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Palmyra: ISIS-Wanton Destruction

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On 4 October, 2015 Maamun Abdulkarim, the Syrian Director General of Antiquities and Museums, confirmed that the 2000 year old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra had been blown up by ISIS forces which control the city and the surrounding area.

He said “ It is now wanton destruction; their acts of vengeance are no longer ideologically driven because they are now blowing up buildings with no religious meaning.”

On 23 August, the temples of Baalshamien − Lord of the Heavens − and Bel, a goddess often associated with the moon, had been largely destroyed by ISIS (Daesh in Arabic). This iconoclastic approach to pre-Islamic faith and their material culture is the same as had led to the destruction of the large Buddha statues in Afghanistan – monuments that attested to the rich culture along the Silk Road.

Masmun Abdulkarim called upon the international community to find a way to save Palmyra. His cry comes from the heart as he is the nephew of the long-serving director of the archaeological sites of Palmyra, Dr Khaled al-Assad. On 18 August, Dr al-Assad had his neck cut and his body hung from a traffic light pole. The 83 year-old archaeologist had been held in seclusion (and probably tortured) for three weeks. In the public square of Palmyra an accusation was read out that he was the “director of pagan idols.”

From a distance, it is hard to know what elements within ISIS are responsible for these destructions and what are the motivations. ISIS has attracted fighters from a good number of countries, and it is impossible to know the nationalities within the chains of command. Many Syrians are proud of the vestiges of pre-Islamic civilizations, proof that the area was an important actor and in some ways a rival of Rome. Thus, it is not clear who wants to destroy works of art and cultural heritage. It is impossible to know at this stage if there are possibilities of rational discussion and good-faith negotiations with ISIS authorities to preserve cultural sites in Syria and Iraq.

Syria and Iraq are home to some of the world’s first cities, a complex and unique meeting of states, empires, and faiths. The protection of works of art and cultural heritage is an aspect of world law in which UNESCO is playing a leading role. There is also a need to build an awareness and then action on the part of non-governmental organizations, especially those in consultative status with the United Nations as well a cultural institutions. One of the difficulties with appeals to the “international community” is that the international community has no street address, and so appeals are rarely delivered. Too often, governments and people react after events rather than affirming a position from a deeper level of awareness and a legal basis in world law.

The protection of cultural heritage owes much to the vision and energy of the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Roerich’s desire to make known the artistic achievements of the past through archaeology, coupled with the need to preserve the landmarks of the past from destruction, led to his work for the Banner of Peace to preserve art and architecture in time of war. Roerich had seen the destruction brought by the First World War and the civil war which followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He worked with French international lawyers to draft a treaty by which museums, churches and buildings of value would be preserved in time of war through the use of a symbol − three red circles representing past, present and future – a practice inspired by the red cross to protect medical personnel in times of conflict.

Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A. Wallace, the US secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President of the United States, was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace − the Roerich Peace Pact − signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “at no time has such an ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in addition the unique contribution of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and the truly religious of whatever faith.”

As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of the libraries of Louvain and Oviedo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheims. We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred. Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance – re built by human hope.”

The Roerich Peace Pact is the world-law basis for an expression of concern from the governments of what was the Pan-American Union (In 1948 it was reestablished as the Organization of American States). There is also the Hague Convention of May 1954 which was signed by a wider geographic range of States. The Roerich Peace Pact and the Hague Convention are rarely cited by governments. Therefore, leadership must come from non-governmental organizations and the cultural sector to work unitedly and creatively to prevent the wanton destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.

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Emily in Paris: An exotic portrayal of the French from a modern coloniser

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“I feel like Nicole Kidman in ‘Moulin Rouge’”

That was how Emily Cooper, a young American marketeer described her feelings towards Paris: an exotic dreamland she had always wanted to visit. With experience for which all the young professionals would envy, she moved from Chicago to Paris for work, and that mean an eye-opening journey laying ahead.

As a director of a renowned franchise like ‘Sex and The City’, Darren Star once again created a romantic dramedy piece that illustrated how it was like to be a strong young woman against the world, especially, a world called ‘Paris’, where the people constantly ignored those who didn’t speak French. The arrogance of the Parisians was legendary, and hundred-year-old building pipes were always broken when you used the shower. You could stumble upon a hot French neighbour who was coincidently a chef that saved your life at the last minute when you couldn’t reserve any table for your boss on Saturday night. Everything was so glamorous as well as threatening. Emily found it challenging to get to know the city as well as her boss and colleagues who thought she was a real nightmare. If this wasn’t a portrayal of Paris from exotic eyes, what could it be?

