Belgium

Only a couple of weeks after my journey to the Netherlands, I journey west again, and went to Belgium. I began in Brussels. Brussels is a very cool city. With a blend of old, new, and ultra modern. Again, another city with world class cultural and recreational opportunities. (A trend that seems to be apparent in all major cities.) Walking around Brussels was my favourite way to navigate the city. That being said, pretty much any way of public transportation are available.

The next city that I journeyed to, was Antwerp. This was actually my favourite city in Belgium. Known around the world as the centre of the diamond industry, Antwerp is a bustling port city. Again, all the general opportunities are available, but I think the city feels less crazy than Brussels, less touristy than Bruges, and more interesting than Ghent. Again, I recommend that one walks to see the city. The churches in Antwerp were particularly stunning.

Bruges… not much can be said about this city that people haven’t already heard. Swans line the picturesque canals, pretty buildings cover the city, and it feels a little surreal. That being said, the city was ridiculously crowded. It was a little harder to appreciate the city with so many people everywhere. I was also a little upset that there were no fast-track tickets to go to the top of the scenic Belfry of Bruges. Nevertheless, Bruges is must-see, and will appeal to almost any kind of traveller.

Lastly, Ghent. Ghent is a city that I feel does not receive the same love as the three aforementioned locations. It is located right in the middle of Brussels and Bruges, and gets passed over as a result. It features a large university, so it is a particularly fun city to go to if you are of college age. The city also contains canals, and lacks the major crowded feel of Bruges. (Although it is definitely not as fairytale looking.) The beer here is great, as with all of Belgium… I recommend the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant. St. Bavo’s Cathedral also contains one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. The Ghent Altarpiece is worth seeing. But it does cost a couple of Euros to get into the little showing room.

Belgium was a very cool place. Each city that I visited felt completely different than the previous, and that was very exciting. In addition, Belgium is also very cool due to the numerous languages that can be heard on a regular basis. While there are tourists speaking all sorts of languages, Belgium also boasts three national languages… French, Dutch, and German. I hope my little review of each city helps make deciding which cities/city to visit. And of course, there are other interesting cities elsewhere in Belgium!

Netherlands Trip

April was a very busy month for me. I flew back to Germany after a little time back in the US. (Germany has a two month break between the winter and summer semesters.) I began school again with new and exciting classes… and I began to plan out all the travel I could.

My first trip that I planned took me to the Netherlands. Initially, I was only intending to go to Amsterdam, but this would change after a little time in Amsterdam.

A few days before I left for Amsterdam, I learned that it was King’s Day on the day I arrived. All I have to say, is wow. King’s Day was an amazing time. The entire city was clothed in orange, street parties dotted every street, barges lined the endless canals, and happy people were everywhere. I don’t know how many people know about this holiday, but it definitely worth experiencing.

Amsterdam also had bountiful cultural/fun opportunities. World class museums, brewery tours, canal rides, beautiful churches, and everything else a city can provide. In addition, apart from the real middle of the city, it never felt overcrowded. The only two major museums that I went to were the Rijksmuseum and the Heineken Tour. I can highly recommend the Rijksmuseum, and if you like beer, the HT is good. (Although I think that Guinness tour in Dublin is better.) If one wants a cheap and nice view of Amsterdam, I recommend the view from the top of the library. Also, the bridge linking the library and NEMO Museum.

While in the Netherlands, I also went to Keukenhof and Utrecht. Keukenhof has the famous tulip gardens. It is absolutely stunning, but the garden is only open for a short period of time. Utrecht has canals that look like the ones in Amsterdam, but the city is way less crowded. I would recommend this for a day trip.

The Netherlands is amazing, and there are plenty of interesting places to see outside of Amsterdam. I didn’t even it make it to The Hague or Rotterdam.

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.

However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.

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The Cold War and Beyond?

This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.Image result for ou cold war and beyond

The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Recently, the University of Oklahoma hosted a member of Amnesty International who gave a lecture on the Rohingya and the current refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Everyone has heard the news mention the Rohingya population, but I did not know all of the details and I wanted to learn more about the situation. This lecture seemed like a good place to start.

The lecture began with an in-depth look at the crisis, highlighting specific individuals and the horrific events they experienced. The speaker hoped to humanize the situation and give the audience an appreciation of the human costs of the crisis. While I knew that the Myanmar military was burning Rohingya villages and driving them out, I did not know that they were then clearing what remained of the villages and building on top of them. The structures varied, but many seemed to be either new military outposts, villages for different ethnic groups, or secure “villages” that the Rohingya might be forced into.

