a taste of the anti-Hungarian tenor prior to Slovakia's June 12 elections, there are billboards like this. Hungarians who live here and in Hungary proper continue to refer to Bratislava, their early-19th-century capital, as Pozsony. The Slovak far right, though, says "Nie" to that. (Photo: mjj)

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Actually, it’s the view from my balcony. It’s a cool, cloudy Sunday morning, here on Grösslingova ulica in Bratislava. The kids are watching cartoons; I feel like shooting photos — but only from our sandstone balcony, overlooking the street from our first-floor apartment. Truth is, I never realized my street was so interesting … until it went all black-and-white on me. (Shot with a Nikon D40x; except for the two wide-angle pics, all shot with my 300 mm lense.)

My street, facing westward.

The balcony: a room outdoors.

Picasso-esque apartment staring at us.

 For more photos … (more…)

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My photos from Hungary’s Szentendre, formerly an ethnic-Serb settlement, then an artists’ colony, now a quick tourist jaunt from the capital, Budapest. 

Entry from the Danube.

Lounging by the river.

To view more photos …  (more…)

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SHUTKA, Macedonia — As described in the article above, 1,600-plus Kosovo Roma refugees continue to live in limbo in neighboring Macedonia. My batch of photos here illustrates their existence today. Click here for my earlier photo essay on the ethnically cleansed Roma who were resettled into toxic UN camps.

Roma boys play football in Shutka, the Skopje suburb where most of the Kosovo refugees remain.

Refugee leader Musharem Gashnani accuses the international community of abandoning them.

For more photos … (more…)

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One of Those Days

You ever feel like part of your face is chipping off? (Photo: mjj. On Mariahilfer Strasse, Vienna)

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My photos from the historic Czech city of Mikulov.

To view more … (more…)

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(The following piece appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Harvard’s Nieman Reports.)

A student from Shenzhen, an industrial Chinese city just across the border, explained why she’ll try to stay in Hong Kong: “Once I’ve discovered all the resources out there, I don’t want them taken away from me.”

Dozens of my Chinese students. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

HONG KONG — Just about the first thing my graduate students did when they arrived in Hong Kong was to create a Facebook account. They had come from mainland China, so what might seem like an ordinary act of modern living laid bare the disparities in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between these two parts of China.

This newfound freedom to use Facebook also underscored the absence of free speech they experience back home, which limits their ability to surf the Internet. YouTube and Twitter are blocked from use, along with Facebook and passage to Web sites with information deemed critical of Chinese policy.

For the students I taught last fall in the international journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the prospect of returning to a pre-Facebook era, as one young woman from China’s north told me, would be “like being a human, then going back to being a primate.”

If democracy is in China’s future, then a driving force will surely be younger Chinese who have tasted such freedoms. Indeed, early on in my journalism classes I sensed that by cajoling my 22- to 26-year-old students toward what Western journalists naturally do—challenge authority, probe deeply to find out why a situation is the way it is, and enable readers to make better-informed decisions—I was in my own modest way training China’s future democrats.

(more…)

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Romanian prison guards jockey for roles that put them into contact with TB-infected inmates to receive a 50 percent bump in pay. (Michael J. Jordan/GlobalPost)

Funding and democracy helped Romania improve conditions in prisons. But will the funds run out?

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 24, 2010

JILAVA, Romania — Communist Romania was a vast den of spies and paranoia, with thousands locked up inside one of Eastern Europe’s cruelest prison systems. Twenty years later, prisoners land behind bars for different reasons, but they still have much to fear.

Prisons are widely considered a leading source of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. And Romania, which already claims the highest TB rate in the 27-member European Union, now worries that heroin injection with tainted needles is spurring an HIV crisis. (Overcrowding and lack of hygiene are leading causes of TB in the slums of Mumbai, as well.)

But thanks to the work of Veronica Broasca and others, as the world marks Tuberculosis Day today, Romania’s prisons can be held up as a success story.

