Intercultural Incompetence – some thoughts.

A friend with tons of experience of doing research in South Asia recently put it very well: “Intercultural competence is just good listening with a thin layer of contextual knowledge”. We got to talk because of a strange experience I had recently.

Earlier this week, an oral historian from a rich country (not mentioning which one) working in South East Europe called me and asked if, given the fact that I had done some project work with EUROCLIO in this region, I could help her out. I was expecting to talk about some of the history she was studying, or some advice about working with different organisations and institutes, but it seemed her biggest challenge was how to get people to come to an agreed time and place to meet. She found is frustrating that people don’t work according to schedules. At the end of the day she was best helped with me sharing some of my experiences and advice on communicating.

After we finished the talk, I realized this had been quite problematic. We were making gross generalizations and putting it all on  culture. “Those people” had been, after all, living under communism, and therefor did not really know how to respond professionally. Or, due to the warm climate, there is a certain “we’ll see what happens”, mentality. Possibly, their culture, is just to “not make appointments”…

OK, fine, there is a whole word of cultural variance when it comes to how people conduct their work. But being aware of this is not simply a matter of applying tricks (e.g. send them a reminder). It is all about getting to actually know people.

Even more important, however, is the actual dynamic which exists between the richer and the poorer. Does “intercultural competence” in a way hide away this dimension? At the end of the day, whatever research you are doing with people living in tougher living conditions, you are proposing that them helping you out is of equal value – but evidently it is not. One side has a fat research grant, and the other side potentially has two full time jobs, limited to no social plan and is confronted with weak institutions and a collapsing democracy whichever way they look.

So, in this area of working together across all sort of divides, is culture really the issue to be competent in, or are we missing out on a whole range of other dispositions?

After all – I am one of those people who has put in his CV, and repeats it at length in applications that he has intercultural competences. But what does it actually mean? And even more important, how is it actually attained? It seems to me that my friend was spot-on. Be a good listener, be interested in the ‘other’ (whoever it is), and build your contextual knowledge (history, culture, politics, sport, economy, and so on). But be an individual, be human. Don’t draw easy conclusions (like: those people are all lazy), because you would simply be amplifying stereotypes and inviting others to be stereotypical about you (like: they only think about money and planning without emotions).

Just some thoughts.

Blogging, Facebook and the Urge to Interact

So now that I have my own website, I have to also face up to the fact that I had been a quite active internet user since, well, 1997-ish. Thankfully the Internet Archive doesn’t have any record of my first Xoom (or was it Geocities) website, where I put mainly pictures of Aliens. I did for a while have also not one, but two blogs on blogspot (one called Think and Explain and the other Ahava), and tried to join a blog collective De Grondslag (untraceable). Then, for mostly vain reasons, I also had a blog on a newspaper portal (Volkskrantblog) called Dit en Dat (archived). I actually posted all sorts of opinions, and even poems (!) on those old blogs. Hilarious to read them back, this one about History and the threats to Western Civilisation in 2006 (in English), or these poems in Dutch:

But then, the monster which ate the internet arose. Facebook. In a way I feel bad that so much content (ideas, conversations, questions, jokes, interactions) have been thrown into the myth of the personalized experience (timeline), and I should (one day) sift through the content I created and/or shared on that platform and somehow salvage it. Or should I? Facebook’s own feature to remind you of your own memories is nice and kind, but it rarely brings to the front the more meaningful (text-based) interactions I’ve have with people.

Well, I do share a lot of things and ideas on Facebook, and care less about the privacy around those messages. Is this smart? Is it a romanticized idea that the Internet still is a great place for conversations with (connected) strangers? Funnily enough, people who I know in real life occasionally thank me for continuing to share stuff on Facebook, and seek to engage in conversations.

And yesterday, it was somebody I remotely know from my old student association Catena, who got somehow inspired by my reckless #public challenging of the Facebook algorithm (not really my intention, but that is how he perceived it, which is great), and proposed that – in order to fix our addition to swiping-sans-thinking – we should just produce more content and seek out public interactions. Makes sense! Thanks, Maarten!

So there is this urge to be visible, to be read and commented upon. Perhaps I just like writing and should do it more? Wouldn’t be a bad conclusion of this short investigation.

Ultimately, what I would like to see more, is opinions and experiences of people. Short incidents, insights. Things that make you wonder and think. Can we do that more? If not on Facebook, where?

