Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Draw me a ribosome

Those who have read Saint-Exupery's Little Prince will easily remember a key scene: the Little Prince, after appearing out of nowhere, stands in front of the narrator and asks: "Draw me a sheep!".

At our biology exam for 1st year students of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, we often repeat the "Draw me..." request. Instead of a sheep, the object to be drawn is some important biological structure, such as an antibody molecule, a metaphase chromosome, a ribosome etc. When we hesitate between the lowest passing grade (3) and the non-passing grade (2), the outcome of the exam can be determined by the student's drawing.

We are now in the middle of the June examination session, a hard time for everybody. What makes it even harder are those students who not only come to the exam poorly prepared but are unaware of it or simply do not care. These young men and women do not receive their well-deserved 2s with dignity. Instead, they argue that their knowledge is actually quite good, claim to be very anxious, or start crying - in essence, try to bully us and make us reconsider the grade.

Today, I had to examine a student whom I had taught in the summer semester. He had memorized many details but had omitted the basic stuff, an unfortunate combination not uncommon among freshmen. His idea of a chiasma looked like this:


Because he didn't know his selected topics, I told him to draw a ribosome. The result is shown below:

After that, and after hearing that histones are ribosomal components, I gave him a 2. He started to protest. I told him that this behavior was not wise and sent him away, making it clear that the exam was over for him.

So far, not the most pleasant performance but nothing out of the ordinary. Then, however, the student did something that really took the cake. He went to another teacher from our department and complained to her. He claimed that he had written and said everything, just made an error in his ribosome drawing; every other teacher would let him pass, but I failed him and his friend because they were both Muslims, and I had an anti-Muslim blog!

He apparently meant this blog, because I have no other blog in English. The friend in question had talked just before and had shown even less knowledge of biology than our hero; the idea that histones belong to the ribosome was originally his. As for what other teachers would decide... if he is reading this, I'd suggest him to show the drawings to a third party, preferably a Muslim biologist. My opinion is that very few teachers would let such a student pass, and they would be making an error of judgement.

If that young man had paid more attention to my words during the semester and to the educational files I gave him to read, he would most likely pass. Instead, he wasted time to research me, looking for arguments that if he wouldn't pass, this would be my fault. Or maybe it was his friends who tipped him about my blog. If so, they'd better warned him that I like asking about the ribosome.

I hope that at his next try to pass biology, the student will pick another examiner, because I do not want to see him more than he wants to see me. This is sad, because the exam is our best opportunity for individual, personal contact with students. And this opportunity is skewed in an unpleasant direction. The students who are poorly prepared cannot pass and come again. They often fail to learn from their mistakes and try to take the exam the same way over and over again, hoping for a different result. The good students come only once, pass and we do not see them anymore.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The part played by labor in the transition to man

 (Bulgarian readers can find the same post in Bulgarian here.)

This year, our Orthodox Easter coincided with Labor Day. This gives everyone a democratic choice what to celebrate. Our family of course opted for Easter with its amusing and tasty traditions: painted eggs, baked lamb with newly harvested potatoes, sweet Easter bread, chocolate bunnies and (for the children) egg hunt in the garden or the living-room. Labor Day has something to offer only to leftists and I regret that it has driven to oblivion good old May Day. At least, after the fall of communism we have no mandatory rallies on this day anymore. Let me honor the double holiday by writing a post that will treat both religion (though not exactly Christianity) and labor.

A pet peeve of mine is that the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin still cannot be purged out of our textbooks, and not only those of social sciences but even those of natural sciences. Bulgarian high school biology textbooks still discuss labor as one of the factors of anthropogenesis (i.e. human evolution); we even had this subject at the entrance exam of our University a month ago. The idea that humans owe their origin to labor is rooted in Engels' 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. To my annoyance, Wikipedia praises the work in question. The important thing, however, is that you can read a kilogram of modern scientific works on human origin and evolution without finding a word about the role of labor in this process. Actually, what distinguishes human (or pre-human) labor from the analogous activities of other animals? We don't call it "labor" when a squirrel gathers food supplies; why does the same count for labor if a human is doing it? Because the human is aware of what he is doing. In other words, it is not labor itself, it is consciousness that is important and (as we think) uniquely human.