Broasca, an activist with the Romanian Association Against AIDS, heads up the group’s prisons program. She and her colleagues are allowed into Romania’s prisons to provide drug-addiction services, offering inmates a chance to come forward for either clean needles or methadone treatment. Before she leaves, Broasca also unloads a batch of condoms, lubricants and HIV literature in the prison’s visitation room.

She credits prison officials for their progressive mindset, but said they’re also driven by fear of inmates’ ability to seek revenge through the courts. Recent lawsuits accuse prisons of denying them access to proper health care.

“Convicts know their rights,” said Broasca. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”

This new respect for prisoner rights also reveals that in Romania two decades of post-communist democratization has grown roots. Romania’s campaign to join the EU obliged it to align its laws and values with club members. As further incentive, Europe dangled a carrot: cash to tackle problems such as the TB infection rate. (more…)

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A glimpse up Kapitulská. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – Patches of sunshine teased us today, but you couldn’t ignore the bone-chilling cold. Still, Kapitulská Ulica beckoned me for a brisk walk. 

From the 16th to 19th century, “Canonry Street” greeted the first steps of the newly coronated Hapsburg kings and queens, who descended from the St. Martin’s Cathedral, whose exterior is now partly blackened by soot.

Today, you can hardly imagine such pomp. While Kapitulská is the most authentic section of Old Town Bratislava, it’s also the most neglected. 

Both reasons make it my favorite spot in Bratislava, a fragment of the past where I blur my eyes to visualize life in “Mitteleuropa” centuries ago. 

It’d been several weeks since I’d been back there, as it’s the farthest walk from our apartment just outside the Old Town. (Parenting duties now dictate that those extra 20 minutes are better spent on my backlog of assignments.) 

But today’s sunlight, so deceptive, put me in a Kapitulská state of mind. I set out on the winding, cobblestoned lane — as always, on guard not to sprain an ankle on the steep stones — admiring the simple but elegant two-story homes, with archways tall enough for the horse-drawn carriages. 

Today, though, I was reminded of the striking difference between Kapitulská and the hub of the Staré Mesto, or “Old Town,” just a couple blocks away. While that quaint, period-piece restoration (and multitude of cafes) draw stylish Slovaks and a stream of tourists, Kapitulská looks untouched. 

For better … and for worse. (more…)

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Just one of the regal touches at the king's home; this from his front gate. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania — It’s not often you get a chance to interview royalty. Especially when that king inherited the throne from a father who anointed himself king. So, I’m blogging about him twice. (See below: “The King and Carrie Bradshaw.”)

Saturday afternoon, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, graciously sat with us for two hours. (I brought a modest box of chocolates, as a token of appreciation.)

Sure, he barely stifled his yawns during our chat. But he also tolerated us, as we peppered him about early-teen marriage among the “Kalderash” Roma. Including, his own daughter’s media circus of a wedding in 2003.

What we were especially curious about, even more than the king’s opinion, was his daughter’s. After all, Ana-Maria is now a young woman of 19 or 20, married nearly seven years. (With one son, aged 4.) What does she think today about teen marriage? About her own marriage? And what about pressure on her community, from both Bucharest and Brussels, to change this tradition?

Our team – Romani journalist Petru Zoltan, our spirited Romanian interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I, the journalism trainer – dropped in on the king without warning. This was Petru’s idea, as he assumes the role of guru of all things related to the so-called “Gypsy mentality.”

Petru had interviewed Cioaba once before, as an investigative reporter for Romanian newspaper National Journal. He predicted that if we pre-arranged a meeting, the king would dodge us somehow. I trusted Petru’s take, so we drove four hours to historic Sibiu, banking on this gamble that he would for sure be home when we came a-knockin’. Then, talk to us.

Yet this is exactly what happened … (more…)

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Anişoara Mihai, seated behind her husband, before he told her to leave. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – For another perspective on what internal pressures the Kalderash Roma face to abandon their tradition of early-teen marriage, tonight we visited the stately home of Ilarie Mihai.

Around the large conference table in his office, Mihai, executive president of the National Council of Roma in Romania, railed against those dowry-driven Kalderash who marry off their children for the biggest booty:  some dowries of gold coins are said to run up to 50,000 euros.

