Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

The Economist’s B.S.

Bulshit

The change in mood reflected from an article written two or three years ago and in the Economist’s recent cover shown above as well as in the article that follows inside is a clear portrait of this magazine’s right-wing monetarist bias, bu in this case it borders dishonesty.

The criticism is launched from a perspective that is becoming more and more obsolete and that has proven to be disastrous both in Europe and in the United States; the ne0-liberal one. The focus of the article is Brazil’s “outdated” state intervention based economy which, in the opinion of the editors, is what is scaring foreign investments away.

This is comical. For one, throughout the world banks aren’t willing to invest, not in Brazil nor anywhere else, so it is a fallacy to state that it is Brazil’s economic model that is putting investors off. The fact is that the big banks are currently sitting on their trillions, mostly obtained from the western governments salvage packages that detonated serious recessions.  They are waiting for the “outside” world to be on its knees, and in this situation the money owners will be able to force the theories that the Economist represent down their populations throats.

But looking more specifically at the mood change in the Economist’s covers, the practices that they criticized in their latest publication were as true when the first picture of “promising” Brazil was issued, as they are now. So we have to ask what has changed? It surely hasn’t been the Brazilian ruling party, not has it been their economic policies. Indeed what has changed is the balance of world power where so-called peripheral countries, namely China and Russia, have been showing themselves stronger than the west in terms of economic power and in throwing their weight on geopolitical decisions, namely Iran and Syria.

It is crucial to note that these two countries have been achieving better economic results without using the recipes that the Economist suggests for Brazil. Actually it is fair to say that the Brazilian economic model is closer to the Chinese and to the Russian ones than to the western neo-liberalized ones. So why doesn’t the Economist launch a similar attack on them? It would be pathetic wouldn’t it? But yes, the Brazilian State has an enormous stake in the economy and this has been so since the 1930’s when it was put in place by Brazil’s dictator/caudillo Getulio Vargas who ruled Brazil for a great chunk of the twentieth century and who, by the way, was by no means a communist.

Putting things straight, the US and its European followers have consistently backed Brazil while using such an economic model as an anti-communist bastion in the “dangerous” continent of Latin America during this entire period. They strengthened Brazil when Fidel Castro became too popular, and more recently they did it again when Hugo Chavez gained too much appeal for their taste.

What the Economist’s sponsors would not like to see is an independent Brazil, and for that matter an independent Latin America. This may explain the phone tappings on its president and may very well also explain the “spontaneous” protests that erupted throughout the country during F.I.F.A.’s Confederations Cup with a level of organization and a spread that only professionals can achieve. It seems to us that it is no coincidence that such an article would appear right after the Brazilian government denounced the illegal actions of the American one in the United Nations, also announcing that it will be moving towards an independent route on the internet. It also seems no coincidence that this kind of bad press should appear when the ramp up for the next elections is coming up and the pro-American candidate lags in third place, far behind two left-wing candidates.

For one thing, all of this shows that Brazilians do not buy the neo-liberal vision that God has blessed America with the right answers and the moral upper hand. It also leaves the question that if the West has failed miserably in the Middle East could it be turning its eyes on Latin America?

Lost Samba, Chapter 09/02 – Ipanema in the seventies – Brazil’s California.

anus70b

Ipanema in the 1970s

In 1973 there was a major stock market crash due to the sudden increase in the price of Petrol internationally, and, as anywhere else in the world, people who had made easy fortunes suddenly lost everything from one day to another, leading to a major drop in real estate prices. Dad was either clever or lucky enough to have sold his shares just days before the collapse and for us this stroke was like winning the lottery. Having plenty of cash available, my parents were able to buy an apartment in Ipanema, and to move into Rua Nascimento Silva, only a few doors away from the home of Vinicius de Moraes, the acclaimed Bossa Nova poet.

The new address meant an upgrade not only in our social status but also in our lifestyle. Although the flat did not have a verandah as the rented one in Copacabana, the new home was much larger and, more importantly, it was ours. The previous owners had joined two small three bedroom flats into a single unit. At its centre was the kitchen, which separated my parents’ side of the flat from the one where Sarah and I moved into. Now, each of us had our own room with a privacy that was a dream for most kids.

Regardless of the hurricane of social change going on behind closed doors, with the exception of the beach front Avenida Vieira Souto, in terms of architecture and of environment, Ipanema felt like a luxury version of a typical Brazilian coastal city. The streets were calm, airy and lined with lush trees that almost hid the sky. Its buildings were newer than those in Copacabana but were lower and less ostentatious, giving the district a more residential, down to earth feel.

Our new home seemed to bring sudden changes to our lives. To begin with, in what was surely one of the coolest places to live in the entire planet, Sarah and I went from being children to being adolescents, both of us discovering the delights and set backs of that period of life. In second place, my parents finally gave way and bought a television set, perhaps accepting that elegant society considered it strange for their aspirants not to have one. Our new TV immersed us even deeper into the wider Brazilian world. Like anybody else, now we could watch TV Globo’s four different novelas, or soap operas, Brazil’s main cultural product, five days a week. Although I soon got tired of them, in the beginning I was hooked: at six in the evening, there was a novela aimed at youngsters; at seven there was a pre-dinner comedy; at eight there was the big production for the entire family; and at ten, there was a more adult show. All were excellent: censorship had forced the best professionals in the field to work in them, as there was otherwise very little space for independent voices in the entertainment industry. This concentration of talent gave the genre an amazing quality that would help them be hits all over the world.

