The Prove – constitutional change on a street called home

I’ve been reflecting on the particular spatial and temporal qualities of ‘in between’ times – the best of times and the worst of times. Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin after all.

The dystopian reality of current global politics- Brexit, Trump, Europe’s utterly inept response to the biggest mass migration of people since the second world war, the era of fake news- combined with the over-stimulation, self-saturation and cult of instant gratification stoked by social media, has rendered us scrolling junkies jittery for a deeper connection fix. It can be comforting then, detoxifying even, to look up from small screens and grasp big, everyday acts of kindness where we can still find them. The hyper-local world view- the view of the neighbourhood, the street, or tenement stair- brings into focus that empathy and love are not finite resources that can be mined by short-term greed and narcissism. Active participation and face by face interaction is where we find meaning to the world around us and define the contribution we chose to make. This is the daily practice of think global, act local.


Streetview

My street is Constitution Street in Leith, Edinburgh. It is an 1800 thoroughfare stretching east to west, parenthesis explaining city and sea, bookending the port of Leith and the nation’s capital. A street where statues to the unlikely bedfellows of Rabbie Burns (Bernard Street junction) and Queen Victoria (Duke Street junction) are in awkward conversation and where maritime docks meet new creative industries. It is a place of faded grandeur, hidden vaults, perpetual gossip, light and dark, and general under-recognition by town planners. Comprising a medieval graveyard, Georgian townhouses, Victorian tenements, ’70s highrise and the Tram-track scars of post-recession Britain, this is everyone’s land and yet, still, a liminal land of constant dualities and curious misfits persevering side by side.

Const St entrance

looking east towards the sea

I have lived and worked on Constitution Street for the past decade. The last ten years have been a time of sustained political unrest in the UK, charting the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the European Referendum of 2016, alongside deepening economic and health inequalities. The average life expectancy of a woman in the Leith Walk electoral ward is 74, compared to 89 in more affluent Barnton, west Edinburgh, less than five miles away.


A commons and a parcel o’ rogues

Anxiety contains interesting information because it tells us something of who we are. A therapeutic response to feeling unsettled might be to remember where and who we are right now because the thing scaring us probably isn’t in the present moment but in fact a past scare evoked by something in the present. I learnt this analysis from my neighbour Claire, a therapist.

With the announcement of a further Scottish Independence Referendum now imminent and a voting date likely to be in autumn 2018, we are living in a heightened in-between, anxious/ exciting, time of constitutional flux.  A binary choice of Yes or No to ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ doesn’t allow for de facto in-betweens of ‘Yes, hopefully’, ‘No, apologetically’ or ‘I don’t know’.  The intra-referenda period 2014- 2018 is the space for a more fluid, ambiguous settling and unsettling of our constitutional viewpoints.

“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold”[2] between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” [Wikipedia].

See also Mike Small, TEDx Portobello on Liminal Land: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNhoq-PNEvI 

I value the diversity of my neighbourhood friendships. I am invited by Tony (72, Scots-Nigerian- Leither) to adjacent Cadiz Street for a lunchtime bowl of soup and gossip, and across the road to no.59 to play dress-up with Maddie (12, Scots- English- Leither). Both have lived here longer than me and have taught me much. I am curious about Tony and Maddie’s futures on Constitution Street and their individual priorities for constitutionalism in a new Scotland.

With an ageing population and changing family structures and relationship choices, more of us than ever before live alone. Loneliness can be a particular side-effect of liminality- a perception of being lost and not yet found anew, of being temporarily in-between company. In her acclaimed ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit notes that the word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los meaning the disbanding of an army; soldiers falling out of a formation to go home, a truce with the wider world.

For the German-born Jewish American political theorist, Hannah Arendt, belonging to a community and being visible in civic space was vital to promoting and protecting the rights of others. She believed that in 1930s Europe citizens were primed for the appeal of totalitarian leaders because they were isolated from any community — political or otherwise:

“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”

Here and now in Scotland, I am curious about whether the social-dynamics of involuntary, domestic intimacy in tenement housing may help buffer against feelings of loneliness. The residents of some eight or nine flats stacked up and down and side by side share a common stair, roof and front door. Living in isolation and suffering from a fear of the unknown is somehow less likely  when there are everyday, collective issues to resolve like a leaking roof, or the common landing between flats in which to negotiate eye contact and say good morning to our neighbours. And then there is the hyper-local politics of a cleaning rota.