Of course, questions about human origin have been asked for millenia before Engels. Each self-respecting religion discusses it at least briefly. In Norse mythology for example, gods have created humans in order to use them as allies in the final battle of Ragnarok that will put an end to the world as we know it. For that purpose, souls of dead warriors are collected in the hall of Valhalla. Pay attention that the Norse myth ascribes to gods selfish motivation for the creation of man and does not try to convince the human audience that the supreme god Odin loves them. The same "realism" can be found in other ancient mythologies and religions, including those in the cradle of human civilization - the Fertile Crescent.

The earliest preserved Mesopothamian tale of human creation is the Epic of Atrahasis. Preserved as a cuneiform script on clay tablets, the oldest of them dated to 17th century BC, it begins as follows:

"When the gods, instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads
The god's load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much.
"

Of course, those who could shirk the hard work, did it by forcing it on others:

"The seven great Anunna-gods were burdening
the
 [lesser] Igigi-gods with forced labor."

Allthough lesser, Igigi were gods nevertheless and the results of their labor were magnificent. Look e.g. at their irrigation canals:

"The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses
canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river
and the Euphrates thereafter.
Springs they opened from the depths,
wells ... they established...
They heaped up all the mountains.
"

However, after some time, they got fed up and went on strike and even something more:

"They counted years of drudgery,
... and forty years, too much!
... forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,
muttering down in the ditch:
"Let us face up to our foreman the prefect,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling!"...

"Now them, call for battle,
battle let us join, warfare!"
The gods heard his words:
[apparently, one of the Igigi has become leader of the rebellion]
they set fire to their tools,
they put fire to their spaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
to the gate of the warrior Enlil's abode...

It was night, half-way through the watch,
the house was surrounded, but the god did not know.
"

And what did the supreme god Enlil do when he finally knew what was going on? He sent to the rebels a messenger with the following question:

"Who is the instigator of this battle?
Who is the instigator of these hostilities?
Who declared war,
that battle has run up to the gate of Enlil?
...He transgressed the command of Enlil.
"

What a jerk, wasn't he? However, the lower gods like all serious rebels knew the importance of solidarity and gave the following reply:

"Everyone of us gods has declared war;
...Excessive drudgery has killed us,
our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much!
Now, everyone of us gods
has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.
"

The great gods urgently gathered in a divine council. The clever god Ea, also known by his Sumerian name Enki, said that the disaster was predictable and then proposed a solution:

"Ea made ready to speak,
and said to the gods, his brothers:
"What calumny do we lay to their charge?
Their forced labor was heavy, their misery too much!
Every day... the outcry was loud, we could hear the clamor...
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.
Let her create, then, a human, a man,
Let him bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god."

They summoned and asked the goddess
the midwife of the gods, wise Mami:
"Will you be the birth goddess, creatress of mankind?
Create a human being, that he bear the yoke,
let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil,
let man assume the drudgery of the god."
Nintu made ready to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"It is not for me to do it,
the task is Enki's.
He it is that cleanses all,
let him provide me the clay so I can do the making.
"

There was just a teensy, weensy problem: to create a rational being, the birth goddess (alternatively called Belet-ili, Nin-tu and Mami) didn't need only clay. She needed also the flesh and blood of another rational being, a sacrificed god. Mesopotamian gods did not age and had no natural death, but could be killed.

