Monday, 16 April 2018

The Cats of Islam

For this post I'm going to do something a little different, and write about a little known quirk with regards to Islam. In fact, I have discovered that many Muslims don't know about this little tidbit, at least those who have grown up here in Australia (okay, it was one who I asked). Anyway, I have recently returned from a trek through South East Asia which took me to Malaysia and Thailand (as well as Cambodia). As it turns out, Southern Thailand is actually majority Muslim, and while we didn't find ourselves down around Hat Yai (due to Australian government warnings), we did spend some time on Phi Phi Island which, if you ignore all the tourists, is also majority Muslim.

Anyway, we had just crossed the straights from Singapore into Malaysia, and after checking into our hotel, went and explored the city of Johor Bahru (which was basically Legoland and that is it). Afterwards I was walking out of the hotel and noticed that there was a cat wandering through the lobby. I had seen that cat wandering around previously outside and thought it was a little odd, but quickly forgot about it. About half-an-hour later I returned to discover that the door man was carefully carrying the cat out, and then proceeded to open a can of cat food and feed it. The cat certainly didn't look like it was a house cat, but knowing cats, if it was being fed, then it certainly wasn't going anywhere else. In fact I saw the cat again in the morning, and it was clear that it didn't wander too far from the hotel.

A few days later I found myself in the city of Malacca (or as it is know known - Melaka). Yep, this is the same city that was originally established by the Portuguese as a trading post. Anyway, we had just had a look around the old Dutch Church (the Dutch had also set up shop here) and as we were making our way down to the old town, I passed a market stall that sold stamps and coins. Since my neighbour collects stamps I decided to buy some for her (and one thing this is a constant in South East Asia is that where there are tourists, there are market stalls - and taxis). So, as we were haggling for some stamps, I noticed a cat wandering up to the stall, and suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the owners had a tin of catfood in his hand, and was putting it into the dish for the cat. Well, that was odd, but I once again thought no more of it.

There weren't really all that many more cat adventures until we arrived at Phi Phi Island. For those who don't know, Phi Phi is a small archipelago off the west coast of Thailand at the entrance to Pha Nang Bay. I've been here before, but only for a day trip, and even then we only spent short time at the village where we had lunch, so I didn't have all that much time to look around. So, since I was heading back I decided to spend a couple of days here, and it was here that the thing about the cats really stood out - they were everywhere. In fact, Phi Phi Don has the nickname of 'Cat Island' or 'The Island of the Cats'.

Cat Island

Apparently there wasn't all that much here until the release of a movie called 'The Beach'. This baffles me somewhat because the movie actually wasn't all that good. In fact, perusing the various movie review sites reveals that not many people thought all that much about it (I know I didn't think it was all that great either), yet for some reason whenever I go to Phi Phi island the locals seem to be convinced that the main reason people go there is because of the film. Well, I must admit that Maya Bay and Kai Island (as well as Pileh Lagoon) certainly attract their fair share of visitors, and if you are looking for a Beach experience, you are certainly not going to get it at Maya Bay, but for a tropical island it is quite an experience.

Actually, one of the first things I noticed when I arrived at Phi Phi was that pretty much everybody wanders around in their bathers. Well, not everybody - the locals don't, but everybody else does. Mind you, it is still rather amusing glancing into the wheel house of a boat and seeing an open bottle of beer sitting next to the helm, but that is another story for another place. I mentioned that Phi Phi Island was actually a Muslim island, but it certainly doesn't look like it when you actually arrive. In fact, other than the immodesty of most of the visitors, it also has its fair share of bars, which basically means that the alcohol pretty much flows quite freely (along with other substances). I suspect that in the case of Phi Phi, the tourist dollar pretty much trumps everything else, so the locals have learnt to put up with it.

However, I have yet to mention the cats. That is the next thing that I noticed, though it wasn't obvious at first. We had dropped our bags off in our room and decided to go for a bit of a wander around the island, namely out to the back beach (Phi Phi consists of two rock outcroppings joined together by a narrow, and low lying, isthmus, upon which the main settlement is built, and was also completely destroyed during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsumani. However, that aside, we had found a nice beach side bar and sat down for a drink, and I noticed a couple of cats wandering about. As we were sitting there, the owner grabbed a can of catfood and emptied it into two bowls, and sure enough another one appeared, and the owner simply ignored it.

Once again I pretty much ignored it and finished my beer and we then continued wandering around the island. During our wanderings we saw another cat, and another, and another. In fact we started noticing quite a few, but still didn't think all that much of it. That is until that night when I would stop and pet the cats, noticing that pretty much 99% of them let me. Normally cats really don't like people, at least the ones where I live. Sure, you do get the occasional friendly one, but most of them tend to be quite timid and skittish. This was not the case here on Phi Phi, in fact it seemed to be completely the opposite - not only was it an island of cats, but it was an island of friendly cats.

Yet I was curious as to what it was with regards to this particular island that made it a haven for cats. Well, it certainly couldn't have had anything to do with cats coming over willingly, considering that they don't swim. Well, they could have come by boat, but once again cats generally don't willingly walk onto boats, and even if they did they aren't like rats, which can generally hide, so they must have been brought over by somebody. Some research on the internet (while I was sitting on the back beach with a beer and watching some fire twirlers go about their stuff) revealed that the main reason is because the Muslim population.

The Revered Animal

The next morning, as I was recovering from the night before, I sat on the bench out the front of our room and watched some kittens frolicking in the garden, and another larger one making itself comfortable on one of my French neighbour's towel. From what I could see there was no reference as to how they first arrived, or why they were brought over, but somebody on Quora suggested that it was around 2012 and due to the lack of vets, and also the locals reluctance to desex them, the population exploded. However, that response was on Quora, but like most of the internet, pretty much anybody can put anything up there. Mind you, it did offer a better explanation that some other blog posts which started off taking about a trip to Phi Phi only to veer off into a tangent about all the wonderful cats there (thought this one seems to have gone in the opposite direction).

