Warsaw, capital of the ‘vanishing country’


The Warrior Mermeaid of Warsaw at the historical centre of the city

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, is a city that has seen many wars and has earned the name “The Phoenix city”, having risen from the ashes of so many invasions. The legend goes that it was founded by a hunter who discovered a mermaid in the Vistula River and fell in love with her. Because she could not leave the river, the hunter settled by the shores and from there, the city sprouted, straddling the Vistula, its name an amalgam of the name of the hunter and his mermaid, Warszawa (pronounced ([varˈʂava] in Polish).


Tourists appreciating the statue of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski at the entrance of Lazienki Park


A section of the historical centre of Warsaw, with the Royal Palace on the right

Today, the mermaid makes her appearance as the city’s symbol, on its coat of arms and in statues and reliefs, bearing a shield and a sword. Creative, yes. But the legend of the warrior mermaid protecting this city has not kept away Poland’s more powerful neighbours from sweeping into the country, almost at will.
Speaking to a friend about an invasion of Poland, she asked, “Which of the invasions because everyone has invaded Poland?”
True, Poland’s history is replete with war and invasions by every major power in Europe. After four major partitions, Poland as a country seems to vanish, (at one time for over a century) and reappear on the world map indiscriminately, thanks to the people of that country, who always pull it back from the brink of extinction.
Warsaw in the autumn is a charming city, with the yellowing foliage casting it in subtle glow. Especially at the Lazienki Park, Poland’s largest. It covers some 76 hectares of the capital and was designed in the 17th century.
It is here, among the trees and glades, that some key moments of the city’s, and the country’s history, played out. It was here that the last Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski reigned, loved and lost his kingdom, resulting in the 3rd partition of Poland among several European powers in 1795. And for a century thereafter, Poland disappeared from the map.
At the entrance to the park stands the towering statue of a fierce looking Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, with shaggy brows and thick moustache. He is the man credited with the founding of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 on the heels of WW1, reclaiming the country’s place on the map for the first time since 1795. He marshalled the Poles to defeat Soviet troops in 1920 to reaffirm the country’s independence.
The statue was commissioned only recently as Pilsudski had been obliterated from Polish history after the country fell under the control of the Soviet’s at the end of WWII. The Soviet’s finally found a way to get back at the man who had routed their armies and halted the march of communism into Western Europe. His name was only whispered while Poland was locked in the grip of communism, until 1989.
But Pilsudski’s fierce looks should on no account be held as a standard. The Poles are mostly kind, soft-spoken people, who have the misfortune of being surrounded by powerful, ambitious countries.
Despite its many wars, the most famous Pole ever, and one reckoned as the greatest, is not a military hero but a priest – a certain Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who the world knows as Pope John Paul II. And like him, most Poles are amiable people committed to the quieter things in life.
Inside the park, the Frederic Chopin monument is located in prime spot. Chopin, Poland’s next most famous son, is depicted sitting under a willow tree with a melancholic expression, as if weighed down by the enormous talent that had defined his life and death (he was ill most of his life), and by extension, the burden of existence his country has had to deal with. The famous composer died in Paris just aged 39 but his memory and music live on. At strategic locations in the park, and in Warsaw, there are benches that play some of Chopin’s composition at the push of a button. He is that highly regarded in a country he left at 21.
Further in, there are palaces, built mostly in the 17th century, combining architectural styles from various backgrounds, the result being some aesthetically pleasing structures in a serene park like the impressive Palace on the Water, the home of the last Polish King. Amidst the temples and orangeries and the little White House, whose walls are privy to some royal romance, there is an officer’s cadet’s barrack, where one of the many uprisings that dot Polish history began. The Poles are famous for many uprisings, something they are proud of, even if most of them were not successful. But considering the many armies that have invaded Poland, and the many uprisings of the Poles, the people are very warm and friendly.
