Still, one of the joys of travelling is to come away with a pleasant mixture of learning and entertainment, a state of mind rarely attained when you are static, inert or supine to the history, literature and science of other peoples beyond your familiar region.
My first ever journey to Hungary was primarily to concretise a technical collaboration in a unique research frontier that collapses the artificial borders of the arts and the sciences. I went to Pécs, a relatively calm city waiting to be discovered anew, a city that earned the title of cultural capital of Europe some years ago.
Dateline: August 20, 2016. It was the Foundation day of Hungary. In commemorating the day in the city of Pécs (pronounced Pay-ch), it was to the creative blend of tradition and modernity, religion and commerce, art and technology that the people turned to. There was the breaking of the first bread by Zsolt Páva, the Mayor of Pécs, and the catholic priest, in the open grounds of the city’s main cathedral. Prayers were said, but there were no phariseean gnashing of teeth and dark prophecies; only liturgies, prayers, poetry and bread.
The breaking of the ‘first’ bread by the city mayor and the Catholic priest was like a ritual from Chinua Achebe’s traditional African world. Every congregant took a slice of that bread, in communion, with a solemnity that was more social than spiritual. Yet the spirituality of the ritual wasn’t absent, from the tone of the chief priest who prayed for the people and for the nation and who reminded them all that Hungary was first an agrarian society before it became an industrial nation. Thus, the bread is broken in remembrance and in reminder of the history of the people’s industry.
The ‘memory verse’ of the day sounded like a proverb of admonition to industry: ‘many million seeds of wheat make this nation.’ As I took a walk tracing the path of the old city wall, I compose a summary lesson for the day: a people who worship their culture with spiritual eye and scientific devotion will go places.
In the centre of the historical neighbourhood, there are squares and fountains composed with architectural finesse. The life-size image of Weöres Sándor, one of the patron poets of Hungary, sits pensively at the southern edge of Széchenyi tér, the City Square.
Apart from the City Cathedral, there is the symbolic architectural image of Pécs in the unique building which overlooks the city square. In its history, you find a city that had witnessed both Islamic and Christian influences, for it was once a Church, before it became a Mosque, and now standing in majesty as church open for prayers and tourism. The Mosque of Pasha Qasim was a cornerstone of the Ottoman conquest of the 16th and 17th centuries transformed into a Roman Catholic Church, now known as the Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, the local people always refer to it as the Mosque, its outward features being highly marked by aesthetic designs of Arabian art.
Pécs’ claim to medieval greatness is not only in the discovery of archaeological ruins and the stone rock remains of the city walls; its greatest medieval resource is in its history of formal academic work. As Heidelberg is to Germany, Sofia to Bulgaria and Timbuktu to old Mali, so is Pécs to Hungary, the site of the first university in all of eastern and central Europe. The medieval university – Középkori Egyetem – which was established in 1367 is now going to celebrate its 650th year as University of Pécs.
The other fine day, my hosts, Zoli and Hrisz, led the way to the grounds of the University. Then I beheld the ‘countdown machine’ which had been set on November 20, 2015 – 650 days before the 650th anniversary of the University – a good memory and future planner indeed.
In the open gardens, there also stood the sculpted image of Petöfi Sándor, one of the other three most remarkable Hungarian authors (including József Attila and Arany János) with his revolutionary gaze perpetually on the entrance of the University office, a sentry to knowledge and to the enlightenment of generations. Some walking distance away, there was the old industrial quarter of Pécs called the Zsolnay factory of ceramics and porcelain. Zsolnay is now a fluent blend of the academic and the commercial, an evidence of the practical collaboration between university and industry, a true display of town meeting the gown for cultural and technological development. The music and visual arts department of Pécs University is an integral part of Zsolnay industrial quarters which also houses a museum of arts and a theatre hall.
An old woman walking her white cat in the night; another impressive woman walking her black pig in the day. A delightfully scary sight of a young girl (probably not older than my first daughter), who had a very multi-coloured snake wrapped around her arm and body, calling onto visitors to come play with her pet, in solidarity with Animal Support Initiative. Olga was part of a team of Pécs Zoo volunteers on their conservationist drive. My friends would convince me that most snakes in Hungary are harmless. I submitted that my own instinct was to kill a snake when I see one. So we took a turn to the reception hall of the exhibition hall where I could manage a free connection to the Museum Hotspot…
Hungary has its own gray area, wrapped in its cold politics, where its leadership runs a deliberate anti-immigration policy against others, especially foreigners in flight from war and other devastations. The official rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is to keep the country free from the influx of refugees into the edge of central Europe. Almost in direct opposition to the free-zone refuge that Germany’s Angela Merkel has precariously managed to create for migrants under stress, Mr. Viktor’s government has not hidden a general insularity against the humanitarian ideal.
But some people wonder at the strange logic of advertisement against the refugee question. In a corner of the city, a huge poster tells the story of official sophistry against migrants. It reads:
‘Do you know? That since the refugees have started coming, the rate of aggression against women has been on the rise… REFERENDUM: October 2, 2016.’
Between the indignation of pro-migrants who apparently defaced that poster and the insistence of ultra-nationalists to close the country’s borders, the referendum of October 2 will give the nod on the path that Hungary must take.
Prof Aderemi Raji-Oyelade is a poet, author of six volumes of poetry including A Harvest of Laughters (1997), Shuttlesongs America: A Poetic Guided Tour (2003), Lovesong For My Wasteland (2005), Gather My Blood Rivers of Song (2009) and Sea of My Mind (2013). His poetry has been translated into French, German, Catalan, Swedish, Ukrainian, Latvian, Croatian and Hungarian.
He has been an Alexander von Humboldt Scholar to Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany and visiting professor and poet to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Universities of California at Riverside and Irvine, University of Cape Town, South Africa, Stockholms University, Sweden, Cambridge University, UK. He was recently awarded the 2017 Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives and the 2015 Grantee of the Humboldt Talent Travel Award.
He was African editor of Drumvoices Revue – Journal of Contemporary Arts and Literature (1999-2010). His seminal publication in cultural theory and practice is entitled Playful Blasphemies: Postproverbials as Archetypes of Modernity in Yoruba Culture (2012). Prof Raji-Oyelade is the former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the largest body of writers on the African continent (2011-2015) and National Coordinator of PEN Nigeria Centre in 1999 before he was elected as the Secretary of the Centre, a position he held till February 2010. He teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.