However, I eventually found my way to the repository of human knowledge that happens to be Wikipedia (though I'm sure that there are a number of websites that can now claim that name, but in the end it all comes back to Wikipedia). Sure enough, the answer to my question was found here - it turned out that Mohammed was a cat person (and when I said that to my pastor, he suggested that so was Mao, though it turns out that that happens to be one of those 'internet truths' - Chinese is a tonal language, so just because a word is spelt the same doesn't mean that it is the same).

The story goes that one of Mohammad's companions, Abu Hurairah, loved cats, and one day one of his cats killed a snake that was about to strike at Mohammad. Being thankful, he stroked the cat's head and blessed them. If you have a look a some cats you will notice that there are three stripes on their head, which legend has it that it was descended from this cat that Mohammad blessed. Another story goes that one day Mohammad (or it could have been Hurairah, it is unclear) was asleep and woke to go to morning prayers when he discovered his cat, Muezza, sleeping on his sleeve. So, instead of disturbing the cat he instead cut off the sleeve of his robe.

It appears that the only animal that is allowed into a Mosque are cats, namely because they are the only animal that is considered to be Hallal. In fact it is really bad to kill a cat in Islam, and if you do then for that sin to be purged you need to build a mosque. Further investigation also revealed that it isn't just Phi Phi Island that seems be be swarming with cats, but also Istanbul, to the point that it has received the nick name Catstanbul. I did find a blog post written by somebody who had traveled to Istanbul and has cats following her everywhere she went, but I'm unable to find it again. However, I did find a reference to a movie about the cats of Istanbul.

I probably should mention that cats have a long history in the Middle East, particularly since the Egyptians used to worship them. Then again that had a lot to do with their ability to keep down the rodent population, particularly snakes (a cat generally wins in a fight against a snake, though they are nowhere near as good as mongooses, who happen to be immune to snake venom). Since the Middle East of the past used to be a place of high learning, there were a lot of libraries, and rodents seem to have a thing for ruining books, which is why cats are allowed in mosques - they not only keep the rodent population down, but in doing so they protect the books, which back in the days before the printing press, were virtually worth their weight in gold.

Oh, and the Wikipedia article has some pretty cool particularly the cat pictures.

By Jennifer Boyer from Fredrick, Maryland, USA - cat outside Gazi Husrev-Bey MosqueUploaded by Smooth_O, CC BY 2.0, Link
Creative Commons License

The Cats of Islam by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Age of Rembrandt - Art of the Dutch

I certainly have changed since the rebellious teenager that I was so many years ago. Back in those days I never imagined that I would ever go to the theatre, I thought Shakespeare was boring, and I certainly had no interest in looking at paintings hanging on the wall. Okay, I liked history, but part of that had a lot to do with it being full of bloody battles involving knights, swords, and people getting their limbs lopped off. In fact, come to think of it, back in those days I was rather baffled as to why fantasy wasn't in the mainstream when it could be just as violent as your typical cop or western movie. Well, Game of Thrones eventually proved me right.

Yet, I look at myself now and see myself booking tickets to fly a thousand kilometers to another city just to visit the art gallery and look at a collection of paintings that have been brought over from Europe (even though I had basically already seen many of these paintings when I visited the Rijksmuseum). The thing with the Netherlands of the 17th century was that unlike the rest of Europe, it was a Republic as opposed to a Monarchy. This is interesting in itself because when we look at the history of Europe, many of us see that it is little more than a collection of kingdoms and the republic never really came about until after the French revolution - well, it turns out that this is not the case, particularly when you consider the Italian peninsula.

Anyway, across Europe art was basically the purview of the nobility and the church, and you never really made it as an artist unless you had some patron, and you only got a patron if you were willing to paint what they wanted you to paint (and you also had some talent, but that goes without saying). However, the Netherlands was breaking away from that mould in that art took on a much more commercial flavour, and the artist would sell their art on the open market. In fact, the first room in Rembrandt's house was full of artwork that he and his students had produced, and it was basically the gallery of works that were for sale.

Like other posts where I have explored art exhibitions, I'll go through a number of the paintings that caught my attention, and say what I can about them. The first is by Jan de Bray and is called the Governors of the Guild of St Luke. This was a painting that I remembered from the Rijksmuseum, and pretty much defined the nature of the Netherlands at the time. These were the movers and shakers of the republic - the merchants and the guild masters. In a way, what we see here are the roots of the merchantilist society that eventually evolved into the modern world.

The first gallery I visited contained numerous portraits. In a way this was an important aspect of the period because we are seeing the rise of the middle classes (at least in Northern Europe). At this time it was really only the aristocracy (and the upper echelons of the priesthood) that could afford to have themselves immortalised on canvas. Yet the merchants and the traders of the Dutch republic were themselves becoming quite wealthy, and as such were able to afford the hefty price of having themselves and their families captured on canvas. Once again this gives us a window on the society of the time, to get an idea of their fashion.

Anyway, here are a couple of paintings from this section (as well as the one above).

Williem van de Velde
The painter Williem van de Velde the younger by Van der Helst

Maria van Oosterwijck by Wallerant Vaillant

Empire of the Dutch

When it comes to the Dutch, the term colonial empire never seems to come to the front of my mind, but the thing is that they did have one, and much of their wealth came from the control of the trade routes from the Indies. In fact, there are still a handful of islands in the West Indies that are officially a part of the Netherlands, but at their height, they controlled colonies all over the world, including what was to become New York (though at the time it was known as New Amsterdam), Brazil, South Africa, India, Mallaca, and of course the East Indies (modern day Indonesia). In fact the Dutch retained control of Indonesia right up until the 1950s, which is why there were a lot of Dutch being forced to build the Thai-Burma railway (aka the Death Railway).

