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March 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom


I remember asking my mom as a kid in the 1960s why we didn't ever have Granny Smith apples in the house. She replied that she refused to buy anything from South Africa because of what the government did to its people. As the years passed and I became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand why my parents refused to buy anything which came from South Africa. However it wasn't until the 1980s I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. By the time he had become the rallying point for anti-apartheid activists around the world he had already been in jail more then 20 years. For us living outside South Africa he became more than a man, he was a symbol of all that was wrong with what was a corrupt system.

When he was released and began the slow painful business of trying to rebuild his country he became even more than a symbol, he rose in status to that of almost an icon. While the transition from white majority rule was not without violence, somehow, through force of personality and leadership he was able to make it far more peaceful than anyone could have had a right to expect. After more then fifty years of oppression African anger at their former rulers could have spilled over into horrible acts of vengeance.

Yet, after all his accomplishments and his extraordinary life, few of us know much about Mandela aside from those bare facts listed above. The movie, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, now available on Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, and based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, attempts to fill in some of the blank in our knowledge and give us a more complete picture of the man.
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Starring Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Haris as Winnie Mandela, the movie traces his life from childhood through to his election as the first African president of South Africa. While there are some noticeable gaps in the story, there's nothing about how he managed to do the next to impossible of gaining a law degree, the movie does the best it can to show us how he went from being a lawyer to becoming one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of the most wanted men in South Africa.

We also see how he made a mess of his early personal life. His political activism ended his first marriage when his wife became sick of his never being home and his occasional affairs with other women. However, it also shows us how as he became more committed to the cause of working for the freedom of his people, he also began to mature as a person. So when he met his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the relationship was initially far smoother. It helped that Winnie was just as committed to the cause of African freedom as he was, and supported his efforts.

In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was its depiction of Winnie Mandela. There were a lot of things said about her and her split from her husband in the early 1990s that weren't exactly pleasant. However, in the movie we see the torments she was subjected to by the South African police while her husband was in jail. We see her being beaten, tossed into solitary confinement for sixteen months and left to wonder what has become of her children. Harris does an amazing job of portraying Winnie's transformation from a loving wife and fun loving woman into an angry and vengeful woman who desires only to fight back against those who took her life away from her. As she says to her husband upon one of her rare visits to the Robben Island Prison, "it's my hate that keeps me going".
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As Mandela Elba, does a magnificent job of capturing both the man's humanity, and his amazing charisma. Even in his early days as a lawyer defending his black clients in the white court rooms we see how he uses a combination of intelligence and humour to fight an unjust system. We also see how he gradually transforms from working towards a peaceful resolution to the problems of his country to taking up arms against the government. While you can see a gradual build up in his anger, the tipping point for him came during the demonstrations against the imposition of the pass laws in 1960 when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville killing 69 unarmed people.

After three years of planting bombs Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership were caught and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island in 1963. While the movie does bog down a bit during his term in prison, how much can you say about the interminable boredom and misery of hard labour and prison life, it tries its best to give an accurate depiction of the life these men had to endure. Cut off from their families and outside world almost completely they know almost nothing of what's happening in the world beyond their walls. While the movie does try to keep us informed, the clips they use aren't really enough to give us more than a general impression of violence and upheaval. I know the movie is supposed to be a history of the man, not the struggle, but as the two became inseparable in most people's minds it might have been good to show a little bit more of what was happening while he was in jail.

However, in spite of some minor drawbacks, the movie does a remarkable job of depicting Nelson Mandela as a man and not just an icon. I think a lot of the credit for that must go to Elba, who manages to not only imbue Mandela with the indomitable spirit the world came to recognize and admire, but the humanity few of us ever saw. Elba is shows us how Mandela was able to overcome his personal pain and anger to see the need to create a country where all were treated the same no matter the colour of their skin. It is a remarkable performance, and combined with the work of Harris as Winnie, more than compensates for any weakness in the script.

The Blu-ray edition of the movie (the package I was sent includes Blu-ray, DVD and a code to download a digital version) comes with the usual compliment of special features; director's (Justin Chadwick) commentary, a making of featurette, and a tribute video gallery. While the latter doesn't really add much to our knowledge of the Mandela, the featurette has some interesting interviews with Elba, Harris and director Chadwick which tell how they felt about making the movie and the process they each used in its creation.

Nelson Mandela was the face of the fight for freedom in South Africa. Turning that kind of icon into a human being is a nigh on near impossible job. However the movie Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom comes as close as is probably possible. This is a man around whom the whole world rallied, and this movie helps fill in some of the blanks in the picture we have of who he was and how he became the revered figure we remember today.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Come Back Africa, The Movies of Lionel Rogosin Volume 2


Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.

The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.

But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
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Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.

In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).

The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the films creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.

Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
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Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.

They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.

Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.

These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur


Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.


You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?


Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

June 29, 2013

Book Review: The President And The Provocateur by Alex Cox


Its a conspiracy theorist's dream. Forget UFOs, the assassination of John F Kennedy, (JFK) the 35th president of the United States, on November 22 1963 remains to this day the most pored over, talked about and controversial event in modern history. No matter how loudly the official version stating Lee Harvey Oswald fired the only shots and acted on his own is shouted from the rooftops, there have always been other voices shouting other theories almost as loudly.

Depending on who you talk to JFK was killed because of a communist plot hatched by a combination of KGB and Cuban interests or a right wing conspiracy of anti-segregationists, the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and right wing members of the military. Of course there are various offshoots of each and even wilder and more outlandish theories to be heard as well. One goes as far as saying Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th presidents respectively, were principal movers behind the plot. Trying to the various scenarios straight, let alone judge their credibility, is next to impossible. It's just too much to sort through on your own. Without some kind of semi-objective overview there's not even much point in even trying to make sense of it all.

Amazingly enough, that's exactly what Alex Cox has done with his new book The President And The Provocateur published by Feral House Press. Best known as the director of the films Repo Man and Sid and Nancy Cox is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. However, anybody coming to this book hoping he will reveal some brand new theory on who killed JFK will be disappointed. Instead what Cox has done is do his best to unravel tangled mess of information and weave it into something resembling coherency with an eye towards as an objective a view as possible. The only slightly subjective note he strikes in the whole book is his scepticism of the official view, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, as expressed by the Warren Commission.
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Instead of starting with any pre supposed theory about who killed JFK Cox has written a combination history/biography of the era the events took place in and the two men who have become the central protagonists, Kennedy and Oswald. Starting with their early years Cox switches back and forth between the two men in relating their childhoods, education and service records. Of course the differences in their lives are obvious from the start. The Kennedys were and still are the American equivalent of aristocracy and JFK's life was one of privilege from the moment he was born. Oswald on the other hand was born into a poor family in New Orleans and would have lived out his life in anonymity if not for a couple of decision as a young adult.

As the book moves forward we not only learn about the details of each man's life, we are also treated to a history of events occurring the States which end up being relevant to the matter at hand. It's once we hit the 1950s the action for both men picks up. Kennedy's dad, Joe, starts buying his son's political future by bankrolling his campaigns for Senate in preparation for the big push at the presidency in 1960. Meanwhile it was during the 1950s Oswald, a Marxist, defected to Russia where he renounced his citizenship and took up permanent residency in Minsk. As a Marine he had been stationed at facilities where operations involving the U2 spy planes were planned. However, it does not appear as if he was ever debriefed or even questioned by Soviet intelligence, the KGB. He merely took up the life of a factory worker in Minsk where he met the woman who would become his wife. However, while Kennedy was prospering back in the States, Oswald was discovering life in the Soviet Union wasn't all he had hopped for. Claiming he was bored and missing the material pleasures of the States, he negotiated with the Russians for exit visas for him and his wife and permission from the Americans to return home.

It was also during this time, the Eisenhower presidency of the late 1950s, things were starting to heat up domestically in the US. The slow progress towards the end of segregation had begun in the southern states and in reaction to the baby steps taken by the federal government attempting to ensure voter rights extreme right wing groups began organizing and bolstering their memberships in order to fight back. This was also the time America began stockpiling and testing nuclear weaponry, including early Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching targets in Russia.

By the time Kennedy took office in 1960 the ultra militant right wing had established not only various organizations through out the South, including armed militias, the Ku Klux Klan and other even more shadowy organizations, but had established a network of well placed operatives in the military, intelligence and police communities, including most members of the White House Secrete Service team. Cox's book, drawing upon FBI records and other reputable sources, does a very good job of not only detailing and offering credible proof as to their funding, power and influence, but detailing their memberships as well. Serving army generals, police chiefs, CIA field officers and millionaires who made their fortunes from oil were all on record as supporting one or another of these groups advocating violent opposition to government interference.

However, while this information is vital for establishing there were plenty of people with the motivation to kill Kennedy, Cox explores the even more intriguing way Oswald seems to have been able to be in two places at once many times over the course of his life. While the discrepancies in the accounts of where he and his mother lived when he was a child are easy to understand and explain away, the same can't be said for accounts of his movements in the weeks leading up to November 22nd 1963. According to the CIA Oswald supposedly made a trip to Mexico where he visited the Russian embassy. However, according to what J. Edgar Hoover told LBJ after the assassination, no one matching Oswald's description was seen near the premises. As the FBI routinely photographed everybody entering and leaving the embassy they would know. In fact there is no record of Oswald having ever made a trip to Mexico when he's supposed to have been visiting the embassy.

Cox raises all sorts of other questions about Oswald which not only calls into question his ability to be the assassin but also makes it look like he was set up to take the fall for whoever actually carried out the job. How did Oswald get from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository down to the lunch room on the fourth floor where he was seen shortly after the assassination took place so quickly after the shooting when there was no elevator to the top two floors? Why, out of all of his employees, did the manager of the Depository mention only Oswald's name to the police as being someone who left the scene when he had sent half his employees home? How is it the police knew in advance Oswald would be involved in the shooting of a police officer in a suburban Dallas neighbourhood shortly after the assassination? Why would Oswald, after shooting the president and then a police officer in two separate incidents, go and see a movie? Why was Oswald never allowed to speak to a lawyer after he was arrested?

Of course those questions are nothing as to the ones Cox raises about the actions of the people who were supposedly there to protect Kennedy on November 22 1963. Dallas had been the last stop on Kennedy's tour through what he and his advisors considered key states he would need to win to be re-elected in 1964, Texas and Florida. In each city prior to Dallas the president's motorcade had an escort of police motorcycles riding on either side, and secret service agents walking either beside the car or standing on the running boards. Why were neither in place for Dallas?
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Motorcades were not supposed to travel along any route requiring the president's car to slow down or break speed significantly, making it an easy target. Why was the motorcade taken on a route which saw it having to navigate both severe left and right turns, making Kennedy an easy target for a shooter? If the president's car comes under fire the driver of the vehicle is supposed to immediately accelerate out of the location. Why did his driver on hearing the first shot ring out bring the car to a complete stop?

These are only samples of the types of questions Cox's raises about the assassination. They are more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about Oswald as a lone nutter theory. Even if you can somehow swallow he was lucky enough to kill Kennedy using a cheap rifle he supposedly bought through the mail, with no previous experience as a sniper or any military records indicating he was any sort of sharp shooter, the idea he was able to carry it off without help is ridiculous.

Now some might be tempted to dismiss Cox's book as the ramblings of yet another conspiracy theorist. However, the only conspiracy he sees is the one which has kept the truth of the assassination from the world until now. He has been incredibly scrupulous in his research and nothing he says or claims is idle speculation. The footnotes for each chapter are in some cases nearly as long again as the chapters themselves as he makes sure to point out the sources for all his facts and quotes. He will on occasion give us his opinion of the source or let us know if he thinks information is suspect. However he is equally sceptical of the wilder claims made about who was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as he is of the Warren Commission and other official reports on his death.

Anyone who has seen one of Cox's films know he is a great story teller, and this book is no exception. He lays out the history of events leading up to and after the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in a clear and easy to understand manner. He not only does a remarkable job of bringing the charged political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s to life on the page, but does his best to be as objective as possible. However, what I found most impressive was how he concluded the book. He doesn't end by accusing anyone, or even hinting at where the finger should be pointed. What he does say is the American public deserve the truth. Not just the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but the truth about every contentious issue which has ever captivated the public's imagination.

The President And The Provocateur is not another book postulating some wild and unfounded conspiracy behind the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead Cox has taken the killings and put them into their historical context. He has also assembled what seems like every scrap of information ever reported on or recorded by a human being concerning the murders. While he makes no claims to know what exactly happened, who or how Kennedy was killed, the points he makes calls into question what currently stands as the official explanation for his murder. If reasonable doubt is grounds for acquittal in a court of law, shouldn't it also be grounds for a careful re-examination of history? The evidence Cox provides in his book is more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission and any subsequent official inquiry into the killing of the 35th president of the United States of America.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The President and the Provocateur by Alex Cox)

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
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This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
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Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald


February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
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However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

February 15, 2013

DVD Review: Bonekickers


There's something British television does really well that we don't seem to do over here in North America. They create a show with a finite number of episodes that not only has the cast involved in different adventures in each instalment but has a through line tying the series together. As a result you have a series with a definite beginning, middle and end instead of shows which continue on long past the time when the writers have stopped finding anything original for the cast to do. There's the added bonus of the show's creators not being forced to write with one eye on the ratings and the other on advertising revenue in order to ensure its continued existence.

A wonderful example of this in action is the series Bonekickers available on DVD from Acorn Media. Told over six one hour episodes we follow a team of four archeologists as they investigate a variety of secrets from the ancient world when faint traces of the past bubble to the surface. History is never buried too far beneath the surface and shows up in surprising places. Out team is based in one of the oldest cities in England, Bath, so it's not too surprising for a builder to uncover rare artefacts in some unused park land slated for a housing development.

Three of the team; the leader Professor Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton (Hugh Bonneville) and Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester) have worked and known each other for years. The fourth member of the team, Vivian Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has been hired on as an intern to help out and gain experience. Right from the start Davis, and the audience come to understand, the people she's working with march to the beat of a very different drummer than most of the world. To say they each have their own eccentricities is putting it mildly.
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One of the wonderful things about this series is how with each episode we find out more and more about the characters. The writers do a very careful and intelligent job of not only developing each of them and the interrelationships among the team, but also revealing bits and pieces of their history as it becomes relevant. We learn fairly early on Magwilde's mother was a famous archaeology professor as well. However something awful happened to her and she attempted suicide and now lives the life of a catatonic in a nursing home. Over the course of the series we gradually learn what happened to Magwilde's mother and the impact it has had on her.

As archaeologists are a type of detective it makes sense for this show to be part mystery, part fantasy and all adventure. The writers also manage to find ways in each episode to show how history is all around us literally by having the finds show up everywhere from the seashore to parkland. They also makes sure we understand how the past and present interconnect. Whether it's somebody looking to history to further their own goals by twisting it to suit their needs or how our lives were shaped by events which happened thousands of years ago, they manage to make us understand we ignore the past at our peril. What's even better is they do this through the action and plots of each episode. You never have the feeling they are lecturing you, instead the shows offer examples of how important it can be to know history and understand it.

Aside from history we also learn a lot about the techniques and methods used in archaeology. A mixture of painstaking detail work and high tech science go into helping our team uncover the secrets stored in a fragment of wood or a piece of cloth. From the site of a mysterious battle field which saw the slaughter of Knights Templer to the remains of what seems to be a slave ship in a tidal estuary they are able to take what looks like scraps and recreate events that happened hundreds if not a thousand years ago. No secret, no matter how well hidden, is safe and no mystery will stay unsolved for long when our team puts their minds to it.

Unfortunately there turns out to be any number of powerful people who either would like certain secrets left buried or want mysteries solved for their own nefarious purposes. While it does require some suspension of disbelief on the audience's part, somehow each find Magwilde and her team work on, ends up having a bearing on the mystery surrounding what happened to Magwilde's mother. Her mother was being used by a very powerful group of people in an effort to find one of England's most potent artefacts, Excalibur, the supposed legendary sword of King Arthur.
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Almost against her will Magwilde finds herself being drawn into the hunt for the sword as well. As more and more evidence accumulates pointing to its possible whereabouts she also begins to receive mysterious messages and packages encouraging her and offering help. As each episode passes, and they uncover yet another link from the past to the sword, the mystery within the mystery grows. Who are these people offering help? What did her mother discover that ruined her reputation and cause her to attempt suicide? Will Magwilde go down the same path of self destruction, or will she be able to find the solution and come out the other side?

What makes this series work is a combination of good writing and acting. The way the scripts have been worked everything that happens seems completely plausible. From the journey our archeologists go on in their quest to discover the sword's whereabouts to how they come across the various clues over the series which helps them solve the ultimate mystery. While it might seem like a string of coincidences that five seemingly unrelated archeological digs should have something in common, the writers have come up with very plausible reasons how each of them connect to the sword.

Complimenting this is the fact each of the actors have created wonderfully believable characters. From Bonneville's wise fool Dr. Parton, Graham's driven Magwilde, Lester's loyal and stolid Ergha to Mbatha-Raw's slightly wide-eyed but never naive Davis, each of them could have easily been types instead of real people. Thankfully both the script and the actors worked together to make them multidimensional people with both flaws and strengths. Over the six episodes we find out just as much about the characters through the actor's performances as we do through the script as they show us as many sides of their character as possible.

Bonekickers comes in a three DVD set with each disc containing not only two episodes, but extensive special features on each episode. In fact there's over 100 minutes of special features which look at script creation, special effects and where the ideas for the stories came from. This has to be some of the more in depth and extensive special features for a television series I've seen in a while and for those interested in what goes into the show's making it will be fascinating watching.

However, the real reason to watch or own this series is not the special features. It's because the thing is so damn good. Not only is it well acted and well scripted, its exciting, intelligent and funny. There some fairly graphic violence occasionally so you might want to screen it before letting young children watch, but it would also be well worth their while to see this because it makes history so fascinating. In this world so obsessed with the future paying so little attention to the past, it's a joy to watch something which recognizes the significance of history. A lesson worth remembering.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bonekickers on Blogcritics.)



November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North Americaby Thomas King


That Thomas King is sure one good writer. He writes those funny stories about Indians. Not funny ha-ha, even though sometimes they are that too, but funny that's kind a weird funny. Like his Indians aren't Indians like you know them right. I mean some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some are university professors, some are professional photographers and there's even some who are private detectives on the side. Hardly any of them ride horses or wipe out pioneers or hunt buffalo and they all talk really good English. Weird huh?

Still they're good stories, even though sometimes they're hard to understand. Sometimes he gets things mixed up like the way he has white people cheating his Indian characters or the way the government will try to pull a fast one on Indians by destroying their land with damns. I think he needs to read his history again so he can get his facts straight. Especially now after I read his latest collection of stories published by Random House Canada, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America
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Whew, that's one long title that one, but the book sure is curious. For he goes on and on about the ways in which white folks have mistreated Indians. First of all there's not much that's funny about this book, that's for sure. Second of all there aren't really any stories in it. When you read it you'll see what I mean about how he needs to read his history books again though, cause the version of events he tells isn't what we've been told in movies or books that we read in school. I'm sure he's not meaning to tell things differently. I mean it's easy to be confused by history as its usually about things that happened a long time ago. But, I wonder how he could have come up with such different versions of events. Or there's other stuff he talks about I'd never read about or seen in a movie.

Okay, maybe that kind of reaction is unfair. However, from New Age bookstores, movies, history texts, memorial plaques and baseball stadiums you'll find Native Americans - or First Nations people as we say in Canada - being misrepresented, stereotyped and sometimes outright lied about. How many reading this aren't going to understand what's wrong with making a team's mascot a Native? You don't have to look very far to hear somebody say "We won didn't we - they should be glad of anything we give them and stop complaining".

King's book deals with the very specific history of what government after government on both sides of the 49th parallel, he doesn't even attempt to talk about the situation in Mexico, have referred to as "The Indian Problem". First it was a problem of what to do with them because they were on land that we wanted for settlers. Then it was the problem of what to do with them when the land we gave them was discovered to have valuable natural resources under them. Now it's a problem of what do to with them period. They didn't have the decency to die out when we tried to kill them and then they had the nerve to reject all the advantages we tried to force on them through residential and boarding schools.

There are those who say Indians should stop living in the past and forget what happened and concentrate on making a bright new future for themselves. Of course most of the ones saying things like that are those who would prefer they not learn the lessons of the past thus leaving themselves open to being dispossessed of what little they have now. King takes a look at this argument and shows why its so disingenuous and dangerous. The problem is, no matter how governments on both sides of the border word their policies, they still have the same goal as the ones implemented two hundred years ago. Instead of trying to figure out how peacefully co-exist with the original inhabitants, everything is still based on eliminating the "Indian Problem".

Instead of trying to kill Indians with bullets or forcing them to assimilate by locking their children up in the equivalent of jails being passed off as schools, governments are now trying to eliminate Indians legally. In both Canada and the United States there is an official government designation that qualifies a person as an Indian. In order to live on a reservation or be considered a member of a band one has to have that official designation. If there were no people with that designation there would be no need for reservations on either side of the border. So, why not just gradually eliminate the designations?

If you think that sounds highly unlikely consider this. King quotes Census figures from both America and Canada which show as of 2006 only about 40% of the Native population in North America are considered legally Indian. He then goes on to outline how both governments are now proposing new legislation, which if enacted, would work towards reducing that number even further and eventually to zero. The long term goal being the complete elimination of anybody who is a member of a band that signed a treaty giving them control over land.
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It's the land stupid. It's always been about the land. Which is why it's so important to look at the history. As King points out you don't even have to go too far back in history to find proof of that. As recently as 2006 real estate developers in Ontario Canada started selling and building a housing development on land that was claimed by the Mohawks of Grand River. It was on land given them by treaty, appropriated by the Ontario Government with the promise of it being returned, and then sold by local town council to developers.

That dispute ended with the government awarding a compensation package of $20 million dollars to, drumbeat please, the people who bought houses, the developers and local businesses for the inconvenience caused by Native people blockading the highway protesting their land being stolen. As for the treaty negotiations in regards to the disputed territory - well they might get around to them sooner or later.

So the easiest way to make sure this problem never happens again is to ensure there is no one around to make any legal claim to the land. Oh sure they're couching the policy in the same old paternalistic language they've always used when talking about Indians. It's good for them. The great White Father in Washington/Ottawa still knows whats best for those childlike savages. Think of how much happier they would be in the real world where they have all the opportunities the rest of us have. So what if they have no education, no capital and no desire to live like that. So what if they think they have some sort of sacred connection to the land. So what if that's not what they want, we know better. Anyway, what are they doing with all that land except letting it go to waste? Give them the opportunity to sell it at fair market value and see how quickly they learn to love our way of life.

Of course when Indians have the nerve to try and buy up land at fair market value, why that's another matter all together. King recounts what happened when a band in Arizona began using some its profits from their casino to buy land around the city of Glendale. Local politicians acted like they feared they would be scalped in their sleep or they were in danger of having flaming arrows shot down their throats because a few hundred acres of land were sold to Indians.

As somebody else said earlier, that King is a good story teller. Here he's not telling stories, he's telling history. A history that's not going to be everyone's liking as it runs contrary to most people's idea of Indians. Unfortunately its far more accurate than any version Hollywood has told them, the one being sold in New Age book stores or that which is offered in text books. While at first you might feel like King is softening the blow somewhat by injecting his dry humour into the proceedings, the more your read the more you realize its the type of laughter that's closer to tears than anything else.

For as King points out the war against Indians isn't over, only the battlefield has changed. Spin doctors have taken the place of generals and uranium tailings and tar sands' waste product the gatling gun and cannon. As far as our governments and business leaders, the ones who see no problem with exploiting and raping the land for everything its worth and not caring what condition they leave it in for those who come after them, Indians are every bit as inconvenient now as they ever were. For in spite of everything we've "done for them" they still insist on trying to retain their own belief systems and defending what few rights they have left to them. They just don't know when they're beaten.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History Of Native People In North America by Thomas King on Blogcritics.)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

August 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Green Wave


When was the last time a documentary film made you cry? I don't usually cry in most films, let alone documentaries, yet as I was watching The Green Wave, a film by Ali Samadi Ahadi from Dreamer Joint Venture productions, I found myself with tears pouring down my face. Originally released in Germany the movie had its English language premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theatres in North America. With a mixture of animation, interviews and raw footage taken from camera phones and other clandestine means of photography Ahadi recounts the events surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran which culminated in government sanctioned violence against people protesting their results.

Green is the colour of Islam, but in Iran of 2009 it became associated with the campaign to have reform candidate, former Prime Minister of Iran Mir-Hossein Mousavi elected President. The film opens prior to the election. The first things which are established are the fact there was dissatisfaction, especially among the young, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What was especially troubling was how come with billions of dollars in oil revenues during his presidency the economy had worsened and there were fewer opportunities for employment for young people. Then the film introduces us to Mousavi and his campaign for president.
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We learn how the campaign had booked a large sports arena in Tehran for a political rally. The campaign workers were nervous enough people would show up to make it worth while. Then when they arrive at the arena to start setting up for the rally they discover the size of their support. People began showing up hours in advance offering to help. It wasn't just young people or students who supported Mousavi, there were people from all walks of life including members of the clergy and the military. People who had given up hope of there ever being significant change in Iran began to have hope again.

Then came the election. The first nasty shock was the ballots were designed to be confusing. In order to vote for a candidate you had to write a code in the box next to their name. While the codes were posted on the walls of the polling stations, nobody had been prepared for this rather odd practice. Then reports started coming in of polling stations mysteriously running out of ballots with people still waiting to vote and other polling stations closing hours before voting was due to stop. Confusion was high, and then things started to turn ugly. The government cancelled all visas for foreign press, shut down satellite transmission and all other means of communication with the outside world. As one person being interviewed said, they should have known something odd was going on as during the last couple of hours of voting the state television station started showing nature programs instead of election coverage.

The next day with results still undecided people took to the streets refusing to believe the government was really going to try and manipulate the election. They figured they were just stalling as long as they could before surrendering power. Then Mousavi was placed under house arrest and more and more people took to the streets demanding something be done. Unfortunately what was done was not what they wanted. The militia and the police took to the streets as well and began to attack the demonstrators. Troops mounted on motorcycles in two man teams swarmed the streets beating and stabbing anybody they came across whether they were demonstrators or not. They invaded the residence at the university and began randomly beating the students. Police marksmen opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops killing and wounding them. Hospitals were forced to turn wounded patients over to the military and the dead were unceremoniously hauled out of morgues and piled in the back of pick up trucks and never seen again.

As all media had been shut down during this time, Ahadi has very little actual footage to draw upon to tell the story. However, what he does have are people's blog twitter postings from the time. It's these he uses to give us first person accounts of what happened to some people as well as to help establish a timeline for when events took place. In spite of being under house arrest Mousavi was able to somehow access his twitter account to let people know what was happening to him. Ahadi also takes the blog posts and uses them to recreate events with illustrations. While he could have animated the images, he's done something even more effective. Individual panels, like those in a graphic novel, fill the screen freezing a moment in time. So when a doctor is talking about treating those injured by the army, we see her standing in a hospital corridor, hands spotted in blood and eyes filled with pain.
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While these images and the raw footage taken from camera phones and other mobile devices of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators are upsetting, unfortunately this type of footage is depressingly familiar. Soldiers firing upon civilians has been far too common an occurrence these days for it to come as a surprise that it would happen in Iran. It's the reactions of the survivors to these events that wrenched my heart. Naturally they still haven't recovered from the horror of what happened and that's always hard to watch. However what's really heartbreaking is the fact they are shocked it happened at all.

Their sense of betrayal and disillusionment makes you wonder how they could have been so naive as to believe the totalitarian regime they had been living under would not have attacked them for protesting. It was like they had just woken up to the fact their kindly uncle who had been buying them sweets since they were children had been sexually abusing them and the rest of their family. While it's understandable those living under the thumb of the regime might have been indoctrinated to the extent they wouldn't have noticed how harsh conditions were until they impacted on them directly, what was really disheartening was listening to some of the things said by those who should have known better.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, shows what I think is incredible naivety when she makes a comment about how France, Germany, Italy and other European Union nations should remember the dead protestors before conducting business with Iran. When has any nation let human rights abuses by another nation stand in the way of business? Oh sure they might make statements expressing outrage over the events, but stop trading with one of the largest suppliers of oil to the European Union? Not going to happen. If the West was at all serious about dealing with the Iranian regime properly there would have been a complete trade embargo in place ages ago. It's not just Iran either, the West turns a blind eye to human rights abuses everywhere whenever it suits us.

It's heartbreaking to hear such an intelligent and resourceful woman clinging to false hopes. Or to hear some of the young people living in exile talking about seeing the youth of their current home going out and having fun and wondering if they know their contemporaries in Iran don't have that freedom? Or listening to the voice of a young woman asking what is this place which is like a prison where people can be killed or arrested without reason and tearfully answering herself with one word, Iran.

Prior to the "Arab Spring", the popular movement in Arab countries where the people managed to throw off some of the longest serving dictators in the Middle East there was the Green Wave in Iran. For a few desperate weeks in the summer of 2009 there was the whiff of freedom in the air for a people who had suffered under oppressive regimes since the end of WWll. Whether the secret police of the Shah of Iran or the Revolutionary Guard and the morals police of the supposed Islamic Republic there has always been a force present insuring voices of dissent are silenced. Maybe they hoped this time it would be different. However, as The Green Wave makes clear, it might have taken the government a bit longer to clamp down on this occasion, but when they did, it was with a viscousness designed to obliterate resistance and destroy hope. I dare you to sit through this movie without crying. The people of Iran deserve our tears, it's only too bad the world isn't willing to do more for them.

(Article first published as Movie Review: The Green Wave on Blogcritics.)

May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) By Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo


In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the first millennium CE the door was opened for Europe to be invaded from the East. While early leaders like Charlemagne tried to fill the vacuum with the Empire's demise, their reach didn't extend beyond the boundaries of Western Europe. The situation didn't improve with time either. First of all the cream of European soldiery were being spent in fruitless attempts to re-conquer Jerusalem after the city was retaken by Saladin and his armies. Then in the1100s the Mongol hoards came sweeping out of the Steppes of Asia conquering and pillaging everything in their path in a huge swath stretching from the Ukraine to Poland.

With the Mongol hoards threatening expansion into the West the church and secular leaders finally turnd their attention away from Crusades into the Holy Land and attempted to deal with the threat closer to home. It's against this backdrop the story told in the first instalment of a new series unfolds. The Mongoliad: Book One, published by 47 North, an Amazon Publishing imprint, had its genesis as an online co-operative effort between a collection of known and unknown writers with a shared passion for medieval weaponry and martial arts. Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Mark Teppo are established science fiction and fantasy writers. E.D. deBirmingham and Erik Bear have written historical fiction and for a bestselling video game respectively while Joseph Brassey teaches medieval fighting techniques to members of the armed forces and Cooper Moo is an ancient weapons enthusiast. While this might seem rather an odd (if not motley crew) collection of authors, once you begin reading the fruits of their efforts you quickly forget its provenance.

While The Mongoliad is itself a trilogy, it is only the first part of the far more ambitious Foreworld Saga that will eventually take readers on a trip through the ages via the 19th century adventurer and literary translator Sir Richard F Burton and into modern times via a group of archaeologists who uncover manuscripts Burton was attempting to translate when he died. While these details aren't available to readers who pick up The Mongoliad: Book One we can only assume their pertinence to the story being told in this volume will be revealed as the saga continues.

This story begins in what appears to be an abandoned monastery deep within Mongol controlled territory in Eastern Europe. A mysterious young women has travelled a dangerous road to bring a message to a group of Christian warrior monks who have taken up residence among the ruins. While most of us are probably familiar with the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, religious warrior orders infamous and famous from the Crusades, there were other, more obscure, but equally dedicated, military sects. The knights gathered at this monastery were all members of The Shield Brethren, or the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, an ancient military order with roots stretching back to a pre-Christian Norsemen brotherhood called the Skjaldbraedur. They were gathered here close to the encampment of the Mongol Kahgan, Ogedei, third son of the great Genghis Khan, in response to a challenge issued to all warriors of the West. Defeat the Kahgan's champion in a tournament and he would spare their countries the sight of the Mongol hoards attacking them.

However, we don't just see the world through the eyes of the Christian knights, as the authors take us into the world of the Mongol tribesman as well. Expansion and empire are not resting easy on the former nomadic plainsmen. Kahgan Ogedei is sinking into a pit of despair fuelled by his ever increasing consumption of wine. He has reached such a bad state that one of his brothers sends a young hunter/warrior, to Ogedei's court with explicit instructions to protect his brother from the wine he consumes. At first glance this seems like an impossible task to set for anyone, but especially for the young man chosen for the job. While a hero in battle and a great hunter Gansukh has no experience in dealing with the intrigues of life at court. In fact even being inside a building cut off from sight of the sky and hearing the wind play on the grass leaves him feeling imprisoned and trapped. Trying to figure out how to protect somebody from himself is difficult enough as it is, but when that person's word is law and to contradict him is tantamount to treason it's next to impossible.

As the book continues on readers not only move back and forth between the Mongol and Christian worlds, we also see the action through the eyes of multiple characters. While initially we meet the Christian knights via the observations of Cnan, the young messenger, as their journeys progress we are also given the perspective of one within the order, Raphael, a warrior physician. While Cnan is able to give us an outsider's objective observations and appraisals, Raphael's insights into the divisions and rivalries between the various warrior monk factions add another layer of intrigue to the story taking it beyond a simple hack and slash fantasy novel. A veteran of the Crusades Raphael has few illusions left about righteousness and those who claim to be on missions for God. The war against the Mongols is a matter of survival, and whether God's on their side or not doesn't really make any difference.
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While Gansukh is able to provide us with a view of the world from a tribesman who has lived his entire life on the steppes of Asia following the traditions of his ancestors, we are guided through the intrigues of life at court by the Chinese slave assigned to instruct him how to survive in this new and dangerous environment. The instruction she offers him also serves to help us understand what is plaguing Kahgan Ogedei. So, those times when we are offered the chance to see the world through the eyes of the Kahgan, we understand why he has come to rely on wine for solace. While it's true their are ghosts of events from the past that haunt him, they're only one part of the problem.

While there might be some truth to the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth", it doesn't apply to The Mongoliad: Book One. In fact it's a distinct advantage in a book where we see the world through the eyes of such a diverse group of people. Differences in voice make each character a distinct individual while not detracting from the story's coherency or cohesion. The overall narrative actually flows far more smoothly than usual for a book covering as much ground as this one as events build upon themselves naturally and logically. While there's no indication as to who wrote which parts it ends up being irrelevant. After the first few pages you'll find yourself so wrapped up in the story you'll no longer care who the author is, you'll just want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The authors have also done a wonderful job of bringing the world they are describing to life. There is an air of verisimilitude about everything that leaves you little doubt as to the historical accuracy of their descriptions of not only life during the era described but the behaviour of the characters as well. From the descriptions of the armour worn by the knights, individual fighting styles to the various personality traits of the characters, everything rings true.

It's early days yet, being only the first book of a trilogy which is the first instalment in what promises to be an incredibly complex and involved saga, but judging by The Mongoliad: Book One The Foreworld Saga promises to be not only intelligent and well written, but a lot of fun as well. The characters are intriguing, the plots interesting and complex without being convoluted and the fighting and descriptions of battle scenes realistic and exciting while not shirking from describing the more brutal truths of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. In other words this has all the characteristics of being a must read series in the making. Lets hope it can keep the pace up.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo on Blogcritics.)

May 21, 2012

Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya


The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren't able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.

Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.

In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana's poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.

The slaves' place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
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Bhattacharya's story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.

While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it one moment your amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.

Well the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls the world's largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya's book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganga play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out - the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.

The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There's no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that's as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there's always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren't for them why things would be better.
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Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya's story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can't last, he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there's more to it than just something casual. She's not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she's pathetically ignorant. She's the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he's to leave the country, not what you think, and he fails the test quite miserably.

In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He's the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois, and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page, it's all a pretence for him. He's still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he's involved with what's going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people's behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he's honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.

The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world's forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we've seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that's a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Oka


In North America the coming of Europeans spelled the end for the traditional lifestyle of those already living here. It didn't matter whether people had been hunter gatherers or agricultural what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them taken away and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or reduced in population as their habitat was eroded by civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.

European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn't have dreamed of trying to make a go of "taming" the land. Until late in the twentieth century people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as "civilization's" greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.

Once considered impenetrable and forbidding the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials for cell phones and other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
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Naturally those most effected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it's the Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, they've long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests. A new movie, Oka, shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing them as has happened to so many the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for twenty-five years., the movie depicts the Bayaka's circumstances with both intelligence and humour.

Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual's personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often this type of movie falls into one of a few traps. They will either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren't or become a forum for some sort of new age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much "noble savage garbage. Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn't come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.

Whitman has made its his life's work to record the sounds of the Bayaka's lives including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he's been unable to capture on tape, the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts the people used to conduct. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.

When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he's in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor's warning, "there's no more trips to Africa for you Larry", he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company's desire to harvest the forests in those areas.

Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependant on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There's also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor's edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have. (All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it's obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.)
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When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It's through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.

Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it's obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they've been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn't they hunt it? "Don't you like meat?" they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn't allow for any room to sentimentalize one's source of food.

Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. For not only does it do a wonderful job of telling the story of how Whitman and his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you'll ever see of the effects of displacement upon a people. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they've done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don't need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don't have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn't necessarily for the better.

Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Oka on Blogcritics)

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

September 25, 2011

Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Of all the evils done under the guise of "Free Trade" some of the most insidious were those carried out by the unofficial mercantile arm of the British Empire, The East India Tea Company. Beneath that seemingly innocuous banner more acts of piracy, looting and pillaging were carried out than by anybody sailing under the Skull & Crossbones.Yet perhaps the worst crime that can be laid at their feet was the development and propagation of the opium trade. In spite of stereotypes depicting Chinese as nefarious purveyors of the drug, it was not native to their land, instead it was deliberately introduced to the country by English merchants. Yet it wasn't just the Chinese effected by this practice, but those in the British colonies of India and its neighbours, what is now Afghanistan for example, where the poppies from which opium is made were grown who suffered, and still suffer today, from the repercussions of this trade.

For not only were farmers convinced to turn over acres of valuable agricultural land to the cultivation of poppies, at who knows what long term cost to the lands potential for other crops, countless others were convinced to tie their lives to the process of manufacturing and selling opium. From those who worked the harvest all the way up to merchant families who invested in opium in the hopes of reaping profits by selling it in China, every level of society in British South East Asia became ensnared in the opium trade. For in spite of the fact possession and selling of opium were both illegal in China there were enormous profits to be made by those willing to make the outlay required to bribe officials, pay smugglers and purchase the product.

However, the Chinese governments weren't about to let a small group of foreign merchants reap enormous profits by enslaving their people to drugs without a fight. In the late 1830's the emperor finally decided enough was enough and decided to act against the opium trade in his country and in doing so precipitated what has become known as the "Opium Wars". Crying their rights to "Free Trade" were being curtailed by a foreign government, British merchants whose cargos were forcibly impounded backed up their demands for restitution with the guns of the Royal Navy. It is into this tumultuous period of history that we are tossed in Amitav Ghosh's latest release, River Of Smoke, the second book of his Ibis Trilogy, (Sea Of Poppies was the first book) which will be published by Penguin Canada on Tuesday September 27 2011. While only one of the four story lines we follow through the course of the book deals directly with the opium trade, as all four centre around China, and specifically the section of the city of Canton where foreigners are allowed to dwell and the major trading houses have set up shop, each of the characters we meet are impacted by the events of the day.
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Like a wonderful multicoloured tapestry Ghosh has woven a story made up of a series of vibrant threads made from a multitude of materials. The tale which unfolds before us is another chapter in the history of a vast multicultural and multiethnic family whose progenitors seem to be a mix of the mix-blood illegitimate children of Europeans, former indentured servants and escaped convicts from European colonies in South East Asia and points further East. Now settled in Mauritius, La Fami Colver, (they speak a strange mix of Creole, Hindu and pidgin (which means trader) English from China) have kept a pictorial record of how the lives of its founders were bound together by fate, and in particular a hurricane in September of 1838 that struck three boats: the Ibis carrying convicts and indentured servants from Calcutta to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a cargo of opium from India to Canton and the Redruth sailing from Cornwall to China in search of rare botanical specimens.

While both the Ibis and the Redruth carry those who would end up being part of the La Fami, it's the Anahita, it's cargo and the merchant whose fortunes are riding upon the opium in its hold who end up at the centre of the story. Bahramji Naurozji Modi had been born to a poor rural family, but through a strange twist of fortune ended up marring into one of Bombay's wealthiest shipbuilding families. It was he who convinced his father in law to begin using the ships they built for trading ventures. As none of the other family members had the slightest inclination to travel, or interest in trade for that matter, it was Bahram who took care of everything. He found the investors to pay for the opium his boat carried, escorted it to China, found the buyers and was the face of the family business in the foreigners enclave in Canton.

It's mainly through Bahram's eyes we watch the beginnings of what will become known as the opium wars. However Ghosh doesn't limit us to the one perspective as the events overtake all foreigners even if they have nothing directly to do with the opium trade. Neel, a young wealthy man convicted of embezzlement had escaped from the Ibis along with Bahram's illegitimate half Chinese son Ah Fat, and when both men turn up in Singapore at the same time the Anahita shows up, Ah Fat arranges for his friend to be hired as his father's personal secretary. For those on board the Redruth they are forced to rely upon the letters of a friend for information on both goings on in Canton and the location of a rare plant they hope to take back to England. For one of the ways the Chinese were attempting to curtail the opium trade by allowing fewer and fewer foreigners to travel in their territory. Only people with special permits were allowed to travel up the river from Hong Kong to Canton, and they weren't being handed out to those looking for rare flowers.
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Ghosh has done a masterful job in not only making each of his characters fascinating studies and interesting people to spend time with, he has also managed to bring the strange exotic world of the foreign enclave in Canton vividly alive. Crammed within a few square blocks a cross are traders from almost every corner of the world. Outside the enclave they might never have had anything to do with each other, but here all of the constraints society would normally place upon them have been suspended. Race and colour are of no matter as money and influence are the great equalizers. Each of the many traders have created second lives for themselves in China, up to and including taking wives and fathering children who they treat with equal devotion as their "real" families. While Bahram might only live there for six months or so every ten years, his is no different from the British traders who live there permanently.

While Ghosh's descriptive abilities allow us to create intricate portraits of people and locations, it's his agility with languages which gives River Of Smoke an extra level of verisimilitude. From the strange mix of words spoken by the family in the opening pages of the book, the scattering of pidgin appearing like exotic fruit in amongst the bland English of the trader's everyday speech, the conversations between the merchants and their Chinese partners, to the bombastic rhetoric of the ardent British free traders, each person we meet is given a voice as unique as their character and a language or dialect to match. While this might present a bit of a challenge to readers initially, you can usually work everything out within the context of a sentence, it makes for a far more interesting read than if he had opted have everyone speaking in one voice.