“We’ll never become civilized if we continue this way!” he roared as his wife, Anişoara, served us coffee in delicate porcelain cups. She then took a seat behind her husband, in a chair against the wall.

In maroon headscarf and braided hair, 55-year-old Anişoara was the picture of a tradition-bound Kalderash woman, listening impassively as her husband spoke. At some point, though, she uttered a few words to him in Romani. It wasn’t clear exactly what she said, but his reaction sure was: with a wave of his hand, he ordered her to leave the room.

Except, she didn’t. In fact, as my colleague Petru Zoltan carried on interviewing Mihai, my interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I motioned for Anişoara to join us at our end of the table. We’ve heard too many men talking about a women’s issue – the right to choose when to marry. So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear from a Romani matriarch … (more…)

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Kalderash life is light years from Manhattan. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – A scoop just for you: the King of the Gypsies is no fan of “Sex and the City.”

We’re here largely to interview Florin Cioaba’s daughter, Ana-Maria, who was at the heart of an early-teen controversy seven years ago. He told us he married her off at “13-and-a-half or 14,” though media reports then suggested she might be as young as 12. Her groom was 15.

Cioaba described the parental challenges for deeply traditional “Kalderash” Roma who are raising daughters in an era soaked with raunchy images from MTV, Hollywood and everywhere else. One source of blame pricked my ear: Sex and the City.

This was actually the second time in recent months that I’ve heard someone blame the racy HBO series for loosening societal mores. The first was in stylish Hong Kong, from a Chinese student of mine from the less-stylish mainland.

My student, a wholesome-looking 25-year-old, explained how some classmates, influenced by watching Carrie Bradshaw and her posse prowl for romance, urged her to dress more sexily, less bookish, join them at the trendy nightclubs, and … you know. But she was resisting. A couple months later, though, I couldn’t help but notice her sleek new haircut.

Here in Sibiu, the Kalderash Roma are under pressure to end their practice of early-teen marriage, especially the sacred ritual of proving the bride’s virginity by parading the bloodied sheet. Legal intercourse in Romania begins at 18.

Holding off, though, has serious costs, says the king. Thanks in part to Sex and the City, some Kalderash girls want to delay marriage – and chase a bit of fun beforehand. “Here’s what our girls learn from the show: in the morning, she’s with one guy, in the afternoon, another, and at night, a third,” Cioaba lamented. “This is the education we want for our daughters?”

Evidently, not. Meanwhile, has Sex and the City become a global phenomenon, reverberating through conservative cultures, fomenting female rebellion and sexual emancipation? It’s worth a closer look.

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Ion and Oana, standing in front of their village school, explained how their parents assimilated. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.

“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.

I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.

Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.

For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.

“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …

Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits. (more…)

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Kalderash leader Ion Mihai, here outside his church, explained teen marriage in language I related to. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Beyond ugly stereotypes of the Roma (known more pejoratively as “Gypsies”) across Central and Eastern Europe, outsiders like me have also heard about early-teen marriage among certain Roma groups.

I’ve learned about the parental obsession with a daughter’s virginity: if a bride is discovered to have already been deflowered, it unleashes shame for the whole family. For proof, the bloodied sheet is publicly displayed.

From a Western-liberal perspective, I also suspected this was more a feature of a patriarchal society that sees its men bent on keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant and subservient.

Today, though, I had an epiphany about why these fathers are doing what their doing. And as a fellow father, I began to understand them.

The revelation happened here in the city of Targu Jiu, best known as the hometown of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. The city is also the scene of a great tragedy, say the local community of “Kalderash” Roma.

(more…)

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I had less than an hour to shoot the unique people and architecture in the Kalderash Roma community known as “Meteor,” in Targu Jiu, Romania.

To view more … (more…)

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Armed guards escort TB-infected patients in the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

JILAVA, Romania – I’ve now lived in ex-Communist Eastern Europe for most of the 20-year transition to democracy. And try as I might, I’ll never fully appreciate what it was like to live under dictatorship.

