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Anonymous woman holding #MeToo sign. (Credit: Pixabay)

The first time someone touched me without my consent, I was in middle school. I think it was in the 7th grade and I was turned to my friends who were sitting at the desk behind me, when a boy grabbed my left breast out of nowhere. I was wearing a purple sweater and a training bra that barely gave any shape to my still-growing breasts. At least, I think that was the first time. It happened a lot in my middle school; it definitely happened to most of my friends.

I tried to speak out. I told our homeroom teacher and she yelled at the boys in our class in front of the girls, telling them that this was wrong. But no real disciplinary measures were taken. Most of the boys (at least in my class) engaged in non-consensual touching, and it seemed that the school didn’t want to deal with disciplining such a large number of students. Eventually, our complaints were simply met with different versions of “boys will be boys”. They were just in “that phase” when they were discovering their sexual urges and, apparently, no one was going to stop these boys from acting on them.

Two memories from middle school stand out. The first is of a few of the more “popular” boys making fun of another, less “popular”, boy – we’ll call him Filip — because he had never felt a girl’s butt. I even remember thinking it strange that he hadn’t. I, a girl, had internalized the gendered logic that the boys in my class had absorbed and then recreated. What made one masculine was sexual power over feminine people. Eventually, Filip got this mark of masculinity, too. There was no adult around to tell them that this logic was harmful because, of course, this was the logic of the adult world as well. 

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BCB Promotional Poster for Champ of the Camp (2014). (Credit: BCB)

Mahmoud Kaabour’s film Champ of the Camp (2014)  opens up with the song of a South Asian man set against the backdrop of a modernistic building covered in glass windows. The song is called “Long Separation” and the setting is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This sort of  juxtaposition becomes thematic of the movie: the poor migrant worker stands in front of a luxurious building that was built by people like him but that will never be a space he could inhabit. The man sings: “No one knows my unknown story.” Through the film, Kaabour attempts to tell the story of this man and many others like him in the first ever documentary about the controversial labor camps in the UAE.

On the 7th of December, BCB showed just who and what are behind the shiny skyscrapers of the Emirates. We were lucky enough to have the Lebanese/UAE director Mahmoud Kaabour at the screening to discuss his award-winning documentary Champ of the Camp with us. The documentary was filmed in the UAE labor camps that house migrant workers from South Asia who are mainly employed as manual laborers in construction. For years, no one was allowed to film in these camps as it would cause controversy for the UAE: This kept these workers practically invisible to the international community. After years of trying to get the film permits, Kaabour and his team were finally allowed to shoot this film under the guise of making a documentary about a singing/talent competition for the migrant workers organized by Western Union.

“We were talking about the labor issue without talking about the labor issue. Otherwise, [the UAE government] would’ve shut us down,” explained Kaabour after the screening. Even though its tone is neutral, just with its existence, The Champ of the Camp has given the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers of the UAE a voice — a narrative voice as well as a singing one —  that they sorely lacked. 

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The Book Cover for Michel Houellebecq’s English Edition of Submission. (Credit: https://www.waterstones.com/)

Huge bookstores have always made me feel as excited as a little kid in a toy store. The possibilities of what you can find there – good or bad – gives me the sense of going on a Sunday afternoon adventure. So when I went to Dussmann a few weeks ago, looking for no book in particular, I found myself reading the first two chapters of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission [*1] – a book of speculative fiction about the Islamic take-over in France made possible by a grand coalition aimed at defeating Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

It felt so wrong to enjoy writing from a man I had heard to be notoriously bigoted — it was a justified kind of shame. It was probably the opening line to his second chapter that got me hooked: “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time”(10). It tapped into my greatest fears of being a literature major: Why am I doing this? Who for? How likely is it that I am one of the talented ones who gets to teach this discipline to the next generation of readers?

Reluctantly, I bought the book. I had to see what this book, whose central theme is politics, looked like, knowing that its author belongs to the social class that would vote for Macron but who doesn’t have a strong partisanship and claims to only cast a “Yes” vote on a “Frexit” referendum. When I bought it, I have to admit, I wasn’t consciously doing so to “engage with the other side”. It was more of an experience elicited by an almost morbid curiosity – it was going to be my guilty pleasure that I was to tell no one about. I had hoped that reading Submission would be like watching a movie whose message you didn’t agree with: You might not like it, but you move on.

However, this is not what engaging with my first Houellebecq book was like. 

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Petite France, a historic district in Strasbourg and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Grande Île. (Credit: getyourguide.com)

On the 28th August 2017, I crossed from Germany into France — from the little town of Kehl into the city of Strasbourg where I will remain for the upcoming academic year as part of the Erasmus exchange program with BCB. As I had never visited France, I was more than excited for my Erasmus Exchange, and curious about the similarities and differences I would find between these two nation-states at the heart of the European Union. But, despite the attention I afforded the view from the bus window, I’m still not sure exactly when I crossed the border. There were no bells or whistles, no fanfare, no berets or baguettes in sight. The landscape remained unchanged and my fellow passengers continued to doze, or stare at their mobiles, uninterrupted. It was only when we disembarked that I noticed how road-signs and the displays in shop windows were no longer in German, but French. Listening in on the conversations of those who buzzed around the terminal, I quickly recognised its distinctive melody, a smooth and slippery river of sound falling unintelligibly upon my dumb ears.