Lurking at the centre of all this splendour though is the dark heart of the opium trade. The majority of the traders in Canton are there to exercise their right to sell what ever products they want for the most profit they can earn. That the product in question is opium and its sale is illegal in China (and most of their home countries as well) is irrelevant. Like "Free Enterprise" exponents down through the ages they decry Chinese edict against the drug trade as government interference in their "God given right to trade" but have no hesitation about turning to their own government for assistance when their profits are threatened. By incorporating real historical figures from the period and drawing upon their speeches Ghosh manages to make his points about these people and their practices without breaking stride in his storytelling. The only disquieting note being how little these speeches have changed in the past century and a half or so.

River Of Smoke is a wonderful mixture of people, places and story that captures a moment in history like an insect snared in amber. All the details are there for the reader to see and appreciate. While the trade in opium, the policies of the British government which encouraged it, and those who made obscene profits from attempting to addict an entire nation to the drug, were reprehensible, one can't but help echo one character's regret at the passing of the foreign enclave in Canton which served as home to those involved. Instead of the usual ghettoizing of people by race, language or skin colour which usually occurs when various representatives of humanity are forced into close confines, here, for whatever the reason and for however brief period of time it lasted, something different was born. An international community alive with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of each of its representatives with a universal language allowing them to communicate across cultural and social boundaries. While Ghosh goes to great pains to make sure its not depicted as a perfect world, those few square blocks in Canton were an example we'd do well to emulate more often.

(Author Photo by Ulf Anderson)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh)

August 26, 2011

Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

To most of us in North America India remains something of an enigma. We either think of it as the backward country where children are only saved from starvation by the intervention of foreigners or as call centre central where all our tech support questions are answered. Even those who have visited the country are barely going to scratch the surface of this ancient and complex culture with its multitude of languages and peoples. Compounding the problem is that the majority of books, fiction and non-fiction, written about India up until the last decade were written by non-Indians. History books still refer to the first nationalist uprisings that attempted to throw off colonial rule in the 1800s as the "Indian Mutiny". Making out that those fighting for independence from the British were in the wrong.

While some British writers, like Kipling, were born in India and had a better understanding of life in the country than their compatriots, they were still part of the ruling elite and their perspectives were coloured accordingly. Thankfully that is changing and in the last few years we've seen more and more books published by Indian authors writing about both contemporary India and its history. One of the first things an astute reader will realize after reading any of these books is how little they know about the country and the incredible complexity of its history. Two things which become abundantly clear from reading any of the historical fiction are how the idea of India as one nation is a new concept and how British rule radically changed the lives of subcontinent's people.

Both these points come out in Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna recently published by Penguin Canada. The book traces the history of one family from 1878 until the tumultuous days in the 1940s leading up to independence. I doubt if most of us have even heard of Coorg in Southern India where the majority of the story takes place, but what becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is how the people native to the region consider themselves to be from Coorg, not India.
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We learn how they have fought fiercely to maintain their independence from neighbouring Mysore and when the story opens border posts are still manned in case their neighbour should try to invade again. They appear to have a type of feudal government, with those families with the largest land holdings being the most powerful. However they don't to use that power in order to tell others what to do, they just seem to be held in higher esteem by others. Instead the people are governed by their traditional moral codes and their belief system. A mixture of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and the worship of the goddess Kaveri as well as other Hindu gods associated with agriculture. Over the course of the book both the moral code and the hierarchy of families play key roles in the fates of the main characters giving readers a chance to understand and appreciate the delicate way in which they work to hold society together.

Focusing on the lives of two children from infancy to adulthood, the story Mandanna weaves follows the familiar pattern of frustrated love, betrayal, resentment and eventually reconciliation.
Devi is the first daughter born to the Nachimandas family in over sixty years. An obvious beauty from an early age, she is doted on by the entire family. Her male childhood companion, Devanna, is less fortunate as his mother commits suicide after fleeing her wealthy landowner husband to return to her home village. The young boy is taken in by Devi's parents and they are inseparable as children. However while Devanna assumes nothing has changed when they come to maturity, Devi nurtures a secret passion for his cousin Manchu, a renowned hunter who slew a tiger with his dagger.

Even after she is forced to marry Devanna, Devi's obsession with Manchu doesn't end. First expressed in an elicit affair that only ends when Devanna attempts suicide and Manchu overcome with guilt refuses to see Devi again and finds his own wife. However not even Manchu's death fighting for the British in Afghanistan can stop Devi from yearning for the man she loved. Seeking out his widow she convinces her to send Manchu's son Appu to live at her estate where she can provide him with a far better life. She then directs the love she was never able to give Manchu to his son, to the point where she almost convinces herself he was their child. Of course this comes at a cost, for in the process she neglects her own son Nanju. It is Appu who she finds the most beautiful bride for, even though as eldest Nanju should have been married first, and it is Appu who she plans on leaving her estate, Nari Malai - Tiger Hills. After all it was named in honour of his father, so it's only right he should inherit it.
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While the family dynamic plays out, the changing world around them is also having its impact on the characters. While both Devanna and Devi attended a mission school run by German Catholics, and it was Devanna's decision to attend a British medical school as a boarding student which precipitated the events that changed all their lives, they still remained rooted in their Coorg traditions. Devanna might have found himself being two people, one person at school and another at home, but he never forgot where he came from and who he was. While their son Nanju retained some of their love for the land which was so key to being a Coorg, on being exposed to British living through school and social activity, Appu quickly leaves his old life behind. He insists his mother change the family estate's name to Tiger Hills as referring to it by its native name is so "provincial". He also quickly tires of, and is embarrassed by, his beautiful wife when she can't handle herself in "Society".

Of course he's not the only one. Scions of old Coorg families are assuming British sounding names, affecting the manners of polite society and beginning to scheme as how they will fill the power vacuum created by the British leaving. It's all very well and good for nationalists to preach equality for all, but these children of landowners know land is power and aren't about to start surrendering either of those commodities. They are the face of the new elite in India, the power behind the scenes, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions of wealth and status.

While the story of Tiger Hills is a bit formulaic in its tale of thwarted romance, obsession and so on, where Mandanna excels is in her depiction of the changing world the story takes place in. Told chronologically we watch as the people of Coorg's lives change radically in the space of only one generation. Almost everything about them, even down to the crops they grow and the reasons for growing them, change from the time Devi is a child to the time her adopted son comes of age. Interestingly enough it's the people like Devanna who have managed to keep a foot in each of the worlds who seem to be best able to cope with the new world. He is able to combine his European education with his knowledge of Coorg to solve agricultural problems that no one else has been able to deal with.

Appu is the other end of the stick. Throwing himself whole hearted into being even more British than the British, he ends up losing all sense of himself. We gradually see him becoming all flash and no substance and his character floats in the wind without direction or focus. With his every whim indulged by his mother growing up, he is used to getting his way without effort, and expects privilege as his right not something to be earned. Never having had to work for anything, the few times he's denied the things he wants, usually because of his own misdeeds, he becomes resentful and sulky, blaming others for his failures. Without the roots in his land to fall back on he has nothing, and in the end his ambitions come to nought as well.

Tiger Hills offers a glimpse into the past of one province in India and in the process allows readers a view of one of the many different faces of the country. At the same time Sarita Mandanna shows us one of the long term results of colonial rule, something whose impact is still being felt in many former colonies including India. How a generation attracted by the allure of the bright and shiny gave up the traditions that had defined their place in the world, only to be left with a void that constantly needs to be filled. A void they continue to attempt to fill to this day with power and money by any means possible. Reading this book will give readers a little more of an insight into what's behind the Indian Tiger and perhaps help them taking the first steps towards understanding there's a lot more to the country than they thought.
(Article first published as Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna on Blogcritics)

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.


What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

February 23, 2011

Egypt, Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago, when I first published the story appearing below, I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush's buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn't that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

April 28, 2010

DVD Review: The End Of Poverty?

In the early 1960's a young man was sent by the CIA to try and assassinate the president of Iraq who was trying to divert some of the profits from the oil his country produced to stay in his country. The assassination was a failure and the young man, Saddam Hussain, barely escaped with his life. Not willing to trust such an important action to amateurs again, the CIA arranged for the president to be overthrown and executed on public television in Iraq and installed Hussain's family as rulers. Earlier, in the 1950's, when the democratically elected president of Iran tried to do the same thing, the British government on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) approached their former comrade from WWll, President Eisenhower, to see if he could take care of the problem for them. The CIA arranged for the deposing of the Iranian president and installed the Shah of Iran in his place.

Since the end of WWll a new economic colonialism has arisen to replace the old empires of Europe that has ensured, despite countries winning their political independence they are still subject states whose domestic and economic fates are dictated by decisions reached in the corridors of power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been assuring us in the developed world that the only hope for the future lies in the globalization of trade, they've not bothered to explain whose future is at stake. If in the last thirty years the number of people in the world going to bed at night hungry, dying of malnutrition and related disease, and living on less than a dollar a day has at least doubled, while a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population controls a greater amount of it's wealth, what does that say about globalization and and who it is helping?

While the connection between economic policy and CIA assassinations might not seem obvious to some, according to information presented in the documentary The End Of Poverty?, being released on DVD April 27th/10 by Cinema Libre Studios, they are both serving as means to the same end - keeping the control of natural resources the world over in the hands of a small minority. Not only has this resulted in increased financial hardship for the citizens of the affected countries, it has also seen the almost complete degradation of their social structure as vital services like health and education have either been reduced to a fraction of what they once were or simply become beyond their ability to afford. For not only have the countries lost any of the profits associated with the harvesting of natural resources, they have no access to them either as they are all shipped back to the home country of whichever company "acquired" the rights to them. Resulting in the country in which they were produced having to buy back they wish to use.
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The resulting loss of capital and needless expenditure means they have less money to spend on social programs and those costs have to be borne by somebody. That somebody turns out to be the people, who for the most part can't afford to pay the fees for sending their children to school or receiving even the most basic medical attention. When you barely earn enough to feed and house your family, paying for a doctor or schooling becomes luxury items you can't afford. Of course that means a new generation is being raised the world over with a skill set suited only for the most menial types of employment who have no hope of improving their or their children's lot in the world.

As The End Of Poverty? points out though, there's a fine tradition of these practices dating back to the 1500's when Spanish conquistadors first came to America. They were a little less subtle in their methods as they simply slaughtered anyone who stood in their way, and then began the process of carrying away as much of South and Central America's valuable natural resources as they could stuff in the holds of their ships. At the same time they began using the rest of the land to create plantations to grow crops suited for export, coffee and cacao primarily, depriving the local populations of even the means to grow sufficient food to sustain themselves. The same type of practices were carried out all over the world in one way or another by the Dutch, British, Germans, French, and Belgians in Africa, Asia, and North America.

The British and the Dutch took it one step further and stopped local crafts people and artisans from manufacturing goods made from these resources. They then stole the techniques used by textile workers in India (British) and pottery makers in Indonesia (Dutch) and created their own industries in the same products and sold them back to those who were no longer allowed to make them anymore. By the time the colonial powers were ready to surrender control over their colonies in the 1950's and '60's, they left behind countries with no industry, land that had been worked to death growing single crops, untrained and poorly educated populations, and massive debts from having to import everything.

It's at this point the new form of colonialism takes over, involving a mixture of bribes, threats, coups, assassinations and in some cases armed interventions. While numerous people were interviewed during the course of The End Of Poverty? from government officials, economists, to individuals from various countries describing the conditions they lived under and the way the current economic system sustains poverty, the two who were the most chilling were Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and author of Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Republic and John Perkins formerly employed by American business interests as an Economic Hit Man and author of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. While Chalmers confirmed things like the CIA's involvement in the assassinations of heads of state and coups to get rid of governments unfriendly to American business interests, Perkins was, if anything, even more scary in his description of his former job.

As an economic hit man he would meet with the leaders of developing countires in order to convince them to take out crippling loans in order to finance major infrastructure projects to be built by American firms. As a result of their debts these countries would then be forced to sell off the rights to their natural resources in an effort to pay back what they owed, usually to the company who was hired to build the project that caused the debt in the first place. He said that his arguments to convince leaders basically came down to you can accept this bribe and sign the contract or else we will replace you with someone more willing to assist us. According to him the assassination of world leaders from the Congo to Ecuador over the last fifty years can be laid at the door of these practices.

With the majority of the land in the hands of either large corporations or individuals and being used to either grow crops that offer no benefit to local populations or are strictly for export purposes people can't even grow their own food to offset their lack of income. As we find out when the cameras travel to Kenya and interview local farmers in the Rift Valley area, even holding on to your land doesn't help. Dominion Foods of the United States was allowed to dam the river to service their agribusiness in the valley and proceeded to flood the grazing lands and fields of all the local farmers. Land which had sustained them for generations has now been turned into swampland which means not only can't it be used for crops any longer, but the mosquito population has increased bringing with them malaria and other associated diseases.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to dismiss everything said in this movie as anti-American propaganda, the whining of liberal bleeding hearts, or socialist rhetoric. However, anybody who doesn't have some sort of vested interest, be it philosophical or financial, might start to realize after listening to so many people from so many different countries all over the world describing their circumstances, this has nothing to do with politics or national sentiment. People are starving to death on a daily basis in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension and it could easily be prevented. They might even start to agree with the conclusion John Perkins has reached; that as long as people's lives anywhere in the world are unstable because of poverty, nobody's life is secure. It took the events of September 11 2001 for him to come to the conclusion that something has to change for all our sakes - what will it take to convince you?

The End Of Poverty? is not easy to watch because of the information it imparts. However there's nothing wrong with how its delivered as everything is told in as direct manner possible in language anybody can understand. The special features include even more information as they contain in depth interviews with some of those who appeared in the film and some additional experts as well. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and aparthaid poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings". We just have to be willing to take action, and this DVD offers some of the most compelling arguments you'll ever hear for taking action. Poverty and starvation exist because of the greed of a few and the ignorance of many - after watching this movie no one will be able to plead ignorance ever again.

April 6, 2010

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

There's probably nothing harder to do than write about a subject which has not only been written to death, but which is also is some manner considered highly sacrosanct. Even more perplexing is when the subject is about the unspeakable horrors that humans have proven themselves capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. In today's world we are so inundated with images and information that the mere recounting of events has little or no effect on us. Hearing the same story over and over again instead of increasing our disgust, deadens our emotional reaction and we are no longer able to take in the real implications of what's being described.

Yann Martel brings that issue home with his new release, Beatrice & Virgil, published by Random House Canada on April/06/10 (April 13th/10 in the US). A successful author, Henry, latest story idea is rejected by his publishers and he moves with his wife to start a new life where he has little or nothing to do with writing. The book Henry's publishers had rejected was his attempt to find a way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way. He worked for five years creating in reality two books; an essay and a work of fiction. In order to accommodate both under the same roof his idea was to make a flip book; a work with two covers which the reader could start from either end and when finished with the first part, flip the book over and then start reading the second part in the other direction.

It was running head first into the brutal realities of publishing - he was taken to task by editors, publishers, and book sellers over lunch as to all the reasons it wouldn't work - that precipitated his exodus from both the city he lived in and writing. However, when he receives in the mail an obscure short story by the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert and an excerpt from a play that his correspondent has written along with a simple note saying he had read and enjoyed Henry's novel and needed his help, Henry was intrigued enough to contact the man.
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The Flaubert story was a particularly gruesome piece featuring what appears to be a highly amoral individual, who as a child takes great delight in the slaughter of animals. For some reason Henry's correspondent has highlighted the most gruesome of these scenes throughout the story as if to draw particular attention to them. The story continues with the young man perpetrating all sorts of violence through out his life, including the killing of his parents. Although he is eventually redeemed for the murder of his parents, nothing in the story gives answer to his senseless slaughter of animals. What Henry can't figure out is what the excerpt from the play - featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil with the latter attempting to describe a pear to the former, has to do with the themes expressed in the short story.

When he discovers the playwright, also named Henry, is also a taxidermist, and the characters of Beatrice and Virgil were inspired by two of his subjects, a donkey and a howler monkey respectively, the connection is apparently obvious. While the play itself starts off sounding like a re-make of Beckett's Waiting For Godot as the two characters are seem intent on finding ways of filling time, but it suddenly veers into a horrible account of the persecutions suffered by the two creatures at the hands of humans. It turns out the help he requires is he wants Henry to actually write for him; a description of Virgil in Beatrice's words.

Amazingly, instead of feeling resentful at being used by this total stranger, Henry finds that's he's excited and inspired. Perhaps its because of the obvious connections that can be drawn between the script and Henry's idea about finding new ways for writing about the Holocaust, but whatever it is he finds himself not only completely immersed in the play, but fascinated with both the taxidermist and his products to the point where he takes home various pieces. The man himself must be close to eighty Henry figures, yet is filled with a kind of remorseless energy. While some of his habits might be deemed eccentric, he is reluctant to let Henry take any of the script home with him to work with, Henry doesn't understand why everybody else, including his dog, his wife, and a waiter in a cafe where they meet, react so negatively to his new acquaintance.
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What Martel has done with Beatrice and Virgil is give readers a multilayered and highly textured read that at first seems somewhat obtuse and disjointed. For audiences used to being spoon fed information in comfortable digestible servings it might appear there are large gaps in the narrative. However what he has done is both gradually build a picture of the obsessive nature of the artist in his character of Henry and find a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. While the play within the novel is the obvious parallel, with its depiction of innocents being persecuted for no reason save their differences, as we follow the trajectory of Henry's obsession with both the play and the taxidermist it feels like we are watching the ease in which we can become complicit in horrific events. For although all the clues are right in front of him Henry fails to see the obvious with almost fatal consequences.

As Martel has Henry make clear at the beginning writing about subjects as abhorrent and sensitive as the Holocaust is a precarious proposition. Henry makes the argument that war has seen the death of millions of people, but that hasn't prevented the subject from being represented by many genres; war comedies, war romances, war thrillers and so on, and because of this we've gained a truer perspective of its nature. However, very few books of fiction dealing with the Holocaust have ever done anything but present it strictly as straight historical fiction that deal directly with actual events. With Beatrice & Virgil Martel has managed to prove that point to a certain degree - I don't think the world will ever be ready for a comedy about mass murder or even a romantic Holocaust story - you can write about it effectively without once ever setting foot in the camps or having the action take place in the 1940s.

In fact, in some ways he's made the situation even more horrific by bringing it back to the personal level instead of allowing us to hide from realities behind the safety of historical facts. If we know in advance we are going to be reading a story of the Holocaust, we inure ourselves against what we suppose will be the horrors to come and so pass through relatively unscathed. Here Martel almost ambushes us with it, as although his main character raises the subject in the opening of the book, its apparently dropped with the rejection of his book and his decision to take a sabbatical from writing. Even the introduction of the Flaubert story, with its scenes of carnage, and our early glimpses of the play are made to seem more about the plight of endangered species through the introduction of Henry the taxidermist.

According to Henry, the novelist, only two percent of every Holocaust victim has ever written about their experiences. As that's the case in order for these horrendous types of events to be remembered, and the experience properly understood by others, it's necessary for those who've not been through it to find a way to bring it to life so the world can understand the horror in an attempt to prevent them from occurring again. As we don't seem to be able to learn from history - ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Rawanda, and all the other ethnic based violence that has occurred since the end of WW ll makes that apparent- it becomes imperative some other way of getting the message across is found. Martel's book might not be the whole answer, but its a positive step in the right direction.

April 1, 2010

Book Review: Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani

How is it that people can so easily go from being oppressed to being an oppressor? Immigrants fleeing from a society where they were second class citizens come to a new country in order to make a fresh start, but somehow forget what it was that caused them to have to flee in the first place. Instead of being merely grateful for the opportunity to live as they like without having to look over their shoulders, they become driven to make a success of themselves no matter what. Perhaps because they lived with insecurity for so long, they are blinded to anything but guarantying security for themselves and their loved ones in this new place, and lose track of everything else.

Obviously that's not the case with all immigrants, and its not even a statement one can make about any particular community in general. Within any group of people there will be those, no matter what their backgrounds or personal histories, who will have no compulsions about doing whatever they have to in order to get ahead, and those who follow a more moderate path. Yet in a society whose system is based on the premise of winners and losers, one group will invariably be higher up the ladder that somebody else. Therefore, no matter how good their intentions, they will be the exploiters, in either a small way or a large way, of those beneath them. While we may like to think of ourselves as living in a classless society the reality is wealth equals status and the more you have the more exalted you are.

In his new release, Dahanu Road published by Random House Canada on March 30th/10, Anosh Irani recounts the story of a family of Iranian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India before WW ll in order to escape their status as second class citizens. By the time we join the story the family are well established land owners and the founder of the family's fortune's grandson, Zarios, is now an adult. Zarios has grown accustomed to privilege and leading a life of idleness. While his grandfather may have had to walk from Iran to India, and suffered deprivations and abuse as a child, neither Zarios or his father Aspi have had to struggle for anything.
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Working for the family, and all the other local landowners, are the Warlis, a local tribal people whose land this was before the immigrants from Iran arrived. Zarios is not a cruel person by any stretch of the imagination, but he's never given any thought to how the Warlis went from owning the land he stands to inherit, to working for next to slave wages as field workers on it. As his father is as ignorant of the land's history as he is, it's to his grandfather that he must turn to for answers to the questions that start to arise soon after the story begins. For, one morning, as he's walking the land, he comes across the body of one of their workers who has hung himself. When it turns out the last person to have seen Ganpat alive was Zarios' grandfather, he becomes curious as to what happened at that meeting. His grandfather said, with great scorn, that Ganpat had asked him for money, which he naturally refused to give him.

Nothing more might have come of this incident, after all it was just another drunk tribal worker who hung himself, save for the fact that Zarios meets Ganpat's daughter, Kusum, and is immediately attracted to her. When he finds out that Ganpat wanted money to free his daughter from an abusive marriage, Zarios takes it into his head that he will rescue her and then take her away from her life of squaller. Naturally he has no idea of what he's doing. All his life whenever he has seen something he's liked or wanted he's taken it, and this case is no different. It's not that his intentions aren't good in this case, or that he means Kusum any harm, but if he can't even tell his parents that she's not a servant when they come home unexpectedly and find her sleeping on the living room floor, well how is he going to be able to have any sort of permanent relationship with her?
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As the book progresses we learn what Zarios doesn't know about his family's history in the region. Ganpat's death is the catalyst which not only propels the action in the present, but brings the past alive for both his grandfather and Kusum's family as well. For it turns out that the fortunes of the two families have been intertwined long before the youngest generation met. Over the course of the book Irani does a remarkable job of having the past and the present march through its pages side by side with the former providing the backdrop against which the latter takes place. Whether we are given access to the grandfather's memories as he thinks back over his life, or we listen in on Kusum being told her family history by her aunt, what is revealed is both sad and disgusting.

What's most impressive about Dahanu Road is how the reader finds it very easy to slip into the world of the landlords and accept their behaviour as, if not normal, than perhaps harmless. The men gather at a local tea house every day, each with their own peculiar personality quirks to make them endearing to the reader, and it's not until a while has passed we realize none of them have to do anything to make money. For while they sit around all day long their fields are being worked by people like Kusum and her family, who live in huts with dirt floors. Then we also start to learn how these same men treat the Warlis - how they hold one of their fellows in high esteem because he devised a method of cleaning the crop that will guarantee the women having to expose themselves for their pleasure - and their cute little jokes and pranks don't seem so harmless anymore.

On the surface this is a deceptively simple book, but you will discover there are secrets hidden beneath some words and questions hidden among the paragraphs. Why do immigrants escaping oppression end up oppressing others? Is it only because of the fear they feel from the insecurity they've faced in the past, or is there more to it than that? Irani doesn't offer any simple answers to any of the questions he raises in the book - there are no simple answers in the real world, just attempts at understanding in the hopes we learn from the mistakes of the past. While it appears that Zarios represents that hope, the reality is that nothing much has changed by the time we get to the end of the book from the way things were when we first met him and we're left wondering what the future holds.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

January 1, 2010

Book Review: Voices Of A People's History Of The Untied States By Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove

History, it's said, is written by the winners, and our text books and encyclopedias bear this out with their accounts of wars won and political triumphs. Take a second look at most histories and you'll notice not only are they written by the winners, the story they tell is one seen through the eyes of a select group of people. You'll read about captains of industry, generals, presidents, kings, prime ministers, and the occasional war hero or two, and be regaled with tales of their acumen, or on occasion, spectacular failures. However what you'll very rarely find is the story of the private in the field who carried out the general's orders, a factory worker or coal miner describing what it was like to work twelve hour shifts with little pay for one of the captains of industry, or those who suffered from the politicians' decisions.

If one pays careful attention you can see history being written around you on a daily basis. It's in the headlines on CNN or the official statements from government offices around the world which are reprinted as fact. Today's announcement of a successful surgical strike in Afghanistan will be in tomorrow's history text book as part of the overall campaign against oppression and terror that was carried out in the early part of the 21st century. You'll probably look in vain for any mention of facts or opinions that disagree with that opinion. It's doubtful that history books will talk about the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the "liberation" of their country, how the country descended into lawlessness and violence during the occupation, or how conditions for the average person in both Iraq and Afghanistan actually worsened under the new regimes installed by the "liberators".

However, that doesn't meant there aren't any accounts or records of that information. It's just that somehow or other they're not made readily available for us, the public at large, to read. In fact throughout the history of this continent, more specifically the United States, there exist examples of speeches and first person accounts of events that give lie to the officially held position espoused by history books. Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, published by Seven Stories Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, gathers together writings, speeches, poems, and song lyrics dating back to the times of Columbus telling the history or the United States, but its a history you might not recognize.
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As the majority of the voices in this book are those of ones that were raised in protest against the actions of the government of the time, there will be those who will accuse it of presenting history from a liberal or left wing bias. However, what they will fail to mention is that the histories we have been presented with up until now are just as biased in the other direction. Think of this rather as an attempt to balance the scales. We've heard about Rockefeller and Carnagie and how they built their empires and as captains of industry helped to make the country great, well now you'll hear from those who worked in their factories and mines and fought for living wages, safe working conditions, child labour laws, and a forty hour work week. In fact many of the things we take for granted now; the right of women to vote, equal rights, and the abolition of slavery, were once considered dangerous subversions and the people who spoke out against them threats to public safety.

However, how many text books have quoted ex-slave's Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" where she espouses not only the rights of African Americans but women as well. Rights which none of us think twice about now. However only twenty-two years after Truth's speech Susan B Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in a presidential election and was told by her judge that she had been found guilty according to the established forms of law. These two women, along with many of the voices recorded in this book, were considered to be dangers to society, criminals, radicals, and threats against the established norm. Yet they, along with the men and women who were shot down by Rockefeller's private militias when they went on strike, or arrested by Alabama police for protesting segregation are responsible for the freedoms most of us enjoy today. But whose names are the prominent in the history books? Not the ones who fought for our rights, the ones who fought tooth and nail against them.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States is just what it says it is, voices of the people - from those you've heard of, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springstein, and individuals you haven't, like Private John G. Burnett of the American army who served on the infamous "Trail Of Tears". Born and raised in Tennessee, he grew up roaming the woods and mountains of the Smokey Mountain County which was the traditional home of the Cherokee. In 1838 he took part in what he called "the most brutal order in the history of American warfare" - the rounding up of every single Cherokee in the region, and their forced march through the mountains without proper clothes, shelter or food. "Murder is murder" he says, "and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838 ... the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokee to their exile. I wish I could forget it, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory..."
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There are speeches by famous people, but not the speeches we've heard recorded. For instance there's a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. explaining why it is essential that he come out in public as being against the Viet-Nam war. Than there are the speeches that were never allowed to be given. Some poor soul made the mistake of inviting Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag nation to speak at the 350th anniversary celebrations of the landing at Plymouth Rock. The organizing committee took one look at his proposed speech and refused to let him speak as his version of events didn't quite jibe with the celebratory mood they were trying to create. Maybe it was his descriptions of putting people in chains or the pilgrims stealing the Indian's winter food supplies, but it certainly didn't sound much like the descriptions of the first Thanksgivings that most of us have been weaned on.

Reading through a history of America taken from the point of view of those who have dissented, those who have stood up bravely in the face of people who would deprive them of their rights, and those who have dared disagree with the status quo and seeing how it was these people, just as much as the politicians, the generals, and the captains of industry who shaped its future, might make you want to rethink what you hear being passed off as history in the making on today's news. What are the voices who disagree with them saying now - is it possible that they are as right in their statements as Susan B. Anthony was in her address to the court which tried her for illegally voting because she was a woman? Perhaps they are and perhaps they aren't, but how are we to know if we're not allowed to hear them?

History is all of our stories come together, whether we are participants or observers. In Voices Of A People's History Of The United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have gathered together some of the voices like ours from history and told the story of the United States from the time of Columbus to those who oppose the empire building mentality that exists in today's America. Each segment is introduced and given its historical context so you know what and why the person is speaking and what about. If you still think it was a benevolent government that ensured black people were given the vote and schools were integrated than you really need to read this book to learn your own history and perhaps see how you too can have a role in it.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

October 26, 2009

Book Review: In His Majesty's Service By Naomi Novik (Omnibus Edition: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, And Black Powder War)

When I was young I was fascinated with European history, especially the Napoleonic wars that changed the shape of Europe from 1798 to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Aside from the fact that he conquered most of Europe he was also responsible for the rise of nationalism among countries that had been former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of those countries he occupied actually looked to him as an example until his troops showed up on their doorstep. However that was knowledge I only came by later when studying the era in school. As a kid I garnered my history lessons from the books of two British authors, Ronald Welsh and C. S Forester. Welsh's books followed the fortunes of the Carey family in war from the Crusades to WWI, while Forester's books traced the career of British naval officer Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral.

It's been a long time since I read any books of that type, and to be honest, I didn't really think there was anyway an author could come up with an original enough way of presenting the same history over again to make it interesting enough to read. Well, I have to tell you that when I'm wrong I'm wrong. As I'm sure many of you have already discovered American author Naomi Novik not only created the means to do just that, but has done so in a manner which recreates everything that made those original books so wonderful to read at the same time. If you're like me and had never read any of her Temeraire series, Random House Inc is releasing the perfect answer on October 27th/09, In His Majesty's Service, an omnibus collection of the first three of the five books so far published; His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War. As a bonus they've also thrown in a previously unpublished short story set in the world she has created "In Autumn A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River"

In the world that Novik has created dragons exist and have the ability to communicate with humans. Not all dragons are fire breathers, some are prized for their weight, some for their manoeuvrability, while others for their ability to spit acid. However, no matter how valuable a resource they might be considered in times of war, in British society it's not the done thing for a gentleman to become an aviator. Buying a commission in the navy, the cavalry, or even the infantry is an acceptable occupation for a younger son of a good family, but Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy knows just what his father's reaction will be when through sheer chance he ends up bonding with a dragon.
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It matters little that his dragon, whom he names Temeraire after the first ship he served on, turns out to be an exceedingly rare dragon of Chinese breeding, a Celestial, he knows his father will look on it as a stain on the family's good name. However he soon discovers that he neither cares, or has time for his father's, or anybody else's, prejudices. For one thing he is astounded at Temeraire's capacity for learning and intelligence. However what amazes him most of all is the emotional bond that develops between him and Temeraire. He soon discovers he prefers his company over that of most humans. While the first book in the omnibus, His Majesty's Dragon is mainly concerned with developing the characters of both Temeraire and Laurence and establishing the world they live in, we do find out pieces of information which will bear significantly on the duos future adventures. Laurence had captured Temeraire's egg from a French vessel that it attacked as it would normally during the course of battle. However what they didn't know at the time was that the egg was meant to be a present for Napoleon from the Chinese Emperor.

So even though Temeraire almost single handed (winged) managed to repulse Napoleon's invasion fleet off the coast of Britain, the British government seriously considers sending him back to the Chinese when the emperor's second son shows up demanding he be handed over. In Throne Of Jade we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they travel to China in an attempt to plead their case. It's while in China that the two come face to face with how unfairly dragons are treated in the West. In European countries dragons are kept at a far remove from humans, and treated with only a little more courtesy than other domesticated animals. However in China they discover the society is set up to accommodate both species, from city streets being wide enough for dragons to stroll through them freely, dragons being paid for their services, knowing how to read and write, to having positions of authority both in the military and civilian life.
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While Black Powder War details their return to Great Britain, we also learn that as a result of their activities in China they have made for themselves, and Britain, a deadly enemy. Lien is a giant albino dragon who holds a personal grudge against them for their role in the death of her rider. That he was trying to kill Laurence and overthrow his father the emperor of China is irrelevant, and now she has offered her services to Napoleon in order to see Britain overthrown and Temeraire dead. What can one dragon do you might wonder? Well plenty once she's able to convince Napoleon to start using dragons the way the Chinese do and teaching them the battle plans she studied in China.

While all dragons carry a certain number of crew, nobody had thought to use them to act as troop and supply transports until Lien suggested it to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire witness the success of her new tactics first hand as they barely escape from the debacle of the defeat of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon while making their way home from China. For using dragons to increase their mobility the French army is able to advance so fast that they take the Prussians by surprise and cut off their planned retreat through Poland to join up with the Russian army. Even though our heroes manage to escape from Europe they are returning to an England totally bereft of allies and faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince the British high command to change their means of employing dragons or fall to Napoleon as surely as Europe did.

What's amazing about these books is how well Novik has managed to not only bring 19th century Europe to life, both in the attitudes of her characters and her descriptions of society, but how seamlessly she has integrated dragons into the mix. As we get to know dragons through the eyes of Laurence, as his awareness of their capabilities and sentience grows, so does ours. Like most people of his class and generation he never had considered dragons beyond their uses in war. Now that his eyes have been opened to the their place in society in China, he knows that things will have to change, We watch with astonishment as Temeraire learns to not only speak Chinese but to write its characters first using a claw. In many ways Temeraire is like an exceptionally bright teenager who is only now beginning to realize just how curtailed his activities have been by the adult world.

At the same time Novik has done an equally credible job of bringing aerial combat with dragons alive. Similar to naval engagements with boarding parties and rifle fire, there's the added thrill of the dragons assaulting each other, and of course the dangers involved with fighting pitched battles on the back of a bucking, twisting, weaving, and roaring dragon. If your guy wire holding you onto your ride is somehow cut, you could very well find yourself tumbling thousands of feet to your death. Like navy crews who spend days on end in the rigging of their ships with the deck seemingly miles away, those wishing to crew a dragon need a good head for heights.

Obviously Novik has taken some liberties with history - there were no dragons present at the battle of Trafalgar as far as I know, but she has done much to bring new life into what had become a moribund and predictable genre. I've never been a fan of alternate history, but instead of floating some what if premise about the course of history, Novik has merely added another ingredient to the mix to make historical fiction that much more interesting and exciting. If you've not read any of her Temeraire series yet, I not only recommend it highly, but can think of no better introduction then the omnibus In His Majesty's Service containing its first three books. The Napoleonic Wars, and historical fiction, will never be the same again.

October 25, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna By Barbara Kingsolver

Everybody has probably heard the expression, "history is written by the winners" in reference to the tendency of history to be told from only one side and to represent a particular point of view. While reading history text books which misrepresent events that happened a hundred years ago is upsetting if you know the truth of what happened, can you imagine what it would be like to live through hearing your own history re-written? Even more disturbing would be to find the re-writes based on innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies.

In the late 1940's, and through the 1950's, many citizens of the United States of America discovered their lives had been ruined by others inventing malicious gossip or making false accussations, about them and their histories. If you were named by a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un American Activities as being either a member of, or a former member of, the Communist party, you could easily find yourself facing social ostracism if not jail time. You weren't tried in a court of law, given a chance to defend yourself in front of an impartial judge, or presumed innocent. In fact if you showed up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities it was generally presumed you were guilty and it was only a matter of figuring out how guilty you were.

Barbara Kingsolver, has never been an author to shy away from controversial subject matter in either her fiction or non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Lacuna published by Harper Collins Canada, is no exception, as she not only takes us behind the scenes of history, she shows us how quickly and easily the truth of events can disappear and lies become reality. Cleverly mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events Kingsolver takes us on a journey that encompasses both Mexico and the United States from the 1930's through the 1950's.
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Lacuna is literally the Spanish word meaning hole, or the space between two objects. However it can also be used to refer to a cave or any other sort of gap; like the gap between truth and what the public perceives to be the truth. In The Lacuna Kingsolver traces the history of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a Mexican mother and American father, from his early days living with his mother in Mexico as she's supported by a series of boyfriends, and then back and forth between the United States and Mexico as the winds of history blow him hither and yonder. For once he is set up on his own - after a brief sojourn in an American military as a teenager which ended under a cloud of suspicion - he enters into service as the cook to the mercurial Mexican painter Frida Khalo and her sometime husband, painter Diego Rivera.

The Riveras aren't just artists, they are political artists, and very Communist. We learn about Shepherd's history via the journals he started keeping when he was young living with his mother. At first the Riveras wonder about their young cook, has he been sent to spy on them? What are all these notes he's making to himself? However when Frida finds out he's merely keeping a diary of events for his own amusement and because he loves to write she encourages him to keep at it. That is until they are to play host to a very special and important guest - the exiled Lev Trotsky. One of the original leaders of the Russian revolution along with Stalin and Lenin, Trotsky had been anointed by Lenin to be his successor. However, Stalin, through lies and quick action, was able to not only supplant Trotsky but also to cast him in the role of traitor to Russia.

Through Shepherd's journals we learn how Trosky comes to live in Mexico with the Riveras and how Shepherd eventually ends up working for Trotsky as cook and translator; a position that will come back to haunt him in later years, and one that puts his life in real danger. For Stalin has ordered that Trotsky be killed, and Communists around the world are eager to carry out his request. Ironically the newspapers in Mexico and the United States refuse to believe that Trotsky is under threat. When his house is machine gunned he is accused of setting it up himself in order to garner sympathy, even when it's proved that the leader in the Communist party of Mexico had been behind the attack. When Trotsky is finally assassinated, it's Frida who arranges the means for Shepherd to leave the country by having him shepherd some of her artwork from Mexico to New York for an exhibit. As he holds dual citizenship she tells him to stay in America until it is safe. Unfortunately America doesn't turn out to be the safe haven they hoped it to be.
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For although he initially enjoys some moderate success as a writer, the America depicted is one scared of its own shadow. First is the round-up of "enemy aliens" - Japanese Americans - during WWII, and then it's the turn of anyone ever suspected of being a Communist, or other sort of un-American activity. Through Shepherd's journals Kingsolver shows how innuendo, hearsay, and lies are used to bring about his downfall, as he details how public opinion is turned against him by the way the hole between the truth and lies is filled in. It's alarming how quickly we see Shepherd go from being a novelist admired by critics and fans alike, to being public enemy number one in the press. People who one moment were fawning over him, can't push him away quick enough.

It's always a dangerous thing for a novelist to bring real people into a story because you can't create them from scratch. They have their own histories and personalities already, and trying to fit them into a work of fiction can rapidly become quite convoluted. However, Kingsolver has handled the inclusion of real people into Shepherd's story beautifully by casting him in the role of historian. Instead of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky trying to fit into his fictional life, he finds a place in their history which is not only plausible, but also allows us to see them as real people not just as figures in history. Not only does this bring them to life, but it brings history to life, and fills in the holes - the lacuna - that most history books don't answer. We see how Trotsky was allowed to be made a villain because the West needed Stalin, and in turn how Stalin became the villain when he was no longer needed. The only way that can be accomplished is to ignore history, and according to Kingsolver in this book the United States is a past master at doing just that.

The Lacuna is the story of one man caught up in the tides of history, and the story of how history is created. While beautifully written, with characters who jump off the page they are so alive, it is filled with unpleasant truths about our society. Kingsolver is an intelligent and compassionate writer which allows her to create a story that works both as social commentary and an excellent work of fiction without the former interfering with the latter. You may not like what she has to say, but you can never deny that she says it well and with authority. After reading The Lacuna you may never look at a history book or a newspaper story in quite the same way again, and that's a good thing.

The Lacuna can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or from Amazon.ca or other on line retailers.

August 27, 2009

Book Review: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis

Do you know where Uruguay is? What's to know anyway, another backward country that can't even figure out how to run its own affairs. What's to know is that people have lived and died there for as long as people have lived and died anywhere else in this hemisphere. A small country, but still a country, Uruguay sits between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast of South America, whose major port town, Montevideo, takes its name from the Portuguese for " I see a mountain" Monte vide eu.

The Portuguese sailors who had landed there first had seen El Cerro, and perhaps after so long at sea it appeared a mountain to their eyes, but to Ignazio Firielli, freshly arrived from Italy in 1911, compared to the Alps of his former homeland, it's merely a hill. However, seeking to start a new life following the death of his mother and father - the latter had killed the former and then himself - he's not about to overly particular about these things. Finding work and surviving is what's important for him now. After four years of empty work chance takes him into a poker game with the members of a travelling carnival and his eventual employment as their new stable boy. It's thus that he travels inland and meets the woman who will be his wife, Pajarita, who will give birth to Eva, who in her turn will bear Salome, who in turn will give birth to Victoria.

The Invisible Mountain, the new novel by Carolina De Robertis published by Random House Canada, traces the history of Uruguay since 1900 through the eyes of its women. For, while Ignazio plays a necessary role in the proceedings, it's the first three generations of this family's women who we follow through the pages of this story as their struggle to find themselves runs parallel to their country's struggle for freedom. The story begins before Ignazio even sails to South American, and while it could be said to begin with the founding of Uruguay, as according to Pajarita's aunt Tita her great-grandfather was Jose Gervasio Artigas, the great liberator of the country who led the fight for independence with gauchos, Indians, and freed slaves, it really begins with the birth of Pajarita.
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Pajarita's mother died giving birth to her, which was how her aunt Tita came to live with her and her brother Aritgas. However shortly after she was born one night the family laid down to sleep and woke the next morning to find the child had vanished. For the rest of the year Tita scoured the countryside surrounding the small village where they lived for the baby with no success. However, the following New Years Day - 1900 - Pajarita was found in the top of a tree thirty meters above the ground. It was only after Aritgas went to fetch Tita, and she shooed the assembled villagers away from the tree, that it shook itself and Pajarita flew into her aunt's waiting arms. Which is how she was given the name meaning "little bird".

Pajarita, her daughter Eva, and her granddaughter Salome are our guides through the twentieth century in South America. Pajarita listens to her brother as he recounts life in Brazil and the constant battle for power there make her and her friends grateful for their peaceful existence in Uruguay. There are laws protecting workers, unions, and good schools for their children. Eva has opportunities to better herself that her mother lacked. However events, and her father's demons, change the course of her life irrevocably. Hoping to find a better life Eva flees to Argentina and the bright promise offered by the new government of Juan Peron and his wife Evita.

