Been Driving Refugees

In the past couple of months Sweden has started to receive large numbers of refugees from Syria, Iraq and a few other war-torn Middle-eastern countries. The ones who claim the right of political asylum are adequately cared for by the immigration authorities. But many don’t claim that right. They may have more or less accurate information about other countries that offer better chances, so when they get off the train at Stockholm Central Station, they’re basically tourists in the eyes of the law. And the municipality hasn’t been able to care for them. Instead a major volunteer movement has sprouted, working to offer transit refugees food, housing, clothes, medical care and legal advice. To give an idea of how big this is, the main Facebook group for these volunteers has 16,400 members.

I don’t read much news and I’m not much of an activist. So I’ve joined the volunteer ranks late, being motivated particularly by the realisation that for several weeks the biggest housing establishment for transit refugees has been in my home municipality, right across the street from the County Museum and the community arts centre. It looks like a refugee camp in a hangar-like techno club. Because that’s what it is.

I know of course in abstract that Sweden receives a healthy number of refugees per capita et annum. And I live in a cosmopolitan suburb where many of my neighbours must have come here once as refugees. But wealthy conservative-governed Nacka municipality is hardly involved at all in the initial care of them as they arrive. So seeing tired and confused people with big bags and nowhere to go is big news to me. It’s as if world history has suddenly showed up in my back yard after half a lifetime of political complacency. It’s been over 200 years since the Kingdom of Sweden was in a state of war. And I find that volunteering at a refugee centre beats the hell out of spending your evenings reading a humdrum e-book.

For the past few days I’ve mainly served as a driver, making good use of what years of geocaching around Stockholm has taught me about finding my way around. And I’ve rediscovered the joy of working together with new acquaintances for a common project, like we used to for much more playful purposes in the Tolkien Society.

So many new impressions.

  • The refugees are mostly young or middle-aged men.
  • They travel in small groups which do not like to get separated.
  • They’re in good physical shape and seem relieved to have reached Sweden.
  • Young Swedified second-generation immigrants of both genders form a major part of the volunteer effort.
  • The big Sunnite mosque in central Stockholm is also housing lots of people.
  • The little Shiite mosque in Alby offered to help and was asked to cook dinner for 200 people. They delivered dinner for 350. One young guy explained to me, “We’re Shiites, this is our thing: we like to cook lots of food for pilgrims several times a year.”
  • Most have no clear idea about where to go. Many follow an apparently outdated rumour that says Finland has accommodating laws, but they aren’t allowed on the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. So they take the train all the way to Haparanda at the far end of the Gulf of Botnia and walk across the Torne river bridge to Finland.
  • One guy asked me about the relative merits of Sweden and Ireland (!?) as countries of asylum. One volunteer told me his twelve-year-old nephew had been asked for similar advice by a refugee.
  • One guy had spent seven years making pizza in Berlin and spoke way better German than I do.
  • And though my own input into the relief effort has been quite modest, I am very proud of how my fellow stockholmers are responding. They’re donating time, money and goods, and they’re making a big impression on the refugees. I’ve lost count of the recent arrivals who have told me in broken English that they think Sweden is a great country.
  • But don’t donate flavoured teabags. Syrians and Iraqis are sensible people who recognise that tea is one plant and that it should not be adulterated with feckin’ flower petals.

Here’s good advice on how people in Stockholm can help.

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An Attempt To Move The Hanging Gardens

STL19BABYLON_343980kAbout the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Greek writers started to offer lists of Seven Wonders that the well-read traveller should see. In the 2nd century BC the Hanging Gardens of Babylon began to show up on such lists. The location of Babylon is well known: on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. But no ruins of the Hanging Gardens have been convincingly identified there. This is because the gardens were actually in another city in another country, according to Stephanie Dalley’s new book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. The Greeks got the city wrong early, says Dalley, and so created a spurious tradition.

The book has a problem with focus and target audience. It is inconsistent in how much familiarity with Dalley’s half-century of earlier work each chapter assumes on the part of the reader. I get a strong impression that during composition and revising the author has not quite been able to remember what she has put into this particular manuscript. She doesn’t introduce her big main thesis until midway through the book, and then in a wording that assumes that the reader already knows and just needs some extra convincing:

It would be satisfactory if we could account for [certain confusions], to strengthen yet further the [not yet made] argument that the Hanging Garden was built by Sennacherib in Nineveh rather than by Nebuchadnezzar or Semiramis in Babylon. (p. 107)

Boo to the editor who hasn’t kept a tighter rein on narrative continuity in this book. In fact, long before the quoted passage Dalley has established that one possible builder of the Gardens of Babylon mentioned in the Greek sources was an Assyrian king (they ruled over Babylon off and on), and she’s spent the interesting chapter 4 arguing that a long inscription of Sennacherib’s actually describes the building of the Gardens. But not once in the entire chapter does she mention the name of the city were she thinks this took place. This is not dishonesty on Dalley’s part, just poor organisation of the book: she simply doesn’t stop to consider that any reader may at this point need to be reminded that “Sennacherib’s South-West Palace” is in Nineveh on the River Tigris in Assyria – not in Babylon.

Dalley, in my opinion, does make a fine solid case for a set of Hanging Gardens in Niniveh, and I would happily follow her there. But does this remove the Gardens in Babylon from the agenda? No. It just transforms the Hanging Gardens from a unique item into an architectural category. Her attempts in Ch. 6 to take Babylon off the table amount only to convoluted special pleading. Dalley is clearly extremely fond of Niniveh and King Sennacherib, as evidenced by choices of expression and subject matter throughout. But to me, a man who is willing to be friends with any Middle Eastern city mound and ancient ruler, such favouritism is rather a weakness in a scholar.

Two thirds into the text the book goes completely off the rails, ending with three chapters that make little pretence at advancing any overarching argument. Ch. 7 comments on Sennacherib’s construction projects in general. “Look, they had multicolour stone flooring! Look, they had portable space heaters!” Ch. 8 offers motley bits and pieces about ancient gardens, which in Dalley’s mind all have an uncanny tendency to be inspired by the garden in Nineveh. Ch. 9 tries to extend Niniveh’s life as a major city past its conventional late-7th century demise, mainly in order to explain why anyone in the 4th century would still remember its garden and call it a Wonder of the World. This matter, though of some general interest in all its kaleidoscopism, must be seen for what it is: padding to fill out the book.

Here’s what I think. The various lists of World Wonders were a staple of Hellenistic tourism writing. Such information tends to get tested a lot. If a list had placed the Mausoleum in Carthage instead of Halicarnassus, then people would have corrected the error immediately. If there were no wondrous gardens in Babylon, then Greek and Roman travellers had several centuries to realise their mistake and write about it. None ever did.

Stephanie Dalley arguably has reason to be pleased with her book, as a sort of legacy. It presents her arguments on what is clearly a long-cherished issue in an accessible and durable format from a high-profile publisher. But the Oxford University Press can’t take much pride in this loosely held-together product. The selection of included images is erratic, partly gratuitous, and chapters 7–9 read like collated odds and ends out of a scholar’s notebook. Frankly, I get the feeling that this book reflects the mind of someone who either never quite had, or has recently begun to lose, the ability to make a sustained and focused argument.