From a well-known 1978 book by Edward Said, ‘Orientalism’, the westerners from colonial period, especially from Europe (France and England) used to portray the land in the east of Europe as ‘exotic’. They created pictures of ‘the Orient’, mostly Arabic-Islamic cultures and India, as bizarre and barbaric as well as romanticising it to create lands that were vulnerable for exploration. What laid behind was Eurocentric prejudice that gave them power to rule the ‘inferior’ people of those lands and to exploit their lands. One of the example was how they usually pressed Christianity into local people’s life and commanded them to abandon their pre-existed faiths or religions with a claim that Christianity is the religion of the civilised. History of local people that proved them as competent was erased and redefined by the colonisers’ point of view to ‘educate’ local people and make them better human beings.

“Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.” – Edward W. Said, Orientalism

As well as what the westerners had done to the Arabs, Emily had a mission to educate her colleagues about modern technology like social media. She was even an influencer herself with numerous Instagram followers and must show the French how to be up-to-date and increase transparency in their organisation. For one time, her French client had to stop a fashion shoot because she couldn’t stand his ‘sexist’ portrayal of women’s dream. All the French people she knew had messed up some ways in their life, including Sylvie, her supervisor, who had an affair with her client. How unprofessional!

We cannot deny that America is a representation of modern day cultural imperialism, with Hollywood as its flagship. In Hollywood films, American culture is illustrated as ‘superior’ to others, including those of the ex-colonisers as the French and the British. American culture has massive power to speak for itself and it infiltrates every corner of the world. We can see the effects when America wants to exercise its power over some lands in the name of peace. And It’s ironic that the French, who used to be the colonisers, must try to decolonise themselves today by speaking up about how Paris really is and how to Parisians really behave, not how it ‘seems’ like in the eyes of the Americans!

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When we talk about space, we’re just talking about our future

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Jared Angaza is a US based activist who is working towards making space more inclusive and accessible to people. He is currently the Brand Strategist at Space for Humanity, a non profit organisation which is cultivating a movement to expand access to space for all of humanity. Space for Humanity is built on Harvard Professor Frank White’s philosophy of The Overview Effect which explains the perspective shift which can occur when people go to outer space.

In this interview with Modern Diplomacy, Jared Angaza discusses more about space exploration and his work towards making it more inclusive.

Tell us more about how you entered activism.

At 17 years old, I began volunteering for the American Indian Movement. I couldn’t understand why the indigenous ways were not being used to heal our planet and unite humanity. I dedicated my life to studying human behavior, politics, and economics, so I could be an effective activist. I am working to contribute to a global culture that celebrates our uniqueness and prioritizes our unity and the vitality of our planet. This is my lifelong mission.

Why did you decide to work for Space for Humanity.

We are “building a foundation for an inclusive future in space”. When we talk about space, we’re just talking about our future. S4H is focused on utilizing the Overview Effect to alter people’s perspective, to understand our innate interconnectedness. I believe this is imperative for humanity and our planet to come back into alignment.

Do you think that going to space can solve issues like racism on Earth? How?

Absolutely. The first photo of Earth from Space changed the way we see our entire world. Some of our most profound moments of international collaboration have come from space exploration. The environment of space forces us to work together, to strive to understand each other more deeply. The more we understand that we are all made out of start stuff, riding on the same spaceship (Earth), the easier it is to deconstruct the world’s tradition of upholding racism.

What are some changes in the US space exploration program which need to be advocated?

It definitely needs to be more inclusive and we are working towards that. I also believe we have a long way to go in the effort to make space a more collaborative effort, rather than a competition. We will never realize our full potential as space fairing beings unless we commit to cooperation and unity.

You have worked closely with Frank White. What intrigues you most about him.

Frank is one of the kindest, most patient, empathetic humans I know. He cares so deeply about humanity and our relationship with the solar ecosystem. I believe he’s discovered something truly profound in his Overview Effect studies. He’s showing us the threads of our humanity, and how they weave together seamlessly with our planet. Even after many years of working together, I am still continually inspired by his wisdom and fortitude.

Which space organisations are you currently working with? What does your work entail?

I work with Space for Humanity, the Human Space Program, Conscious Space Economy, and a global environmental protection alliance called Earth Forest Collaboratory on a daily, long-term basis. I also work on short term consultancies with other space and environmental organizations. In all of them, my role is to create their identity and help them build foundations, processes and relationships to make them thrive.

What is the biggest hurdle to space exploration for humans?

To leave behind the perspective and habits of a divisive, competitive, capitalistic society. Until we are committed to unity and coherence, we will never fully break out into our solar system.

Do you think space exploration will increase collaboration in the world?

Most definitely. What we learn out there helps us heal our perspective back on Earth, and it teaches us how to work together more effectively.

Has the pandemic slowed down space programs in the world?

Yes, but only momentarily. It did not take long for people to realize that continued and expanded space exploration will play a profound role in helping us overcome this pandemic, and prevent them from happening in the future.

Do you see organisations like Space for Humanity starting in other parts of the world?

We will never fully represent humanity until we do. We must continue to expand and invite new cultures into the discussion and planning. We are working hard to expand across the planet, and someday, into the broader solar system.