Argentina almost proves a disaster but she's saved from ruin and maybe death by Dr. Robert Santos, who not only nurses her back to health in hospital, but falls in love with her. Instead of doing what other men his class have done for generations, and taking a low born mistress, he shocks and appals his family and friends by breaking off his engagement to a society girl in order to marry Eva. As well as having two children, Robert and Salome, Eva's nascent talent for poetry begins to bloom during her marriage and she even manages to publish the occasional poem. However the shiny promise of the Perons tarnishes with corruption, and when Eva assists a colleague of her husband's in writing a memorandum about the torture and framing of a political prisoner, she and her family are forced into exile. Late one night they steal away on a boat back to Uruguay.
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However the Uruguay that Salome experiences is one heading down the path of oppression, and by the time she graduates from high school she has become a member of an urban guerilla group dedicated to overthrowing the government. After her cell successfully kidnaps an American special advisor to the police - he's teaching them torture techniques to be employed on political prisoners - it's only a matter of time before she is arrested, tortured, and jailed. Part of her torture consisted of rape, and so the fourth generation, Victoria, is born in prison. However at a month old, when the guards take the baby away to be Christened, it is stolen by resistance members who managed to escape, and sent away to live with her brother Robert in California.

The Invisible Mountain is fascinating and beautiful in the way De Robertis is able to mix grim reality with the elements of the fantastic that seems to be a hallmark of the best South American fiction. However what makes the book so effective is the masterful job the author has done with creating the characters populating the story. While it would have been easy and simplistic to make men the villains of the piece, she ensures the reader spends enough time with each that we can no more blame them completely for what happens than we would blame the rock we stub our toe on by accident. Of course the three women are the lead characters, and therefore we know them the best and De Robertis has created masterful portraits of each of them.

While they are the heroines of the piece they are not made out to be specifically heroic or perfect. In each case we are shown their weaknesses as well as their strengths so while we may admire them, we don't idealize them. This is not an attempt to make women out to be anything more than they are, and because of that we respect and admire the characters all the more. For it's in spite of their frailties that they are able to stand up and be proud of themselves, and that's an impressive accomplishment in any character no matter what their gender.

You may not have known much about the small South American country of Uruguay before starting to read The Invisible Mountain, but once you've finished it, you'll not only have a good grasp of its history, buy a deeper understanding of South America in general. For while the three women are the major characters, Uruguay itself is a character who makes its presence felt throughout the book. You'll never think of history as boring and impersonal again after reading this book and its intimate introduction to Uruguay.

The Invisible Mountain can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
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One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

June 7, 2009

DVD Review: The Adventure Of English With Melvyn Bragg

I've always been fascinated with words and their origins, wondering where they came from and how they came to mean what they do today. I had studied enough Latin in high school, and know enough French, to know where quite a few words of English came from. However, even a quick glance at other words will tell you that there's no way they could have roots going back to either French or Latin. So it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that English not only has its origins in about a half dozen older languages, but every time its contacted another language, its sucked up new words like a vacuum.

Now I had always joked about English being a mongrel language but I wasn't prepared for just how many different cultures had contributed to building the words I work with on almost a daily basis. Watching The Adventure Of English, the four DVD disc set of the British television show just released by Athena, a division of Acorn Media, was therefore an eye opening experience. Hosted by British author Melvyn Bragg, the series traces the history of the English language from its roots in the mists of time to the language of mass communication and commerce its become today. It may not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but in the hands of Bragg the journey is nearly as exciting as any adventure story.

The early history of the English language revolves around a series of invasions of the British Isles that took place over a five hundred year period. English as we know it today has its earliest European roots in the North Sea. It was Germanic tribes from the Friesian Islands invading in 500 AD that brought the beginnings of English to Britain. They conquered the native Celts and established kingdoms in the east, west, south, and north of England with only a small enclave of Celts surviving in what is now known as Wales. However those kingdoms weren't to last long as the Danes under their king soon followed and drove the Saxons out of the north and east and established their own holdings there.
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Bragg shows us how each of these two initial waves of invaders left there mark upon present day English through offering examples of their tongues presence in today's speech. In the north and east of England for instance names that ends in son, Robinson, Harrison, and Williamson, can be traced back to the Norse tradition of naming people "son of". He also shows how place names have retained traces of the former dominant language. However it was only after peace and trade between the two sets of invaders were established that "Anglo-Saxon" began to thrive (the Anglo comes from the name of one of the Kingdoms, East Angles which is now known as East Anglia).

With the introduction of Latin and the Roman script, they were even making headway on establishing "English" (what we know as Old English and barely recognizable as being the same language we speak today) in the written form, when the Normans invaded in 1066. That was nearly the death knell of English as French became the official language of the land. It did die out as a written language because of the Norman invasion, but while English absorbed some words we now take for granted (justice, court, and castle) it lived on as the spoken language of the majority of the population. Ironically enough it wasn't until the new "French" empire invaded and conquered Normandy, cutting off all links between the rulers of England and their former homeland, that English mades its comeback.
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Of course it doesn't take too long for English to go on the offensive once they've got their own house in order. After taking care of the whole matter of the Catholic church and establishing the Church of England under Henry VIII thus ensuring masses are held in English not in Latin, their eyes turned further afield. The Puritans took English with them to North America where they established where they incorporated mispronounced Native American words into their vocabulary in taking the first steps in establishing "American English". Then came the first forays into India and the Caribbean.

While initially British merchants in India were forced to learn the language of the rulers as they were dealing with a civilization both older and more sophisticated than their own, eventually the roles were reversed. Taking on the "White Man's Burden" of elevating the poor misguided coloured people of the world, the East Indian Trading company passed laws prohibiting the teaching of any language but English to those Indians receiving an education. While this was an incredibly patronizing attitude, it did result in the development of "Indian English", which in turn helped support Indian nationalism by supplying those struggling for "Home Rule" the vocabulary with which to articulate their demands.

Bragg doesn't mince any words in his descriptions of how English was spread through out the world. While his conversational approach to delivering the material may sound like he's making light of the way events took place in India and other locales, he doesn't shy away from telling the truth when it comes to showing English being spread by the sword. From Australia to America settlers and traders were backed up with gun ships and muskets to ensure that business was carried on in the Queen's English. When the sun began to set on the British Empire after the World Wars of the twentieth century, the American Empire took up the task of imposing the language on the rest of the world through a mixture of economic and martial might. When you think about it, not much has changed since the Germanic tribes left the Friesian Islands.

In The Adventure Of English Melvyn Bragg does an excellent job of not only unravelling the roots of the language we all take for granted, but he does it such a manner that he makes it enjoyable to watch. Often programs like these are either so dry as to be indigestible, facile to the point of being useless as sources of information, or delivered in such a manner that the dirtier aspects of history are whitewashed out. Remarkably none of that happens here. Not only are details of the history of the English language revealed that most likely you would have never discovered on your own, Bragg's approach is that of a story teller not a lecturer. In fact he's so good a story teller you hardly notice your learning anything, and you eagerly await the next adventure. If you have any curiosity about how and where the words you speak came from, The Adventure Of English not only supplies the answers, it does so in a way that brings both the language and its history to life. One thing is for sure, after watching this program you'll never look at a word, any word, in quite the same way again.

May 11, 2009

DVD Review: Palace Of The Wind

Living our lives of ease and luxury in the cities of the world it's easy to forget that there are places on the planet where life is hard and unforgiving. Where a simple error in judgement can easily lead to dangerous accidents or even loss of life. We see photographs of the high Arctic or the Sahara Desert and we wonder at their harsh beauty. Seemingly lifeless, they both offer vista's of what seems like unchanging landscape for miles in every direction. Yet appearances are deceptive as each of them are home to not only a variety of plants and animals, but people as well.

Traditionally the people of both lands were nomadic, but gradually the lands they once utilized to hunt or graze their flocks have been taken away from them. Whether it's permanent cities and their auras of waste that spread for miles in every direction, men trying to harvest the gifts that lay just below the earth's crust, or borders between countries, the wanderers of this world are no longer as free to travel as they once were. However while some have elected to settle among the cities of this new world, others have found ways to adapt to the changes and maintain the life of their ancestors.

Documentary film maker Hisham Mayet spent the better part of two years travelling through the Sahara desert filming and recording the people and the musicians he met there. One of the results of that trip is a new documentary DVD, Palace Of The Winds, being released on May 12th/09 by Sublime Frequencies. However, don't expect your normal documentary movie with voice overs and talking heads leading you by the hand to tell you a story because that's not Mayet's way. His camera and sound equipment give you eyes and ears to see and hear the world he is travelling through but he leaves you to form your own impressions based on the information you're able to absorb.
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Throughout the length of the roughly fifty-five minute film Mayet cuts between footage he shot while travelling between Guelmim in Southern Morocco and Nouakchott in Mauritian and footage of five groups of musicians he met along the way. With the music playing in the background as we travel through cities, nomad camps, and desert landscapes, we gradually begin to understand the context within which it was created. From the Atlantic coast in Morocco where the tidal flats appear to butt up against the beginnings of the Sahara, the sands and hills shaped by the wind that are the desert, a collection of felt and hide tents seemingly in the middle of nowhere that makes up an encampment, the back streets of a city lined with sun-baked clay buildings crumbling onto the sidewalk, to wide avenues cutting through a modern city; all are part of the world these people move through. 

At times watching this movie you occasionally lose track of the fact that you're in the twenty-first century, while at other moments you are confronted with a visual that emphasises the dichotomy of the nomads' world and the world they are travelling through. One of the most powerful images in the film was the camera pulling back from a large felt and hide tent only to see that it has been set up in the middle of a town square and that is surrounded on all sides by buildings and shops. Inside the tent a group of women, swathed from head to toe in cloth, some with their faces partially shielded, are either conducting some sort of divination ritual using sticks, or playing some sort of elaborate game. We have no way of knowing which as neither their demeanour or behaviour give us any indication as to the nature of what they are doing.

On another occasion the camera brings us inside and we are surrounded by woman, who are again covered head to toe with cloth, but this is obviously some sort of celebration as they are decked in all the colours of the rainbow. Bright yellows, greens, oranges, reds, purples and blues flash and glitter until you begin to feel like you've wandered into the nesting grounds of exotic tropical birds who've decided to compete to see who can grow the flashiest feathers. Initially the camera stays tightly focused on small groups of women and you just assume the music playing is simply the soundtrack like on other occasions. However when the camera finally pulls back to reveal the scene we see the band is playing live and that the only men in the room are two of the musicians and the waiters serving the women. Some of the women get up to dance and they are completely covered, faces and all, in their bright colours so that it looks like a rainbow has been called into life by the pulsating rhythm of the music. 
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While it might sound frustrating that Mayet never offers any clues as to what you're observing - what exactly were all those women doing together in their bright clothes being waited on by men? However, if you look at Palace Of The Wind in the same way you would a collage, a series of images placed together seemingly at random in order to create an overall impression, and don't worry about the meaning of each chapter in the movie, you will see that he has done an amazing job of depicting life among the nomads of this region. 

Of course, tying everything together is the music that plays continuously throughout the movie. Nearly half of the footage in the movie is of the musicians performing. Now we're not talking about them playing concerts, except for that one occasion described above, as for the most part they've been filmed in what looks to be rooms in their houses. Like other bands from the region the music is dominated by electric guitar and characterized by the hypnotic, trance like quality of its sound. Although, as we move from region to region a new band takes over, the music doesn't undergo any real noticeable changes. No matter if we are in a major metropolitan centre surrounded by cars and buildings or in the middle of the desert at a Nomad camp, the music is the thread that ties us to the people and that connects all the various scenes. They are the music and the music is them, and its what distinguishes them from the world around them.

Palace Of The Wind is not your usual type of documentary movie as it contains none of the narration or interviews that you're used to seeing. What it does do is give you an unprecedented look into the lives of the nomadic people of the Saharan desert, and the interrelationship between the people's lives and their music. Its an amazing voyage of discovery and exploration from which you're sure to retain vivid memories that will stick with you forever. You may never travel so far without leaving your house again.

December 26, 2008

Book Review: Human Landscapes From My Country (An Epic Novel In Verse) By Nazim Hikmet

Epic poems were things they used to write in the olden days to record the deeds of heroes and recount the histories of earth shattering events. They most definitely were never about the likes of you and me, nor did they bother themselves with the minutiae of everyday life. Even if they ever did talk about lessor mortals, they were written in language that made them inaccessible to all but the most highly educated.

Now that we are into the twenty-first century, the idea that any art form's subject would be limited to somebody or something because of status sounds ridiculous to our ears. Yet the idea that an epic poem could be about something other than a hero, or written in vernacular instead of elegant language, is as alien to our ears as it would have been a thousand years ago. Yet in the 1940's, not only did Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet commence work on an epic poem about the people of his country, he wrote in a style that could easily be understood by anyone with basic literacy skills.

A complete translation into English of hisHuman Landscapes From My Country, published by Persea Books and distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is now available for the first time. Hikmet began writing it in 1941 while a political prisoner in his native Turkey, and only finished it in 1950 when he was released as part of a general amnesty. Parts of it were published in translation in 1960 and '65 in France and Italy, and in the former Soviet Union in 1962, but it wasn't until after his death in 1963 that it was published in his homeland.
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To understand this work you need to know something about Nazim Hikmet, and about Turkey. Hikmet was born in 1903 (there seems to be some dispute over his birth date as I've read everything from 1900 - 03) in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of WWl Turkey had gone from an empire whose borders stretched from the Balkans to Egypt, to being the size it is today. Hikmet was born into a family of progressive intellectual professionals, and was exposed to poetry at an early age through his artist mother and poet grandfather. He had his first poems published in 1917, but after the war he left Allied occupied Turkey to attend university in Moscow where he was exposed to artists and writers from all over the world.

He returned to Turkey when it declared independence in 1924, but quickly ran afoul of the new republic and was arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape and flee to Russia, only to return again in 1928 during a period of general amnesty. Although he was able to publish nine books of poetry and worked as a proof-reader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator over the next ten years, he also spent time in jail on various political charges. In 1938 he was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years in jail for "writing poems that encouraged thoughts of mutiny in navel officers".

As an intellectual leftist Hikmet had very little contact with people outside his class and education background until he was sentenced to jail in 1938 and found himself immersed in their world. Meeting these people, and being forced to see the world from their point of view, was what inspired him to begin working on Human Landscapes From My Country. Not only did he want to describe who these people were and what their lives were like, he wanted to do so in such a manner that they would be able to read it. So "Landscapes" is a lot like a sketchbook as its filled with descriptions of people and places that Hikmet encountered during his roughly thirteen years in prison.

"In the third class waiting room/two red headed Bulgarian immigrants/with blue buttons on their shirts/and homespun yellow pants worn at the knees/squat/on the concrete/against the wall/instead of sitting on the wooden benches." With only a minimum of words Hikmet has drawn a picture that not only gives us a physical description of the men, but tells us something of their station in life. They are obviously poor, as they are wearing threadbare pants and shirts whose original buttons have been replaced, but there's more to this picture than just a description of poverty. You can be sure that Hikmet has mentioned them not using the benches for a reason, but why? Whatever the reason, Hikmet has not only given us enough information to visualize the scene, but has also so in such a way that his readers will see the men as segregated from the rest of the train's passengers. Any Turkish person reading this will be aware that the Ottoman Empire warred with Bulgaria at one time and understand the implications of that separation
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The train they are waiting to board is carrying a variety of people across Turkey; three prisoners being transferred and their guards, a student, a small time crook, a widow, a pregnant woman travelling alone, a mother and a daughter, and a variety of other people. These are the occupants of third class carriage number 510, and as Turkey alternatively speeds and creeps by their windows, we drop in and out of various conversations and individual's memories. A former soldier recounts the horrors of Gallipoli (WWl battle between Turkish and Australian/British troops that was a slaughter for both sides) and the awful conditions for the wounded: "My wounds got maggots./I open my cape:/little white worms/with black heads./I bend over to look,/but the critters are smart:/when the see me,/they scurry back in the wounds."

There's nothing romantic about those blunt words, and you try and imagine what it would be like to carry that memory with you for so long. Gallipoli was in 1915 and the train ride is taking place in 1941. Twenty-six years later and still his strongest memories are of war and maggots in his wounds. Yet he's so matter of fact about it, that not once do you feel like he's seeking sympathy or complaining. It's just how things were.

Human Landscapes From My Country carries the subtitle "An Epic Novel In Verse", yet unlike most novels it doesn't just follow the fortunes of one or two characters, it draws a picture of a people and a country. Using the same straight-forward, and sometimes graphic language, that I've cited here throughout, Hikmet has created a panoramic view of Turkey and her people. Through the eyes of the various people who he sketches we are given a view of what life was like in Turkey from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the start of WWll. At turns poignant, funny, and thoughtful, it is always eminently readable and wonderfully accessible.

You can purchase a copy of Human Landscapes From My Country either directly from Persea Books or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 12, 2008

Book Review: The Siege By Ismail Kadare

When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant, probably their next reaction was surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube river all the way into Europe.

Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would be conquerers, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standard of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbours, and history doesn't get forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so called sins of their ancestors.

I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad The Impaler, who supposedly slew hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes, and is the purported model for a certain blood sucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended, with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, takes us back to the 15th century to witness a Turkish army's attempts to break through the walls of an Albanian castle .
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For many years Albania had been completely cut off from the West, and even when the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were following Russia's lead and throwing off their communist leadership, Albania remained a sealed book. It's only been since the upheaval in the Balkans that we have had our the opportunity to see what was hidden for all of those years, including the work of writers like Ismail Kadre. The Siege was first published in Albania in 1970, and this edition is actually a translation of a French edition released in 1994 that is now considered the definitive version of the text.

For the majority of The Siege we are camped with the Turkish army outside the walls of the castle under attack and we are party to the innermost thoughts of everybody from the Pasha who is leading the army to the four members of his harem that he brought with him from home. A good deal of the time though, we are witnessing the fighting and life in the camp through the eyes the campaign's official chronichler, Mevla Celebi. Even before the actual battle begins he discovers he is faced with a problem of trying to come up with adjectives that will be suitably impressive to describe the important personages involved in assault.

He must of course reserve the more ornate one for his commander in chief, but what to do about all the other members of the War Council. For the truth of the matter is the majority of them just aren't designed to be recorded for posterity; one has a sty, another asthma, and yet another a humped back. It's as if all the officers of the army were formed in such a way as to make it harder to record his chronicle. Unfortunately it soon becomes obvious to him that those are going to be the least of his worries when it comes to recording events. For instead of being the quick and decisive victory that everyone was anticipating, after the first attack is successfully repulsed by the defenders, both sides have to hunker down for a long siege.

While there is a great deal of finger pointing and acrimony among the besiegers, (the spell caster is put to death, and the astrologer is sent to help dig an underground passage into the castle as punishment for their failings during and before the first assault) up in the castle they're not feeling too relieved. They know this was only the first of many assaults, and they have to be prepared for any sort of subterfuge and trickery on the part of those arrayed against them. In the past water supplies have been poisoned and animals infected with diseases have been released over the walls so they know they must be vigilant.
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The carnage as described by Kadare in the book is horrible as wave after wave of attackers are killed with boiling oil, or set on fire by being covered in pitch and having torches dropped on them. As the chronichler wanders the camp he sees countless numbers of men horribly disfigured and crippled by the wounds they have taken. His mind reels from the smells and the sights of the carnage, as well as the intrigues that continue apace among the captains of war who are supposed to be vanquishing the Empire's foes.

Yet they seem to be more intent on preserving their status within the hierarchy of the camp, and even more importantly, the court back home, than on winning the war. In fact as soon as it looks like they will have to retreat - back to the Empire - they begin to do their best to make sure they start distancing themselves from the Pasha in charge of the army. Like jackals and hyenas they circle their wounded overlord and look for some advantage that will serve them when they are home and off the cursed plains of Albania.

Kadare does a great job in describing the chaos of battle through the eyes of the Pasha as he sends wave after wave of men to crash against the walls of the castle, and we realize that he has no idea of what is going on at the walls. While it looks like the Turkish army is making advances, the reality is that they aren't able to breach the wall and are repulsed time after time until they are no longer able to sustain the siege. While you'd think, as the book is written by an Albanian, we would be feeling a great deal of joy that the author's historical countrymen were able to repulse their invader, instead we can't help feeling sorry for the Pasha. Kadare has been at great pains to ensure that the people on both sides of the wall are shown as human beings, not monsters. We've spent far too much time among the Turkish soldiers, getting to know various ones among them, to not have formed genuine attachments to people like the Chronicler of the battle.

Somehow Ismail Kadare is even able to inject a little humour into the proceedings as well, for he has a fine sense of the ridiculous on top of everything else. Some of the scenes of camp life, the gossip between the soldiers for instance, are very funny, but also a little sad. For it's here you realize these are just simple men taken from their farms to fight in a war they don't really have any understanding of.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare takes you into the heart of war at its most intense and finds something quite extraordinary, the human beings on both sides of the conflict. While there is nothing pretty in the surroundings, there is a haunting beauty to this book in its depiction of men who don't surrender to brutality or fear in spite of the ease which those around them are doing so. When you finish reading the book, the main feeling you have is one of regret; regret for all the lives lost, and regret for the fact that men will insist upon trying to kill each other for something as trivial as power and glory.

The Siege can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 6, 2008

Interview: John Trudell: Activist, Poet, Musician - An Umined Mind


Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process
The intelligence of each arriving human generation
Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs
Of the industrial society each human generation arrive in
The human beings are individually and collectively mined... John Trudell; "Somewhere Inside My Head"; Lines From A Mined Mind Fulcrum Press 2008.

Huh? That was my reaction when I first read those lines from the introduction to the collected writings of John Trudell, Lines From A Mined Mind. What is this crazy on about with his "Mined Mind" shit. But you know the longer I stared at it, and the further I read on into his introduction and then his poetry, it actually began to make sense - at least around the edges.

You see I may not ever really fully understand what it means to be a Mined Mind, because my mind has been so successfully mined already. I like to think of myself as being an outsider, separate from the mainstream of society, if only because of my career choices in the past - the arts - and the fact that my political and religious affiliations tend to be along the lines of "none of the above". However, simply the fact that I'm willing to make those choices at all, keeps me playing the game and being sucked into the maelstrom of our society. My mind has been mined because I believe that by doing what I do it makes me different, maybe even superior, to a great many people out there. Yet just the fact that I think that way, comparing myself to everybody else, means that I'm still just as much a part of it as everybody else because its the yardstick I measure myself against.
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Okay so I'm not doing anything to help you either understand what the hell it was he was talking about or giving you any insights to just who this guy is - which is after all the point of this exercise. It's supposed to be an interview with John Trudell - writer, lyricist, and former political activist - yet I'm babbling on about belonging or not belonging to society. Well you see people like John - they don't have a choice - when you're own government declares war on you for simply asking to be treated the way everybody else is treated, you get the hint real fast that your presence is not appreciated.

Now that's bound to change the way you look at things, and get you thinking outside the lines that make up the carefully constructed boxes that were supposed to think inside of. Talking to John made me realize just how big the gulf is between somebody whose really free, and what I think of as being free. I don't know if that's going to come across in what you're about to read - it pales in comparison to what I remember our conversation sounding like - but I hope by the end you come away with a clearer picture of John and a better understanding of where he's at, and the mining process that's being carried out on your mind on a daily basis.

Can we start off with some of the typical biographical details - where were you born and all that.

I was born in 1946 near Omaha Nebraska and split my childhood half and half between living in town with my parents and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation just outside of Omaha with my grandparents. I dropped out of high-school because it wasn't working for me, and at seventeen I joined the navy. I did my four year hitch, even though it wasn't really right for me, and got out in 1967. I did a couple of years of collage after that, but that didn't work out because of some political shit, and I was denied something that I should have got credit for.

This might be a stupid question, I don't know, but how would your experiences as a child have been different than your so-called typical kid growing up in the suburbs?

Well, like I said I travelled back and forth between the two worlds, living half my time on the reservation and half my time off it, and what I saw as the major difference between the two worlds was that while everyone on the reservation was poor, there was a real community, one that had common roots and a culture that tied it together. Off the reservation, in the non-native world it was more about competition - more emphasis on material stuff and class distinctions.

You know back in those days the emphasis was on finishing high school and getting a good job, no talk of university or collage for us, right, but I never felt like I was fitting out there - that's why I tired the military, and I don't regret that either, but it was all part of looking for a place where I fit. It was only on the reservation where I felt that sense of belonging - that's where my cultural/social peer group was.

I was just curious, up in Canada we had the Residential School system and as late as the 1970's kids were still being taken away from their families - wasn't there the equivalent in the States

Yeah, the boarding schools, but they weren't happening everywhere, and my dad kept me out of them - he also protected me from religion, so I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff I know some other people had to put up with.

What galvanized you to become politically active?

Well like I said I didn't feel like I fit anywhere in the non-native world. You know - no matter what you did, a job, school, whatever, you would have to be subservient to authority if you want to get ahead, and I just wasn't into playing that game. So when I went to Alcatraz (The All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans from 1969 -1971) it was like getting back to my community - the place where I fit best.

You were part of the All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 69-71 and them Chairman of AIM from 73 - 79. Those were some volatile years for the politically active Indian - Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Shootout, Anna Mae Asquash. Reading about it - it appears to have been a time of great hope and excitement mixed with fear and confusion. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on those years and are you able to give your assessment of it in general?

Our grievances were just, but the American government declared war on us and fought us for all they were worth. There were great highs and great lows, but we were motivated by good intentions. I know some tribes are better off now because of what we did, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was that our energy and our spirit was rekindled. There was a revitalization of who we were as a people.

Our confusions were those of any human searching for identity, of any human being searching for a way of being. Now when I look back on it I see it as part of my life experience where I might not have realized the lesson I was learning at the time, but at some point I got it.

From reading biographies about you there's the appearance that you became a poet and song writer over night because that's when you first started doing it professionally. Prior to the early eighties when you started recording, had you ever given any thought to music or poetry being part of you life

Nope - never. It wasn't anything I had planned on doing. I started writing in 1979, although I'd always been influenced by music, it wasn't with the intent of doing music. It's just that back in 1978 I knew things were going to change - activism had served its purpose and I could see it had run its course. Then the fire, when Tina, her mom, and the kids died (In 1979 just after John Trudell led a protest against FBI headquarters a mysterious fire burnt down his home killing his wife, her mother, and their children) that was the final severing point for me - the world would never be the same after that. I was falling through realities and writing became something for me to hang onto.

How did you get started with music - you released your first album Tribal Voice in 1983 on your own label - how did that come about, and what kind of music was it?

I had met Jackson Browne around this time, and was just hanging out with him. Now that I was spending time in recording studios and hanging out with musicians I began wondering what these lines I'd been writing would sound like set to music - you see I don't think of myself as a poet or a song writer - I write lines. I decided that I wanted to use the old music - the drum and the singers and set the lines to what I knew best then. Jackson produced and we made Tribal Voice.

It was after that that I met the Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis - actually I don't think of him as a Kiowa guitar player, just one hell of a great guitar player. Anyway Jesse introduced me to electric music. He wrote music for my lines and we put out our first album in 1986 AKA Graffiti Man. I was still doing the spoken word thing then and Jesse took me out on the road with a band and got me playing in clubs so I could learn what the heck it was like to be a musician, 'cause I didn't know anything about doing that sort of thing. We did that for three years until Eddie died.

I interviewed Martha Redbone a while back, and she said that as a native pop musician one of the hardest things she faced was overcoming people's expectations of what she as a Native woman should be doing musically. What's been your experience with this like?

I just blow it off - no insult to anybody or anything but I can't be anything other than what I am. If people have expectations they just have to deal with them... I'm me and that's who I represent - I can't claim to represent all natives or anything like that, the only ones I might represent are the ones who agree with what I'm saying.

I know, there's this whole Fascism of Romanticism thing going on - people have created an image they want natives to fit into - some sort of fantasy ideal that makes us easy for them to say - that's what they are, but you know that's not reality. I happen to be native and male, but I am who I am and that's how I participate in reality - as a human being - rather than as a race or a sex.

When I reviewed Lines From A Mined Mind I tried to explain what you meant by a "Mined Mind" but I'm not sure how clear I was on it - can you take me through it?

Well you read the introduction right (Me: Yeah but you know I'm still not sure whether I got what you were after) Okay they've got us believing that believing is thinking, but the reality is we're not really thinking cause believing is accepting without thinking about it. Because we're not thinking we end up focusing on our fears, doubts and insecurities. The "being" part of human is being mined and that allows us to be programmed by the beliefs they tell us is thinking.

If we ever want to use the power of creative thinking we must become focused on the conscious power of thought. It's also got to be an awareness that's beyond just the self - it's a recognition of the power of intelligence in of itself without anything tied to it. It's all about energy, because thought is energy, and when you take energy away from humans we're flat - we're mined out.


You write about a variety of topics in your poetry - what does it take for a topic to inspire you?

I don't really think in terms of being inspired you know, sometimes the lines just appear, sometimes I have to go hunting for them. I'm not really that sure what sets the line in motion, sometimes I'm inspired by desperation when I start (laughs)

Your work stands on its own as poetry, yet you perform a good deal of the verse collected in Mined Mind as songs. What are you looking for the music to do with your lyrics?

As an art form music has its own value, but like I said I'm not a poet or a song writer - I write lines - I guess you could call me a liner (laughs). What's great is that they work with music. The way we work as a band is that I write the lines first and then the guys in the band take them and we find the right texture to go with them. That way the music becomes an extension of the lines.

I've always really liked spoken word 'cause we can all talk and we are all used to being talked too. (laughs) There's something really direct about it though - I'm not really sure how it works, most of what I do is based on hunches, I'm just glad when it does work.

What do you hope that listeners, or readers take away from your work?

I don't believe in hope - hope is a sedative - it's something you do instead of doing something - you sit around and "hope" things will get better. You know when Pandora was given her box of evils by the Gods and told not to open it, and she did anyway letting loose all the evils on the world, the last of the things that was in that box was hope!

Okay let me re phrase that - what do you want people to take away from your work?

Hah, whatever they can get out of it - I want it to make sense to them you know - Hell I'm crazy so it's always a relief when people get a little something from it you know? (laughs)

We wrapped it up after that, mainly because my head was spinning with the various stuff that we had talked about. Talking to person who genuinely doesn't give a fuck, who is really free, can be a very confusing thing for the rest of us who are still hung up on the various things that are built into the system that hold us back and keep us in check. I'm sure there's lots of you out there who are going to dismiss what he says as bullshit, and I guess that's your right to do so. However I hope that some of you will be able to get an inkling of what's going on in a genuinely un-mined mind. Don't worry about being confused - in fact take it as a good sign - when things stop making sense it's the first sign that you're starting to think clearly.

November 1, 2008

Movie Review: (DviX Version) Kingdom Of Heaven

A couple of months ago I signed a free lance contract with the German based web magazine Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Qantara is the Arabic word for bridge and the site is an effort on the part of the Federal Centre For Political Education, Deutsche Welle, The Goethe Institute, and The Institute For Foreign Cultural Relations to bridge the gulf between the Islamic world and the West by promoting dialogue between the two cultures.

It seems only fitting that the first article of mine they published was an updated version of an interview I had conducted with Algerian author Yasmina Khadra. It was his criticism of the West during that interview for being ignorant of Muslim culture that spurred me to seek out the material that brought me to the magazine's attention. When you consider that the majority's, and I include myself in that number, view of Islam has been shaped by either the romantic image of Sheherazade telling a story a night for 1001 nights to preserve her life or suicide bombers, he had a pretty good point.

It's not only recently that the Muslim world has been subject to stereotyped representation, although the "War On Terror" hasn't helped matters. The silent movies of the 1920's perpetuated the romantic lover image, and before that, swarthy devils showed up in literature and paintings making off with beautiful maidens. Unfortunately it will take more than the efforts of one on line magazine to offset the accumulation of over a thousand years of misrepresentation and propaganda disseminated about Islam to encourage people to be a little more broad minded in their outlook. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how Ridley Scott's 2005 movie Kingdom Of Heaven presented such a balanced view of both the Muslim and Christian worlds during the fight for control of Jerusalem in 12th century AD.
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I hadn't read very much about the movie when it was first released, but when I came across it at My Movie Download.com, a site where you can download DivX versions of movies cheaply, there were so many actors in the cast whose talents I appreciate that I figured it was worth the price just to watch them work. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, and Eva Green were sufficient incentive to overcome any doubts that I may have had about Orlando Bloom's ability as a dramatic leading man.

Bloom's character, Balian, is a poor blacksmith and when we meet him he's just finished burying his wife who had committed suicide after the death of their new born child. A party of knights headed towards the Holy Land stop nominally to have their horses shod, but their leader, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has an ulterior motive. Many years ago he seduced a young woman who subsequently gave birth to - you guessed it Balian. After announcing that he's his father Godfrey offers to take Balian to the Middle East to give him the chance for a new life. Initially Balian turns him down, but after he kills the village priest in a fit of rage - the priest tells him his wife has gone to hell because she committed suicide - he takes him up on the offer. Unfortunately the church doesn't think too highly of those who kill their anointed ones, and send out a party of soldiers to bring Balian back. In the fight that ensues when Godfrey refuses to hand Balian over, Godfrey is fatally wounded and only lives long enough to make Balian his heir and knight him.

When Balian finally makes it to Jerusalem (after a shipwreck that leaves him alone in the desert and a duel with an Arab warrior in the desert) he takes his father's place in the court of King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton). For three years Baldwin has managed to maintain an uneasy peace with Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) leader of the Muslim army. Under Baldwin's rule all faiths are welcome and free to practice their own religion in Christian held territory. Unfortunately this policy has led to a rift among the Christian forces as the fanatical knights of the Templar order desire to wipe all non-believers from the face of the earth.

With Baldwin dying of leprosy, and his sister next in line to the throne, whoever she's married to becomes very important. Unfortunately for those who wish for peace Sibylla's (Eva Green) mother had married her off to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) a fanatical Templar. When Balian refuses Baldwin's deathbed request that he marry Sibylla, Guy will be killed, war looks to be unavoidable. Templars under the leadership of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) had been staging raids on Muslim caravans even when Baldwin was alive, so it's not difficult for Guy to convince him to lead the raid against the camp site where Saladin's sister is living that provokes the war he desires.

When Guy foolishly leads his army out into to the desert to meet Saladin, they are slaughtered because of dehydration from being too far from a source of water. Balian, who refused to take his soldiers into the field, as he knew what the result would be, is left to defend Jerusalem with only his household's soldiers and those citizens willing to fight in order to survive. They know they can't beat Saladin, but they hope to hold out long enough to force him to offer terms for surrender. A knight's first duty is to protect those who can't protect themselves, and Balian hopes to buy their protection by making the cost in human lives of taking Jerusalem higher than Saladin is willing to pay.

If I compare the movie to what I remember of actual history, Scott's depiction of events is accurate. After the first Crusade there was a period of peace between the peoples of all faiths in the Middle East, and Jerusalem was indeed open to all. It was an uneasy peace, and factions in both the Muslim and Christian courts fulminated against it. As Scott's main focus is on activities taking place within the Christian army that becomes a key element in the story of the movie, as it was in history, and the depiction of the Templar's fanaticism is accurate.

While we spend far less time among Saladin's people, it's refreshing to see Muslims portrayed with the same amount of diversity of character as the Christians. Some of them are similar to the Templars in their desire to kill the infidels, while others, like Saladin, are more moderate. They won't stand idly by and see their people wantonly cut down by the Christian armies, but if it's possible to avoid war they will. However, one does get the feeling that Saladin would have eventually taken the offensive even without the provocation offered by the murder of his sister. The Christian armies are invaders occupying his people's territory and they need to be driven away.

As is to be expected from the quality of the actors involved, in most cases the acting in this movie is exemplary. Although he has a relatively small role, one performance that stood out for me in particular was Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Reynald de Chatillon. While Maton Csokas' villain was a little one dimensional, Gleeson's characterization had surprising depth. However, the most pleasing surprise was Orlando Bloom's performance. Finally given an adult role he rises to the occasion, doing a masterful job of showing the growth and change that his character goes through over the course of the movie.

As this movie was downloaded from the Internet, there were no special features included with it. Unlike some DivX movies I've downloaded in the past both the sound and picture quality of this film were fine. Even with all the proper codices installed I've had troubles with things like the soundtrack overwhelming the dialogue or the dialogue being slightly out of sync with a character's lip movements.

Kingdom Of Heaven is not only a wonderfully acted and staged movie of epic proportions, it does a superb job of presenting all its characters in equal detail. Muslim and Christian alike are treated as individuals, not as types, so that we can respect and admire those on both sides of the conflict for their characteristics not because of what they are. In these days when we are surrounded by continuous reminders of "us" and "them", it's refreshing to see a movie notable for an absence of that attitude.

October 28, 2008

Book Review: Farewell, Shanghai By Angel Wagenstein

How far would you travel to preserve yourself and your family? Would you be willing to set off on a sea voyage of undetermined length and time where your final destination is in a land completely alien to you and the only promise you have is that you might survive? Refugees sometimes have no choice where they go, and sometimes they have to be grateful for any port in their storm that will take them in. For the Jews of Europe in the late 1930's this was especially true, as no matter where they turned they found borders closed to them.

Mysteriously countries like Canada and The United States, with their huge tracks of undeveloped land, had no room for the few people who actually had the where with all to get out of Germany. As late as 1938 the Nazi government of Germany was still willing to let Jews leave, and exit visa's could be obtained if you had enough money. However an exit visa is no good if you have nowhere to exit too. There was one safe haven for Jews, however once there the only thing they were promised was they might not be rounded up, for although Shanghai was nominally a free city, it was under Japanese control.

Anyway, the idea of sailing away from home and country to a land at the other end of the continent where there was no way of knowing whether or not you'd even be able to eke out a living or find somewhere to lay your head at the end of the day seemed insane. After all, surely the German people would come to their senses and these hooligans would be out of power in only a few months? We've lived in Germany for generations, we're Germans not Jews. That's what the members of the Dresden Philharmonic thought up until the night in 1938 when each of its members were arrested as they came off stage after their performance of Joseph Haydn's Symphony #45: The Farewell. You see talented as they were, and even though some them didn't even know they were stained with the stigma of a Jewish grandmother - they were all Jews, and were now enemies of the state.
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In Farewell, Shanghai, author and film director Angel Wagenstein's latest novel, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the circuitous route taken by German Jews to Shanghai and then live out the exile that the crime of their faith sentenced them to. Wagenstein divides his attentions between focusing on the experiences of two sets of characters from different backgrounds; Theodore Weissberg, world renowned concert violinist from the Dresden Philharmonic, and his opera singer wife Elisabeth, and Hilde. a young film extra and her companions, who have all ended up in Shanghai; and writing a documentary novel of the times that fills in the background details that the close up accounts can't accommodate.

Weissberg was one of the musicians who was whisked away mysteriously with the applause of his audience still ringing in his ears. Thankfully his wife, a non-Jew, was able to secure his release from Dachau, and more importantly two exit visas good for four months. After convincing her husband that yes indeed it is necessary for them to flee the country, and the only place open to them is Shanghai, they secure passage on one of the last trips made by one of the two boats running from Italy to their safe haven.

Their story is typical of the majority of German Jews who ended up in Shanghai, well educated intellectuals and artisans who are all of a sudden forced to live in extreme poverty and be grateful for even the most menial of jobs in order to earn their living. They are somewhat luckier than others because they manage to obtain their own living space, a two room hut with a storage shed that they convert into a shower. To them it is the height of luxury as it means they no longer have to live in the communal dormitory which houses the majority of the refugees. Unfortunately it also means that they somehow have to come up with the rent money each month, and there's not much call for either a concert violinist or an opera singer in Shanghai.

Hilda Braun, who was born Rachel Braunfield, has the remarkable good fortune to look like every Nazi's dream of the ideal of Aryan womanhood. Blond, blue eyed, and beautiful she parlays that appeal into a photo shoot in Paris as the first stage in her escape, knowing full well that anyone investigating closely will see through her facade. By luck, and some skilful lying, Hilda is able to wangle not only a cabin on luxury liner headed to Singapore, but a job as secretary to the city's German high commissioner as well. Here, not only is she able to hide in plain view as well as lead a comfortable life, she is able on occasion to discreetly keep the immigrant community informed of events in the outside world that will impact them.
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Wagenstein's style of narration is almost that of a jocular tour guide showing us the sites on a tour through history. Casually pointing out points of interest like Krystallnacht, "The Night Of Broken Glass", where joyful, singing Brownshirts paraded through cities across Germany burning and ransacking synagogues, Jewish businesses, and hauling Jewish people out into the street to hang signs around their necks if they were lucky or hanging them by the neck if they were unlucky. It's the casual nature of his narration that makes Farewell, Shanghai so heartbreaking, for it makes everything that occurs seem like the everyday and the ordinary; perfectly acceptable.

Reading about unspeakable acts of brutality or descriptions of torture you can distance yourself from the events depicted on the page. Due to their unbelievable nature, you can convince yourself that they're fiction. However when human indignity is described in the same terms as one would use to discuss the weather or a vacation, it is impossible to separate yourself from it. You find yourself on the verge of accepting the events depicted as commonplace, until you stop yourself short realizing what's being described and are horrified at how easily you came to taking things for granted.

As we watch and listen as these people try to make lives out of nothing, to carry on in the faint hope that somehow, someday, this too will pass to become only a memory, the reality of what we are bearing witness to comes into tighter and tighter focus. Wagenstein's abilities as a film maker have given him an unerring eye for editing and pulling the reader's attention to what's important. Whether our point of view is that of one of the characters, or our guide through history, what we "see" on each page of the book is as vivid as if it were on a movie screen in front of us. Each character is so well described that, no matter how minor a role they play, we see them as if they were standing in front of us, and have a fairly good idea of who and what they are.

When all the world was closed to them, and it looked like there was nowhere for the Jews of Europe to flee, Singapore offered a semblance of succour. Hands that once might have played the violin that enraptured thousands may have had to carry garbage or wash cars, but at least they were on the end of arms that weren't tattooed or destined for the fires of the camps in Europe. Twenty thousand German Jews, and a few thousand from the rest of Europe, were able to call Singapore home during a time when millions of others were becoming part of The Final Solution.

Angel Wagenstein has the remarkable ability to put a human face on history, and Farewell, Shanghai is no exception. As the history he depicts is one of the most inhumane periods of the twentieth century, this talent is perhaps a mixed blessing. For, although it makes for fantastic reading, it also makes heartbreak inevitable as we struggle along with his characters to come to terms with their new reality. This may not be the most pleasant of reads you'll ever have, but it will be one of the best.

Farewell, Shanghai can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada as of November 04/08.

October 22, 2008

Book Review: The Aventures Of Amir Hamza By Ghalib Lakhnavi & Abdullah Bilgrami - Translated By Musharraf Farooqi

It's always been a source of amazement to me that stories from the days preceding the written word have survived down through the ages to this day. How many years after Homer sat around the fires at night relaying the history of the sacking of Troy was it before the words were written down on paper in an attempt to preserve them? Of course we have no way of knowing how much what is written down today resembles the original stories that Homer recited to his companions. Yet in spite of that it remains the touchstone for Western epic fantastical narrative to this day.

