Catholic tradition coupled with a desire to see Pope Benedict XVI in the flesh drew thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists to the Italian capital Rome for Easter celebrations this weekend.
For a week in April each year, Easter marks the Christian belief that Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead just more than 2,000 years ago.
Rome is considered the world’s Catholic headquarters. It is where Pope Benedict, head of this Christian denomination, is seated at the decision-making Vatican City.
Pope Benedict started this weekend’s religious rituals with Good Friday evening prayers at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican City.
The 84-year-old German then proceeded to ancient Rome’s Colosseum to participate in the ‘Via Crucis’ or ‘Way of the Cross’ procession which mimics the 14 steps before – and including – the crucifixion.
Pope Benedict is expected to deliver his Easter Mass message at a public gathering today (SUNDAY) at noon in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
Christian pilgrims gathered outside the Colosseum to view the performance of the 12 steps broadcast on large screens on Friday night. They held candles, read holy texts and sang traditional hymns. Vendors sold tourist memorabilia amidst the crowds.
Unlike the early Christians, the pilgrims were not thrown to lions inside the Colosseum built by their Roman Empire tormentors. They gathered for various other reasons.
Sister Sehliselo Khumalo, a nun from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, said that she “came here to meet the Pope”. She joined nuns from countries including Mexico and Italy.
“It is the first time that I am here to pray with the Pope. I have been a nun since 1995 and I feel greater faith when I am in Rome,” said Khumalo.
“We have faith in Africa but this is the core of the (Catholic) church. It is spiritual and there is dedication in the Catholic faith where it started in Europe.”
Khumalo made her way to the Colosseum hours before Pope Benedict. She recited prayers with other nuns while they waited for the ‘Way of the Cross’ to start at 9pm.
Ksenia Shaw, a student from Pittsburg, in the United States, held candles under the full moon with her father.
Shaw and her parents travelled to Rome even though they “don’t have a specific church”. She explained that her mother was Catholic and her father Protestant.
“I have already seen the Pope up close. It was a cool experience to see someone famous. I came here out of curiosity. It’s beautiful,” said Shaw.
She was also “surprised to see that all these people came here to see the Pope”.
“I think that if there was no Pope here then a lot of people would not be here. My grandmother wanted to see the Pope as well. She’s in America though.”
Grace Eleperia from Manila, in the Philippines, travelled to Rome with 22 other Catholic pilgrims to “be with the Pope for the Easter celebration”.
“The Pope is the Christ on earth. He represents Christ. To see him is reaffirmation of my faith. This celebration is not complete without him,” said Eleperia.
“It is a bonus to celebrate Easter with the Pope in Rome. There are many from the Philippines who are here. Catholicism is the main religion in our country.”
Etienne Lahaille, from Angers in France, meanwhile said that he travelled to Rome with his family as he wanted to “learn about the church”. Before heading to the Colosseum he attended an Easter gathering of 60 French expatriates in Rome.
“I am with my father, mother and sister for this holy week. Rome is the heart of the Catholic Church. We all come here because we want to be with the Pope,” said Lahaille.
Roman citizen Paolo Cecchini said that he wished only that “people are here for spiritual reasons too”.
“Spirituality is an individual experience. We know that there are a lot of tourists and some people are here just to see the Pope. But it is more important than that for Catholics to be here,” he said.
Writing a sentence that included the words “taxi boss” set Cape Town-based novelist Imraan Coovadia on a three-and-a-half year process to produce his latest book.
‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’ is the fourth published novel by the award-winning writer whose full-time job entails teaching creative writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Between the covers of his latest effort he has imagined a world where minibus taxies are filled with poets who document in words the lives of the working class.
Coovadia agrees to meet at Wembley Square in Gardens for a Friday afternoon interview about ‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’.
“I just read the first page of your novel while in a (minibus) taxi to town. My car is being fixed,” were my opening words of the interview.
“Okay. That’s what we have in common (broken cars). Please put that you read the book in a taxi in your interview,” he requests.
Coovadia says the book started with a sentence and could possibly have been a film.
“Most books just come by accident. I wrote a sentence about a taxi boss. Once I had written the words ‘taxi boss’ I just liked the sound of it. From there the idea of taxi poetry seemed interesting,” says Coovadia.