The Dutch have always have an affinity with the sea, which probably had a lot to do with them not only being a coastal nation, but also creating their nation by carving it out of the seabed. As such, it is not surprising that a lot of the art has a strong nautical theme. Take the following painting for instance, Dubbels' View of Batavia, which has fascinated me in the past because we are looking at the city that was to become Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia). Being an Australian, and with Indonesia being our northern neighbour, it plays heavily in our social conscious, and it is always interesting looking back as its foundations. As a side note, you could also consider Indonesia to be Australia's Mexico.

Another style of painting that captured my interest when I was at the Rijksmuseum were the naval paintings, particularly the ones where the ships were either on the seas during a storm, or during a battle. The following painting is by Ludolf Bakhuizen and is called Warships in a Heavy Storm. Of course, I doubt he painted them when they were in the storm (taking a photo during such conditions is hard enough - try painting a picture), but it is impressive nonetheless.

Well, as it turned out, many of these artists actually sailed with the Dutch Navy, including Julien van den Velde, and would make meticulous sketches during their voyages. In van den Velde's case, he was with the Dutch navy when they fought against the English in 1666 (though they were later to become staunch allies), and proceeded to paint the Four Days Naval Battles. Unfortunately, the ones that I really liked at the Rijksmuseum, including the Battle of Dodger Bank, weren't here, but these paintings gave us a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Nature and Art

The next gallery brought us into a room containing works of nature. About this time the Dutch artists, always looking for something new to paint, would wander out into the fields to seek great places to capture on the canvas. In many cases they would take a sketch book with them, and then return home to complete the work. Landscapes, however, have always been a favourite of artists, to a point that there is even a size that carries the name, probably because having the horizontal axis as the longer axis allows the artist to capture a larger area, where as humans tend to be tall as opposed to wide.

Another thing about Holland is that it is flat, and wet, which is not surprising since the country basically sits where the Rhine empties out into the North Sea (and a large part of it used to be underwater). In a way that location probably also had a lot to do with establishing the country as a merchantile superpower as they provided a port where ships and river boats were able to exchange goods, and the Dutch acted as the middle man. However, we aren't talking about trade, but rather about art, so the first is by Jan van Goyen, and is called 'A Village on the Edge of a River'.

It turns out that the Dutch used to have a large presence in South America along the coast of Brazil, however over time that has scaled back to a small country on the northern coast of the continent. The next painting is of a scene of a Dutch Brazilian village by Franz Jans Post. If you look in the foreground you can even see some African slaves.

Saloman van Rusydael's The Water Place certainly captures our attention, though I'm not entirely sure whether we can claim that the term 'Watering Hole' (which is colloquial for a bar) could be referring to both the river, and the inn. Yet, one thing that does seem to stand out are the dusty tones of the painting, because that is very reminiscent of Australian art. However, the museum seemed to be more concerned with the details of the figures in the painting.

We now come to Jacob van Ruisdael, who happens to be the nephew of Saloman van Rusydael (though I notice that the surname is spelt quite differently). This one is called Landscape with Waterfall, and is an example of his interest in lively paintings. No doubt one requires much more skill to capture a moving object than to capture something stationary, and we also notice a similar thing when it comes to taking photos (and I notice night shots can be just as bad as well). The detail of some of these paintings is also exquisite. For instance, take note of not only the clouds, but also the village in the background.

In Town

Along with the growth of merchantile trade, the centres of this trade, the cities and towns, also began to develop. This was particularly noticeable with Amsterdam, which exploded. Artists also took advantage of the growth in urban culture, starting to take notice of the architecture of the new buildings, the myriads of small businesses, as well as the many town houses appearing along the canals.

The painting below is by Egbert Lievensz van der Poel, and depicts the explosion of the gunpowder store in his home town of Delft. In fact his daughter was killed during the explosion, and it formed the subject of many of his paintings. This one is set during the moment of the explosion.

Here we have The Vegetable Market by Hendrik Martinez Sorgh. Markets have always been a staple of cities and towns throughout history, but here we see a new, bustling Amsterdam, where the merchants meet the farmers, and exchange goods and servants. The painting focuses on the woman, surrounded by produce. This is a changing dynamic in this world, as the merchants move from being subjects to a crown to becoming people in their own right.

One of the things that happened was the growth of city scenes and maps, and this was especially the case with Amsterdam, which had become the centre of Dutch trade. The following is a sketch of the view of the city by Frans van der Hoeyen, which is a view of the city from across the river. Paintings such as these give us an insight into what the city looked like back in the 17th Century.

In his paintings, Jan Ambrahamz Beerstraten would also bring the church to the front and centre, namely because that tended to be its position in village life back in the day. The following painting is of the church in Sloten, just outside of Amsterdam, during the height of winter.

Behind Closed Doors

A lot of art in this period seems to consist of portraits of wealthy people. When I was at an art gallery with a friend recently, we commented on how these paintings really didn't do all that much for us. Well, that seemed to be the case with the Dutch as well since they started to explore the ordinary. In fact the Dutch would paint anything and everything, and life in the home seemed to be a particular interest to them. Not only that, but there was also an incredible attention to detail, as we shall see in the following paintings.

This painting is called 'The Players' by Jacob Ochtervelt and depicts some itinerant musicians playing in a refined house. Such musicians were common in the Netherlands of the period, and we have a younger boy playing an accordion with an older musician on the bagpipes. Notice how the women are encouraging the girl to hand them a coin.

The scene in this painting by Pieter van de Hooch is reminiscent of a scene from modern life. We have been invited into the back yard of this well kept Dutch house, probably in Amsterdam or nearby Delft. While the maids are busily working, we have a couple spending some time in what is no doubt a lovely summers day.

Jan Steen was one of those painters that always had a reason for painting the way he did. While this painting on the surface seems to be of a family just having a good time, it is in fact a criticism on the way some children are raised. Here we see adults setting a bad example for the children in the way that they are drinking and simply being debaucherous.