I can, however, imagine those farthest from human rights were the fellows thrown behind bars of a Communist-era prison.

Which is why it’s been so jarring to hear of a revolution apparently taking place within Romania’s prison system. Two decades after its police state crumbled, prisoners are reaping the harvest of democratization, after learning about their newfound human rights and related protections. Which leads me to a mind-boggling revelation: prisoners may feel more empowered than the ordinary Romanian on the street. (Not that we had the time to explore that angle.)

Today we visited the Bucharest prison, located in fact in the nearby village of Jilava. More specifically, we toured the Jilava prison hospital.

This was a visit arranged by my reporting colleague, Petru Zoltan, stemming from his interest in the Romanian prison-system’s struggle to contain the spread of HIV and tuberculosis within its walls. A serious, meaningful idea, I thought. Moreover, how the most disproportionately arrested people within the prisons – the Roma – are presumably also the most disproportionately infected.

(more…)

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Heavy snow paralyzed much of Bucharest, causing schools to close for THREE days. (Photo: mjj)

BUCHAREST, Romania – One of my very worst habits is being late. In Romania, though, I’ve found kindred spirits.

I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.

In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”

History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.

A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum. (more…)

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My wife glides with our stroller-bound daughter across the ice-covered Neusiedler Sea in Austria, near both the Hungarian and Slovak borders. (Photo: mjj)

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Bratislava's night life is modest, but lively. And plenty for a guy like me. (Photo: mjj)

I’m fondly re-acquainting myself with Old Town and downtown Bratislava: more and more posh stores and trendy cafes are mixed in among the 18th-century architecture and Communist-era concrete boxes. But they also mask what continues to be a harsh economic transition for many ordinary Slovaks, Hungarians and others across the region.

I loved Hong Kong, but Bratislava is a city about as unlike Hong Kong as it gets. Bratislava is home to a mere half million; Hong Kong is 14 times that size, at 7 million. In Blava, my boyz can scooter their way around the inner city with barely a pedestrian collision. In HK, some sidewalks grow so crowded, you can barely hold onto your child’s hand. Here, only the occasional siren or power-drill ruptures the tranquility. There, the streets were so frenetic and noise pollution so great, our infant daughter reflexively began screeching as we approached busier boulevards.

Bratislava’s cobblestone paths and paved sidewalks are now slick with snow and ice. While several cafes and restaurants have shuttered since last summer, several others have renovated, with several newcomers opening up. So many are now laptop-friendly; over the past three years, I’ve certainly done my part, every day, to promote this 21st-century lifestyle.

Other things haven’t changed. The typical Slovak waiter or waitress stares at you stone-faced, asking in Slovak what you want. But the off-putting expression quickly melts into a smile upon hearing you utter a few words in their mother tongue. After all, from a country of five million, only four million are ethnic Slovak.

Like the Cantonese-speaking Chinese, who are taken aback that any gwailo – or “ghost man” – would ever try to decipher their language, Slovaks seem surprised that any foreigner would even choose to live here: one of the European Union’s smallest capitals, overlooked because of neighboring Vienna, Prague and Budapest. To then flatter them with a stab at their language, well, that’s much appreciated by the natives. Just as it was when I left, not a day goes by that I don’t elicit a smile or two through my tortured Slovak.

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Tradition meets modernity at a Naxi wedding in Lijiang. (Photo: mjj)

In mid-December 2009, for one last memorable week in China, I travelled solo to one of the most fascinating corners of this vast country. My friend and colleague, Robin, sold me on Yunnan province with three compelling details: curious ethnic tribes (and their embroideries!), the preserved ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali, and a short but intense trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sure it was just one week, but I made the most of it — as you’ll see in the photo essay that I’ll soon post here. Please check back soon!

A Bai woman cultivates lakeside crops in a village outside Dali. (Photo: mjj)

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Butcher Josef Kosina provides service to a customer. (Photo: mjj)

Private ownership and profit incentive have changed the taste of Prague’s eateries in post-Communist Czech Republic.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2009

PRAGUE — Salamis hang like chimes, sausages are stacked into pyramids, and the refrigerator holds not only the Czech soda, Kofola, but newcomers Gatorade, Pepsi, and Schweppes.