The lecture also informed me of the history of the Rohingya crisis, which did not begin as recently as I had thought. The conflict truly began in 1982, when the government passed a law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and gave them a “half citizenship,” where they could not move around the country without a government-issued identification card. This eventually led to apartheid, where everything from schooling to medical treatment was segregated. The truly horrific acts began taking place when the general public began supporting the military in 2012. Since the worst of the violence in August 2017, over 671,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, meaning that over 80 percent of the Rohingya population have been driven out of their homes. While the infamous village burnings have largely stopped, the Myanmar army turned to forcibly starving the remaining population in the hopes of driving them out. This is mainly done by restricting the Rohingya’s access to rice, burning markets, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are still living in a nightmare, and this lecture helped explain the issue, its history, and its what is currently happening. You can learning more from Amnesty International by clicking HERE and you can donate to the Rohingya refugees through the UN by clicking HERE.

Barcelona

The semester is finally coming to an end here in Germany. In fact, as I write this, I only have two more days of class! (Although, I have term papers to write.) Anyhow, as the semester is almost over, I reckoned that I deserved a little gift. So, I booked a flight to Barcelona…and back 🙂

I flew out on Wednesday afternoon, arriving late in the day. The next day, I began my first of two intense days. I started my day with Sagrada Familia. All I have to say is wow. The way the sun’s light floods through the stained glass panels is surreal. I have only seen two other churches that come close to that beauty, those two being Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France, and St. Stephen’s, in Mainz, Germany.

After this, I proceeded to see some of Gaudi’s other buildings, walk around Plaça de Catalunya, meander down La Rambla, gaze up at the state of Columbus, and stop at the seafront. Taking a breather, I contemplated my next move. Since I was by the water, I surmised that a visit to the Maritime Museum was in order. I was not disappointed, learning loads of new information.

That night, I went to a Barcelona FC match. They were playing against Valencia in the Copa del Rey. (The major domestic tournament.) Barcelona won 1-0, thanks to a Luis Suárez goal. Not only was it exciting to see a match at the Camp Nou, but being able to see Lionel Messi at his home pitch was an experience I will not be forgetting soon.

The following day, I went back to the Camp Nou to do the Barcelona Football Experience. (The museum/stadium tour.) Definitely worth doing to anybody moderately interested in football. I also went to Park Güell to see more of Gaudi’s work. The sights from the park are stunning. (A note, the part with Gaudi’s works costs money, although part of the park is free.)

To avoid continuing what could be a boring summary, I spent a lot of time in the Gothic Quarter, and ventured out to Barcelonetta Beach as well… going through Parc de la Ciutadella as well.

Barcelona is an amazing city. Beautiful, interesting, fun, and with generally decent weather. Barcelona is not like the rest of Spain, as one can feel the Catalan pride pulmonating through the city’s veins. Catalan flags fly high in the sky, are hung from patios, and even make their way onto Barcelona’s football emblem. This makes for a very different feeling than one would get from Madrid.

Lastly, tapas. I could not get used to them. I understand that the point of them is to be small, so one can order a variety of different food. However, I prefer one big meal. While the food was tasty, tapas were not my favourite. But, seeing as this is the only culture clash during my entire trip, I would call it an overwhelmingly successful trip.

German Football

This past month, I decided that it was time for me to start to go to some football, (soccer) matches in Germany. I mean, when one thinks about Germany, football is one of the first things that comes to mind. Although the national team was not playing during January, the Bundesliga was… which meant that I could see my favourite club play.

Before I could see my favourite club play, I figured that I had to see the club from around Heidelberg play. So, I went to TSG Hoffenheim’s website, bought a ticket for the weekend’s match, and got ready to watch an exciting game of football.

The match didn’t go well, as Hoffenheim would lose 1-4 against Bayer Leverkusen. However, the atmosphere was impressively good for a stadium of 30,000 and a team being throttled. Songs were sung, and the fans kept their heads up even in a loss. I plan on going back to see another Hoffenheim game…

After getting my first taste of Bundesliga football, I decided it was time to see my favourite club play at their home. I was going to Dortmund.

I pocketed my bus/match tickets, brought other things I could fit in my coat pockets… as bags and whatnot are never allowed in the stadium. The first bus ride was seven and a half hours. I arrived in Dortmund, and quickly rushed to Signal Iduna Park. I made it an hour before kickoff, and enjoyed aimlessly wandering around the grounds. The game was an exciting one, despite it ending 2-2. The atmosphere was the best I have ever experienced, including Manchester United, Barcelona, and other large clubs’ stadiums.

