Sunday, April 25, 2010

News Link Round-Up

Here are some interesting links from this week's news:

Hassen Chalghoumi is France's ideal imam. He's Republican (in the French sense), he's pro-burqa ban, and reaches out France's Jewish community. He's also disliked by those he represents.,1518,690303,00.html#ref=nlint

In the wake of Poland's recent tragedy, Ruth Ellen Gruber sees sparks of change in Polish-Jewish relations.

The French government stated that a bill to ban the burqa from all public spaces will be introduced in May. But whether or not the law will pass and be implemented remains unknown.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Oddessy That Didn't Have to Be

Throughout this whole ash cloud "crisis," I kept having the same thought. For all those European travellers stranded throughout Europe, "why didn't they just take the train home?" As strange as it may seem to Americans who only know Amtrak, taking the trains in Europe is actually enjoyable. Fun even. The train cars are comfortable and offer a modicum of privacy with their thick faux leather seats and glassed-in six-seat compartments. On a trip in Germany, I saw one couple get so comfortable on a train, that they pulled down the seats to make a bed, spooned, and read poetry to each other for the duration of the trip. Now, I bet you haven't seen that on a plane.

Even for the un-romantically inclined, there are considerable perks: the food is better, the scenery more attractive--and best of all--there is no cost for carry on luggage.

Well, it seems as though I am not the only one puzzled by the lack of train activity. This morning in my inbox, I got a post from Hidden Europe, a magazine devoted to under-the-radar Europe, that addressed that very question. Here is what they said:

Dear fellow travelers

Well, that was certainly an interesting week for travelers around Europe. Lots of angst for stranded souls. Rich fodder for the British tabloids as brave holidaymakers returned to English ports recounting tales of journeys from hell. Heavens, we never knew that France was really that bad.

Academics interested in travel behaviour, crisis management and collective decision-taking will no doubt be writing serious treatises about how a cloud of ash afflicted European travel. The truth of course is that Europe was not paralysed in quite the way that the media portrayed, and while many travelers suffered real distress and were mightily out of pocket, there was also a good deal of theatre about the whole affair.

That CNN journalist who paid 800 dollars to travel by taxi from Warsaw to Berlin when his booked flight was cancelled probably had no idea that few sane Europeans traveling to Berlin from Poland think of flying. There are on average only 78 available seats each day on the Warsaw to Berlin air route. Compare that with the more than 50 passenger trains which every day cross the Polish border into Germany - each train certainly capable of carrying dozens or even hundreds of passengers. Trundling by slow train through Polish villages would have made a fine news story. Western Poland is at its springtime best at the moment with heaps of blossom and soft April sunshine dancing on birch forests and water meadows. But no, CNN wouldn't have it that way. Instead it was a desperate tale of an irate journo haggling with a bemused Polish taxi driver who really did not want to drive 600 kilometres to Berlin. Not at any price. And he certainly did not want to be paid in dollars.

There were rumours of a flotilla of small vessels being despatched from Britain to rescue stranded patriots from foreign lands. A revival of Dunkirk spirit. Yet all the while those stranded travellers could have hopped on a train and been home within a day or two. When the prospects for air travel were at their bleakest, it was still possible to book a train ticket from Germany to Britain for 59 EUR. Eurostar never entirely sold out and we noted seats still available for 96 EUR on trains from both Brussels and Paris to London even just a few hours prior to departure.

Yesterday evening, we watched a small fleet of express coaches leave Berlin, taking passengers back to London. True, few of those travellers would have paid the bargain fare of 44 EUR, for that had long since sold out. The regular fare is 93 EUR for the overnight journey from Berlin to London.

We do wonder whether, amid all the magnificent theatre of doughty travelers struggling against all odds to get home, the seeds of something rather significant may have been sown. For international journeys between countries on the continent, air travel already has only a tiny market share. As we have reported repeatedly in hidden europe, Europe has a splendid network of railways, often complemented by good bus and ferry connections. For those short hops between European cities, the plane is more a luxury than a necessity. Now might be the moment for travelers to rediscover the joys of slow travel. You can read our manifesto for slow travel online at "".

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Halal for All

In a year that has seen contentious debates over French national identity and religion--much of it swirling around the French-Muslim community--it's nice to finally read some positive developments in French-Muslim relations.

The Deutsche Welle reports today that the French food industry is finally reaching out the previously unexplored French Muslim market. (Only took them 50 years or so). According to the article, French supermarkets including Casino, France's second-largest supermarket chain, will start carrying halal food and perhaps even the newest product on the market, Night Orient, a non-alcoholic sparkling wine.

Previously, "mainstream brands didn't want to be associates with halal because it was considered low-brow and because French Muslims had little money and unenviable social positions," suggests Antoine Bonnel, the founder of an annual halal trade show in Paris. "So the global image was a cheap image."

While it's debatable whether their social position has changed much, the visibility of this community certainly has grown in recent years as has its buying power. As Abbas Bendali, the head of Solis, a market research firm that specializes in ethnic niches points out, "Five and a half billion euros are going to be spent on these kinds of products this year in France. There are five million potential customers. This is a real consumer segment."

