Simon Says

By Stephen Dau

This is the fourth in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

He does not want you to take his picture. He does not want you to mention which village in Iraq he comes from. He doesn’t really even want you to use his real first name, even though it is a common one. He doesn’t want to say or do anything that might jeopardize his asylum application or endanger his family. What shall we call him, then?

“Call me Simon,” he says. “That’s what the American soldiers used to call me.”

Simon speaks softly and is not prone to exaggeration. He was an economics student when America invaded his country in 2003. He liked school. He got good grades. He had a job lined up after graduation. He was recently married. But the Iraqi economy, which had already been hobbled by decades of Western sanctions, collapsed entirely when the war started, and he found himself unemployed with few prospects. His English was pretty good, so he signed on as an interpreter for the US Army. He was hired in 2007 by Global Linguist Solutions, a subsidiary of DynCorp, one of the largest US defense service contractors.

“It was dangerous work,” says Simon. “Interpreters got killed all the time. If the militias ever recognized you…” his voice trails off. “It was hard. We had to wear bandanas over our faces, and sunglasses and helmets so no one could recognize us. My name tag even said ‘Simon’.”

“Simon,” was the name US troops often gave to their interpreters, or “‘terps,” as they were also called, as a sort of inside joke. Simon says. Get it?

When the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Simon tried to apply for a visa that would have allowed him and his wife and their infant daughter to emigrate to the US. Everyone could see what was going to happen after the pullout, he says. “All that is happening in Iraq right now was entirely predictable.”

But when he went to the US embassy to apply for the visa, he was told that he needed an employment verification certificate. So he contacted his former employer, GLS, to request it.

“It’s just this piece of paper,” he says, putting out his hands as though holding onto it. “But [GLS] told me they were no longer operating in my region, and that I would have to go to Baghdad to request it.”

By this time, GLS was in the process of pulling out of Iraq. They had been awarded a $4.6 billion contract by the Department of Defense in 2007, and now they were leaving, their money banked. At considerable personal risk and expense, Simon traveled to Baghdad to request his employment verification.

“The man at the office said they no longer had any of my paperwork. He told me it had all been burned for security reasons.

Simon showed the man his name tag and a copy of his employment contract and pay statements and even photographs of him working with US troops. He had kept all these things, even though possession of them could have gotten him killed by the militia groups that were dividing up Iraq after the US pullout.

“I asked the man what I could do, and he told me I could open an appeal file and obtain a case number. He sent me over to another office. At that office they said, ‘sure, we can give you a case number, we just need your employment verification.’ So, you understand me? To obtain a case number, I need an employment verification. To obtain an employment verification, I need a case number.”

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?

“Yes,” Simon says. “It’s a joke.”

He wearily shakes his head and holds up four fingers.

“Four years. This is a joke for four years.”

Problems of this sort are nothing new for GLS, which still operates out of Falls Church, Virginia. Even a cursory internet search reveals numerous instances in which GLS is reported to have shortchanged, mismanaged, or outright defrauded its local Iraqi staff.

Eventually Simon felt so threatened in Iraq that he decided to flee the country. He made his way to Europe, leaving his wife and infant daughter behind in the hope that he could bring them over later.

“It is a dangerous journey,” he says. “I didn’t want to put them through it.”

So he made his way north, through Iraq and Turkey and eventually to the Aegean coast.

“There,” he says, “I paid more than one thousand euro to these,” he searches around in his mind for the right word, “people. These traffickers.”

When it is pointed out to him that you could rent a boat in Turkey for less than half that price, and make your own way across the Aegean Sea, Simon flashes the only sign of anger he has shown all afternoon.

“Yes, you could,” he says. “But the Turkish mafia patrols the coast, looking for us. Any refugees they catch trying to go their own way,” he makes an imaginary gun with his hand and puts an imaginary bullet into his head. “They are protecting their market.”

After crossing the sea in an overcrowded rubber dinghy, Simon spent five days in the back of a truck that was packed so full of refugees that they had to stand the entire time.

“One night they let us out in the woods to walk around for twenty minutes, but only after several people fainted and we started banging on the sides of the truck.”

He looks away and eventually it becomes obvious that he is not going to say anything more about the truck ride.

“I have no idea what route they took driving us, but eventually we wound up in Brussels.”

He plans to file an application for asylum. But there are so many other applicants now that a thousand of them are camped in the park across the street from the Office for Foreigners, waiting while the staff there try to catch up with the backlog. For now, Simon lives in a tent pitched on a low rise in the northern part of the camp, which he shares with three other men.

Since arriving, he has become increasingly concerned. Rumors swirl around the camp. One rumor has it that everyone’s application is being stamped with the words “Dublin Agreement,” a reference to the European Union law that requires any asylum seeker to apply for asylum in the first EU country he or she entered. For many refugees, this could mean being sent back to Greece, where there are already tens of thousands of them waiting to be processed in squalid camps. Another rumor is that anyone coming from Southern or Eastern Iraq, as Simon does, is being immediately sent back, on the assumption, based largely on assurances by Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi, that everything is safe there now. But Simon scoffs at this notion.

“Nowhere is safe in Iraq,” he says. “Not for me. Not now.”

So he waits, joining thousands of other refugees all across the continent, a stream of humanity that seems to have no end in sight. He has been here four days already. Even if all goes well and he is granted temporary asylum status, he faces what could be a years-long wait to have his case formally adjudicated. His initial interview for asylum protection is scheduled for tomorrow.

Eventually, he says, he would still like to go to the US.

“I really like America,” he says. When he says this, he does so with utter sincerity. “America is such a great country!”

Marxism and Matzo Balls: Sasha Abramsky’s Memoir of His Remarkable Grandfather

By Peter Dreier

Sasha Abramsky will be reading from his book on Thursday, October 1 at 7 pm at Book Soup Bookstore, 8818 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90069

During 1968 and 1969 I spent a year in London. I was supposed to be studying politics and sociology, but I spent more time at anti-war rallies and protests, at folk-music clubs and concerts, writing articles, and traveling around England and Europe, than I did in class. On a whim, however, I decided to take a course in Jewish history at University College.  The catalog indicted that the course would be taught by a professor named Chimen Abramsky, whom I had not heard of before.

