Croatia

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Croatia is perhaps one of the more well known of the Balkan states, an EU member, and on schedule to join next year the Schengen border treaty and 1st stage of Eurozone. Following 73 years (1918-1991) as part of socialist Yugoslavia and 2 wars in the early 1990s, the country today is stable and thriving.

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Croatian culture is a fusion of 4 influences: bridging both western and eastern Europe since Roman times, as well as central Europe to the north and the Mediterranean to the south — and of course the Balkan or Slavic identity. The nation has no official religion but is 91% Christian, 86% of those Catholic.

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The arts are of significant importance in Croatia. Seen here is the National Theatre in the capital city of Zagreb; the nation has 95 theatres in total. Croatia was a centre for the arts in the Medieval era, and its Dalmatia region, under Venetian rule at the time of the Renaissance, saw a similar flourishing of the arts. This interest continues strongly today.

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One of the folk arts for which Croatia is well known is that of lace-making, and also linen craft. Croatian lace-making dates back to the Medieval era when the country was especially notable for its arts, and in 2009 was inscripted by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Lace was often made in nunneries; three areas noted for their lace include Hvar, Pag, and Lepoglava.

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Croatia keeps its traditional markets, centres of community, where handcrafts and artisanal products are sold alongside produce and flowers. Seen here is NENO in Zagreb. Comfortably parallel to contemporary Croatian life, traditions are still upheld.

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Croatians also have a knack for irony, or perhaps just a taste for the unusual: this Museum of Broken Relationships, in Zagreb, displays memorabilia alongside personal stories, some handwritten, of relationships lost — a full spectrum.

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Some Croatians experience a broken relationship with their government and its systems, a trend in many western countries. Antifa has a presence in Zagreb — as do its detractors. On 22 June each year, Croatia celebrates “Anti-Fascist Struggle Day,” a national holiday in honor of its efforts against both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in WWII; after 45 subsequent years under Communist rule, they are sensitive to any hint of repression, corruption, or injustice.

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One of the most well known sights of Croatia is the fortress of Dubrovnik, and the town’s maritime history. With a mainland coast of 1,777km and an additional 4,028km around its 1,000+ islands, Croatian culture is particularly defined by the sea.

~EWP

Ethiopia

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Ethiopia is a complex culture, in no small part because it’s one of the most ancient, contains more than 80 recognised ethnic groups, and is the only African country never colonised (though Italy occupied it 1936-41 and Allied forces 1941-43). As the most intact culture on the continent, Ethiopia uses 3 calendars and its own script, employs a complex naming system, and has its own unique concept of time.

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Ethiopia is the 2nd most populous country in Africa and the 3rd poorest, with the highest poverty rate globally at >50% living below the global poverty line. The most common reason cited is the nation’s dependence on agriculture; during the country’s communist era of 1974-1991, they also suffered ongoing political unrest, and a devastating drought and famine that resulted in mass internal displacement and >1 million deaths. Today, however, Ethiopia is poised to move out of poverty — with one of the fastest growing economies on the planet.

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One of the Ethiopian products of great significance to its agriculturally based economy has long been coffee. The nation is the #1 exporter of coffee in Africa, which accounts for 22% of its commodity exports and 60% of its foreign income, and employs 15 million people. It is commonly believed that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, and with the collaboration of South Korea, the nation has just announced it will build a $50 million “coffee park” in Addis Ababa.

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Until recently, humans were thought to have originated in Ethiopia; it is still one of the earliest known areas for hominims and presumed the sourcepoint for migration elsewhere. This unassuming collection of bones is Lucy, the most well known hominid, discovered in 1974 and dating back 3.2 million years; another, “Ardi,” dating a full 1.2 million years earlier, was also discovered in Ethiopia, in 1994. Two similarly dated fossils have been found in nearby Kenya — though remains possibly 7.2 million years old recently discovered in Greece and Bulgaria might just turn the whole origin theory on its head.

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Ethiopia’s ancient culture includes a very early adoption of Christianity, one of the first in the world — or the first, as Ethiopians believe. It was adopted as the country’s official religion in the 4th century C.E. and never succumbed to Islam. Today the nation is 62.8% Christian, primarily Ethiopian Orthodox, and 33.9% Muslim; there is also a significant Jewish minority known as Beta Israel, which predates the adoption of Christianity though always as a focus of persecution — and has an estimated 120,000 living in Israel.