After waiting for two and a half hours to get on my bus, and a five and a half hour bus ride later, (I know! An express bus!) I was back home in Heidelberg. I have no regrets over doing such an intense day, and if I could, I would go to every Dortmund game. But, I can’t… I guess I’ll just have to wait until the last game of the season, when they pay a visit to Hoffenheim.

Some Family Time

First of all, happy holidays, and best wishes for the upcoming year. Over my holiday break, I was visited by my parents. After four months of not seeing them, it was a very exciting time.

Even though we all understood that the weather would not be a friend, we intended to explore what we could. First, I had to show off Heidelberg. I am happy to say that both my mother and father found Heidelberg to be both a pretty and an interesting city. We walked down the main streets, saw the various famous sights dotted around the old town, toured the castle, and ate lots of good food. (At places that I had never eaten at!)

In addition to seeing Heidelberg, my parents rented a car so we were able to visit other places in the area. Mainz, Rüdesheim, Schwetzingen, Stuttgart, Tübingen, and Baden-Baden. I am very happy that we went to a few of these places. Particularly Mainz, Tübingen, and Baden-Baden. Mainz is a major city, but is not within the limit of my semester ticket, (which allows my to take specific public transportation for free) so it was unlikely that I would’ve gone there. And Rüdesheim/Tübingen are difficult to get to. Neither are in the area of the semester ticket, and neither are possible for me to get to without having to change trains. (I haven’t been able to find a bus company that goes from Heidelberg to Tübingen. If someone reading this can find one, please comment details below.)

My parents flew home yesterday. But, we saw a lot, were able to spend time together, and had lots of fun. And, I don’t have to wait another four months to see them next. I fly home during my two month break between terms. I’ll be in Norman, Oklahoma in about five weeks… with so many experiences under my belt. (And another semester to look forward to after the break!)

Christmas Markets

Over the past month, I have visited the Christmas markets of Germany. (And one in France.) As it is New Years Eve, most of the markets have ended and packed up until next year. However, through these markets, I have visited places that I had originally not intended to see, and that makes me very thankful for them.

I like to collect little trinkets from places that I visit. Usually I buy a postcard and put it in an album when I return to the United States… but at the markets, I was able to buy glühwein. (Mulled wine.) It came in special mugs/glasses that showcased where I had purchased them.

In the markets, there were trinkets from all over Germany! In fact, there were things from all over the world. In Nuremberg, I bought a couple of little pins from a Ukrainian woman. Despite the copious amount of things available for purchase in each city, most of the stuff was not practical for me to purchase. Large beer steins, beautiful hand crafted woodwork, and other impressive creations were too large, (and sometimes too expensive) for me.

Regardless of what I bought/didn’t buy, I think Christmas markets are great. People of all ages, religions, and races came to walk around, socialize, and be happy. I always smiled when I saw grandparents ice skating with their grandchildren… These markets took me all over Germany. (And to Strasbourg, France.) Not only fun, but capable of showcasing the culture of the city/region. I know that I will be back to Europe to experience these again.

Natakallam Arabi

As a way to practice and improve on my Arabic, I joined the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Oklahoma. In it, we attend meetings every two weeks and participate in a culture club once a week. In particular, my favorite meeting was a roundtable where we talked to two refugees from Syria: one who currently lives in Brazil and one who lives in Lebanon. They both work for an organization called “Natakallam” (نتكلم), which partners refugees from the Syrian Civil War with people who want to learn and practice Arabic. In our discussion with them, they told us about their experience in Syria and how they left the country. One of them spent years trying to escape, and his journey included covert border crossings and Turkish prisons. The other got a work visa for Lebanon, and crossed the border every couple of months to keep it current so she would not have to stay in Syria. Their journeys were harrowing, and it was eye-opening to hear about experiences like theirs that I only ever heard about previously.

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However, one of the most interesting things that they talked about was their outlook on the future. Both hoped to return to Syria, but they also doubted that possibility because of its current political situation. They also talked about their perceptions about the places where they live. The one who lived in Brazil talked about the Arab community that was already in the country and how they helped him transition to Brazilian culture. It was especially interesting to hear this, as in our Arabic class we read a poem by a girl from Palestine who currently lives in Brazil, so it was fascinating to see the connections and differences.