"Enki made ready to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,
let me establish a purification, a bath.
Let one god be slaughtered,
then let the gods be cleansed by immerson.
Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.
Let us hear the drum for the rest of the time.
From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain,
let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain."
The great Anunna-gods, who administer destinies,
answered "yes!" in the assembly.
"

The great Anunna-gods were quick to answer "yes", because they knew that the victim would not be chosen among them. One of the Igigi rebels, allegedly a leader of the rebellion, was made a scapegoat. His name is given as Aw-ilu, We-ila or Geshtu-e (the latter means "he who had intelligence"):

"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,
he established a purification, a bath.
They slaughtered Aw-ilu, who had the inspiration, in their assembly.
Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.
That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.
For the rest of the time they would hear the drum.
[i.e. the heartbeat]
From the flesh of the god the spirit remained.
It would make the living know its sign.
Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, the spirit remained.
After she had mixed the clay,
she summoned the Anunna, the great gods.
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.
Mami made rady to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.
I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.
You have bestowed clamor upon mankind.
I have released the yoke, I have made restoration."
They heard this speech of hers,
they ran, free of care, and kissed her feet, saying:
"Formerly we used to call you Mami,
now let your name be Belet-kala-ili (Mistress of all the gods)!
""

As we see, despite the pledge not to be forgotten, the poor victim was forgotten immediately, even by his former comrades. They were just too happy to be relieved of the hard work. From his flesh and blood mixed in the clay, seven men and seven women were created to become founders of mankind. This way, according to residents of ancient Mesopothamia, labor indeed had a decisive part in the transition of less organized matter to man: it motivated gods to create man.

By the way, Hebrews who placed their Garden of Eden between the Tigris and the Euphrates, were related to the people of Mesopothamia and, like them, spoke an Afroasiatic (Semitic) language. Their tale of human creation echoes the crucial role of labor: "The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it" (Genesis 2:15, a verse considered important by a Christian friend of mine.)

How did the mytho-history of man continue after his creation? Initially, Enlil was in his Heaven and all was well with the world. However, after a period of time, 1200 years to be precise, humans multiplied so much that their noise disturbed Enlil's sleep. Instead of finding some ear-plugs, he resorted to genocide: "Man multiplies rapidly, for 1200 years. Enlil sends plague to destroy Man. Enki teaches Atrahasis worship of Namtar, thus saves Mankind. Again Man multiplies 1200 years; Enlil sends drought. Enki teaches worship of Adad (rainstorm), saves Mankind. Again Man multiplies 1200 years; Enlil embargoes all goods --> famine.  Enki releases the fishes, saves Man. Again Man proliferates; Enlil sends Flood."

Ea/Enki had no room for maneuvering. He could not openly warn the humans, because he had pledged to the divine council not to reveal their secrets. So he sent a prophetic dream to his human friend called Atrahasis ("Very wise"). In the dream, Ea was standing in front of Atrahasis' house and talking not to its inhabitant but to the reed wall:

"Wall, listen to me!
Reed wall, pay attention to all my words!
Flee the house, build a boat,
forsake possessions, and save life!
"

After that, there is much lost text in the Epic of Atrahasis, but the story of the flood is told in detail in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ea gives Atrahasis instructions how to build the boat: "These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let hex beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures."

Such an enterprise apparently cannot be kept secret, so Atrahasis asks Ea what to tell the people and elders of his city. The god replies: "Tell them this: I have learnt that Enlil is wrathful against me, I dare no longer walk in his land nor live in his city; I will go down to the Gulf to dwell with Ea my lord. But on you he will rain down abundance, rare fish and shy wild-fowl, a rich harvest-tide." Ea can be quite cynical when he wishes.

Everything happens as predicted. Atrahasis boards the beat together with his family and the shipwrights. The scale of the disaster frightens even the gods, who are no longer sure that the flood has been a good idea: "Even the gods were terrified at the flood, they fled to the highest heaven, the firmament of Ann; they crouched against the walls, cowering like curs. Then Ishtar the sweet-voiced Queen of Heaven cried out like a woman in travail: "Alas the days -of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command thus evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean." The great gods of heaven and of hell wept, they covered their mouths."

As Atrahasis tells later: "For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the, flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face. Then I bowed low, I sat down and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was the waste of water."

Another week is needed for the boat to reach dry land, the mountain of Nisir. What is the first job of Atrahasis after he disembarks? If you know the facts or at least the spirit of mythology, you can answer immediately: his first job is to make a sacrifice. Gods not only exploit the labor of men but feed on smoke from their sacrifices. They are now hungry because they have not eaten since the beginning of the flood.