Due to my Mum’s complete disdain for the medium, she did not want our black-and-white television in the living room but instead it stayed in a spare room next to mine. Every evening at seven Dona Isabel, switched on the set to listen to the soap operas from the kitchen as she prepared dinner and this sound track only ceased when we went to bed. Apart from knowing what went on in the novelas, I could watch football games, sitcoms, films and imported TV series while on Saturday afternoons I could enjoy seeing the latest international bands on Sabado Som. Suddenly I was no longer a complete alien at school.

*

Probably the reason why the previous owners had sold their Ipanema flat to my parents was that the neighbourhood’s main street gang used the building’s entrance as their base. Although they had a middle class background, they were the bad boys at the top of Ipanema’s food chain who ruled not only the streets, but also the waves with their surfing skills in the hippest part of the beach, the Pier. Now long gone, the Pier was set up for the construction of an enormous pipe to funnel Ipanema’s sewage out into the deep ocean. Because its construction had altered the currents and the seabed, the waves there were amazing and the specialised press ranked that particular point as one of the best places to surf in Latin America. These circumstances would make the Pier produce many of Brazil’s first surf champions. Anyway, the gang’s constant presence in our entrance way brought the 1970s rebellion right to our doorstep. Mum and Dad felt besieged by a bunch of barbarians.

Image

Courtesy of Pier de Ipanema

One of the gang members, Pepê, was to become a world champion surfer and hang-glider, and years later his popularity would help him be elected into the city council. His younger and less talented brother, Pipi, was shot after he jumped over the counter to attack the owner of the botequim, or bar, on our corner. One day I was coming home from school when I saw a peroxide-blond surfer sitting motionless on the pavement, waiting for an ambulance with his blood-soaked shirt stuck to his belly. The next morning as I was leaving for school, our building’s porter told me that Pipi had died in hospital.

Whenever there were no waves, the gang hung out on the other side of the street to skateboard on a garage ramp while blasting out Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones from a cassette player. While none of them could understand the poignant lyrics, I could, which made me somehow participate in what was going on as I watched them from our living room’s window like a sick boy watching other children play from a hospital ward. In those afternoons, the songs’ words, together with the smell of cannabis wafted into our flat. Seeing the cigar-sized joint passing from hand to hand among the suntanned surfers was like witnessing a bank robbery from a privileged position. This was the subversive crime that the authorities were warning everyone about on television now that the fear of left wing terrorism had died off.

Anytime I passed in front of that gang, I would hear them comment, “There goes that little wimp”. The most embarrassing moments were when we went by car to the club and the porter had to ask those surfers politely to move aside so that our car could exit the garage. As we left the building, inside was my middle-aged mum wearing a white mini-skirt tennis uniform and me with my skinny legs and my oversized football gear. Because of them, my parents ended up banning surfing at home but those guys pushed me to prove, if only to myself, I was not the wimpy kid they saw. I am still trying.

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An extract of the film Garota Dourada shot at the time.

Lost Samba – Chapter 9/01 – Ipanema’s revolution

Part15Ipanema entered the world’s consciousness as a dream-like place in the mid-1960s when Frank Sinatra discovered Bossa Nova’s laid-back melodies. However, by the 1970s, Bossa Nova, Frank Sinatra and the positive outlook of the Brazilian society had become something of the past. Living under a dictatorship and recovering from the wounds of democracy’s failed resistance, Ipanema would now take centre-place in the country’s process of digesting the new reality. It would do this with a twist of rock ’n’ roll. Although the neighborhood was the embodiment of the middle class comfort that the so-called “Brazilian economic miracle” had ushered; there was an awareness that the newfound wealth was for a privileged minority and that this status quo was backed by a harsh political clampdown. In the early days following the 1964 coup, Ipanema seemed like an independent republic, an island of critical thought where talented and comparatively wealthy, bohemian artists and intellectuals congregated. Their resistance to the military regime began early when, in 1969, a group of them launched a satirical weekly called O Pasquim. This seminal publication would land many of its contributors in prison for varying lengths of time, but would also position them into the elite of the country’s intelligentsia.

O Pasquim was ahead of its days: not only did it firmly position itself against the military but it also lampooned the bourgeoisie and their values. There were ground-breaking interviews, many of them fuelled by bottles of whisky, with all sorts of football players, artists, politicians, actors and other celebrities. In a time of heavy censorship, they exposed these public figures from previously unexplored angles, encouraging them to talk about their private lives, their views on controversial subjects such as drugs and sex and to confess their sins. They also approached people who the mainstream media ran away from, such as Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva – Brazil’s future president but in the 1970s just a rising leader of the “inconvenient” metalworkers’ union in the outskirts of São Paulo.

