Hungarian Cultural Week in Montreal – An exercise in hypocrisy

The Orbán government has teamed up with the Ville de Montréal and Air Canada to organize quite an extravagant week of Hungarian cultural programs in Montreal, with the aim of presenting Budapest — and by extension Hungary — as a hipster, avant-garde, inclusive and welcoming place of free-flowing and uniquely rich cultural expression. Anyone who has visited Budapest recently will probably agree that this is not an altogether false image to project of the Hungarian capital. Simply put: Budapest’s arts and cultural scene, and the vitality of its night life, easily rivals that of all major Canadian cities and most European capitals as well. Yet anyone who follows Hungarian politics will know that the richness of the arts and the diversity of cultural expression in Budapest exists in spite of the authoritarian Orbán government in power–a government that has done so much, including the use of force, to silence precisely the NGOs, activists and intellectuals who make Budapest into what it is today.

The Hungarian Cultural Week in Montreal includes a plethora of programs, mostly between September 6th through September 13th. The occasion is the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the recent start of direct Air Canada Rouge flights between Montreal/Toronto and Budapest. The Liszt Ferenc Chamber Orchestra will perform at Place des Arts, the Muzsikás folk ensemble will take to the stage at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) and dozens of Hungarian films will be screened at the Cinémathèque québécoise, including classics of Hungarian cinematography, such as Béla Tarr’s Damnation (1988), Károly Makk’s Love (1971) or Ildikó Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century (1989). Ateliers & Saveurs will offer Hungarian cooking classes, as well as Hungarian wine tasting, while István Lakatos’ Budapest Roma Restaurant is part of the celebrations too. In November, but still part of the overall celebrations, the so-called Budapest Montreal Gala will be a dinner dance held at the Omni Hotel.

Budapest in Montreal / Hungarian Cultural Week in Montreal

Budapest in Montreal / Hungarian Cultural Week in Montreal

Magdolna Fekete, who heads the state-run Magyar Turizmus Zrt.’s offices in New York, had the following to say about her government’s goals in Montreal:

“The secret is out. Have you heard? It changes everything, and that’s a good thing. What’s the secret? Budapest is hot, Hungary is trendy. When I was young, growing up in Budapest, I didn’t think that the character of my city would one day draw thousands of travellers every day as a cosmopolitan vacation destination and party town.But now that Hungary is part of the European Union and word has gotten out about what an amazing place it is, people from all over the world are flocking to experience the sights, the spirit, and the specialties of my beautiful homeland.

Now I’m in New York for no other reason than to help bring the Canadian travellers to Hungary. As the head of the Hungarian National Tourist office here, I want to do everything I can to get the word out about how amazing a trip to Hungary can be. Whether you are interested in travel for business or pleasure, for a conference week or a party weekend, to enjoy the spas or photograph the sights, I can help. To make a visit to Hungary is very simple now: you should say: Hey, this is Hungary. There is no need for any more explanation. The timing is perfect, our enthusiasm is great. Let’s put Hungary on the top of your list of your must visit cities.” (sic.)

Budapest’s Fidesz Mayor István Tarlós also greeted Montrealers and Canadians, in the run-up to the cultural week, thanking them for being so accepting of Hungarian refugees in 1956/57 and commending Canada on its diversity:

“The Hungarian nation still looks back with gratitude to Canada when tens of thousands of refugees were accepted after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Meanwhile, in 2010 the Government of Canada announced the designation of the Refugees of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as a national historic event. Today, over 315,000 people residing in Canada claim Hungarian descent. Hungarian-Canadians make up an important ethnic community (one of the most prominent living in Montreal), and contribute to Canada’s national diversity.”

Readers of our site do not need an introduction into how Fidesz has managed and used the refugee crisis for party political purposes through a government campaign of overt racism and fear-mongering. The icing on the cake is the October 2nd anti-refugee, anti-migrant and anti-EU referendum. And some will have also read about the horrific squalor in a Hungarian refugee camp.  Officials of the Hungarian government are both willing and able to celebrate inclusion, multiculturalism and a humane refugee policy in Canada, and use it as a way to introduce Canadians to Hungary, while serving a government that has made the most outlandish and racist statements, and that has been the least open to refugees and migrants of any sitting government of any EU member state.

We do not take issue with the cultural week’s programs as such, spearheaded by the Embassy of Hungary in Ottawa.  And Budapest is an exceptionally lively, colourful, culturally rich and unique city very much worth visiting. But the people and organizations who make Budapest so lively struggle to survive in an environment where their existence can be terminated from one day to the next by the country’s (and the Budapest municipal government’s) avowedly illiberal, intolerant and authoritarian political leaders. When I was in Budapest last month, I visited a building in Budapest’s rough-and-tumble 8th District, which serves as a vibrant cultural space–one for social gatherings, on evenings and weekends, and a home for NGOs, most of them focused on minority communities, by day. I asked the coordinator, as she was giving me a tour on a Friday night of this dizzying, bustling place full of artists, musicians, activists, refugees and immigrants, whether she is supported by the municipal government. She smiled–the sort of smile that naive westerners receive when asking stupid questions in oppressive countries–and noted that she is just happy if they leave her and her organizations alone and do not harass them.

It is a grotesque display of hypocrisy for the Hungarian government–one that made international headlines for state-sanctioned racism and explicit race-bating against refugees and migrants, for cutting funds to the country’s most gifted artists, if they were critical of the regime, for terrorising NGOs with police searches and bogus investigations, for hiring skinhead thugs to attack activists and opposition politicians and for declaring the death of liberal democracy and the dawn of a new illiberalism–to celebrate diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism and artistic freedom in Canada.

The only thing worse than this is when Canadian partners, like Mayor Denis Coderre’s City of Montreal, agree to participate in the exercise.

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