Lebanon

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Lebanon, a civilisation more than 7000 years old, has been ruled by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and French, developing a unique culture influential in the region. In the 1960s known as a financial capital, its civil war (1975-90) ushered in instability and terrorism.

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Beirut’s multicultural history can be seen at the al-Omari Grand Mosque, converted from a Byzantine church and built over Roman baths. Today Lebanon is 54% Muslim, 40% Christian – and 5.6% Druze, an esoteric tradition indigenous to the region.

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The Ottoman influence can still be seen in Lebanon, under its rule for more than 400 years. Today, Lebanon and Turkey have a cool yet civil relationship, despite controversies regarding Israel, Iran, and Armenia.

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Lebanon’s civil war included PLO attacks on Israel, an Israeli siege of Beirut, Syrian involvement, and occupation by a US/France/Italian force. As recently as 2005, a former prime minister was assassinated; another war occurred in 2006, with a series of conflicts through 2008 – and a collapse of government in 2011.

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In the capital city of Lebanon, Beirut, associated with instability and destruction for decades, one can still see post-war ruins – in the midst of a strongly redeveloped city and high-end luxury. Lebanon has struggled to rebuild and regain a sense of stability, including a recent economic peak – now again in decline.

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Beirut’s American University, founded in 1866, was ranked #1 in the region in 2018. An estimated 2/3 of all students attend private schools, and deficits in the public system have been noted by a recent Minister of Education. Literacy is 93.9% — ranking at 65th globally – and their once stellar reputation for academics is floundering.

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The ongoing presence of Hezbollah, accompanied by a failing economy and flailing government, have brought about an increased unrest in the society. Recent demonstrations by protest groups, countered by acts of police brutality, indicate an overall insecurity among the country’s inhabitants.

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The people of Lebanon are resolute; their complex and stoic culture, built over thousands of years and despite multiple occupations, has carried them through the exceedingly difficult past 5 decades. Recent suppression of free speech and activism, however, are worrisome.

~EWP

Sweden

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Sweden, ranking among the top countries for quality of life, is defined by both Germanic and Nordic customs — with more than a dash of Russian influence. It is strongly oriented to the sea, nowhere more apparent than in Stockholm. Swedes tend toward secularism, egalitarianism, humility, and minimalism.

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A constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, Sweden has fully integrated the so-called Nordic social welfare system. Its government maintains a high degree of transparency, and its citizens cite strong trust in same. King Carl XVI Gustaf is the ruling monarch, since 1973.

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The 4 fundamental laws of Sweden further serve to define its culture: the Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act, and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. The country maintains a social democratic system domestically and a doctrine of neutrality internationally — and hasn’t been involved in a war since 1814.

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Despite Sweden’s recent history of neutrality, egalitarianism, and humility, the country’s roots are anything but — as the Swedish Viking Age lasted for well over 3 centuries, and must be considered as one of its cultural underpinnings. Seafarers with a sense of their place in the world, Swedes tend to balance the modern humility with a deeply rooted self-confidence.

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Secularism was adopted by Protestant Sweden in the 19th century — though until 1860 it was still illegal for citizens to convert from Lutheranism, and the Church of Sweden wasn’t disestablished until 2000. Prior to the 11th century, the traditional Norse religious beliefs were still followed — and a shamanistic tradition kept until the 17th-18th centuries by the indigenous Sami.

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The Sami, indigenous of Sweden as well as surrounding countries, predate the influence of Swedes and other Nordic peoples and as such represent the country’s deepest cultural roots. Long oppressed by the now dominant culture, with only 10% still living as reindeer herders in Sweden’s arctic region, the nomadic Sami nevertheless recently (2016) won a 30-year battle with the government over hunting and fishing rights.

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More than 85% of Sweden’s population today live in cities — nearly 1 million in Stockholm — though less than 3% of the total land is developed and nature is held in high regard, including a wealth of environmental technology industries. The population is young and diverse: 15% of its 10 million inhabitants were born outside of the country, and 20% are minors.

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Sweden, for all its liberalism and egalitarianism, has also struggled with fascist groups — notably, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement [NMR]. In 2018, the group campaigned in the national election for the first time; in May of this year, a neo-Nazi march was attacked by counter- demonstrators. This extremist movement appears to be gaining in strength, bringing into question the model of “the good Swede” — and what it means to be Swedish.