Battling the heavy hand of the government, O Pasquim was one of the very few remaining independent journalistic voices following the suppression of the mainstream media. Somehow, this publication succeeded in being both humorous and penetrating and the weekly sold solidly right across Brazil. Their contibutors became household names throughout the country and had the effect of making Ipanema a synonym for a free, resistant and happy bohemian zone. This image would be a key to how Brazil would eventually handle its return to democracy.

pasquim02

Edition with Gilberto Gil and Joao Saldanha, coach of Brazil’s 1970 squad

On the other hand, if one was to leave aside the political void during the early years of the 1970s, with double figure annual growth figures the middle class was by and large content, not only in Rio’s Zona Sul but throughout Brazil. As far as they were concerned, the economy was sailing along nicely and the new prosperity had a very clear impact on middle-class lifestyles. Sales of cars, televisions, Coca-Cola, records, contraceptive pills, electronic gadgets, music and surf magazines, and marijuana all rocketed in Rio.

As the new generations began to enjoy the fruits of prosperity, strange long haired and socially unclassifiable characters started appearing on the streets and, via television, right across the country’s living rooms. In Ipanema, the rock ‘n’ roll spirit was omnipresent and the youth embraced the new genre with conviction, making the neighborhood unique in relation to the rest of Brazil. Groups of hippy-like youngsters walked around with upper class girls who, in what was still mostly a conservative society, looked sexually available, their t-shirts and lack of bras turning heads wherever they passed. Something new was in the air: a feeling that was alive, menacing and with strong sexual overtones.

With Ipanema at the eye of the social hurricane, its teen boys discovered surfing and did what they could to emulate their southern Californian contemporaries. For local residents, something strange happened. There was an uneasy but very real blend of its political edge and a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll way of life. Life was an exciting adventure for young Ipanemenses; in the 1970s the Rio’s youth had not yet split itself up into “tribes”. It was possible to surf in the morning, go to an underground musician’s gig in the evening, then listen to a Led Zeppelin cassette in a car heading to a disco, and finally end the night in the Tijuca forest smoking a joint while listening to Pink Floyd or to an old Caetano Veloso cassete. In people’s minds, worlds, tastes and practices all crossed each other. You belonged to your particular circle of friends and no one ever thought about re-defining himself or herself because of a specific musical trend, or political or ideological movement. Life was like a box of chocolates full of novelties, so why not try all of them? These were circles of privileged young people, a minority with a considerable trend-setting power, who liked to believe they rejected bourgeois values and were unsympathetic towards the military regime.

At the same time, with Copacabana becoming less socially desirable, a new wave of very wealthy people were moving into Ipanema. They would make its beachside promenade Avenida Vieira Souto the most expensive address in the entire country. Its main commercial strip, Avenida Visconde de Pirajá, absorbed the moment and had hippy-looking burger houses, pinball arcades, surf shops and boutiques selling flower-power inspired clothes. Meanwhile, old-style bars scattered along the side streets leading to the beach, attracted an older generation of bohemian left-wingers. With feelings of condescension, amusement and worry, the rich observed all this from the back seats of their chauffeur-driven luxury cars.

Long haired surfers wearing imported Hawaiian trunks and t-shirts took over street corners in this new Brazilian California. In order to look like their North American counterparts, those guys dyed their hair blond with surf wax or peroxide, and overall they seemed healthy, wealthy and wild. Although the intellectuality and the dogmatism of politics put them off, they believed they were resisting the system by doing whatever they felt like doing – mainly drugs, sex, rock and roll and surfing – and by looking the way they wanted to. Ipanema’s girls were part of the second generation to be liberated by the pill and displayed their tasty bodies on the surfers’ turf – the beach – giving birth to the tanga, or the Brazilian G-string bikini.

Pier_de_Ipanema_praia_galera

Courtesy of Pier de Ipanema, a website that focuses on this era.

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Lost Samba Chapter 08/02 – The birth of modern Brazil.

che e Janio2

The elected president Jânio Quadros resembled Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in appearance and in political positioning but he shared Churchill’s reputed love for the bottle. The masses adored him, but the elite ridiculed his over the top mannerisms and sneered at his mediocre intelligence. This was a time of great political turmoil with a growing influence of working class organizations on Brazilian public life, which made the middle and upper classes feel threatened. In 1961, Quadros resigned hoping the country would unite to demand his reinstatement.

This never happened and his vice president, João Goulart, took over. Goulart had strong links to trade unions and to left wing state governors, such as Miguel Arraes in Pernambuco and Leonel Brizola in Rio Grande do Sul. In contrast to the United States, Goulart saw no problem in maintaining good relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he went so far as to invite Che Guevara to give a speech to the Brazilian Congress.

The Cuban revolution was still very much in the air. Confronting the political and economic control that the United States had over the region, that uprising had shown Latin America new possibilities. As far as the political left was concerned, Cuba had demonstrated that the continent had the ability to stand up for itself, choosing social justice, independence and development over the subservient path envisaged by the so-called “free world”. Societies striving towards cooperation rather than on profit scared the hell out of the establishment, especially at the height of the Cold War. Washington did everything in its power to crush the Cuban example, imposing a trade blockade, helping exiles in an aborted invasion and attempting to assassinate its leaders. The only result of this policy was to push the Cubans closer to the Soviet Union, and this alliance made a socialist – a communist even – Latin America a dreaded, but very real, possibility.