"When the gods smelled the sweet savour, they gathered like flies over the sacrifice. Then, at last, Ishtar also came, she lifted her necklace with the jewels of heaven that once Anu had made to please her. "O you gods here present, by the lapis lazuli round my neck I shall remember these days as I remember the jewels of my throat; these last days I shall not forget. Let all the gods gather round the sacrifice, except Enlil. He shall not approach this offering, for without reflection he brought the flood; he consigned my people to destruction.""

As for said Enlil, he is still in denial of his mistake and eager to find out how a bunch of humans have survived:

"When Enlil had come, when he saw the boat, he was wrath and swelled with anger at the gods, the host of heaven, "Has any of these mortals escaped? Not one was to have survived the destruction." Then the god of the wells and canals Ninurta opened his mouth and said to the warrior Enlil, "Who is there of the gods that can devise without Ea? It is Ea alone who knows all things.""

The divine savior of humanity, however, is also unrepentant and launches a counter-attack:

"Then Ea opened his mouth and spoke to warrior Enlil, "Wisest of gods, hero Enlil, how could you so senselessly bring down the flood?
Lay upon the sinner his sin,
Lay upon the transgressor
his transgression,
Punish him a little when he breaks loose,
Do not drive him too hard
or he perishes,
Would that a lion had ravaged mankind
Rather than the f loud,
Would that a wolf had ravaged mankind
Rather than the flood,
Would that famine had wasted the world
Rather than the flood,
Would that pestilence
had wasted mankind
Rather than the flood.

It was not I that revealed the secret of the gods; the wise man learned it in a dream. Now take your counsel what shall be done with him.""

Enlil relents, makes Atrahasis and his wife immortal and sends them to live far away from other humans. As for mankind, the Epic of Atrahasis describes how the gods led by Enki make a plan to make sure that the noise will remain within limits: they invent childbirth, infant mortality, and celibacy.

"Enki made ready to speak,
and said to Nintu the birth goddess:
"You, birth goddess, creatress of destinies,
establish death for all peoples!...
"Now then, let there be a third woman among the people,
among the people are the woman who has borne
and the woman who has not borne.
Let there be also among the people the pasittu (she-demon):
let her snatch the baby from the lap who bore it.
And etablish high priestesses and priestesses,
let them be taboo [celibate], and so cut down childbirth.
"

This way, human condition was settled and Enlil could sleep at last. Did you like the story? And another question: would you like to believe that all this is true? There is beauty and majesty in myths... but nevertheless I am glad that we have outgrown them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

April 6, 2016: the day when Europe died

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, an appropriate day to think of Ukraine and of unintended consequences of rush human actions. However, I am now thinking of another, more recent sad date for Ukraine and Europe: April 6, only twenty days ago. This was the date when a referendum on the proposed Ukraine - EU Association Agreement was held in the Netherlands. The referendum was valid because over 30% of voters (to be precise, 32%) turned out. Of them, only 38% supported the agreement while an overwhelming majority of 61% were against it.


I have had a soft spot for the Netherlands since childhood, when I first read Anne Frank's diary and was moved by the quiet heroism of the unremarkable people hiding Anne's family, and of other Dutch. "All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they 'sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order." Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp." Once I discussed this excerpt with a teacher at school, admitting that I do not think I would behave like the eighty percent under the circumstances. (I had actually just been accepted to the Young Communist League, for which I had applied despite my hate of communism in order to be allowed to study and live without political problems.) The teacher replied, "The Dutch are different from us. Their country had been free for centuries, and this affects how people think and act."


Through the years, the Netherlands retained for me this image of a free, enlightened, civilized and now prosperous place - a golden aura that of course required some distance and idealization, but nevertheless was based on reality, or at least I thought so. My husband briefly visited the country several years ago and liked it so much that named the project of his life after a Dutch town.