Side by side conversations allow for active citizenship and the imagination of the possible to blossom. And, I think, that the nearness of tenement architecture to city centres in Scotland is in contrast to the comparable absence of affordable housing in English cities but I will need to find out more.

I often fantasise about moving out of the city to a rural idyll with more living space and a garden, but on return from weekend escapes, I am reminded of the reciprocal benefits attached to living within urban community. Looking out of my tenement windows to the street scene below, I know the names of the people passing by. I know where they live or work. If I wanted to, I could tap on the window glass and be confident that my neighbours- my Constitution Street-ers- would look up and wave back. Maddie would stick her tongue out. This is immensely reassuring in an age of anxiety and perceived urban anonymity.

The UK is the only country in Europe or the Commonwealth without a written constitution. As an undergraduate law student at the University of Edinburgh, I was taught that instead of a single document, the separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers in the UK is governed by constitutional convention. With the maturing of Scottish devolution, we have quasi-constitutional statutes in the form of The Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998– legislation which set out the competency within which public bodies, including local and devolved government, are permitted to act. However, both these pieces of legislation are subject to the parliamentary supremacy of Westminster. In these uncertain, shifting and shifty, times of Tory majority rule from London and lacklustre Labour party opposition, the Scottish devolution settlement and the Human Rights Act are both vulnerable to repeal. Beware the Rabbie Burns lament:

“Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”


Human rights begin in small places, close to home

Written in the nation-building era of the post war period, the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human rights 1948 famously states:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

At a journalist friend’s house party in a tenement flat on Leith Walk last year, I was naturally drawn to the spare bedroom where the window was flung open (such is my obsession for seeking out fresh air) and, somewhat ironically, then joined a huddled congregation of shivering, committed smokers. We discussed the bruising experience of 2014 Indyref campaigning and consoling, and made predictions on the various ‘what if’ scenarios that may influence the First Minister’s gamble on whether or not to call a further indyref. I asked Shetlander Jordan Ogg (editor of The Island Review) what he thought we might come to call this in between, intra-referenda, age of anxiety period. He proposed that the kneading together of arguments, the heated desire for change and the need to wait until the Yes vote has risen sufficiently could be described as akin to bread proving.

In the 2014 White Paper on Scotland’s Future, the SNP government confirmed that an independent Scotland would have a written constitution incorporating international economic, social and cultural rights and that such a constitution would be shaped by an inclusive, participatory approach involving civic society. There are examples from elsewhere, such as Iceland, where more radical citizens’ juries or mini-publics have been tasked with determining those principles and rights so fundamental as to be recorded constitutional importance.

Back on Constitution Street, as an icy, northeast haar stumbles in across the Firth of Forth, we hold our collective breath in anticipation of what successive Caledonian springs might bring and whether we, the citizens, will rise or fall to the challenge. I want to ask my neighbours to crowdsource a constitution for the place and times in which we live.

What does the right to food mean to the Turkish cafe owners, the young mums digging in the community garden and the office workers queuing for a fish supper from Perinos on a Friday night? What does the right to private and family life look like for families of same sex couples, single parents, great grandparents, and student house-shares? What might the right to culture involve for the mix of licensing, festivals and voluntary arts groups? And how has the smoking ban, alcoholism and drug addiction shaped our attitudes to the right to health? These questions and others will help frame doorstep, side by side conversations in the coming year on Constitution Street.

Const St exit

looking west towards the city

I am mindful of a duty of care not to patronise, fictionalise, or misrepresent my neighbours. The rich social and industrial history of Leith is increasingly well documented. We have our own cultural exports too. Trainspotting most celebrated. I want to take my cues more from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ than McCall Smith’s ‘No. 44 Scotland Street’. I hope to avoid asserting any overtly Yes or No to Scots Indy leanings and instead to take up residence on the threshold of in-between spaces. So far, conversations have taken place over hedges at the allotments, over pints at Leith Festival AGM, in the City Archives maps department and in the law library. I’m loving it.