As for Brazil, the United States was determined to keep the largest country in South America “free” and in 1964 they actively supported a military coup. There were troops and tanks in the streets of the main cities, but they found no organized resistance to challenge them. Although the military leaders stated their aim was to restore democracy in Brazil by getting rid of the communists, it would take two decades for the country to return to political normality. The new regime exiled President Goulart and his allies, withdrew the political rights of numerous public and media figures, and imprisoned key leftist activists.

Despite outrage amongst the intelligentsia and at first a general indifference within the working class, the military delighted the business community, Dad included. For them, Brazil desperately needed to modernize to achieve its full economic potential: the giant had to wake up. With the business friendly, anti-communist military in power and guidance from Uncle Sam, nothing could go wrong.

*

Not until 1968 did Brazil’s civil society begin to stand up in opposition to the government, mirroring events in Paris, Chicago and Prague. After the police shot and killed a student, 100,000 people, including many eminent artists and intellectuals, took to the streets of Rio in the largest anti-government demonstration that Brazil had ever experienced. Opposition spread so fast that even military-appointed congressmen started to speak out against the undemocratic rulers. The regime’s response was swift and brutal, overruling the constitution to issue the infamous AI-5 – Unconstitutional Act Number Five – suspending congress and handing full political authority to the president. Members of the opposition, protest leaders and journalists were imprisoned. Torture became commonplace and many leftist politicians, writers and artists fled into exile.

repressao

Policemen repressing a protester in 1968

Some students went underground and joined urban guerrilla organisations, staging successful bank robberies and high-profile kidnappings. In 1969, after the seizure of the American ambassador in Rio and the planting of bombs in military quarters, the authorities stepped up the repression. People started to disappear, including the son of our family doctor. Embryonic nuclei of revolutionary militias took to the countryside seeking to emulate the Cuban revolution. In one case, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian army dispatched a division of around 10,000 soldiers to hunt down some twenty Maoist youths in the remote Araguaia jungle region. The army executed most of the captured militants.

These were dark times and the authorities censured everything; books, plays, films, songs. They also kept a tight grip on the content of all newspapers and of all radio and television stations. Nevertheless, although the violent suppression of the Araguaia insurgency went unreported, people sensed the tension and the militants acquired a legendary status. There were all sorts of crazy theories about the reach of the guerrillas’ power. Like with anything else in life, when myth takes over problems emerge. In this case, both the militants and their suppressors overestimated what minute groups of extremists could possibly achieve in such a vast and complex country. Together, the opposing sides sent the country into a steady political decline. There was fear and mistrust everywhere, and sometimes my pre-adolescent friends and I would interrupt voicing our political fantasies when we saw someone suspicious around. At night in bed, listening to underground rock ‘n’ roll music and feeling oppressed by my parents; I transformed into a secret revolutionary, dreaming about taking up arms to fight for liberty and equality.

*

The brew of repression, rebellion and revolution on one side and the collapse of traditions, the new technologies, free sex and forbidden drugs on the other, affected everyone in one way or another, and resulted in a polarized society. A young person had to choose between being an agent of change or a supporter of the regime.

However, with the impossibility of political solutions, counterculture emerged as a tolerated middle ground. The subversive germ was kept alive in non-mainstream artistic expressions generating the famous slogan of “be a marginal, be a hero!” These anti-establishment devotees also wanted to change the world, but they did not belong to any left-wing organization aiming at regime change. This allowed them to voice the spirit of change and, because the system was able to dismiss their artistic creations as mere entertainment, record companies and other entrepreneurs were free to exploit these expressions as a lucrative, rich kid’s market. Although neither side liked each other, there was an explosion of talent backed by solid marketing strategies in what was one of Brazil’s most creative cultural periods.

On the other hand, if censorship had managed to mute local expressions it could not interfere with Brazil’s educated youth having access to foreign voices at a time when anti-establishment culture was at its peak abroad. Any Brazilian who had a dictionary around or who knew English, could easily connect to what was going on in the minds of their counterparts abroad. The loudest voice in counter culture was music, more specifically in Rock ‘n’ roll that still had plenty of revolutionary influence in it.

What may be hard to understand in today’s cynical world is that everyone – even the members of the greatest bands – believed in the changes they defended. Fame and fortune were not the only motors that drove the great rockers at their peak, they genuinely saw their creative outputs as being part of a wider movement to overthrow the political and social status quo. The technological edge of their music helped deepen its rupture with the past, and was celebrated with ecstatic solos on their distorted guitars, which gave a sound and even a spiritual edge to the dream.

