The importance of being Charlie

"Hollande wants to punish Assad" — What? Is he going to cut my retirement pension?

“Hollande wants to punish Assad”
— What? Is he going to cut my retirement pension?

The terrorist attack against the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were left dead this Wednesday in Paris (and which was followed by the killing of 5 more people on Thursday and Friday by a third gunman, linked to the two terrorists, before all three were shot down) shook France, and the world, in a totally unprecedented way.

It is not the first time that Islamic fundamentalists shed blood in the heart of the French capital, the last killings dating back to 1995 and 1996 when several bombings were carried out in the RER subway and in different parts of the city by Algerian terrorists. And yet, the symbolic impact of this week’s attack makes it truly unique, and even more disturbing, because of its double nature: this time, not only the lives of innocent people were taken, but the terrorists directly targeted one of the very cornerstones of the French Republic, one that is at the heart of every democracy, standing among its most basic Human Rights: our freedom of expression.

"Greetings 2012" — All is screwed, you bunch of assholes!

“Greetings 2012”
— All is screwed, you bunch of assholes!

My first reaction when I heard of the shooting Wednesday at lunchtime, only a dozen blocks away from the newspaper’s headquarters, was one of total shock, mixed with anger and extreme sadness. Of course my first thoughts went to the victims, gunned down in cold blood, with automatic weapons, during five minutes of an unimaginable violence: eight of the paper’s most famous caricaturists, journalists, and collaborators were left dead, aside a man invited to the weekly editorial meeting, one of the cartoonists’ bodyguard, a maintenance employee in the building, and a policeman shot moments later by the two gunmen, French brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, one block away.

"Multiple offices: Can Merkel run France and Germany?" — Ja!

“Multiple offices: Can Merkel
run France and Germany?”
— Ja!

Having lived in Paris for more than twenty years, and being to this day an occasional reader of the newspaper (“Charlie”, as its most faithful followers affectionately call it, was even one of my regular readings in my long-gone student years), my second reaction was one of astounded disbelief: “How is it possible, how, that Charlie, i.e. such a paramount pillar to this country’s free speech and alternative thinking, how is it possible that Charb’s, Cabu’s, Wolinski’s, Tignous’, Honoré’s caricatures, a symbol of the wittiest creativity and of the most uncompromising political irreverence, will simply not be anymore? And why, why this way?”

— As a citizen, I support democracy... but as a car driver, I support oil monarchy

— As a citizen, I support democracy… but as a car driver, I support oil monarchy

Everyone in this country, whether a Charlie Hebdo reader or not, knows what this joyful, dishevelled, epicurean little “gang”’s contribution to political and social debate has always been, ever since the 1960s when Hara-Kiri, Charlie’s “father”, was founded by François Cavanna and Georges Bernier, best known as Professeur Choron. Banned after a famous headline that the authorities viewed as disrespectful of President

— Well done, police! — Repeat!

— Well done, police!
— Repeat!

Charles de Gaulle’s death in 1970 (“Tragic ball at Colombey: one dead”), the paper was immediately resurrected under the name of Charlie Hebdo. Throughout the 70s, it went on promoting — and contributed to keep alive — the way of thinking of May ’68, in the spirit of “L’imagination au pouvoir” (“Let’s rise imagination to power”), anti-conformism, and outright disrespect of the authority. Its publication came to an end in the early 80s, due to plummeting sales, but was resumed in 1992.

"Vatican: another rigged election" — Unnail me, I want to vote!

“Vatican: another rigged election”
— Unnail me, I want to vote!

Ever since, Cavanna, Cabu, Wolinski, Val, Luz, Charb, Honoré, Tignous, and the others have never stopped mocking the French and international establishment, political and economic as well as intellectual or religious, with their markedly left-wing (although aimed at every party in the political spectrum), firmly secular, anti-racist, environmentalist, and strongly antimilitarist caricatures and stances. The serious trouble started in 2006, after the newspaper, in the name of freedom of expression, endorsed the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, reprinting them and adding its own caricatures, thus sparking off the anger and indignation of Muslims in France and abroad. Charlie Hebdo’s editor was brought to court by three Muslim organizations, but was eventually acquitted, on the ground that the cartoons were not to be seen as offensive to Islam, but rather as a critique on fundamentalism (one of the caricatures, titled “Muhammad overwhelmed by the fundamentalists”, showed the Prophet exclaiming, “It’s so sad, to be loved by assholes…”).