Rembrandt - the Master

Well, while there were lots of talented artists during the period, none of them even came close to the genius that was Rembrandt. While most, if not all, artists tended to specialise, Rembrandt would always be looking for new ways to push the boundaries, and to stun his audiences. Interestingly, Rembrandt is the only artist known by his first name. Unfortunately, his most famous work, the Night Watchman, didn't come to Australia, though I suspect that it never leaves its place in the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt seemed to paint a bit of religious art, such as the above, which is from the story of Samson & Delilah. Here we have Samson, asleep on Delilah's lap, while the philistine sneaks in to capture the man that had been wrecking havoc on them for years.

The gallery had a long description of the background of this painting, namely by going into details about the denial of St Peter. Mind you, being familiar with the story I probably don't realise that maybe it isn't as well known as I expect it to be. However, this is a very captivating painting, full of shadows with a single candle illuminating the face of peter and Christ, with the other apostles in the shadows. While we tend to look down on Peter for his denial, we quickly forget that out of all the disciples, he was the only one who remained. However, as dedicated as he was, he was also human, and Christ knew that, which is why he told him that he would deny him.

Here is a really interesting work by Rembrandt. It is a self-portrait, but it is one where he is painting himself as the Apostle Paul. Honestly, I'm not really sure what he is trying to portray, whether it is some sort of self-righteous religiosity, or rather simply painting him as one of his Biblical heroes. As we have seen above, Rembrandt was well disposed towards painting religious art, but in his own style as well. This is just another example.

This is a magnificent etching, entitled Three Crosses. At first it looks like the whole scene takes place in a cavern, which attributes Rembrandt's mastery of shadow. However, the light shining down from above brings focus entirely onto the central figure and action - Christ dying on the cross, the turning point of human history. Note how the thieves are off to the side, but it is also a scene of suffering. Notice the two merchants walking away from the cross, as if there is nothing of interest for them here.

Painting History

Being a radical protestant country, the Dutch really didn't like religious paintings, at least in the church. However, in the home that was a different story, and we note from above that Rembrandt loved to paint religious scenes. These scenes were a challenge though, because unlike painting the world about them, the artists needed to delve into their imaginations to bring these scenes to life. However, notice above how Rembrandt painted himself as St Paul - this was no doubt one of the techniques they would employ to try and make the scene as lifelike as possible.

We aren't actually sure who painted this, though the details, and the contrast between Salome and the executioner, and the gritty details, suggests that it was a student of Rembrandt (which is why the artist is named as being 'the Circle of Rembrandt'). This is a scene where Salome, the daughter of Herod, is being presented with the head of John the Baptist after she asked for it when Herod asked her for anything within his power. The sophistication of Salome, and the brutal grittiness of the executioner is magnificent.

This gorgeous painting by Paulus Bor is of a Greek myth not all that well known (I haven't heard of it). The story goes that Cyddipe was a noble born woman, and was being courted by Acontius, a guy whom she had no interest in. However, to get her to marry him, he threw a golden apple at her feet which was inscribed with the words 'by Artemis, I will marry Acontius'. Of course she picked it up and read it out loud, meaning that she had to follow through with the pledge.

I will finish off with a painting of one of my favourite stories of Ancient Greece: the sacrifice of Iphagenia by Arnold Houbraken. The story is that Agamemnon needed good winds to sail his fleet to Troy, but to get them he was told that he had to sacrifice his daughter, which he did. Mind you, while he was successful in taking Troy, his wife never forgot and he was murdered when he returned home. It was noted that the parents are covering their faces and looking away, though I do wonder who the character standing behind Iphagenia is. At first I thought it was Agamemnon, but I don't think so.

Anyway, I'll finish it off here, but we will be returning to the art of the Dutch as I travel to the Rijksmuseum and explore the art that did not make it to Sydney, and also pay a visit to the house of the master himself - Rembrandt.

Creative Commons License

Age of Rembrandt - Art of the Dutch by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Western Front - Democracy's Challenge pt 1 - Ypres

I may have been somewhat of a critic in the past towards Democracies, and while it certainly has its failings, the alternatives are certainly not much better. In a way this is one of the major factors behind the First World War, and while it was a horrific bloodbath, in a way it was a war between what had become the advanced Democracies of France and England and the monarchies of Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire. Looking at the fallout from the war, and the options that came about afterwards, even the harshest critic of democracy would be hard pressed to want anything else.

Anyway, I have recently finished reading the memoirs of the poet Robert Graves called 'Goodbye to All That', which is basically his experiences fighting on the Western front, with his childhood and a few other things thrown in for good measure. As I was reading it though it made me cast my mind back to my travels through France and Belgium to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme and spurred me on to write about them sooner rather than later. I'm not going to write about my travels through that part of Europe because that is a topic for another blog, however I will instead write about what I learnt there.

There are a number of tours around the region, and since I'm Australian the tour guides automatically take us to sites that are specifically Australian. Mind you, at the time Australia was still part of the British Empire, and was still in many cases ruled from London. This meant that while the Australian troops formed their own battalions, they tended to find themselves fighting alongside the British, and being moved along the British trenches as was needed. One thing that does come to mind as I write this was the attitude towards the British as I was growing up. The statement was 'we have always spilt blood for the British, but when we have needed them they were nowhere to be found'. This relates back to World War II in particular where the Japanese were advancing upon us from the north and the British simply weren't interested in providing us with troops because, well, they were needed elsewhere. Instead, after Pearl Harbour, it was the Americans who ended up coming to our aid.


I'll begin with the small town in Belgium named Ypres. The town is located in Flanders, which happens to be the Dutch part of the country. Interestingly they speak two languages in Belgium - French in the south and Dutch in the north. Well, not quite Dutch since the language is actually Flemish, which is a little different. However, I have noted that it is generally considered to be Dutch, and even people that I spoke to while I was there, while not correcting me when I referred to the language as Flemish, basically suggested that it was simply a dialect of Dutch. Still, being who I happen to be, I'm going to refer to it as Flemish, since if we get technical, French, Italian, and Spanish are little more than dialects of Latin.