Without Homer where would the world of fantasy as we know it be today? Perhaps we might have invented giants on our own, but single eyed ones named Cyclops? I think not. Mermaids probably share a common ancestry with the sirens and the first witch to lure men to their doom. appeared in this tale to turn Odysseus's companions into pigs. Sadly, as we are beginning to discover to our chagrin, cultural chauvinism robbed us of access to even greater resources for inspiration as epic tales from both before and after Homer, that are equal to, if not surpassing, The Odyssey in splendour and imagination, recount the tales of heroes and the histories of peoples all over the world.

While Valmiki's Ramayana might be the oldest and most renowned of the great epics from South East Asia it is not the only one. Via the Muslim migrations and invasions of what is now India came the great heroes and villains of the Islamic world. Like the heroic tales of other cultures the dastan (literally tale or legend) of The Adventures Of Amir Hamza had its origins in history. However, as Musharraf Ali Farooqui reveals in his recently published English translation available through both Random House and Random House Canada, that although the central character is named for the historically real figure of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib, who was renowned for his bravery, aside from that, very little of the subject matter is historically accurate.
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This pattern of using real names from history or legend in the story, but ascribing them different characteristics and histories then had been previously recounted, holds true for all of the characters in the story. While the identity of Hamza remains a constant, over the years various legends and folk tales have been grafted onto the story which has led to the contradictory claims as to its origins. Some hold that it first began being told by the women of Mecca to honour the deeds of the original Hamza after he fell in battle, while others say it was first composed by the dead man's brother. Whoever originally began compiling it, whether it was in the 8th or 10 century CE, the version Farooqi has translated into English from Urdo - the language of Islam in Pakistan and the rest of Indian sub-continent - was first compiled in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and then revised and expanded by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871.

One of the first things you'll notice in setting out on this epic journey, we're talking nine hundred plus pages, is the ornate style employed by Farooqi. Unlike another recent new edition of an ancient classic, Ashok Banker's Ramayana, this is not an adaptation but a translation, which means that he has adhered to the style of the original. For those who have read Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton's (not the actor, but the nineteenth century British explorer and writer) translation of The Book Of One Thousand And One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights, you'll see similarities between the two. This has less to do with the translation as with the material Farooqi was working from as both the original text and Burton's book were subject to the same influences.

In spite of the fact that Lakhnavi, and later Bilgrami, both wrote in Urdo they seemed to be no less influenced by their colonial masters, the British, then Burton had been by the Muslim world he was interpreting. The result is that both texts, while set in Arabia, Persia, and India, have a distinctively nineteenth century British aftertaste to them. This isn't a judgement on their quality, merely an observation, and a compliment to the skills of Farooqi as a translator for being able to recreate that sensibility. Don't worry though, because once your ear has acclimatized to the sound of the text, and it should only take a few paragraphs or pages at most, you'll find that not only does the style fits the content, it increases the verisimilitude of the experience.
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I've always asserted that if you want to learn about a people, the best thing to do is read the stories that the people tell about themselves. What do they admire in their heroes, what do they consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and other characteristics are revealed in these epic stories that will tell you more about a culture than any history book ever written. Not only that, but as they were created to glorify the people involved they are full of countless adventures that range from waging battles, outwitting devious enemies, and battling with fearsome monsters.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza actually begins before he is born as there are events that occur prior to his appearance on the face of the earth that help shape his destiny. We also learn valuable information as to the various factions within the kingdom where the story originates. We see how even before his conception he has had created some deadly enemies who would along with their descendants, conspire against Hamza for his entire life. Of course once he's born the action really picks up as at the age of five he's all ready having adventures that would put grown men to shame. As Hamaz ages his exploits continue to grow and his reputation expands as he fulfills the destiny foretold before he was born of rescuing the Emperor's throne and crown from the clutches of a notorious outlaw while still a teenager.

One of my favourite characters in the story isn't Hamza, but one of his boon companions, Amar bil Fatah. Amar is a trickster who delights in the discomfort of others and a great thief. As an infant he contrived to steal the milk from the breasts of the wet nurse who was caring for him, Hamza, and another baby so that he grew plump while the other two stayed small. At first his trickery is indiscriminate and mean spirited so that only through the friendship of Hamza is he saved from being sent away or cast aside. While he never loses his taste for stealing and trickery, as an adult he puts his talents to good use to take revenge upon those who would discredit or harm his dearest friend and patron Hamza.

Not only does Amar provide comic relief from the seriousness of other events he is also, like other trickster characters throughout history, a teacher of humility. He takes especial delight in deflating those, even his closest friends, who have let pride puff them up beyond their worth. He is a constant reminder to all the characters and the reader of what happens to you when you think too highly of yourself and that it is important to retain a certain amount of humbleness at all time.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza is not only interesting to read because of its subject matter, its a lot of fun. It contains all the adventure and excitement of some of the best of sword and sorcery stories while supplying an introduction to the legends and mythical heroes of a culture few of us in the West know little or anything about. While reading this book might not answer all the questions you have about the history of the Islam or the Muslim world, it will give you a far different perspective on it than any you'll have had before now.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza can be purchased either directly from Random House.com in the United States, Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 14, 2008

Book Review: Isaac's Torah By Angel Wagenstein

In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the communist governments in the Eastern Bloc, and Yugoslavia, countries that the majority of us had never heard of before started appearing on maps of the world again for the first time since the beginning of WW Two. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Macedonia were just some of the new place names that cartographers had to try and squeeze onto maps of Eastern Europe. While this might have seemed like an upheaval of unsurpassed proportions to some of us, at the other end of the century, from 1900 to the end of WW Two things were just as tumultuous.

In that time a person could literally not move an inch and wake up one morning to find yourself living in a new country. At the onset of WW One parts of what's now present day Poland were part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. When the end of that war resulted in the dissolution of the Empire, out of its ashes were formed countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other Eastern European countries. Those borders didn't last long as the European powers gave Czechoslovakia to Germany without a fight in attempt at appeasing Hitler. The Russian - German pact of 1939 split Poland between them, so when the Germans invaded Poland from the West, the Russians came in from the East for their bit. Of course those was some of the first territories "liberated" by the German armies when they invaded Russia in June of 1941, only to see them revert back to Russian control four years later when the tides of war swam the other way.

For those keeping score that meant if you lived in Eastern Poland between years of 1900 - 1945 you would have had to change your passport five times, if you somehow lived through it.While your chances of survival weren't great no matter who you were, they were reduced dramatically during the period of German rule if you happened to be Jewish. Only with the greatest deal of luck could you have survived the liberation of Poland by the Nazis if you were a Jew.
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In Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, his most recent work translated into English, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, one of those "lucky" few to have survived. I'm not normally one for reading "Holocaust fiction" as I call it, books that detail the suffering and horrors of the camps, but the way the book was described made me think this would not be the usual book about this period of history.

Among the Jews of Eastern Europe, long accustomed to poverty and persecution, humour was one of the few reliefs they had from the drudgery of their existence. Aside from jokes that deflected anti-semitic attitudes around them, or deflated the pompous in order to remind people they were all equal in the eyes of God, one of the more popular comic traditions the fool. While this fool is very often an object of ridicule, he is also like the Fool in Tarot decks who, although always of the verge of falling off the cliff manages to somehow never quite topple over the edge. So it is with Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld as he weaves his unsteady way through life.

From a very early age he learns that if you act the fool chances are that not many are going to take you seriously enough to consider you a threat or worry about what you're doing. At various points through-out the story Isaac draws upon this rich vein of Jewish humour to help tell his story. Aside from providing momentary relief from the events that Isaac finds himself helplessly propelled through, these jokes also often serve as moral lessons and parables. They offer a kind o backwards logic that throws the absurdity of a world in chaos into relief that helps you see just how ridiculous life can be.

For example, Mendel was looking to take the train from his home to Moscow and he goes up to the wicket where's he's told the price of a ticket to Moscow will be twenty rubbles. When he tires to bargain and offer fifteen he's told to go away. So, he goes to the back of the line and eventually ends up at the wicket again where he again he offers fifteen rubbles for the twenty rubble ticket, and is again told there will be none of that and to be off with him. So, again he goes to the back of the line, and this time when he gets to the wicket the train to Moscow is pulling out of the station - and he looks into the wicket and says to the clerk, in his most satisfied voice, "Now look, you've missed out on fifteen rubbles".
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How ridiculous is Isaac's life? Well he's drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army just in time to for the war to end and comes home to discover that he's now Polish. In 1939 he's drafted into the Polish army to defend his homeland against the German invasion in the West, and just as he and his troop are preparing to head out Russian tanks pull into their village. In June of 1941 when he's drafted into the Russian army to go East to Manchuria to fight off the invading Japanese, the train he's travelling on is bombed by the German airforce as he gets caught in the opening salvo of that invasion.

As he says, it's a good thing they come from a small Jewish town. Russian trains never stop in Jewish villages, so he'd become adept at boarding and disembarking trains through the windows while they are moving. Otherwise he might have been scattered around the wheat field with the rest of the train. As it is, he is now a Jew in German occupied Russia, which isn't exactly the healthiest of circumstances. Lucky for him though he is able to acquire identification papers that recognize him as a Polish national which should keep him safe. However, he has the misfortune to be caught out on the street when three trucks pull up and grab everybody off the street to come and do emergency war work for his new fatherland - and he's shipped off to Germany.

However things don't turn out so bad for him. As a Jew he speaks Yiddish, which is as close to German as you can get without speaking German. So when the labour camp's commandant asks if any of new workers can speak German without sounding too much like an idiot, Isaac volunteers. All is well, until one day a general roll is called and two Gestapo agents come into camp and take every tenth person away in trucks. The hundred men, among whom of course Isaac finds himself, are taken to a prison where they are locked up with other undesirables of the state; Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and even some real criminals. In the middle of the night the guards come into the cell blocks yelling Jews move, and foolishly Isaac responds only to find himself on a train heading for a concentration camp. Which may sound pretty awful, and it is, but he finds out later that the other ninety-nine people he came to the jail with were taken out and shot the next morning.

Like the Fool, Isaac blindly steps off the edges of cliffs and makes it through, yet lest you think this is a light hearted romp through one of the darkest periods of modern history, his wife and children either die in the camps or fighting the Germans. His village's Jewish population, as all the fit men had been sent to fight the Japanese, wasn't even considered worth sending to a concentration camp. They were herded out of their houses one night, lined up at the edge of a ravine, and machine gunned. The ravine was then filled in with gravel and everybody he had known, including his parents and the rest of his family, ended up in that mass grave.

There are no lurid details of conditions in the camps, Isaac says why should he talk about that as others have done so before him and he figures he can spare us and him details, yet still sorrow stalks the pages of this book like few other book. It is a such a human book, full of laughter and love, that the horrors of what's going on as backdrop to the absurdities that Isaac describes are somehow even more disquieting than the most graphic descriptions could ever be. No matter how much we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter that we are able to see how absurd life can be, it doesn't prevent us from tasting the salt of our tears or feeling the bitterness of anguish.

Laughter may take the edge off, and it may indeed be the best medicine, but it can't hide reality. Isaac's Torah doesn't hide reality, if anything it brings it heartbreakingly to life. At the same time though it shows how it is possible to find hope in what many would consider the most hopeless of circumstances. After all, as Isaac says in conclusion, if life was given us to live it, we will live it, there's no other way.

Isaac's Torah can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 6, 2008

DVD Review: Edward The King

While the twentieth century might have been the era which saw technological advances that continue to shape our lives, the nineteenth century was when the socio/political events occurred that made those advances possible. For it was during this era that many of the old ruling families of Europe found their power pulled out from under them, and the continent's map began to take the shape we are familiar with today. Countries which had previously not existed, Germany and Italy, were born when charismatic leaders rode the crest of the nationalist wave that was sweeping Europe.

Along with the political upheavals came social changes as the power base began to shift away from the aristocracy and their inherited wealth in courts across Europe, to a new merchant class who made their money through manufacturing and trade. With their increased wealth came demands for more say in how they were governed which led to a series of reforms across Europe that saw the gradual winnowing away of power from monarchs and into the hands of elected politicians. While it's true in countries like Germany and Russia it would eventually take war and revolution to oust the monarchy, in others the transition was far more painless.

England had already undergone its bloody civil war between parliament and the throne close to two hundred years earlier when Charles the 1st was deposed and beheaded by Oliver Cromwell. Although the monarchy was returned to power after only a short interval, it was with far less influence in the actual governance of the country. By the time the nineteenth century had come around the monarch in England was still considered head of the government, but in name only. So although she was head of a vast empire when she ascended the throne at seventeen, Queen Victoria's word was not law.
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This era, specifically the reign of Queen Victoria, is brought to life brilliantly in the Granada television production of Edward The King that has just been released as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media. For, although the series is about the life of Victoria's heir, Edward VII, their stories are irrevocably intertwined and the one can not be told without the other's. The series begins in the year preceding Edward's birth, only a few years into Victoria's reign, and not only follows his life to its conclusion, but provides details of her life with her husband Prince Albert and an overview of the changing face of Europe and the world.

The first four episodes, Volume 1 of this set, deal with Edward's formative years. In an attempt to mould him as a future King of England, Prince Albert devices an educational plan that keeps him working from dawn to dusk and isolates him from the "corrupting" influence of other children. Over the first few episodes a picture develops of a young man who, no matter how hard he tries, will never succeed in pleasing his parents. Unlike his brothers and sisters he is never shown any affection, given any encouragement, or allowed any freedom to do anything that he might enjoy. Naturally when the first opportunity arises for a little independence, when he's a student at Cambridge University, he jumps at the chance and begins an affair with an actress.

His timing couldn't have been worse, because it happens during the middle of the American Civil War and Prince Albert is involved with delicate negotiations to keep England from being drawn into the conflict. Britain needs the cotton trade with the Confederate states for its industry, but also can't afford to alienate the Union states either. Shortly after dealing with his son's affair he contracts typhoid fever and dies. Victoria blames Edward for the death of her beloved husband and for the rest of her life that dominates her relationship with her future son.

As the series progresses through its thirteen parts we see the effect this has on shaping Edward. While Prime Minister after Prime Minister pleads with the Queen to let her son play a more active role in government, she keeps insisting he's not ready to take on any positions of responsibility. At the same time Victoria retreats into virtual seclusion following the death of her husband and refuses to take part in any public functions. When the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, asks Edward and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to make themselves visible by attending parties and functions to remind the people of their monarch's existence, Victoria accuses her son of being frivolous and immature. Victoria also demands that Edward not be allowed to represent the monarch in public as she is the sovereign, not him.

It's no wonder that Edward began a series of extramarital affairs, he had nothing else to do. Even though the series shows that he clearly loved his wife and was devoted to her, it also shows that his mother's refusal to allow him any meaningful employment, and her continual low opinion of him and his character, pushed him to living down to her expectations. Although a part of him knew it was behaviour akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face, he couldn't stop and was involved in scandal after scandal.

Of course no one can live forever, although Victoria sure tries, and after over sixty years as Queen she finally dies and Edward inherits the throne. By then he's already advanced in years, and doesn't have very long a reign so very little of the series actually deals with Edward as King. In spite of this it's a fascinating study of both the time and the people in it. This is the first production of any sort that I've seen where Victoria, wonderfully portrayed by Annette Crosbie, is shown as a young woman, and happy. The first four episodes showing her relationship with her husband, Prince Albert (Robert Hardy) were exceptionally well done as they managed to not only depict their happiness together but show how they developed their low opinion of their eldest son.

While in the first four episodes a variety of younger actors portray Edward, it's Timothy West who portrays him from his early twenties onwards. He does an absolutely masterful job as he is able to bring out the various sides of his character. He is both charming and, contrary to his parents' opinion, very intelligent. We watch as his frustration with his limited role gradually turns him from a loving husband into a philanderer as he continues to look for ways to spend his boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. It doesn't help much that his wife prefers a quiet life, while he desires the adoration of society as consolation for the lack of attention and affection he received from his parents.

In spite of the fact that the original program was televised in the 1970's the sound and picture quality are fine. Special features included with the four discs include an in depth look at Robert Hardy, the actor who portrayed Prince Albert, some of the original introductions to episodes when it was originally televised in the US with Robert McNeal, and a featurette on the life of the real King Edward VII.

Not only is Edward The King an exhaustive history of one of the most important times in the modern era, it is also provides an intimate portrayal of the lives of some of its pre-eminent people. British television has always had a knack for bringing history to life and making the famous real, Edward The King is another shining example of that talent.

August 21, 2008

Book Review: Lines From A Mined MInd: The Words Of John Trudell By John Trudell

What do you see when you look out your door? Do you see a street in a neighbourhood with cars, roads, houses, shops, apartments, and people going about their business? Or do you see occupied territory full of things that don't belong, cluttering up the landscape and despoiling the environment? Two people can look at the same thing and see two completely different things, it all depends on your perspective. One person's normalcy is another person's hell.

Look at what we accept normal: famine, war, pestilence, and death. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have been among us for centuries but we've been too blind to see them. What would happen if the apocalypse came and nobody noticed? Guess what - it's happening everyday and you haven't noticed yet. What? You don't believe me do you - you think I'm full of shit and crazy don't you? According to our society the viewpoint I've just expressed is crazy and full of shit because it doesn't accept the agreed upon version, or vision, or normalcy.

If you're going to read John Trudell's book of poetry and song lyrics, Lines From A Mined Mind: The Words Of John Trudell, published by Fulcrum Books, you better be prepared to have your preconceived notions of how the world works challenged. First of all he has spent the past forty years as a resistance fighter on behalf of his people, the Santee Sioux, and the authority you accept as a government are in his eyes an occupying power. It was from his great-grandparents that we stole the land on which we have built our neighbourhoods, and against whom our governments conducted a campaign of genocide in order to deal with the "Indian Problem". A history like that is enough to give anybody a jaundiced eye when it comes to looking at the world around you, but Trudell has also suffered horrible personal tragedy.
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He was a spokesperson for the all tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans that lasted from 1969 to 1971 and subsequently joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). He was chairman of AIM from 1973-79, but following a mysterious house fire that killed his wife, children and mother in law he resigned. To this day the cause of the fire has never been discovered, but considering his position, and the animosity that surrounded AIM in those days (and that continues to this day) there will always remain the distinct possibility that the fire was set deliberately. It was after that Trudell began writing, and since 1983 he has released eleven recordings of his music, and toured around North America performing and giving readings of his work.

Lines From A Mined Mind is the first time an exhaustive collection of his writing has been gathered into one publication. For those of you not familiar with Trudell's work, he primarily wrote blues, and blues based rock and roll, but more importantly his lyrics dealt with issues that barely anybody was, or is, singing about. It's not only that he wrote about issues affecting Native Americans, but he also wrote about the effect the world we live in has on a human being's spirit; how we have allowed ourselves to be shaped and moulded to such an extent that we no longer notice that we are being manipulated.

In his introduction, titled "From Somewhere Inside My Head" Trudell outlines the precept behind "Mined Mind". "Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process/The intelligence of each arriving human generation/Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs/Of the industrial society each human generation arrives in/The human beings are individually and collectively mined". Society conditions so that we can be of most use to it, but of course as with every industrial operation there is waste product. In our case that ends up being "the fears doubts and insecurity/That affects the human beings perceptional reality in such a way/The human being becomes separated from the being at the expense of being/Resulting in human beings viewing life through their fears and inabilities."

Now, although Trudell has made it cleat that this is how he views the way the world works, he doesn't lay any claims to being superior to the rest of us because of this belief. This is just the backdrop against which all of our struggles to be true to ourselves are played out against. In his poems and song lyrics throughout the book he talks about his struggles to overcome those obstacles. Of course his path is made even more complicated by the fact that he is also a member of a group of people considered to be a conquered race by the majority of our society. For most of his life the government that supposedly is there to protect and serve him, has done its best to deny him his rights as a human being.

What's really wonderful about his poems/lyrics is that they don't just complain about something, or sound like the usual victim's lament. He demands that his readers think about things and poses questions that are designed to try and make you see how his world view came about. In the poem "To God" he ask a few questions about some things that he's been finding confusing "About these Christians/they claim to be from your nation/but man you should see the things they do/all the while blaming it on you". The poem then lists a litany of offences that have been carried out in God's name and then continues "We do not mean to be disrespectful...our people have their own ways/we never even heard of you until not long ago/Your representatives spoke magnificent things of you which we were willing to believe/But from the way they acted/We know you and we were being deceived".

Naturally, as you would expect from a man who has fought for the rights of his people for forty years there are quite a few political poems and songs. However he is more than a one issue person, and writes about everything. From the joy children can bring, our responsibilities to each other as human beings, spirituality, and the relationship between men and women. In fact some of the poems he's written about men and women are the most honest I've read by a man about that subject.

In "Shadow Over Sisterland" he has written probably the strongest denunciation of men's mistreatment of women since John Lennon's "Women Is The Nigger Of The World". "There's a shadow over sisterland/With a Smith & Thomas/Pointed at her head.../Money and authority/Have their own way of talking/...Tethers of chains/Tethers of jewels/Economic bondage/Runs by those rules/". Everything about our society; religion, laws, and even the way the economy runs are geared towards keeping men dominant over women. When you start to consider some of the more regressive laws that have been passed in recent years, ones that have resulted in women going to jail for refusing to have caesarian sections during childbirth, you realize that you might not like the picture he's painting, but that doesn't stop it from being true.

John Trudell is an articulate and intelligent poet and lyricist whose words might confound you because they challenge your vision of the world. You might not like his perspective, and there's a good chance you won't agree with it, yet it you won't be able to deny his sincerity. Because it dares you to look at our society through the eyes of those whose backs its been built on, it's not a pretty picture, but it's a lot more realistic than anything you'll read or see for years to come. For as he makes clear, whether we know it or not, we're all victims of the same machinations.

May 21, 2008

Residential School Legacy Lingers On

I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress syndrome induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.

He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.

On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.

What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870's and the last one closing in the 1970's we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?

There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate - the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% of them had been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.

For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask, or if it did the figures weren't reported, what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system, but I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparent's generation, if not their great-grandparents.

In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.

For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?

For the first three hundred years of Canadian history governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.

If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just like all previous government's have by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.

May 1, 2008

What Barack Obama And Canada's Residential School System Have In Common

At first glance there might not appear to be much that the Canadian Government's announcement of who will be heading the Truth and Reconciliation Committee looking into the history of the Residential School System in Canada has in common with the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama and the pastor of his church Jeremiah Wright. Yet both stories reflect deep divisions that exist in both Canadian and American Society. Even a cursory look at the history behind both stories reveals the similarities, while also making a telling statement about both countries and their approaches to similar problems.

In Canada, as in other areas of North America, after the government was unable to commit actual genocide against the Native population they decided to settle on the next best thing and try for cultural genocide. Towards that end they enlisted the aid of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in establishing the Residential School system. A generations of Native Canadian children were taken from their families and placed in this school system in order to drive the "Indianness" out of them.

To that end they had their identities stripped from them through changing their names, forbidding them to speak their languages and practice their religions, and teaching them that the ways of their parents were evil. They were forced to speak in either only English or French, depending on what part of Canada the school was in, and given training in the most menial of professions. The girls were put to work in the school kitchens and laundries so they could learn how to scullery maids and the boys were put to work as janitorial staff and given basic training in how to be unskilled labour.

Aside from having to cope with the terror of being away from home and family, they were also subjected to physical and emotional abuse as punishment for attempting to use their own language or attempting to follow their traditions. On top of that large numbers of both the boys and the girls were sexually abused on a regular basis by the staff of the facilities. As a result of the residential schools - the last one was closed in the 1970s - generations of Native Canadiens found themselves unable to fit in either the White world or the world of their parents.

The colour of their skin named them as second class citizens within society at large, and they didn't have the skills sufficient to find steady employment. On the other hand they no longer had the traditions of their own people to turn to for solace, and they couldn't even talk to their parents anymore as they no longer spoke the same language. With their identities stripped away, suffering the effects of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and having no means to earn a living, is it any wonder that they and subsequent generations should feel as if they have no future?

When the African National Congress became the first majority rule government in South Africa's history one of the first things they established was a Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose mandate was to travel around the country hearing from people about their experiences under apartheid. Headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, their mission wasn't simply about apportioning blame, but to try and find a way out of the hate of the past by facing up to the the truth and accepting it. You can't undo the past, but you can come to terms with it so it no longer controls you. The Canadian government hopes that under the guidance of Native Canadian judge, Harry LaForme, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, will be able to begin that process in Canada.

Although slavery was outlawed in the United States with the defeat of the Southern states in their Civil War, segregation of Black and White exists to this day. Up until the 1960's it was common to see signs in restaurants, swimming pools, and public washrooms forbidding service to people of colour. In the 1970's white communities were still protesting the forced integration of their schools. Although circumstances have obviously improved, there is still a sizeable economic and social gap between the two races.

While Barack Obama claims to be running for President of the United States because he says he was convinced that people no longer wanted to be divided by race, religion or what region of the country they live in, he doesn't have to look any further than the pastor of his own church to see that sharp divisions still exist between black and white. Rev. Jeremiah Wright has given speeches damning the Untied States for it's history of racism and accusing the American government of using AIDS as a weapon against the Black community.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina and tens of thousands of poor Black people seemingly abandoned by their government as they were dying of starvation and dehydration in the Super Dome are still fresh in plenty of people's minds. When that's combined with the continual foot dragging by all levels of government when it's come to rebuilding the homes that these same people lost when the waters flooded the Ninth Ward, and the obscenely quick way in which residences were bulldozed after the waters retreated before there was chance to see if they could be salvaged, you can see why even people more moderate than Wright might be having trust issues.

America has a tendency to look at the past through rose coloured glasses and gloss over the negative. Why do White police officers still stop Black men driving expensive cars more often than they stop White men driving the same cars? Why is the American prison population predominately Black? Why do more Black people live in poverty and have less access to health insurance and education than White people? The answers to those questions can only be found if you are willing to look the past directly in the eye and accept it and its consequences.

Saying that people don't want to be separated by the divide of race any more is all very well and good, but they are empty words when the reality is that people are divided by race and nothing is being done to rectify it. There are very real fears on both sides of this divide that can't just be glossed over by cheery words and optimism. You can't just wish away history or whisk it under the rug as if it never happened.

For the next five years Justice Harry LaForme will be travelling across Canada and examining over a hundred years of Canadian history in the hopes of finding a way to resolve the anger and recriminations that exist on both sides of the issue when it comes to the history of the Residential Schools in Canada. It's not going to be an easy task for many reasons, and it will open a lot of old wounds that some people might have preferred left alone. But when there is still rot in a wound the only way to prevent it from festering is to air it out.

You might want to think about giving Justice LaForme a call one of these days Mr, Obama and find out what kind of work it takes to bridge these divides of yours. America might be ready for you as a President, but are you ready for America's history?

April 27, 2008

Book Review: Pagans In The Promised Land Steven T. Newcomb

It remains a cause of wonder to me that people express surprise at how powerful conservative Christianity is in the United States. Do they not remember who it was that sailed on board the Mayflower that put ashore at Plymouth Rock? The history that's taught to American school children says that the folk who celebrated America's first Thanksgiving were fleeing religious persecution in England. Technically I suppose that it's true they weren't being allowed the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity back home, but did anyone bother to find out what exactly they weren't being allowed to do that so impinged upon their liberty?

One doesn't need to look much further than the reign of Oliver Cromwell to understand why they weren't being allowed to do what they wanted back home. Cromwell led a Puritan revolution that saw the overthrow, and execution of King Charles 1 of England. During his reign of terror Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed any form of worship that wasn't in compliance with their strictures, closed all the theatres as sinful, and invaded Ireland and razed it to the ground for being Catholic. Saying that the Puritans were fleeing persecution because they weren't allowed to do what they wanted is sort of like saying denying the Klan the right to hold a lynching impinges on their civil rights.

Of course in 16th and 17 century, nearly anyone crossing an ocean anywhere and travelling to a "new world" was a Christian of some sort or another. Portuguese and Spanish sailors were circling the globe and "discovering" South America. The French and the British were dividing up North America between them as everybody was trying to find an easy way to get to the East. It was the great era of Christian exploration and conquest. According to a new book by Native American author Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans In The Promised Land, published by Fulcrum Publishing, it's here we need to look to find the roots of American policy towards the indigenous people of the North American continent.

Steven Newcomb is a columnist for Indian Country Today and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute(ILI). In his work for ILI he works to support indigenous nations and peoples to protect their sacred and ancestral homelands, restore and revitalize traditions and to heal from the past five hundred years of colonization. A good deal of that kind of work involves finding the means to advocate for various nations in courtrooms across the United States, which in turn means he's had to make a study of the rationale behind Judicial rulings that have found both for and against Native Americans in the past.

In Pagans In The Promised Land he has distilled some of that information to offer proof of his theory that American government policy towards Native Americans has been justified by concepts of Christianity. He also categorizes the relationship of American governments towards Native Americans as one that follows an empire-domination model based on an inherent right of Christian rule by discovery.

While he offers various examples throughout the book substantiating his theory through the history of America, three concrete examples, or proofs, form the core of his argument. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull known as Inter Caetera in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to justify their claiming any lands that Christopher Columbus discovered or may discover in the future. The only codicil that the Pope added was that no Christian King could claim any land already claimed by another. The Pope saw this as being a way of spreading a Christian Empire, fulfilling his desire to subjugate non-Christian nations, by whatever means necessary, and making them all Christian.

Those landing at Plymouth Rock claimed the land in the name of the Puritan Christian God. They may not have exercised the letter of Alexander's Papal Bull, as they weren't Catholic, but they sure followed its spirit through their treatment of the local indigenous population. Yet, according to Newcomb, while the Inter Caetera may have defined their relationship with Native Americans, it has been American governments likening themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament in Exodus and America as "The Promised Land" that has had the farthest reaching consequences.

The Puritans saw themselves as the Chosen People and the new world as their promised land where they would be able to live as they wanted, but it didn't stop with them. Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Continental Congress that Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson said it should depict the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land guided by clouds and fire. Both images were designed to reinforce the image of Americans as The Chosen People and America as the Promised Land.

Of course, as in the Old Testament, in America there were Canaanites who needed to be smitten before the Chosen People could move into their Promised Lands, and smitten they have been. According to various proofs offered by Newcomb throughout the book this mindset has permeated the attitude taken by America during their expansion across America and their treatment of Indigenous people's everywhere.

One of the key arguments in his book in support of his theory that the relationship between the American government and the Native population is based on the rule of Christian discovery is a legal case from the 1820s - Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall actually based his ruling in part upon the Papal Bull of 1493. In the case he said that the discovery of "heathens" by Christian people gave the Christians "ultimate dominion" over the "discovered Indian". This decision has never been overturned and remains the legal foundation for all American government dealings with the Native populations of the Americans.

Steven Newcomb has studied judicial history, and has in some ways approached this work like a lawyer proving his case in court. Fortunately, he refrains from using legal terminology, whenever possible, and has formulated his case in a way that all lay people can understand. The other thing to realize is that this book has been written for a native audience to help them understand the situation they face. One of the parts I found wonderful about this book was how he offers cognitive counsel for Native people to help them overcome the mindset of feeling like they are a conquered people. He reminds them that governments can not control how they think, what they imagine, how they use their language, or where they direct their attention. As long as they remember that, and continue to work on keeping their languages, traditions, and cultures alive, no matter what constraints the government puts on them they will still be free.

Pagans In The Promised Land is a must read for anybody wishing to understand what truly motivates American policy towards the Indigenous people's within in its borders. While at times it can make for a depressing and angering read, the author ends with a message of hope that is applicable for people anywhere in the world struggling to maintain their identity in the face of what seems to be overwhelming odds.

April 8, 2008

China, Tibet, And The Olympic Games

There are layers of irony surrounding the protests over China's occupation of Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing that would make an onion envious. From the signs that read "Free Tibet" to the fact that China was even awarded the Olympic Games in the first place it's hard to know where to even start. What do people have in mind when they demand a free Tibet? What were the International Olympic Committee(IOC) thinking when they awarded a country that depends on slave labour and has one of the world's worst human rights records in the world the Olympic Games?

The Dali Lama has captured the imaginations of people in the West for the past few decades in the way that no other spiritual leader, except maybe the last Pope, has been able to. He is welcomed in nation's capitals the world over, and people of all faiths hang onto his every world as if he has some particular insight into the human condition that everyone else has missed. Supposedly, he is the reincarnation of a previous Dali Lama, and was anointed as such when he was a young child by the hierarchy within the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood.

The royal families of Europe use to have this quaint notion call the Divine Right of Kings, (and Queens). Since they were God's appointed rulers of their country's they were above reproach from lesser beings, like their subjects, and their word was law. Who, after all, could gainsay them if God had put their buts on the throne. That was all very well and good as long as the majority of a country's population remained downtrodden, and dependant on their feudal lord for survival.

Once the economic picture started to change and a middle class of educated and monied people started to emerge, people weren't willing to buy that line anymore. Kings and Queens were reduced to being merely human and lost most of their authority. That doesn't mean there aren't countries in the world that are either theocracies or ruled by someone who considers themselves a divine ruler. Prior to the Chinese invasion year ago, Tibet was one of those countries.

What freedoms are people demanding so vociferously on behalf of Tibetans exactly? The freedom to revert back to being the feudal theocracy they were prior to the Chinese invasion? Where every man, woman, and child who was not part of the priesthood spent their lives in servitude to the monks. Much as in feudal Europe the labour of many was used to sustain a select few who claimed that God had selected them to rule.

While the Church in Europe promised the masses eternal salvation in the afterlife as a reward for their suffering and threatened damnation in hell if they stepped out of line, Tibetans were offered the solace of potential reincarnation as something better off the next time around if they toed the line. They'd only themselves to blame that they were toiling in the fields this time; obviously they hadn't earned enough merit badges in their previous life to be elevated up to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment.

People need to be asking themselves what would happen in Tibet if the Chinese were to withdraw tomorrow and the Dali Lama found himself reinstated. This is a country that has gone from one form of autocratic rule to another, and has no history of anything remotely resembling representational government. Would political parties miraculously spring up overnight? Who would be responsible for crafting a constitution that would create the Free Tibet, they are calling for? Or would they be satisfied if the country were to return to a feudal theocracy where the population was in thrall to the priesthood?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying any of this as an endorsement of the poor, put upon, misunderstood Chinese government either. This is a government that turned tanks upon its own people twenty years ago, that still routinely puts people in jail and even executes them for being a little too outspoken in their opposition. Yet somehow they expect us to swallow the crap they're spouting about peace, friendship, and harmony and that their decision to send the Olympic Torch on a global relay was to encourage people to build a more harmonious, better tomorrow.

The Olympic Games have been about propaganda since Hitler tried to turn them into a showcase for White supremacy in 1936, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Why else would countries like the United States who barely spend a cent on social programs, dump millions of dollars into amateur sport, or China, where millions of people live without running water, build an entire network of Olympic facilities from scratch in only eight years? It's just another variation on the age old pissing contest.

When the decision was made to award Beijing the Olympic games do you think that the boys in the IOC gave any consideration to the human rights situation in China? Do you think they cared that all those shiny new facilities would be made with what was virtually slave labour? I doubt those considerations even crossed their minds, and why should it? They've never troubled themselves about trivialities like that in the past; why break with tradition now?

The Chinese government figures it can tighten the screws in Tibet and not worry about anyone boycotting these Olympics because the whole of the industrialized world has been whoring itself to them for the last decade. Just the thought of a billion people waiting to be served has CEO's salivating and frothing at the mouth like a pack of rabid dogs. If they're really lucky they might even be able to go into business with the Chinese and open a factory there. China is every corporations idea of a wet dream; no environmental regulations, no unions, no health and safety standards to worry about maintaining, and best of all, a population in desperate need of employment.

No government will dare and rock that boat or they will find themselves replaced in the next election by someone more "sensitive" to the needs of the business community. It's amazing how the words freedom and human rights can vanish when they no longer serve your purposes. It's all right to fight for human rights in Afghanistan and freedom in Iraq, but not in China, and the Chinese government knows it.

The real irony of this whole business is there are so many reasons for people to be protesting against China being awarded the Olympic Games, and yet they've latched onto a cause which has no meaning. Instead of demonstrating against the horrors of life inside of China; starvation, cultural genocide, slave labour, environmental horrors, and the absence of anything even resembling individual rights, they've taken up the cause of a feudal theocracy.

If it wasn't so sad it would be funny, as it is it's just sort of pathetic. Protesting for a free Tibet has done China a huge favour by diverting attention away from the real problems that exist in that country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Chinese staged it all just for that reason?

April 7, 2008

Music Review: Umalali The Garifuna Women's Project

The slave trade that took Africans to the Western hemisphere was one of the most heinous crimes executed by one people against another. Husbands were separated from wives, children from parents, and brothers from sisters. Whole villages were uprooted and force marched across a continent and then stuffed into ship holds where they were chained together and to the walls of the ship.

Those that died were perhaps fortunate as they found relief in the depths of the ocean and a reprieve from sickness and suffering. Those who survived were doomed to a life of slavery and horrors that none of us can imagine. They were treated like livestock; bred for labour and whipped, they lived until they were no longer of use as workers then they would be disposed of. It was no life for a human, yet somehow some of then survived long enough to be freed and their descendants still live in North and South America with varying degrees of rights and freedoms.

In the seventeenth century one ship load of slave bounds for the Caribbean floundered and sunk off the coast of Central America. The survivors of that wreck made their way to shore where they intermarried with the natives who inhabited the coastline from Honduras to Belize. The Garifuna, as they have come to be known, have developed their own culture that is a mixture of their African traditions, Spanish, and the indigenous populations of the areas where they settled. Part of the culture has included certain ceremonies and rituals that have been the preserve of the women, and out of those developed a music unique to the women.
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Until now the only music from the Garifuna communities the world has heard has been that performed by the men. Now, after ten years of extensive field research and recordings, Ivan Duran, producer of Stonetree Records in Belize, has released Umalali, featuring the voices of The Garifuna Women's Project.

These women have learned the music and the rituals of their people from their mothers and grand-mothers in an unbroken chain that stretches back to their ancestors who first landed on these shores in the aftermath of the shipwreck which gave them their freedom. The songs that they sing are about their lives; the heartbreak of losing a son, the joy of a new born child, or finding a job.

Part of Ivan Duran's motivation in this project was to preserve these songs; to have a record of them so they wouldn't disappear like so many cultures the world over have vanished. But he also wanted to create an album of music that would be allow other to appreciate the vocal prowess of the women. To that end he has taken the vocal tracks he recorded in various locations throughout the Garifuna community and blended them with music that would make them more accessible to a wide audience. In some instances he has used the familiar sound of Afro-pop guitars, while on other tracks he's added funk or Latin beats.

I have to admit that when I first read that this is what had been done to make this CD it caused me some trepidation. I have heard far too many such efforts, the combing of traditional sounds with modern music, where the original music has been lost underneath a welter of sound that has nothing to do with it. Obviously none of those other attempts had someone like Ivan Duran at the helm His touch as producer is so light and deft that the music he has chosen for the songs supports and enhances the vocals without detracting from their original beauty and power.
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What impressed me the most was his ability to leave things alone; most producers these days just don't seem to know when to stop. Listening to the last song on the disc," Lirun Biganute" ("Sad News") where all that accompanies the woman singing is guitar and lap steel guitar, you can really appreciate the job he has done. Your focus is directly on the woman's voice and nothing else, and so even though you can't understand what she is singing about, you can feel her sorrow.

Sometimes when listening to a collection of songs that are being sung in a language you don't understand, you are able to appreciate them only for the music and not for the intent of the song. Certainly there are occasions where a singer's voice will convey an emotion because of his or her expressiveness, but it's not often that you really feel like you understand what's being said. Somehow, the way Ivan Duran has been able to combine the music and the voices on this CD he has overcome that language barrier. You really feel like you are able to understand what the women are attempting to communicate to you.

Umalali by The Garifuna Women's Project is more than just a collection of music, it is also an introduction to a people and a unique culture. If you insert the CD into your CD ROM on your computer you gain access to some special features that include a collection of videos from each of the areas where the Garifuna people settled and you get to meet some of the people involved in the making of the disc. These are a poor people, where life is obviously a struggle against poverty and hardship, yet they take pride in who they are and where they come from.

Like all people in this world with a small population they are struggling to hold onto their culture and with each passing generation fewer and fewer seem interested in carrying on the ways of their fore-bearers. Yet there are still young women in the various villages who seem willing to learn from their mothers and grandmothers so at least among the women the effort is being made to preserve that heritage. After listening to Umalali and all the beauty contained within it, I think it would be a pity if this culture were to simply vanish.

Umalali by The Garifuna Women's Project is a beautiful collection of music, and a wonderful introduction to one of the world's truly unique cultures. Let's just hope there will be future generations of Garifuna women to make more of these CDs for years and years to come. It would be horrible if the world was only to learn of them as they faded out of existence.

April 4, 2008

Book Review: Wolf Totem Jiang Rong

Throughout the history of so-called civilization zealousness and fanaticism has come in many forms, from the political to the religious. The word zealot is taken from the name of a group of fanatic Jews who fought against the rule of Rome during the reign of King Herod and the time of Christ in what is now present day Israel. That their name has stuck in our language to symbolize over the top devotion is not due to any success they had in the field of battle, but because of the mass suicide carried out by their members during the siege of the town of Masada.

Unfortunately the majority of the original zealots' successors didn't follow in their footsteps by limiting their deeds to self-harm. The worst atrocities throughout this planet's brush with human kind have been carried out in the name of God, nationalism, or political ideology as inflexible visions or beliefs won't stand for dissension or accept the possibility that another way could have validity. The Inquisition burnt heretics at the stake to save their souls; the Nazis used inferior races for medical experiments and slave labour before killing them; and today, countless men and women are convinced that killing others while blowing themselves to bits ensures their ascension to heaven.

One of the modern era's worst examples of fanatic excess also happens to be the one that we in the West know the least about. The Cultural Revolution held mainland China in the grip of terror for around a decade. It is assumed that Mao Zedung was the motivating force behind it's initial implementation in 1966 as he sought to consolidate his personal power. Academics, professionals, and artists, were deemed to have begun to put on airs and in need of re-education in order to properly appreciate the goals of the Revolution. Universities were closed and young people were formed into brigades of Red Guards with the purpose of using them to impose the new order.
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Part of the campaign saw Red Guard members and university students dispersed to the far corners of the country to help stamp out beliefs or behaviours that were considered contrary to the goals of the party. In 1967 Jiang Rong, (which is a pen name for Lu Jiamin) was one of those young people. When the schools were closed and his academic career halted, he volunteered to go to Inner Mongolia where he spent the next eleven years working and living with the nomadic people native to the area. Wolf Totem, published by Penguin Canada, is a fictionalized account of this period. It was first published in Chinese in 2004 and has now been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Chen Zhen is one of a group of students who has been sent to live with the Mongolian Nomads who have inhabited the grasslands of Inner Mongolia since before the time of Genghis Khan. Like people throughout the world who depend on the land for their survival the Mongols have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment to ensure their continued existence. For hundreds of years they have raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses in harmony with the needs of the wild creatures and the grasslands. In fact, so important is the continued existence of the prairie to them, they consider themselves the protectors of the grassland first and herdsmen second.