This was my musical upbringing. I was eight when the Beatles split up; Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven” when I was nine; the Rolling Stones launched “Exile on Main Street” when I was ten; and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of The Moon” was released when I was eleven. For someone from a traditional Jewish background living under a military dicatorship these were ground-breaking and mind-blowing cultural torpedoes and their energy guided my generation throughout its formative years. Although the outcome of most these bands were commercial triumphs, they were much more than this; their music separated the new from the old. By listening to them, and by adopting their attitude, young people suddenly became closer to each other, sometimes closer to “subversive” strangers than to their own family.

We, from the youngest generations, received these messages in our remote bedroom outposts – we had to resist the “squares” and fight to be ourselves, to create our own identities, and subvert the plans that the system had in store for us and for the future. The military noticed the agitation and knew that there was something uncontrollable in the air, but they could not put their finger on it, let alone halt it. They could imprison a hippy for smoking weed, but not for his thoughts.

This radical, libertarian, perhaps distorted and somewhat naive struggle consuming the youth would have more complicated consequences as it sank deeper into the social fabric. The consumption of drugs exploded in the favelas and crime became more frequent and more daring. In fact, the Brazilian organized underworld was born around this time, when in the 1970s, political detainees were confined together with some of the country’s most dangerous criminals in the high security prison of Ilha Grande, to the south of Rio. The militants viewed their cellmates’ fate as a consequence of a flawed economic system, and to move the revolution forward they sought to convert the so-called “common criminals” to their radical views. While it is doubtful that this campaign of politicisation was at all successful, the criminals did take on board the importance of group solidarity and of structure. With this in mind, they began a syndicate that operated outside the penitentiary system but that was controlled from inside the prison walls. They put in practice the techniques the militants had taught them and became competent bank robbers and kidnappers. This was the birth of the infamous Comando Vermelho (the Red Command) that would become Rio’s most powerful underworld organization, controlling most of the city’s drugs and arms trafficking.

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CVermelho

The Comando Vermelho’s insignia.

Lost Samba Chapter 08/01 – Brazilian social inequality under the microscope.

Contrast

The Clube de Regatas do Flamengo was one of several of upper middle class clubs clustered next to some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The Flamengo club, home to the world-famous football team of the same name, was on the shores of the filthy waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon), near our own Clube Paissandu as well as near to the Clube dos Caiçaras, the Clube Monte Líbano, the Associação Atlética Banco do Brasil, the Clube Piraquê, the Clube Militar, the Jockey Club and the Equestrian Club, or, as it was usually called, the Hípica.The Flamengo’s grounds were the largest of all the clubs and it was the easiest to join. Perhaps because of its size, the Flamengo was the only one to have proper sports facilities including an Olympic-sized pool, where some of Brazil’s top swimmers practiced, and where I took lessons three times a week.

After the swimming classes, I would walk to the Paissandu down the block. Despite being so close, everyone considered the walk dangerous as although this was a major route for cars, there were no shops, houses, offices, or  street life, only tall concrete walls protecting the clubs. Because of this, the area was a fertile ground for assaltos, or muggings. One afternoon three favelado boys approached me, asked what I had in my bag, threw me to the ground and then ran off with my belongings.  There was nothing of value – just a wet towel and my trunks – but the feeling of impotence for not being strong or courageous enough to react was traumatic.  I was only twelve and when I arrived at the club house in tears, Mum’s British instinct set in and we immediately went to the local police delegacia to file a complaint. The delegacia was across the street from the Paissandu Club. The bored receptionist took us upstairs to talk to the delegado who did not even bother to move from behind his heavy metal desk. The fat, dark, moustachioed  commander barely glanced at us through his sun glasses, tossing towards us some mug shots of dangerous criminals to see if I could recognize any.

The station was a yellow bunker-like construction with thick bars on its windows and had all sorts of police cars parked around it and had the insignia of Rio de Janeiro’s military police plastered over the door to make everyone take notice of  the menacing importance of the building.  The Fourteenth Delegacia de Polícia faced the Cruzada São Sebastião, a narrow alley that hosted the only social housing in the neighbourhood.  This was by far the most dangerous place in the otherwise exclusive Ipanema and Leblon districts, somewhere we had always be warned was a complete no-go area. In fact, the Cruzada was very much like a refugee camp, its residents being the remnants of Praia do Pinto favela that until the 1960s had existed in the midst of all those exclusive clubs.  Shortly after the 1964 coup, the military authorities backed its burning down after several “peaceful” attempts to remove the inhabitants. The land was conveniently freed up for friendly building contractors, and the families who then moved in were mostly of the military’s middle ranks.

The people lived on one side of the Cruzada São Sebastião in prison-like rows of eight-storey buildings. On the other side of the alley there was a tall wall, topped by a fence covered in barbed wire, which separated that silently angry enclave from our five-a-side football field. We often played at the same time as the boys on the other side of the wall. If our balls flew over, they would never come back. The same was true for their balls but, as they were better players, few landed on our side.  There were occasional exchanges of rude words and stones, and sometimes more daring kids climbed up to threaten us but, in so doing, they then became easy targets for ball kicks.