Scheveningen’s local history, Kids and Keith Haring. Reporting an educational experiment.

One of the great things about taking some time away from organised (office) work is the possibility to experiment, think and rediscover one’s core interest.  I’ve seen so many great educational activities during my time of active employment at EUROCLIO, and now I had the chance to play around with some of the inspiration I met along the way. Working together with my mother Els Thijsse (Studio Progress), who is an accomplished artist and art educator, we tried out a workshop which combined local history and art.

In 2018, Scheveningen, a fishing community’s village since time immemorial, marked 200 years since the establishment of a badplaats (meaning as much as a bathing/beach place). One of the many activities included the establishment of historical information points at the local library, aiming to facilitate public education, including extra-curricular activities for (young) kids, about the local history of Scheveningen.

One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had a workshop concept developed around the word haring:

1.       The haringkade: The dock along a canal dug in the mid-nineteenth century which enable the herring to be shipped further inland.

2.       Keith Haring: The famous graffiti artist of the 1980s.

For the first part, I did two things:

1.       Working in a local library, which seeks to help kids learn local history, I made sure I worked with primary sources (mainly newspaper clippings and photography) related to only the Haringkade (with an occasional source expanded to include the other side of the same canal, namely the Havenkade). This approach helped to make history very tangible to the kids who know the local geography very well. In particular as the canal itself was dredged and the last today hosts a skate-park, playground and playfarm.

2.       In order to make sure the history was meaningful to the kids, the youngest being 6 years old, the sources I selected dealt only with kids themselves.

With these two criteria (haringkade/havenkade and kids), I selected sources using several local history books, but mainly the magnificent Dutch online newspaper archive platform Delpher. In addition, I chose to focus on the period 1880-1920, because it seems that this was the period of significant change in the character of Scheveningen.

My mother, in the meantime, prepared an approach around Keith Haring, in which she sampled how his artistic style could be seen to have similarities to prehistorical cave paintings. Capturing only the essential form with thick lines. I liked how she considered the very basic ingredient of historical consciousness in her introduction, while the remainder of her time with the kids was to help them paint their own Haring-esque works.

The workshop took place on 20 June with 16 kids (ages 6-12). As an introduction I gave them an iconic Dutch candy, a Haagse Hopje, and asked them if they knew what it was and where it may have come from – in order to reveal that in fact this candy was developed on this one street – the Haringkade, at the chocolate factory Rademaker. Then, I explained to them the basic work of the historian, to find out what happened in the past. When I asked them if they could tell me what they thought had happened in the past, their responses ranged from wars to dinosaurs. I surprised them when I said that many kids have lived in the past. So also everything that they had experienced as kids, counts as history!

The fun started when I asked them to work in four groups, loosely organised on the basis of their age, but even more so on their self-expressed interest in reading, telling stories, or imagining. I gave them four sealed envelopes which had four specific themes: thrilling Scheveningen, fun Scheveningen, every-day Scheveningen, and changing Scheveningen. Their task was to look at the printed sources in the envelopes and identify elements in the sources.

The group dealing with ‘thrilling Scheveningen’ had most textual sources. These sources included articles about kid-related events on the haring- and havenkade: kids falling into the water, kids hitting other kids, kids trying to save a dog from being killed by other kids and so on. I asked the kids in this group to read these articles (which were written in not so easy to understand Dutch), agree on their favourite story and prepare to explain the story in their own words to the other kids.

The group dealing with ‘fun Scheveningen’ had a mix of textual and visual sources related to festivities, including celebrations around the arrival of the herring and two historical royal visits to the village, which of course had passed by the haringkade. I asked this group to try to identify what kind of festivities the sources showed, which elements they do, or don’t recognise from festivities they had participated in (like King’s day) and also if they could shortly summarise what had happened and tell it to the other kids.

The group dealing with ‘every-day Scheveningen’ had only visual sources, showing a variety of kids in different situations, including playing, working, posing with family and on the streets. I asked this group, or younger and somewhat less-focused kids, to try and study the faces of the kids on all the pictures, and to see if they could imagine how they felt on the source, and if possible why. I asked them to pick individually the source they liked best, and why, and share this with the others.