Despite my general indifference to academic matters, I rarely missed a session of Abramsky’s course, which met in a tiny classroom. Abramsky was in his mid-50s but to me he appeared much older — perhaps because I was only 20, but perhaps also because he had an Old World look about him. He spoke in a thick Russian-Yiddish accent, which required students to listen carefully to his lectures, which he often delivered while sitting in a chair, dressed in a rumpled suit and tie. Abramsky was a tiny man who seemed quirky, eccentric, impish, and brilliant.

I remember the aura more than the specific content of the course. I was not educated enough in Jewish history, or history in general, to appreciate what he had to offer. I should have taken some more basic Jewish history courses — or read about it on my own — before venturing into this class. Intimidated by his erudition and embarrassed by my own ignorance, I unfortunately didn’t bother to talk with him after class or to learn anything about him or his life outside the classroom. Still, I was mesmerized by his presence, almost as if he was a performance artist.

A few years ago, at a conference of activists and academics, I met Sasha Abramsky, a British writer, transplanted to the United States, who has authored several excellent books, including Inside Obama’s Brain and The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. I asked Sasha if he was related to the professor I had taken a course with decades earlier. It turned out that he is Chimen’s grandson, and he told me about his grandfather’s fascinating life. From Sasha I learned that Chimen (pronounced “Shimon”) was an extraordinary historian and bibliophile, a world-renowned student of Marxism as well as Jewish history, and the center of a global network of scholars and activists.

Shortly after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha penned a wonderfully warm and evocative recollection of his grandfather in the British newspaper, The Guardian. Now he has expanded that essay into a book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, which brings his grandparents and their world to life. Published last year in England, it has just been released in the United States by New York Review Books. Abramsky has also produced a five-minute video that is worth watching on its own and will surely whet your appetite to read the book.

Chimen Abramsky was born in Minsk in 1916, the son of Yehezkel Abramsky, an esteemed Orthodox rabbinic scholar. Yehezkel arranged for Chimen to be schooled by private tutors at home, where he learned Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. In 1929, Stalin’s police arrested Yehezkel in Moscow and sent him to Siberia for treason, although his real crime was his opposition to the regime’s persecution of Jews. Thanks to a lobbying campaign by Jews around the world, Yehezkel was released, and in 1932 moved his family to England, where he became a prominent rabbi.

Chimen had no interest following in his father’s religious footsteps, but he absorbed his father’s love of books and scholarship. Arriving in London during the Depression, he took English lessons at Pitman College and was quickly drawn to the city’s circle of secular Jewish immigrant intellectuals, artists, and activists, as well as the radical students at the London School of Economics. Thus began his lifetime love affair with the study of Jewish history and culture as well as Marx, Marxism, and socialism.

In 1936, Abramsky went to Palestine to attend Hebrew University, where he became deeply involved in socialist politics. The campus ideological battleground was so intense that one day Chimen was beaten up by Yitzhak Shamir, then a leader of the right-wing Irgun faction and later Israel’s prime minister.

Abramsky returned to London in 1939 to visit his parents but was trapped by World War II and unable to return to Israel. He found a job at Shapiro, Vallentine & Company, London’s oldest Jewish bookshop. In 1940 he married the owner’s daughter, Miriam Nirenstein, and both became active members of the British Communist Party.  He joined the CP in 1941 after the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, and became a leader of the CP’s large Jewish wing and editor of its publication, the Jewish Clarion. Miram left the CP in 1956 (after the Soviet invasion of Hungary), but Chimen remained a member for another two years, finally acknowledging the atrocities that left many leftists disillusioned with Communism.

Although Abramsky left the Communist Party, he never left the left.  Moreover, his left-wing views didn’t thwart his remarkable entrepreneurial skills. The bookstore provided him with an opportunity to acquire a personal library of 20,000 volumes, primarily books on socialism and Judaism. His collection included first editions of Spinoza and Descartes, books that belonged to Leon Trotsky, manuscripts and letters by Voltaire and Marx, and even Marx’s membership card in the First International. He developed a global network of book collectors and, with a keen eye for a good deal and a remarkable ability to authenticate and judge the value of a book, made a reasonable living in the book business.  Sotheby’s hired him as a consultant on rare books.  He played an important role in the rescue of several Torah scrolls in Czechoslovakia that had been confiscated by the Nazis.

He may have enjoyed the travel and the wheeling and dealing but at heart Abramsky was a scholar.  While he thrived as a bookseller and manuscript expert, he pursued his scholarly activities on his own, having no degrees or institutional affiliation. That changed after some noted British academics — including E.H. Carr, James Joll, and Isaiah Berlin — encouraged Abramsky to teach. After his book, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement (co-authored with Henry Collins) came out in 1965, he was invited, through Berlin, to teach at Oxford. The next year, at age 50, he was invited to assume a newly-created lectureship in modern Jewish history at University College-London (UCL), which is where I encountered him in that small classroom. In 1974, he became head of the UCL’s department of Hebrew and Jewish studies, keeping the position until he retired in 1983. Twice he accepted invitations to teach in the United States, holding visiting professorships at Brandeis and Stanford.

He was widely influential through his writings, his mentorship of generations of scholars, and his ability to bring people together at dinners and meetings at his home. His friends included some of the world’s leading left-wing historians, including Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson. In 1989, his students and colleagues published Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, a reflection of his impact and inspiration. In 2012, a donor established the Professor Chimen Abramsky Scholarship for undergraduate students at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College-London.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is part history (about his grandparents’ background and their social, political, and intellectual milieu) and part memoir (about how Sasha absorbed that world of Marxism and matzo balls). He describes the Abramsky home on Hill Way in London (not far from Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried) as an ongoing salon that attracted socialists and Jewish intellectuals who came to eat, exchange ideas, enjoy each other’s company, and examine Abramsky’s huge collection of rare books, which filled every room and staircase in the house.