“Muhammad overwhelmed by the fundamentalists”
— It’s so sad, to be loved by assholes!

In the following years, new caricatures aimed against fundamentalism, seldom using the Prophet’s caricature, came about, alongside others portraying the Pope (one of Charlie’s all-time favourite “characters”), Jesus, or notable rabbis and Jews. The newspaper’s headquarters came under attack in 2011, when they were completely destroyed by a fire, and the staff was thus granted permanent police protection, with Charb, the author of most of the Muhammad caricatures now escorted by a bodyguard. “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees”, he once said. A sadly foreboding cartoon he drew a few days before being slaughtered with his friends and colleagues around their working table depicted a jihadist fighter, under the headline “Still no terrorist attacks in France”, replying, “Wait! We still have until the end of January to present our New Year’s greetings!”

Marine Le Pen: "Eva Joly ignores the profound bonds uniting the French people and their army" — There's a Jew in our cellar!

Marine Le Pen: “Eva Joly ignores the profound bonds uniting the French people and their army”
— There’s a Jew in our cellar!

Now, I must say that I did not always agree with “Charlie”’s stances. When the Danish cartoons were first published, I was among the many people who thought that offending the Muslims’ sensibility was undoubtedly a little inappropriate, somewhat over-provocative, unnecessary. But I must also say that I was glad that, thanks to those very stances, free speech, freedom of expression and of satire, that have been such a precious tool of democracy, and part of our culture for centuries, were, are, and always be safeguarded and encouraged. Satire, by definition, should not stop in front of the authority, of any kind, whether political, intellectual, or religious (of course, as long as it doesn’t step on other people’s most basic rights). After all, why should we be allowed to portray the Pope or Jesus or a rabbi, and not Muhammad?

If you who are reading are a Muslim, you must know that, of course, I do respect your religion, I do respect the faith you have in your God — I’m sure Charb and the others did too, although this was too often misunderstood. I am also of course well aware, everyone is, that you are not supposed to portray your Prophet. But I am not a Muslim, so you will have to accept that your laws don’t apply to me. The only laws I respond to are the ones that originated in the understanding and cherishing of our

— We thank you, Lord, for allowing us to bail out the banks with the taxes from those they have ruined"

— We thank you, Lord, for allowing us to bail out the banks with the taxes from those they have ruined”

Human Rights, free speech and freedom of expression being on top of the list, just like freedom of religion is. I will never, we will never bend our heads to anyone who tries to take these freedoms away from us.

"Europe run by the banks" — What a dumbass! I should have worked for BNP Bank!

“Europe run by the banks”
— What a dumbass! I should have worked for BNP Bank!

For this reason, I mourn the loss of these matchless artists of irreverence and free thinking, savagely killed because they firmly believed in their ideas and stood for them until the end, putting their lives at stake in order to defend our dearest freedoms — I will always be thankful to them for this. For this reason, too, I will never think, not even for a second, that all Muslims are prone to violence and fundamentalism, like unfortunately too many people think in the West (the very advocates of intolerance and racism who were the most favourite targets of Charlie’s campaigns). For this reason, I will miss their caricatures, those hundreds of pungent, hilarious jokes and pitiless depictions of politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals, soldiers, policemen, businessmen, sportsmen, actors, and other celebrities, and in the coming months and years, whenever I look at them once again, I will never give in to the slightest feeling of hatred nor the urge for unnecessary vengeance — but instead, I will keep doing what I’ve always done: have another laugh.

