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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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Gala für Alle Promotional Graphic. (Credit: The Coalition Berlin)

“I would start by saying that the protest was twofold. Firstly, we protested Ivanka Trump visiting Berlin as an official representative of the United States: Her presence represents perfectly the hypocrisy and nepotism of the Trump administration. Secondly, we were protesting the event that was the context for her visit: the Women 20 Summit.” Julia Damphouse (HAST, BA2), one of the organizers of the Gala für Alle — a protest I was also a part of — explains about a month after the event. Organized by The Coalition Berlin — a broad-based group of (left-wing) organizations and individuals from Berlin whose goal is to fight the recent rise of right-wing extremism — the Gala für Alle took place near Branderburger Tor on the 25th of April in front of the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, which hosted the W20 summit. This event wasn’t simply a protest in the classical sense, but  it included music to which people could dance and live performances. In addition to the festive aspect, this street party was certainly able to also make its demands heard through signs, chants and speeches. This article will be a late reflection on the Gala, whose relevance persists, and will think about how we might approach events such as these in the future as neither Ivanka nor the G20 are going anywhere any time soon.

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Macedonian nationalists after forcefully entering the parliament building in Skopje on April 27th 2017 (Credit: Novatv.mk)

After (basically) fascists break into your country’s parliament on Thursday the 27th April 2017, you feel as if so often you’ve discussed right-wing populism in too academic of a setting. You’ve talked about the causes and cures to a movement that is only now getting underway in the West, while this is the only kind of government you ever really remember living under in your home country. You find yourself unable to intellectualize something you and many others tried to prevent. This time, you feel much more helpless, and your reaction is much more outwardly distraught. You think about how there is a debate about school policy on potentially triggering texts on campus the next day, and you wonder if any trigger warning (in the Internet meaning of the word, not the psychological one) could have prepared you for this. What would the trigger warnings for Thursday’s events have been, anyway?

TW: “Anti-Albanian Rhetoric”; “Violence against Women”; “Neo-fascism”; “Imagery that Might Make a Macedonian in Berlin Feel Powerless”.

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