The small places, closest to home include Leith Links, the Dockers Club, the Port O’Leith bar, Printworks coffee shop, the no.16  bus stop, St Mary’s playground, the quayside, and perhaps even Stories Home Bakery further up Leith Walk where macaroni pies and fudge donuts fuel all night revellers and early-morning grafters and where I am hopeful loaves of bread are still proven and baked fresh.

And so, like this, my recent late-winter days have been a time of hunkering down and of testing and fermenting the bubbles of a new writing project. It will be part-participatory ethnography, part-political theory, part-storytelling. And like all love letters, the words will likely flow easier with the benefit of some distance.

Short poems or essays may continue to appear on this personal blog from time to time but I shall be focussing on field notes for Constitution Streeters in the main. All feedback, introductions, reading suggestions, and gentle critique is, as always, welcome.

Let it breathe,

Grow and ferment

Under a damp, warm cloth

Ready to rise or fall

Then we must weigh it in our hands

For this, our daily bread is

Proving

See also:

Mientras

Roamin’ in the gloamin’ with a Bonnie by my side

On Constitution Street

Tae Leith

Childsplay in a Neverland – the new Europeans

This is a personal account of one volunteering experience and does not represent the views of any organisation. Names have been changed.

violins

Opening of the Kara Tepe summer fete, August 2016. Image from Angels Relief musicians.

Time of Youth

Disney’s Peter Pan wouldn’t have been my choice of film to show at the refugee camp cinema evening (Frozen and The Jungle Book were popular choices in previous weeks), but like everything else during my short time in Lesvos, I had much to learn and nothing went quite as expected.

Kara Tepe camp was established in September 2015 as an emergency shelter when Lesvos was the hot spot for many thousands of people fleeing war, persecution or poverty. They arrived in inflatable dinghies, often with poor or faulty life-jackets supplied by people smugglers, across the Aegean Sea from adjacent Turkey. The distance is five miles at its shortest point and looks about the same as Edinburgh to Fife on a clear day. It has been a migration route in both directions for centuries.

Austerity-stricken Greece has had to absorb and respond to this humanitarian and human rights crisis. Larger NGOs were initially absent, so locals and small informal groups of mostly young volunteers mobilised to provide the basic humanitarian needs of traumatised people.

Before the crisis Lesvos was famous for ouzo, olives, and an Ancient Greek poetess called Sappho. Greeks are rightly proud of her, and encourage tourists to visit her home town of Skala Eresou. Reading aloud Sappho’s poem, Time of Youth from my souvenir copy, the participants in Kara Tepe youth and women’s groups persevered with the challenge of translating Ancient Greek to English to Arabic to Farsi while trying to retain a lyrical quality. But bolder and more imaginative than Sappho’s words were the Kara Tepe poems written collectively in response.

The creative writing workshops only succeeded because of the help of new friends like Afia, a talented young woman from a town near Kabul who wrote in her piece that she wants to be the first female President of Afghanistan. Able to exercise her right to a continued education, anything is possible. I also had the help of Ramin, a graphic designer from Damascus who made animations for the games industry before war split his immediate family across two continents. Like many, Ramin wants to be reunited with relatives who arrived and settled in Germany before the highly controversial EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, aimed at reducing the number of people travelling to the Greek islands then further into Europe.

Both Ramin and Afia are classed as particularly vulnerable by the authorities, and therefore can stay at Kara Tepe due to their personal experiences. Afia witnessed murder and extreme violence to her family by the Taliban in Afghanistan, while Ramin, after leaving Syria to avoid military service, was one of few who survived when their boat upturned on the crossing to Lesvos. But neither has yet been registered into the long and arduous asylum administration system. They are left waiting, spending their time of youth without access to formal education, each day passing much like the one before it.

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Poetry workshop, youth group, August 2016

A human rights crisis

You don’t need to be a legal expert to observe that human rights violations are being committed on a daily basis in Greek camps. There is a lack of formal education for school-aged children, a lack of adequate or accessible housing, and in some cases a lack of access to healthcare. Even in the relatively well-organised Kara Tepe camp, children play next to bulldozers. Immediately outside the camp exit, children and their parents have to negotiate the walk to Mytilene city centre along a busy and poorly-lit highway.

