Jan 2016 - Sep 2017
I have said here, in this blog, that our cohort “bumps up against each other” every 5th week for one week. Please allow me to try to include you in this adventure – at least as best I can with written words.
Last night was Friday night, the last night together. I sat at a roof top pub table, knee to knee with a Ukrainian, a Russian, and a Turk all leaning in to hear each other over the noise around us. We sat from sunset until 1:00 this morning- there were early morning planes we needed to be on. It sounds like the start of a joke, ‘A Russian, a Turk, a Ukrainian, and a Canadian walked into a bar to have a drink’, until I add the names of the players and the lands we we were discussing: Erdogan, Trump, Putin, Obama, Donetsk, Damascus, Ankara and Azerbaijan. We were seated 4 stories up on the roof of The Varsity Club. Occasionally, when the weight of the words became heavy, I would look beyond the faces of my friends to stare at the many spires of Oxford’s colleges and churches lit against the blue-black sky full of stars.
Two weeks previous, through our EMBA13 WhatsApp group, we all were wishing another of our Turkish classmates “Happy Birthday!” when he texted back, “I am hearing gun fire and fighter jets are flying over my head.” For the next 6 hours we sat awake feverishly searching the net for first hand accounts and news to feed back to our Turkish classmates – in Turkey lines of communication were blocked and the media had been taken over by the military. A week before the coup attempt Erdogan had apologised to the family of Colonel Oleg Peshkov, the Russian pilot shot down on November 24th by Turkish defence forces. To my friends at the table with me Erdogan’s apology had seemed to be a harbinger, smoke in the distance set against a clear blue sky. And less than 3 weeks after Erdogan’s apology comes this: a military coup d’état against President Erdogan, supreme commander of the second largest army in NATO.
As we talked we sat as close to each other as we possibly could so we could hear each other clearly over the laughter of the students and tourists surrounding our table. The big dipper slowly progressed over our heads as my Turkish friend – friend seems like such an insufficient word now – eloquently revealed the fears and suspicions of his family and friends. The Russian candidly revealed the thoughts of a Russian born into a Soviet land, “I feel that the western world treats Russia only as a potential aggressor and I am afraid that our countries would never be friends again.” The Ukrainian cautiously revealed that Eastern Ukraine will never recover from the ongoing war between Moscow and Kiev, “It will be 30, 50 years before that land is even something like it was.” We thought together about how now, since the coup attempt, these places and events did not seem as distant from each other as they once did. We asked each other: Who? Why? Were these puppets, or the players? This was not a joke my Turkish, Russian, and Ukrainian classmates had found themselves a part of.
I walked my Ukrainian friend to Carfax Tower where the cabs are lined up waiting to take tomorrow’s leaders back to their colleges to sleep it off. I walked towards my college and bumped into a Japanese classmate and a Bulgarian classmate from EMBA13 at a food truck. My Bulgarian friend and I walked North, back to our college. We walked along an insurmountable college wall laid up with rough stones – faced stones are “newer” walls, this wall was more than 300 years old. The college walls were built to separate the “town from gown.” The gowns were perceived as the children of the elite and ruling class, and as such the gowns faced threat of injury, or even death if caught outside these walls during the small hours of the morning. The stones we passed were put one atop the other by the townsmen, but engineered by the gowns to keep the town out.
The day after the Brexit vote an English classmate posted on WhatsApp statistics that revealed it was two groups of British people who largely voted to leave the EU: the sons and daughters of those who built the walls I was walking past, and older people who had been witness to many decades since World War II. The significance of this data is still being puzzled at inside the walls (Peter, the cab driver who drove me to Heathrow this morning seemed to understand the data perfectly well). As I passed wall after wall and all those stones I imagined what the hands and face of the man who had set these particular stones had looked like and wondered what his life must have been like. Inside every college is a chapel. In these chapels engraved in stone are the names of those college members who died in European Wars, many before graduating. It was a warm beautiful night with no wind and stars above. As we walked my Bulgarian friend and I briefly wondered together about those times, and then talked about the difficulty of sleeping while in Oxford when there is so much to think about.
There is no possibility I will ever forget last evening. The bonds we’ve grown make me smile. When we were young we were all separated from each other by an “Iron Curtain.” Now we drank together in the same pub. My fear would be that our countries’ relations deteriorate and somehow we are separated from each other again- but I have even greater fears. After reaching my college I sat in the dark on my bed and thought. I laid down and thought more, and then got out of bed and did something I have not done since India, I kneeled beside my bed and I prayed.
Please pardon my candour and the darker nature of this post, and please allow me one more indulgence – Dickens’ words about another time seem worthy of a reread:
Back to top of article
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”
Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”, 1859