At first glance, the concept sounds like fertile ground for poverty porn. That’s the sort of treatment that films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ would impose on poverty.
It entails romanticising the setting via exploiting the poor and even making light of poverty. Middle class audiences particularly fall in love with poverty porn characters simply because they are so well-meaning and – ag, shame – so devastatingly poor. That’s probably a bit beside the point.
Coovadia though thinks that the world of minibus taxies “probably deserves to be romanticised”. He believes that the much-hated informal public transport vehicles, which resemble sardine cans with squashed up occupants, have long been neglected.
“Romanticising things can be a good thing and problematic. Don’t they (minibus taxi fraternity) need some romanticising?” he asks.
“With most South African fiction, you don’t see the working class experience. You don’t see whole parts of the city. You don’t see suffering. There is this whole field of existence that is ignored. There is all this life around us and so little makes it into our books,” says Coovadia.
“There are lots of books about writers and universities and it’s boring. We notice middle class people having a crisis of conscience. Too much of our (South African) writing is boring.”
So Coovadia spent “many days working from morning to night” to create a world where minibus taxi poets work for various taxi associations. They travel on different taxies and talk about the experience. They are also part of a newly-established university institute that aims to “teach taxi poets to write taxi poetry better”.
“The idea is that taxi companies have their own resident poet travelling around in minibuses and recording what happens and making poetry out of it. To professionalise it, the university has set up an institute to teach poetry,” elaborates Coovadia.
In this novel’s setting, the taxi poet is a separate entity. He stands apart from the taxi driver and the ‘guardjie’. The latter are the persons who collect cash from passengers and are sometimes referred to in more posh-slash-pretentious terms as ‘taxi fare collectors’. Coovadia names them “sliding door men”.
When Coovadia talks about the ideas that drive his story, one senses that his latest novel leans on his teaching job for inspiration. He teaches writing at a university and he has created an institute that focuses on teaching a writing form. Does he perhaps imagine his students to be taxi ‘gaurdjies’ or are they taxi poets?
“Academic environments are always very complicated. I’m interested in how the arts and imagination fits into what is essentially a bureaucracy. It’s very high school,” he reflects on higher learning institutions.
“But this book is about the subject of poetics. I thought it would be an interesting comparison of one (writing) genre versus another. It is about what makes a piece of language striking or beautiful. As a writer you think about the sentence, paragraph, chapters and whole novels.
“Explaining it is like being a musician. You can have a philosophy of your music but the only way to show it is by playing a sample.”
While “teaching isn’t painful but I’m not sure no-one enjoys it either”, Coovadia finds himself tied to writing in a way that most would not have the patience for. He says that he wrote the opening sequence – a death scene and funeral – “dozens and dozens of times”.
“I tried out dozens of different versions. You use different verbs, fewer adjectives and punctuation to get the tone of the book right,” he continues.
“Part of our job as writers is just to be slow and make sure that everything is as good as you can have it before anybody looks at it. You only have so many books that you can write and you want each one to be individualised and structurally sound. To do that takes time.”
Coovadia, who speaks English and “supposedly Afrikaans”, wrote and then “borrowed” some of the short poetry snippets in his book.
The few poems are all in English but are set in a Cape Town minibus taxi context that thrives in a strongly expressive Afrikaans. Or, one should say, ‘Afrikaaps’, which is the term for the creative version of Afrikaans that the Cape Town coloured community lives with.
The language usage is perhaps as a result of Coovadia being from “a strange place” called Durban. He moved to Cape Town six years ago to start teaching at UCT. And he admits that he is “not sure that I know Cape Town that well”. He uses this to his advantage in his writing.
“Sometimes if you are not from Cape Town you are a little freer to imagine it without knowing who you are in the scheme of things. That’s useful.”
“I don’t know that much about the taxi industry either. A lot of it (in the book) is invented and imagined.”
And although Coovadia “likes buses”, he is fascinated with what he does know about the minibus taxi world; “how taxi associations control territory”. The thought of being a taxi driver enters the conversation. The appeal vanishes.
“I would have made more money if I had spent this number of hours driving a taxi (instead of writing the novel). On the other hand, I don’t like driving.”
Book launches for ‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’ will be held at the Book Lounge, Roeland Street, on April 17, and at Kalk Bay Books on April 24.