Almost a month later and I can’t help but think the true wonder isn’t how similar these neighbouring countries seemed to me initially, but how language and culture are preserved despite their geographic proximity, and how deeply the notion of the border runs within the human psyche.

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Charlottesville Anti-Racist Counter-Protesters Face White Supremacists from the “Unite the Right” Rally

I had thought that the scariest sight that weekend would be the images of the “Unite the Right” rally. Men can be scary enough on their own. Men with violent ideologies are simply terrifying. The white supremacist rally was toxically masculine, looked utterly fascist and sounded like a historical period that should never be repeated. The Nazi and KKK symbology, the light from their absurd Tiki torches, the Confederate flags, the rampant anti-Semitism, the collared shirts that made them look almost respectable, the chants of “Blood and Soil”, the Swastikas. Even following it online was too much. The white supremacist rally on August 12 felt too evil to be real, yet it wasn’t quite surprising or something out of the blue.

But then that car ran into the protesters, and it was worse than we could ever imagine. 19 people were injured and one was killed in a deliberate attack by a fascist extremist.

“Just stay safe please,” I irrationally felt compelled to text someone I care about simply because 1) he happened to be – although a hundred miles away from the action — in the same state at the time of the chaos, and 2) because he had gotten his life threatened by white racists in Virginia years ago in Obama’s supposedly post-racial America.

Post-Trump, though, it seems that even white people can be victims of white supremacy. Heather Heyer, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, died that day while fighting fascists. The last post on her Facebook wall has turned her into a martyr for anti-fascism: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”     

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Macedonian police officers armed with riot gear in front of the Macedonian government building during a Colorful Revolution protest commemorating the death of Martin Neskovski. (Credit: Elena Gagovska)

“Actually, the military is investing a lot of money into programs for women’s equality,” said one of the participants in a workshop during the “Bridging Backgrounds” conference for Macedonian high schoolers about tolerance, interethnic understanding and human rights that was organised with funding from the Davis Foundation. I couldn’t help but let out a laugh. Given that I was a volunteer at the conference and a co-facilitator of the workshop, this wasn’t the most appropriate thing to do. .

“Sorry for laughing; that’s just not at all the feminism I subscribe to,” I said — not because I thought that the statement he had made was untrue, but because we clearly had two very different feminist visions.

None of the other participants or my co-facilitator were surprised that my views differed from those of the buff, toxically masculine Macedonian teenager with the inexplicable and annoying American accent – we’ll call him Nikola. Being the son of a Macedonian military official, Nikola loves the military as an institution: the organization of it, the (morally questionable) work they do, their values, everything. But, beyond this, Nikola loves the US military in particular. At one point during the conference, outside of the formal educational activities, Nikola proclaimed that it saddened him that, as a non-US citizen, he can not become a marine. It seemed to me that Nikola thought of himself as an American and had the accent to prove it. I have met Americans who don’t question the actions of their country or military, but this was something else. When I asked Nikola if he approved of all of the actions the US military has taken, he said yes. When I asked “Even Yemen?”, he had no idea what I was talking about, completely oblivious to the US backing of the devastating two-year-long conflict that has left the country in ruins. To Nikola, the US military is not something to be questioned, but worshiped and even seen as a ground for progressive politics of female liberation.

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Radiohead Promotional Banner. (Credit: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Together with my family on June 16th, I attended one of the best live shows I have ever seen: Radiohead played in a park in Monza, Italy, in front of more than 50 000 people. We accidentally bought fan pit tickets and got to be only 20 meters away from the stage. Even the opening acts left me with unforgettable, and amusing memories: a 50-something white guy wearing a baseball hat danced a little too enthusiastically to Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in White World” while James Blake messed up one of his songs and joked about not knowing his own music. And then, as the sun began to set, Radiohead’s two-hour long concert opened spectacularly with a light show and the song “Daydreaming”, which was  written for Thom Yorke’s late wife. I will forever remember the guy with the purple bandana next to us who seemed to be Radiohead’s biggest fan, jumping with such enthusiasm to every jumpable song — from “Idioteque” to “Myxomatosis” to “Ful Stop”. I couldn’t help but find the middle-aged couple in front of me adorable as they kissed every time Thom Yorke sang “You’re all I need” in the song “All I Need”. I even enjoyed the concert when my brother, I, two guys in the back and the guy with the bandana asked for “Let Down” to be played but didn’t get our wish; the irony is not lost on me, and somehow the other 25 songs they played more than made up for it.  

About a month and a half later, as much as I loved the concert and kept looking back at the awkwardly cute family selfie we took, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ongoing controversy over  one of the concerts in the band’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” tour: on July 19th, Radiohead performed in Tel Aviv, Israel.  

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Skopje Pride Weekend graphic. (Credit: Igor Delov and Bisera Krckovska)

The first time I attended a Macedonian Pride related event was in June 2016 when I saw African-American intersex-born, genderqueer performer, artist, and generally wonderful human being Vaginal Davis. She projected some of her experimental films and gave one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve witnessed. Anders Stefanovski — one of my best and queerest friends — and I were then taking part in a celebration of  Pride Month in Skopje under VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity)’s right-wing, toxically heteronormative reign. The participating crowd was mostly queer and not too big. With Anders still finishing his exam sessions in the Netherlands and the Social Democrats coming to power just a few weeks before this year’s Skopje Pride Weekend, the event felt much different this time around. 

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