In the old days, a Prague butcher shop like this would offer slabs of gristly bacon with just a rumor of meat, or an entire dead chicken, leaving customers to deal with feathers and evisceration.

Today, butcher Josef Kosina does it for them, engaging in light banter as he trims the fat and whacks the chicken into easy-to-cook chunks. “We’re responding to customer demand, to give better service,” says Mr. Kosina, cleaver in hand.

Among all the changes in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, gastronomic culture – from higher-quality food to slick advertising, and from the rise of customer service to the onslaught of obesity – opens a window onto how the post-Communist lifestyle has Westernized.

Older generations remember deprivations of the past, the rations and shortages, long lines, and empty shelves. People who subsisted for centuries on what they pulled from the ground, plucked from a tree, or cooked from a beast grew accustomed to subpar, state-produced goods – gruffly served.

Today, private ownership and profit motive have revolutionized the region. Aisles and aisles of store shelves are stocked with a dizzying range of local and pricey imported products, especially in the ubiquitous Western “hypermarkets.” Some have separate Asian or Mexican sections. Oranges are a year-round option, as are kiwis, coconuts, and pineapples. Where there was once a lone brand of toilet paper or cereal (tasting like the cardboard in which it was boxed) dozens now jostle for primacy, glorified by Western-style marketing.

That trickles down to the Prague butcher shop, one of three co-owned by Bohuslav Novy. He says his shop responds to demand with less-fatty meat, special cuts, and greater range, like beef, lamb, veal, and even rabbit. A new deli section offers salads, baguettes, and made-to-order sandwiches.

And if his butchers “aren’t polite and don’t smile at our customers,” says Mr. Novy, “we must tell them goodbye, of course.” (View original article here.)

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Topiary on Partizanske's main square pays homage to the product upon which the town was founded. (Photo: mjj)

In Partizanske, Slovakia, a mighty producer of shoes under socialism, the free-market transition remains a work in progress.

A TOL special report.

 

By Michael J. Jordan, 29 October 2009

Click here to see a slideshow about Partizanske. See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.

PARTIZANSKE, Slovakia | Julius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” says Mayor Jan Podmanicky. “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.” (more…)

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The waning days of summer at Hungary's favorite vacation spot. (Photo: mjj)

The waning days of summer at Hungary's favorite vacation spot. (Photo: mjj)

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Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

April 22, 2009

 

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

 

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

 

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

 

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

 

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.” (more…)

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European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

More than 40 European diplomats walked out to protest the Iranian leader’s speech, in which he called Israelis “the racist perpetrators of genocide.”

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 20, 2009 edition

 

GENEVA – A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.

 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.

 

“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”

 

With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.

 

It had been hoped that this year’s UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda. (more…)

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Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 19, 2009 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was all but derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage.

The second global meeting against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, which starts Monday, is on shaky ground over the same question. Over the weekend, the United States and the Netherlands pulled their delegations. Australia, Israel, Canada, Sweden and Italy have said they also may boycott the UN forum in Geneva.

The week-long event is also in trouble over the issue of religious defamation, specifically the portrayal of Islam in Western nations. The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is expected to accuse the West of Islamophobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam. If this happens, it may upstage discussion of all other topics.

At the 2001 conference, the fight over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was racist often drowned out grievances from minorities such as the Roma of Europe, the “untouchables” of India, and the indigenous tribes of South America.

Ayca Ariyoruk, a senior associate at the United Nations Association, a pro-UN think tank, says it will be up to the OIC to “resist the temptation to bring up issues that have proven to be very divisive.” A citizen of Turkey, as is the OIC secretary-general, she adds, “This conference needs to focus on what can unite countries, not divide them.” (more…)

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Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · December 22, 2008

 

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Liza Luchanskiy was born to a poor, Yiddish-speaking family in Berdichev, the historic, heavily Jewish city deep in the Pale of Settlement.