Contrast2

Boys like those from across the alley and like my muggers worked in our club as tennis ball boys, their parents sometimes being part of the club’s under paid staff. Without exception those moleques were miles tougher and fitter than even the toughest and the fittest of us.  Occasionally, we would play against them but we might as well have sat back and learned something from their genuine Brazilian footballing magic.

We feared them but, at the same time, we also secretly respected them.  The truth is that every carioca male was a bit jealous of the archetypal black man, admired for being good at football, fighting and samba idealized as being supremely virile and with tons of sexy women running after him. The only desirable feature that they lacked was, of course, our  white skin.

The people who we classified as favelados were the great proportion of Rio’s population, but they only emerged into our field of vision and respect either as football stars, as artists or, for some of us, as drug dealers.  Otherwise, as far as we were concerned dark and poor people were servants and maids in our homes, clubs, schools and office buildings.  Outside work, they were carnival dancers, beggars and muggers, people waiting to be put in prison and deserving their fate for being lazy, dishonest and libidinous. Ultimately, with the backing of the middle and upper classes, Rio’s undemocratic administration was working hard to keep the masses as far from us as possible. For them, people who had committed the crime of being born with dark skin and poor were to be no more than extras in our closeted existence, similar to how South Africa’s non-white population lived under apartheid.

In our homes, the link between the rich and poor world was embodied in our maids. Those female servants, and the attitudes to them, were remnants of the days of slavery, which in Brazil only ended in 1888 – not even seventy-five years before I was born. Every flat or house built for the lower middle class upwards had a servants’ quarters, and we all had at least one maid at home to clean, do the laundry and cook.  They would labour all week doing long hours, and sleep in stuffy, windowless rooms with the sole comforts being a crucifix on the wall and a cheap radio set on top of a small cupboard.  Outside their door, ironing boards, brooms and dirty clothes waited for them. The contrast with the rest of the comfortable homes where white Brazilian middle class families enjoyed their tropical paradise was staggering. This almost unnoticed element of the social gap was a constant in daily life no matter the head of the family’s profession, religious belief or political views. Leftists were no exception; their political fantasies did not inconveniently interfere with their domestic comfort.  They viewed “the proletariat” as “noble savages” who they liked to imagine lived in a permanent samba party and were inherently good, just as all exploited members of the underclass surely were. But somehow the maids were just too real to be idealised, although – depending on their disposition and looks – plenty of patronizing chatter went on, as well as occasional flirtation and sexual contact.

When I was little, one of the many domesticas who passed through our lives risked her job by secretly bringing her son with her to live in the flat in weekdays. As the rigid code of conduct was concerned, this was beyond the pale.  Naturally I knew nothing about such rules and I was the only one at home aware of my hidden friend who followed me everywhere but who hid behind curtains when my mum was at home.  One day Mum discovered what had been going on. There was no question of tolerance: Mum fired the maid on the spot.  This harsh attitude was in line with the ethics of that time and place, and it went without saying that all our neighbours and friends supported her decision.

In contrast, our last maid, Dona Isabel, stayed with us for over fifteen years.  She was a Brazilian version of Mrs Two Shoes, the Tom and Jerry cartoon maid – she was pitch black, short and stocky, and had a gigantic backside above her thick and bent legs. It was common in Brazilian homes for emotional ties with the maid to develop, and certainly this was the case with Dona Isabel:  my sister Sarah and I regarded her almost as family.  Even so, the general acceptance of the status quo never allowed us to imagine what was passing through Dona Isabel’s mind. We will never know. All we really knew about her background was that she had grown up on a farm in the state of Minas Gerais and had a very typical accent from there, and that she found comfort in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion. Dona Isabel was barely literate but really smart and she managed to teach herself to understand English .

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domestica

From Gabriel Mascaro’s film Domestica

Lost Samba, Chapter 7/02 -Religious disappointment.

Part12

A philosopher once said that big changes enter our lives as pigeons walk into a cathedral. It all began with an innocent football game on a sunny afternoon. Every Tuesday and Thursday the British School took us to train on an official eleven-a-side field in Botafogo. Like the mess that was about to happen, everything in those games was disproportionate: the field was way too large for ten-year-old players and the goal posts were too far away and too huge for the goalkeeper. When we dribbled a ball past an adversary and looked ahead, there still seemed to be miles to go, which made passing complicated and running exhausting. On top of this, the coach took our performance seriously and whistled to mark every petty mistake.

It was a relief to hear the final whistle and I was looking forward to take the shuttle bus to the Paissandú club to play a much more pleasurable game of five-a-side football. However, when I got on the bus the driver told me to get off because my name was not on the list. Someone in the school’s office had cocked up and I was on the list of children going home. I told the teacher, and he said there was nothing he could do. Not wanting to take no for an answer, I asked for a lift from a friend who would be heading to the club with his mum following his after-school judo class. The teacher agreed. We got back to school where I spent a tedious hour and a half watching the judo instructor throwing my friend around the mat. When his mum arrived, it turned out that they were going straight home – she was in a rush and could not take me to the club. However, she acknowledged the confusion and gave me a reluctant ride home, as Copacabana was handier for her.