As Chen spends more time with an elder in the work brigade he is assigned to, the more he comes to understand just what the grasslands mean to the Mongol. It's from this same man, Bilgee, that Chen learns about a third key element upon which the lives of the nomads depend; the wolf. Although the wolf is the enemy of livestock and the Mongols are constantly at war with them, they also revere them as a source of knowledge and for the role they play in preserving the grasslands.

The Mongols understand the importance of a large predator in an environment where vegetation is limited and rodents multiply like, well like rabbits. Without the large predator not only would the pest population quickly get out of hand, but the gazelle population, native to the Mongolian plains, would soon deplete grazing land the nomads depend on if the wolves didn't keep their populations in check. This doesn't mean that the wolves are allowed to use their livestock as a buffet either; if a pack becomes a nuisance and preys too often on the nomad's herds they will be hunted down.

Chen soon learns that the wolves are not only a valued citizen of the grasslands, but also grows to respect their intelligence and battle planning. He hadn't really believed Bilgee's contention that Genghis Khan owed his military success to learning from the way the wolves hunted until he actually saw them exercise a brilliant flanking and encirclement manoeuvre while hunting down a herd of gazelle. Unfortunately while Chen, and maybe a couple of the other Chinese students are gaining an understanding and appreciation for the wolves and the way in which the nomadic Mongols have co-existed with them, the traditional way of life is considered counter-revolutionary because it is based on beliefs other than those sanctioned by the party.

For while the academics need to be re-educated through manual labour, it is also the job of the Red Guards to fight against what they see as the superstitious beliefs that are found among people like the nomads. With the fervour of missionaries the world over they have no tolerance for what they consider heresy. Some even accuse the old nomad Bilgee of helping wolves escape from a hunt he had organized because of his beliefs. It sounds ridiculous to our ears to hear someone call a wolf the enemy of the proletariat and calling for their eradication because they are a threat to livestock, but there's not much difference between that and some of the reasons given for killing wolves in the West.

It is the age old clash of the demands of civilization against the needs of the environment being played out on the pages of Wolf Totem. It doesn't take a soothsayer to know who is going to win and who is going to lose this battle. Chen is bearing witness to the cultural genocide of the Mongols; the great grasslands will be turned into pastures, the herds put into pens, and the wolves exterminated.

Jiang Rong has done a masterful job of depicting life among the nomads, from his descriptions of their everyday lives, to a terrifying ride through the night in a fierce snow storm with four horse herders desperately trying to defend their charges from an all out attack by a wolf pack. So vivid is his description that you feel like you are riding with the herders as they helplessly watch the wolves bring down horse after horse in a series of suicide attacks.

They leap onto the backs of the horses and dig their claws and teeth into them. The wolves' claws and teeth have been embedded so tightly that as the horse fights to throw the wolf off it ends up disembowelling itself as it is raked end to end by the wolf before it falls beneath the hooves. When you read that it was female wolves who recently had given birth conducting the attacks, Bilgee's assessment that the attack was in vengeance for men killing litter after litter of wolf cubs the previous week is enough to send shivers down your spine.

It's not often that we get the opportunity to read about life in China, and although the Cultural Revolution was officially denounced during the 1970's with the trial of the Gang Of Four, (the name given to the four leaders, including Mao's third wife Jiang Qing, in charge during the worst excesses of the period) it is rare for the Chinese government to allow anything this outspokenly critical of the Party and its policies to be made public.

Wolf Totem is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that everybody who cares about the state of the world should read. No amount of Earth Days, or Earth Hours will ever be able to replace the things we have lost through our own stupidity and fanaticism. The Red Guard's behaviour in Inner Mongolia in the 1960's and 1970's is no different from the destruction of natural habitats the world over in the face of progress.

There was another country, once long ago, where the original people considered themselves the preservers of the land and tried to live in harmony with the animals they shared it with. They too were considered the enemy of civilization and lost their way of life, and witnessed the desecration of the land and the decimation of the wild animal populations. Communist or Christian it doesn't seem to matter, greed wins out in the end.

Wolf Totem can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Indigo Books

March 30, 2008

Book Review: The Silencing Alix Lambert

We all know that there are circumstances where journalists put themselves at risk in order to cover a story. Camera men, reporters, and photo journalists frequently report from war zones and come under the same fire as the soldiers they are reporting on and run the same if not larger risks. For unlike the soldiers they aren't in a position to defend themselves. Yet while it is true that journalists are at risk under fire, it is only on rare occasions that they are deliberately targeted during these situations.

In his introduction to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2008 called "Despots Masquerading As Democrats" Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that silencing the media is one of the ways that a government has of ensuring the denial of the democratic process to their people. Now there are many ways that a government can do this: creating laws that control the media; allowing monopoly ownership of the media in return for favourable coverage; censorship; and either directly killing, or turning a blind eye to the killing of journalists.

It's no coincidence that one of the first things that a government does when it wants to control how it's people think that it seeks to control the mass media. Even in North America - with our so-called free press - we have seen how easy it is for governments to sway public opinion when they are able to manipulate the media properly. Yet this behaviour pales in comparison to countries where journalists are murdered on a regular basis and the government attitude has done nothing to discourage this behaviour.
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In The Silencing, a new book published by Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press, multi-talented artist Alix Lambert has compiled a collection of interviews, essays, and photographs that tell the story of six Russian journalists killed for being good at their jobs. For each of the six individuals Ms. Lambert has visited the murder site and photographed it and interviewed a family member and/or colleague to tell us a little about the person who was murdered.

In her introduction Ms. Lambert says that with the photographs she was trying to represent the sense of absence, what had happened, what might still happen, and that they are about possibility, loss, death, pain passion, yet also about hope. The essays aren't necessarily about the murder, or even what the story was that the person was working on that resulted in their murder - although in some of them that is mentioned. Instead they are about the person and what they meant to the person writing the essay.

In order to give us some idea of the significance behind the murder of these six people, Ms Lambert includes in her introduction an essay by Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about the development of a free press in the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev during the period of glasnost and perestroika in the mid 1980's and how that press actually prevented a coup by extreme Communists from overthrowing Gorbachv in 1991. Yet the problem was that with freedom from state control in the early 1990's meant that there was no longer the state's money paying the way for the press. Wealthy individuals began buying up the major media outlets in Moscow and turning them into mouthpieces for their political and social opinions.

So by the time Putin came to power in 1999 it was easy for him to start reigning in the freedom of the press, because the public no longer had the same faith in their objectivity that they had earlier in the decade. Putin was smart in that he only went after the major television stations and allowed independent print media to exist, knowing full well how little influence they actually carried. Of course in the larger metropolitan centres like Moscow, other means could be brought to bear to exercise control of journalists who would report on matters that might be troubling to certain parties.

Such was the case for five of the six journalists memorialized in The Silencing, the reasons behind the murder of the sixth are unclear and have never been discovered - which gives you some indication as how little was done in terms of investigating any of these crimes. When, as it is in most countries around the world, it is the state's responsibility to ensure justice is carried out, and the murder of journalists are barely investigated, or the guilty parties are somehow able to leave the country, it has a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

What journalist is going to push his or her investigation too hard if they know that it is open season on reporters who uncover anything that somebody may not want revealed? Conversely, what is there restraining a corrupt politician or a crook from having a journalist silenced when he knows little or nothing will be done to investigate the crime, or that it is always possible to buy your way out of jail?

Looking at the photographs of what look to be perfectly ordinary scenes in the lobby of an apartment building, the sidewalk in front of an office, or a train station takes on a whole different perspective when you understand that somebody was murdered there. Shot in black and white, sometimes at day other times at night, they allow your imagination full scope. That darker spot on the cement floor; is it a stain left behind from a puddle of blood? Would the victim have heard his or her assailants footsteps echoing on the floor boards?

Ms. Lambert was right about the sense of loss and absence the images create, especially when they are viewed with the accompanying essays. If those writings had only been details about what had happened, or facts about the story the people had been working on, they might not have had the same impact. The fact that they are tales told by a son or a cousin or a friend and include details about why they had wanted to become journalists, their families, the things that made them laugh, and the things they felt strongest about make the sense of absence feel even stronger.

If there is hope to be found in these images its because their existence means somebody cares to do something about the situation. It means that there are people both inside and outside of Russia who care enough about what these people were doing, and the ideal of free press that they are willing to continue talking about the murders ten, even fourteen years later. Nobody is expecting a solution to be found at this late date for any of the murders. I don't honestly expect anybody thought that the murderers would be caught even the day after the majority of the murders took place. Yet keeping the memory of the people alive reminds people that a free press did exist, and can exist.

On their own, and out of context, I'm not sure what sort of effect the pictures would have on me as they would become just another office block etc. Now however they each serve as memorials to an ideal as well as individuals. Alix Lambert's The Silencing is an awful reminder of how valuable a commodity truth is and the lengths some governments are going to prevent their people from hearing the truth. Read it to remind yourself what the words freedom of the press really mean.

Those wishing to purchase The Silencing can do so directly from Perceval Press and hopefully other on line retailers.

March 14, 2008

Music Review: Toumast Ishumar

I've always found it ironic that countries that aren't one people, like the United States (What's an American look like anyway?) are called a nation, when nations that are one people have no land they can call their own. In North America alone there are hundreds of nations without their own land to control and similar situations exist the world over. When the European nations carved up Africa between themselves they did so with no regard to traditional national boundaries.

One result of this artificial delineation have been the various conflicts between ethnic groups that has scared Africa since the 1960's and culminated in the horror that was the genocide in Rwanda. While nothing comes close to matching ethnic violence in terms of human suffering, the impact of creating countries based on nothing more than convenience has been felt across the continent. Some of those most drastically affected have been the nomadic peoples that travelled the deserts as much a part of the natural rhythm of the land as the turning of the seasons.

The Tuareg people of the Sahara followed routes that now cross the borders of five countries; Libya, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. In the early 1990's the Tuareg finally had enough and began an uprising that only ended in 2001 with the election of governments in Mali and Algeria that have proven more responsive to their plight. Moussa Ag Keyna was fifteen when he joined the uprising. But a bullet wound and the assassination of his rebellion chief (also his uncle) sent him into exile in France in 1995.
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He had bought a guitar and was set to form a band with friends and cousins when the war had broken out in 1990. It was in France that he decided to pick up his guitar again, and continue the fight for his people in a non-violent way. In music he saw the opportunity to tell the world about his people and their circumstances. Although the shooting has stopped the war is far from over, as the Tuareg's territory is coveted by the various governments for the natural resources, uranium, oil, and gold, hidden beneath the sand.

Along with his cousin, Aminatou Goumar, Moussa formed Toumast. While he is the lead vocalist and guitar player, she supplies guitar, vocals and spine chilling vocal ululation that can only be experienced and not described. Already they have had success playing in festivals and clubs around Europe and their first CD is being released in North America March 14th 2008 on Real World Records.

The CD's title, Ishumar, is the name that was given to the displaced young men of the Tuareg who had to leave in order to search for work during the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s that plagued the Sahara. Unable to travel with the freedom of the past, they were left with no other recourse but to go into exile in the cities of Libya and Algeria.

It's not surprising given the title of the album that so much of the music on Ishumar is given over to songs that reflect displacement and loss. While a song entitled "These Countries That Are Not Mine" is an obvious reference to a life in exile, "The Falcon" and "My Camel" may not have you making the same connection without understanding the lyrics, which makes the English translations included very useful.

Both "The Falcon" and "The Camel" express the exile's yearning for home in his desire for the things that defined life among his people. "I know what my soul wants" is the opening line of "The Camel", and it continues to narrate the life of a nomadic herdsman; "To follow the drums in the desert/That echo in the valley". Listening to that lyric and visualizing the open expanses of the Sahara, makes you think about what it must have been like for people to come from that to living within the confines of a city and how trapped that must have made them feel.

Aside from songs about exile, Moussa has also written songs reminding his people of what they fought for, and now, just because the shooting has stopped they can't let it slip away. "Hey! My brothers/Don't forget/The causes you have defended/Hey! My brothers/Blood has been shed". Peace might have come to the lands of the Tuareg but it will be for naught if they forget about what has happened and the reality of the hardships their people still face.

While Moussa and Aminatou are the primary members of Toumast, they are joined on Ishumar by other musicians to round out the sound. Foremost among them is their producer Dan Levy who aside from taking care of the arrangements, recording and mixing of the disc also plays everything from bass to soprano saxophone. He has done a fine job of creating a two layered effect with the music. While the vocals and guitars of Moussa and Aminatou tell the stories of the songs, the other instruments create a nearly hypnotic atmosphere.

Drums, percussion, and on one occasion strings, combine to create a melodic rhythm that, if you allow it, transports you into their world when combined with the sound of their voices. Guitar and the ululating of Aminatou create a strange otherworldly harmony that reminds you they are singing of a world we know nothing about, and assists in carrying us to the desert. Even without understanding the lyrics, the music speaks volumes. There is something about it that communicates the emotions hidden within the mysteries of their language.

Ishumar is a haunting disc, redolent with the sense of loss felt by a displaced people while at the same time declaring their determination not to be pushed aside and become another one of the forgotten peoples. This is a beautiful and haunting CD that deserves to be listened to for the wonder that it evokes and the message that it carries. This is the voice of a people that deserves to be heard.

March 8, 2008

DVD Review: Invisible Children

I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically. It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewellery, I think it's an essential component in this case.

Every time the bracelet makes me aware of it's presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crises facing the world today. The mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.

Up until a short while ago cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding country side every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them, some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
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The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.

Over the last few years a grass roots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.

In the spring of 2003 three young film makers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan, instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.

One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.

After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck travelling along the same road they are driving on had been attacked by members of the Lords Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.

It's another sign of the honesty of their film making that they show their naivety on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.

Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments - although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news - as of this month - shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
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I'm getting ahead of the movie here, it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young film makers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.

They show us footage of children lying stacked together like chords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning as to what would happen if you tried to escape.

The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly; an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.

What makes the movie the most effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary, everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible. The six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.

Their are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen year old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help than probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these the three young film makers.

The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy, they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can either spread the word; hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public - they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.

There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Than there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.

Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy. a fourteen year old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.

For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.

At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out. Your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it... that there are no more Invisible Children.

You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site at Invisible Children.com.

March 2, 2008

Book Review: The Bastard Of Istanbul Elif Shafak

The human memory can either be a blessing or a curse; a blessing because it allows you to hold onto moments in time that you cherish and a curse because it won't let you forget things you'd rather not remember. No matter how hard your try once something has been observed and recorded by your brain it's stored there permanently unless you have that piece of your brain killed - and even that isn't fool proof because nobody's quite sure what parts of the brain do what. Memories thought isolated to one part of the mind can migrate of their own volition and show up again somewhere else completely unexpected and unwanted.

History is a recording of past events, that sometimes has nothing to do with what actually happened, but unlike memories history has a way of surviving unchallenged. Somehow because it is written down, or recorded officially, it is considered much more accurate than anything the human brain is capable of remembering. The fact that histories are sometimes written by people with vested interests in how they read and years after the events recounted took place, doesn't seem to change anybody's opinion of their veracity. Only in the face of irrefutable evidence can history be re-written, and even than there will always be resistance.

All of us have a history, we we're all born, we all are children, adolescents (a time a lot of would choose to forget if we could I'm sure), young adults, and so on down the line until we die. As we age we formulate our own histories based on the memories we have of the days we've lived. Yet like any history there are points in time that are beyond the reach of our own memories, and we have to rely on what other people claim to have happened.
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The Bastard Of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, first published in Turkish and now available in English through Penguin Canada's Viking imprint, is about both personal memories, history and how they both can deny the past. Unfortunately for Elif Shafak Turkey is in such denial of its own past that she faced three years imprisonment for the crime of besmirching Turkey's good name, for something one of her character's said in the book. The best thing you can say about the Turkish government is that they probably not only helped boost sales of the book, but also nicely proved the point it makes about history and memory being precarious and easily falsified.

In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the rulers of Turkey took it into their heads that the Armenian population of the country was a threat. So it began the first mass extermination of a people during the 20th century. As the world turned a blind eye (as it continues to do so today when it comes to Turkish treatment of it's minority Kurdish population, and the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq which they relentlessly bomb and harass) first Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and shot for sedition; then as many Armenians as they could find were rounded up in Istanbul and forced marched across the country with no food or water and shipped into exile.

Hundreds of thousands if not millions died of malnutrition during the march and subsequent confinement. Children that survived were placed into orphanages where they had their names, language, and culture stolen from them so that they could be raised as good Turkish citizens and the Armenian culture would be eliminated. Thankfully the Ottoman Empire was no where near as efficient as Nazi Germany in their methods, and thankfully a good many regular citizens interceded to protect their friends and neighbours, so Armenians survived both in Istanbul and to flee the country to start a new life abroad.

The memory and history of what happened has never left them, and each generation of Armenian living abroad is weaned on tales of those whose lives were lost and the dispossession of their homes. Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian is the daughter of an Armenian American and an American. Her mother and father had divorced when Armanoush was only two, because her mother Rose couldn't take the pressure of so many people judging her every move while always treating her as an outsider. Her revenge against her former in-laws was swift and merciless - her second marriage was to Mustafa Kazanci - a Turkish man whose family still lived in Istanbul.

While Armanoush is growing up spending half of her time with her father's family in San Francisco learning the horror of her family's past, Mustafa's niece is growing up in Istanbul without even a past of her own. Asya is the daughter of the youngest of the Kazanci sisters, four in total, who live with their mother and grandmother in the family's ancestral home. Men have a habit of dying young in the family - so his mother had sent Mustafa off to the United States in the hope that he would beat the curse that had deprived the family of their precious men.

Asya is the bastard of the title and not only does she not live with her father, she has no idea who her father is. That's a secret known only to three people; her mother, the man who is her father, and her oldest aunt Banu. Banu is blessed and cursed with the ability to read people's futures in a small way, and can find out the answers to any questions about the past that she cares too if she is brave enough. Ever since the two djinni came to live on her shoulders, Miss Sweet and Mr. Bitter, she hadn't known a moment's peace from the past.

It's her own fault she knows, but she has to ask, and Mr. Bitter has lived longer then long and has borne witness to everything, and his bitterness is the truth. With her grandmother's memory lost to Alzheimer's, her mother wrapped up in worshipping a son she hadn't seen in twenty years, her middle sisters lost to reality, her youngest sister running from the past as hard as she can, and her nineteen year old niece asking why she should care about history if she doesn't even know who her father is, who else is there to but her to bear the burden of the family's and Turkey's histories?

When Armanoush (or Amy as her mother calls her) is nineteen she decides that she has to go to Turkey and see her past for herself. Going to Istanbul to find the places her grandmother's family once lived will be the only way she feels that she can understand who she truly is. Of course who else would she stay with but her step-father's family? Telling her mother she's spending spring break with her father, and her father that she's decided to spend spring break with her mother, she flies to Istanbul to uncover her past, and inadvertently sets off a sequence of events that brings all of their pasts home to roost.

It's all very well and good to write a novel where actual history and fictional history intersect, and the attitudes of a country are reflected in the microcosm of the characters, but the trick is to make it worth reading beyond the political or social points that the author wishes to make. Elif Shafak has succeeded in this task because her primary concern are the people in the book and telling their stories. Initially it seems like the book is populated by extras from one of Hollywood's "ethnic" movies, two dimensional characters whose only personality stems from their ethnicity.

On one side there is the happy, eccentric, doting Armenians, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. On the other side are the happy eccentric Turks, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. Yet Elif doesn't leave her people stranded, and with the help of her two nineteen year old protagonists, Armanoush and Asya we quickly move beyond the realm of superficial and cliche.

This not only makes it a far more interesting and entertaining book to read, it also takes a subject, genocide, which is next to impossible for most of us to understand, and personalizes it in such a way that we can understand why the Armenians feel the way they do. Why doesn't the Turkish government admit it happened? They can easily blame it on the autocratic Ottoman Empire that was overthrown in favour of a secular government in the early 1920's, yet to this day there is a steadfast refusal to acknowledge what the rest of the world knows took place; it's only in Turkey, that the past is denied.

As long as one person remembers the past there will always be the danger the secret you've hidden, the secret you hide from, will come out in the open. The longer it remains hidden, the longer it takes to recover from and the worse the damage that is caused when it's revealed. Memory and pain are part of the same nervous system in the human body, it's how we are conditioned to know not to stick our hand in an open flame, the memory of the pain tells us not to do it again. If we are smart we learn our lesson and remember the pain; The Bastard Of Istanbul is about what happens when the pain is ignored and the wound of memory is allowed to fester until the damage is irreversible.

February 21, 2008

Wild Burros Killed As "Wildlife Management"

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ... and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America's wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.

Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. "They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands" would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures. But a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it, and there seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.

Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM have done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50% since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
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If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn't bad enough it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than fifty per cent of what they had in 1971 but herd levels have been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.

Somehow or other since 1971 the wild burro has gone from being "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" to a exotic feral animal that is interfering with the natural order. It's interesting how this wasn't considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.

While it's despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it "Wild Life Management", is hypocrisy of the highest order. What's been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer then almost all breeds of domestic cattle.

Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it also can obtain most of it's required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of it's diet.

Like the horse the burros were at various points in time released into the wild and vanished into wilderness that could support little other wild life. It's only been since another introduced creature, man, has wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro has become a "Wild Life Management" issue. Unlike horses they weren't even a concern for cattle ranchers, because they lived in territories that couldn't sustain cattle.

However, once State governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licences fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear that they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and of course a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.

What's even more disquieting is the fact that many of the Big Horn Sheep are animals being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts on its web site that over 1000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn't previously exist.

Recently I was sent documents that were a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public my source has asked to remain anonymous for the moment. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
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Park rangers having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by Deputy Director of Texas State Parks Dan Sholly and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hil, with the full support of the State Parks Director Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.

According to Mr. Sholly's testimony they had started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th three days after the stop kill order was issued). According to him they had "kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was seventy-one burros". He also said that he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there - mainly because he didn't see them every time he went into the park.

In his testimony Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said that Dan had told him that something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It's interesting to note that in his testimony Dan Sholly claims that he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.

It's also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer the dates Mike HIll said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed "contemporaneous notes" to refresh his memory, and changed the dates to coincide to agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier then the date he came back with of April 2007. Of course he might have simply confused the dates, but than again since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.

Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they were wanting to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn't be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.

I thing the most damming piece of testimony came from State Park's Director Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly that they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven't attempted to capture, or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.

I'm not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros, but them I'm not a Director of State Parks in Texas so I wouldn't know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have it's habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.

The transcript of the inquiry that I received came complete with the investigating officer's findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was the fact that the people doing the killing hadn't bothered to notify the park's employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place they wouldn't have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, and worried that anything untoward was going on.

He recommended that in the future all park employees be better informed about the parks wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States, or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.

It took a twenty-five year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass the The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years latter officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving them of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting. Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild and if the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.

Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?

Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated are taken from "Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006 by C.R. MacDonald

February 20, 2008

Book Review The Age Of Shiva Manil Suri

When India was given her independence in 1948 it should have been a time of celebration. After decades of protest and a failed revolution in the 19th century, she was finally stepping out from under the heel of her colonial master Great Britain to be a unified country for the first time in centuries. Instead it was a time of horrible turmoil and sectarian violence, as in their last act of contempt for their former subjects the British arbitrarily split the country into Muslim and Hindu halves.

While in theory Muslims and Hindus could have stayed on in what were to become Pakistan and India, in practice people fled in both directions in fear of their lives. Families left homes that they had lived in for generations with nothing more than what they could carry on their backs. The British troops who were supposed to oversee the transit of people from one part of the country to another somehow or other never materialized and thousands of people died in riots.

Is it any wonder that India's first prime minister, Nerhu, dreamed of a secular state where what mattered was your nationality not your religion? Unfortunately bigotry is stronger than dreams, and it's easier to hold on to hatred than to learn tolerance. People are always going to need someone to blame their troubles on (heaven forbid they take responsibility for their own actions) and there's nothing like the convenience of a readily available scape-goat. So in spite of Nerhu's desires, and Gandhi's death at the hands of a fanatical Hindu must have given an inkling of the obstacles he would have to overcome, India in the years immediately following partition was a powder keg of resentments just looking for a fuse and match.
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Manil Suri's recently released novel, The Age Of Shiva begins in 1955, just prior to the festivities marking the 7th anniversary of India's independence. Meera Sawhney is seventeen when the story opens and according to her father, a firm believer in Nerhu's secular state, her generation is the one that will shake off the shackles of religion and the blinkers of tradition and lead India into the modern world. Yet if her father is the future of India her mother is the past. Deeply religious and illiterate she was married to Meera's father at the age of ten, and moved in with him four years after their marriage.

While Meera's father is extolling the virtues of a woman making her own way in the world to his three daughters, her mother fills their childhood with tales of Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son Ganesh, and the rest of the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In spite of their different views on the world the parents agree that Meera's life, as second daughter, should revolve around her elder sister Roopa. It seems her father's protestations of fairness and equality don't play out in practice as well as they do in theory, and it's this hypocrisy, combined with resentment at the bullying she receives at the hands of Roopa that end up dictating Meera's early life choices.

Roopa is enamoured of Dev, the younger son of a poor rail yard employee's family, who has the romantic appeal of being a gifted amateur singer. Meera's first glimpse of Dev is from a darkened balcony as he is crooning a sentimental ballad made popular in the movies on his way to winning a singing competition during the Independence Day festivities of 1955. Listening to a recording of Nerhu's speech from Independence Day, declaiming a future of opportunities, elicits thoughts in Meera of stealing Dev away from her sister and having him sing only for her.

With Roopa all of a sudden engaged to an appropriate suitor, Meera puts herself in Dev's way, with the result that she finds herself having to live her fantasy and marry him. Suddenly she is removed from her comfortable life of upper middle class ease to living in a two room house with her husband's family in the rail yards. She also receives her first introduction to the politics of Hindu nationalism and virulent anti-Muslim sentiments at the feet of her father-in -law.

In many ways Meera's life with Dev; the choices that she is faced with, and the decisions she reaches, are a reflection of the choices and decisions India as a country deals with. Yet while there is much of her life that is specific to India, plenty of what she experiences will be familiar to all women of that generation. I only have to think of women of my mother's generation, who who were encouraged to receive an education, but not allowed to do anything with it. Unlike their mothers they know there is more to life than being a servant to their husbands whims, and are not fulfilled by being a house wife.

With no real job opportunities aside from a menial one translating for a publishing house, and the reality of being married to Dev not coming anywhere near to living up to her fantasy, it's not until the birth of her son that Meera feels any sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, as happened with so many women of that time with no other options, she pours everything into her son to the point of unhealthy obsession.
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The Age Of Shiva is a fascinating study of an individual's desperate search for identity and purpose. While Meera's elder sister Roopa is able to play the game of upper middle class matron, and her younger sister gains identity through scholarship, she is stuck somewhere in between. She can't find solace in religion like her mother or her husband's family, but than again nothing the secular world has to offer brings her any comfort either. The obsessive nature of her love for her son is of course dangerous in that she will be left with no identity of her own when he leaves home.

Of equal interest is tale of India that plays out in the background, a history that I was unfamiliar with before now. I had known about the attempts by Pakistan to invade the territory of Kashmir, and of an earlier war with China, but had not known that the United States had armed Pakistan for it's wars against India as far back as the 1960's. Facts like that go a long way to understanding the feelings of resentment and betrayal that the Muslim countries of that part of the world must feel at the way their former allies now treat them.

The Age Of Shiva is a well told narrative with fully realized characters, that provides insights into the struggles educated women of the post World War two generation faced in many societies. They could see what would it be like to have their own identity, but were not allowed to touch it.

February 18, 2008

America's Wild Horses Under Attack

The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments made laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected but in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that while there might be laws preventing them from being killed - there was no law preventing the land they lived on from being taken away.

The biggest threat to all wild life, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wild life under any circumstances. The least amount of contact will cause animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government run parks or preserves that allow human visitors, if properly managed, are a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.

In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or on occasion even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, than they aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
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The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around twenty-five years ago by Gilbert Jones and includes a couple of horses that are direct decedents of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees Indians during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.

In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees to harvest like a crop. In order to facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with them. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year period during which the herd could be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.

Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, has been given until February 29th to remove them from the area by the Lumber Company. Only thing is, where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? You see the situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as they are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them - the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their population was maintained at the current level. At the time the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population for the first time until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off target by more then 50% as the actual total was 42,000.

While on paper the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for free range, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since protection came into place.

The real problem is the fact that the BLM are also responsible for issuing grazing licences to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So for every horse the BLM can remove from public land, they can replace it with a fee paying cow. For every horse removed from public land agribusiness gets to graze a cow subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisor groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
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So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.

When cattle graze they don't chew the grass they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth allowing them to crop grass as they graze, meaning there is far less chance of them destroying the root system and allowing for new growth. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system and replant as they graze.

As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands; well horse aren't the critter that defecate in their own water supply, while cattle do. Horses aren't the animal that hangs out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horse by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment; two hundred head of cattle standing in one place or one horse wandering around looking for food?

Yet somehow or other, in spite of all this information available to the government and Congress about BLM's record of mismanagement and its history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, their budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive removal program of wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded by the government to remove the horses from the wild it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.

Back in Blackjack Mountain Oklahoma concerned people have come together to form the The Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust whose immediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the needed 2,500 acres for the Trust to secure a permanent home for these last of a kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee and America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.

Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom) the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their effort and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.

In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war, forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. Thirty-six years of mis-management and conflict of interest has done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%.That's not wildlife preservation in my book.

Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.

February 12, 2008

Book Review: Long River Joseph Bruchac

I remember as a child having an illustrated history of Canada whose early pages were filled with images of Native Canadian life. One of the images that still stands out in my mind was a picture of a group of Asiatic looking people struggling against the elements as they made their way along a land bridge across the Bering Straight separating Asia from North America. It was the accepted theory in those days that the first people had only been fairly recent immigrants when the Europeans showed up, having only come here within the thousand years prior to first contact.

It has only been in the last twenty years or so that the migration from Asia theory has been seriously challenged, and is now starting to fall out of favour. Of course if anybody had bothered to listen to the stories told by the people living here when the Europeans arrived they might never have come up with it in the first place. There isn't one story among any of the nations corresponding with people crossing from Asia over into North America. Nearly all the creation stories have them starting life here, not somewhere else on earth and travelling here.

Of course listening to the first peoples was the last thing on the minds of the governments of North America, in fact they did their best to ensure those stories weren't heard by anyone. Generations of children were stolen from their parents in one of the worst examples of cultural genocide ever attempted. Cut off from family, friends, and community they were forbidden to speak the language of their parents and were prevented from learning anything to do with their own people.
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It's a blessing that governments are as inefficient as they are as enough people escaped their nets to prevent the complete obliteration of all the stories. Today there are men and women across North America who have taken on the huge responsibility of keeping those stories alive for future generations either by writing them down, telling them like their ancestors did in circles around a fire, bringing them to life in theatre, or using them as the basis for creating new stories.

Joseph Bruchac is one of those people who have made it his life's work to preserve the stories of his people. A member of the Abenaki nation, one of the Algonquin peoples whose numbers also include the Cree and Chippewa nations, Bruchac has published over twenty-five collections of stories that deal with every aspect of Alogonquin life from how to live a good life to the history of the people. He is also in high demand across North America as a story teller and lecturer, and tours schools and universities bringing the old tales to life.

In the early 1990s he began a series of books set in a North America that none of us would recognize; not only is the time period pre-contact, it is far enough back that the land still remembers the ice age. I read the first book, Dawn Land, when it first came out back in 1993 and was very impressed with the way Bruchac integrated traditional tales, and descriptions of what life would have been like at the time into an adventure story. At the time I had no idea he was intending to make a series of these books, and it wasn't until a short while ago that I discovered he had written a sequel called Long River. Published by Fulcrum Books. Long River picks up the adventures of the hero of the first book, Young Hunter, where the previous one left off.

In Dawn Land Young Hunter had headed out on a journey to defeat an evil race of stone giants - known as the Ancient Ones - who would have rained ruin upon his people if given the opportunity. On his journey he discovered many things about himself, not the least of which was that he had some talent for "far seeing",what we would call astral projection, or the ability to send you spirit travelling to check out the surroundings while your body stayed in one place.

In Long River Young Hunter has returned to his village and is settling into life in the community with his new wife Willow Woman. But he doesn't have much time to enjoy the peace of regular life before he discerns a new threat to his people. A pain maddened Wooly Mammoth, injured by a spear that is stuck in it's mouth, is seeking vengeance against any of the creatures who inflicted the damage on it by seeking out their villages and destroying them and all their inhabitants.

Young Hunter at first only perceives a nebulous sense of danger approaching his people, but with the assistance of his people's elders and wise people learns how to hone his abilities until he is able to use them to devise a means of defeating the menace that faces them. Eventually with the assistance of one of the little people, the Mikumwesu, he succeeds but it is a near thing. In fact if it weren't for the assistance of a former enemy - a lone surviving stone giant - the outcome would have been far worse.

While the adventure part of the story is fun, the true pleasure in reading this book is the way Bruchac brings the past to life. It's not just the myths and the tales of his people that he is recounting, it is everything about their way of life that he has recreated. From their means of creating fire, hunting and curing fish, preparing maple syrup, building shelters, to the rituals involved with naming a child. His attention to detail also includes the moral codes that dictate the way Young Hunter's people treat each other, and the world around them.

We're not just limited to Young Hunter's view of the world either as Bruchac switches between his central character, his wife, village elders, and even the enraged Wooly Mammoth, in order to give us as wide a view of the world as possible. While anthropomorphism isn't something we might be comfortable with, it fits into the native belief that all creatures, indeed all living things, possess a spirit and awareness. In Young Hunter's world, where they thank the fish for letting them eat them and the tree for the bark that makes their shelters, it makes sense for an animal to have a point of view on what's happening around him.

Each character's observations on the world around them, and the way they interact with it, all give us a deeper understanding of how people would have lived their lives in pre-contact days. Bruchac isn't just making this up off the top of his head either, as he substantiates almost everything with a story that explains where the belief governing an attitude came from. (Okay there's no story that offers an explanation for a rational Wooly Mammoth - but a little suspension of disbelief never hurt anyone) Something else to consider is the fact that a culture develops based on the needs of the people it serves. This was a culture that depended on the natural world for survival - and so they developed rituals and attitudes reflecting a need to live in accordance to the rules they saw around them.

If you want there to be fish tomorrow you leave some to breed, you don't kill the predator animals because they eat the sick and the infirm creatures among the prey animals ensuring that they stay healthy enough to reproduce in the future, and you never take so much bark from a tree that you kill it, or there won't be any trees left to provide you with bark in the future. The stories that Bruchac has his characters tell or remember in order to help them lead a good life, are all ones that adhere to those tenets.

Long River is a wonderful book because its a great story to read, with interesting characters and an exciting narrative. At the same time it provides an amazing glimpse into the way life was in North America before the coming of the Europeans. Joseph Bruchac doesn't preach or say that we should all go and live in houses made of bark, he just tells us what it was like when people used to. Although, after reading this book, I'm certain the world would be a lot better if we were to follow their examples a little more when it comes to the way we treat each other and the world around us

January 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.

Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.

Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.

But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
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One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.

Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.

Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.

In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.

But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
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Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.

The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.

The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.

The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.

The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.

The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?

Canadians wishing to buy The Complete Persepolis can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or pick up a copy from an online retailer like Indigo Books

December 5, 2007

Book Review: Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Edited By Eric Gansworth

"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat..."Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"... So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix everyday. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.

A short story writer, you start to write but are brought up short when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
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Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tell your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.

Sovereign Bones published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.

Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?

Actor's, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the wall of 'it's not Indian enough to be Indian', no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are meek, and docile who over the centuries have been exploited by their lazy husbands, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that starred crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved leaving everybody older and wiser. (It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother is the moral of that story)
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Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do. Creating works of art that are about them and their people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.

Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary? Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle – where's the buffalo?

Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers; at least not until the 1950's and they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.

No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations who are the Haudenosaunee, is they were conquered by Europeans.

Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life affirming, inspiring, and most of all real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscence of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.

Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.

"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"..."Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007

December 3, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The U.S.: Multiculturalism Vs. The Melting Pot. Pt. Two

This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a "Cultural Mosaic" while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they're going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.

In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it's first major international event, The World's Fair –"Man And His World" was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal, at the time Canada's largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a Multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the a leading light in a brave new, multicultural world.

However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation – French and English – and in 1967 Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. "The Quiet Revolution" of French speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. Those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics, and those who believed as Rene Leveque did that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.

Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec's Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte's corpse was found in the trunk of a car conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.

A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn't abused on the federal level, in Montreal thousands of people were rounded up by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor's, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people's anger.

It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural, surface.

In the early to mid 1970's events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973 Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.

While the Canadian government opened the country's borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn't matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.

People were accosted and beaten in Toronto Ontario's subway cars in full view of fellow passengers - who either were too stunned to help or didn't care enough. The "Paki" joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half)-wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer "that it's only a bit of fun".

Bigots are bigots and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious, their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn't going to on the unofficial curriculum of any school.

Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities, and faith groups throughout the city, who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance – including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring – the physical violence stopped.

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.

If we were truly so multicultural why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people's fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out: "they steal our jobs", "they leach off our social systems", but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about "bringing their wars to our streets" and innocent (read blonde blue-eyed, children) bystanders being caught in the crossfire. They don't bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren't potential innocent bystanders.

If it weren't so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people's fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history, and the political and social climate of those two countries, had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth, ethnic violence happened in those places, and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.

Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies – they succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.

It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences then anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We've lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.

When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting no in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of "our" country.

In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That's what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.

It's time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance because of preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that's as much a lie as any of the others we tell ourselves. If it didn't already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn't have been able to exploit it so successfully.

We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.

In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies – there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants, or anybody different from "us" is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.

November 30, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The United States: Multiculturalism & The Melting Pot Pt.1

What I thought was going to be simple comparison between the multicultural and melting pot immigrant society of Canada and the United States has turned into an overview of the social history of immigration in both countries. Not a topic to be covered in few hundred words, it has become a two part effort, with part two to follow tomorrow

In almost every history textbook that I had from grade school on, the writers would at some point take great pride in pointing out the difference between Canada and the United States of America when it came to its treatment of immigrants. The United States, we were told was a melting pot, where all newcomers were quickly absorbed and assimilated into the quest for The American Dream. Canada, on the other hand was a cultural mosaic, where all the cultures were distinct tiles, making up our big picture.

Aside from some confusion when I was younger, caused by an overactive imagination that had me visualizing the United States boiling immigrants in great big vats a la cannibals in B movies, I understood that this was some vital cultural difference between the two countries. What it was I couldn't exactly tell you: we had Italian Canadians living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy, and America had Italian Americans living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy. Not much of a difference is there?

Still every year it kept showing up in text book after text book: Canada is a multicultural mosaic that encourages people to retain their original cultural identity while the United States are an assimilating melting pot where everyone is encouraged to become part of a homogeneous mass. The one thing missing from those textbooks was any sort of explanation as to what the hell they were talking about.

Neither Canada nor the United States started out multicultural. (I'm talking about the socio-political entities that carry those names, not the geographical areas where thousands of thriving cultures existed before their new neighbours annihilated them.) It wasn't until wave after wave of immigrants started washing up on our shores in the later part of the 1800s that the term could have even been considered accurate. Certainly, Canada had its French population left over from the conquering of Quebec by the British, and in America, there were pockets of Creole and Spanish from thefts of land from Mexico and the purchase of Louisiana respectively. But aside from that, both countries were lily white. (I'm not forgetting the slaves; I just don't consider slavery a culture. African Americans have played a huge part in the development of popular culture, but that influence wasn't exerted until the end of slavery and after the great waves of immigration).

What I found especially odd about these great pronouncements in the textbooks was the fact it was never explained how and why each country developed their supposedly different outlooks towards immigrants. Was it even some great policy decision, or did it just end up happening because of circumstances? One explanation was that it was merely a phrase used to describe the overall effect of cramming so many people of different backgrounds into one area.

In the late 19th century, New York City and Chicago were already large population centres by anyone's standards. It's easy to see how somebody could use the term "melting pot" to describe the polyglot of peoples, languages, and cultures that were crammed into the poorer areas of those cities. The cities would have born a remarkable resemblance to cauldrons overflowing with people; melting pots where they all became just more, raw fodder to be fed into the maw of industry. Cultural distinctions would have been lost due to the simple fact of numbers.

There was also the fact that this was a time of growing labour unrest. Workers in all of the industries, from the coalfields out west to the garment factories of the east, began agitating for better working and living conditions. Attempting to discredit the labour movement, industry and government told America that the unrest was the work of foreign agitators intent on disrupting the status quo and bringing America to its knees. (Sound familiar)

"Foreignness", became the mark of somebody who represented a potential threat to the country, and an unwillingness to assimilate was depicted as Un-American. Since the majority of the labour force in the big cities were all recent immigrants – who else was there desperate enough to work the horrendous hours demanded for the little money offered – it was easy to depict union organizers and leaders in that light.

Creating an atmosphere where anybody who held on to their cultural identity – or foreignness- was treated with suspicion, an alternative image to the bomb toting anarchist, trouble making, and union organizing, immigrant was needed. Industry needed the labour force immigrants represented, so couldn't smear them all with the tar of Un-American activity. So they came up with the fully assimilated model, one that thought nothing of working long hours to provide a better life for his children.

The American Dream, that anybody could achieve success and happiness through hard work was born out of that period. Sacrifice your life and health so that your kids might be better off then you are. Working in tandem with the Salvation army preaching suffering will be rewarded in the hereafter, the image of the hardworking, assimilated immigrant, ideally suiting the needs of industry, was created.

As long as you played by those rules, and weren't some ungrateful foreigner who wanted special treatment, after being allowed to come live in the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave, you were considered a good American and properly assimilated. It was a modified version of America's standard foreign policy precept; as long as you do what we want you're a good guy.

During this same period in history, when the Untied States was being flooded with immigrants at Ellis Island, Canada was only receiving a slow trickle of Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the British Isles. The country was in desperate need to populate it's newly formed Prairie Provinces to prevent them from being swallowed up by American expansion, and to pacify the native populations.

In the early days of nationhood, the country had already had to suppress two native and Metis (mixed blood) uprisings led by Louis Riel in first Saskatchewan and then Manitoba. The silver lining of those rebellions was they had hastened the building of the trans-continental railway. Riel and his followers had been able to win their fight in Saskatchewan because the government hadn't been able to get troops out their fast enough to combat them.

Not willing to let that happen again, Canada's first, and third, Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, made it his personal pledge that a railway would be built that connected the country. He won the first election because of that promise, lost the second because of the corruption involved in attempting to build it, and won the third when it became obvious he was the only one who was going to be able to force the thing to be built.

You can build a railway, but you can't force people to ride on it. Canada began to actively recruit immigrants by sending representatives to countries with similar environments as the Western provinces. Forty acres, a mule, a bag of seed, and free transport (something along those lines anyway) were wealth beyond reckoning for landless peasants in the Ukraine.