And with such a people, you wonder why anyone would want to wipe them clean off the face of the world. Yet, that was precisely what Hitler wanted to do. If he had succeeded, the Warsaw I saw, hemmed by autumn leaves and warm, smiling people, would not have been there. It would have been replaced by a settlement for some 10, 000 Germans. With this agenda in mind the Nazis rolled their tanks into Poland and started WWII. Attacked simultaneously by the Nazi’s on one side, and the Soviets on the other, Poland was doomed. And during the 1944 Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation, 85 per cent of the city was destroyed and some 60 per cent of the population (800, 000 people) was killed. Poland was, during the war, a Nazi incinerator of some sort. The Warsaw Ghettos were set up to house the Polish Jews, many of whom were moved to the concentration camps elsewhere in Poland, the most infamous being Auschwitz, in the South of the country.
And if there is an enduring legacy of loathing the Poles have for the Germans, it is for these reasons. One Pole I spoke to said her grandfather hid in the forest for four years during the war, and she was carrying on his grudge for him.
With the war eventually over and most of Warsaw and Poland lying in ruins and left at the mercies of the Soviets, the Poles decided to rebuild their country, brick by brick. Well, where that was possible. The historic centre of Warsaw was rebuilt down to the smallest detail from some 30 paintings by Italian artists Bernardo Bellotto commissioned to paint the city in 1764 by the last Polish King. That part of the city is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Walking down the cobbled streets of the historical centre, there is an old man playing a wind instrument on the sidewalk, acknowledging dropped coins with a smile and a nod. His melody is infinitely sad, even when he attempts to play a happy tune, as if trying to recapture something that was lost, something that the wind had shattered and dissipated.
Despite the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of ordinary Varsovians, who dedicated endless hours to rebuild their city, despite the amazing work, the overwhelming feeling for me was that of something irretrievably lost. The Royal Palace at the centre of the historic city and even the cornices tried to remain faithful to the originals; it looked as picturesque as Signor Bellotto’s paintings, complete with the grand red brick Royal Palace, the quaint little houses in the corner, the market square. Copies of the paintings are showcased down the street for visitors to see and appreciate. It was a lesson in quiet perseverance.
But further away from the historical centre, the architecture is a fusion of sorts, a result of the different influences that were brought to the post-war reconstructions. Many migrant workers came with their ideas of architecture, and there were those who desired the construction of a totally modern city while others pinned for a restoration of the original. And of course there were the overlords, the Soviets, who imposed their socialist realisms in the architecture, putting up giant grey structures that celebrated the working class people. The most impressive of these buildings and the biggest structure in the whole of Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science, a “gift of the people of the Soviet Union to the people of Poland”. Completed in 1955, it remains the tallest building in the capital, (and the 6th tallest in the European Union) embellished with statues, carvings and reliefs of working class people in all their glory. After the collapse of communism in 1989, the fate of the impressive structure was debated. Some people wanted what would remain for them a symbol of communism torn down. Others prefer to keep it. Now it is visible from all parts of Warsaw and at nights, it glows in a dreamy lilac light. I understand the light theme is changed every year.
It is also a major tourist destination as visitors get to take in the whole of Warsaw from the huge windows of the top floor while enjoying the showcase of scientific and cultural exhibits that fill the other floors.
From its window’s one can see the impressive greenery of Warsaw, the lush lawns and colourful hedges that line the streets as well as the ambitious skyscrapers creeping heavenwards, one of them poised to replace the Palace of Culture as the country’s tallest building. It is a massive, massive structure.
But all around it, the ambience of Warsaw is changing, from an impoverished communist country to a nation eagerly bursting into capitalism, with glamour shops lining the streets.
In Poland, one can’t complain about the cuisine; the food is filling and the variety impressive. But for an African visiting Warsaw, a visit is incomplete without stopping by at La Mama, a Nigerian restaurant, broadly tagged an “African restaurant” that serves typically Nigerian food, from Amala to pounded yam and a range of soups from Okra, oha or egusi soup, or even the famed pepper soup. Don’t be surprised though if there are more Poles than Africans at La Mama, enjoying the meals and nodding to the beats of Fela or some contemporary Nigerian musicians seeping out of the speakers.
They will smile and talk to you, the wonderful people of Poland, whether at restaurants or one of the numerous arts exhibition in Warsaw during the autumn, for which they have so much appreciation, and you will wonder where the resilience and indomitable spirit comes from. How can a people go through all the Poles have gone through and remain so nice?
Perhaps it is the charm of the mermaid or just the realisation that the most beautiful thing about Poland is its people.