Meanwhile, when I did not arrive at the club with the school bus, Mum phoned the school to ask what had happened to me and received the unbelievable answer that they did not know. This was a time when urban guerrillas were kidnapping foreigners to exchange them for their imprisoned comrades. Of course, our family did not belong to the target group – mainly diplomats and high ranking executives– but the paranoia made panic set in. When I arrived at home, the maid was hysterical and did not know what to do. Someone came up with the idea of putting me in a taxi to go to the club. As far as I was concerned, this was a thrilling adventure: here I was, ten years old, riding all alone with an unknown driver and ducking whenever we passed a police officer because, in my head, this was illegal.

When Mum found out exactly what had happened, she was furious with the school. Things got worse after she learned that the new headmaster, a disciplinarian, ex-Royal Navy officer, had blamed me for the incident. Notices started to appear saying that everyone could do this and that, except for me because I was not to be trusted and was irresponsible. My parents decided that the headmaster’s targeting of me was completely unacceptable and this was how I left the protective cocoon of the British School for an immersion in the Brazilian World.

In reality, the beginning was not a one hundred percent Brazilian experience. I was plunged into the Eliezer Steinberg, a Jewish school, and a safe bet, at least until my parents could figure out what to do with me. The change was exciting but there were hurdles. The classes had many more students, the lessons were all in Portuguese and there were new subjects to get my head around: Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish history. As I started to get to grips with what was happening, I found myself being very different from my classmates and with new enemies happy to prey on my fragile position.

*

My parents – like most other ones in our circles – considered religion an antiquated superstition, but they valued their Jewish heritage and felt that they should use it to give Sarah and I a sense of identity. As time progressed – and the more it looked that the family would stay permanently in Brazil – religious rituals started playing an increased role in our lives. We started lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evenings and regularly going to synagogue.

On the high holidays, we would go to the A.R.I. – the Israelite Religious Association – a nonorthodox congregation for the Zona Sul’s Ashkenazi – or European descended Jews – in Botafogo. I had to dress up in my best clothes and it was embarassing to leave home and make my way through Copacabana’s streets looking like a little gay prince while everybody carried on with their normal lives. The most solemn day of the Jewish calendar was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the community would fast for twenty-four hours and life would orbit around divine forgiveness. While the grownups stayed inside the synagogue feeling increasingly hungry, undergoing a marathon-session of prayers and wrestling with their guilt, my friends and I stayed outside, the whole day long, trying to chase away the boredom.

ARI

The A.R.I. Synagogue

Yom Kippur was not the only the holiday that we observed. Earlier in the year, there was the much more fun Passover dinner. We would receive guests in our home, or would be invited to spend the evening with friends. In that ceremonial evening, among prayers, we shared the table eating ritual food, drinking wine, and reminding ourselves of all the miracles that God had performed when he helped Moses to take us out of evil “Pharaoh-land”. For the next ten days, we could not eat leavened bread, but only matzos – slightly annoying perhaps, but we saw it as a heavenly chore and felt guilty if we did not follow it.

In reality, the only miracle that observing those holidays ever achieved was the one of making us feel Jewish. Religious rituals, however, were not the only aspect linking us to the rest of the nation – there was also our proximity to the State of Israel, and of course our support to the people who had settled there. The world had taught Dad’s generation that whatever you personally believed in, or whatever you were like as an individual, was irrelevant when people hated you for the mark of your heritage and then, with the blessing of the state, threw you and your family into a gas chamber. For that generation, a Jewish homeland was the only way to guarantee the nation’s survival and the fact the Jews had returned to the Biblical lands was nothing short of a miracle.

After the horrors of the Holocaust and the initial anguished possibility that Israel’s neighbours would throw the Jewish population into the sea in the war that followed the United Nations acceptance of Israel as an independent state came the military triumphs. The transformation from victims to victors swept across the entire Jewish world like a fever. Our home was no exception. Our circles considered even the very mention of the Palestinians as a form of treason. Although most people in our closest circles encouraged me to take part in that Jewish nationalist carnival, there was a part of me which did not buy that enthusiasm. Throughout the Holy Land’s history, there were few people involved in its numerous conflicts who understood that stability and security required mutual understanding and that the impossible idea of complete possession of that land implied often-monstrous solutions. As the situation became unbearable for the Palestinians, they resorted to desperate actions that only confirmed the prejudices against them. There was something missing in the way both sides approached the Middle East conflict: no one spoke of peace and reconciliation, but only about survival and revenge, and with this kind of mind-set, those animosities would surely never end.

Because of one my best friends, Uri, I had a clear view of what Israel was about. He had moved there from Rio de Janeiro at the age of ten. We were like family. Uri’s dad, Ossi, was Paulo’s brother-in-law and worked with my dad. He had served the Israeli army in the war of independence and had a charismatic Humphrey Bogart-like character, with a French edge to him, as France was the place where he grew up. His relaxed airs, his strong build and his dry sense of humour made him a great success with women. He had split up with his Israeli wife, a beautiful former actress, and she returned to Israel with the kids.