Ypres was basically flattened during the war, and when you wander around the town all of the buildings that you see were built during the 1920s. This isn't really surprising considering that the typical battle along the western front consisted of one side firing artillery at the otherside for days on end, and then sending troops over the top of the trenches only to discover that the artillery barrage basically didn't work and the soldiers were gunned down by the machine gun emplacements positioned along the enemy trenches. As such, towns and villages within range of the front line inevitably were caught up in the barrage, and after four years of this there was basically nothing left. Still, if you look at photos of Ypres, you will notice that the town hall did remain standing, to an extent.

One thing that I noticed as we traveled around the countryside were the number of cemetaries. I can't remember how many there were (there are 160 of them), but you will find these cemeteries scattered all along the Western Front - some quite large, some small - though all of them have a mix of soldiers from the various armies. The reason for this was that back in the days of World War I, the soldiers were basically buried where they fell, namely because the technology didn't exist to transport them back home. One of the things that you do on these tours is visit some of the cemeteries, usually those that have a number of dead from your own nationality, and many people travel here to find the graves of relatives who fell during the war.

In Ypres is also the Menin Gate, which is a huge arch at the entrance to the town centre upon which is inscribed the names of all who fell in the area. Not surprisingly the list of names is quite extensive, and the gate itself is quite large as well. At 8:00 pm every day the Last Post is performed, where some British soldiers lay a wreath at the memorial. This ceremony has been performed every day since the end of hostilities, and the only time that it wasn't performed was when the Nazi's occupied the town, and even then the ceremony was continued back in England. As soon as Ypres was liberated, and while there was still fighting in the streets, the Last Post ceremony was reinstated, and has been performed every day since.

Before I move onto the battles themselves, I should mention a few words about the trenches. If you travel to the Western Front to see the trenches then unfortunately you aren't going to find all that many. The reason being is that after the war the last thing people wanted to be reminded of was the war, so the trenches were all basically destroyed. Well, that and the fact that during the war the neverending bombardments would also destroy the trenches, and in the hundred years since, the elements also worked their ways on them. However, as you travel around, you will still find some, namely because land was gifted to various countries as a memorial, as well as some people purchasing the land for similar reasons. Around Ypres there was also some trenches found by some children playing in the woods, and they have also since been preserved.

However, if you know where to look you can also find some German bunkers. The reason for this is that the Germans built their fortifications quite effectively, and no matter how hard people have tried, they simply cannot remove them. Farmers have even tried blowing them up to no avail. The allies always thought that the end of the war was just around the corner, so never saw a need to build effective fortifications, however the Germans saw the war differently - the Western Front was their border, so they built their fortifications so as to withstand even the heaviest attacks. Another thing that I should mention is that it is still possible, even after a hundred years, to find relics from the war. if you drive through the area you will still find tonnes of barbed wire and other stuff piled out the front of Farmer's houses waiting for them to be disposed - they are still digging them out of the ground during planting season. Oh, and if they want to build something, they still have to bring in the bomb squad to make sure that there are no unexploded ordinances lying about.

The Battle

I'm not really sure if I can really call this a battle, considering that battles suggest a war that is fluid, as opposed to the Western Front, which was basically static for a majority of the time. As I have mentioned, the battles seemed to consist of bombing the opposing trenches and then sending troops over the top to basically get gunned down by the enemy. However, historians still use the term battle, particularly since there were some objectives to meet.

The situation at Ypres was that the Germans were using the Belgium ports as staging points for their submarine fleets. The Germans basically didn't have a navy, thanks to the British victory at the battle of Jutland. Therefore, pretty much all of their fleet (both merchant and naval), were confined to their harbours due to a British blockade. As such they resorted to an invention that had been around since the 1600s - the Submarine. The problem with the submarines, for the British at least, was that they were able to take out their ships but the British simply were not able to detect them. As such, these menacing weapons of war effectively provided a counter-balance to the might of the British Navy.

So, the objective was to break through the German Lines, march on the Belgium ports, capture them, and take out the submarines. Sounds like a pretty decent plan, except the problem was breaking through the German Lines. So, like they had been doing countless numbers of times in the past couple of years, the strategy was to bombard the opposing trenches with artillery, and then send the troops over to top and capture the enemy positions. Well, we all know how that turned out, don't we.

The Terrain

Terrain is always important in war, and taking advantage of the terrain can mean the difference between winning and losing a battle. The thing with the terrain around Ypres is that it is flat - really, really flat. Also, it is very, very wet - there are French films that portray this part of Europe as basically raining twenty-four/Seven. When we were here we were taken up to the top of a relatively small hill and shown around, and from where we stood we could see all the way to the city of Lille. So, this terrain was quite important to the belligerents, particularly since the Germans had managed to capture the higher ground, which made it even more difficult for the Allies to advance.

The weather also played an important role, particularly since much of the war involved lobbing artillery shells at the opponents. So, lots of artillery breaking up the ground, and lots of rain really brings about one result - lots and lots of mud. World War I was a war that was literally fought in the mud. There are stories of the trenches being horrid places to sleep, with rats, water, and mud being a constant hindrance to the soldier's daily lives. Further, moving about, and digging, was a difficult task at the best of times, and basically attempting to storm an enemy's position while slogging through mud simply did not make for an enjoyable time.

Hill 60

This is where I come to the story of Hill 60. Yep, basically the hills were all assigned numbers, and Hill 60 was basically the highest point in the region, and the German's controlled it. That basically meant that they could see everything that was going on in front of them, and also have a somewhat greater range for their weapons. So, something slightly different was devised to attempt to capture this point - instead of going over ground, the troops went under. Basically the allies (namely the Australians), tunneled under no-man's land, and began to lay an incredible amount of explosives under the German positions. This was actually done at a number of places along the lines.

The idea was to detonate the explosives all at once, and then move in to capture the German positions. Also, the benefit was that since the explosives were underground as opposed to being lobbed over no-man's land, it meant that the German's weren't able to shelter from the barrage. The problem was with the timing, and waiting for orders from the generals. For this to work, they needed to set off the explosives all at once, but unfortunately this didn't work.

The remains of Hill 60.