I won’t stop writing reviews because someone glowered at me – Ikhide Ikheloa

Few book reviewers have captivated the attention of writers and book lovers like Ikhide R. Ikheloa who used to write for the now rested Next Newspaper from his base in the US has done. He is a way cooler person in real life than his online persona. In this interview I had with him (first published in Sunday Trust newspaper, January 12, 2014) he talked about harsh responses to some of his reviews, why he lives on the Internet and his thoughts about writing and literature on the continent. It’s vintage Ikhide!



Ikhide Ikheloa

You have always denied that you are a critic, yet by omission or by design, you are now one of the most influential book reviewers around. How did this happen?

I do find it amusing, a bit exasperating that people mostly see me as a literary critic. I write non-stop and have been published in books, journals and in every space that harbours words. My nightmare is coming to fruition – that my epitaph will describe me as that man who had opinions of other people’s works. I am not a literary critic in the academic sense; I simply read books and offer my mostly unsolicited opinions about what I have read. I am not so much influential as I seem to be everywhere using social media and my blog to give an urgency and immediacy to my anxieties. Hardly a day passes by when I don’t have something to say on Twitter or Facebook. I think of something and I say it. I must say, every now and then I go back to read my tweets and Facebook rants, many are quite simply silly and cringe-worthy. Maybe that is why I am “influential”, you know, “that grumpy old man that always has something to say.” I am not old.

Let’s just pretend you are not and leave it there. You have often said people take you a lot more seriously than you take yourself. How is this so?

It is a personal observation, an amusing one also, about how disconnected I feel from how people perceive me. My opinions seem to have an effect on people beyond how I ever imagined they would. One gets the sense that these are visceral emotions that my views evoke that span a wide spectrum of extremes, giddiness (at say a positive review) to extreme loathing. My sense is that a few writers have strained hard not to cause me bodily harm whenever I am in their presence.  I find it amusing really, and those who follow me on social media know that I joke around about it. Here is a recent piece where I published verbatim some writer’s violent feedback upon receiving my review of his book. He called me a conceited ignoramus. I am not conceited.

Regardless of this, does it surprise you how much you are liked by writers and book lovers despite your provocative reviews?

Yes. I am not the easiest person to be with. I imagine you writers and book lovers are sadomasochistic, revelling in unnecessary pain. After all to hear some of my rabid critics describe me, I am an obnoxious, patronizing, condescending, judgmental jerk of a headmaster, an all knowing wanna-be reviewer out with a red pen, looking for gotcha errors. Seriously, I am probably the most playful of a group of reader-writers that thrive on instant feedback with an audience, revelling in the call and response that the Internet offers. I am thinking of folks like Chika Unigwe, Obiwu, Victor Ehikhamenor, Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, Chuma Nwokolo, Molara Wood, etc. etc. folks who are sold on a vision of the Internet spreading the word seamlessly in song.

But of course you have had caustic reactions from some writers because of your reviews, such as the one mentioned earlier. One incident that readily comes to mind is the exchange between you and Chioma Okereke when you reviewed her novel Bitter Leaf. How do such exchanges affect you, do they make you want to just stop writing reviews?

Overall, I have been treated very well, but I continue to have caustic relations with some writers. I find the reactions to my opinions amusing and every now and then I write a self-deprecatory piece about it (Ikhide the Terrible (Book critic)). As I often say, no one lives rent-free in my head. I say my stuff and let people knock their heads on trees of steel. I do love Chioma Okereke’s mind, she reminds me so much of Taiye Selasi. Bitter Leaf was brainy and different, just like Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. In the end, I just didn’t think the book was a successful outing. Okereke was unhappy about my comments and she let me have it. I understand her position, anyone that criticizes my child is in for war, a book is like a child. I doubt that I will ever stop writing reviews simply because someone yelled or glowered at me. I haven’t in terms of reviews lately because I have been preoccupied with treating my space on social media as an open book, with folks reading it – for free. I have also been busy with my own work. As you know, I do a lot of creative non-fiction. I will be back to offering my unsolicited opinions about writers and their works. Soon.