They would travel by boat to Montreal, Quebec, be given the deed to their land, vouchers for their goods, and packed onto the first train heading west. A week later, they were standing on their homestead somewhere in the middle of either Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba – a minimum of a hundred and one miles from the nearest rail line. (One of the deals that lost MacDonald the second election was giving the Canadian Pacific consortium one hundred miles of land on either side of the rail line as payment for building the railroad)

Although the cities did gradually fill up with immigrants, the level of labour unrest in Canada never approached what it did in the U.S. due to the lack of industry. What did ferment couldn't be easily blamed on immigrants (Yankee organizers on the other hand were a great scapegoat), as their numbers weren't sufficient to be a threat. Policies that restricted immigration heavily in favour of people from the British Isles, and a desperate need for population growth would have made it counter productive anyway.

Visible minorities were kept to a minimum because of draconian head tax laws that required Asians and Indians pay for each member of their family brought over so they never appeared to be a "problem". Therefore, Canada never really experienced the influx of immigration that the United States did, until after World War Two.

Even then, it was often a matter of the government actively searching to fill a void in our labour market. For the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Toronto Subway System, and the rest of the construction boom of the 1950's, the country needed a fast influx of skilled labourers. Since Canada was doing the soliciting, and not the other way around, there was never going to be a question of demonizing the immigrant, and with worker's rights firmly entrenched, there wasn't any reason to.

Up through the 1960's it was easy to portray Canada as a happy, multicultural paradise without having to do anything but leave people alone. Slavery had been abolished in Canada long before it had in the United States meaning we never had the civil rights battles here that divided America. We had safely stowed our Natives on reservations that kept them out of site and mind, and bigotry was polite and British; it never showed on the surface – because it wasn't proper. All that would change in the seventies because of events in the outside world.

This is the end of part one of my look at Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada and the United States

October 6, 2007

Book Review: Wabi: A Hero's Tale Joseph Bruchac

If you want to know a people, know their stories; I don't know if anyone ever said that to me, or it was just something I came to, but what I do know is that it's a truth that's proven itself to me time and time again. About fifteen years ago, I was interested in finding out more about Native American cultures and people and started to do a lot of reading.

The first thing I realised was there was no such thing as an "Indian Culture" in the way we would define it in terms of our own people. What is true for one Nation is not necessarily true for another, and even within Nations, things can be done differently from one village to another. However, that doesn't stop stories from offering universal insights into how people lived. In spite of language and other cultural differences, people who lived in the North East part of North America shared many life experiences that were expressed through story.

In his wonderful book The Manitou Basil Johnson, an Ojibway from Northern Ontario, gathered together stories about the good and bad spirits that had been told by his people for countless years. The majority of the stories were of the life lesson variety, and were used to instil in young people an understanding of what it took to live a good life, and what it took to survive.

Of course, there were other kinds of stories that Native people told each other. Since we're heading into the time of year when story telling was permitted; the earth is asleep during the winter and there is less chance of being overheard by those who you might want to mention in a story. If you talk about a spirit in a story when the earth is awake, you might as well just invite him back to live with you for eternity.
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Now anybody can tell you a story, but not everybody is a storyteller. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to listen to stories in the middle of winter, I'm going to want to hear somebody who can do a good job of it. Which means we're all in luck because one of the best in the business, Joseph Bruchac has just released Wabi: A Hero's Tale through Penguin Canada.

Joseph Bruchac has been telling stories for years now and has published over one hundred books of story compilations, or as in the case of Wabi, stand alone novellas. His major focus as a storyteller has been on educating his own people, specifically young people, about their cultural heritage and through that instilling a positive message about being native.

In the case of Wabi, the name means brave one, the story concerns being proud of who you are, and maintaining your identity no matter what the circumstances. That our lead character, Wabi, in this story is an owl who is able to understand all the other creatures, and talks to his greatgrand mother in human language, makes the question of identity very important.

Before anybody makes any wild guesses, some evil sorcerer or witch did not turn him into an owl, he was born an owl. Nor was he taught the other creatures' languages by his great-grandmother, he was born with the knowledge. He must have inherited it from someone he thinks, but who? He also wonders why he's so interested in the human village that lies within his hunting range. He figures it can't be normal for an Owl to sit in a tree and eavesdrop on human during the day when he should be sleeping. But he figures since he does have these special gifts that he might as well put them to good use.

He appoints himself guardian of the village and protects it against the evil beings that still roam the earth. For a while, he is contented with that role, until one day he realizes he has fallen in love with one of the young women of the tribe. As long as he's an owl, he knows that he will never be able to be with her, and his daydream of having her join him on his branch is completely unrealistic.

He seeks out his great-grandmother again, and asks her why he is able to understand human speech, and this time she explains all. Her mate had been a man who had turned into an owl, and Wabi's mother had also been a human and had actually only just become an owl a short while before he had been born.

Of course, all this is very fantastical, and the story is a fantasy, but what's wonderful about it is the way Bruchac never once makes a big deal about it. The magic and the real, the fantastic and the ordinary blend to form a very realistic world where it seems perfectly normal for all this to coexist and provide the catalyst for the action of the story. Part of the reason why it all works so smoothly is that Bruchac has a fine ear for descriptive writing.

His descriptions of the various locales that Wabi travels to, from lush forests to desolate wastes serve the reader well in providing us with visual references to place the action in. The good storyteller is able to tell his or her tale through a virtual slide show that is created by their words. Joseph Bruchac is an excellent storyteller and not only is he able to illustrate his locations, but even moments of action come to life in the reader's minds eye.

In theory, Wabi: A Hero's Tale was written for teenagers, but as far as I'm concerned people of all ages will gain from reading this book. Not only will it provide you with a good introduction to the world of Native American mythology and storytelling you might actually learn a little about self-identity on the way. No matter what "body" you're wearing you are who you are and that can never be taken away from you.

Joseph Bruchac's Wabi: A Hero's Tale can be purchased by Canadians directly from Penguin Canada or through an online retailer like Amazon Canada.

October 4, 2007

October Second: International Day Of Non-Violence

I received an interesting Press Release through the email the other day from an Arts publicity organization in India. It was announcing a special performance of the score to the movie about the life of The Mahatma – Gandhi – in honour of the United Nations declaring October 2nd, his birthday, International Non-Violence Day.

I have to say that I'm having an extremely hard time with that proclamation: International Non – Violence Day. The only thing I can think of is that some bright spark at the U.N. figured they could kill two birds with one stone by honouring Gandhi's birthday and throwing a bone to India in recognition of their new status as rising economic power. Aside from that I can't think of any other reason for even considering such a meaningless gesture.

You don't have to look very far to see how empty the proclamation is. I'm not even referring to any of the wars that are currently ongoing around the globe right now, or the actions of oppressive governments everywhere to curtail the rights of their peoples. Sure they all reflect badly on our ability to live in peace or to be considered advocates for a non-violent life, but they are only symptoms of a deeper-seated malaise.

As a species, our predilection for violence amongst ourselves probably started the first time one group of early men thought that another's hunting territory was better. There was never any thought of seeing whether the two groups combing forces and sharing the territory in an effort to feed both tribes might not be to everybody's benefit. No it's always "us" or "them" with never any thought given to "we".

Of course when the empire builders started up, Phillip of Macedonia and his son Alexander, who were followed eventually by the first great Western Empire –Rome it meant whole new reasons for fighting. Most of them had less to do with the survival of the tribe and more to do with personal glory, although those who fought against Rome would have thought of their war as battles for survival more then anything else.

Once these guys had set the precedent of trying to make the world a better place by giving everyone the present of civilization whether they liked it or not, because we know what's good for you even if you don't, you ignorant, barbarian savages, everyone decided they wanted to take a stab at it.

The Mongol Hordes in the East, under the various Khans taught everyone the value of fierceness and swordplay from the back of a horse. The Islamic world got it's own back for the Crusades by invading and occupying great chunks of Europe and keeping the West out of the Middle East from 1200 until the end of World War One.. While in Europe itself first the Spanish, and then the French took turns in occupying most of Central and Western Europe. And when they fell back the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over until the end of World War One.

Of course that doesn't even begin to cover what was going on outside of Europe when they discovered there were other countries that needed the benefits of a good Christian/Muslim upbringing. From the Western Hemisphere to the Indian Ocean and China, colonial empires expanded and contracted with the passing of the years. There were also the Civil wars that tore countries apart because of differences in opinion on religion and economic issues that left thousands if not millions dead and deep scars in the social fabric that have yet to heal even to this day.

Of course every time there was some sort of minor disagreement between countries they would solve it by meeting on the battlefields of Europe and come to a civilized agreement by killing each other's peasants by the thousands. So people like George Bush and his cronies are simply carrying on the ages old tradition of getting your own way by any means necessary.

It's become such an ingrained part of our social fabric that the majority of us live our lives with the understanding that if we ever want to accomplish anything we're going to have to resort to violence of some sort. It doesn't have to be physical all the time either; emotional and psychological violence can be even more effective in a social setting.

How often have you had to resort to some sort of intimidating action to get what you've wanted from someone who hasn't been willing to follow through on a contract? From withholding payment to threatening court action you are still using coercion or threats instead of trying to seek a peaceful resolution to your problem.

What's truly unfortunate is how difficult it is to come to a compromise with people, and it's not until you offer to escalate matters that some people will listen to you. We've become so used to that sort of behaviour it seems the majority won't do anything unless forced to – it's like you won't be taken seriously until you put a gun to someone's head.

In some instances violence or other forms of non-passive behaviour can't be avoided and a person or a country is left with no recourse but to explore other means. But for far too many of this world's people, and especially our leaders, violence remains their first option and other means are discarded far too quickly.

For the United Nations to come out and say that from now on October Second will be now be considered a day for honouring Non-Violent behaviour as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi is a bit ridiculous. Those who practice non-violent resistance in most societies these days are treated like outcasts and unpatriotic because they don't think what their government does in their name with violence is something to be proud of or to condone.

Oh sure it's alright when people do it other countries against governments we're told it's alright to disagree with, but when people at home do the same sort of thing that's different. Our governments would never deny us our rights or throw us in jail without trial like others do; we're a democracy after all. When we use violence it's all right and not something to be protested against.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945 it was with the purpose of creating a body where the world's nations would be able to resolve their differences without having to resort to warfare. The only problem is that most countries simply ignore the idea of a peaceful resolution, and then proceed to heap scorn of the U.N. for not accomplishing anything.

Until governments begin to practice the type of non-violence advocated by The Mahatma, October second will simply serve as a reminder of how far we as a species have to go before we can really be called civilized.

September 15, 2007

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country Steve Hendricks

The United States has been at war with people living within its borders since the day the country was founded. Systematically the government has stripped them of their land, denied them of basic human rights, and tried to steal the very language they have spoken for thousands of years from their tongues. When they or allies have had the nerve to protest they are declared enemies of the state and treated as such.

If you thought acts committed under the auspices of Homeland Security were new, its only because the majority of the population of the United States has not been subject to them before. Welcome to a small taste of what it's like to be a Native American in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Only a small taste however, the government isn't quite stupid enough to think that the majority of people would tolerate being treated like they still treat Indians today. Heck they never even treated the Blacks this bad - but of course they were an essential ingredient in keeping the economy going, slave labour to pick the cotton and minimum-wage slave labour to keep the service industry turning over.

But what damn good is an Indian, they don't make good slaves 'cause they just die, which why we had to import the Africans in the first place, and you can't teach him to be civilized either - look at how long we tried with residential schools. Not them, nope they'd rather keep speaking their own heathen languages no matter how much we beat, raped, or generally abused them. Well if the stubborn bastards don't want anything do with our way of life than screw 'em is what I say, and let them rot on their reservations.
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That might not be written down anywhere as official government policy, but it's certainly been the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have conducted themselves when it comes to their treatment of American Indians and their supporters. The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of India Country by Steve Hendricks is the latest book to try and wake the American public to the criminal behaviour of their government toward its first citizens.

Published by Thunder Mouth's Press an imprint of Avalon books and distributed by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West. It joins Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and Peter Matthiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse as attempts to counter the lies and bullshit that have been propagated as the truth about events of the last thirty years and beyond.

For organizations who claim to have nothing to hide concerning their dealings with American Indians, and in particular people who were involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, both the FBI and the BIA were and are, very reluctant to release documents to Hendricks under the Freedom Of Information Act as required by Congress. In fact in an effort to research this book, he has had to sue both agencies (with some cases still in the courts) on a number of occasions to gain access to the files he requested.

For his investigation into the recent history of the American Indian, he starts with the biggest mystery that still surrounds events that took place thirty years ago on Pine Ridge Lakota Reserve in South Dakota - the death of Anna Mae Aquash. Anna Mae was a member of AIM who was found dead on a back road in South Dakota. Right from the discovery of her body, the FBI did their best to distort the facts. They even refused to come clean on how many agents showed up at the scene after the crime was reported.

Hendricks recounts the story again in all its sordid detail: how her hands were cut off and sent to Washington for fingerprinting, because nobody supposedly recognised her. How the first autopsy said she died of exposure even though there was bullet wound in the back of her neck leaking blood and the bullet could be clearly seen as a protuberance through her face. Thirty years later rumours and accusations are still flying on all sides about who killed her and why.

She wasn't the only AIM member or supporter to be killed or die under mysterious circumstances and whose real killers may never be found out. They may find the person who pulled the trigger, but those who labelled her an informer and sealed her death will never be known. Standard operating procedure for the FBI was to seed dissent among groups like AIM by spreading rumours via agency informants that key members were selling the group out. Therefore, it remains a very real possibility that they pulled the strings that resulted in the death of Anna Mae Aquash by convincing AIM she was as an informer.

Anna Mae isn't the only scab the Steve Hendricks picks at, some won't sit well with supporters of AIM, but their hands got dirty, and the less they attempt to cover it up the better it will be for them in the long run. Suspicion and paranoia seemed to be the normal state of affairs for the leadership of AIM. Not without justification as there were continual threats on the lives of Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and others. Still that doesn't excuse what were tantamount to summary executions of people suspected to be informers.

People may say, if Hendricks was so interested in helping Indians, why did he have to go and say things that throw the leadership of AIM in a negative light. In my mind that establishes the credibility of all the other information he unearths in his book. We've already enough history books that are written that cover up inconvenient truths, do we really want more of the same no matter whose side they favour?
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According to the United States Army the virtual execution of over three hundred men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th 1890 by Hotchkiss gun was and is a glorious victory for the Seventh Calvary. Any attempt to pay even the least amount of compensation to the victim's families has been fought tooth and nail by the United States Army in their continued denial of an almost universally accepted truth. Supporters of Native Americans cannot reasonably condemn the American government for propagating a recidivist version of history if they are willing to do the same.

In the long run no matter how bad the leadership of AIM might come across at times, their actions will always pale in comparison to the activities of the FBI, the BIA, and various American administrations, up to and including the current one, in regards their treatment of American Indians. Books like Unquiet Grave and men like Steven Hendricks are necessary if we are ever going to find out the truth of what happened and what continues to happen in the war the government of the United States is waging against the American Indians.

You might not like everything he has to say, but unlike the official versions of these events, he has told the truth as much as he is able to based on what people have been willing and able to tell him. The story continues to unfold at his web site as he wins access to more and more information. Even since the book was published in 2006 he has added more to the story via that address.

For anybody doubting the veracity of his claims pages 383 to 474 of Unquiet Grave cites his sources for all his information, including excerpts from documents prised away from the FBI under the Freedom Of Information Act. It's all there, from their falsification of information in order to ensure Leonard Peltier's extradition from Canada for his alleged role in the killing of FBI agents, to the contradictory statements about Aquash's death.

Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country by Steven Hendricks should cause outrage and shock because of its revelations about the FBI and the BIA, but it will be lucky to attract any attention at all. We continue to wash our hands of any responsibility for the "Indian problem" or claim it doesn't exist. Hendricks answers those who would argue that it's not our responsibility what happened hundreds of year ago with these words about the land stolen from the Lakota,"If we know of the theft, as we do, yet do not right it, we are as guilty as our forbearers".

The same can be said about the FBI and the BIA. If, as according to this book they are, they are aware of the guilt of previous agents and agency heads, and do nothing to rectify it, they are just as guilty as those who committed those acts. It's high time that those two bureaus were held accountable for their crimes against the American people, and Steven Hendricks has provided sufficient evidence to justify just such an investigation.

Unquiet Grave is an unusual history book in that it attempts to tell the truth without favouring one side over another. It lays out the story in language anybody can understand without ever oversimplifying or assuming the reader already knows anything. This important book should be included on every high school's history curriculum in Canada and the United States as an example of what the truth looks like. It's not necessarily pretty, nor is it necessarily nice, but its reality and its about time eyes were opened to it. Only then can the long, overdue, process of redressing wrongs begin.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

August 1, 2007

Book Review: Flight Sherman Alexie

At one time it was a deliberate policy of both the United States and Canada to remove Native American children from their parent's homes. In the early years they didn't make any excuses and just rounded them up and took them off to residential schools where they stole their language, religion and identity from them.

But in latter years they became more sophisticated by simply sending social workers onto reserves and declaring conditions unfit for children. The children would then be placed into foster homes with white parents and in white neighbourhoods where they stood out like sore thumbs. If being subject to the racism of their peers wasn't bad enough, all they learned about their people were the stereotypes taught in schools and depicted by movies and television.

This practice was theoretically stopped in both countries by laws that required Native children to be fostered with Native families. Only if a suitable Native family couldn't be found or if a child somehow fell through the cracks by not being a registered, or status, Indian, could they end up being placed with a white family.

Sherman Alexie's most recent novel, Flight from Black Cat Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is about the sense of displacement felt by children who end up on the merry go round of foster care. Zits is a fifteen year old half Irish half Indian on his twentieth foster home. At the beginning of the book he asks us to call him Zits because that what everyone calls him and it's all he has in terms of self-identification
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According to him he's got forty-seven zits on his face and he can’t even begin to count the number of them on his back. Ugly, unlovable, revolting; is how he feels and how he looks. It must be true, he's only been in foster care for six years and already he's screwed up so badly that he's been thrown out of nineteen foster homes.

He ended up on the foster care merry go round because his father left his mother about two minutes after he was born – left her in the hospital bed with a newborn kid – and his mother died of breast cancer when he was six years old. The Indian Removal Act should have kept him with Indian families but he was never registered as an Indian.

He keeps getting arrested and sent to juvenile prison and then sent back out to another foster family. He's committed arson, he's stolen cars, and he got drunk when he was twelve with some street Indians in Seattle the city where he lives. Soon he'll run out of chances, he'll run out of options and start going to adult jail, become an adult drunk Indian alone with his anger, his loneliness, and his feelings of abandonment. Alone with the hurt of being alone and not loved.

But then something strange happens to Zit. He gets arrested for pushing his twentieth foster mother (she said he punched her and who you going believe anyway a good hearted women with six foster children and the government cheques that go with them or a half-breed kid who's been in and out of jail since he was twelve). Getting arrested isn't the strange part it's meeting the white kid called Justice in the prison that's strange.

Justice talks about justice and the form that he preaches is vengeance. Don't you want to get back at the all the white people who made you what you are today? Aren't you angry he says? When Justice gets out of jail he comes and breaks Zits out of the juvenile halfway home he goes to from juvenile prison. He takes him to live with him in an old abandoned warehouse.

He gives Zit two guns – one a thirty-eight special, the other a paintball gun. Zits goes to a bank to exact justice and starts shooting people until a guard blows the back of his head off. It's when he wakes up and he's not dead that he things are weird. Especially considering the fact that when he wakes up he's a white FBI agent and it's no longer 2007 but 1973 and he and his partner are out in Indian country to put down the Indians who are raising a ruckus demanding rights and everything.

And so it goes: he goes to Little Big Horn as a twelve year old Indian child and is forced to kill somebody as revenge for a soldier almost cutting his throat; he becomes a scout leading a troop of cavalry to revenge the murder of settlers by Indians and ends up saving the life of a soldier who rescues a small Indian child; and he comes back to the future where he's a white airplane pilot who teaches people how to fly, one of whom is a terrorist who crashes a commercial plane into downtown Chicago.

He learns from each of them the futility of revenge and how betrayal can make you lonely and that everybody hurts when they are abandoned. The last body he ends up in is his father's, the man who betrayed him, the man he wants vengeance against for destroying his life. Then he finds out his father hates himself, was made to think he was worthless by his father, and was too scared to be a father himself and ran away into the bottle in a back alley in Seattle.

Zit gets saved in the end, he never killed anyone he discovers and didn't get his head shot off in the bank. He comes back from being his father and is still standing in the bank with the guns in his coat. That's when he remembers his aunt's boyfriend after his mother died, and what he did to him. Zit set him on fire when he was eight.
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He learned how to shut down and try not to feel after that. If you didn't love anyone they couldn't hurt you, if you didn't trust anybody they never could betray you, and if you didn't want to be with anyone they couldn't leave you. But now he also knows that you end up empty if you're just filled with hate, you end up alone if you push everyone anyway, and revenge turns you into the people you want revenge against.

Sherman Alexie has written a heart-wrenching novel about loss of self and the loss of identity. While his central character is part Indian, and Native Americans have been treated in such a manner that a whole generation of people were guaranteed a similar fate, he makes if clear that it can happen to anybody no matter what their nationality or race. People who are sexually abused as children, emotionally abused by a partner or parent, or physically abused all have had their sense of self perverted if not destroyed.

There are only so many times you can be told you are a piece of shit before you believe it and then what happens to you? That's what you become. In order to overcome that you have to go on the type of journey of self-discovery Zits went on, inside of yourself to find the truth of who you are and what made you that way.

This is one of the best books I've ever read on the subject. Even though it is fantastical with the time travelling, it is the most straightforward and honest depiction of the affects of abuse I've come across. Instead of just the clinical descriptions of what a person may or may not experience, through the character of Zit you live out the emotional reality.

The use of a fifteen year old street kid whose been in and out of detention centres and is not a sympathetic character makes it all the more effective. It takes a while for us to think of him as more then just another arrogant street punk, and it's only as he takes us on his journey of self discovery and he begins to care about himself that the reader will start feeling anything like compassion for him.

This is a story about one fucked up kid who finally figures out he needs help or he will end up dead. He happens to be part Indian, but that doesn't matter. What happened to Zits could have happened to anyone. That it does happen to a disproportionate number of Indian children is a stain on our society that needs to be corrected, but that it happens at all, to anyone is the biggest crime of all.

July 4, 2007

Canada And The USA - Simillar But Different

The other day I made some reference or other to Canada Day, Canada' s birthday, to an American and she completely missed it. So I wrote her back and said, "Canada Day, it’s a lot like your Independence Day on July fourth except less weapons are involved". And come to think of it Canada is one of the few I know of that don't celebrate with a parade of armed might for the world to see.

Of course that could be explained easily enough by the fact that we probably don't have enough equipment to parade anyway. Most of our troops are already being shot up in Afghanistan by friendly fire from American pilots who can't tell the difference between enemy and allied troops.. Can't really take that personally since during the invasion of Iraq the largest number of casualties they incurred were own kills. ( I don't know if that's true or not but I wouldn't be surprised if it was)

Anyway the fact that Canada Day, July 1st and July 4th, are so close together got me thinking about the differences between our two countries. One difference can be found in the name of our respective countries national holiday. Up to a few years ago we referred to our day as Dominion Day, in while the American national holiday is called Independence Day.

On July 1st 1867 Canada was created by an Act of the British Parliament, The British North American Act, witch also served as Canada's Constitution until the 1980s. The American's on the other hand were a bunch of dissatisfied British nobility who had grown tired of sending a tithe of their takings back to the homeland. This is what provoked the now infamous Boston Tea Party.

Its interesting to note how the two countries have such different attitudes to government and its role in society. In Canada we have no problems, in general, with government run programs that act as a social safety net. In the United States the thought of government controlled Health Care is considered a dangerous threat to liberty by more extreme factions and tantamount to socialism and communism by others.

Some where along the line in the development of America they began to consider themselves an Empire and exhibit the attitudes that come with that. The first sign of this was the Monroe Doctrine of 1810 that claimed it was the United States' Manifest destiny to rule the entire Western Hemisphere without the interference of any foreign power.

Not surprisingly they tried to invade British Canada in 1812 but were repulsed. In fact British troops landed in Washington DC and burnt down the White House and were barely repulsed in Louisiana when they landed troops there. After that the American's concentrated of expanding their interests into South America.

Unlike America Canada has only had two minor internal wars. The first took place in the 1830s when leaders in both French Canada and English Canada fought for more responsible government and sought to break the power of the few families who controlled the political power in that area. The one in English Canada lasted all a day when the leaders were allowed to march through the streets of Toronto until they met barricades manned by armed militia and trained solders. Quebec was different story as the revolt lasted for two weeks as they based themselves in the rural areas and were simply harder to hunt down.

The second major revolt took place after Canada was formed and involved Louis Riel leading the Metis and Natives of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in a desperate attempt to hold onto their land against the onslaught of settlers who were taking treaty land without offering compensation. Riel paid for having the nerve to stand up against the government with his life. (He was also used as an excuse for ensuring that Canada's national railroad was built – but that's another story for another day)

The United State on the other hand almost tore themselves apart with their civil war pitting the Northern part of the Country against the South in a vicious war that lasted nearly five years. With the North trouncing the South it was a victory of industry over agriculture and the economic path of the country was set

Not only had the war been a spur to build rail lines everywhere, it ensured the quick development of an industrial base which helped propel them to becoming the economic power they are today. It was in this time that the Americans began serious empire building and exercising their manifest destiny to the south. They had long ago stolen Texas and California from Mexico and were set to begin their economic conquest of South America.

The carrot and the stick were used to great effect throughout the region. With the carrot being bribes for political support of whatever corrupt officials they could find to endorse the American way and the stick military might to pacify any popular resistance to slave wages, exploitation of natural resources, and the theft of indigenous lands.

Sometimes it became convenient to provide an excuse to go to war, and so the American's sank a decommissioned ship called the Maine in Havana harbour and declared it an act of armed terrorism they would not stand for. They invaded Cuba, installed a puppet government who did what they were told by the Sugar and Fruit companies.

It was pretty much the same all over South and Central America until Fidel Castro and Che Guevara came along and liberated Cuba in the 1950's. Unfortunately Cuba was an anomaly and South America has only just begun to remove itself from under the heel of the American boot in the last decade. As late a the 1970's and 80's they were involved with either propping up repressive regimes who favoured their policies and doing their best to remove from power those who opposed them.

While the United States was busy setting up their empire what was Canada doing? Well, Canada was setting up its country. The biggest problem was finding people to settle the western Prairie Provinces to prevent the land from being taken by Americans and having to pitch our neophyte army against the hardened Americans to protect it. So the government sent out agents to Eastern Europe where conditions were similar, but land was less plentiful and offered the equivalent of forty acres, a cow, and plough to anybody who would take their families to a brand new country and hostile weather conditions and homestead.

Which explains to this day why there are so many Ukrainian and other Eastern European names scattered throughout the ranch land and farms of Western Canada. We were also getting caught up in the Wars of Great Britain, first the Boer War in South Africa and then the First World War. It wasn't until the 1920's that Canada was allowed control of it's own foreign affairs.

Canada's development on the world stage didn't really flower until the 1950's and the Suez Canal crises. It was Canada's minister for foreign affairs who won the Nobel Peace prize for coming up with the idea of sending in a multinational force of troops under the lead of the United Nation to serve as buffer between the warring parties. Thus were born peacekeepers thanks to Lester B. Pearson .

Canada began to excel in the role of compassionate middle power country that all sides in a dispute would trust. As a result Canadian soldiers would find themselves in some of the hottest spots of the world from the Golan Heights to Cyprus being asked to keep people from killing each other.

In my mind it is this that separates Canada and the United States. While the United States thinks of the world in terms of what it can take from it and use for itself, Canada looks to see what it can do for the world. Since the time of the 1950's we have geared our soldiers to be either rescue workers delivering care and comfort where needed. (This also explains our high casualty rate when it comes to our soldiers in Afghanistan as they are not equipped or trained for combat situations of this nature)

It wasn't until 1990 and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wanting to look impressive sent troops to the first Gulf war that Canada's role on the world stage began to emulate the American one. We weren’t becoming empire builders, but we were being seen to be their buddies, which was bad enough.

But at the same time we still considered ourselves to have a moral obligation to help right injustices in the world and believed in the ideal the United Nations. While Canada was working to help free Nelson Mandela and supporting aid programs to the developing world, the U. S. were propping up the Afrikaner government in South Africa and not paying their dues to the UN.

They considered the U.N. to be almost an enemy, as they do to this day, because they will not act as a rubber stamp for American ambitions. The United States of America is the biggest obstacle in the road towards helping Africa pull out of it's downward spiral of poverty and disease because it is not in their best interests for it to happen.

Canada and the United States live side by side in North America, but they are miles apart when it comes to how they view their places in the world. Canada sees itself as a citizen of the world with responsibilities toward helping her fellow man. The U. S. on the other hand sees the world only in terms of what it can do for the United States.

We are most definitely two different countries

June 16, 2007

Gifts Are Given Not Stolen

Four hundred years ago you welcomed some strangers into your homes. You showed them how to survive, where to find food, how to build shelter, and what plants were good for fighting off sickness. At first they seemed pretty grateful and appreciated the help. But when their extended families began to show up and instead of being polite and asking for help they began demanding you give them what they wanted.

At first you went along with it but eventually you said enough is enough, you guys are your own. Unfortunately by that time they were pretty well established and were able to start pushing you around. They forced you to leave your homes so they could use the land they were built on for themselves.

Well that was okay you had cousins on the other side of the mountains you could go and live with. But it seemed they're were a lot more of those strangers than you first thought and they had lots of friends and family who wanted places to live as well. Eventually there were just too many of them and they took all the land for themselves leaving little pieces for you to try and scratch out a living on.

If that wasn't bad enough they decided that what you believed in and the language you spoke wasn't what they wanted you to teach your children so they took them away from you too. When and if they came home they didn't know who they were anymore. The strangers didn't want them and they didn't know how to live with you.

Finally, and only in the past little while, your people have begun to figure out who they are again and to try and reconcile that with the world as it is today. Some of you have started learning the ways of the new people and using that knowledge to help your people get back some of what they had lost.

Children are learning the language of their grandfathers, and singing the old songs again. The stories that you used to tell each other to help you understand the world and teach you how to live a good life are being told again and the dances and songs that celebrated your way of life are being sung at gatherings of the people. Some tongues have been stilled forever and some stories will never be told again, but a lot has been saved.

When you consider that history, and the many attempts that have been made to eradicate you and your way of being from the face of the earth, recent events are even more disquieting. There has always been the occasional one of them who has appreciated your way of life and emulated it. Some of them have even been stupid enough to pretend to be one of you like that English guy who called himself Grey Owl.

But now things are getting really out of hand. First of all the same people who had tried so hard to summarily obliterate all that you stood for have taken to setting you up on pedestals as the epitome of harmony with nature. You have become a bizarre mixture of Rousseau's Noble Savage, St. Francis of Assisi, and pagan environmentalist.

Your women are being treated like they are some sort of Earth Mother/Goddess creatures who know all the secrets of creation. Your men are all depicted as deep thinkers and brave warrior types who are stoical in the face of any danger or pain. Being merely human and alive don't seem like sufficient justification for your existence.

If your grandparents had wondered about Grey Owl's sanity in choosing to portray himself as one of you, what would they think of the crop of folk who are either passing themselves off as being descended from your blood or as having been taught your "secrets" to a better life by people unnamed.

What makes all this especially nauseating is that these people are doing this all in the name of their twin Gods Money and Ego. They write books and teach and turn a quick buck and make themselves out to be something special. Who knows what kind of misleading ideas they are filling people's heads with about you and your people while raking in the dough and looking great in tailored deerskins.

Some of the things you read are so incredible that if you hadn't read them you wouldn't believe then. That anybody would make claims such as they are direct conduits for people who lived hundred's of years ago is astounding. They call it "channelling" but you can think of quite a few words that are far more descriptive than that to describe what you think of it.

The irony of the situation hasn't been lost on you. All that you've struggled so hard to reclaim from the times that nobody approved of you is now being stolen from you again. A culture that evolved over thousands of years has been reduced to being packaged as Enlightenment: It's Yours In Twelve Easy Steps or variations on that theme.

Those doing the selling all have impressive sounding names that mean nothing to anyone but themselves and their publishers. But they can call themselves "Where The Sun Don't Shine" and still not come close to understanding anything about who you are and what your experiences have been.

Isn't it bad enough that they tried to destroy your culture by tearing it out of the hearts and minds of your children for three generations? But now they want to claim it for their own selfish uses and diminish you and it in the process. Some people say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that maybe so in terms of some things. But when you imitate a people's belief system it's nothing but disrespect and theft.

They can talk about being "gifted" with special abilities all they want, but under normal circumstances gifts are given not stolen. That's not something any of them seemed to have grasped yet.

Not much has changed in the past five hundred some years of them taking from you and giving nothing in return has it?

June 14, 2007

Book Review: Alphabet Of The Night Jean-Euphele Milce

Some images stay in your memory forever. Sometimes you just need a reminder and they come pouring back again, just as potent and gut wrenching as when you first saw them. So when I first read about Jean-Euphèle Milcé's Alphabet Of The Night set in Haiti a film reel started up in my brain.

Decrepit boats in choppy seas of the coast of Florida overflowing with humanity being turned away from the sanctuary of the United States by the Coast Guard, bigotry and Ronald Regan's paranoia; mobs running down streets waving machetes, houses burning in the background; and most gruesome of all smoking corpses with their garlands of burnt tire laid out on streets and sidewalks.

It was the end of Papa Doc and Baby Doc's rule in the poor set upon island community. A descent into anarchy would have been a relief compared to what happened in the days that followed. For years afterwards coup followed upon coup leaving the people destitute and the land scarred with blood and fire.
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It's into this atmosphere of fear and unrest that we are dropped in Milcé's novel. Told through the eyes of his main character, Jewish storeowner Jeremy Assael, we watch and listen as both the history of Jews in the island nation is told, and the contemporary hell is played out.

As if being Jewish in a nominally Catholic country isn't enough of a minority, Jeremy is also gay. Although no one seems to make too much of an issue out of that fact, it may be because he's been very discreet. When your past includes a family forced to convert to Catholicism in order not to be expelled from the island, you grow up learning the meaning of the word surreptitious.

When we enter Jeremy's life he is trying to find out what happened to his long time friend and lover who had "been disappeared" some time ago. For the longest time Jeremy has stayed in the shelter of his store, not venturing far from its premises. All that changes when his current lover, who acts as store security guard, is gunned down by an off police officer who had taken offence to something the man had said or done.

Lucien's body left draped over the doorstep of the shop and the cop walking away completely immune propels Jeremy out the door to travel around the island to search for news of his vanished friend Fresnel. Setting out on the search also sets him onto a trip inside himself as he revisits some of their own old haunts which triggers memories and thought processes.
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I don't think that I have read a book before that deals with material this potentially dark in a manner as poetic as Milcé has managed. His use of language is evocative and compelling without being flamboyant or distracting. He has managed to find that delicate balance that separates art from indulgence in his creation of what is virtually a prose poem.

From his description of the home and headquarters of the American Protestant missionary to his detailing of Jeremy's participation in a Voodoo rite he uses language that conveys both the characters feelings about what is being described as well as its physical characteristics. This economy of words, having them serve double duty as it were, is not just an amazing technical achievement it also increases their emotional impact.

With each new description Milcé is able to continue to add to the atmosphere of the book and expose new facets of his character. As a place reminds Jeremy of the past he details more of the history of his people in Haiti. As this process continues he begins to realize how much of an outsider he really is in this place he has called home.

Even more important is the understanding that through no fault of anything but birth he is a constant reminder to the black majority of those who have over the years been the ruling elite. First the Spanish, then the French, and now America have picked over the bones of Haiti and have kept what few choice morsels there are to be had for themselves.

Part of Jeremy's journey takes him to an area where the location's history illustrates this in only too damning fashion. When the government allowed the river flowing through the Artibonite valley to be dammed, the valley began to flood on an annual basis. At first the farmers of the valley were almost wiped out, but then it was discovered that conditions were ideal for the growing of rice. The government encouraged the farmers and helped them by setting up co-operatives to market and sell rice overseas and at home, and if the farmers weren't exactly prosperous at least they enjoyed a level of comfort that their parents hadn't.

Then the government sold the land out from under them to an American business along with the licence to export all the rice. Those farmers who did not flee to the slums of the cities became tenants who surrendered three quarters of their crop as rent. If the harvest is not good they are evicted. If they protest they are branded as communist agitators and hunted down.

Is it any wonder that Haiti is a hot bed of anger and resentment against anything that reminds them of the ruling class? Even though Jews were the outcasts among the Europeans, thrown out of Europe only to see the same Europeans get them expelled from their supposed safe haven, and still a pariah in society to this day, Jeremy still wore the emblem of the oppressor – white skin.

Alphabet Of The Night is a beautiful, haunting novel about the search for identity and a place in the world. With poor tortured Haiti as the backdrop, and the ultimate alien exile – the wandering Jew – as its principle character, it shows how far people are willing to go to delude themselves they are at home no matter what the circumstances.

Jean-Euphèle Milcé is a masterful writer able to evoke worlds of emotion with a line or even on occasion a word. Without hyperbole or melodrama he opens a door for the rest of the world to walk through and see Haiti as more then just Voodoo and death. It is the home of real people who are just trying to go about their lives like everyone the world over, but with mitigating circumstances that would test anybody's will to survive.

Alphabet Of The Night is available for the first time in English through Pushkin Press. Now celebrating their tenth year in business the small English publisher specializes in translations of European works that otherwise might not come to people's attention. Their intent is to increase the English speaking world's awareness of the way other languages and cultures perceive the world in literature and thought.

June 13, 2007

Canadian Politics: Native Treaty Rights And Land Claims

There's been a lot of talk in Canada recently about the treaty rights of various Native bands across the country. The thing is a lot of people don't really understand what those rights are. They make comments about lazy buggers who get more than they deserve in the first place, or they lost war so screw them.

Well the problem is the treaty rights in some cases were settlements for losing that war. When nations agreed to terms of surrender with the government of Great Britain, who ruled this land in those days, they were ceded control over certain territories in perpetuity. As the saying says: "As long as the grass is green and the water runs," they were promised full sovereignty over those lands under the Kings and Queens of England.

For some other tribes their lands were given them as reward for loyalty to England. During the revolutionary war that brought about the birth of the United States, certain members of the Iroquois Nation sided with the British. Chief among them were the Mohawks and the Oneida.

Both nations were given large tracts of land through out Southern Ontario to resettle in, as they had to leave their home territories in the United States after the war. As with the treaty rights of other nations in other parts of Canada their new territories were guaranteed them forever.

Of course this was in the days long before anyone considered the value of what could be under the ground, or that a golf course would work really well there. In the dark ages of Canadian and Native relations, when the federal government was trying to solve the "Indian Problem" by committing cultural genocide with residential schools, they also ignored governments at the provincial and municipal levels developing and selling treaty lands.

Anyone with ready cash was allowed to do whatever they wanted from building gravel pits to housing developments. Trapped on their reservations and kept ignorant of their past through federal policy, most nations had no idea what was being done to them. Occasionally in attempts to make things look kosher, a government would agree to "lease" the land from the nation affected on condition that it would be returned when they were done with it.

But most times they didn't even bother and would just sell it out from under them. Some nations wised up before others. On the West Coast the Niska nation began fighting in the courts for the return of their treaty lands in the 1950's.

By the time they won their case some forty years later in the 1990's they were the proud owners of large chunks of expensive sub-divisions that had been built on their territory illegally. There was a great hue and cry from the right wing about "Indians" going to throw people out on the street without having to pay for the houses.

What happened instead was that the tribe simply became the new municipal government and collected property taxes, made sure the garbage was collected and basically nobody's lives were affected in the least. Property values might have fallen slightly but that wasn't the Niska's fault, hate and fear mongering can go a long way in making things unsettled and that was the case in this situation.

In the 1970's when the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) was getting active in the United States and speaking out for the right of Native Americans, Canadian Natives started to come out of their stupor as well. The first thing that meant for a lot of people was recovering the cultural identity that had been stripped away from them by years of government policy.

Along with the rediscovery of self came political awareness and understanding of what had been going on for the past nearly two hundred years. Tribal bands began gathering together evidence of the old treaties and finding out exactly what land had been originally ceded to them by the governments when they were originally awarded their territories.

The Lubicon Cree in Northern Alberta discovered how much land had been sold out from under them by the Alberta government to Oil and Gas companies; in Saskatchewan a tribe woke up to discover the government was diverting a river that ran through their territory without their permission; but it was 1990 and Oka Quebec that woke the country up to the size of the problem.

The mayor of the sleepy little town of Oka Quebec was also chairman of the local golf club. The club wanted to expand from nine holes to eighteen and so the mayor convinced city council to sell some "vacant land" to the golf course. That vacant land was part of the land ceded to the Mohawk nation whose territory boarded the town of Oka.

When the Mohawks blockaded the road leading to the site the Quebec Provincial Police (La Surete de Quebec) charged the barricade – in the resulting exchange of fire one young officer was shot. What had begun as a peaceful protest escalated to the point where the Prime Minister of Canada decided to call out the army to end the blockade.

Thankfully the Canadian Armed Forces are much better disciplined than the Surete de Quebec and the affair wound down peacefully. But the issue remains unresolved with the land claim still on the books and the golf course made on the disputed territories.

In 1995 it was Ontario's turn, and this time a Native was killed. At Iperwash Provincial Park Chippewa were protesting the fact that the land used for the park was treaty territory and a traditional burial ground. The documentation asserting their claim is held by the federal government and nobody denied that the land was legally theirs. But nothing happened except Dudley George of the Chippewa First Nations was shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer for no apparent reason.

Over the years federal governments of every political persuasion have been dragging their heels on dealing with land claims. The longer they stall the more cases come to light. In the past year alone we've seen the occupation of the site of a housing development in Caledonia Ontario, the blockading of rail lines along the main east-west passenger corridor in the heaviest populated area of Canada, and various other protests across the country about the delays in settling lands claims.

While you can't blame the current government for the backlog, you can blame them for not doing anything about it and for their negative attitude towards Native affairs to begin with. This is the government that cancelled an agreement worked out between all the provinces, the Assembly of First Nations (who represent all the reservation Natives across Canada) and the federal government for financial assistance over ten years to all bands across the country.

They claim they have set up a special committee to deal with land claim settlements, but that they won't do anything as long as barricades are up anywhere across the country. But what guarantees do the Native people of Canada have that this will happen quickly, and why should they trust any government of Canada after what they have experienced in the last two hundred years.

How many times can you lie to, cheat, and deceive a people before they are justified in not believing anything you say anymore? Land claims and treaty rights have reached the stage in Canada where Native Canadians are within their rights to demand some show of good faith on the part of any government if they are to be expected to surrender any means they have of keeping up the pressure to force the issue.