Abramsky was both generous and stingy about sharing his remarkable collection of books.  He allowed scholars and fellow bibliophiles to visit the house to examine his books, but only those who Abramsky considered serious enough to merit entry in his working library. Although each room was dedicated to books on a different subject, his “system” was quite disorganized and he lacked the time, money, and will to turn the chaos into order and to adequately protect some of the rarest and most valuable books from the elements.

To retrieve his grandfather’s story, Sasha had to excavate the book collection, review the writings of Chimen, his correspondents, and other scholars, and interview family members as well as his grandparents’ friends and colleagues.    He writes with both love and respect, an understandable nostalgia, and with sympathy, if not total agreement, with his grandfather’s intellectual and political preoccupations.  His grandmother, an accomplished social worker and political activist, gets less attention than she deserves. Abramsky mostly focuses on her cooking and homemaking skills, the hostess at the endless gatherings of family, friends and colleagues from around the world.  Although his grandparents were secular radicals, they kept a kosher home, a legacy of his upbringing and his unwillingness to completely alienate his father, the strictly religious rabbi.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books tells the story of a world that no longer exists. I missed my opportunity to get to know Chimen Abramsky personally when I had the chance. But now others will get to know this extraordinary man through the eyes of his grandson.


Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

Join Us at Book Soup for a Book Party with Karen Finley

Shock Treatment (City Lights Books) is Karen Finley’s first book, published just as she became internationally famous for being denied an NEA grant because of perceived obscenity in her work. In it, she captures the drama and fragility of the AIDS era and distills the emotional turmoil of that time with excoriating monologues and essays. With a new introductory essay by the author.

Join us at Book Soup on Saturday September 19 at 4:00 PM with Karen Finley for a discussion and signing of her book Shock Treatment: 25th Anniversary Edition

Rumor & Fact

By Stephen Dau

This is the third in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

Wooden shipping pallets make modern commerce possible. They’re cheap. They’re perfectly dimensioned to fork-lift shrink-wrapped products into steel shipping containers, like an automated game of three-dimensional Tetris played endlessly across the world’s ports and warehouses. Millions of pallets are right now stacked bearing goods on the decks of freighters and in the backs of trucks. And after they’ve been used a time or two, they’re usually thrown away or burned.

Today, the most pervasive sounds in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels are the high metal tapping of hammers on pry bars and the low wooden cracking of pallet boards being pried apart. In the tarped-over area that serves as a kitchen and food hall, rebuilt pallets are the tables and chairs, the storage shelves and serving counter. Pallet-wood picnic tables now dot the camp, and still the building continues. A request for pallets posted on Facebook yielded thousands. It’s satisfying, say the volunteers who do the work. Satisfying to tear apart out-usefulled things, even more so to build them anew. If whole buildings were to suddenly rise, each made entirely from pallet wood, no one in the camp would be much surprised.

For the past ten days the volunteers organized themselves online and cobbled together the camp, making things up as they went along, responding to what many of them see as the utter failure of their political class to deal with the mounting crisis. Now they are consolidating, creating an infrastructure to match their vision of a Europe that welcomes the dispossessed, rather than shunning them. There is a kitchen serving hot meals. There is a mobile phone charging station. There is a school and a small, open-air movie theater. There are plans to tap into the municipal water and sewage systems. More than simply a place to house refugees while they wait to register an asylum claim, the camp is quickly becoming a monument to a vision. It’s becoming a movement.

Despite that vision, the camp often feels like a high-proof distillation of reality, rather than any sort of idealized version of it. It’s a place where light and dark, generosity and greed exist side by side. Today, for example, a group of volunteers in yellow visibility vests is clearing gang members out of tents. The gangs have been stealing donated goods, which they then stash in the tents, waiting to move it out to nearby cars and vans under cover of darkness and sell it in thrift shops and flea markets. Once such a tent has been identified, ten or twelve volunteers surround it and ask the occupant, if there is an occupant, to leave. Then they empty it out, removing the contents back to the donation areas. It’s an exercise in miniature of raw power. Usually it doesn’t take much persuasion, but it also doesn’t seem to be a job many of the volunteers relish. They tend to be idealists, after all.

Because they are waiting to be registered, the refugees in the camp exist in a world outside the official legal system. Having yet to register, they are not yet asylum seekers. They are not immigrants. They are not temporary workers or students. Technically, they are what is known in French speaking countries as les sans papiers.Illegal immigrants. For years, organized groups of sans papiers have been agitating for regularization, for the granting of residence permits and working rights. They have taken over (or in many cases been invited into) churches and other buildings. They have staged hunger strikes. They have drawn attention to what they say is the sort of institutional racism that keeps many immigrants in Europe excluded from mainstream society, often for multiple generations. And herein lies the political lightning rod this refugee crisis presents to the European political establishment. Exactly as they have done in the United States, politicians here have staked out territory all over the immigration debate.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a group of sans papiers—or, more precisely, a group claiming to be fighting for the rights of the sans papier—have set up an area prominently within the camp and plastered it with literature. Sitting with the group, a man who says he is from Morocco talks to anyone who will listen.

“Imagine” he says, “living like the people in this camp, but there is not attention paid to you, no TV cameras, and you’re destined to live like this for your whole life.”

“Are you sans papiers, then?” someone asks.

“No, no,” he says, with a smile. “I’m only here on vacation.”

The television cameras that were ubiquitous have mostly gone now, with only a single crew left prowling for stories. As the press thinned, so did much of the carnival atmosphere from last week, when so many people, refugees and volunteers alike, simply seemed eager to get themselves onto television. All day Sunday one man wore a sign that said, in English, “I’m Desperate, Hug Me.” Another, seemingly more heartfelt, walked around for hours with a sign expressing gratitude to Belgium.

But with the carnival atmosphere came the rumors, the chaos. It was virtually impossible to get a firm estimate of the number of people sheltering each night, nor of the number of people arriving each day. The camp’s borders are entirely porous, delineated with only tape. Attempts are now made to register arrivals and departures, but the numbers—seven hundred and fifty now in place, one hundred arrivals each day—are still rough estimates. Last week, one rumor held that the federal government was going to try to clear the park. Another was that the Belgian army was poised to take over. One refugee says he has heard that Syrian intelligence operatives are present in the camp, keeping tabs.