So the next time I'm in Paris and I get a craving for mock ham or halal pate, I'll head for the nearest Casino or Franprix. The non-alcoholic wine though is another story.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Xenophobia on the Rise in Hungary

The results from Hungary's elections are in. And according to the Deutsche Welle, the outlook for minority groups does not look good. In the first round, the round that determines who will lead the government, the conservative party, Fidesz, won 53% of the vote. But even more concerning is the success of Jobbik, a far-right anti-Semitic, anti-Roma party that won 17% of the vote.

According to Nora Szoeke, an Eastern European political consultant, the outcome is not surprising. "In Hungary the extreme right is more embedded within the society," she said. "It's not just an extreme fringe group that supports Jobbik … it's any voter who has been disappointed by the government and politics up to now."

The article offers good insight into the reasons behind the right’s success—they essentially chalk it up to Hungary’s growing disenchantment with the Social Democratic coalition and accompanying corruption and mismanagement--but what I want to know more. How are the election results being interpreted by the Hungarian Jewish and Roma communities? What has the response been? Are they concerned? Taking it in stride? Are they speaking out? Are other groups speaking out on their behalf?

In the midst of all the clear-eyed analysis it’s important to remember how these political movements affect the people on the ground. I hope their voices won’t be forgotten in the next news cycle.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Seder: Not Just for Jews Anymore

Did you know that the three pieces of matzo used during Seder represent the holy trinity? Or that a leg of lamb on the Seder place could replace the shank bone? Sound absurd? Perhaps, but not if you’re celebrating Passover as a Christian.

Yes, that’s right. Passover is no longer just the domain of Jews, but also of Christians who are– according to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a comparative religions professor at Middle State Tennessee University and co-author of “Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians”–seeking a closer connection to Jesus as a man and as a Jew. “The practice of Seders is a growing phenomenon. Christians are really interested in the Seder meal and [churches] are trying to give their members a sense of what it was like during the life of Jesus.”

Leafing through Rabbi Shapiro’s Haggadah, there is no mistake as to the intended audience. From the title, “Let us Break Bread Together” (a reference to the New Testament) to the replacement of Adonai (Lord our G-d) with Abba (Father) to better reflect Jesus’ relationship with God, you know you won’t be seeing this version on your Seder table anytime soon.

While the idea of Christians celebrating Passover no doubt makes some within the Jewish community uncomfortable, there is also another way to look at it. During the Seder, we hear and accept questions from four children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. Through their questions, each of these individuals is seeking a place for themselves within an established ritual. So too, are Christian communities who see in Judaism, and especially in Passover, an opportunity to connect with the roots of their own religious practices and faith.

By teaching them the Jewish framework for the celebration in which they want to take part, we are not only offering them an opportunity to feel closer to their religious figures, but also to better understand Jews and contemporary Judaism—something that can only be a positive step forward.

Then again, if more and more Christians do start celebrating Passover and realize just how delicious matzo and gefilte fish truly are, they might want to start celebrating other Jewish holidays as well. Like Sukkot–to see their Sunday school version of the tabernacle come to life–or Chanukah with all the presents, the candles and the latkes. But then we’d have to tell them that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist and try to convince them that a menorah really is just as much fun as a Christmas tree.

On second thought, I think we’re safe.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Imam Search

There are two interesting pieces that recently came out about the struggles faced by Muslim communities in the US and Germany. The first, published in the Washington Post, tells the story of a young American-Muslim imam who is searching to find a place for himself within the Muslim community. Unlike Christian and Jewish communities who have an established employment network set up for newly minted Rabbis, Priests, Ministers, etc., according to Adeel Zeb, the story’s protagonist, there is no such network for young imams. In fact, many American-Muslim families hope their sons will grow up to be lawyers or doctors rather than men of the cloth. Moreover, the generational divide is a significant obstacle. Imams not only need to be learned, but must also look the part: older (Zeb is 28) and sport a “gray beard.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, German Muslims are facing similar problems. At a recent event that addressed the question: “What Role Do Religion and Culture Play in Integration? A Transatlantic Comparison of Muslim Integration in Germany and the U.S.” hosted by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Berlin, the discussion quickly turned to the lack of German-born imams. As Zeb noted in the Post article, “most American mosques are led by imams from overseas who aren't fluent in English. They know how to lead prayers but don't necessarily have the professional credentials or communication skills to become community leaders.” If Germans read this article, I’m sure they could relate. The lack of locally born imams is concerning to a country that still struggles with how to integrate its Muslim population. Moreover, those who do work in Germany often lack language skills, knowledge of the country in which they, and their congregation, live, and are uneducated about the cultural touchstones of their adopted countries.

While Zeb no doubt faces real frustrations, it seems as though, based on these two examples, it is the American-Muslim community that comes out ahead. In the US, at least, there is an opportunity for him to receive the type of training that for German-Muslims is still an abstraction.

The Post article ends on a wistful note offering thoughts about what professions Zeb might enter into, none of them being the one of his choice: imam. Perhaps I have one additional suggestion for him. Learn German and move to Germany. I hear they’re hiring.