The UNHCR estimates there to be approximately 60,000 refugees in Greece. First-hand accounts from Lesvos suggest about one hundred new arrivals come from Turkey every night. Most boats are now intercepted by Frontex, the EU border agency, in EU-Greek waters and the people taken to reception centres.

Kara Tepe was designed with infrastructure and accommodation for 1,000 individuals. There were 1500 people when I arrived and about 1800 three weeks later. Across Greece, volunteers work independently and in organised groups, filling the gaps left by established agencies. They take over abandoned buildings to ensure people have somewhere to shelter, provide nutritional supplies to young children, and set up language programs. None of this can be a substitute for securing safe, permanent homes for refugees but it is something.

 

Drawing houses

sea-nur

A drawing by Zahara

 

 

Provided with paper and pens, the children I met drew pictures of crowded boats crossing a choppy blue sea, orange blobs dotting the waves, and exaggerated Jaws-style fins protruding from the hatched scribble-lines. In a rare quiet moment when less stones were being hurled across the playground, when I could account for all the art materials and there was relative shade from the mid-day sun, I asked Zahara, aged eleven and an Iraqi Kurd, to tell me about her drawing. She said it showed her family arriving in Greece at night. Her first encounter with the sea is permanently etched in her mind as a formative experience. Zahara proudly added a number 12 to the side of the boat in the drawing to illustrate that her family now live in tent 12 at Kara Tepe. She speaks six languages (English and Spanish self-taught in Kara Tepe) and wants to go to school. The drawing might be her version of a Neverland trauma with pirates and crocodiles.

The little boy sitting on the ground next to us was Humza. Aged eight and from Syria, he was quiet and liked bouncing a tennis ball against a wall. On his piece of paper, he drew the recognisable triangle of a house roof sat atop a large rectangle with two smaller rectangles inside for windows. But Humza’s house had flames burning through the roof and a man standing next to the house with a gun. He wanted me to keep the drawing but didn’t say more.

Facing the world

electric-light-to-kt

Electric light in tents, image from Movement on the Ground

 

 

The main thing that distinguishes Kara Tepe from other refugee camps is that the management and NGO staff refer to people as residents rather than refugees or migrants. Longer-term residents (some have been at the camp five or six months) are encouraged to help and lead in daily activities, including the distribution of breakfast, the digging of trenches for installing a solar panel system, and cultural activities like a weekly Saturday night disco where a generator is borrowed from a local restaurant to amplify music familiar from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq (as well as an unfortunate number of Justin Bieber hits) across the camp. In these ways, human dignity is maintained and people who were professors, doctors, teachers, chefs and musicians in their home countries, have their skills and experiences recognised and the boredom of legal purgatory lifted temporarily.

Movement on the Ground was set up by a group of Dutch creatives who observed that the infrastructure requirements of a refugee camp are not so different to those of a large music festival – security, water, food, electricity, personal safety, waste disposal etc. With the help of regular volunteers and, most importantly residents themselves, Movement on the Ground, has been able to install a solar-powered grid to provide electric lighting across the camp. The approach is one of community engagement with participatory decision-making, confidence-building, and skills development. There are plans to build a library with books of many languages for learning and pleasure, and computers to help people maintain links to relatives in Berlin or Baghdad, Amsterdam or Aleppo.

The Kara Tepe Summer Fete was a much anticipated date in the cultural calendar of NGOs working with residents to organise a celebratory party for children and their families. Saturday 26 August also happened to coincide with the Highland Games in my family village of Abernyte in Perthshire, Scotland. I tried to explain how our folk traditions of tug o’ war, tattie and spoon race, and scone teas, are also really about bringing people together.

Near the end of the long and exhausting day of the Kara Tepe summer fete (800 children, August heat, near-chaos in the toy distribution line), I was assigned to the face-painting stall. A crowd of excited and over-sugared children jabbed sticky fingers at images of intricately designed Spidermen, butterflies and tigers beaming out from the cover of a cheap face-painting set picked up from Lidl.