Successive Canadian governments at all levels have not shown themselves to be very good about honouring treaties that were signed by their forefathers, so if Native Canadians are feeling suspicious can you blame them? From there point of view the grass has gotten pretty brown and the running water has slowed to a trickle.

June 2, 2007

Music Review: Viggo Mortensen & Buckethead Pandemoniumfromamerica

Not everyone was happy with the direction George Bush was taking the United States in 2003 when he set out on his course of conquest and empire building. Today it has become much more fashionable to be against the conflict in Iraq, just as a generation ago the opposition to the Viet Nam war became stylish as the conflict drew to a close.

But for those lonely voices back in the early stages of the War On Terror it must have felt like they were yelling into a gale for all that anybody seemed to be listening. The noise of patriotism and righteous indignation could be heard emitting from every television and radio; blaring from every headline; and oozing out of every opportunistic mouth.

To those trying to tell the world that perhaps there might be a contrasting opinion to the one that was being touted by the administration it must have been obvious that they needed to make a lot of noise in an original way if they wanted to make their voices heard over the din. Pandemoniumfromamerica was an attempt made by Viggo Mortensen and his companion in sonic disruption, Buckethead, to do just that.
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Joined by their friends Henry Mortensen, (Viggo's son) Dominic Monahan, Billy Boyd, and Elijah Wood, they attempted to not just voice their opposition to the war but to describe what it felt like to be caught up in the maelstrom of America at the time. At first blush the tracks may not appear to have anything to do with the subject at hand, but this is not a typical CD of protest music.

For instance what does a distorted version of "Red Rive Valley" have to do with anything at all concerning the war or America? One could make some deep comments about it being symbolic about the loss of naiveté and innocence in America as it is such a sentimental pieces of silliness. But perhaps they are commenting more on the dangers of commercial sentiment as opposed to real emotion and how it can be used to manipulate reactions from people.

What else would you call appeals to the flag, patriotism, family values, the American Way of Life, and God's on our side? They are all manufactured by forces outside of you with the express purpose of triggering a reaction. It's a Pavlov and the dogs type of thing; see how many hoops we can push them through by invoking cheap sentimental imagery.

Real emotion is something you create naturally, not as a response to some man made manipulative imagery. It's no coincidence that Pandemoniumfromamerica is dedicated to Noam Chomsky the media critic and linguist. It was Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent who outlined how the American public had been duped by Papa Bush's administration and the media into going along with the first Gulf War through sentimental manipulations and outright lies.

The title track of the CD uses a poem by William Blake, the 19th century British Romantic poet and opium eater, To be honest I'm that big a fan of most Romantic poetry, finding it overblown and lacking in subtlety, but in this instance the poem Viggo selects help to create the mood of what they see happening in America. The mood of the piece suggests the babble of confusion that arose at the time.

Its effect is increased by the fact it falls on the heels of Viggo's response to the war, the poem "Back To Babylon". It can be taken both literally as being the return of American forces to the Middle East or as commentary on the descent into barbarism that accompanies a declaration of war.
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Don't come listening to Pandemoniumfromamerica expecting to find it full of pop music or even a collection of Mortensen's poetry. Musically speaking it's not what you'd call incredibly refined either, with Buckethead and Henry being the only legitimate threats as musicians on the recording. But despite this the other contributors have a sensitivity to the moods and emotions of pieces so their contributions fill the space with sound that's appropriate for creating the atmosphere needed for the words being presented.

There is an all-pervasive feeling of anxiety that percolates throughout the recording that reflects the state of mind of America in the days following Sept. 11 2001. Like the homeowner who was told that their gated community was invulnerable to the chaos of the society around them, America found that you couldn't lock the world out. Living lives of conspicuous consumption and self-absorption is no guarantee of immunity from the world's realities anymore.

Violated and afraid, and suffering from mass post-traumatic stress syndrome, the American people were easy prey to the manipulations of those who had their own agendas. More then willing to take advantage of everyone's grief and whip it into a froth of patriotic fervour and hatred to achieve their own ends, the leaders they elected to guide them through moments of crises with compassion and courage betrayed their confidence.

Listening to Pandemoniumfromamerica as an entity instead of as a collection of songs, one hears the anxiety, the betrayal, and the confusion. When an artist shows society its reflection in the mirror of his or her work the picture is not always going to be to everyone's liking. Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead have created a mirror that doesn't pander to anyone's self interest or ego; the sounds of a society in turmoil and confusion are never pleasant.

May 6, 2007

Book Review: Istanbul Orhan Pamuk

I have to admit that the one genre of writing that I've never had much liking for has always been the autobiography. There are just so many ways a person can be self-serving when they write about themselves, either by talking about the amazing things they've done (according to them), or detailing the incredible sacrifices they had to make on their road to fame thus ensuring we know just what martyrs they've been.

Worst of all is the playing down of their accomplishments in alluring displays of false modesty. That way, it is hoped I assume, we readers will be quicker in anointing them with a seal of approval that ensures them their "rightful" place in the annals of history. How many times have you heard it said of a politician that they are attempting to ensure his or her place in history? I can't think of anything scarier to be honest.

It's bad enough the damage they inflict just through their day-to-day interference with our world without them attempting to leave their mark so that they will be remembered and have a reason for writing their memoirs. In some cases you have to wonder, which came first, the need to write the memoir or the need to do something to be able to write a memoir.

That's not to say there aren't worthwhile memoirs where the author has used situations in his or her life as an example of how to overcome a difficulty. In those instances they aren't technically writing a memoir as they are not the subject matter and are only relevant because of what their presence adds to the topic.

After reading all that it probably won't come as any surprise to you me saying that if I had known that the Random House Canada publication Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk was a memoir I wouldn't have been so hot to read it. Maybe it was the comparison to Joyce' Ulysses that confused me into somehow thinking it was a novel, I'm not sure, but I do know that it wasn't until I had the book in my hands that I realized it wasn't fiction.
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Thankfully Mr. Pamuk is not the type of writer who feels the need for self-aggrandisement and has merely included himself in the proceedings as a reporter on events and an example. He isn't writing about himself, he is merely participating in the telling of Istanbul's secrets.

As he describes the city, he acknowledges her past and the spell she exerted upon Westerners. The jewel of the Orient, The Mysterious East, and all the other stereotypes that were perpetuated by 19th century romantics are examined and found to be inaccurate even at the time of the their conception. By the mid to late 1800s the Ottoman Empire was already shrinking back to the borders of Istanbul, and she was starting to reflect the decline.

By the time of the author's birth in the 1950's, in the brave new world of the Republic of Turkey, empire and royalty are fading into memory as quickly as former palaces become apartment blocks and rooming houses. Even those remnants, which were mainly along the Bosphorus River that bisects Istanbul, had been built by bureaucrats of the Empire in a bid to escape from the crowding of Istanbul's core by waves of immigrants. (It 's apparent the concept of moving to the suburbs to escape the poor huddled masses is not a modern or solely Western concept)

Mr.Pamuk describes the yahs, the Turkish word for these waterside mansions as mere shadows of a destroyed culture. In other words they weren't even a pale imitation of the architecture of the Empire at its heyday that inspired the Romantic urges of 19th century Europe. So when a painter would come to Istanbul to record the mysterious east with all of its splendour he would find himself forced into "orientalizing" his work to make it "authentic"

The Bosphorus is obviously central to Istanbul as she repeatedly pops up in the book. She exerts a magnetic pull upon the author that keeps him returning to her banks at various stages in his life. That the word Bosphorus in Turkish means throat, and that the river delves deep into the middle of the city, gives the impression that if you were to follow the river to its furthest extent you would be able to delve deeply into the heart of Istanbul's secrets.

The river has its own mythology, stories of bodies disposed of in her murky depths that are quickly pulled out to sea by the fierce currents. But in spite of her fierceness she is also the site of many a family outing as parents and children head to her banks for a weekend afternoon outing. Of course there is also the known curative powers of the sea air, which doctors would prescribe patients in the final stages of their recuperation as a tonic, to spend time upon her waters in one of the many fishing boats that were for hire.
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But that too is in the past, from the author's youth of the 1950's and 60's, although he does say that to this day he will always associate the Bosphorus with good health. But even those thoughts cannot dispel the overlying air of melancholy that is described as the constant state of being for the people of Istanbul.

Hûzûn is the Turkish word for melancholy, but according to Mr. Pamuk it has little in common with the word as we know it. In Istanbul especially it takes on a meaning that goes beyond sadness or individual grief. It is a shared sense of loss that is felt by all her inhabitants. In every neighbourhood no matter how poor or how wealthy one can find ruins of the empire.

The constant reminder of what once was and can never be again imbues the soul and spirit of the "Istanbullus". According to the author one can attempt to pretend it doesn't exist for a time, but then when it does hit you, another building collapses into ruins revealing some little piece of princely past, it hits you even harder.

Istanbul is a voyage into the heart of a city as seen through the eye of memories, history, and a person who has lived his entire life on her streets. Orhan Pamuk is so sentimentally attached to his city and its past that he resides again in the apartment of his childhood as if he's trying to regain the lost empire of the city of fifty years ago. Would the Istanbul of his childhood tried to have jailed him for writing "Anti- Turkish" thoughts? Or is that part of what he sees as part of the decline.

The irony of course is that the Ottoman Empire was seen by those under its rule as cruel and despotic, something to be thrown off like shackles. Here in Istanbul it appears that while they may not long for the actual Empire, they are preoccupied with the loss of its trappings and ostentatious displays of wealth. But to think that would only to see the veneer of feeling that affects life within this city that's older then most of the post Roman Empire western world.

Orhan Pamuk has written an amazing story of a city and how it's people relate to it. Using himself and his family as examples he manages to convey how Istanbul and her people are irrevocably interconnected. Istanbul is more than a memoir, and much more than a travel guide. It's not only a voyage into the heart of a city, but also an anatomy of the soul of a people


April 28, 2007

Whose Terrorising Who?

Almost everyday the newspapers are filled with accounts of violent activity in Iraq. A car bomb here, a suicide bomb there, gunfire at a checkpoint, even an outbreak of outright hostilities on occasion. We know that the victims of these attacks are usually either Iraqi or American personnel serving in either the armed forces or security services.

The newspapers say that it is the work of faceless creatures called insurgents or even worse radical fundamentalist Muslims. They never offer any explanation as to possible reasons for these people to be fighting against the American forces that occupy their country except to say that they are insurgents or fundamentalist Muslims, or even scarier both.

In other words the only reason that they pick up weapons against the Americans is because of who they are, not because of anything that's been done to them. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that for the ten years prior to the invasion the country got steadily poorer as the embargo and the Oil for food programs steadily stripped the country of any means of generating income to pay for infrastructure, health care, education, and other things we take for granted.

It doesn't have anything to do with hospitals being bombed, museums being looted, Iraq's natural resources (mainly oil) being sold into private American hands and the money from the sales mysteriously disappearing. The theory had been sell off Iraq's assets at bargain prices to American interests and use that money to rebuild the country.

If there had been any sign of hope, or progress towards rebuilding things might be different. But what are people supposed to believe when they read reports of hundreds of millions of dollars just going missing that was earmarked for rebuilding? An initial audit from one city showed just that happening and who knows how wide spread it's become in the interim.

What would you think if the people who were behind the violence weren't doing it out of some fanatical Muslim belief? What would you think if they were people who were reacting to their treatment at the hands of people they believed didn't give a damn for them or their lives?

Put yourself in the shoes of the average twenty something Iraqi for a few moments in the above circumstances. Now add into the fact that you're treated with absolute disdain in your own country. People who can't speak your language, who don’t understand or respect your traditions, constantly yell at you in a language you don't speak; telling you what to do and how to behave.

In your eyes they desecrate your places of religion, they act like your culture that has existed for thousands of years is insignificant, and in their eyes you are less than a person. It seems to you that for no reason at all they invade your house and kill your friends, if not your family, whenever the mood strikes them.

Doesn't anybody find it odd that a person whose father was put to death by Saddam Hussein has become one of the biggest opponents of the American opposition? Wasn't the point to liberate people like him from the tyranny of Saddam? If that's the case why have they, over the course of the occupation, taken up arms against the Americans?

Could it be because they are tired of the way they are being ignored in their own country? Could it be that although they are grateful for the release from Saddam Hussein, they would like to have some say in how their country is put back together? Maybe they don’t want all their natural resources sold off to the highest bidder so that when they do have self-rule their economy is in foreign ownership?

We like to say that the reason behind all the violence is outside forces like Iran stirring up trouble, or people who've been promised paradise if they die on the battlefield. Our politicians and the "Muslim Experts" will recite this information by rote if you push the right button. They hate we say, in shocked disbelief, as we shake our heads at the wonder that anybody could hate the glorious West with our sacred cows of material wealth and self indulgence.

Sometimes I wonder how so many people can have their heads that far up their asses and still be breathing? What reason have we ever given the Arab world, especially Iraqis to like us? Try putting the situation on the ground for the people living in Iraq for the past sixteen years together with the insurgent activity? Can you see any connection between the two? If not I'd say that Western myopia has gone beyond pathetic to dangerous.

Look you kick someone in the ass long enough and make them feel like shit, they're bound to snap sooner or latter. They don't need to be fanatical this or that, they just need to be ordinary human beings who have been pushed too far and live with violence everyday. You grow up in a world where everything revolves around bombs and machine guns you might start thinking that is the only means of problem resolution.

I'm the last person in the world to condone violence. But there are times I can understand where it comes from. The mistake the West keeps on making is that we are constantly pouring gasoline on a fire. We have to stop responding to violence with increased violence and begin owning up to our share of the responsibility for creating the situation and circumstances that led to the violence.

We in the West have to stop thinking that our way is the only way and learning to meet people half way. We need to start making an effort to understand other peoples instead of lumping them all together as "different". We are the new kid on the block in terms of civilizations and yet we act as if any other ways of being are at best inferior to ours, if not wrong.

Where do we get off judging anybody else and their ways of being? Even amongst ourselves we can't reach any conclusions about how best to live our lives, so how dare we try to impose anything on others. What gives us the right to do that anyway?

I don't support the activities of terrorists of any stripe; whether they have homemade bombs they blow up in cars that wipe out anybody who happens to be in the vicinity or they drop bombs from airplanes thousands of feet above surface of the earth that wipe out whole city blocks indiscriminately. But we need to stop thinking of the people who are called terrorists by our press as faceless beings to be dismissed as "fundamentalists" or "insurgents".

There are humans behind those labels and the quicker we start putting faces to them, the quicker we will be able to bring the violence to a halt. I may not approve of either form of terrorism, but I can understand one better than the other. If my country were invaded by a foreign power I might fight back in anyway, or with any means at my disposal too.

April 27, 2007

Book Review: The Sirens Of Baghdad Yasmina Khadra

You were eight years old when they invaded the first time. At that time your village was ignored. The tribe went on much as it had since even before they settled and gave up the ways of wandering the desert. Nobody cared for a little village made of mud and straw.

But Oil For Food and embargos take their effect and as you've grown to manhood your country has begun to disintegrate around you. Somehow your father managed to find money enough to send you to university in Baghdad, but one night during your studies the sky explodes and your future ends.

You return to your village and do nothing, because there is nothing for anyone anymore. The war hasn't come to your little village, but you and everyone else, watch it on television every day in the café. The talk is of resistance and self-recrimination.

"The Americans wouldn't have come if we had had the spine to get rid of Saddam on our own"

"They would have come anyway for the Oil; to pump us dry"

"They came to make sure that Israel stays the power centre of the region"
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The Sirens Of Baghdad, published by Doubleday Books an imprint of Random House Canada, is the latest novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul). Like his earlier works Wolf Dreams and In The Name Of The God Med. Khadra takes us into the world of the men and women who have been pushed so far by circumstances that they've ended up on the path of violence and vengeance.

For our nameless protagonist in The Sirens Of Baghdad the killing of an autistic young man by American soldiers at a check – point, the accidental bombing of a wedding party in the village that killed village elders, and finally a raid on his house looking for weapons by American troops who humiliate his father are what put his feet on that road. It wasn't so much the first two incidents, they were merely horrific and caused him to faint, it was the last one; the assault upon his family's honour that pushed him over the edge.
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An empty vessel, or a vacuum, will eventually have to be filled with something. When his one armed, elderly father is knocked down by a soldier and ends up laid out on the floor of the house with his genitals exposed (In the Bedouin tradition a son must never see his father in a state of undress, and to be exposed to his genitals is the gravest of dishonours) because he wanted to put some pants on to cover his nakedness, the floodgates of anger are opened and it streams in to fill the void created by hopelessness.

As the story develops and we follow our young man to Baghdad where he hopes to strike a blow against the occupiers, Khadra shows us in no uncertain terms how the American occupation of Iraq has driven the young men to a life of terror. It's the complete indifference to them as people or any sort of recognition that their culture and beliefs matter that turn them into killers.

"I wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn" Is how more then one character describes how they felt when they left their villages to come to Baghdad in the hopes of joining the resistance. Our newspapers are filled with stories about fanatical zealots who are promised paradise in reward for their martyrdom when the truth is far different.

Most of them are simply young men who have no hope anymore,. All their dreams have been crushed and they no longer see any reason for living. If by their deaths they can bring some meaning into their life and regain a vestige of the self-respect they feel has been stolen from them and their country, they will.

Our young man connects up with people from his village in Baghdad who have become one of the "resistance groups" that blow up anything they feel like. Khadra doesn't paint them like heroes or martyrs; he describes them as people so full of anger that they don't care who they kill anymore. They want revenge on the world for what they see as the injustices served upon them.

At one point in their lives they may have been like our young man who abhorred violence to such an extent that he was ostracized as a child for being "womanish" and had fainted at the sight of blood. But now he idles away his time in Baghdad going to the scenes of terror attacks and rejoicing in his complete lack of feeling.

He is so far gone that he's almost beyond being touched by anything. When one of his compatriots dares to suggest that their cause is just but they might be going about in the wrong way he tries to ignore him. Even when told the truth about a brave suicide attack on soldiers; the man had become sickened by the violence after he blew up a school bus full of children and strapped belts of bread to himself to look like he was wearing bombs and got an American sentry post to shoot him to a pulp; he is not swayed.

Yasmina Khadra has shown in the past that he has an amazing capability for creating characters that are believable and whose actions are consistent with what they are and where they've come from. He tells a story in a manner that is reminiscent of the way Bertol Brecht wrote theatre, while we can fairly easily predict what will happen, that isn't important.

What's important is why the story happens and how. It is information that we in the West have been turning a blind eye to for years. Instead of being willing to shoulder our share of the blame for creating these people or at least the circumstances that allows them to exist, we find it convenient to blame it on their religion. Until we are willing to accept the responsibility for our actions we will be at constant risk from someone who has been completely inured to violence and has lost all that he or she cares about.

We see these people around us in the West too, the ones who are willing to destroy the world as vengeance for the wrongs committed against them. One only needs to look at what happened at West Virginia Tech. to see that.

Khadra's gift is being able to turn the world on its head and give us a view we never see. Life is seen through the eyes of the people we habitually call rag heads or evil. These people see the soldiers of the West as brutes who yell at them in an incomprehensible language, make no attempt to understand what's important to them, and treat them like they are all evil.

Khadra reminds us that the location of Baghdad marks one of the birth spots of all civilization, for it was on the banks of the Tigris that humans created some of their first settlements. The people who live there take pride in their history and their culture and when you look at the world through those eyes; and they are also the eyes of a person who sees no hope for a world any better then what he has now, you can't help but at least understand the experiences that make them "terrorists"

The Sirens Of Baghdad is a warning and an education that every Western person should have as required reading. If we fail to learn anything from this book or heed its warnings than quite frankly we're only getting what we deserve. The world doesn't end at the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard and we would do well to start remembering that sooner rather then latter.

Canadian residents can purchase copies of The Sirens of Baghdad through Amazon.ca or directly from Random House Canada

April 17, 2007

Guernica: Seventy Years Later And Nothings Changed

There have been quite a number of ceremonies in recent years honouring historic battles and the like from the twentieth century. Just last weekend Canadians "celebrated" the ninetieth anniversary of their participation in the slaughter of Vimy Ridge during World War One (why if they've waited this long they couldn't hold out for another ten years for the centenary I don't know) with the opening of a new memorial in France at the site of the battle.

Of course the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, couldn't pass up the opportunity to link Canada's presence at Vimy with the Canadian troops being killed in Afghanistan today. Not that he said anything remotely resembling the truth; ninety years later and we still haven't learned anything, our soldiers are still dying in someone else's war.

No he hauled out the usual platitudes about paying the ultimate price, making the supreme sacrifice, and dying for your freedom. Nobody has bothered to explain how a Canadian soldier getting blown up on either Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 or some outback near Kandahar in Afghanistan guaranteed or is guaranteeing my freedom.

Hell the men who are dying in Afghanistan aren't even ensuring the freedom of the people who live in that country, so I don't know how anybody can claim they're doing anything for me. But that's what politicians do, they try and make use of symbols to generate emotional responses in people so they don't think about the illogic of what is being said and question things being done in their name.

But amidst all the hoopla surrounding Vimy this year, the invasion of Normandy during World War Two three years ago, and every November 11th commemorating the end of World War One, an anniversary of import has managed to slip by most politicians. This April 26th will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica by German bombers supporting the fascist rebellion in Spain led Francisco Franco.

The bombing raid has the distinction of being the first full scale attack on a strictly civilian target during a war. While Mussolini had used some air power in his ugly conquest of Ethiopia the year earlier and others have tried to lay claim latterly to being the first civilian targets hit by bombs, the attack on Guernica still holds the dubious distinction of being the first ever deliberate targeting of civilians by the military.

Reading the eye witness account at the link above leaves one no doubt of the intent behind the attack. If they hadn't meant to bomb civilians they could have stopped after the first bomber dropped his payload and realized it wasn't a military target.

Instead, according to the eyewitness the raid lasted for three and one quarter hours during which three types of German plane dropped bombs of up to a maximum of 1,000lbs and over 3,000 2lb aluminium incendiary devices. Nor would the accompanying fighters have deliberately sought out and machine-gunned people who had taken shelter in the fields surrounding the town if it hadn't been a deliberate attack on the civilian population.

Of course it's not really that surprising that no one is making a big deal of this being the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Gurenica. None of the Western governments wanted to pay attention to the war when it was happening. In fact Canada even went so far as to try and make it illegal for Canadian citizens to volunteer to help the Republicans fight off Franco.

No one should get involved because it is an internal dispute, was the line bandied about by Great Britain, Canada, America, and France. So they stood by while Mussolini and Hitler warmed up for invading the rest of Europe by sending troops and planes to help Franco. I have to hope that the reason no one commemorates this war to this day is that all of our governments are embarrassed about their behaviour.

By not interfering they missed the chance of cutting the nascent German power off at the knees. Instead they sent out a pretty clear signal to Hitler that he was going to be allowed to do pretty much what he wanted for the next couple of years. Besides there are some things that haven't changed about American foreign policy – always support the right wing dictators over the democratically elected socialist.

It was a pretty common thought in those days that a strong Germany under Hitler was a good thing because it kept Stalin and the Soviet Union at bay. Of course that theory got thrown out the window when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. It was Stalin's way of thumbing his nose at the West for trying to throw him to the wolves, and it freed Hitler to attack Europe in 1940.
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When was the last time you looked closely at Picasso's Guernica? To me it had always seemed like the most accurate portrayal of the aftermath of a bombing that I'd ever seen. Photographs don't really do anything, even if the occasional body is strewn about, they just never had the impact that even the smallest reproduction of this work had on me.

But nothing prepared me for actually seeing the piece on display. I had no idea it was a mural that took up an entire wall of the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In 1980 when I walked in the front doors of the museum I was stopped dead in my tracks by its sheer magnitude. (In his will Picasso had prohibited the painting from ever being seen in Spain until a democratically elected government was elected again. Ironically if I had come to New York City a year later I would never have had an opportunity to see the painting as it was shipped back to Spain shortly after I saw it with the election of the first government since the Republicans in the 1930s) I couldn't believe that anyone after having seen that work could give an order that would allow civilians to be bombed.

So maybe that's the other reason no one is going to be opening any champagne on April 26th of this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Guernica. What would a politician say at this event? Ultimate sacrifice and supreme price or whatever their damned phrases are just don't cut it for this one do they.

Standing up and admitting you haven't learned squat from the past isn't something that politicians are very good at, and that's not going to change in a little over a week's time. If they were honest they could get up and say today we remember our first lesson in mass destruction using airplanes and bombs. Seventy years later and we can now take out people in greater numbers and from further away then we dreamed of back in those primitive days.

We salute the people of Guernica for being the first victims of mankind's descent into brutality in the modern era. They gave of themselves selflessly so others could die in greater numbers in the future. They made the supreme sacrifice and paid the ultimate price, and the entire arms industry salutes them for opening up a whole new target group – civilians.

No I guess that wouldn't look too good on a commemorative t-shirt or ball cap, and don't even think of a monument. Nobody wants to be reminded of Gurenica, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London, Singapore, Saigon, Baghdad, Beirut, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Hong Kong, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem, Dafur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Rome, Kabul, Teheran, Algiers, Mumbai, Karachi, Kashmir, Punjabi, or any other place where civilians have died or continue to be killed.

Seventy years ago, on April 26th 1937, German bombers fighting with Francisco Franco bombed Guernica a small village in the Basque region of Spain. There was no discernable military target. The combination of incendiary, devices and high explosives plus repeated passes by fighter planes with machine guns left no doubt that the target of this raid were the citizens of Guernica themselves.

They must not be forgotten.

April 10, 2007

Vimy Ridge To Afghanistan: The Lie Remains The Same

Ninety years ago Canadian soldiers went over the top at Vimy Ridge in France during that great waste of life in the twentieth century known as World War One. There was nothing honourable or noble about that war – at least in World War Two you had the Nazi leaders of Germany as a canker that had to exorcised from the earth – it was just the last stuttering gasps of the Empires of Europe.

If we think our political leaders today our callous and stupid, and there is no denying they are, even George Bush jr. would be hard pressed to match the inbred stupidity of those folk who allowed a whole generation to be destroyed under the guns of France. Canadians like to bleat how our soldiers attacking the guns at Vimy Ridge in 1917 was a coming of age for our country. Yep it proved we could be as stupid as anyone else and knew how to spend the lives of our young men as ably as the next country.

Yep we had the balls for slaughter so that made us a country just like our former colonial masters the British and the French, or our new economic master the Americans. It sure is something for us to be proud of isn't it? So proud that we built a huge monument in France so on the ninetieth anniversary we can celebrate how many people were cut to pieces by machine gun fire.

My idea of a memorial for the fiasco that took place from 1914 – 1918 is to erect a huge plaque saying that this was a futile waste of life that accomplished nothing except set the stage for all the wars for the next hundred years . Out of that war came the mess that is the Middle East right now, the horror that was the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, and the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One gave Hitler an excuse for war.

On the weekend of the ninetieth anniversary six Canadian soldiers were killed in the first pointless war of the Twenty-First century – Afghanistan. Their personnel carrier was blown to shit and back by a homemade bomb buried in the dirt on the road. The six soldiers were killed instantly while two more were injured, but it looks they'll pull through.

I wonder if the Canadian press will get tired of printing the headline, "The Most Canadian Soldiers Killed In Combat Since The Korean War". This is the second time they've written it in the last four months and both times it's been because one of those road side bombs had blown the crap out of a convoy. (We don't count accidents like when the Syrians shot down some Peace Keepers on the Golan Heights in the 1990s or when the American National Guard twice used Canadian troops for target practice in Afghanistan because they can't tell friend from foe. I'm sure telling parents that their child was killed by friendly fire makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside about their allies, I know that's how I feel)

I can't remember how many "The Most Since Korea" was last time, it's getting hard to keep track of things like this when there is a steady trickle of deaths. Although come to think of it they do seem to come in clumps. A few months will pass and there will be no fatalities, casualties sure, but no deaths, then all of a sudden, as if making up for lost time there will be a series of them.

Either it means that there has been increased activity on the part of the Taliban, or it means the Canadians have moved into an area where they are more active. Either way it seems the result is the same. Dead soldiers.

What I find is interesting is that the Taliban were supposedly defeated before Iraq was invaded in 2003 – almost four years ago, and a new government was installed. Our troops were supposed to be helping to rebuild the country, yet here they are being killed by people who our government call the Taliban. Were they all really hiding in Pakistan, Iran, and wherever else they have armed camps.

Or, as is more likely, did they simply blended back into the scenery again. Went home to their villages and waited for the new government to prove itself as corrupt and ruthless as they were before the Taliban took over last time. You see there is an unpleasant truth we haven't been told about the current "democratically elected" government in Afghanistan.

Do you remember one of the reasons that were cited for going to war in Afghanistan? To free women from the oppressiveness of life under the Taliban, where they were treated like so much chattel and were denied basic human rights. So why is it that nothing has changed for women at all in Afghanistan? Where is there much vaunted freedom? Why are girls still not going to school, and women still scared to go out on the streets, even in major cities like Kabul, without being fully covered in traditional garb?

It's because the current government are only different from the Taliban in that they accept American weapons and food and present a veneer of respectability so that the press buys the lie of change occurring. Did you know that until people understood how bad the Taliban were they were welcomed as liberators when they overthrew the same people who are power now?

Yep that's what our soldiers are giving their lives for, a regime that is as oppressive and repressive as the Taliban. Why do you think so many villagers give support to the Taliban? At least they are honest about who they are. Sometimes the devil you know is better then the alternative. At least with the Taliban they knew exactly where they stood, even if it was in hell.

But our politicians, especially Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, one of the most duplicitous people to ever enter politics, aren't going to tell you any of this. They are just going to tell you about soldiers making the supreme sacrifice, paying the ultimate price, and all the other euphemisms they have for saying they got blown to shit and died a horrible death thousands of miles away from home for no good reason.

Of course the timing couldn't have been better these poor schmucks getting killed this weekend if Steven Harper had planted the bomb himself. There were all the dignitaries assembled at the memorial to the great waste of humane life at the beginning of the Twentieth century and everyone was ready to talk about ultimate sacrifices anyway. This was actually a gift from the Gods for Mr. Harper and his gang. What a perfect way to tie the two circumstances together and gain some sentimental support for a war that is becoming more and more unpopular at home.

Canadians have been told from their first history class how important Vimy Ridge was in our growth as a nation and that the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice there did so for freedom and democracy. Now ninety years latter they're still off in foreign lands paying the price for the very same ideals. The same qualities that made them heroes at Vimy Ridge are making them heroes in Kandahar.

Well I have to give Mr. Harper credit for getting it part right. It's true that Canadian soldiers are still dying overseas, and yes it's true it's for the same reasons – just not the ones that government is giving. In both cases, Vimy and Kandahar, France and Afghanistan, there were, and are, no good reasons for Canadians to be dying.

In 1914 we went to War as a subject of Great Britain; we had no choice because they controlled our foreign policy in those days – they were at war so were we. We didn't fight for Canada; we fought for King and Empire. This time around we went to war because America did. We're not fighting for Canada over in Afghanistan, we're fighting to clean up a mess the American's made back in the 1980's when they armed the Taliban in the first place.

The Canadian government has the gall to say that the people of Canada are only against the war in Afghanistan because they don't understand how important it is. Excuse me, I think they have that backwards – the people of Canada are against the war in Afghanistan because they do understand how unimportant it is.

We're over there propping up a government which is as bad as the one it replaced, maybe even worse because they could start fighting amongst themselves at any time over who is in charge. In the meantime we're wasting valuable manpower and equipment that could be used for peacekeeping missions if places like Darfur, Ethiopia, Somalia, or anywhere in the Middle East.

Or even better our army could do what it does best and be over in the Solomon Islands helping the people to recover from the tsunami that left the island's population virtually homeless. Or they could be travelling through Africa setting up medical relief stations in some of the places hardest hit by AIDS. I'm sure army issue condoms are the toughest on the market for preventing the spread of disease so they would be a boon in Africa. Not to mention the fact that our people are superb at coordinating activities in areas to see that the maximum good is done with minimum strain on resources.

Can you imagine what field hospitals dispersed through some of the hardest hit areas of Africa could do for the people of those areas? Think of what would happen if they co-ordinated with on the ground aid agencies for the distribution of not just medical supplies, but household goods that are so essential for preventing the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

But no, that's not sexy enough for our politicians; they want to be able send young men off to die in noble causes because it makes them feel important. Anyway if you send people off to treat AIDS they might give out condoms and that according to our government is wrong. It might encourage people to have sex or something equally obscene.

What they don't get is that they are committing the biggest obscenity around. When they stand up in a war memorial that's been built to honour the people who were sent needlessly to their deaths ninety years ago and talk about the ones who they've sent to their deaths all that it tells me is that they haven't learned anything.

I was angry when I started writing this article and now I'm just sad. It's heartbreaking that young men and women continue to be sent off to die for causes that don't exist by people who continually betray the faith placed in them to lead us with integrity. Our leaders put so much energy into teaching us who our enemies are so that we can go out and kill or be killed.

Wouldn't it be nice for a change if they put that same energy into teaching us how to like people instead? When they start doing that then they might be worthy to stand up in front of us and talk of honour and nobility. But not now, not as long as they equate it with death, killing, and hate.

April 5, 2007

Real Life

Occasionally small miracles happen that helps to remind me of the trivialness of human existence and worries. We've built these cities made of concrete and steel that give us the impression of permanence and a place in the world, but sometimes something will occur that lets us know how impermanent we are.

This is especially true in North America where none of the major cities have been around long enough to even match the age of most European city's sewer systems. When you start taking into consideration the civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and the Sub Sahara that flourished while Europeans were still squatting in the bushes you really begin to realize how young this continent is.

But even the oldest city on the banks of the Euphrates pales in contrast to the history of the world itself. Various creation myths would have us believe that the world was created for our pleasure, but only those whose brains are oxygen deprived from sniffing the glue that holds their holy books together are actually going to believe that anymore.

Human existence is but a mere blink of the eye in relationship to how long life has existed on the planet. We haven't even come close to matching the longevity of the dinosaurs yet. Human history is only considered in terms of ten of thousands of years, while judging by fossil records the big lizards could have been around for tens of millions before they died out.

None of this prevents us from thinking highly of ourselves though, and to give credit where credit is due we've certainly accomplished a lot in a short period of time. We've driven thousands of life forms to the edge of, if not to extinction, without even being aware of their existence in a lot of cases.

In only the relatively short period of time that we've existed we've managed to destroy or deplete the majority of fresh water in the world, turn fertile land into desert, rid the world of pesky forests that have stood long before human's existed thus making the world safe from the icky pollution of fallen leaves, and made it easier for everyone to get a tan by eliminating the pesky Ozone layer.

Oh of course there have been major advances in other areas too. We've been able to find cures for some of the diseases our behaviour has caused, we've perfected ways in which we can exterminate huge amounts of us at once, and created belief systems that guarantee we will want to use the means to do so. What do you think will happen when everyone believes a variation of I'm right and you're wrong? Peace and tranquility?

If that weren't bad enough, there is actually a good chunk of the human race who feel they are doing the rest of it a favour by imposing their way of thinking on them. You can't really be happy unless you think just like me, so I'll do you the favour of either forcing you to, or putting you out of your misery.

The worse thing that can happen is getting wrapped up in the events of the world to the point where they become all that matters. Where you lose track of the things beyond our own limited perspective and imagine it to be important in the scheme of things.

Yesterday I experienced something that took me beyond the concrete and metal, and the noise and bustle, and out of my own head. I was downtown with my wife and we ran into a couple that we don't see all that often. We were talking and I happened to look beyond the buildings and notice a couple of large birds almost directly overhead.

I recognised them almost immediately as Turkey Vultures by the way in which they were able to soar effortlessly on what seems like only minute traces of wind. As I was turning my head to tell my wife and our friends about them, I noticed out of the corner of my eye about six more of the huge birds flying behind them.

It was hard to tell how many of them there were because at any given moment one would soar out sight behind building and another would turn in a large lazy circle. They looked to be riding in invisible elevators, but one's that allowed for sudden veering at forty-five degrees or stalls that allowed for moments of suspension in midair. One was almost tempted to look for the strings that were holding them up.

The four of us stood on the sidewalk staring up in amazement as we watched the birds parade by. People hurrying by didn't even bother to see what it was we were staring at, all that mattered was we weren't in their way. The turkey vultures eventually drifted off and we resumed our conversation, but I kept my eye turned towards the sky to see if any of them would come back.

At first all I saw was some indistinct movement in the sky, and then as it came into focus I realized it was another flight of birds. This time there had to be about twenty of them stretched across the sky swooping and swirling. Following a path that they had followed long before the city below them had existed they travelled where thousands of their ancestors had plied the sky for their trip northward in the spring.

Again the four of us stood in slack jawed wonder. If we had thought watching the previous group had been impressive, to watch a flock of twenty Turkey Vultures was almost beyond description. There wasn't any of the military precision of the massive flocks of geese that had been overhead for the last few weeks where each animal had a specific place in a formation.

But there was something about this loose grouping of twenty birds that was every bit as stirring, if not more, as the sight of hundreds of geese stretched out across the sky. Maybe it was because of the fact that none of has had ever experienced seeing that many large birds of prey in the sky together before. The most you might see is a family group of four or five near the end of the summer when the youngsters are being trained for the flight to the wintering grounds in the South.

Perhaps it is the total indifference to us down on the ground that helps make these moments so spectacular. As long as they are alive it won't matter what we do or how we behave, they will continue to fly that route as they have for probably longer then humans have been in North America.

They were flying South to North and North to South with the changing of the seasons long before there were men living on this land mass. Some consider birds only a few jumps along the evolutionary ladder from dinosaurs, and if you've ever seen a Turkey Vulture up close with their naked face and plucked necks it's a hard argument to refute, and if that's the case who knows how many centuries, if not millennium they have been taking this route.

These minor miracles always remind me of how insignificant humans really are when it comes to the planet. We are but a brief wink of the eye in terms of life on this planet, and when you start to consider just our own solar system we become even more trivial. In context of the Universe itself we don't even register. I think the more often we are reminded of this point the better it is for us.

If there is any species on the face of the planet right now that needs a lesson in humility it would be humans. Although I'm very much afraid that it will take us coming close to destroying ourselves before we learn that lesson.

April 3, 2007

Not So Saintly John Paul The 2nd

So they want to speed up the process of canonization for John Paul the 2nd . They've already waived the rule of waiting until five years after someone's death before beginning the process, and now their pushing for skipping the proof of miracles stage. "His very presence among us was a miracle" is what his former principle secretary is saying.

What I want to know is why the rush? He's not going anywhere, he will still be as dead two years from now as he is today. Could it be because they want to capitalize on the emotion surrounding his death and not let the cold light of facts come into play?

Perhaps they don't want people thinking what the effect of his policies on the world have been like. The fact that he has been so outspoken against the use of condoms as birth control has probably resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans from AIDS is not something the church will want people thinking about just now.

Or maybe they don't want people considering the fact that he was one of the biggest misogynists the world has seen in a leadership position in modern times. He did more to set back women's struggle for control over their own bodies than any right wing fundamentalist in the United States could dream of doing. Not only was he stridently against birth control and abortion but his views on a women's place in the world were medieval.

Or maybe they don't want people questioning how that during his reign alter boys were being raped up and down the east coast of the United States with the full knowledge of the church. Not only did church not turn the priests over to the authorities for prosecution when they found out what was going on – they hid them in other parishes where they could have access to more children to abuse.

I don't about anywhere else but that's called aiding and abetting after the fact and complicity where I come from. He was head of the Catholic Church and so he was responsible for dictating policy on how to deal with sexual offenders within church. No Bishop or Cardinal is going to make those kinds of decisions without clearance from the top.

Of course there were also his attempts to deny people their civil rights by urging governments not to allow homosexuals to have all the same rights as heterosexuals. He would go so far as to interfere in the internal politics of a nation by writing threatening letters to the leaders of countries who were considering same sex marriages as law.

Of course there were also his refusal to admit that the Church has ever done anything wrong. Including the Spanish Inquisition, their support of Franco in Spain, and their propping up of various dictators through out the world who happen to be good Catholics.

During his tenure as pope he also came down heavily against the clergy in South America who worked tirelessly on the sides of the peasant farmers or helping refugees escape the oppressive regimes he was supporting. His only concern was the status of the Church in the world and to ensure that it held on to the position of power that he was managing to carve out for it.

Everybody loved his little Pope-Mobile and his huge open air masses. Nobody dared to mention their similarities to the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930's even though the comparisons were there for everyone to see. How else would your refer to large numbers of people blindly accepting one person's word as law without question or thought? Under other circumstances it would have been called mass hypnosis, a cult of personality, or at the very least dangerous.

It's not an original thought, but he turned himself into the Catholic Church and in order to prove you were a true believer you had to believe in him. People were no longer worshipping their God; they worshipped John Paul the 2nd (the only John and Paul worth worshipping in the twentieth century were Lennon and McCartney as far as I'm concerned) and followed his dictates instead of the teachings of Christ.

Am I the only person who remembers him giving his blessing for building a convent on the site of Auschwitz, insulting the memory of those non-Catholics who lost their lives in that camp and whose ashes scarred the sky? Am I the only person who thinks about all the people he sent out into the world telling people not to practice family planning or use condoms in a time when overpopulation is one of the biggest crises the world faces?

In countries where the infant mortality rate is astronomical because of a lack of clean drinking water and food encouraging people to have children has to rank pretty high on the insensitive charts. But as long as the kid is baptized before he starves to death who cares about the trauma the mother had to go through giving birth, or the grief she has to deal with after it's death – it's one more soul for Jesus and that's all that matters.

Pope John Paul the 2nd was a manipulative and dangerous individual who made the world a lot worse off then it was before he took power. All the talk these days surrounds how a nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease miraculously recovered a couple of months after the Pope died. It's quite scary knowing there are people in the world who genuinely think that's sufficient grounds to make this guy a saint.

I'm sure the Catholic Church is going to go ahead and make him a saint within the nest five years or so if for no other reason than it will justify their continued swing towards the right and their reactionary attitudes towards women, homosexuals, birth control and the use of condoms to help stop the spread of disease. But it doesn't have to mean anything at all unless we let it.

Like aristocracy and petty dictators the world over the Vatican will do anything to justify it's existence and the need for draconian policies of control and hatred. The easiest way to do to that is make a hero out of a person who exemplified all those qualities. John Paul the 2nd was a xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, dictator. If he were what they consider a saint, I'd hate to meet their idea of a sinner.

March 28, 2007

Canadian Politics: No Apology For Residential Schools

As is the case with most gifts, the technology that is bringing the world's peoples closer together is a double-edged sword. The more it breaks down the barriers between us for greater mutual understanding, the more it also weakens our cultural distinctiveness.

Just like an eco-system, a culture is a delicate balance of elements that individually may not appear significant, but taken as a whole form something unique and precious. Change or remove one element in that system and you've got something completely different. In the natural world it's usually the introduction of a foreign species of plant or animal life, or the removal of the same that changes it irrevocably for the worse.