At the time the Battle of the Somme was raging, so the belief was that since the German's were occupied down there, they would have a better time of being able to break through here. The end result was that they didn't, and they had pretty much under-estimated the Germans. Further, the Somme was drawing a lot of resources, and the mines weren't detonated simultaneous either. Sure, they managed to capture the hill, but that wasn't a huge success because the hill had literally changed hands sixteen times.

If you do end up down here, you will discover that the craters are still present, and in many ways have become places of reflection. Also, the bunkers on Hill 60, are also still there (the Germans built then really, really well), and they have even placed markers in the area to mark where the lines were (ignoring the fact that they did change regularly). In some places they were so close that one could get over with little trouble, except for the machine gun emplacements preventing you. Oh, and there is also a railway line nearby, which was present during the war, though considering the amount of artillery was was dumped on the area I'm not all that sure if it would have been all that useful.

Christmas Truce

As it turned out the location of the famous Christmas Truce was in the local area, and a memorial has been set up to remember it. For those who don't know, the story goes that on Christmas Day, 1914 (ironically the day that the war was supposed to have been finished), all of the generals went home to spend time with their families, while the soldiers were left to celebrate Christmas in the horrid surrounds of the trenches. So, while sitting there, one of the British soldiers tied a white flag to the pole, waved it over the side of the trench, and cried out 'Nicht schießen! Nicht schießen!".

The Germans agreed, and both sides climbed out of the trenches, and both sides agreed that they were pretty annoyed that the generals had all gone home leaving them in this god-forsaken hell hole, and that neither side wanted to be there, let alone fighting each other. So, they decided to do what most Europeans do when in this situation - they played soccer. In fact they played soccer, talked, laughed, and had a jolly good time right up until the generals returned, horrified that the troops were having a blast.

So, doing what Generals tend to do in situations like this, they basically reprimanded the soldiers, told them to get back into the trenches, and go back to shooting each other. In a way, this event isn't all that surprising, especially considering the attitudes of the soldiers and the generals. As was the case with World War I, this was an industrialised war where soldiers simply became machines in the cogs. Further, this was a dispute between the ruling parties as opposed to the people at large. As Graves suggested in his memories, in the trenches there was actually a lot more animosity between the British and the French than there was between the British and the Germans.

Anyway, I'll finish up here, and continue in a further post with the Battle of the Somme. 

Further Reading

Tourist information, and other facts, regarding the Ypres Salient.

An Australian government site regarding Hill 60.
Another Australian site regarding the battle of Hill 60.

Details regarding the Christmas truce of 1914.

Oh, and there is also a movie called Beneath Hill 60.

Creative Commons License

The Western Front - Democracy's Challenge pt 1 - Ypres by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Brutality of Time - Chekhov's Three Sisters


It was one of those happy coincidences that when I was in Sydney the STC (Sydney Theatre Company) happened to be performing one of Chekhov's plays. There was a time, a few years back, when I had finished reading the Cherry Orchard only to discover that that particular play, produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, had just finished the week before. Needless to say I was sorely disappointed. Okay, while traveling to Sydney just to see a play may sound like a needless expense, it certainly doesn't come close to traveling all the way to London just to see Les Miserables. Anyway, I was planning on going to Sydney anyway, it just happened that this play coincided with my trip there (as well as an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on the Dutch Grand Masters - though unfortunately, or should I say not surprisingly, the collection on loan from the Rijksmuseum didn't include the Night Watchman).

One of the things that I have noticed is that, with the exception of Shakespeare, I tend not to be all that familiar with the plays of other playwrights. This can cause a problem when I am attempting to sort out the gems from the rubbish that happens to be the mainstay of the Australian theatre scene. Then again, I'm probably close to a friend of mine in that I tend to be a bit of a theatre snob in that I simply do no like contemporary plays, or contemporary playwrights. However, this dislike probably doesn't go to the extent of my friend who will walk out of plays in disgust, but then again, as he has mentioned, you simply can't compare Broadway, or even an American Shakespeare festival, with the Australian theatre scene, and when you don't have the luxury of traveling to the United States once or twice a year then you are probably going to have to grin and bare it.

You can find the full text of the play on Project Gutenberg, and if you are game, the original Russian is here.

The Story - Or Lack Of

The Three Sisters is set in a provincial Russian town, which seems to be a staple of Chekhov, but then again he was born and raised in provincial Russia. However, the three sisters were originally from the metropolis (most likely Moscow) but had moved here since their father had received a commission in the army and had been stationed at the base here. However, this particular version was supposed to be set in the 70s, yet the style was so vague that it did have something of a timeless quality about it. In a way it could have been  the 1970s, but then again it could have been much, much earlier. Further, the location is kept deliberately vague, though since it was snowing on New Years Eve, it was clear that they had set the play in the Northern Hemisphere.

The play is about Three Sisters (and one brother), and stretches over a period of five years. Well, after watching it (and having read it previously), I do feel that five years is a little too short to really capture the brutality of time, but that is something that I will touch upon a little later. Anyway, the play begins after the sibling's father has died and is on the birthday of one of the sisters (and also the first anniversary of their father's death). Anyway, before I continue further I should probably mention a few of the characters.

First of all we have the siblings, the three sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina the youngest, and their brother Andrei, who is the second youngest. Olga is a school teacher, and Masha the artist. Masha is also married to Feodor, who is somewhat older than her, and is also a school teacher. Initially she was enchanted by his charm and grace, but soon become board of him. Andrei is in love with Natalia, who is actually somewhat of a commoner. Like his sisters, Andrei is an intellectual, and seems to actively be pursing somebody beneath status.

Then we have the soldiers, who serve as a counter balance to the sisters. There is Vershinin, who happens to be the commander at the base, and is also married, however he is facing problems in his marriage and ends up having an affair with Masha. Tuzenbach is the second in command, and is not considered particularly handsome. However, for much to the play there is a tension between him and Irinia, and a constant back and forth between romance and repulsion. Finally, we have Solyony, who actually comes across as a bit of a Baldwick from the Black Adder fame. He is also in love with Irinia, however she is repulsed by him, and after his declaration of love for he she does her best to avoid him.

