Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Passage to the Past

A new year - a new start.

But while it is important to look towards the future, the past must be remembered and allowed to pass into our memory, both the good and the bad, to make the future a better place.

To travel wide and far teaches a person tolerance, a sense of humility and understanding of concepts previously foreign to one's spectrum of worldview. 

Growing up on an island is in some ways a wonderful experience. The island landscape is naked in the face of vile winds blowing across the seas to the vulnerable and barren landmarks, and is an oasis in the midst of a watery world where violent gray waves crash onto the shore in the darkest and vilest of days. But sometimes, in more gentler times, the blue and subtle waves stroke the surface of the sea, hypnotizing the islanders in their isolated world as the sun lends her rays to light up the world.

Desolation and isolation is in many ways an enchanting environment. It allows a culture to grow and mature colloquial quirks and amusing twists and tangles in traditions and beliefs.

So much of Iceland's charms stems from the isolation in the desolate landscape that prevails, and the imagination gives birth to tales of strange creatures living outside the human realms. Its thirteen yule lands, the hidden elf people and grim tales of trolls petrified at dawn are just among few.

The tales of Icelandic vikings and their violent but intellectual ways are an interesting account of man's response to the isolation in a landscape that is truly desolate.

A peculiar cultural heritage is the strange approach Icelanders adapted in the cultural view of our so-called yule lads, lads that were once upon a time a far cry from skinny and somewhat loud lads who visit children who still believe in their existence. These lads, and the tales of misdemeanor told to young children once upon a time evoked fear in them, and no child would celebrate Christmas Eve without a new item of clothing on their back and gratitude for but humble provisions. Tales of the lads' grim mother, Grýla, who according to legends had a taste for children and her foul husband, Leppalúði, with his miniature and frail stature, evoked an ever greater fear in the young.

These days, the yule lads are but friendly mischievous lads, forever young in body and spirit. They obey their vixen-like mother  and return to their highland inhabitation when the holiday season is over, but their mother no longer threatens to eat them or offer them as snack to her black cat.

In the place of my birth, Akranes, the most prominent feature is Akrafjall, a mountain that guards the small coastal town that was previously a fishing community. According to legends, it is the resting place of a petrified troll who took too long in seeking shelter from the sun. 

Few have much faith in these old tales nowadays but they are nonetheless an amusing heritage to pass on from one generation to the next. 

But the isolation of island life is not without fault, as local legends do not make a citizen of the world out of us.

Iceland's geographical location lies within the European continent, and our closest contact, a former ally and foe, was Denmark. For a long time, our island was so isolated and its inhabitants so alone in a hostile wilderness, that the peculiarity and perhaps at times ignorance of the world in the locals could be excused to some extent. 

Our introduction to the world was abrupt. As the European mainland faced the horrors of yet another catastrophic war, the WWII, the Icelandic authorities fostered a neutral position while being host to the allied armies of British and American descent. To the authorities, their presence was disruptive and young Icelandic ladies were supposedly morally mislead by their charms. The authorities listed and temporarily placed young women, aged 12 and older, to work camps in rural Iceland to prevent them from associating further with the foreign "invaders."

At the end of the war, Iceland emerged into the world as a candidate for a first world country, and grew and developed rapidly into a western country in the twentieth century. 

After I learned about the atrocities of the WWII in the early 1990s, I asked both of my grandmothers about the war in Iceland. Both of them were reluctant to communicate on the topic and there was a time I was bewildered by their responses. As an adult, I have come to understand that even without combat and bloody warfare, war is always a sore spot and its survivors and their descendants to be treated with dignity and respect.

Following a recent controversial and scandalous comment made by a young comedian and television host during a match in the European Handball Cup, I was abruptly reminded of how disconnected the generations of late, my generation even, have become to one of the ugliest and most appalling wars fought in modern history. The utter ignorance of the commentary in historical context is bad enough.

But to compare the Icelandic Handball team to a Nazi regime slaughtering its opponents in the European Championship in the sport, is beyond belief and so offensive and disrespectful, that I was surprised to see him back on the screen.

To his credit, he did apologize and seemed sincerely regretful and ashamed of his action. To refuse to accept the apology, an apology made to all those who were appalled by the ignorance and recklessness of the statement, would be wrong. 

I took an extraordinary interest in the WWII period at an early age. My innate interest in people and the incredible strength that humanity possesses, both under oppression and when raised by a spirit of hope, speaks to me and I find myself constantly in search of answers. 

It was the unspeakable cruelty humanity proved to be capable of under the extreme circumstances of Nazi-occupied Europe that at first nauseated me, and then forced me to look deeper and make it my duty to know more so that I understand my duty as human being to be an ambassador to peace - a role I believe most of us are in possession of in our own special way. 

I have read literature written about ordinary Germans who find themselves in the centre of propaganda while being punished for a sake of selected monsters of men, as well as seen films and documentaries about the many different sides of the WWII.

I have made it my mission to expand my bank of knowledge about human atrocities, and perhaps as a result of that research and peculiar interest, felt utterly disgusted, to the very core of my being, when the scandalous comment about the Icelandic Handball team was uttered. 

I simply could not believe anyone could say such a thing. From the very beginning that I came to know the history of the war years, I was immediately shattered and heartbroken by the atrocities. 

But then, after an emotional outrage, I got thinking. Could this be the fault of blissful ignorance?

In hindsight, my history book consisted of a single chapter on the topic of the World War II. It was my own initiave to see Schindler's List, and my own curiosity that has brought me to unofficially study the history of this war. This war has ignited an interest in me to explore the Great War, WWI, the source that partially ignited the Second World War in the mid-twentieth century. Somehow I feel compelled to understand the condition of men.

All the research is and was my own. So, is this the fault of the education system? And if so, what is the answer to blissful ignorance?

In my mind, to travel is a great answer.

In Europe, it is not out of the ordinary that schools organize excursions to war memorials on the mainland. Many schools choose to travel to Auschwitz, where history takes shape before their very eyes and the war is very much a part of that heritage.

So, why is it that Icelandic youngsters are not exposed to history in the same way? Historical tourism is a fundamental way to educate the generations to whom the horror are but paragraphs describing unspeakable atrocities. It is a way to come face to face with history in camaraderie and feel more a part of the European community and the world as a whole.  

After all, traveling is not always about having fun and having beautiful experiences. Sometimes, it's an opportunity to physically penetrate the past and learn about a chapter in history that is without beauty. 
In the case of Auschwitz, that is a display of beastly proportions where humanity lost all what is beautiful about humanity. 

By infusing travels into the education of adolescence and young people, the lessons become a visit to the past, as if you are knocking on the door of history, waiting to be initiated into the kind of knowledge that teaches us to be better people and preservers of peace in a world, that for some reason, is always in conflict.

Iceland is after all a member of the European continent and our shared history, yes shared, is for all of us to learn and appreciate, and it is time for Icelandic authorities to understand their role as part of the greater world, as I believe, many Icelanders already do.

To travel beyond the watery border is our way to reach out and join hands with the rest of the world.