~EWP

Moldova

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Moldova, the least visited European country with the poorest economy per capita and lowest Human Development Index, remains somewhat of a mystery to the modern world. This former principality was annexed to the Russian Empire and ultimately made a Soviet satellite, since 1991 a parliamentary republic — with a neutral status yet ambiguous relationship to both EU/NATO and Russia/CIS today.

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In Moldova, 93.3% of the population identify as Orthodox Christian; due to the country’s complicated history, both Russian and Romanian Orthodoxy lay claim as the national church. There is, however, no state religion, with freedom regarding same constitutionally guaranteed. In practice, more than 58% attend church infrequently and another 10% not at all — though 80% claim a high degree of trust in the religious institution.

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Moldovans suffered terribly in the Soviet era, with routine deportations to Eastern Siberia as well as arrests and executions, a major drought and export policy-induced famine, and more. The Soviets also established a “Moldovan” identity separate from that of Romanian. A movement for democracy began in 1980s, with independence by 1991; the eastern area of Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova at the same time, though unrecognized as such to this day.

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Soviet mass deportations of Moldovans to Siberia, in 1941, 1942, and 1951, resulted in more than 100,000 deaths. Deemed “enemies of the state” and sent for “re-education,” these purges included political and religious figures, academics and other intellectuals, entrepreneurs — and countless children. Considered an “open wound” still today, an annual commemoration takes place each July.

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The Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine had a devastating effect also on neighboring Moldova — so much so, that more than 30 years later many are still struggling with its consequences. More than 80% of the country was contaminated; 672 died from involvement in the liquidation process, while more than 2500 became disabled. The health impact is expected to continue for several decades.

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Moldova today is slowly becoming a tourist destination, for its wine production and natural scenery. Though the nation is highest in Europe for alcohol consumption and related disease, and until recently ranked globally as “unhappiest,” things are beginning to improve. Economic and banking upturns were seen in 2018; a change of government in June of this year has resulted in the introduction of reforms: reinforcing democracy and rule of law, decreasing corruption, and addressing human rights concerns.

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Moldova has a long cultural tradition, overlapping with that of Romania, and including the full range of the arts. Fine arts, performance, folklore, and especially literature are well represented. A rich heritage includes archaeological sites, monasteries and churches, fortresses, dwellings and artifacts, from as far back as the Paleolothic Era; the people’s rootedness and self-expression run very deep indeed.

~EWP

Kosovo

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Kosovo is a tiny landlocked country in Europe’s Balkan region, in an area inhabited by humans for 10,000 years; earliest cultures in this area include Starcevo and Vinca. The area was occupied by Romans, then by Slavic migration, an identity predominant today; other major influences have included Bulgarian Empire, Byzantines, Ottoman rule, and Yugoslavia — first kingdom, then Communist, and Serbia.

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The statehood of Kosovo is denied by Serbia, which lays claim to the area; Kosovo first declared its independence in 1990, and fought a bloody war with Serbia for more than a year (1998-99), finally declaring full independence only in 2008. To date, 112 UN states recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, including all Balkan states except Serbia; another 11 have withdrawn their initial support.

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The people of Kosovo are typically seen as a mix of Albanian, Ottoman, Romance, and Slavic cultures. While more than 95% identify as Muslim, the society is secularised and freedom of religious belief — including the absence thereof — constitutionally protected. Kosovo ranks 1st in Southern Europe and 9th globally for its religious tolerance.

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The war for independence, fought a mere 20 years ago (1998-99), remains very much in the social consciousness. This one is dedicated to all those who went missing during that time — an estimated 1600, still unaccounted for. Earlier this year, an exchange of remains was pledged between Belgrade and Pristina — though with little action thus far.

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The Heroinat Memorial may be Pristina’s most poignant remembrance of its war victims. A powerful tribute to women who were subjected to rape as a war crime, it is made of 20,000 pins — the estimated number of women victimised. Many women fought in the war, more in the resistance movement. Like all such memorials, this provides a public space of mourning and tribute.

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The Mother Teresa Society established support services in Kosovo as of 1990, in the period leading up to and including the war for independence. Interestingly, in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, a Mother Teresa cathedral was built in 2007 and finally consecrated in 2017. Only 2% of the population is actually Roman Catholic.