So, the play takes place over four scenes, and over four significant events. The scenes take place between 6 to 18 months apart, and the play chronicles the changes that take place over that period. In a way we watching one period, stepping back, and then returning at another point. As mentioned, the play begins on the anniversary of their father's death, and Irina's birthday. Act two begins about 20 months after act one, and is set during New Years Eve celebrations. Natalia and Andrei are now married and it seems that Natalia is taking control of the household. Act three takes place a year after act two and is set during a fire in the town, and the sisters find themselves moved into a single room, with Natalia taking over the rest of the house, and also tearing into their life long servant. We also discover that the house has been mortgaged to help pay off Andrei's gambling debts. The forth and final act is set some time after, and we have the soldiers leaving since the base has been closed down, and everybody is going their separate ways.


When things change, all you have left are the memories.
If there is one line that brings up what the play is about it is that line. However, this isn't change for the better, but rather change for the worse. When we are talking about change in The Three Sisters we are talking about change that comes about through decay. The town in which the play is set sounds like it would sit in the middle of the rust-belt, and could easily be set in a town like Flint Michigan. Throughout the play one thing after another is closing down - first the school, then the factories, and finally the military are moving out. In fact it is when the base is closed down that the town could officially be considered dead, and this is brought about even more by the sounds of planes flying over head.

We seem to be seeing this with many of our country towns, even here in Australia. In fact there is the constant cry that regional Australia is dying. The government is attempting to change that, however whenever they attempt to move a department out into a regional location there are howls of protest. Yet we have seen that with the department of Agriculture being shifted to regional New South Wales, and a number of state departments also being moved out to the regions, particularly with the collapse of the car industry in Australia (one of Victoria's major regional towns - Geelong - used to be where the main Ford plant was, until it closed down).

Yet we are also seeing the regions being devastated through globalisation, centralisation, and consolidation. The traditional small family farms are dying - it is impossible for the farmers to be able to stay afloat, especially with the major supermarket chains (and other companies) literally setting prices and cutting farmer's margins so that they have little choice by to go into debt. In fact one of my friends, who is a beef farmer, told me that it wasn't until the Chinese started to buy his beef that he began to make money, while another friend who runs a small scale sheep farm, does his own butchering and sells meet over Facebook.

Yet the reality is that the smaller farms are being destroyed, and are being bought up by multinational conglomerates such as Simplot and Archer-Daniels-Midland. The traditional farmer is slowing disappearing, and even with the little to no profit margins, and the farm being mortgaged to the hilt, there is also the problem of technology. Technology is advancing so fast that the traditional farmer simply has to continue to renew his equipment least he fall behind in productivity. However, the conglomerates also have a distinct advantage over them since they have the capital, the reach, and the economies of scale, to be able to continue to reinvent themselves, where as the traditional farmer doesn't.

The question, though, is whether this is change for the better, or change for the worse?

Brutality of Time

The thing with the plays of Anton Chekhov is that they tend to be as bleak and the Russian tundra. Well, some have suggested that that may be just a little too harsh since the play can also be seen as a comedy. Well, Trainspotting is a comedy, but in another sense it isn't, though I would not go anywhere near as describing Chekhov as writing black comedy (if even such a concept existed at the time). Sure, there are some parts that could be consider comic, but that usually comes down to the skill of the director. Further, much of the comic elements generally occur at the beginning, and tend to be interpretations of how the characters interact with each other. Yet, the other thing is that you need to soften the audience up somewhat (which is what happens in Trainspotting) to confront with the incredibly powerful ending.

Time is not a kind master. In fact one of the themes that seems to be running through John Green's Youtube series on literature, is the inability to stop time, or even turn it back. The thing with time is that it continues moving forward, whether we like it or not, and it takes us with it. The other thing is that it changes us - by the year, the day, the hour, and the second. In fact in one moment time can completely shatter your dreams and bring your happiness to an end. One wrong choice, or one unlucky moment can have a chance to destroy you, yet time ever marches on - there is no stopping it.

The characters are now looking to the future with wonder and dreaming, only to look back to what was. At the start of the play we have them looking back to their father's death, and as things move on they long for the brighter times. Yet we see the ravages of change that time is bringing on the community, with the closure of the factory, the university, and the base. Yet time marches forever on, and there is nothing that they can do to stop it, no matter how they try.

This isn't a question of traveling in time, going to the future or returning to the past, but attempting to stop time, especially in those fleeting moments of joy, or to speed it up to escape those ever present times of grief and sorrow. That great party, that first kiss, that moment of exhilaration when you have succeeded and you feel that the world is your oyster. We want those times to last forever, yet for some strange reason they don't, and time moves forever on. It's not that we don't try to freeze time - we live for he weekend, go out to he pubs and clubs every night - we try to capture those times of joy and happiness, and when we can't we resort to drugs to take us back. Yet time marches on, we grow older, and the joy and exhilaration grow less and less, as we need more and more to maintain the joy.

Shattered Dreams

Remember that time when you were on top of the world, when everything seemed to be going your way. When you were young and capable of anything. You had got your foot in the door and the only way was up. Well, Chekhov did as well, and this is a play that we have received near the end of his life. In a way he was dying - he had tuberculosis - but his brilliance had just recently been discovered by the Moscow theatre scene after he had dropped out of literary circles a number of years before. Yet, time seemed to be against Chekhov because at this point he literally had one foot in the grave. However, he could look back at a time when he was young, and healthy, and had the potential to conquer the world - except that he hadn't.

You see from a young age we are told that we can be what we want to be, that we have no barrier, and that it is only ourselves that can hold us back. In a way that is a lie, but it is also encouragement to help us succeed. In some places that is true - in Australia we are fortunate to have a decent school system, depending on where we live of course, and good universities. Yet not everybody, even in Australia, has the same chances and opportunities that I have. In fact I have the opportunity to retrain and go into a completely different line of work, and in that way I am incredibly blessed - most of my colleagues have no such luck.