The latest rumor is that the kitchen has run out of food. It’s not true, but it’s enough to cause a passing panic. Volunteers stand on the counter top and try to assure an agitated group of fifty hungry men that more food is being prepared. Picture a different country, with different resources, and it’s easy to see how the situation could quickly deteriorate.

One rumor proved true this past Monday when, in one of the buildings next to the park, called the World Trade Center, the federal government opened a five-hundred bed sleeping facility. Only fourteen people took advantage of it, which prompted Theo Francken, Belgium’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration, to comment, “They obviously don’t want it. The tent camp is apparently more comfortable. Perhaps we should have offered them a hotel?”

But even a cursory visit to the camp reveals the reasons why refugees might be hesitant to move into the shelter. For one thing, the WTC shelter is available only at night, meaning anyone sleeping in it would have to pack up their meager belingings and risk losing their tent space. For another, there is a community, of a sort, in the park now, support and camaraderie. In part, Theo Francken was right: the park is more comfortable. But his ignorance reflects another, darker side of the crises playing out across Europe. On Tuesday a journalist with a Hungarian television station was filmed kicking and tripping migrants, including a young girl. The Facebook page of the Plateforme Soutien, while filled overwhelmingly with messages of support and encouragement, is also marred by offers to donate pork to the mostly muslim refugees, and crude jokes about women in Hijabs.

“What are you going to do?” says one volunteer of the internet commenters. “It’s the internet. It’s full of assholes.”

Which is not to say there aren’t problems at the camp, too. Security and sanitation remain ongoing concerns. The presence of so many immigrants threatens to provoke a backlash against them, but this is an issue across Europe, not only in Belgium. And the core group of volunteers are exhausted. Many of them have been here every day since it started. Some have slept on site. They’re tired and often seem stretched thin. Yet overwhelmingly they are staying positive.

“We are inspired by these people who have come,” says one volunteer, a doctor from Leuven. “We’re giving to them, but they’re also giving to us.”

Then he tells the story of a man who arrived in the camp over the weekend, an English teacher from Syria. He had been crossing the Aegean Sea in a packed boat when it sank. He swam all night before eventually being picked up.

“When you’re stuck in the water and you don’t know where you are, what can you do?” he said. “You keep swimming.”

The camp is a place that alternately reinforces cynicism and removes all capacity for it.

“What are the cynics and the racists in the face of all this?” says another volunteer. “They’re nothing. I’m proud of what we’re doing here.”

After she finishes sorting piles of donated clothes, she’s planning to go over to the other side of the camp, pick up a hammer, and help the people who are trying to turn old pallets into a village.

Why Is There No Chinese Version of Jeopardy!?

By Austin Dean

The next time you’re in China, take a few minutes and flip on your television each night. Even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese, it’s not too hard to tell what’s going on. Reality television shows (zhenrenxiu) flood the airwaves and are easily intelligible. A show featuring a live studio audience, a number of singers, and people who appear to be commenting on their performances can only be an American Idol or America’s Got Talent clone. A guy standing in front of 24 women who look like they’re asking him questions is probably a dating show.

Some shows are adapted from the United States, others from South Korea, and some are home-grown; there are singing shows, dating shows, talent shows, travel shows, and programs that feature different, often mystifying, combinations of genres. With the adaptation of so many shows from abroad, one wonders why there is no Chinese version of the classic quiz show Jeopardy! In other words, why is there no Chinese Alex Trebek? After all, it’s a model that seems to work. The American show has been around in various iterations since the 1960s — a lot longer than reality TV, now only in its second decade (taking Survivor as a starting point).

Although there is no Jeopardy! equivalent, there are other types of quiz shows on Chinese television.

The crossword puzzle program I Know (Wo zhidao) recently began its second season on Sichuan provincial television. A co-venture between the station and the newspaper Southern Weekend, it features competitors trying to fill in crosswords. That might sound boring, but keep in mind that the American documentary Wordplay (2006) was essentially the same thing, and that found an audience. The hook to I Know is that three celebrities serve as “coaches” who select their “players.” When contestants run into trouble on a question, they can consult with their “coaches.” This season the “coaches” are Guo Jingming, author and director of the Tiny Times series, who was also on the first season of the show; the actress Liu Yan; and the actor Wang Gang. The competitors then square off for money prizes to put toward their education.

A popular show from last year, Chinese Spelling Hero (Hanzi yingxiong), like a spelling bee in the United States, was seemingly designed to make adults feel bad about themselves. The program featured middle- and elementary-school students writing out a series of progressively more difficult and obscure Chinese characters from memory. The show addressed a real issue: as more people rely on computers and mobile phones to input text, they forget how to actually write characters. The kids on this show didn’t have that problem and could leave adults (and foreign learners of Chinese) more than a little embarrassed. In fact, this concept could probably be expanded to something like a nationwide spelling bee after the American model. That would likely be a popular show, though it would also put more stress on the kids competing in it.

But there is no Chinese version of Jeopardy! Why? We should think about possible explanations for the lack of a Chinese Alex Trebek in terms of supply and demand.

On the supply side, a show like Jeopardy! would be awfully difficult to produce in the Chinese context because there are so many sensitive topics in the country. Entire categories in the arts and humanities — modern Chinese history, Chinese artists, political philosophers — would be subject to intense scrutiny. A 2014 miniseries about the life of Deng Xiaoping, covering 1976 to 1984, was in the works for quite some time, requiring approval from various layers of the Chinese government. Imagine how long it would take the Chinese bureaucracy to sign off on a category of questions based on “The Life of Mao Zedong” or “Culture of the 1980s.” That’s a committee that no one wants to be on.

On the demand side, there are already plenty of outlets for people to satiate their desire for a bit of mental exercise. Beyond the shows listed above, people can choose from a number of mobile apps. Take a trip on a subway in Beijing or Shanghai and you’ll likely spot at least a few people playing endless rounds of 2048. Offline, there are popular “escape the room” challenges, where a group of people are locked in a place and must solve a series of problems in order to get out. Why do you need a show like Jeopardy! when there’s so much else available?

