Greetings from the Universala Kongreso (the Universal Congress)! We are in Nitra, Slovakia, for the week, along with about 1500 other Esperantists for the world’s largest annual Esperanto gathering. So far we’ve had a great time, checking out congress events and exploring the city. Here are a few of our thoughts on our first day of events.
The first talk of the day was a discussion on the language politics of Brexit (or Briteliro, in Esperanto). We were hoping to hear a little about Esperantists’ take on the broader political situation and its implications for the European Union, but all of the contributors stuck closely to the topic of language politics. This focus seemed quite strange, from an American perspective, as conversations in the US seem to focus mostly on the alarming instability that preceded the referendum, and its implications for and parallels to the current state of US politics. This afternoon’s talk was decidedly Eurocentric, and specifically a shade of Eurocentrism that counted the British firmly as an out-group.
Esperanto opportunists were well represented among the speakers, from a woman promoting a single-issue political party centered on language politics and the promotion of Esperanto in the EU, to a few speakers who mentioned that this period of instability and uncertainty in the English speaking world might be a good opportunity to spread Esperanto in the EU. A similar group, but different in tone, were a considerable number of people who expressed a sort of bitter sentiment towards the UK. One noted, in a disparaging manner, that they had never considered the UK to be European at all (to a surprisingly strong applause from the crowd). Several expressed their hope that the UK’s troubles might loosen their hold on linguistic dominance in the EU. Another asked, with frustration, why her tax dollars were being spent on teaching children English.
All of these speakers highlighted the strong sense of dissatisfaction with the current status of representation and the balance of power in the European Union. While many in the UK voted leave due to a desire to take their autonomy back from an organization they saw as encroaching on their sovereignty and weakening the UK’s geopolitical position, other Europeans see the present situation as an opportunity for themselves to break what they see as a British linguistic (and perhaps more than just linguistic) hegemony.
The second event we attended today was a video presentation on the Oomoto religion. Like almost every Esperanto event we’ve ever seen, it was rather strange and quite interesting. The first video was on the history of Oomoto. We won’t go into too much detail here, but it originates from Shinto and was founded in 1892 by Deguchi Nao. It came into conflict with the prewar emperors of Japan and the religion suffered persecution, its buildings destroyed and some of its followers tortured during the First and Second Oomoto Incidents (1921 and 1935). It’s almost unknown outside of Japan but has approximately 170,000 members today (according to their website). Oomoto has had a unusually close relationship with Esperanto almost since its founding, and most active members speak at least some Esperanto. There’s a famous stone outside an Oomoto shrine with an inscription in Esperanto describing some of Oomoto’s principles: “Unu dio, unu mondo, unu interlingvo” (“One god, one world, one mutual language”), which the presenter showed a photo of.
Yet besides this, there was very little mention of the religious beliefs and traditions involved in Oomoto. The presenter discussed the history of Oomoto, and its role in the founding of the martial art aikido, but all in all we left with more questions than when we arrived. A lot of the presentations we’ve seen so far have been like this – a one-hour peek into a piece of the world we’d never considered before. Even if it’s not quite the universal language, if you want to learn more about the world in general, Esperanto packs a whole lot of bang for its buck in terms of niche information available: time spent learning!
Religion in general in the Esperanto community is an interesting affair. Both the Oomoto and the Ba’hai religions have endorsed Esperanto, and the Catholic and atheist organizations are also fairly powerful in the Esperanto movement. To top it all off, Zamenhof himself designed something like the religious equivalent of Esperanto – not exactly a religion, more a philosophy based on the teachings of Rabbi Hillel – homaranismo, literally “humanism”. It never took off like Esperanto did, but something of that humanistic, international spirit continues to inform the Esperanto movement. At any rate, Esperantists come from as many religious traditions as they do countries.
We ended our day at the Nacia Verspero (National Night), where our hosts in the city of Nitra treated us to a fairly incredible introduction to Slovak folk performance by Lúčnica. Founded in 1948, Lúčnica is Slovakia’s most famous and most popular folk group. Their show tonight was great, and while we weren’t close enough to get any good pictures, we highly recommend you check out the videos on their Youtube channel. If you are interested in colorful costumes, lighting fast hammered dulcimer players, or mildly terrifying dances involving axes and throwing dancers to impressive heights, there’s a good chance you’ll find something you like.