The final group, with the youngest kids, got the ‘changing Scheveningen’, including only visual sources of sometimes the same locations but from different decades. I asked them simply to find the differences and try to describe them. In one case of a very young child, I had a source of a road being built, and asked her – in also looking to the source with that street later being full of houses – to paint new houses on the empty street.

The final round was a wrapping up round, in which the kids got to share their stories and conclusions. For every source or story, I knew the exact location. So when a child had said their piece, I put a small sticker on a big canvas holding a map Scheveningen – providing the group with a summative visual of all the rich, and very local, history they had studied together.

This is where we left the cognitive domain and my mother quickly introduced Keith Haring, as said above. The kids easily transitioned from the historical activity, to the artistic activity. All of them were really positive at the end of the 2 hours work – and, so were we!

This experiment has strengthened my belief in the following:

·       Doing local history locally with local kids makes a lot of sense, and there is a lot more potential to do this with older students, and maybe also adults.

·       Working with primary sources can be done on a very young age. The idea that historians need evidence is not at all too complex for them to understand.

·       Public spots, like libraries, are excellent locations for cross-sectional work, like what we did with history and art.

·       Scheveningen village has seen a lot of developments. It offers good multiperspective narrations of rich/poor, traditional/industrial, multicultural societies.

Thanks Studio Progress, Historisch Informatie Punt and Feest-aan-Zee of the opportunity to experiment, and of course EUROCLIO – European Association of History Educators for all the inspiration provided!

Some photographs of our work session below:

Leaving you today with a set of questions:

  1. What is your experience with working with local history?
  2. Do you know more successful applications of combining history and art education?
  3. What do you think is missing in the approach above? (be honest :-))

Conflicting Conflicts – Something about Israel/Palestine

It feels like it’s time again to try and say something smart and approachable about the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, unfortunately, due to the lack of agreeable words, this will not be possible.

Just a pile of stones.

For example. I would like to say something about the bravery of young men and women in Gaza, who over the last months – having not much left to lose – gathered at the border with Israel to protest that country’s role in keeping them besieged. How they took sniper-shots, seemingly also in the back and in medics…But then enraged Israeli’s and right-wingers will come out with full documentation on the protests being:

  • Organised by Hamas, whose once-upon-a-time representative rule over Gaza cannot be seen as anything close to peaceful, due to the countless missiles fired at civilians inside Israel in military engagements over the last 12 years.
  • Not so violent at all, with some references to the bringing of knives, intended to penetrate the land of Israel and publicly calling to massacre and drive away Israeli citizens from towns which used to be Palestinian.
  • Over-reported and over-analysed, with claims of international organisation, western media and celebrities conspiring to put Israel in a negative role. They might add that this is yet another example of deeply rooted antisemitism, a world-view in which the Jew is always going to be the bad guy.

Bearing these retorts in mind, it might still be useful to try to establish some common ground. For example, I could seek to ‘address’ those enraged Israeli’s and right-wingers, by putting forward that:

  • Hamas’s rule over Gaza is indeed militant, and it’s political promise is that of fundamentalism Sunni Islam mixed with the illegitimacy of the State of Israel and it’s mission is effectively to liberate the land of Palestine. But, even this being the case, the people living in Gaza, millions of them, should be allowed their basic human rights.
  • The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is a respected institute within Israeli society. It gets a glorified narrative in history textbooks and is with the mandatory draft, it serves a unique purpose in almost all young Israeli’s lives. The drill is clear. Protect the land of Israel at any cost. Soldiers used (not anymore I heard) to swear allegiance at Masada where several fanatics resisted the Roman law of the land and rather committed collective suicide (women and children included). This army of young people. Which purposes does it seem to serve today? The daily degrading of the quality of life across the West Bank. Is that the type of life you wish for your 18-20 year old’s to have? I can hardly imagine the task of sitting on top of a well secured concrete checkpoint and been asked to sniper people who are effectively your prisoners. Which kind of condition does that leave you in?