A final factor is the most speculative. What we might term “quiz-bowl” culture does not seem as strong in China as in the United States. A lot of American high schools have quiz-bowl teams, and their competitions are featured on local television stations. Though certain aspects of American culture are seeping into high-school life for some Chinese students — such as prom and debate — it does not seem that “quiz-bowl” culture has made many inroads. And, again, there are plenty of other competitions that draw the attention of students and their parents, particularly the math and science Olympiads.

Earlier this year, Lorne Michaels, long-time producer of Saturday Night Live, and Sohu, a Chinese internet company, agreed to develop a Chinese version of the popular late-night sketch comedy show. Of course, one of the classic SNL skits is a parody of Celebrity Jeopardy! with Will Ferrell playing Alex Trebek. If the Chinese version of Saturday Night Live actually happens, there will be no similar skit to look forward to. But the other reality TV shows on the air in China should provide fertile enough comedic ground. Stay tuned.





Blurred Lines

By Stephen Dau

This is the second in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

It’s Sunday afternoon, which means that it’s time for a General Assembly. The largest and best organized group operating in the refugee camp in Brussels is called the Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés Bruxelles. The Plateforme is so well organized that even though they have not yet been in existence for a week, they are already holding a plenary. There were some questions as to the time and place of the meeting, finding a space large enough, whether to hold it in the refugee camp itself, or at some other location, but by four o’clock on Sunday afternoon these questions are resolved, and nearly a thousand people descend on the large plaza in front of the Gare du Nord, which is about a block from the camp.

Signs have been placed around the plaza. A speaker system has been set up to amplify announcements. Accommodations are made for Dutch and English speakers, but the working language is French. Within half an hour, the thousand people–who, it must be remembered, are not professional relief workers, but novice volunteers–have broken into working groups. There’s a working group for logistics and a working group for mobilization and a working group for cooking. Each volunteer chooses which working group he or she wishes to join. This being Brussels, which is home to most of the EU governing structure, the best attended working groups appear to be “lobbying” and “communication.” The least attended appears to be “finance,” even though this word has been helpfully translated into English on the signs as “Money.” These are smart people, after all. They know a mire when they see one.

The working groups are just getting down to business when the speakers crackle to life. It has been suggested that an additional working group be formed, this one on “Psychology.” Many of the refugees have had difficult journeys, it is assumed. Efforts should be launched for their counseling.

One block away, the refugee camp has grown dramatically. Last Tuesday, the camp consisted of fifteen tents in the park in front of the Office for Foreigners. By Thursday, there were more than a hundred tents, mostly the thin, summertime dome tents families use to go camping. On Friday, three people from Médecins Sans Frontières, which is not even officially working at the camp, hauled in forty eight heavy duty emergency tents, with thermally insulated floors and walls and internal partitions. Within an hour they had taught available volunteers how to set them up. By nightfall on Friday the park was beginning to look less like a recreational campground and more like a proper refugee camp, the kind one might see on television.

Today the changes are even more dramatic. A rough estimate calculates nearly four hundred tents present in the park, in some areas pitched so closely together that it is impossible to walk between them. Large tarpaulins are tied together and strung between trees. Wooden pallets are being pried apart and turned into everything: tables and benches, shelves, counter tops. Pallet boards have been fastened six meters end-to-end and used to prop up the tarps, like the pole in a circus tent. Propane stoves have been set up. Canvas lean-tos, which last week had been used as shelters, now house a volunteer information office, a refugee reception area, and a logistics and coordination center.

The refugees keep coming. One guess holds that there are between one hundred and three hundred new arrivals each day. They simply appear, no one seems to know how or whence, materializing on the street with the entirety of their worldly possessions in bags on their backs. There are no formal intake procedures, and very little in the way of registration, aside from a list Médecins du Monde keeps detailing those who have received medical attention. Estimates of the total number of people in the camp vary, from seven hundred and fifty on the low end to fifteen hundred on the high end.

Back in the plaza, the working groups have outlined plans for a lobbying strategy and a focused communications effort. The long-term issues involved in the feeding and sanitation of a refugee camp have been discussed, and mitigation measures planned. The finance working group has run into some trouble while trying to work out how to get pocket money to refugees while not running afoul of accounting regulations. The Plateforme isn’t a formal charitable organization, after all. It’s just a bunch of people who met up on Facebook.

Most of Brussels carries on about its regular business, largely oblivious to what’s going on in the park, aside from the occasional news report. But the existence of the refugee camp seems to have energized the more charitably inclined residents of Brussels, and of Europe more broadly. Public opinion seems to have tipped. Germany has announced that it is prepared to take in as many as eight hundred thousands new immigrants. Juha Sipila, the President of Finland, has offered the use of his home to shelter refugees. The Pope has opened the Vatican to them. Groups of Germans have begun gathering in train stations, cheering refugees who make it in, like marathoners crossing a finish line.

Entirely by coincidence, the Plateforme’s General Assembly in the plaza has coincided with the annual staging of the Brussels Color Run. People covered in what looks like vibrant chalk dust filter through the busily engaged working groups like pixies buzzing a church service. Some of them stop and begin chatting with the Plateforme volunteers. A few sit down on the ground. It seems like perhaps they might be interested in helping out.

At the camp a school has been set up, and volunteers teach children French and English and Dutch and play games and paint faces. Children play football for hours and chase each other around the camp. Even grown men have begun to play.

The donations have been organized. What had once been piles of shoes and sweaters and trousers strewn on the ground are now carefully sorted and labeled and placed in tents behind fences, where people queue to request needed items, rather than scavenging around through the piles. Donated food is available everywhere. Kebabs and flatbread and baguettes and bottled water. The Al Islam charity brings hundreds of halal dinners of chicken and rice every day. Local mosques provide huge vats of couscous and mutton. Word has gone out that donations are no longer needed. Volunteers line up at the volunteer registration office, even when they are told that volunteering, at this point, means donning rubber gloves and cleaning out the toilets. The storage tents at the camp are full. The warehouses of charitable organizations around Belgium are full. The basements of churches and community centers are full.