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Ethiopia’s communist era (1974-1991), in addition to the devastation of widespread drought and famine, was a time of violent repression — beginning with that known today as the Red Terror (1976-77) which resulted in 30,000-750,000 deaths, and throughout this era, an estimated 1.2-2 million. Mengistu, head of state during this time, fled to Zimbabwe where he remains — and in 2006 was convicted, in absentia, of genocide. Ethiopians still carry this traumatising legacy, as can be witnessed in the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa.

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As in many African nations and other areas of the world, Ethiopia struggles to overcome its traditions of female genital mutilation and child marriage. FGM was made illegal in 2004, and rates have been falling; 65.2% of women aged 15-49 have undergone the procedure, decreased to 47.1% in the 15-19 age cohort. The country is 16th highest globally for child marriage, with 40% of girls married before age 18 and nearly 20% before age 15. But, good news: the government announced on 14 August 2019 a national plan to end both child marriage and FGM by the year 2025.

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Ethiopia is also working to address environmental concerns. Deforestation, along with overgrazing and excessive farming, have severely eroded the country’s soil and forests, contributing to pollution, water scarcity, and more. As part of a national “green legacy” initiative, a significant step forward was taken on 28 July 2019 when — in a single day — the nation planted 350 billion trees.

~EWP

Brazil

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Brazil: the world’s 5th-largest country both in area and population, and 8th-9th economically — considered an emerging superpower. Within the Latin American region, though largest by any measure and by a margin, Brazilians often express a perceived disadvantage and even alienation on the basis of language — as the only non-Spanish speaking country.

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One cultural feature that Brazil does share with its neighbors is the religious legacy of its colonisers: Catholicism. And, as in other South American countries, the European colonisers had a common primary interest: gold. One of the ways to show off one’s wealth was to ‘give thanks to God’ (and the Holy See) — by building gold-laden churches and cathedrals.

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Brazil’s indigenous peoples suffered enormously under the Portuguese colonisation, with 90% loss of an estimated 11 million in 2,000 tribes during the first century. Today there are an approximate 305 tribes with 900,000 remaining people, in 690 recognised territories representing 13% of the land mass, 98.5% of it in the rainforest.

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More than 50% of Brazilians self-identify on census as having African heritage. Brazil expresses pride in its African influences today; however, as in North America and the Caribbean, this history is steeped in slavery. The largest in the Atlantic slave trade by a margin and for 3.5 centuries, Brazil already had a longstanding practice of enslaving its indigenous peoples. It was the last country in the Western world to formally abolish the practice.

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With the abolishment of slavery, Brazilians of African heritage moved strongly into all aspects of society. Brazilian arts, and music in particular, have obvious African influences. São Paulo’s Museu Afro Brasil in Ibirapuera Park, a large facility with a comprehensive collection, celebrates the vast contribution made by Afro-Brazilians to the culture of Brazil.

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The arts, in all forms, are hugely important to Brazilian culture. Examples of sophisticated artworks from earliest human habitation can be seen, through today with the additional influences of European and African heritage and multiple immigrant groups. Street art is prevalent throughout both São Paulo and Rio de Janiero, alongside museums and galleries, theatres, and a vast array of music venues.

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Brazil also keeps its traditional markets, with artisanal products alongside basic wares. The Municipal Market of São Paulo is one of the largest, set in an historic building — and spilling out into the surrounding streets. As ever, the marketplace is a public space teeming with local culture, and with so much land and a large agricultural industry, the lifeblood of Brazil.

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With such a long coastline, the sea also has its influence on Brazilian culture, and many communities are oriented to the sea. Afro-Brazilians have a festival to the sea goddess Iemanjá, many have their summer beach homes, Rio is famous for its beaches — and in the north, the world’s largest rainforest takes its cues from the sea.

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The people of Brazil must also live with a high crime rate, including violent crime that ranks among the world’s top twenty. Organised and street gang crime are a large reason for this, and there are many measures of security — including not only police but also at the community level. Good news: from 2017 to 2018, the murder rate dropped by 13% — a significant improvement.

~EWP

Jordan

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Jordan is a peaceful country surrounded by conflict: Palestine and Israel, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, with both Yemen and Lebanon nearby. Not surprisingly, Jordan has strong refugee programs — with more refugees, including 1st and 2nd generation, than native Jordanians. A constitutional monarchy, 98% Arabic and 95% Muslim, nonetheless the country is well accustomed to the welcoming of strangers and the concept of diversity. Ranked as 3rd among Arabic nations for individual freedoms, Jordan also leads the MENA region in gender equality — though still at 138th out of 149 countries by the Global Gender Gap Report.

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Some of Jordan’s traditions are still practiced, even in central Amman. A man exercises his racing pigeons at sundown, the birds flying in a large circular path in sympathy with his circling wand — as the call to prayer floats through the air.