But ultimately, this path of rationality will lead nowhere. The narratives and purposes are fixed. What is left is emotion, and empathy. Israel is a regional superpower, and a global fixer. Arabic countries have also played their role in screwing up the lives of millions of families with repression and war. Everybody suffers, but none more than the people who live in Gaza…

Some interesting bits and pieces of media and reading I’ve picked up over the last weeks:

  • In this episode of BBC The Inquiry, a Norwegian diplomat explains how the simple, and basic, importance of friendship, help to secure the Oslo Agreements in the 1990s.
  • Israeli Peace-activist Gershon Baskin has always kept communication lines with Hamas and was early to make clear the protests this year were different than anything else. An act of civil desperation. In any case, I do recommend following this man.
  • This down-to-earth observation in Israeli commentary site +972 nicely sums up that this never-ending retaliation and siege can not go on like this.
  • An alternative view in The Guardian on how young people live, and commit suicide inside Gaza might help to see that – especially taking into account how many healers and spiritualists live in Israel – the mental scars of living in Gaza…
  • Mapmakers have done something interesting in order to try to help see how, indeed, before Israel, there was Palestine (although the aforementioned group will instantly politically frame that this is not the case as it was Ottoman territory, later governed by Great Britain).
  • One distant friend, a scholar in Israel, published his work on Israeli fascism in 1922-1942, which is helpful in understanding the political conflict in and around Zionism among Jewish people. I still need to read this one though.

So what else is there to say? Around the world, people vicariously take part in this conflict. This perhaps, as a friend historian suggested earlier this week, makes this conflict much too big than it is (a few square kilometers..)

I hope the people living in Israel, as well as in Palestine, find heart to view the other as human and to be able to nudge their leaders toward a conversation. I know it’s cliche. I know an Israeli claim would be “but they want to obliterate us” and that a Palestinian claim would be “but they are killing us”. This would mean that Israeli population needs to take off the blindfolds and see what’s happening with regards to human rights.

Let me close with one observation. The UN has this Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Israel in 2015 was accepted into this committee, but not without objections from Syria and Pakistan, that Israel should first respect other UN decisions and end the occupation. Well, wouldn’t it be nice, if Israel would at least accept membership of the State of Palestine (a UN observer) to join this committee as well. Who knows, they may find together a peaceful purpose for outer space, and later see how it may work on Earth.

…and then I haven’t even begun to talk about history…

Beware the Data God (on Harari and History)

I haven’t read Sapiens, despite numerous strong recommendations by friends. I guess I simply thought that, having read quite a lot of global history grand narratives, I would not join the hype and happily go on reading more obscure global histories.

Yet, as Harari might say, some clever algorithm unconsciously conspired against my perceived free will, and had me purchase Homo Deus a few months ago. What follows is not a structural review but more a gut-feeling, top of my head collection of reflection, having just finished reading it, and indeed, having been completely blown away by it, several times.

First, I should say, that I had not been reading much about technological progress. And this book really brought me up to speed. I have however always been very curious about technology, and whenever I had the chance to engage in tech-talks with friends, I would, but only to the point where I realized I had no idea how something worked, and spun the conversation back to history, or to science-fiction.

Homo Deus is a long 400+ page argument which confronts the world (and history of ) of ideas (including all religions, ideologies, world-views, etc) with the world of matter, or rather science. Instead of deeply debating the nature of consciousness, or even souls, Harari does two things.

One is that he takes the reader in easy steps through convincing, somewhat anecdotal, reading of current scientific understanding of nature. Looking at the (mainly human) brain plays a very big part in helping to explain the interaction between neurons and evolution. In the end, all that is left for a human to be, is a set of algorithms. And guess what, everything else might also just be an algorithm.

Normally this would be a shocking thing to read, and very difficult to fully accept, but in addition to the scientific reasoning, but his discussion about religion prepared the reader very well for fully considering this view. It is namely his positioning of humanisms, which he explained has three essential strands being liberalism, socialism and evolutionary humanism, as something which developed alongside technological progress and did away with most theisms. Mainly all humanism is about putting the human in the centre, urging every one of us to dig deep, pursue our own individual happiness, gain control over our environment, find love, and so on.

So at this point. I have read about how brain scientist are able to control rats by manipulating their brain to want to go left or right. There is stuff about machine learning and the way in which we – not due to free will of course – engineer the Internet-of-All-Things. This big godlike super-algorithm will eventually know and control everything, and might at some point do away with it’s puny human designer.

New religions will come up to smoothen us all into this post-humanist age. One of them is about using technology not to fix problems in society, but upgrade individuals, live forever, have bigger brains, and so on. A dystopian world would lie ahead in which it is not enough that only a few have most of the worlds wealth, but that these people also evolve into a new species Homo Deus which would treat Homo Sapiens much like we treat animals.