Underneath the joy and the plenty, tension lurks. The same energy and altruism that has energized volunteers and comforted refugees is now being bent toward other purposes. People who have not yet heard that donations are no longer needed are still donating. They drive in from The Netherlands, from Germany, from Northern France. They rent moving trucks and fill them with donations. In Brussels, local gangs are alert to the excess, and have begun lurking at the edges of the camp, swarming the cars and trucks when they stop, hauling off their contents to resell at flea markets and night shops. Volunteers in yellow vests are sent out to shoo them away. Always adaptable, some of the gang members go to the volunteer booth and obtain yellow vests of their own.

In another part of the camp a group of volunteers gathers around a small tent. There was a boy in the tent yesterday, a teenager who had arrived at the camp alone, without parents or siblings, who would speak to no one and who laid in the tent all day crying. Today the tent is empty and stinks of urine, and no one knows where to boy is. Other volunteers circulate a picture of a child who has gone missing, her mother frantic.

There is so much food around, and it is so freely available, that the city’s homeless population has begun migrating to the camp. Groups of men with red faces and cold, bloodshot eyes sit on the low hill overlooking the tents and swill beer. Marijuana smoke wafts through the groups of kids playing football. The sign at the entrance to the camp that directed people to the Plateforme’s Facebook page has been replaced by one that says “Slaughter Capitalism.” A group of undocumented migrants, les sans papiers, teaches the refugee kids protest songs. The edges are blurring. Refugees are now offering food to the homeless people. It’s becoming difficult to tell who is a refugee, who is a second- or third-generation immigrant, who is homeless, who is a gang member, who is a volunteer. The camp is quickly becoming a gathering point for anyone who can fit the sum total of their worldly possessions into a trash bag.

Despite all this, the mood in the camp is generally upbeat. Occasionally, in places, it is even joyous. The recent arrivals are still nervous, still distrusting, still scared. They sit exhausted in the dust and look off into the middle distance. They gather their possessions around them in trash bags and stare death at anyone who approaches. But those who have been here for a few days have begun to lighten. There is food. There is shelter. There is singing and dancing, and even a drum to beat out a rhythm. The refugees are beginning to resemble a tribe that is celebrating its arrival in the promised land. One volunteer observes that it is all starting to feel a little bit like Glastonbury.

This Is a Refugee Camp

By Stephen Dau

This is the first in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

This is a refugee camp. It’s a bright, sunny morning and the camp is just visible through the trees, with splotches of the reds and greens and blues of recreational dome tents and tarpaulins scattered among the tall brown tree trunks.  The refugee camp is located in a lightly wooded park in the center of Brussels, surrounded by glass-and-steel skyscrapers and a three-building apartment block. There’s a football pitch. There’s a basketball court. The park looks and feels a bit like Bryant Park, in Manhattan, except that it’s a little run-down and there is no skating rink. Also, it’s a refugee camp. That’s impossible! one might think. There hasn’t been a refugee camp in a major European city since, when? The Second World War, right? And yet here it is. 2015. A refugee camp in the middle of Brussels.

From a distance, the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels looks a little bit like a campground. It’s wooded. There are tents. There are no open campfires, but that’s true of lots of campgrounds in Europe. A closer look at this particular campground, though, reveals piles of clothes in the grass, and tarps stretched over clothes lines, and large, military looking tents with the words Médecins du Monde and Médecins Sans Frontières printed on their sides and lots of people, men mostly, though not exclusively, standing around as though waiting for something. A small group of women and children bunch together, in the middle of the camp, surrounded by mingling men.

There has been some debate, lately, about whether the refugees living in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels are actually refugees, or if maybe they should be referred to as migrants. The British and American press tend to call them migrants. Mostly, that’s because migrants can be dealt with through existing bureaucratic structures. Migrants are safe. Migrants are business as usual. But refugees constitute an emergency. The French press knows this is an emergency. The French press calls them refugees. Migrants seek opportunity. Refugees flee wars. These people are clearly refugees.

Belgium doesn’t really have a refugee problem. Italy has a refugee problem. Greece has a refugee problem. Calais has a refugee problem. Hungary likes to think that it has a refugee problem, except that it doesn’t, because none of the refugees really want to stay in Hungary since, as many of them will tell you if you ask, Hungary sucks. Belgium doesn’t really have a refugee problem, either. Belgium, typically, has an administrative problem. A bureaucratic problem. The problem is that the Office for Foreigners, which is where all the refugees who make it to Belgium have to go to register after they arrive, in hopes of securing asylum status and its accompanying promise of residence permission and housing subsidies and perhaps even language classes and job training, or, as you or I would call it, subsistence, announced this week that they would process no more than 250 applications per day. That’s as many as can possibly be handled over the course of a normal workday, it was said. It’s understandable, really. The Office for Foreigners is small. The staff are bureaucrats. They’re overwhelmed. There are probably union rules involved. Expecting anything more from them is like turning up at the Department of Motor Vehicles and expecting mercy. Still, the fact that the Foreign Office will only process 250 refugees a day means that 1000 refugees are camped in the refugee camp in the park across the street from their offices, waiting their turn.

As far as refugee camps go, it’s not too bad. People are smiling. They’re eating. They’re smoking cigarettes. They’re searching through piles of clothing for something their size and style. Families are huddled around their tents, talking, eating, talking some more. An old man plays a recorder. A volunteer reads a book to two kids, one of whom does not seem that into it. Someone finds a football–someone always finds a football–and several of the guys begin kicking it around. One of the volunteers, a girl in a yellow vest, intercepts the ball and begins kicking it, too. The boys seem skeptical at first, but then she nutmegs one of them, and in no time she is sending in crosses that earn respect.