Yet, there was a time, when we got our first job, completed that degree, and it seemed that we could do almost anything. Then suddenly life takes a sharp turn, and we find that those dreams that we had are no longer being fulfilled. We had such hope in a child that eventually goes off the rails and disowns us, or we suddenly find ourselves in a dead-end job with no place to go, and an environment that wears us down day by day. Chekhov saw this, and knew this, since while he had seen some moderate success with his writings, his plays were never all that well received. We see this in the play with Masha, who was an artist and with Andrei, who was a philosopher - never came to all that much.

In fact Irina cries over the fact that suddenly she has forgotten her Italian, and that the ravages of time are eating her up. In fact we are constantly reminded of the potential that Andrei had, only to throw it all away and simply become a town councilor - in fact not just any old town councilor, but the councilor of a town that is slowly dying. The girls were expecting so much more from him, particularly as a philosopher - they wanted him to rock the world with his brilliance, yet ends up only influencing the local community.

Empty Relationships

Time also destroys relationships. Well, not quite since my parents are three years off their diamond jubilee, which in this day and age it quite an achievement. In fact I remember speaking to a friend once who was genuinely surprised that my parents were still together since with everybody she knew their parent's had split up. Then the question  is raised as to how many weddings have we been to where on that wonderful day there is promise and blessings on a happy future and a long life together, only to discover that the marriage has broken down in a matter of years. In fact it seems that these days most people who get married are probably going to do so at least twice, which is a boon for the wedding industry mind you.

So, we see this in the play, in particular with two relationships (and while there is a third, I won't touch upon it due to its tragic nature, and the fact that it is a huge spoiler). First we have Masha, who is said to have married young, and she married the intellectual Feodor, who for a while is the headmaster of the school, but ends up becoming just a teacher. He is absolutely smitten with Masha, and in fact spends half the play running around looking for her. The bleak final scene is the climax where we see him run onto and off of the stage, calling out her name, until he stumbles on the horrid truth. The thing is that Masha is having an affair, and has had been doing so for the last three to four years.

It can be said that there is a mystique about a man in uniform, though I suspect that this may have been a form of cultural conditioning to attempt to increase recruitment rates into the armed forces (especially after conscription was ruled a big no no). However, it seems to go beyond this because the relationship is empty and loveless, at least from Masha's point of view - but then again that seems to be more of a flaw with Masha than it is with Feodor. In a way I don't feel that Feodor had done anything wrong, it is just that Masha had become bored. This is another thing that seems to be permeating around society - affairs are better than traditional relationships - but then again that has a lot to do with while it not being strictly illegal, it is generally frowned upon - the forbidden fruit always tastes so much better.

Then there is Andrei and Natalia. Natalia is very controlling and domineering. Further, she is beneath their class, and was portrayed as such in the play for our modern eyes and brains to understand the contrasts. Here we have three well educated women, and their brother, who is equally educated, marries somebody who dropped out of highschool and works in retail. Okay, this doesn't ring all that well with us these days because if we were to look down upon somebody in that regards we would be accused (and rightly so) or intellectual snobbery. However, this was very much an issue in Chekhov's day.

Yet we see how the marriage changes over the play. Once again, Natalia is the forbidden fruit, but not really so because there is some goading by the sisters for Andrei to make a move on her. Yet, once they are married, we suddenly discover that Natalia has sunk her claws into him, and is making her presence felt in the house. She chastises the house keeper for being too old and a waste of resources, and while she is rebuked by Olga, this rebuke falls on deaf ears. Then we have their room in act three, where we discover that due to the need to raise children, Olga and Illiana have been relegated to the smallest room in the house.

So it is with relationships - Andrei has changed and is no longer the brother, but an alien under the control of somebody who clearly wants the sisters out of the house. While this relationship hasn't necessarily degenerated, it is clear that Natalia is what one would call 'high-maintenance'. She has a lot of demands on Andrei and his resources, which is probably why he has run up so many gambling debts. In a way this is probably a warning by Chekhov to his contemporaries as to why one shouldn't marry outside their class, while to the modern audience, once should be more circumspect as to who to enter into a life long relationship in the form of marriage, and try not to have one's judgement clouded by love (if that is all possible).

Going Home

The idea of home takes many forms. In a way it is more than just that place that we return to everyday after work, were we eat out meals and sleep, as well as watch television. In fact it is more than possible that that place ceases to be a home, whether it be due to those we share the house with, or due to some traumatic event that occurred there in the recent past. In a sense the concept of home is a place of safety, a place where you can cut yourself off from the rest of the world, and be confident that you will not be disturbed. This is why people whose house has been burgled no longer feel that that place is a home - in a way it has been defiled.

Yet home takes another form in Three Sisters - home is a place of joy and happy memories, and that place unfortunately lies in the past. Iliana is always looking to return home, but unfortunately she cannot because that place of joy and safety lies in the past, and it is nigh impossible to return to that place. In fact many of us see the past in that light, and many of us desire to return to that past, but unfortunately we are unable to do so - this is why the idea of time travel premeates our culture because it represents a desire to return to a place that we are unable to do so.

We are now a hugely mobile society, and I would argue that a part of this has something to do with our desire for a place to call home. It is not just moving houses, but also moving cities. In Iliana's case she grew up in the city, while in her mind was home, but was then rudely pulled out of that comfort zone to be taken to a country town. For the rest of the play she has this desire to return home, because she believes that once she returns to the city then everything will be so much better. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. In a way we spend our lives searching for a place to call home, but for some reason we are never able to find such a place - which is probably why we are slowly becoming a race of modern nomads.

I'll finish this post off with a BBC version of the play starring Anthony Hopkins (from 1970).

Here is a review, and some insights, on a production of the play in Bakersfield California.

Creative Commons License

The Brutality of Time - Chekhov's Three Sisters by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me