Have you ever felt, in retrospect now, that perhaps you have been too harsh in some of your reviews, for instance, your piece on Akachi Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets readily comes to mind in this instance?

No. The feeling is not mutual, the targeted writers would say. I understand.

You had a wonderful time at the Ake Arts and Book Festival recently. But beyond the fun and famzing, what was the most important thing you took away from the festival?

The most important thing I took away from the festival? Yes. I got a free SIM card for my phone, that was just awesome. Beyond that, outside of the Internet, the Ake Arts and Book Festival (AABF) was the most comprehensive and important gathering of African writers and patrons to be held on African soil in contemporary times. We were all in this space, in this village, there was not much else to do but to talk to each other. We did a lot and created lasting networks and friendships. The gathering confirmed for me the power of the Internet in harnessing all our resources for the greater good of our stories. I came away from that meeting pumped up and excited about the possibilities out there.

You have, by and large, been credited with the evolution of the term “poverty porn” in literature. To what extent do you take responsibility for this and seeing that the term has been at the centre of recent debates on literature from the continent, do you mind sharing your thoughts on it?

“Here lies Ikhide R. Ikheloa. He discovered poverty porn.” My epitaph.  I don’t think so. Before me, many people, most notably Binyavanga Wainaina and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had become disenchanted with the single story that was turning the label ”Africa” into a pejorative of sorts.  Adichie has her seminal video, The Power of a Single Story, Wainaina has his epic How to Write About Africa. Much of the angst was directed at Western journalists and writers who tended to see Africa as the continent of disease, poverty and mayhem. I sought to interrogate that analysis by insisting that African writers needed to own their share of responsibility in churning out stories that spoke only to what the West wanted to read. This I attempted with a series of essays: The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa, The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences, In Search of the African Writer, and Of African Writers and their Uncles. At the time, I was troubled by what I saw as a narrowness of range and lack of depth to the stories. I felt that these single stories now known as poverty porn were defining us in the most perverse of ways, and worse still, our writers were not taking responsibility for how the West viewed our continent. I do see hope, the Internet now allows us to read literature beyond just books. Many African writers are using the Internet as the publisher of choice and really celebrating and documenting the sum total of our existence. I spend infinitely more time on the Internet than on books. Our stories are there as well as in the books. And the West is beginning to take note. My point? You cannot define Africa simply by what many of our writers put on paper. Read the Internet. I am happy.

Is there African literature? I ask this because of Taiye Selasie’s recent pronouncements that the term should not exist because there is no body of literature known as European literature and knowing how taken you are by her and her work, I thought it would be interesting to know your thoughts on this.

Yes. There is African literature. So what? I admire Taiye Selasi. She is in my view a courageous and forthright thinker. Many people that I respect have very principled and well-thought out views in opposition to her world view, sadly they are in the minority. For the most part, her views are opposed by a tribe of lazy people who are united by the appalling fact that they are yet to read a single sentence she has written. I am a fair man; I am offering people a chance to read her starting with her seminal essay, Bye-Bye Barbar. People should read past the title of her essay, African Literature Doesn’t Exist before killing trees in reams of hyperventilation. Her arguments are more nuanced and complex than the latter-day opponents are willing to admit. We really owe her a debt of gratitude, she is saying what ought to be obvious, in the 21st century, look beyond mere physical boundaries and think of the infinite possibilities before you. May her tribe increase. Maybe with her type, we might end up getting to the moon unassisted. She thinks out of the poverty porn box that many African writers have put themselves in. It is not her problem. And yes, I love Taiye Selasi. Please watch this fun video clip of Taiye Selasi holding forth on being an Afropolitan, on identity, the writing process, etc. and tell me why you would not be taken by her. Your body na stone? She is impressive. Period. And please, do not die until you have read her book, Ghana Must Go. That would be so wrong.