 

Lured by Soviet promises of equality, she became a communist true believer, working her way up to serve on a committee in Siberia that targeted so-called enemies of the revolution. But her zeal wasn’t enough to save her or her similarly devoted husband, Josef.

 

They were swept up during the frenzy of Stalin’s Great Terror, from 1937 to 1939. Josef was shot by a firing squad in 1938, and Liza was exiled by cattle car to Karaganda.

 

Luchanskiy was sentenced to eight years in the vast network of forced-labor camps here, on the southern edge of Stalin’s fearsome gulag. Enduring extreme cold, hunger and exhaustion, which afflicted her health ever after, Luchanskiy never let go of her faith in communism, her grandson says.

 

“She never blamed the system, only Stalin,” says Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, an internist who today heads the Jewish Cultural Center in Karaganda.

 

As many as 1.2 million Soviet citizens — spanning practically all the myriad ethnic groups nationwide — were worked to death or near death in the 75 camps that comprised Karaganda. Among them were many Jews, including many rabbis. (more…)

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Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Seventy-five years ago, the once-nomadic Kazakhs endured a famine, purportedly orchestrated by Moscow, in which some 1 million people starved to death.

 

Not long after, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin created a network of prison camps in Kazakhstan that in the late 1930s became the southern flank of his notorious Gulag, sucking in countless Kazakhs, Jews and myriad other ethnic groups.

 

Then, during the Holocaust, thousands of Jews from places such as Ukraine and Belarus were evacuated ahead of the onrushing Nazis eastward to the vast, sparsely populated steppes of Kazakhstan. The local Kazakhs mustered the hospitality to greet them with milk and bread.

 

“That which united our grandmothers and grandfathers makes us closer today,” says Jewish activist Valentina Kuznetsova, who lives in Karaganda, the country’s third-largest city.

(more…)

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In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — In a world where Israel can claim few Muslim friends, no one is more passionate about Kazakhstan than the Israeli envoy to this oil-rich nation.

 

While the nation jockeys to be a major energy producer, joining Caspian Sea neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as a vital alternative to Middle East instability and Russian heavy-handedness, observers often cite the Central Asian nation as a moderate Muslim bridge to the Islamic world. That helps explain why Western allies typically downplay the unseemly side of Kazakh rule — repression of independent critics, persecution of political opposition, harassment of marginal religions. They instead accentuate the positives about this ex-Soviet republic.

 

Israel’s ambassador here, Ran Ichay, also tends to focus on the upside, listing several Kazakh achievements of recent years that he terms “world-class contributions.”

 

Kazakhs, for example, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear program, even as folks in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk still suffer from having served as human guinea pigs for Soviet-era nuclear testing. And twice they have hosted the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious forum they created that Ichay says is the rare gathering where Jews, Israelis and Iranians are spotted around the same table.

 

“Kazakhstan is very different from what we know in the Middle East,” he says from his modest office in central Astana, the capital city. “They use their religion as a bridge between cultures.”

 

Still, the elephant in the room remains oil and the worldwide worry over “energy security” that was underscored by Russia’s assault on Georgia in August. (more…)

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Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — For Dina Itkina, the number of times she has trekked hundreds of miles for a Jewish event are too many to count. But one time stands out in the mind of this young Jewish activist here — a journey to neighboring Uzbekistan.

 

Seven years ago, at the age of  17, Itkina began with a 30-hour train trip from her hometown, Kokchetav, south across the plains to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. There she met two dozen other young Jewish leaders from around the country,  including a pair who had spent more than two days aboard a train from the western Caspian Sea coast. Together they piled into another train for the 12-hour overnighter to the southern city of Shymkent. Then came a one-hour bus trip to the border, an hour walk across the border and another hour ride to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

 

After three days of conference, there was the grueling return home.

 

“And nobody cried,” says a laughing Itkina, now 24 and director of the Jewish community center in this capital city. “You have to live here to feel the distances. But this event was a new experience, new emotions, new friends. And a lot of fun.”