Uri and his younger brother did not want to go. I also did not want them to leave but at least our friendship survived, as they would spend every summer in Rio to stay with their Dad. They opened my eyes to how stifling and tough life was in the “Promised Land” and to how lucky I was for growing up in Copacabana. The interesting thing about the way these two – now Israeli – friends saw the ever-present conflict was that they actually viewed the Palestinians as human beings. In contrast, Dad’s friends – who would never need to face an armed enemy in a battlefield – held much more prejudiced and hawkish opinions. I saw in Uri and his brother a healthier way of being Jewish, free from the worries about what the claustrophobic and neurotic Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro expected of me, and not allowing anti-Semitism to mold my character.

*

As is the case with any Jewish boy, when I reached thirteen the time for Bar Mitzvah arrived and with this the necessity to find me a teacher. The first choice was our synagogue’s main singer, the chasan Aaronson, an imposing man with a powerful voice. When he flowed out loud the prayers in his strong Yiddish accent, Aaronson was feverish, swaying his body and contorting his mouth. Somehow, the spit that sprayed out of him managed to wet his thick glasses and to make his act seem even more impressive. The problem was that Aaronson’s classes were too expensive so we opted for our second choice: a short and plump cantor in his sixties who also wore thick glasses but who had less dramatic garments, a meeker style and who brought disapproval upon himself for his habit of dozing-off in front of the congregation at major events.

In the beginning, I was fascinated. The part of the Torah I was going to recite was about the sabbatical year, something I have always regarded as a brilliant utopic idea which, if adopted, would reset the world on a correct course. It stated that every seventh year, all Israelites – as well as their land and their servants – were to rest for an entire year. At the end of 49 years (that is following seven sabbaticals), whoever had bought land in that period should return the property to the original holders so that, in the end, no one got disproportionately rich or poor.

My teacher’s mission was to show me how to sing in Hebrew the part destiny had assigned me in front of the congregation. He gave classes in a stuffy, old-smelling room in his far-away flat. During the lessons, we went over and over the chosen text, sitting on uncomfortable chairs while leaning on an old wooden table that supported piles of religious books. After one month, the classes started to get boring and I struggled to stay awake every time those pages in Hebrew were in front of me. One day, completely out of the blue, I felt, – and then saw – my mentor’s fat hand creeping up my thigh and landing on my thirteen year old “shlong”. He continued reading the book and acting as if nothing was happening. Although it was only a squeeze, I was shocked beyond words.

When I told my parents what had happened at the rabbi’s house and asked not to have classes with him anymore, they took my “story” as being just another excuse. Anyway as we were close to completing my preparation, according to the way the synagogue had designed the course, the lessons at the rabbi’s home ceased and the next stage were the final rehearsals at the shul. With this, in one go, I was rid of the excruciatingly boring classes and of the fiddling. Nevertheless, my respect for organized religion had been shattered.

Something else helped to lead my heart astray. On the day before my Bar Mitzvah, I received a surprise call. Ruth, a girl who I had met in a Machaneh in São Paulo phoned to say that she was in Rio especially for the occasion. Overwhelmed by the news, I invited her out to play mini-golf by the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and then to see a movie – the Day of the Jackal – in a nearby cinema. She was pretty and we fancied each other but there was too much shyness in the air for anything to happen. Nevertheless, I was over the moon for coming so close to having a girlfriend.

When I got back home, instead of Mum congratulating me for my first romantic exploit, she fired a hysterical battery of screams at me for being late and for not taking the Bar Mitzvah seriously. Furious, I replied that I did not give a damn about that circus. Nonetheless, as tradition demands, we went to the synagogue for the Friday night service and the next morning I was there for the big day. The synagogue was full of familiar faces, and I was so nervous that I developed an eye twitch that lasted for weeks. When the big moment came, the young rabbi from New York, with red hair, a moustache and round glasses – very similar to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons – called me to read the Holy Book and to hear a sermon in which, among other superfluous things, he said that I liked rock ‘n’ roll and surfing.

Had I been an orthodox Jew, from that moment on I would be responsible for my acts in terms of divine punishments and rewards, and my Bar Mitzvah would have been a rite of passage. Instead, the whole event ended up being about performing an irrational duty and an excuse to receive expensive presents. After everything was over, I had passed into a new stage in life but not as expected: my hair was growing long, my body and my voice were changing and my hormones were kicking in.

My initiation into manhood had happened at the beach catching big waves and at the Machanehs where I proved that I could be tough. To me, synagogue represented an old folks’ social gathering designed to forge business contacts under the pretence of being pious while listening to prayers in an incomprehensible language. As far as I was concerned, that theater and teachers pinching my penis did not represent a path to a higher truth.

If the adopted norm for modern Jews was to be atheists, why should I waste my valuable time going to synagogue? If they wanted to use Eastern European traditions and fear to keep me inside a fence, this would not work in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1970s. In addition, employing Zionism to keep the community connected seemed plain ridiculous: if our parents – like most of their friends – had chosen to emigrate to far-off Brazil and hadn’t the guts to fight for Israel, what commitment could they demand of us? With a room full of expensive presents and a new status, I was ready to discover the real world and not the wonders of the Holy Scriptures.

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