The Apr. 6 referendum was a reality check for me. The proposed association agreement with Ukraine did not bring any risk for EU - it just allowed easier trade, something the Dutch have always valued, and opportunity for Ukrainians to travel to Europe proper. Nevertheless, the proportion of ordinary Dutch supporting it was nowhere near 80%. It was only 12%, that is, 38% of the 32% who participated in the vote. I guess, you can find a similar if not higher proportion of enlightened, compassionate and freedom-loving people in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. So what was the centuries-long history of freedom about? At the end of the day, it amounted to nothing.


While trying to be optimistic, I fear that the Old Continent is exhausted and is making periodic suicide attempts since 1914 that will at some point be successful. When an important transition is brought about by a long process, people facilitate their perception of it by setting a focal point for the transition, a particular event that may not be of high objective importance. So while I know that the decline of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization took many centuries, I take the lynching of Hypatia in 415 AD as official beginning of the Dark Ages. The same way, I take April 6, 2016 as the date printed on Europe's death certificate. Because Europe is not a collection of people, a creation of material culture or a set of institutions. It is a complex of values, an idea; and on this day a core European nation by popular vote renounced the idea of Europe.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Dear Dutch, please support freedom and humanity!

Tomorrow, the Netherlands will hold a referendum about the proposed Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement.


The Dutch who want to thwart the agreement are actually driven by their own Euro-skepticism rather than true concern about Ukraine. However, their act of protest against the EU establishment will make the Ukrainians colateral damage.


For centuries, this European nation has been subject to systematic oppression, assimilation and outright genocide by Russia (not counting the 1941 merciless aggression of Nazi Germany). Two years ago, the Ukrainians toppled their "democratically elected" Russian puppet president because he was isolating them from Europe. More than a hundred of peaceful protesters lost their lives. But this was just the beginning. The Russian dictator Putin punished the Ukrainians for their European dream by attacking Ukraine, grabbing Crimea and waging a war in the eastern regions. This war took the lives of some 5,000 Ukrainians - and also of 193 Dutch citizens, passengers in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down by Russian illegal combatants in July 2014.


A Duch vote against the Association Agreement will stab in the back the heroic Ukrainians and reward their butcher Putin, ultimately responsible also for the deaths of Flight 17.


Dear Dutch, you have a reputation of enlightened and brave defenders of freedom and humanity. Please confirm it at tomorrow's referendum!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Retribution

The quote below is from a Feb. 26 AFP report:

"Palestinian wanted by Israel found dead in Bulgaria
Sofia (AFP) - A Palestinian activist wanted by Israel over the killing of a Jewish settler 30 years ago was found dead Friday in Bulgaria, local police and the Palestinian Authority said. Omar Nayef Zayed, 51, was discovered in the courtyard of the Palestinian embassy in Sofia, police said. Bulgarian radio reported that he had fallen from the fourth floor...

The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), of which Nayef was a member, cited in a statement his family as calling his death an "assassination". It said that Nayef, originally from Jenin in the West Bank, had sought refuge in the Palestinian embassy in Sofia two months ago and had "received threats"...

Nayef was convicted in 1986 over a murder case but escaped in 1990 during a visit to a Bethlehem hospital. He fled to Bulgaria in 1994 and married a local woman with whom he had three children.

Late last year Bulgarian authorities agreed to examine an Israeli extradition request, but a December 14 hearing was postponed because Nayef was not at his address, the Bulgarian interior ministry said. His death came a day after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov returned from a trip to Israel. Borisov said he discussed Nayef with both Israeli and Palestinian officials during the visit."

Please mention how the the ATP describes Zayed's victim as "Jewish settler", as if rationalizing the murder. Al Jazeera, in a March 2 report, gives more details: "Zayed was sentenced by an Israeli court to life in prison after being charged with killing a yeshiva student in occupied East Jerusalem in 1986. Four years into his sentence, he managed to escape Israeli custody during a hospital visit. He ended up in Sofia in 1994, and was granted residency, starting a family. Zayed's quiet life running a grocery store with his wife and three children turned upside down a couple of months ago, when the Israeli embassy in Sofia requested that the Bulgarian government extradite him on December 15."