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The soundtrack to our days – Goodbye, Pink Floyd

Last night, for what will be – most likely – the very last time in my life, I laid down in my couch, with all the lights down and the volume way up, to lend my ears to a totally new-to-discover Pink Floyd album. Throughout the first three parts of The Endless River, my mind, captured between the very last notes that will ever be played on Richard Wright’s hammond (by the fingers of an absolute musical genius), the breathing of David Gilmour’s slide guitar glueing together the beats pumping out of Nick Mason’s drums, started wandering across the decades of sounds that these three English gents, along with Roger Waters for the best and most fruitful stretch of the road, and Syd Barrett for its debut, have put into our lives. At one point, I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I almost felt like crying.
To virtually anyone born between 1965 and 1980 – and even to some of the younger rock-loving fellows – Pink Floyd has been an almost permanent presence through the years, somewhat of a soundtrack to our lives. How many of our never-ending teenage afternoons, of our weekends in the countryside, of our summer trips abroad, how many hours spent driving along this or that motorway along the years have been filled with the notes from The Wall, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother or Animals? How many times have we sung in our mind to, restlessly longed for, shared a smile with, been drowning in sorrow for, or sent a kiss to our loved one while The Dark Side Of The Moon, Meddle or Wish You Were Here were shaking the air and the walls around us? Just look back: so many times, Gilmour’s soft and powerful voice and guitars, Water’s introspections and brilliant lyrics, Mason’s velveted tempo, and Wright’s shiver-producing atmospheres were there with us, right by our side.
To be honest, I don’t even think Pink Floyd is my favorite band. It’s very high on my list, that’s for sure (certainly in my top five), but maybe not the first. And yet, I think no other band or artist has accompanied my journey through the days and the years as much as Pink Floyd did. There are few other songs, from other acts, that I’ve related to as strongly and deeply as I did to Echoes, Time, Wish You Were Here or Comfortably Numb. And truly, I was happy to find a little bit of all this last night, through the notes of The Endless River. What’s kind of strange, is that at some point between Part 3 and 4, I was so much drawn into the flow of the music – some kind of a natural high – that I fell asleep, and that I instinctively woke up a couple of minutes later, right on the first notes of Louder Than Words.

Some say Pink Floyd is not half as good as it was before Roger Waters left, and I can partly agree on this, but still, I think this song – an ode to music itself, a tribute to their own music – has its glimpse of genius in it, and is not a bad wrap-up at all, for all these decades that went by, with or without Waters (after all, as the very last song in Pink Floyd’s history says, and I must agree on this too, the thing they do, the sum of their parts, and the way their/our hearts beat to it, is louder than words, louder even than all the fights that have torn the heart of the band apart some thirty years ago).
To me, just like Echoes bore in it, quite surprisingly, an embryo of what each one of the band’s following albums would sound like, The Endless River finds amalgamated in its weeping guitars, its vibrating keyboards, and its vivid rythms, a pinch of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, one of Breathe, and one of Summer ’68, together with a touch of Time, of Pigs, and of Comfortably Numb, as well as a distant echo from Echoes itselft. And perhaps this is part of the reason why, all of a sudden, I felt like sheding a tear, last night, in the middle of my half-lit living room. Goodbye, Syd, Roger, Richard, Nick, David. We will never be able to thank you enough for this thrilling soundtrack you’ve given to so many of our days.

pink floyd

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Along the Mighty, Mighty Mekong (3) – Northern Laos

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photos © francesco pezzetti
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Along the Mighty, Mighty Mekong (2) – Southern Laos

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Along the Mighty, Mighty Mekong (1) – Cambodia

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Insects

Insects don’t know why we kill them. After all, we don’t eat them, we don’t need their crushed little bodies, we don’t take anything they have in order to use it for ourselves. They know nothing about the germs they may be spreading, and can’t even figure out that what they’re trying to eat from is what we claim to be “our” food, nor that the place they strive to survive in is what we’ve long before them called “our” home. Then how could they possibly understand the reason why we kill them?
In exactly the same way, we can’t figure out why certain things happen above us and around us. We have a brain, a pretty good one, and it is of course our duty – our beautiful duty – to always go further in understanding. But there will always be portions of the universe, entire chunks of the natural world around us filling our minds with countless hows and whys, some of which we can’t hope to ever fully grasp. Some things, some events, whether sprung from apparent randomness or the fruit of causality, are and always be just beyond us.

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Summer

Central Park July14 (0001)

summer + Central Park + a bicycle, fast + the sun on my skin + loud, rusty rock in my earphones = happiness

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