News & Current Affairs

September 3, 2008

Grappling with a Roma identity

Grappling with a Roma identity

It was just a passing remark, the first time I heard Arpad Bogdan talk about the Roma father who had left him in an orphanage, and wonder if he should try to find him.

Arpad Bogdan

Arpad Bogdan spent his childhood in a state orphanage

We were drinking late at night in a semi-derelict house in a Budapest side street. We had skipped over bicycles and rubbish to make our way inside. I should say this was not a doss house but a trendy Urban Minimalism club.”He doesn’t have to tell you this you know,” whispered our mutual friend, director Antonia Meszaros. And it was then that I realised how conflicted Arpad is – how much of a dilemma his Roma inheritance has created.

Arpad is a much-garlanded young film director, whose feature film Happy New Life has won many awards. It is about a young Roma man’s unbearable childhood in an orphanage. In the end, he can’t hack it – unlike Arpad who emerged from his own orphanage into the University of Pecs and a promising film career.

“My film,” Arpad says, “is about the dilemmas of someone who realises that in order to face the future, he must come to terms with his past – and that’s something that I still have to do in my own life.”

Arpad was one of thousands of Roma – or gypsy – children who were taken into orphanages during Hungary’s Communist years. The truth is cloudy here, but it seems that in some cases their parents wanted this, in many they didn’t.

Sense of identity

“In the orphanage, being Roma had no positive implications for us,” Arpad recalls. “But some of the kids were visited by their parents and they brought smells and flavours that were strange to me and even a little bit frightening.

Hungary's Roma at an Easter celebration

The Roma people are Hungary’s largest minority

“There was also something exotic and exciting about them. The smell of an open fire, the smell of freedom.”Like many of his peers, and like many people in a globalised world, Arpad is now unsure where he belongs. He certainly seems to have a stake in the metro-savvy, globalized world of Budapest’s cafes, salons and grunge clubs.

But does he also belong – at some level – in the world of Gypsy Harlem, Budapest’s District Eight? Or in the villages where he reckoned his parents must still live?

Soon after our meeting, using powers under new Hungarian laws, Arpad sets off – in our own film – to find his parents. He had a rough idea where they lived, and had set off on a voyage of discovery before, only to lose his nerve.

What he finds is extraordinary. Newly released records show his parents “liked a drink, [and] discipline their children by beating them”.

He meets a brother, Laszlo, he had never met. He learns their mother is dead. And finally, he meets his ragged, handsome dad. A new young wife hangs back, in the shadows of the garden. Some 40 dogs bark and make our film crew nervous.

‘Forgiving’

And then his dad smiles, and extends a hand, and says, “Which one are you?” He’s so charming, it is impossible to take it the wrong way.

Whether I’ll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own
Arpad Bogdan

He’s called Laszlo too. He was in prison for 12 years.”I had a mean punch,” he says. “I always say better be accompanied by a prison guard than a priest on your way to the cemetery. Isn’t that right?”

The elder Laszlo doesn’t see much of any of his nine children anymore. “At least you came to find me,” he says.

“As for the past, let’s pull a veil over it, we should look to the future from now on.”

Back in Budapest, Arpad must think about his own future. First he must decide what his next film is about. He’s not really in a dilemma about whether to carve a career as a “gypsy director”. He doesn’t want to be typecast.

But he is uncertain about whether to stay in touch with his dad.

“I looked at my father, into his eyes, and I suddenly felt myself forgiving him. I let him go, along with all the bad things I used to blame him for,” he says.

“After that, I could see him for what he is, I could listen to him. Whether I’ll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own. I will have to take someone with me, someone from my own life.”

We’ll have to wait and see what he does.

So far, he doesn’t know himself.


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August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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Roc, China

“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

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