Sara, a Syrian girl I had come to see often in the playground, stood patiently in line. When it was her turn to be painted, she didn’t hesitate to point to the image of a fairy-tale pink and white bunny rabbit with whiskers and ears. Sara’s face was severely burned by bomb blast damage in her hometown of Aleppo. Now in Greece with her siblings and parents, there is hope that she will get reconstruction surgery in Germany. While waiting, she must somehow cope with a very visible disfigurement that marks her out in a crowd of 800 children. But there she stood, at the top of the line, wanting her face to be painted as a bunny rabbit. I had seen how much she enjoyed liberally applying samples of makeup and nail varnish to visiting volunteers and that she proudly smudged her own lips with a scarlet red crayon. Weighing up health and safety concerns for a child with major facial injuries and Sara’s evident wish to be included, I resolved to do my best effort at a bunny-rabbit creation from the greying pot of face paint and a sponge dabbed in dirty water. She seemed really pleased to be one odd bunny rabbit among many for a day.

I kept one of Sara’s happy drawings of love hearts and flowers and have it pinned on my wall next to the hall mirror at home in Edinburgh as a reminder to be brave when facing the world.

Kiss with a fist

paints-kt

Image from Movement on the Ground

 

When I’ve tried before to write about this short but profound experience in Lesvos, I’ve hit a block. I fall short in recording any measure of the depth of courage, generosity and full-heartedness shown to me by residents and fellow volunteers at Kara Tepe. When friends and family ask what I did on my summer holiday volunteering, I’m not sure how to respond. I didn’t fight for legal justice or pull people ashore from boats. I didn’t do anything heroic or brave. I made friends. I learnt to play, again. I overcame my own lack of self-confidence with entertaining small children. And I bore witness to the day-to-day struggles of people who are seeking the safe and peaceful life we all deserve. In small, conscious ways, I educated myself about systematic and widespread human rights abuses, became angrier about my own government’s woeful response to these abuses, and want to return to do more.

Short-term volunteers, well-meaning grown-ups, come and go in the lives of refugee children, particularly over the summer holiday season on Greek islands. My last day helping at Kara Tepe camp was significant for me but just like any other day stuck in the dust, sweat and injustice for those waiting in a limbo not of their own making. Grand farewell gestures aren’t appropriate. I said a personal thanks to the women who assisted as translators and welcomed and befriended me when I felt anxious and uncertain on arrival. Other than that, it was a sincere ‘hope to see you soon’.

Late on Friday evening when the sun had gone down and the camp had quietened down, children and some of their parents sat on UNHCR blankets watching Disney’s Peter Pan, subtitled into Farsi and projected onto the walls of a portacabin. Aside from the occasional cry of a baby or the whine of mopeds from the main road outside, there was a settling hush. The kind of collective reverence that makes committed atheists whisper on entering a cathedral or mosque.

I tip-toed across a gravel path toward the camp exit to wait for a taxi back to Mytilene. As I stood next to the makeshift snack bar and mobile phone charging station, a little boy I didn’t recognise appeared by my side as if from nowhere and tugged on my arm. He exclaimed ‘my friend, my friend’ in broken English and gestured for me to lean in close. I bent down and smiled at him. And then he slapped me. Hard. Across the face.

I gave him a row and he ran away laughing. But I wanted to say, ‘Yes, ok, fair enough. I feel ashamed that I’m leaving you here, habibi. I see you. I hear you. I won’t forget you. And thanks for making me laugh, too, despite it all.’

Lost boys marooned in a Neverland of false promises, pirate smugglers, dangerous creatures and ticking clocks, can’t fly away and must constantly negotiate the safest boundaries. This is a real land very near to us. It’s our European land. And lost boys and girls are the new Europeans.



It can be difficult to know how to help in the refugee crisis. Here are three things that will make a difference:

  1. Lobby the UK and Scottish governments in whatever ways you can to accept more refugees and asylum-seekers.
  2. Donate to trusted NGOs. Donations to Movement on the Ground will pay for portable heaters and blankets to keep tents warm in winter months.
  3. If you are fortunate to have spare time and are financially-independent, volunteer. A minimum of ten days is requested by most organisations and if you have skills like medical training, teaching, or construction, you can be particularly useful. The Greece Volunteering site lists placement opportunities. Or support refugee integration efforts at home such as that led by the Scottish Refugee Council and Positive Action in Housing in Scotland.