I had to to turn to an Israeli source to find the victim's name: Eliyahu Amedi.

Zayed's family, the PFLP and the Palestinian community in Sofia are praising him as hero and demanding "the truth" about his death. Bulgarian sources are more elaborate about these reactions than English-language media, but I prefer not to translate. This support of a murderer is just pathetic and paints a nihilistic picture of the human race. These arrogant, despicable Palestinians should be thankful that we in Europe do not follow Mr. Zayed's example and do not rush to murder "settlers" whom we do not like.

Most commentators suspect that Mossad is responsible for Zayed's death. However, I would not exclude the Palestinians themselves from suspicion. According to Al Jazeera, "neither Zayed's family, nor the PFLP, spared the Palestinian Authority from blame. Besides failing to save his life, they claim Omar was under pressure from within the Palestinian embassy to leave its premises." The fugitive was clearly a liability for the embassy, exposing the true face of "Palestine" as a terror organization rather than a state, complicating their relations with Bulgaria and using their coffee, toothpaste, blankets, shower etc. So I find it quite possible that someone in the embassy decided to get rid of him in the same manner as the Islamic State deals with suspected gays

Al Jazeera also reports that "a few dozen Palestinians protested outside the Bulgarian Representative office in Ramallah amid a heavy security presence. The protesters held a banner threatening that "the crime of assassinating Al Nayef (Zayed) won't go unpunished"..."We came here to deliver a clear message to the Bulgarian representative; that they are responsible for this heinous crime," Ahmad Zayed, Omar's brother told Al Jazeera." (This brother was an accomplice in the 1986 murder.) I find it possible that our authorities turned a blind eye, but I don't think they assassinated Zayed - they are usually not so proactive.

Anyway, whoever did it, I like this ending of the case.

I wish to live in a world in which the life of each human being is valued by all others, and murder is never considered by anyone as a solution to any problem.

But, because I am not granted this, I want the next best thing: a world in which murder brings retribution.

I hope that Eliyahu Amedi's parents are alive and have heard the good news.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Pros and cons of emigration

(Bulgarians can read this post here.)

Let me first copy parts of a March 7 report by Balint Szlanko, Associated Press:

"Iraqi migrants return after Europe disappoints

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Surkaw Omar and Rebien Abdullah quit their jobs and spent their life savings to migrate to Europe, only to find crowded asylum camps, hunger and freezing weather. Now back home in northern Iraq, they describe their quest for a better life as a disaster.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of people heading to Europe have no choice but to brave such hardships because they are refugees from places gripped by war, where their lives are in danger. But Omar and Abdullah come from Iraq's northern Kurdish region, which has been largely spared from fighting with the Islamic State group.

They each spent some $8,000 on the trip, much of it on smugglers, only to get stuck in asylum-seekers' camps in Germany and Sweden for months on end, where they say they were given very little food or money.

"It was very bad," Omar, 25, said of the German camp. "Honestly, we were starving there. We ran away because of hunger. They gave us only cheese and tea, and our weekly allowance was 30 euros."

They decided to try their luck in Sweden instead, but that didn't work either. "When we arrived there, it was winter. It was freezing. They put me in a room with three Syrians. I couldn't speak Arabic and they couldn't speak Kurdish. We were communicating like deaf people," Omar said. After trying Germany one more time, they gave up.

"We said to each other, let's go home. It's better than anywhere else," he said.

They are among what experts say is a growing number of migrants who are returning home because of the difficulty of finding housing and employment in Europe...

Maurizio Albahari, an anthropology professor at Notre Dame University who studies migration to Europe, said a number of European countries are "actively seeking to discourage asylum-seekers from staying, at least indirectly."...

Omar had worked as a day laborer in restaurants and supermarkets, while Abdullah had driven a taxi, which he sold to help finance his trip. They say their decision to migrate was mainly driven by peer pressure.

"I saw that everybody was leaving and they were saying, 'It's like this and that (in Europe).' But when I went there it wasn't like that at all," Omar said.