A book launch is also scheduled for Durban this month when Coovadia also speaks about this novel at a gathering in Michigan.
It was almost ten years ago when David Briggs, an American journalist who reports on religion, wanted to start a worldwide association that supported media professionals who focused on faith.
Earlier this month his dream came true when journalists from 23 countries – one from each country – met in Bellagio, Italy, to launch the International Association for Religion Journalists (IARJ). Briggs was elected its executive director to serve alongside a multi-national eight-member steering committee of journalists.
The IARJ treads into largely unchartered territory as journalists who write about religion are a rare breed. If one walked into almost any newspaper’s office worldwide and asked to meet the religion reporter you would very likely be frowned at.
Briggs however has made a career out of reporting on religion for the last 20 years. He has served as a board member and president of the US-based Religion Newswriter’s Association over the last ten years. He has also been nominated several times for the prestigious Pulitzer award for his writings.
Briggs teamed up with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) in Washington DC, in the United States, and led plans to launch the IARJ. He met with a network of journalists sourced via online and face-to-face meetings and workshops on religion reporting for four days in Bellagio to launch the IAJR.
“I have been working on this for ten years. It’s a dream to see it come to fruition,” said Briggs when the gathering closed.
He said also that cross-border reporting on religion could be improved via the IARJ.
“We are living in a global society and our understanding internationally of religion is weak. With the association, journalists now have contacts in various countries and can work together,” said Briggs.
Maria-Paz López from Barcelona, Spain, was elected chairperson of the IARJ. She has reported on religion for 12 years for La Vanguardia newspaper. Six of these years were spent reporting on the Catholic headquarters in Italy’s Vatican City.
López explained that the IARJ was not intended to promote religions but instead foster better journalism about religion.
“I have seen many alleged religion reporters who do not respect the journalism profession. There are journalists who advocate for religion and not journalism. This association needs to change this and give credibility to religion reporting,” said López.
“Whoever is advocating for a religion, that’s respectful, but that’s not journalism. This association stands for the sake of journalism.”
During her work, López has come to know first hand that “religion is relevant to news; it is a source of conflict”.
“That is why there is a need to cultivate ethical religion reporting internationally,” she said.
Journalists from countries with conflicts shared their experiences at the meeting. Among them was Salman Andary from Beirut, Lebanon, where sectarian violence has led to bloodshed over the years.
“This association is more than important. We have communities that don’t understand each other. Lebanon is a country with diverse communities. We have religious broadcasters and newspapers and they should increase dialogue and respect between communities,” said Andary.
Andary is also a blogger and said that digital media practitioners – with their instant publication ability and wide reach – should be wooed to sign up with the IARJ.
“The role of bloggers is big. We have seen this with the Arab uprising. Bloggers are important where the media is unable to report on governments or events. We need to work with influential bloggers especially,” he said.
Indeewari Dona, from the Western Province of Sri Lanka, is a TV anchor and journalist who has seen “so many journalists who promote their own religion”. Sri Lanka has endured ethic battles for decades.
“There is a certain group of journalists that promote their own religion and discriminate against others. Journalists need to understand that promoting their religion is not professional journalism. It means that you are a religious reporter,” reflected Dona at the IARJ launch.
Patrick Butler, vice-president of programmes at the ICFJ, said they would support the IARJ for at least a year before it stands on its own feet. The ICFJ is a non-governmental organisation started 27 years ago to enhance the journalism profession.
Butler said it wanted to launch the IARJ because “there has been no such international association”.
“Religion has always been important but it has not gotten the media attention that it needs. Journalists mostly focus on religious conflict. That’s important. But they should also write stories that help people understand religion and faith better,” said Butler.
“In many countries there are violent clashes between people of different religions and faiths. The media has played a role in this with bad reporting. Some media have been affiliated with one side of the conflict.”
Butler said that journalists could choose to “encourage someone to attack or understand another faith”.
“Religion is difficult to cover because it’s controversial and sensitive. In some parts of the world journalists don’t want to cover it because it can cause tension. But we believe that it can also relieve tension. It can help people understand different faiths,” he said.
“We want to help journalists around the world better cover a topic that is essential to the lives of billions of people but is also fraught with controversy and conflict.”