There are other people, too, in the refugee camp, aside from the refugees. For one, there are journalists. There are a lot of journalists. There are journalists everywhere. There seem to be more journalists, per capita, in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels than there are at many major sporting or political events. In large part, this is because a refugee camp located in the middle of Brussels is very easy to get to. There are print journalists and radio journalists and photojournalists and television journalists, and they wander around equipped and configured in whatever formations their particular discipline of journalism requires. There are the double-SLR slinging photographers and the wedge-shaped TV cohorts: reporter, with cameraman and sound engineer flanking. There are the one-man-bands of radio, chatting into microphones shaped like ice cream cones. Several journalists carry nothing more than an iPhone, the end-all, be-all tool of the shoe stringer. There are also the lonely, somewhat befuddled print journalists, dealing only in words, possessed of nothing more than a notebook and a pencil and they, as often as not, are the ones who tell the best stories.

Besides the refugees waiting for something and the journalists, there are also some other people. Some of these people wear the fluorescent yellow visibility vests that many cyclists here wear, but with name tags duct taped to their chests, and they have walkie-talkies and clipboards and they stride purposefully around and will tell newcomers to the camp how they can be helpful, if said newcomer is so inclined, and they will tell the many people who show up with boxes and garbage bags of food and clothing and medicine where to put and how to arrange those items and they appear to know what they are talking about. How nice, one might be tempted to think, that there are trained people here to oversee the running of this refugee camp so incongruously located in the center of Brussels. How good that the operation is being run by professionals.

Except that they are not professionals. Most of these people have never been anywhere near a refugee camp in their lives. They are students and housewives and actors and waitresses and managers and electricians. They are members of groups that have been organized via social media, groups with names like Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés Bruxelles and Community Support for Refugees in Belgium, groups that did not even exist a week ago, but which now have tens of thousands of members on Facebook. Absent any official government coordination of the situation, they are the only thing constituting an authority in the camp. These people, all of them volunteers, are some of the nicest, friendliest people one could ever hope to meet, especially in Belgium, which is not exactly known for its niceness and friendliness. But a simple inquiry reveals, underneath that niceness and friendliness, an unmistakable anger.

“I’m here because I’m pissed off,” one of them says. “I’m here because our government is not doing anything to help these people.”

Someone else, overhearing the conversation, says, “I’m here because I’ve spent the past ten years feeling powerless, and I’m tired of it.”

“I’m here,” says someone else, “because the only way to defeat inhumanity is with humanity.”

Then everyone stops to look at something. The television cameras have all been trained on what looks to be some major event around a small folding table in the middle of the camp. It’s impossible to see what it is though, because so many cameras have stopped to video it. No one can see past the large cameras, and everyone’s curiosity is piqued. Finally, a different angle, a different view, and someone realizes that all the cameras, in their hyper-vigilent pursuit of symbolic moments, are recording footage of soup being ladled from a pot into a bowl. This is what passes for drama in what is essentially a large, open-air waiting room. When a child begins crying in his mother’s arms, the cameras click like paparazzi snapping glimpses of royal children.

It’s often mentioned at the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels that the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels is only one of hundreds of refugee camps all over Europe, most of them offering their refugees far worse conditions than this one, as at Calais, and Lesbos, and Keleti Station. What largely goes unsaid here is that the refugees who have made it this far are lucky. What goes unsaid is that some in government claim the problem is that conditions are simply too good here, that the refugees have it easy, and need to be discouraged from coming in the first place. Just this week David Cameron said that letting in more asylum seekers would do nothing to address the underlying problems driving the migration. And he’s right. The underlying problems driving migration are war and repression and economic ruin and the Roman-arena fascist freak show that is ISIS. The underlying problems will take a generation, or more, to sort out. But the immediate problem? The immediate problem is that right now there are a thousand refugees camped out at a refugee camp at a park in the middle of Brussels, and hundreds of thousands more in other camps around the continent. Admitting more refugees will do everything to resolve that.

Eventually one of the volunteers removes his bright yellow vest and yawns and stretches. It’s getting late, he says. As it often does in Belgium, the weather has shifted. The sky has clouded over. There’s a chill in the air. One of the volunteers has begun shaking with cold and fatigue, and someone offers hand warmers and a jacket. A few volunteers have offered to stay in the park overnight, pitching their tents alongside those of the refugees. But most of them are going home, now. They’re cold. They’re tired. They’re hungry. And by now it has begun to rain.


Crime and Penmanship: A Q&A with A Yi

By Alec Ash

A Yi is a Chinese novelist with an unusual story. Born in 1976, he was a police officer until the age of 32, when he switched to writing full-time. Although he has published several story collections and novellas, A Yi is yet to break through into the mainsteam, partly due to his gritty themes. His first novel in English, A Perfect Crime, translated by Anna Holmwood, came out in June. Originally published in 2012 with the Chinese title “What Shall I Do Next?”, the story is of a provincial high school student who murders a female classmate. The narrator tells us dispassionately of his crime, flight, and trial, while everyone around him tries to make sense of what he did. It’s a short read that stays with you long after, and among the most thought-provoking new Chinese fiction I’ve read in a while. I asked A Yi a few questions to try and make sense of it myself.

ALEC ASH: Your novel A Perfect Crime is ostensibly a simple story about a criminal, but in the telling it raises much more complex social questions. What aspects of contemporary Chinese society did you want to reflect in particular?

A YI: Most importantly I wanted to reflect a kind of isolation. Solitude can be poetic in works of art, but in this novel it’s a more bestial kind of solitude, and hard to resist.

I started to collect material for the novel in 2006, when there was a criminal case in Xi’an: a high school student murdered a female classmate. While he was arrested and put on trial, he had a sangfroid that seemed beyond his young years. What he said was like he was talking in his sleep. No-one knew the true motive of his crime — not the police, the prosecutor, the judge, the journalists, the psychologists, or the public. Perhaps even he himself wasn’t clear about it. I tried to use a novel to answer that question: Why did he commit murder?

Did you arrive at an answer?