 

It’s not only Jewish youth who are immersed in Kazakhstan’s culture of overnight train travel, tolerating odysseys that might deter all but the hardiest Westerners. This is the way of life in Kazakhstan, a country comparable in size to Western Europe, four times the size of Texas. Its population of 15 million is clustered across vast, mostly empty swaths of inhospitable desert and prairie known as steppes.

(more…)

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Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

The death of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in 1978 raises questions about Europe’s lingering ties to communism.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the October 28, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov walked over Waterloo Bridge in London on Sept. 7, 1978, a passerby bumped into the well-known critic of his native government. A stinging pain shot through Mr. Markov’s calf, and four days later he was dead.

 

Investigators initially thought an assassin, hired by the communist regime in Bulgaria, jabbed him with a poison-tipped umbrella. But later reports suggested a spring-loaded pen, probably KGB-designed, had fired a ricin-tipped pellet into his leg.

 

Today much of the Markov murder remains shrouded in mystery. The case, however, is just one of many unsolved mysteries spurring intense debate in Eastern Europe between critics and defenders of the communist system.

 

 

Though the days of Soviet control are but a distant memory, revelations about who was once a spy or informant continues to rock the region. Many communist-era officials remain in power and continue to hold onto a number of secrets about the past, not only to protect themselves and their allies, but the reputation of the former dictatorships. (more…)

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1968: Ladislav Bielik's image, on display exactly 40 years later in Bratislava, is a poignant symbol of Moscow's aggression. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Aug. 22, 2008, in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a Slovak baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank is part of a commemorative exhibit 40 years ago to the day.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Before the 1989 photo of a Chinese man confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, there was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia captured by Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a protester in Bratislava baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank – 40 years ago Thursday.

The moment is brought to life here in Slovakia’s capital, where Bielik’s sequential batch of 185 photos are featured in a photo exhibit on the same square where ordinary citizens confronted the Soviets that morning.

Bielik, whose office was just around the corner, shot them the morning of Aug. 21, only hours after tanks rolled in to snuff out a glimmer of democratic reform known as the Prague Spring.

“You can read a history book about what happened then, or someone will say ‘There were tanks here,’ but when you see these photos, you know it was real,” says student Tanya Takacova, born just before the 1989 collapse of communist Czechoslovakia.

While Bielik’s photos drive the Slovak narrative of that Soviet-led invasion, some cannot resist drawing broader parallels between Moscow’s aggression then and its recent invasion of Georgia.

“This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in criticism of Moscow.

Radio Prague quoted one Czech man as saying, “Russia never changes…. They’re incapable of being free, so they don’t want anyone else to enjoy their freedom.” (more…)

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'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 8, 2008 edition

 

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN – If the satirical movie “Borat” spoofed an entire nation, then “Mongol” was a decent counterpunch, casting back 800 years to the glory of a world conqueror, and earning Kazakhstan its first nomination for a foreign-language Academy Award earlier this year.

 

But “Mongol” was more than a big-budget Genghis Khan biopic, says Gulnara Sarsenova, the perfume and cosmetics magnate who helped bankroll the $23 million production. It also aimed to bolster the self-respect of a traditionally nomadic people aggressively Russified during 70 years of Soviet domination.

 

“There’s a lack of awareness among Kazakhs of our rich and interesting past,” says the flamboyant CEO, who is from the Naiman clan of northeastern Kazakhstan. That’s the same clan of Borte, Khan’s empress, whose charms in the movie brought out the sensitive side of the Mongol pillager. “I wanted to show that Kazakh history goes much further, is much deeper, than we’d ever thought.”

 

As a co-producer of “Mongol,” Ms. Sarsenova is at the forefront of efforts to reconnect Kazakhs to their ancestors, especially through film. While “Mongol” – with its Russian director, international cast, and global audience – is still a rare, privately funded exception, more typical are the dozens of historical films for domestic consumption that state-run Kazakhfilm has churned out since independence in 1991. (more…)

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Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

The ‘Learning by Moving’ project helps EU citizens learn the languages of their neighbors.

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 9, 2007 edition

 

On a visit to southern Spain five years ago, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler’s problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood.