But the ultimate religion, and this is also where the whole book comes together, would be Dataism. A kind of all-encompassing view that, as Harari says, life is data processing. In fact, all of history, he implies, has evolved along the path of having more processors, more data, more complex algorithms to crunch this data. The fact that human culture and science at this point in time has arrived at some kind of ultimate global connectivity in a way is just the revelation of the role of data processing and algorithms.

Soon enough, in a matter of decades, or centuries, our role on earth might very well be over, he proposes.

Well then. A very entertaining book tying into one the need to understand on which path we seem to be in the 21st century. Beware the data-god, but also somehow seek to accept the limitations of being human.

My two cents.

To Dutch or not too Dutch

I am so happy that I am writing this post in English. After more than a decade of daily work in English (or some call it Globish), I now have to seriously work on my Dutch.

Dutch was never my native language. I was born in Israel and spoke only Hebrew until arriving in The Netherlands at the age of nine. But, I did manage to learn it, graduate with it, and write an MA thesis in it.

But to actually now work professionally in Dutch. That’s challenging.

Dutch language is in fact contaminated with English words. On the one hand, it’s great, because you get to impress people with your command of these unavoidable words, like impact, evidence-base, peer-learning, and so on. But on the other hand, it does feel like an easy escape from a conversation already happening in Dutch.

A recent conversation with a potential client, for example, had me stranded a couple of times, asking myself out loud “how should I put this in Dutch?”. Here is one such example:

It’s crucial to build a sustainability planning which is able to generate a multiplier effect.

What I wanted to say here was the need for the project planning to take into account how the results (in this case media productions) will be made available to the target group beyond the projects scope, in such a way that it will not only be ‘consumed’, but also re-used. And not only re-used, but re-purposed for further multiplication, meaning: people won’t only watch the production, but also produce new productions.

Dus. Hoe ga ik dit in hemelsnaam in deugdelijk Nederlands schrijven. En al kan ik het goed opschrijven, hoe ga ik het zeggen zonder (op z’n Haags gezegd) me bek te breken?

  1. Vrij letterlijk: Het is essentieel om een verduurzaming strategie te hebben waar een vliegwieleffect vanuit gegenereerd wordt.
  2. Aangepast: Zorg er voor dat je nadenkt hoe je het verdere gebruik van de resultaten verduurzaamd.
  3. Anders: De resultaten moeten niet alleen beschikbaar zijn, maar ook op zich zorgen voor verder gebruik door anderen.

All three approaches to take the awful bit of project-speak from it’s English state into some kind of natural Dutch have their advantages and disadvantages.

So my question remains: To Dutch or not too Dutch?

What’s in a name?

So I took the leap of faith. Quit my exciting job as Executive Director and am now taking the steps needed to present myself to the world as a freelancer.

LinkedIn makes these kind of things particularly hard. Once saying you are no longer one thing. You instantly need to say what you are. It seemed to me a bad idea to say I’m “looking for opportunities”, or “available for new challenges”, as many seem to do. Luckily I had the possibility to say that for the moment I am “Ambassador of EUROCLIO“, which doesn’t only sound awesome, but also reflects the way in which that organisation is more than just an organisation, but really a big community.

But still, I needed a name. For the last 35 years, I have lived with the name Even-Zohar, and for the last 24 years, living in The Netherlands, I always (!) had to give some background, or meaning to this name. Usually this went along these lines:

  1. Yeah, sure, it’s Jew-ish. But I’m not. Or maybe I am. Your choice.
  2. No, it is not connected to the Kabbalah. You mean the book of Zohar.
  3. It is actually a direct translation of the Yiddish name “Finkelstein” into Hebrew. This was done by my ancestors somewhere in the 1930s as they migrated into Palestine.

So, it was after some dead-end creative name searching that, like I suppose most freelancers, I ended up with my own surname. But, with a twist.

Evenzo is a not so commonly used Dutch word which means ‘similarly’, ‘likewise’ or ‘also’. It speaks to my ever-present associative mindset. Something is always like something else. And that, I figured, is very much at the core of how I communicate with people. Professionally, it is an important rhetoric instrument in fundraising and advocacy. Philosophically, it is a reminder that we give meaning to our lives through comparisons.

And yes, of course, it is also simply a slightly shortened version of my name.