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Goatherding, another Jordanian tradition, is especially seen among its Bedouins who live throughout much of the countryside. But it’s even possible to see a herder and his animals in the city centre of Amman — a blend of urban and rural, even in the capital.

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Jordan’s capital city of Amman has many modern components including the Jordan Museum, considered one of the best in the region. With a focus spanning heritage from ancient to modern and extending into the future, the museum reflects not only Jordanian culture but also its place within and awareness of Arabic influence in the world.

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Art is a window into a culture, though its meaning is always subject to interpretation. This 2-storey street art in Amman, Jordan, in its depiction of male+female, provides a perhaps unexpected image in a predominantly Arabic and Muslim country. The mural, intended to express gender issues, is by 7 young Jordanian artists known as Akut of Herakut. Jordan has a highly educated female populace but less than 20% female employment and only 16.6% in parliament.

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Considering Jordan’s neighboring countries, security in Amman is maintained by military personnel. The country does in fact have a high degree of safety, even though it’s currently engaged in the conflict in Yemen and actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The sight of heavily armed military and police, however, is common, and something citizens must live with — feeling more secure because of this armed presence, yet continually reminded of the need for it.

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Amman, Jordan: a freak snowstorm in January 2019 paralysed the highways and airport, accompanied by lightning and thunder claps. Locals confirmed that, while the country never had snow in the past, it has occurred on occasion in the past several years. As this polar front moved through, a ‘maximum state of alert’ was declared — twice. This, in a ‘desert people’ and what is considered an arid climate — between the Arabian desert areas and the Mediterranean Sea.

~EWP

Czechia

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The Czech Republic, now also known as Czechia and part of the former Czechoslovakia, has had a tumultuous recent history. Partly occupied by Nazi forces in WWII and Communist rule from 1946, the country regained its democracy in 1989 and separated from Slovakia in 1993. The capital of Prague, having escaped heavy bombing in WWII, is one of the region’s loveliest — and most visited — today.

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The astronomical clock for which Prague is famous is more than just an artefact; c.1410, it is the oldest such still functioning today. It reflects solar and lunar cycles as well as time, and depicts Czechia’s religious heritage in the form of the Christian apostles. The structure also symbolises cultural beliefs in viewing the birth of a male baby as fortuitous — and the fate of the city intricately connected to that of the clock.

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The fairytale appearance of Prague’s Old Town Square, never more than at the Christmas holiday period, has complemented many a film and warms the heart. As in any society, a central gathering place is more than just a landmark — it is the market, the central cathedral or mosque, the space in which to socialise and to share information and ideas, and as such is the beating heart around which the town evolves and revolves.

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Czechia was once home to a large Jewish community, which contributed greatly to the national culture. The 1930 census registered over 350k Jews; during WWII, Nazi occupiers and Czech collaborators together sent the vast majority to concentration camps where few survived. Despite this atrocity, there is once more a vibrant Jewish life in Czechia, primarily in Prague with an estimated 7,000-15,000 members — though most don’t register as such, having learnt the terrible lessons of the past.

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Czechia also suffered under several decades of Communist rule, from 1946 to 1988 — a matter not entirely resolved today. An all too common tale, current political and social instability in the country have created a nostalgia for the stability, if authoritarian repression, of their Communist past; one poll found that only 1 in 4 Czechs claim to be content with their democracy. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia [KCSM] still exists today, largely unrecalcitrant and undergoing somewhat of a revival in membership, though it lost half of its political seats in the most recent election.

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Though perhaps not to the extent of their neighbors, Austria and Germany, Chezhia is also recognised for its contribution to the fine arts, especially visual and musical. Traditional Bohemian and Moravian influences can be found in the work of native composers Janáček and Dvořák; the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague is highly regarded, as is the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Fine Arts, and the cultural value placed on the arts is readily apparent.

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Czech design also abounds, as seen in this Prague interior design centre. Long famous for glass, porcelain, and jewellery work, the young designers of today have an edgy, indie feel and are eager to create their own, avant-garde style — after all, this is the culture that gave us the word, ‘bohemian’.

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Though ‘bohemian’ in its modern, trendy self, Czechia adheres to some of its traditions still — including that of the Krampas, Christmas lore found throughout Central Europe. Nevermind a stocking filled with coal; if you’ve been a naughty child, the Krampas will come to punish you. A terrifyingly Satanical combination of goat and demon, this is straight out of the hyper-religious Middle Ages — but today all in good seasonal fun.

~EWP