At Ake, you moderated a panel on new Nigerian writing where you were doing all the asking. Now since we are free from that panel and the tables have turned, what are your thoughts on new Nigerian writing?

In one word: Wow. Yep, wow! I love what this generation is doing with social media, blogs and so on.  I am hoping that history will be kind to this generation, it is easily the most innovative generation when it comes to writing. When you adjust for the child abuse that passes for public education in Nigeria, add a buffoonish government, many contemporary Nigerian writers are certified geniuses – and lunatics. I think it is the height of injustice to judge Nigerian writing based on books, no, this generation is bigger than that.  I stay on Twitter and Facebook and on those blogs and literary journals reading you guys non-stop. I would start mentioning names, but I would omit some and that would upset me, but to be in Abeokuta with all these writers I’d only met on the Internet, kai, it was like I died and went to literary heaven. So, yes, there is a quiet revolution going on with respect to the literature of Nigeria. We are talking of an era that spans generations. We are seeing technology forcibly rewriting how we see our world.  This is not to say all is rosy, the Internet has surely democratized the reading and writing culture, it has also introduced dysfunctions. There is a lot of literary noise and it takes patience and a certain skill to navigate the noise. We need good editors, we need a robust publishing industry and I worry that there is too much focus on winning prizes.

I suppose the internet is very important to you since it has helped you stay in touch and engage in real time with developments in your country. What would your life be like without internet for a week?

A week without the Internet? I would be dead, I would not last a week. The Internet is oxygen. Without it there is no life. Next question please.

Ok. You have always advocated that ebooks are the future. How soon do you think the apocalypse will come for books in the traditional sense?

The (hard copy) book as the primary medium of the written word is dead. No, let me be generous, it is dying a long slow death. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in great denial. Ideas live as I often remind folks, the medium changes. It is not open to debate; it is the hard cold truth. If you don’t believe me, keep writing books that no one reads.

Not many people know that you are actually a biochemist by training. How exactly did you become a book buff?

The question should be, “How exactly did you come to study biochemistry?” It is a long story, but I survived it.  I have always read, it was what you did as a child, there was not much else to do.  These days, it is more challenging; the book is competing rather poorly with other forms of media and entertainment.  I studied Biochemistry because my father wanted me to become a medical doctor. Many people should be grateful that I did not end up being a doctor, I could have hurt them. I was not wired to be a doctor. I don’t regret the path I took, I ended up being a generalist of sorts, I have a regular job that pays the bills and gives me the independence to sound off on any and everything. It could be worse, Abubakar, hell, I could be a dreamy-eyed destitute writer like you, hoping to win the Nobel Prize each year. Instead, I live a life of lush mediocrity and whenever I am bored, I say something that is bound to infuriate some destitute dreamy-eyed African writer somewhere. It is a great life.

And there are many of us, aren’t there, destitute dreamy-eyed writers whose books you have to read? And I know it takes a lot to read all these books and engage in all these endless debates and write your opinion. How do you find the energy for it?

I am a driven person. I am driven to read and to write, by what I think is a mysterious force, let’s call it the god of lunacy. I also have an incredibly forgiving family,  pretty forgiving of the fact that my head is in the clouds most of the time. I find time. I am not a physical person, I live pretty much in my head and I find time to express what is in my head. It is no big deal for me to start writing on my smartphone at my son’s football game. I am there. He is happy. I am writing. I am happy. It is a win-win situation for everybody.

You have said severally that you were seduced to go to America by a photo of a friend posing by a grand car, which you later discovered was never his. There is a lot of writing now about the immigrant experience, do you mind sharing some of your experiences with us?

(Laughs) Actually, if you view my Twitter and Facebook accounts as open books, then you would agree that almost daily I share the sum total of my experience on their pages for the reading pleasure of many. In addition, I have shared my experiences over and over again on my blog, in literary journals. Here are a few samples: I love: Our America,  Lost in America – Coming to America, Life in America: Cow Foot by Candle Light, Notes from my Middle Passage, For Fearless Fang: A Boy and his Pets, and Life in America: Cowfoot nor be cornbeef. Shameless self-promotion: The easiest thing to do is to simply join my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter (@ikhide).