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Archive for Sunday 15 January 2012

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After strolling through Rome last night and accidentally passing wonderful icons and piazzas as we wandered, we decided not to leave the city for the Appian Way and the catacombs, ...

After strolling through Rome last night and accidentally passing wonderful icons and piazzas as we wandered, we decided not to leave the city for the Appian Way and the catacombs, but to stay in town and discover more.

So thats what we did today. Started out in the “Jewish Ghetto”, totally enhanced by the Rick Steve’s audio guide. We learnt about the history of Rome’s Jewish population, how they were prominent in the early days of the Empire, how they were persecuted and forced to live in a ghetto by medieval popes, how they finally gained rights and freedoms after Italy’s unification, only to later face Mussolini’s Fascism and Nazi occupation. We strolled through the area hearing these stories and gaining a huge appreciation for the history of Italian Jews. We popped into a coffee place here and had AWESOME coffee. I am now an espresso man. This scares me.

Next up, we popped over to the other side of the Tiber River, the Trastevere. This is where the Jewish population lived before medieval Popes forced them into the Ghetto on the other side of the river. Here we did another Rick Steve’s audio tour, learning about the history of the area, imagining it throughout the centuries, and visiting some key sites such as the churches of St Cecilia and Saint Maria de Trastevere. We actually went inside St Cecilia’s church and popped downstairs to where old Cecilia used to live and hold illegal masses in her house. When Christianity was legalised, they built a church on top of it. This was common practice, apparently. Overall it was a lovely stroll through an area with loads of character, history and vivacious nonnas.

While we were there, we ate at Dar Poeta again. Pizza win!

We took a long stroll back past some major sites, saw the Circo Massimo which used to be used for chariot races but now is just a huge bare park. Made our way to the Basilica de San Clemente. Amazing place. Top level is a 12 th century church, then take some stairs down to see a fascinating 4 th century church, and then another level down is an ancient Temple of Mithrais, an old Roman road, a house and a freshwater spring! Incredible place.

We arrived back home but I decided I still had energy and wanted to do more. So of course I ventured off to another museum – this one the Capitaline Museum. Days ago I decided I wouldn’t bother with this one, and now I’m so glad I changed my mind! A huge museum spanning two palaces connected by an underground tunnel – the museum featured some amazing ancient Roman statues and busts, some renaissance paintings and tapestries, and even a very cool special exhibition of some of the notes and drawings of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Some of Da Vinici’s were particularly impressive, his anatomical and mechanical drawings are incredibly precise. There were some massive statues and some iconic ones, including the huge Constantine, giant Marcus Aurelius on his horse, and the excellent statues of Venus, boy with the thorn, dying Gaul…. Ah it was great. I wish I could say at this point I’m sick of going to museums and looking at ancient artworks, but I’m not.

This museum also featured a fantastic view of the forum, a rooftop view of the city, and a million toilets. Marthese should have come!

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The House that Thatha Built
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By the time I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport, mother in tow, I had no idea what to expect.


The House that Thatha Built
by Sumugan Sivanesan


I entered Sri Lanka for the first time over December with my mother who was last there in 1973. We hoped to visit the house my grandfather built in a village near Jaffna in the 1940s. It was one in a series of distinct houses built by ‘Malaysian Returns’ – Jaffna Tamils that had left to work in Malaysia but returned later to re-settle.

My mother, who was born in Singapore, lived in this house for only one year yet still bears strong childhood memories of her time there. As a family accustomed to the city life of Malaysia they had trouble adjusting to the ways of the village. Thatha eventually acquiesced to the family will and they returned to Malaysia, leaving the house to care takers.

My parents moved to Sydney soon after my sister and I were born, extending the family network. I can recall an incident from my childhood when a group of young men came to our house to solicit donations for ‘the movement’. My father sent them away firmly stating that we were Malaysian Tamils with no interest in their cause.