I think it’s because he wanted to break free of that solitude that is so hard to break free from. The ennui and the emptiness. He’s a student who left his hometown, a parasite living off his relatives in the provincial capital, without any way to fit into city life, or to return to where he came from. So how did he break free? He wanted to play a game of cat and mouse with the police. He runs, they chase. To bait the police into following him, he killed a victim whose death would bring about the outrage of society: a talented model female student.

And so the novel is indulging in an extreme kind of speculation. It can’t explain the true facts of the Xi’an case, but the detachment and solitude which the real criminal expressed is hard to forget. That isolation was embodied in his vacant and cool demeanor. He was indifferent to others around him, and indifferent to himself. I think that in China, even in the world, there are more and more people like that who are unfathomably banished from society and can’t find the sense of true existence that they seek.

What reader did you have in mind for this novel, and did you hope that reading it would change their view of society?

I wrote it for anyone who is willing to think about current Chinese society. I hope they will think about the world they live in, and their place in society. There’s no question that people’s place in their society is increasingly remote, low, and useless. And I hope that my readers can find a sense of heroism from ancient times, and not just be pitilessly manipulated by their society. To be creative. To be responsible. And not to become like the protagonist of the novel, a shameful reptile.

But in reality, more and more people are giving up their sense of self. I call this “passive transference.” In today’s society, so many people have mysteriously transferred their sense of self elsewhere, like they don’t need their own identity. My protagonist is a classic model of this.

In his indifference to his own fate, even his desire to get caught and prosecuted publicly, does he want to make a statement to the world?

He doesn’t want to express anything. His crazed behavior is also a kind of idleness. He’s too lazy to explain himself to others. That’s the most frightening of all. He doesn’t care about himself; he doesn’t care about others. He hastily finishes is own life, with no feeling or pity.

The novel strongly reminded me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Was it an influence?

It was a huge influence. Before I started writing, I read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Stranger by Camus. Meursault [the main character in The Stranger] was in turn influenced by the main character of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. And my own protagonist was influenced by Meursault. They are both indifferent to their fate, excessively cold and detached. But Meursault is fundamentally good and honest, or at least what emerges from his life is good and honest, while my protagonist is more malicious.

As I was working on the novel, I also deliberately re-watched the US film Taxi Driver. For a long time I’ve been obsessed about writing something with an existential timbre.

The last word the protagonist tells us in the novel is “Goodbye,” although the Chinese literally means “See you later.” Do you think this kind of character, or a repeat of the Xi’an case, could reoccur in Chinese society?

There’s a secret: I never gave the protagonist a name. I did that because I naively thought that if he didn’t have a name then he wouldn’t be easily copied. I was worried that this kind of story could spread widely. I came to write this novel through a real case — to sum it up, analyze it, conjecture about, and invent it like it was a new model of crime in China. He didn’t kill for money or sex, out of anger or hate, but only because of a kind of regret in his spirit.

Some people call me a prophet for this. After publication, every time a hard-to-explain murder case happened, some readers thought that I had prophesied it. One after another they @ed me on Weibo, calling to my attention every time there was a murder that reminded them of A Perfect Crime. But in reality I don’t understand this new type of murderer at all.

On a less moribund note, what are your thoughts on contemporary Chinese literature? Do you think mainland authors are capturing the true flavor of Chinese society?

Contemporary Chinese literature is in a stage of rapid development. In the last few years, writing alone still can’t guarantee an author can make a living, but they are getting more prestige. Because of that, there are at least no fewer Chinese writers. I’ve noticed there are more and more post-90s authors [born after 1990], and their writing is very good. Maybe the next great author will come from their ranks. If not, it will be from the generation born after 2000.

But Chinese contemporary literature at present is still breaking into its own society. I think there are some outstanding works, but so far none that have honestly reflected this society, or genuinely thought it through. The masterwork that will move a whole generation of Chinese, and express what they find painful to endure, has yet to be written.

This interview was conducted on email in Chinese and translated into English

 You can read one of A Yi’s best short stories, The Curse, in English here, translated by Julia Lovell.

There Be Dragons

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliché. If you ever go looking for books about China, you know how many of them have “dragon” in the title? Like all of them, practically.

As soon as I read the opening lines of Lisa Brackmann’s new China-set crime thriller, Dragon Day, I knew I was going to enjoy it every bit as much as I had anticipated. At initial glance, the book indulges in the two ultimate China clichés — that “dragon” title and its red cover —but with those first four sentences, Brackmann delivers a big wink to her readers: Don’t worry. You might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea.

This will come as no surprise to readers of the first two books in Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she previously discussed in a China Blog Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom). Anti-heroine Ellie is a Percocet-dependent injured Iraq War vet who moves to Beijing with her husband, Trey, an employee at a Blackwater-like security firm. After Trey leaves her for his young Chinese mistress (speaking of clichés …), Ellie decides to remain in China because she’s as at home there as she is anywhere — which is to say, not at all.

Her attempts to build a life as an art manager in Beijing are repeatedly interrupted by murder, politics, and conspiracy. But while in other mystery series the protagonists’ tendency to stumble upon dead bodies can strain credulity, this same plot move seems natural in Ellie’s case: operating in a world of dissident artists and super-rich collectors, and with her lingering ties to the American defense apparatus, Ellie is surrounded on all sides by people who work in the shadows. Sometimes, murder is simply the only way they know to get the job done.

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Ellie is not always a sympathetic protagonist. She’s wounded and closed-off, unable to accept the help that people offer. She should really be nicer to her mother, who has come to live with Ellie in Beijing. And she often makes the wrong choices, fully knowing that they’re mistakes but unable to stop herself. Still, I find Ellie — cynical, paranoid, and profane as she is — a compelling character with a unique voice.

Brackmann has stated repeatedly that Dragon Day is her last Ellie book; there is a limit to the number of times a character can be endangered before a series jumps the shark (see: Outlander), and she doesn’t want to risk reaching that point. And while I understand that, I know I’m not alone among her readers in lamenting that we only get three volumes in Ellie’s story. Dragon Day is a more than satisfying end to the trilogy, wrapping up many of the long-term plot threads while resisting the urge to give Ellie an uncharacteristically happy ending. Ellie, after all, would never stand for such a cliché.