 

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

 

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. “Is the post office far from here?” a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

 

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. “We’re in Europe now, so we must learn English,” says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

 

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It’s one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of “Europeanness” while respecting unique identities. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 21, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – Simonas Gurevicius has serious shtick. Blue eyes gleaming, he talks fast and animatedly. His accent, inflection, and shoulder shrugs – like a young Jackie Mason – makes him a throwback to the “Borscht Belt” and the dozens of famed, Yiddish-influenced comics who honed their acts in the upstate New York resorts that once catered to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

 

But Simonas is no comic and he’s never been in the Catskills. He’s a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Lithuania, the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.

 

“Have a seat there,” Simonas says in English, motioning a visitor to a chair. As the visitor bends to sit, he adds: “The chair’s broken.”

 

“And this, this is a nice guy,” he deadpans, introducing a young colleague. Beat. “But he’s got major psychological problems.”

 

Simonas’s corny shtick is no gimmick; its rhythm and accent ring with authenticity. He’s a rare breed: a young, native speaker of Yiddish, the historic language of Eastern European Jews. And his perseverance makes him something of a hero here.

 

“Simonas is the last of the Mohicans,” says DovidKatz, the Brooklyn-born director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. “He’s the last of his generation here to have learned Yiddish in the home.”

 

The Holocaust erased 5 million of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers. In Lithuania, 220,000 of 250,000 Jews died. But Simonas and other Jews here in Vilnius – the cobblestoned cradle of Yiddish life and culture, or Yiddishkeit; a city Napoleon reportedly dubbed “the Jerusalem of the East” – are today working to revive the language. (more…)

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HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

Eastern Europe wants them back.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the January 10, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAMuch ado was made in Paris several years ago about the symbolic “Polish plumber” who was coming to steal jobs from les français. Now, it’s Eastern Europeans who are lamenting the loss of not only plumbers, but all service workers.

 

“If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can’t find anyone,” says Rita Stankeviciute, a sportswriter in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “It’s ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it’s ‘In an hour.'”

 

As Western Europeans fret about a new wave of Eastern Europeans flooding their countries – this time from Romania and Bulgaria, the EU’s newest members – those nations have an opposite concern: how to bring those immigrants home.

 

For a small country like Lithuania, with a low birthrate but high rates of immigration, alcoholism, and suicide, the situation is particularly urgent. The former communist nation of 4 million has seen at least 400,000 people migrate west, whether to work construction in Dublin, pick strawberries in southern Spain, or conduct research in Scandinavia.

  

“We must invite them back,” says Zilvinas Beliauskas, director of the government- supported Returning Lithuanian Information Center. “We should consider them an integral part of the nation.”

(more…)

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Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The first came to America with parents, delivered via U.S. Army transport plane. The other arrived alone, six months later, aboard an ocean liner. 

My mother and father were refugees from different lands. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the simultaneous Cold War events that spurred their journey to freedom. October 1956: The Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Canal Crisis.

 

“It was the most crucial month of the most crucial year, the most dramatic time in the entire history of the Cold War,” historian John Lukacs wrote a decade later in “A New History of the Cold War.”

 

As the world confronts a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-aspiring Iran, the 50-year anniversary reminds us of the world’s first nuclear showdown. Coming at the height of the nuclear-arms race, the Hungary-Suez entanglement sparked the first Soviet threat to attack the West with what Nikita Khrushchev called “rocket weapons.”

 

The American reluctance to intervene in Hungary — after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against their Stalinist oppressors — also was a turning point in U.S.-USSR relations, signaling to the Soviets that their grip on half of Europe would go unchallenged.

 

Meanwhile, the British-French maneuver against Soviet-friendly Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal — in concert with Israel, but without U.S. support — almost shattered the NATO military alliance. With London and Paris ultimately forced to climb down, the Suez adventure drove the final nail in the British imperial coffin.

 

For me, October 1956 was a pivotal time in my parents’ teenage lives — though they would actually meet only a decade later, as newly minted U.S. citizens in Philadelphia. Dad was born and raised in Budapest; Mom in Alexandria, Egypt. (more…)

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