Years later, during the ceasefire I developed my own interest in the island, but family friends advised against visiting. ‘You look Tamil, but you only speak English – it will only cause you trouble!’

My interested was again piqued after the 2004 Tsunami. Then in 2009 diaspora politics suddenly nose dived into my activist concerns, as boats full of Tamil refugees arrived in Australia in the aftermath of war. My investigations around this issue lead to a lesser known history of South Asians at sea; of ship borne anti-colonialism and dockside activism that had real effects in Australia, as well as travelling further abroad. My own engagement with this history took its course from a tattoo–performance in a Sydney gallery, to find an absurd connection with an anti-authoritarian T-shirt maker in Guadalajara, Mexico, and eventually prompted speaking engagements in Toronto, Canada.


Jump Ship with WT Nobert, Gaffa Gallery Sydney, 11 February 2010

I was circling around the international diaspora, but had yet to arrive at Jaffna. Upon reflection it was a process of negotiation across politics, family and traditions that I had spent most of my life questioning and departing from. By the time I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport, mother in tow, I had no idea what to expect.

From Colombo it was an overlong haul in a clumsy minibus that delivered us to Jaffna sometime after midnight. After a day to recoup and sight see, we finally arrived – on Christmas day – at the house that Thatha built. Once wide and grand, it was now in a state of disrepair, having passed through several hands since my grandfather packed up his family and left.  It is currently home to a large family of fisher folk forced to relocate by the fighting several years ago.  Having arrived unannounced, they cheerfully allowed us to poke around.

A question of race

Conversations with family and friends revealed not only a sense of relief that the war had ended, but also some trepidation regarding the momentum of re-nationalisation, and with it the urge to forge an all encompassing national identity in an effort to alleviate the issue of race in post-war politics.

As discussions in the media  and elsewhere indicate, there are concerns that establishing an overly patriotic code of national identity will invariably lead to defining a standard by which the national may exclude or discriminate – potentially stifling the political representation of not only Tamils, but also Muslims, Burghers and other ethnicities identified on the island.

My praxis over recent years has engaged with processes of dis-identifiaction and de-nationalisation – problematising aspects of my Tamil identity and Australian citizenship – with the intent of opening a space for (trans)cultural practice that operates beyond the allure of race and the agenda of nationalism. As a critical practice, it is most often placed in Australia within a discourse of Asian orientated multiculturalism, which I complicate by linking it to a history of anti-colonialism.

At the conclusion of my trip I was interviewed for the program “Connections“: on Young Asia Television that, as the title suggests, connects Sri Lankans around the world. When asked about my Sri Lankan identity I replied that I had a very tenuous connection to Sri Lanka, but a problematised affiliation with the Tamil diaspora. I was quickly advised that in Sri Lanka the word ‘diaspora’ carries connotations of internationalised support for anti-state terror.

Dinner with an NGO

What then is the role of the diaspora now that the dream of Tamil Eelam has been quashed? Before leaving Colombo I had dinner with a friend of a friend from Toronto now working for a non-government organization (NGO) that designs and implements basic education and food programs with communities devastated by the war.

The competing and contradictory narratives as to what occurred during the final stages of the war and its effects on civilians are well known, so naturally I probed him for information on interment camps which are still operational, displaced people that might never return to their homes and areas developed with World Bank initiatives that are now completely flattened.

Speaking carefully he talked of a generation that has known nothing but the trauma of war, who have lived through circumstances that his organisation have neither the resources or qualifications to deal with. Projects such as counseling are not only difficult to implement, but may also be politically discouraged for establishing some  sort of account that contradicts the Government narrative. Instead their NGO focuses on rebuilding, educating and designing pathways for development with the communities concerned.  He appeals to the diaspora, as those with a long serving interest in the region and its people to help establish long term rehabilitation projects and to encourage translocal connections with people limited in the extreme, regardless of their race or ethnicity – encouraging a globalised circuit that effects de-nationalised change.


Sumugan Sivanesan

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