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Tandin Bidha: The Grace of Bhutan

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Tandin Bidha, leading actress from Bhutan sheds more light about the film industry in Bhutan and her life and experiences in the Himalayan Kingdom. Tandin Bidha is one of the most popular actresses in Bhutan and has worked in various national award winning films.

In this interview with Modern Diplomacy, Tandin sheds more light on the film industry in Bhutan and its growth over the years.

31 movie titles in your name spreading across different genres. Also, a two time National Award winner for Boom Batha Chenmi Renzi and for Chi Sem Chi Lu. People and critics alike seem to love your versatility. How did it all start? Did you imagine being the most recognised face in the industry and achieving an illustrated career in a short span?

It all started when I was helping my mother out in her restaurant. A well known director of Bhutan walked in, he saw me and something clicked. He immediately told me that he wanted to cast me in a film because I looked like an actress. I did not know anything about acting then because Bhutan does not have an acting school. I waited to get a call from him for 3 months. There was no call. One day he called me and gave me a role as a supporting actress. Even if I wasn’t the lead in the first film, it meant a lot to me and I decided to take it up. I then got many leading roles. I am truly grateful to my stars for aligning at the right time. I have given acting my best shot and I work really hard to be where I am.

Do you plan to carry forward that persona and art international anytime?

I am open to everything. I have never once thought that I can or cannot do this. I don’t plan my life like that. I generally see where life is going, let opportunities come my way, and when something clicks, I do it. Being open to things is the key to being successful, don’t shut any doors in life till you are sure that it isn’t for you, till then navigate and explore life through.

How important do you believe it is, to have a good work dynamic and a mutual understanding between an actor and a director? Do you personally think a good director helps an actor grow?

I believe that a movie is never about one person, it is about the entire crew. We all mutually depend on each other to get things done. I don’t believe that a single person can create or take credit for a movie alone, it takes an army of people to do it. I am grateful to my crew and everyone working on the same team as me for working really hard behind everything that goes in. I believe that good actors and good directors help each other in numerous ways. All relationships should be mutual and everything is centric on growth.

You seem to have a very positive and optimistic approach towards life and towards work. Despite all the fame and fortune, you lead a very ‘normal’ simplistic lifestyle. What fuels that inside you?

Most of the people of Bhutan are very simple. We all believe in living a life filled with the sentiment of community. I am an actress on screen and a human above anything. I believe in leading a simple life because that is all that counts. I enjoy spending time with my son. I also like reading in my free time. In Bhutan, for showing my films in theatres, I have also been to counters to sell my own film tickets. I deeply love Bhutan because I can be myself here.

You have been an avid reader of some really interesting books ranging from soul searching, inspirational women, The Buddha, the Mitch Albomesque emotional sort. Tell us more about some other books that you would recommend everyone should read in their lifetime. What is the book you are currently reading?

I really love reading books. I went through a divorce a few years ago and I was in a really dark phase of my life that time. I felt disconnected with the world. However, one day I picked up a book and I started reading it. After that, I have read so many books because I feel like books hold the key to life. I have also started a book cafe in Bhutan because I want the youth to read more books and get all the knowledge out there. I really love books and I recommend the youth to read books everywhere.

You have also travelled a lot. Your favourite destination so far and why is it special?

The more I travel, the more I realise how great Bhutan is. I love Bhutan the most. I have been to several countries worldwide, but I really love Bhutan the most. People here may not have dominos or burger outlets, but we are really in touch with ourselves and we love this country a lot. The more I travel, the deeper my appreciation grows for Bhutan.

Aamir Khan from India has always been a champion of rights in the national and international arena. You met him in one such similar event. What did you discuss? What other actors, male and female, do you look upto in India? If given a chance and if an amazing script comes your way, would you be interested to be a part of an Indian project?

I would love to work with actors in India. I met Aamir Khan at an event in Bhutan. I went to him and I told him that I’m his biggest fan. He was very humble and he told me more about his work. It was a great conversation. I respect him a lot.

OTT platforms are taking over the world. Do you think cinema in Bhutan can reach more people through this medium?

I believe that Bhutan has some wonderful stories which need to be shared with more people across the world. We do not have a film school so most of the people here are very raw in the film domain. However, we are all willing to learn and explore new avenues. I think Netflix is a great platform to share stories of Bhutan with other people. However, there are certain restrictions on the platform regarding quality of filmmaking, which Bhutan will have to match if we want our films there. Overall, I really would love for our country to have some representation on Netflix. I would love to take a lead in that domain. I really want our stories to be shared with the world.

What message would you like to give your fans who look up to you and your work?

I want to tell everyone that do not let go of your dreams even if it looks like it may never happen. It will happen when your stars align. I want to tell the youth to hold on to their dreams strongly and to keep working hard for it. If you work hard, one day, your efforts will be recognised. Never let go of your dreams.

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