"Life in Europe is really hard," Abdullah said. "You have to wait. And we couldn't wait. We couldn't wait because we were so attached and loyal to our land, our families, to our mothers and relatives. And honestly, Europe and a residency card are not worth leaving your family and risking your life for."

Soran Omar, head of the human rights committee in the Kurdish regional parliament, said their experience is not uncommon... But he said the greater exodus from the region shows no sign of slowing down. "A lot of people may be coming back. But the opposite current is much, much bigger," he said..."


Let me first mention that Soran Omar is 100% right. Once a herd behavior gains momentum, it perpetuates itself even if it brings no advantage. So Europeans should not hope that they can reverse the flow of migration just by "indirect discouragement". Instead, they must think how to guard their borders, which has been a prerequisite for the long-term survival of any human community since prehistoric times. However, the purpose of this post is not to remind a forgotten banal truth.

If English is a foreign language for you, as it is for me, the above report may string a familiar chord. People emigrate because everyone is emigrating or planning to. They are carried away by the wave. Those who remain in their homeland are looked upon as foolish, lazy and good-for-nothing, until they finally believe it themselves. My Bulgaria has suffered from the same malaise ever since 1989, when communist dictatorship was dismantled and the borders were opened.

Many people have tried to persuade me to try to live in the West. "Go and see for yourself, and you will like it; and if you do not, you can always return." To me, this sounded like, "It doesn't matter that you do not like Peter. Marry him and you will begin to like him, and if you do not, you can always divorce!" The weak spot of this logic is that we have only one life, and it is not long enough to be wasted on such experiments.

In 1997, I was invited by a cousin in America to stay with her for a month. When I returned, a lot of people asked me why. I picked the easiest answer: "I had no permission to stay longer." Then most of them hinted that in this situation every remotely intelligent and decent Bulgarian, instead of returning home, would overstay her visa, remain illegally and wait in mile-long queues to ask immigration officials for mercy.

We who opted to remain in Bulgaria did not brag about our choice. How could we defend it? We were ruled by notoriously incompetent and corrupt governments, worked for meager wages and could not buy shiny cars. We were indeed good for nothing! A friend has told me that her fellow students, when they saw her by chance, looked at her disparagingly and asked, "Are you still in Bulgaria?" I have even heard a theory that we are bad parents because we conceive children without trying to give them a nice future, that is, a future abroad.

Today, a quarter of a century after the borders were opened, I can say that those members of my generation who remained are, on average, better off than those who left. I try to share this precious knowledge with young people, but they do not believe me. And how could they? The most prestigious secondary schools in Bulgaria are the "language secondary schools", where all subjects except Bulgarian language and literature are taught in English or another Western language. A friend whose daughter is attending such a school told me, "Most students in her class are ambitious and want to emigrate." This is not my idea of ambition. As some commentator said, mass emigration is inevitable when you have reporters asking 16-yr-old kids what keeps them in the country.

I am glad for Surkaw Omar and Rebien Abdullah, the Iraqis featured in the AP report. They have "seen world", as we say, and have returned poorer but wiser. They have realized that thinking with your own head if far better than letting peer pressure drive your life. Especially if peer pressure tells you to turn your only life upside down, move to a foreign place, leave your loved ones behind, disconnect from your native language and bend over backwards to convince locals to accept you. Unfortunately, the two young men haven't had the opportunity to see the best of Europe - I suppose they haven't visited even a single museum. I hope that they have at least photos of nice facades and shop-windows, and these souvenirs will last longer than the unpleasant memories of their adventure.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Better late than never


(Firework image from Wikimedia.)

Five and a half years ago, a colleague of mine did something which should have costed him the job - or at least most people around him, myself included, thought so.

He was ordered to stop teaching "until the case is clarified", but continued to receive his paychecks while we were doing his work.

With time, he was only becoming more useless and arrogant.

Yesterday, the case was finally clarified and his contract was terminated. The spirits at my workplace are high, we are literally celebrating. Few things bring as much relief and joy as getting rid of toxic people.