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Daily life in Pristina and elsewhere in Kosovo keeps to its traditions even as it continues to modernise, as seen in its street markets. Here the men are seen working side-by-side with the women, the market typically situated near a mosque — both at the centre of village life. Gender roles remain more traditional, however; women have the right to work, vote, and own property — but still own less than 10% of businesses.

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The now defunct Christ the Saviour Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pristina serves as a visual reminder that the conflict between Kosovo and its former overlord is far from resolved even now. NATO actions in support of Kosovo during its independence war have been questioned; Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty. Last year, an ethnic-Serbian politician in Kosovo was murdered; Serbia blocked Kosovo’s entry into Interpol, after which the latter raised tariffs of the former. Peace talks were resumed this year — though without progress. And so the conflict continues.

~EWP

Indonesia

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Indonesia is one of the world’s most diverse countries. The archipelagic nation is 14th largest by land and 4th most populous, with more than 17,000 islands and 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups. It’s no wonder, yet also wondrous, that Indonesians have actively adopted the motto, “Unity in Diversity.”

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Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim-majority population, though religious choice is permitted and the country also includes Hindus and Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants — and “Confucianists” (though strictly speaking, not a religion). The practice of Islam is 99% Sunni, though both Shia and Ahmadi are also present. Antecedent to all is an indigenous animism, dynamism, and ancestral worship typical of Austronesian peoples.

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Balinese rituals are a synthesis of Hinduism and indigenous animistic beliefs. The island’s Hinduism originated on Java and is itself a syncretism of Shivaism and Buddhism, while the underlying Austronesian animistic practices, which further integrate a practice of ancestor worship as seen in China, can be found in similar forms throughout Asia. Their island, according to the Balinese, belongs to the supreme deity Sanghyang Widhi — held by the people in sacred trust.

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The religious practices of Indonesia’s Balinese are strongly integrated with the arts: theatre, dance, visual, music, literature. Religion and art are inseparable — neither would exist without the other, just as nature and divinity or the spirit world utterly co-exist.

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Even the daily offerings to the gods and the unseen world, as prepared by Indonesia’s Balinese, must be aesthetically pleasing. Religious practice is intertwined with daily life … as are the arts, and as such, worship and beauty become one.

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Art in all forms is very much a part of Indonesian life. In Yogyakarta, art is deeply valued — including independent, alternative, and even post-alternative forms. Here children are studying art not in an art academy, though these also abound — but at the Affandi Museum, itself an alternative space, established by one of Indonesia’s most well-known painters of the same name.

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Indonesia is one of the earliest inhabited areas of the world, as early as 1.5 million years ago by anthropological evidence such as “Java Man” (later identified as homo erectus). Other such fossils have indicated that the archipelago is home to some of the earliest hominids outside of Africa — including one of the smallest, discovered in 2004 and thought to represent an as-yet unidentified species. Austronesian, this is one of the earliest cultural groups still in existence today.

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There have been royal courts as well as Sultanates in Indonesia throughout its history — traditionally, 2 in Java alone. For 350 years, Indonesia was colonised or otherwise occupied by the Dutch, regaining independence only in 1949 through armed conflict. Though a constitutional republic today with an elected president, the country maintains a number of courts — in Java, Bali, Borneo and the Spice Islands — along with a call to return the Sultanates. One of the world’s largest democracies today, Indonesia maintains its royalty as a matter of history, pageantry, and cultural identity.

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Indonesia has achieved a certain degree of affluence today, as evidenced by this shopping mall in Sumatra’s economic hub of Medan. The country is widely considered one of the 4 emerging economies in SE Asia (along with Thailand, Malaysia, and Philippines) — and despite the 2004 tsunami disaster, the likes of which the modern world has never before seen.

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Indonesia is not without its tragedies, and on a grand scale. The 2004 tsunami saw an estimated death toll of 170,000; many other natural disasters have also been endured, the most recent in 2018 with 2 earthquakes and an approximate 5,000 deaths.A tragedy of human making occurred in 1965-66, from which the nation continues to heal: the so-called “Communist Purge,” a genocide over just a few months in which 500,000 to 3 million lost their lives.

~EWP