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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, 2010-2011 and 2013-.
Six million at most. That's about the number of speakers the language I'm learning has. Five of those million are in Finland. More people live in 33 of the world's cities than that. The other languages I've learned, French and Chinese, have 21 and 140 times as many speakers. Heck, Chittagonian has three times as many, fifteen million; heard of that one? Downtrodden as they are, there are even more Tibetan speakers than Finns, 7 million by some estimates.
So, a small number. I was quite surprised though to find that nevertheless there exists a "full web" out there of sites made by and for Finns. You want to buy air tickets? Bid on an online auction? Read newspapers? No problem, all of these can be done in Finnish, and not just in translations of English sites like Orbitz or eBay. Somehow even with just a sixtieth the population of native English-speakers Finns are coming up with an entire "alternate web", effectively invisible to the 99.9% of the world that doesn't read Finnish.
But then I stopped to think. Just how many people ARE six million anyway? Well, actually a fair number. Consider the following thought experiment...
How many people make up our entire universe of experience from birth to death? Put another way, how many actors would be needed to fake us into believing we live on Earth, inside some kind of giant Truman show? Let's start with all of our family and friends, and then let's add everyone we've ever interacted with, the checkout girl at the corner store you saw over a period of a few weeks 10 years ago, the stewardess on your first flight to Europe, the bus driver you saw for the first and last time this morning, etc.. Let's add in every actor or politician we've seen on TV, every musician you've listened to, every author of every book you've read, every author of every blog and web comment you've seen.
Think that's anything like six million?
Let's come at it another way. Consider the shortest possible meaningful interaction you could possibly have with someone -- say a few seconds of direct eye contact. Let's say you spend your entire life roaming the streets of Helsinki, making eye contact with everyone you meet. Say 4 people a minute, 8 hours a day (you need to eat and rest). How long until you'd be able to meet all of the Finns?
Well, that would be about 2,000 a day, 700,000 a year. So it'd be a little under 9 years before you met the whole six million. If you lowered your ambitions, gave a bit of time for the only impression of each person you are ever going to have to sink in, gave yourself a full minute before moving to the next one, you'd be up to almost 30 years. And two minutes, enough time to actually have some kind of mad speed-dating conversation with the person, roughly an adult lifetime.
I guess that's a lot of Finns. Maybe enough to create an "alternate web" after all. And more than enough to create an entire reality for any human being for that matter. We'll come back and try to do that Truman show estimate another time.
We read in the Wikipedia article on Mohamed Bouazizi that he quit high school in his late teens. He went to work full-time supporting his siblings, mother, and ill uncle. Selling produce on the streets of Sidi Bouzid in the hinterlands of Tunisia, he managed to keep his family in home and send his sister to university. But all was not smooth, he was said to be regularly "harassed" by police.
It is not clear from the article whether he lacked a required permit for his vending activity, or simply that the police harassed him about one because of other reasons. Perhaps he took on an air of superiority when they reprimanded him for minor infractions and infuriated them. Perhaps his deceased father had insulted one of their membership. Perhaps he refused to pay "protection" money demanded of him in mob-style fashion. Maybe they simply did not like him.
Likewise it is unclear what events transpired on the 17th of December, 2010 that ended up in such a grievous human tragedy. Wikipedia reports, citing such journalistic accounts as it is able to find on the web in the English language, that a female municipal police officer slapped him in the face, confiscated his weighing scales, and overturned his produce cart. Some witnesses state that he was not slapped, but that aides to said police officer held him and beat him. In any case, frustrated and disillusioned, he requested an audience with the mayor to protest this treatment. This request was summarily refused.
Feeling black and empty inside, Mohamed Bouazizi obtained gasoline (or paint thinner, this too is not certain), returned to the street in front of the town hall, and lit himself on fire in a despairing final attempt to protest and communicate the injustice. He was rescued, only to linger in pain for 18 days in hospitals before dying anyway.
It is likely we of the West will never be able to reconstruct a clear view of this young man, his actions, and their causes. We do not have much insight into the life of his kind to begin with -- street fruit vendors do not become the subject of plays, books, or films, nor does the typical westerner know what it is like to work on the streets in a backward town far from any nucleus of civilization. But a nucleus indeed this man's last act became.
It started with a funeral procession, and then local protests in this remote town. Then it spread to envelope the entire country. When problems seem pervasive and insurmountable, the natural instinct is to direct anger towards the top. The 23-year president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to resign and flee the country.
But this was not the end. Many countries in the Arab world have developed slowly and have governments which do not support change and development within themselves either. Bouazizi's death was the symbol that aligned forces that had previously been directed at all angles, canceling each other out. Within another month protests had sprung up in several Arab nations, and Egypt, with a similarly long-ruling president to Tunisia's became the next country to force a change at the top. As this is being written, Bahrain looks to be the next.
It is hard to imagine Bahrain, one of the rich western Gulf countries and a hub for finance and business, in the same breath as Egypt or Libya. But in fact it has a long-standing monarchy like many other Arab nations, and moreover a monarchy with a different religious sect than the majority of the country.
As we write the Bahrain government is reacting to protect itself in bloody fashion -- such a fashion as can only fail in the long run. Bahrain could be the next to have its government changed, and it may well be that several other Arab nations will follow after. It seems that nothing less than democracy will be accepted by the empowered and rising new generation, as it was not in Easter Europe two decades ago. History is happening before our very eyes, but we are unable to fully understand it.
We can see, in a vague sense, how so bold and extreme and utterly despairing an act as Bouazizi's could create emotional energy and enhance the common lines between diveregent views. We intuitively grasp that it can bring people together. But why are these people ready to be brought together now, why has it not occurred before, in any of the decades of similar conditions for millions of people across these nations? Why a negative act like this, and not a positive one, like a rising leader, an inspirational force? And what was it in Bouazizi himself, what was this man's life, what were his thoughts, his emotions, desires? Why did he turn away from his family and his life, from making the best out of it no matter what it was?
As with another Mohammed for that matter -- but more positively inspired -- 1,500 years ago in the Arab desert around Mecca, we will likely never know.
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