In cultural matters it sometimes is only a matter of contact between two peoples for it to happen. Usually it will be that one is technically more sophisticated than the other, and simply over whelms and absorbs the other. Many countries have tried to take steps to preserve their culture by encouraging its growth while erecting barriers to foreign content.

But there is also another scenario, one that was first put into affect by the British Empire at home and abroad, and has been emulated by other countries through out the world. The deliberate attempt to eliminate a people's culture as a means of subduing them and forcibly assimilating them to be like their conquerors. In Ireland and India the Empire enacted official policies forbidding the native languages in the hopes of cutting people off from their heritage.

But the most insidious practice was carried out in North America by postcolonial governments, with the assistance of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, in Canada. Residential Schools were established to forcibly turn Indian children against their parents and their heritage.

Each child who entered the system was forbidden to speak the language of their nation and was told that all they had been taught up until that point was evil and a lie. They were given haircuts and forced to take new names. Anybody caught speaking their language or using their old name was severely punished.

This wasn't even an attempt to teach the children how to get ahead in society. Half their days were spent learning unskilled trades preparing them for a life of service to their "betters". The boys were taught janitorial skills and yard work, while they young girls were taught how to be either scullery maids or other forms of household drudges.

But while it was bad enough that they ripped away from their families and emotionally, mentally, and physically abused by the staff of these institutions during the day, what went on at night in the dormitories is the stuff of nightmares. Many of the students, male and female, were sexually abused on a continual basis for their entire stay in theses prisons.

The end result of these schools was the creation of a generation of people who were almost completely cut off from their own culture and not capable of existing in the one they were supposedly "trained" to take part in. A lost generation of scared, hurt, and, lonely people, damaged far beyond anything most of us can understand.

By the year 2005 the federal government of Canada under the Liberal party had agreed to certain measures to redress the issue. Various financial packages were offered, and it was promised as part of the deal that the government would offer an official apology for the policy.

But now the current administration, the Conservative Party of Canada has reneged on that promise of an apology. In fact from comments made by the Indian Affairs Minister, Jim Prentice, lead one to belief that the government is trying to white wash what exactly the schools did.

The most he will say is that the residential schools were a difficult time in our history, but- and this is the real killer, "the underlying objective had been to provide aboriginal children with an education". Which means that Jim Prentice is either a professional liar or an ignorant fool who doesn't even read history books.

But then again the Conservative party already knows that Native Canadians aren't going to vote for them, and neither are people who are sympathetic to their plight. They're playing to their constituents, the people who believe that Native people are welfare drunks who lost the war and are lucky we give them anything.

To say that Native leaders are appalled is to put it mildly. To go from a government who recognised the damage caused by the Residential School System, to one that wants to gloss over the nasty bits of our history and make out that the policy had its heart in the right place is worse than insulting, it's obscene. I would like to ask Jim Prentice a question, seeing how he thinks this policy was so benign.

How would he like his children taken away from him and made to change the names he had given them, learn a language that prevented him from talking to them, and be told that all he believed was a lie and evil? Wouldn't he want someone to apologise to him for treating his children like that?

The effects of the Residential Schools are still being felt on reserves today as the children of the people who attended them are now a second generation of lost people. They live out in the middle of nowhere with no running water or electricity a lot of the times, and with little or no connection to their nation's past, or any connection to the land.

While many countries face a difficult battle these days in trying to preserve their cultural identities in the face of an onslaught of homogenisation, the First Nation people of Canada are dealing with trying to teach two generations of people what was stolen from them by government policy. It's just too bad that our current government doesn't view cultural genocide as something you have to apologise for.

March 9, 2007

I Was A Twenty-Something Security Risk

I have a confession to make. Those of you who have a passing acquaintance with my opinions etc, might not be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you, but to others this may come as a bit of shock and I apologise for that. I just felt that given the tenor of the times that I owed it to everybody to make a clean breast of things.

I'm a security risk. Yes that's right mild mannered, beady eye Canadian with my head full of lies I may be, but I'm also a dyed in the wool security risk. This is no new thing either, brought about by any of the many disparaging comments I may have recently made about various political figures on both sides of the border, or any relationship I may or may not have with foreigners of a different colour.

No, I'm ashamed to admit that my days of being a security risk predate either George junior or senior's presidential stints and date from a series of incidents that took place between 1980 and 1983. Not that it matters I guess, as Maher Arar has learned it doesn't matter when an incident took place, or whether you were innocent or not, once labelled a threat, always a threat.

I found out about my status in the summer of 1988. I was "between engagements". (That's what actors call being out of work it sounds a lot better) and it just so happened that my period of forced idleness coincided with Toronto Canada, where I lived at the time, playing host to the annual meeting of the Group of Eight Industrial nations (G 8)

To handle that influx of media that was sure to accompany the leaders they needed to hire a large number of media clerks; people who had experience with files, organizing information, and dealing with requests for copies of documents. Two or three local temporary employment agencies had been hired to tackle the job of recruiting individuals to fill these positions.

Since I had had plenty of experience doing office work from when I had helped manage a theatre company, I decided to apply for one of the positions to earn some needed money to tide me over. My credentials were fine, I was actually overqualified but that didn’t matter, and I was told the job was mine as long as I cleared a security check.

As I wasn't going to be having any contact with any of the dignitaries, it was considered a forgone conclusion that I would pass. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or the woman from the employment agency who had to phone and tell me that my application for security clearance had been rejected. According to her, no one else who had applied had been turned down, only me.

It took me a bit, but I figured out what it was about eventually. It was one of two things, or maybe the two combined and they both involved events that took place between 1981 and 1982.

At the beginning of the 1980's the American government was looking for places they could test one of their newest weapons, The Cruise Missile. Northern Alberta, in Canada was ideal for their needs as the topography was varied and there were miles upon miles of unpopulated land. They could launch the missiles from planes and guide them to their final destinations secure in the knowledge that no humans would be disturbed.

That it happened to the traditional hunting grounds of neighbouring Native Canadians didn't concern them overly much, nor did the fact that it was the migration route for huge herds of caribou. It's not as if the missiles had nuclear warheads on them for gosh sakes. Anyway the Canadian government at the time gave the American's permission to go ahead and test the missiles and even offered to build the guidance system on Canadian soil.

In 1981 I was one of about twenty people in front of the American Consulate in down town Toronto protesting the testing. As we marched on the sidewalk in front of the front doors, two gentlemen, who might as well have been wearing signs saying "SPY" were taking our pictures from a meridian in the road. In the course of the next two years the demonstrations grew larger and larger until in the fall of 1982 about 100,000 people turned out to march through the streets of Toronto against the Cruise missile tests.

It was probably the biggest demonstration of it's kind in Toronto, maybe even Canada. Shortly after that somebody left a van filled with explosives parked up against the factory in Rexdale, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where the guidance system for the missiles was being constructed. It didn't too that much physical damage, but some poor security guard was killed.

I remember hearing about at work and coming home and asking my roommate if we knew the people who did it. He gave an odd look and said, "we know people who know them. Watch what you say on the phone for a while." I wasn't thrilled that we had even a tenuous connection to anybody that could be responsible for killing somebody else (They called themselves Direct Action and had actually been responsible for a couple of attacks across Canada. They had blown up a couple of adult video stores in British Columbia and some power lines as well. Ironically when I moved to Kingston Ontario in 1990, they were already here having been sentenced to serve their time in the jails here) but I did think he was being a little paranoid about the phones until my father asked me why the hell my phone was tapped.

At one time or another in his career as a lawyer my father had prosecuted drug offences for the Canadian government, so one thing he was familiar with was the sounds indicating the beginning and end of a tapped conversation. After about a couple of months of being careful on the phone, of not even talking in the same room as the phone in case of a location bug, we gradually slipped back into our normal behaviour.

Eventually I just simply forgot about the whole thing, getting fully involved in my career in theatre and frustrated with the infighting among the political types, I became less and less involved with activist politics. If I hadn't had to apply for security clearance for the G8 event in Toronto I may never even have known.

Now nine years later I wonder if they consider me a threat? Probably not, because I've the feeling if they did consider me so I would have been talked to a while ago. Maybe I'm on some sort of watch, but its not one where they consider me a major threat or anything.

But still, I don't try and cross the boarder into the United States because I've the feeling they would be pushing my luck, and they might decide to detain for an indefinite period just to be on the safe side.

Well there you go, confessions of a twenty something security threat. I hope it hasn't shocked any of you too much knowing that for these past however many months your writings have shared web space with someone like me. I figured I owed it to all of you to own up to my less then perfect past and warn you that associating with me could cause you problems.

March 1, 2007

Book Review: Miyelo Viggo Mortensen

When they had come to your land you had given them what they needed. Soon they began to take without asking, and then they took what was yours. You fought, but they were too many and they had better weapons.

Some of you they forced to move to somewhere else when they wanted your land. Some of you they killed all the game that you ate and built your homes from, so you could no longer live. They took all your land and pushed you on to small islands of reservations where slowly starved to death and went mad.

It was amongst the people of the plains, from the Paiute, in the late1800s that a man rose up named Wovoka. Wovoka said that if the people at the end of every six weeks dance this dance, "The Ghost Dance", the Europeans would go away, the buffalo would come back, and all those who had been killed would be returned.

The people were desperate, they were hungry, they were dispossessed, and so they danced. All the plains peoples; The Crow, The Cheyenne, The Arapaho, The Shoshone, Lakota, Ogala, Dakota, and others – they all danced.

In 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, beside Wounded Knee Creek, a group of families had gathered at Chief Big Foot's Camp to dance the Ghost Dance. The remnants of the 7th army were sent to oversee, and put down. It became a massacre. Eyewitnesses who came upon the scene two days latter found bodies thrown hundreds of yards from the camp – only cannon fire could have done that.

The American government at the time proclaimed it a heroic victory over renegade Indians. It was recorded so in the history books, and for many years the killing of unarmed men, women, and children was believe by all people to be a great military victory. It wasn't until the 1970's that the truth was finally printed in books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and the lie was exposed.
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Thirty years on in 2002 film makers gathered to recreate the massacre for the movie Hidalgo. Twice in the shooting of the movie they recreated the "Ghost Dance". Once just before the massacre, and once latter in the film when the character played by Viggo Mortensen is close to death in the desserts.

Miyelo is Viggo Mortensen's recounting of both the past and the present versions of the Ghost Dance. During the filming of both the recreated camp by Wounded Knee Creek and in the California desert where the dance was shot a second time he used his camera to record the events.

Shooting mainly in Black and White his pictures of extras and the recreated camp feel like a record that has stepped out of time. Modern shots and technology have been dropped through a time machine to bring us back images of what it was like so many years ago.

Even those shot with colour, specifically the series entitled "Hindsight" appear to be looking backwards from a great distance. Whether the focus of the camera is set off to a far horizon, or he has developed the photos so that only a tight circle of image remains, these images live up to their series title. We are only able to see the past through our own lens of opinion and thought.

In the California desert where he has shot the dancer involved in the hallucinatory Ghost Dance from the end of the movie, he has used colour film, but maintained the illusive contact with them that his character in the film enjoyed. The dancers do not exist here anymore, they have long gone on to another world where maybe they are hunting buffalo and they have been reunited with the spirits of the their grandparents.

Mr. Mortensen's images capture the intangible quality of their figures, causing them to flit in and out of reality on the static page of a book. Now you think you seen a glimpse of a figure through the mists of time, but you can't be sure. Other time they gather in a watery circle, so it looks like you are seeing them reflected in a puddle; a puddle that somehow shows both ends of a tunnel between times.

While Viggo Mortensen's images are the dominant focus of the book, he has included some very important texts as support reading. There is the first hand account of the discovery of the bodies at Wounded Knee Creek that I referred to earlier, an account of the work of James Mooney, who worked for the Smithsonian Institute during the period of the Ghost Dance, written by Mike Davis, an extract from the work of James Mooney about his travels among the people during this time, and an article written by Clement "Sonny" Richards a contemporary Lakota medicine man.

Don’t be looking for any words of good cheer among these writings, because you won't find them. They serve to drive home the horror of the events that took place during those times, as well to place the Ghost Dance within its context.

Someone once wrote that the truth shall set you free, but I offer this codicil of if you are willing and strong enough to face up to the truth. Miyelo is the truth of the history of North America, may you have the courage to observe it and absorb it.

Miyelo is currently available through Perceval Press in both hard cover and soft cover editions.

February 25, 2007

War On Terror: Europeans Demand Justice For All

It appears that the American government's enthusiastic ignoring of basic human rights in the pursuit of terrorists has finally caught up with them. Their staunchest European supporters have begun to distance themselves from any stance that even looks like it could condone their actions.

From Great Britain, where Tony Blair has promised to have all British troops out of Iraq by 2008, to Italy, where right wing magistrates who have been zealous in their pursuit of terror suspects, have laid charges against American intelligence operators for kidnapping, the Coalition of the Willing is fast whittling away. What could cause the rats to flee the sinking ship so fast? The answer is two simple words, extraordinary rendition.

Extraordinary rendition was (and, hopefully, not is anymore) American Intelligence's practice of seizing suspected terrorists and sending them on unmarked airplanes to countries that practice torture in the hopes of getting the suspects to cough up information. Although this practice has been going on since at least 2002, it wasn't until the details of Syrian born Canadian citizen Maher Arar's plight came to light that people's attention has been drawn to it.

From the outset Mr. Arar's case was mishandled; first by Canadian Intelligence that passed on fabricated reports to the Americans about his potential terrorist connections. This was compounded by the illegally handing over of Mr. Arar to a foreign government, the Americans, when they requested he be transferred to their facilities for interrogation based on the erroneous report's information.

When the American's couldn't get him to confess to anything they shipped him off to Syria in an unmarked plane accompanied by CIA. Agents. They deposited him in Jordan, because Americans don't have official relations with Syria, where he was beaten the second he got off the plane, and then shipped to Damascus where he was imprisoned and tortured for ten months.

All this information came to light during a judicial inquiry into the wrongful treatment of Mr. Arar by the Canadian security services. The upshot of the report was that the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was forced to resign; the Prime Minister of Canada had to issue a public apology to Mr. Arar, and the Canadian government had to pay him $115 million in damages.

It has also cooled off what would have normally been warm relations between a Conservative Canadian government and a like-minded American administration. The American government is not only refusing to apologise for its mistreatment of a Canadian citizen, but they are even reluctant to admit that they have anything to apologise for. In spite of Stockwell Day's (Canada's Foreign Minister) best efforts Mr. Arar remains on the American no fly list to this day.

What's behind the American reluctance to admit to any possibility of wrongdoing on their part in the case of Mr. Arar? Is it simply a matter of "being at war means not having to say your sorry", or is there some other reason? According to the Globe and Mail article linked to above senior Canadian and European diplomats and government officials claim it's because the Americans are worried about opening themselves up to culpability in around twenty other similar cases in Europe.

Last week the European Parliament released a report condemning the 1,245 flights made by the CIA in European airspace and the twenty cases of European citizens being subjected to extraordinary rendition. Currently there is one case before the Italian courts, one before the Germen, and eighteen others pending throughout the continent.

The matter of the flights might seem a trivial matter, but it's who was on the planes and what was being done with them that has European governments so concerned. Italy's government was actually voted out of office this week due to one thirty-seven minute stopover by an unmarked plane at Rome's international airport.

The problem was that it was the CIA plane carrying Mr. Arar to Jordan. The concern is that since Mr. Arar was for all intents and purposes being abducted, he was being taken somewhere against his will illegally and his captors knew he would be mistreated, how complicit is the Italian government in the matter.

Did whoever gave permission for the plane to land at the airport know who was on the airplane and what was going on? Or had the Americans gone behind their backs and carried out illegal activities on Italian soil?

In one case in Italy a magistrate has indicted 26 US citizens, including Italian CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady on charges of kidnapping in the rendition of Mustafa Osama Nasr. The Milanese Cleric had been seized by CIA agents in 2003 and flown to Egypt where he was imprisoned, tortured, and sexually abused by his captors.

Five Italians were also charged in the case, including the head of their Security forces, Nicolo Pollari, who has been forced to resign. In case any one thinks that this the work of anti-American trouble makers, or left-wing politicians in Italy, the magistrate responsible, Armando Spataro, is know for his pro-American positions, and his centre right politics.

He has worked for thirty years fighting the Mafia and internal terrorist organizations in Italy, and he say that he and his colleagues "were absolutely sure that it was impossible to fight terrorism without respect for the law". He continued by saying that he hopes this investigation will prove that it is impossible to win over Islamic terrorism without respect for the law.

While the American government is of course denying any and all complicity in these events, and the men indicted will not be coming to Italy any time soon to face the charges, Italian law allows people to be tried in absentia. Thus all the defendants could end up being found guilty as charged and facing arrest if they ever set foot on Italian soil again.

The biggest irony of that whole case is that same magistrate has found cause to hold Nasr on terrorism charges, but not based on any evidence supplied by the Americans or the Egyptians. The only charge he has been able to lay against Mr. Nasr has been membership in an illegal organization. He believes the case would have been stronger against Mr. Nasr if not for the US practice of rendition, now he says the terror fighters are just as guilty as the terrorists.

The philosopher Friederick Nietzsche said, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." It appears that the European governments and individulas who were once allied with the American cause in the fight against terror have decided that the Americans did not heed Mr. Nietzsche's advice and have fallen into the abyss of becoming as bad as those they are hunting.

Perhaps because the Europeans have had more experience with being monsters, or having their countries be the breeding ground for those who would justify any means with the end result, they have decided it is time to draw their own line in the sand. Maybe it appears idealistic to some, but remember as well that they have fighting terrorism for thirty plus years longer then us in North America so they aren't blind to the realities of the situation.

What ever you may or may not think of their actions or their beliefs, the truth of the matter is that the European governments that were once staunch supporters of the US fight against terrorism are no longer willing to allow the civil and human rights of their citizens be denied no matter what the reason.

In some eyes the actions of the American government make them no different than the terrorists who they are hunting. In their quest for justice the Americans have ignored justice for too long and it's now coming back to haunt them.

February 17, 2007

Interview: Yasmina Kahdra

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At the beginning of January 2007 I was introduced to a writer whose work I had not only never read by never heard of before. I just naturally assumed that Yasmina Kahdra was a woman until I received the first books from his publisher in North America for me to review. Yasmina Kahdra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, and Algerian now living in France.

I have to confess that Yasmina was the first writer I had ever read from the Arab world, and even though the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature went to an Arab I have made little or no effort to educate myself. But since reading five of his books and conducting this interview, my interest has been piqued.

This was a bit of an awkward interview to conduct, because Med Kahdra only reads and writes in French and Arabic, while I can only handle those duties in English. I must say that Google translation performed admirably well with only one question causing confusion. I utilized three separate translation programs, to bring his answers back into to English to try and capture the word and the spirit of his answer.
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Med Kahdra is a fascinating man who provides us in the West with a different perspective to life in Arab countries to the one being presented in our media on an almost daily basis.

I would like to thank him for taking the time out of his day to participate in this interview and I hope you are as fascinated with his responses as I was.

1) Tell us a little about yourself, where you were born and other biographical details.

I was born, 52 years ago, in the Algerian Sahara. My father was a male nurse and my mother a settled nomad. My tribe has occupied Kenadsa (the village where I was born) for 8 centuries. She is known for her poetry and her wisdom. She has always welcomed, without regard to race or religion, all the travellers who knocked on her door: the writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, the Minister Charles de Foucauld, as well as the missionaries who crossed the desert in the direction of Tombouctou and Africa.

I was born in a tribe of poets and warriors. This is why I never felt out of place in the army as a novelist. It is my tribe which taught me how to me to share myself between the two.

2) Your father had been a soldier, and you became a soldier. Where did the desire to write come from? Most people don't think of soldiers becoming writers.

My father had been a male nurse. Then, there was the war for the Independence of Algeria, which had been colonized by France, and my father joined the National Liberation Army. After 6 years of war (1962, was the birth of the Algerian republic), he came home as an officer and chose to embrace a military career in the young Algerian army. In 1964, when I was 9 years old, my father placed me in Cadets School, the military institution concerned with officer training.

I thus spent 11 years at this military boarding school before moving on to the Academy to begin my career as an officer that lasted 25 years. But I was always writing. From the time I was 11 years old, I tired my hand at fables tales. My first published work, (Houria), I wrote when I was seventeen years old. When I became an officer, I continued to write. I published 6 novels under my real name, Mohammed Moulessehoul before seeing any reaction from the hierarchy in 1988.

Seeing that I had begun being recognised in the media in Algeria the High command imposed a committee of censorship to supervise me. I refused to subject myself to them.

This is how my first pseudonym came about, from that decision in 1989. It was Police Chief Llob's name that appeared on two small novels The Nutcase With The Lancet (1990) and The Fair (1993) In 1997, my Parisian editor wanted a name which sounded less like a profession for the publication of Morituri I chose my wife's first two names,: Yasmina Khadra. Since then I have kept this pen name, which has now had work translated in twenty-seven countries.

3) What did your family, your mother and father, think of you writing?

My family have always respected my choices. They know that I am a healthy in body and of spirit and do not look to debate my career choices. My father is proud of the direction I've taken while my mother, who is illiterate, knows that it is a good thing, but is not quite sure why. She had always wanted me to quite the army so that makes her happy. My brothers and sisters encourage me to go from the word one

4) Were there any writers who inspired you when you first started to write? Your Superindent Llob books reminded me a little of the books by George Simenon and Nicolas Freeling

I did not read Simenon, at the time. Our bookshops were disaster victims and our old books managed to do little more then make us dream. We lived in a country with a horror for writers and artists. However, I really liked the American Blacks literature: Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

By creating the Superintendent Llob character, I wanted to have a typically Algerian character. Moreover, in my noir novels, Algiers is also a central character. I did not seek to imitate my preferred authors. I wrote in French, but with my sensitivity Bedouin, my Algerian glance, my anger and my Algerian hopes.

Anyway, we also have our own artists, as beautiful and rich as Western literature. I far prefer Taha Hossein (Egypt), François Mauriac, Abou El Kassam Ech-Chabbi (Tunisia), or Pablo Neruda, Naguib Mahfouz, Malek Haddad (Algeria) etc, to European flashes in the pan.

It's a pity that you do not have access to our culture. The Arab world is not just a postcard with dunes and caravans, nor is it only terrorist attacks. The Arab world is more generous and more inspired than yours. Do you know that El Moutannabi is the Humanity's greatest poet since the dawn of time? … It's a pity that you do not know anything of it. I was initially inspired by mine. I have had the chance to get maximum benefit from a double culture, Western and Eastern without ever losing sight of where I come from.

5)Where did the idea of Superintendent Llob come from? What made you decide to write about that subject?

I created Superintendent Llob as a diversion for the Algerian reader. I have already told you, in Algeria, we did not have a large selection in our bookshops there, and the publications revolved around the political demagogy, nationalist chauvinism and the romantic mediocrity praising the Algerian Revolution in Stalinist speeches. I dreamed of writing station books, books funny and without claim that you could read while waiting for the train or the bus, or while gilding yourself with the sun at the seaside. I dreamed to reconcile the Algerian reader with his literature. I had never thought that Superintendent Llob was going to exceed the borders of the country and appeal to readers in Europe, and America.

6) In your books "Wolf Dreams" and "In The Name Of God" you switched to writing from the point of view of the police to that of the terrorists. Why did you make that choice?

What police, and which choice? These two novels give a truthful account of real social and identity mutations that drove the emergence of fundamentalism, then terrorism in my country. They are used as references in universities today.

7) Why do you write about terrorism?

For 2 reasons. Initially because it is a planetary danger, that I know of from the inside and that I can describe with clearness and intelligence. Also, because Westerners understand nothing, and never say anything important on the subject. My books consist of explanations to clarify the consciences and alleviate the spirits traumatized by the political handling of media misinformation.

That being said, I make a point of recalling that my novels are not testimony. They concern fiction and assert their literary values. I am sorry to see people throw themselves on the topic and to neglect the manner of treating this topic. I basically make literary work. I have a language, a style.

8) In your early books you talk about the corruption in Algeria and had characters say that the terrorists were being used to allow certain interests to seize power. Is the situation in Algeria still as bad as it was, or have there been improvements since the time of writing those books?

Nothing has changed in my country, when it comes to this topic. The corruption prevails more and more; predation and opportunism has became the favourite sport of the nation. Most of our elite was forced into exile, and the people are without guidance, delivered to the robbers and to the charlatans, and have come to believe things will always be the same.

9) In your more recent books "Attack" and "Swallows of Kabul" you've started writing about life outside Algeria. Why?

Why not? The real question is to know if I succeeded or not. I think that I am well positioned to speak about what occurs on our planet. My double culture makes me believe that I am capable of doing this. It is grannd time, for you, to hear the bell ring somewhere else.

10) Reading your books I could tell that you really loved Algeria. It must be hard to be in exile. Do you want to go back to Algeria? What would have to change there for you to want to return?

I like my country very much. I try to support it with my modest means, to give courage and confidence again to the young Algerian who reads me. But I am not exiled I am an emigrant. I am living in France to work, and not to take refuge. I return in my country when I want, and nobody, neither the President nor the emirs can prohibit me to go back there. Algeria is my country, and I do not have any other. I do not want to have any other.

11) What has been the reaction to your books inAlgeria and other Muslim countries? Or does the fact that you live in France answer that question?

The Algerian reader likes me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity.

12) The Sirens of Baghdad is your new novel. Does it explore the same themes as your earlier books?

(This question got slightly skewed in the translation - instead of themes as we would interpret it, it translated as subject matter – hence the answer)

I never explore the same topic in my books. Each novel deals with a different phenomenon. It is you who do not manage to separate the different subjects I treat. You are constantly in a state of confusion. The Swallows of Kabul speaks about the dictatorship of the Talibans and the condition of the Afghan woman. The Attack speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Sirens of Baghdad speaks about the 2nd war of Iraq. Radically different topics, but everywhere you retain only terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. My novels do not speak about terrorism; they talk of human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, sometimes the hopes; and of this burning and fatuous actuality which spoils our life.

13) What are your plans for the future?

I live from day to day. It is more prudent. I do not make plans; I prefer to take the things as they come.

February 14, 2007

Book Review: Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato

In 1973 Israel faced the last real concentrated invasion by the armies of the Arab world. An attacking force spearheaded by Syrian and Egyptian tanks invaded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. On "The Day of Atonement" the majority of Jewish people spend the day fasting and in Synagogue.

If there was one day of the year where the Arab armies had a chance of taking the Israeli forces by surprise and perhaps ending the war before it could even get started, this was it. What made it even more of a shock to the Israelis was that the Arabs chose to attack during Ramadan, the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Devout Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan then break their fast with a feast in honour of Allah.

In the first two days of the war it looked like the Arab armies might succeed, but after sustaining significant losses of tanks and men, the Israelis regrouped and by the end of the fifth day were able to start pushing the attacking forces back. In Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato plunges us directly into the middle of those opening days of confusion as seen through the eyes of a gunner and the gun sights of a tank.

Adjusting Sights is the author's recounting of his own experiences as a tank gunner in an Israeli armoured division during that period, so this is no fictional recreation of events. Instead the author writes with unflinching honesty about the confusion, chaos, fear, and fatigue he felt during the initial onslaught.
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He and his closest friend, Dov, had been together since the early years of school, studied for their Bar Mitzvahs together, so it was only natural that when it came time to do their National Service in the army that they should serve and train together. On manoeuvres and throughout basic training they had been loader and gunner together in a tank.

Naturally, they assumed, when the call up came for the war they would be assigned to the same tank, but it was not to be. When they arrived at the depot it was total chaos. They were standing with the rest of their crew when an officer came up and asked "who's a loader"? When Dov steped forward – he said, "Come with me, so and so needs a loader now". And Dov was gone to another tank, to another gunner; Dov was gone period.

Shortly after leaving the camp and heading out towards where they have been told the enemy might be – but that's impossible how can they be so close already, was everybody's thought, including the author. The ambush that they drove into almost killed them all. Haim and the rest of his crew had to abandon their tank and try to walk back to camp through the middle of a pitched battle.

Between the four of them they had two Uzi submachine guns, and one grenade so when the helicopter full of Syrian commandos landed almost on top of them they were sure they were done for. Then out of nowhere an Israeli troop career pulls up and out pours a brigade of soldiers who open fire and take down the Syrians.

Things like that happen throughout the author's whole ordeal – the timing of events is such that the engine of his tank starts just in time to reverse before a shell hits. Or at one point walking back to the camp they hid in a culvert for a few moments and then continued on. Another tank squad did the same thing a little later and a Syrian troop passing by tossed some grenades in and killed all but one, the one who told that story to Haim.

Adjusting Sights is not about patriots; it's not about glory; it is about survival. Individual soldiers trying to survive each moment they are under fire when they don't know where the enemy tanks are. How do you fire back when you can't see who's firing at you?

Only occasionally do they say to each other anything that sounds remotely patriotic, and it is more desperation than anything else. "We can't lose, because if we lose Israel loses", is not a speech guaranteed to make the blood boil with patriotic fervour. But it's what they felt as they fought in order to live so that their country could live.

I've read a fair number of stories and a fair number of histories about various wars and battles, and this book has to have the most genuine feel to it of any when it comes to recounting the fighting. The confusion, the panic, the moments of frustration, and the relief when it's over are all communicated without any embellishment.

Nobody cheers when they blow up another tank, or when the enemy retreats. They just are grateful to survive. Another day that they survive is another day that their country survives. But something about Sabato's matter of fact approach manages to transmit the state of shock that most of the men are in. When he describes them watching two comrades rolling on the ground to put out the flames that are threatening to engulf them in same manner as he describes trudging through the sand it's not hard to understand their state of mind.

Haim Sabato is a man who takes his faith seriously, and therefore faith plays a large part in this book. But it's not the way that I'm accustomed to seeing religion or faith employed during a book about war. There is no group prayer where they gather to hear someone tell them that God is on their side and that should go out and kill in his name.

Instead for the men who serve in the tanks their faith and their rituals are their tie to normalcy. Getting up every morning to recite the morning prayer, wrapping the Tefillin (prayer boxes worn by orthodox Jewish men for the morning prayers signifying the covenant between them and God) on to their forehead, arms and fingers, and facing the east to greet the day are something you all the time, not just in during a war.

After the fighting has ended Haim and his troop are stationed on the Golan Heights and they keep the Sabbath ritual every week. It becomes almost even more important here than it would be at home. Their faith is as much a part of their lives as breathing for some of them, so maintaining the practices and rituals makes them feel alive.

After the author was finished running to escape the ambush where his tank had been immobilized he and his fellow crewmembers were finally able to rest for a moment. As he was sitting there he remembered that he had been taught that no man may make a vow in the hopes of expecting assistance from heaven – except in moments of extreme distress.

He sits and wonders what it is he would vow and the only thing he is sure of is that the world will never be the same again. At the end of the book on Golan Heights he remembers that vow, that the world will never be the same again. He thinks about how he lived and his friend Dov din't, or how that one crewmember lived while the rest of his crew died from the grenade blast in the culvert.

That is a debt that needs to be repaid, but how do you change the world? You aim higher then you've aimed before, just as a gunner in a tank adjusts his sights to allow for the change in trajectory, so must we all adjust our sights and set higher goals if we want to change the world.

It is often said that soldiers are the ones who most apposed to war. They know on occasion that it becomes necessary to defend your homeland from invasion, but there should be no other reason for it. Haim Sabato is that type of soldier. This is a book about war which tells us we need to adjust our sights away from fighting and lift them up to a more worthy goal.

Who holds in His hand the souls of all that live
And the spirit of each mortal man
The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork
Spare the work of Your hands

Lord of all souls, the soul is Yours
But the body is also Your handiwork
For this it was made, to sanctify Your name in this world
Master of all worlds, spare the work of Your hands.
Hebrew Prayer of penitence

February 7, 2007

Canadian Politics: Foreign Aid Workers Come To Canada


Save The Children is one of those remarkable agencies that operate without government help to alleviate suffering wherever they find it. Sometimes they are the first on the ground after a disaster strikes assessing the damage and seeing what needs to be done in order to fulfill the obligation of their name; Save The Children.

From New Orleans after Katrina, to Pakistan after the earthquake and of course all through the post Tsunami devastation countries, wherever they go you know people are in desperate need of assistance. So while their latest project is not surprising for people whose eyes are open, it may come as a big shock to some, and a nasty reality check for others. .

Save The Children International has just finished a two-week assessment on the quality of life in Native Canadian reservations in Northern Ontario preparatory to setting up a relief program/fundraising campaign in an effort to help the children of those communities. Webequie and Mishkeegogamang First Nation reserves aren't names that most of us call to mind on a regular basis, but they are two reserves among many facing familiar problems.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, teenage pregnancy, solvent abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, abject poverty, lack of housing, lack of affordable healthy food, and no fresh water or plumbing are always reported on but nothing has ever been done about it. Until now.

Three agencies that have been working with young people and children in Ontario; the provinces official child advocate Judy Finlay, Tikinagan, (a native run children's aid society in Northern Ontario) and The Friends of Tikinagan formed by one of it's former senior management people five years ago, founded the project. They started meeting with other humanitarian, aid groups, and charitable foundations to see what they could come up with to help the natives of Northern Ontario dig out from under years of neglect by governments of all stripes.

The people of the reserves while dealing with the grief of seeing their children destroying themselves one way or another, desperately want to do something about it. But when the government builds you a brand new school, but doesn't supply sufficient money to pay for the teaching of the students, and the kids don't have shoes on their feet that can keep the cold of the schools floors seeping up into their feet, the school just is one more waste of money.

Chief Connie Gray McKay of Mishkeegogamang doesn't want people thinking of them as "poor little Indians". She just wants the same opportunities for her people that everyone else gets down south – descent education and housing that’s safe. Her main objective now she feels is to teach the children who have become parents how to parent their children to give them a chance to break the cycle of endless poverty.

Aside from Save The Children International, other charitable foundations and relief organizations have joined in the effort to pick up the slack left by the governments. Canada Feed The Children, The Laidlaw Charitable Foundation, The Atkinson Charitable Foundation, Kinark Family and Child Services (Ontario's largest child mental-health agency), Ryerson University in Toronto Ontario, and Voices For Children, a child advocacy group are just a few of the thirty organizations that make up what's now known as theNorth-South Partnership For Children

It was through this group that the Save The Children organization became involved, and was taken on the two-week fact finding mission. Based on that trip they came up with a preliminary list of needs and programming that they figure would make a difference. They range from the practical like providing bus service to the nearest grocery store so families don't have to pay $175.00 in taxi fares to make the two and a half hour trip, to the long term of setting up recreational programming based on teaching young people traditional hunting and fishing skills so not only are they kept busy, but they learn about their cultural heritage.

For Nicolas Finney of Britain's Save The Children the whole experience has left him angry and eager to begin working on the assessment report. He says it's clearly a case of humanitarian action being essential. While in no way should the governments responsible be excused of their duties, there are things that can be done to make people's lives better on a daily basis.

The hardest thing for the aid workers to deal with in this situation is that they are used to circumstances where a disaster has suddenly caused havoc. Here Finney says " It's a gradual disaster that has emerged, unfolded, and been propagated, whether it's intentionally or by negligence, by people that should know better, by people in power, over a long period of time."

Instead of dealing with people who are recovering from the horror of a shock as is normal, they are seeing people who have had their will to live gradually sapped out of them generation after generation. To reverse that process is the real challenge for all these people.

They can send food, clothing, sporting equipment, build roads and houses, and supply bus service to the nearest city, but unless something is done to repair the emotional and spiritual havoc created by the years of neglect and abuse caused by successive governments they will only serve as more band-aids and not a permanent solution.

Already though some of their ideas, like the youth recreational program or the development of an eco-tourist industry are the type of innovative suggestions that are needed for this seemingly insoluble problem. They know their typical approach to a disaster is not appropriate in these circumstances but they are used to working under a variety of conditions and making use of available resources.

In the next little while the group, North-South Partnership will be starting a campaign as per advice given by the people from Save The Children. So maybe the next time you think about making a charitable donation why not stick close to home and help our your neighbour by donating to their campaign. It's time for us to show the governments we know how to help each other, and just maybe we can finally awaken them to their own responsibilities.

January 27, 2007

Book Review: The Wind Of The Khazars Marek Halter

Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that Israel was not the first Jewish state to exist since the time of Christ? That in the deepest, darkest days of the dark ages when European Jews were as welcome most places as the Plague that was blamed on them, for one brief moment a spark of hope was kindled that there was a haven for them in the area we would now know as Georgia by the Black Sea.

One of the tartar races, the Khazars, around 800 AD converted to Judaism and established a Jewish state on the borders of both the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium and the new Islamic empire. While legends talk of visitations by angels convincing the King of the Khazars to convert, in all likelihood it was more real politic than religion that brought about the change.

With his kingdom pressured by both sides to convert, he shocked them both by choosing the third option, which appeased both sides temporarily. At least he hadn't become a Christian/Muslim the hated enemy of either one of his neighbours, and he could deal with them from a place of neutrality.

But according to the history provided in Marek Halter's novel The Wind Of The Khazars the conversion, at least among the rulers and the nobility was in the end sincere. They became strict adherents of the teachings of the Torah and received instruction from rabbinical scholars of the Eastern world.
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Monsieur Halter has used as the basis for his novel correspondence that has survived down the ages between a Rabbi from Cordoba, in Muslim occupied Spain, and Joseph King of the Khazars.

His main character is a contemporary novelist, Marc Sofer, who becomes captivated by a mysterious beauty at a discussion/lecture on his work. She throws down a gauntlet of challenge to him – find a cause worth writing about. She leaves before the end of the lecture so he is unable to pursue the matter further with her.

But it makes no difference, because she has ensured that he will be hooked like a fish and reeled in. All it takes is a mysterious stranger to accost him after the session and present him with a silver coin stamped with the symbols of the Khazar Empire for him to be snared. The same man also spins him a tale of mysterious caverns in the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Georgia and Chechnya containing a synagogue hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Sofer the novelist and the romantic is hooked. First he investigates and tracks down the copies of the correspondence between the Rabbi and Joseph of the Khazars. At that point both he and our author, Marek Halter, recreate the story of Isaac the young man entrusted to carry the original letter from Spain to the Khazars. As Isaac struggles to cross a hostile Europe, Marc Sofer is making his own parallel journey to the Khazars' legendary redoubt in the Caucasus.

While in the present are the familiar obstacles of multinational corporations and terrorist groups, the past is filled with deceptive Greeks and duplicitous Russians both looking to conquer and subdue the Khazars. When Isaac falls in love with Joseph's beautiful green eyed and red haired sister, Sofer finally catches up to his own mysterious green eyed and red haired beauty from the conference.

It turns out that the synagogue in the mountain caverns does exist and she is part of a group of scholars trying to preserve them from the oil companies looking to suck the oil out of the ground in the same area. But it's not just a synagogue that is preserved under the mountains, but absolute proof of the Khazars' existence and that the myth of their conversion was not just an idle tale.

A library with thousands of books, a mikvah (the traditional cleansing bath for Jewish women before marriage) with ancient statuary, and countless other relics including chest upon chest of the mysterious silver coin he had been given. But to the oil companies it is nothing, and they will destroy the final remnants of the Khazars Empire without a qualm.

It all sounds fascinating and to an extent it is. The history and Monsieur Halter's imagining of the events of the past are interesting enough, as is the modern part of the story. But for something that had the potential to be so stunning, a kingdom of Jews that existed in 900ad by the Caspian and Black Seas, the parts just didn't seem to be equal to the idea.

While everything is well written, the characters are interesting enough, if a little too stereotyped romantic figures and lacking slightly in depth, and the story is well paced and interesting. The problem for me is that it doesn't reflect any of the excitement I felt when I heard about the kingdom of the Khazars.

Perhaps that's unfair, but I expected more about the Khazars and less about a love story between a princess and a messenger in the 10th century and their equivalent in the 21st century. I wanted to walk the streets of the fortress towns and smell the markets and meet the people who had become Jews in the middle of a world that was still trying to rid itself of them. Who were these mysterious warriors that had fought supposedly with the Khans of the Mongol hoards, or might have been descended from the Sythians.

I would have liked the author to have stretched his imagination in that direction, instead of just giving us brief glimpses. I guess I was looking for a different wind to have blown through this book than the one chosen by Marek Halter and I was disappointed by his direction. It's a good book, just not the one I was hoping for.

January 21, 2007

Book Review: The Genizah At The House Of Shepher Tamar Yellin

Every family has its attic, its storehouse, or genizah as its named in Hebrew, where the past is documented through papers, artefacts, and memories. You don't even have to have physical space; a genizah can be the memories and the stories of the family that have been passed down. It's whatever form the repository of the family's history comes in.

In Tamar Yellin's first novel The Genizah At The House Of Shepher the genizah in question is both a musty, dust hole, in the rafters of the Shepher family's last home in Jerusalem. Miraculously in amongst old moulding newspapers and notebooks a treasure has been unearthed. A heretofore-unknown Codex of the Torah has come to light and with it the possibility to reverse the family's seemingly perpetual decline in fortunes.

The history of the Torah (Old Testament in the King James version of the Christian Bible) is like that of any ancient document that was copied by hand from the original over the early part of its life. Very few copies, or Codex, from those times are the same. Here a character changed for another, or a word order different there.

While in a language like English that may not seem to make much difference, with biblical Hebrew changing a few characters could change the meaning of a whole chapter. Or at the very least a verse which in itself can have serious implications to biblical scholars, especially when you consider that rabbinical scholars will spend their lives debating and dissecting the various meanings and connotations of words in a specific chapter of the text.

According to Jewish myth the Torah existed for nine hundred and forty-seven generations before the creation of the world, and when God created the world He used it as His blueprint and guide; for what better tool to use to create and imperfect and cryptic world, then an imperfect and cryptic Torah. According to Ms. Yellin's recounting, some scholars believe that at the end of time Elijah will return and sort out all the textual difficulties.

Of course until then that means there will be lots for religious scholars to debate to their hearts content. From what I understand this seems like an ideal circumstance, since it appears there is nothing more that endearing to the heart of a rabbinical scholar then arguing the minute points of textual interpretation of the Torah with their fellows.

Don't worry this is pertinent to the story, which as I mentioned earlier revolves around this previously unknown Codex. Shulamit Shepher's father had left Israel in the 1930's to live in England, where he proceeded to marry an English Jewish woman and raise two children. While her brother Reuben fled the family to escape the oppressive depression of his father and the suffocating love of his mother, Shulamit followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather in becoming a biblical scholar.

However unlike her fore fathers it's not her faith that motivates her study of the holy books, rather a sense of duty and the need for a vocation. Still this does nothing to lessen her love for her work, or the texts that she reads and recites to her students. For it also her means to connect to her family and its history, as the texts are filled with reminders for her of the stories about her great-grandfather, and her grandfather his only son.

But it wasn't even the Codex, which would have been a great temptation to a biblical scholar like herself, which brought her back to the house of Shepher in Jerusalem. It was a letter from her Uncle Cody telling her that the old house was to being given up now that the final resident, Aunt Batsheva, had died. So it was sentiment and nostalgia that brought her from England for one last visit to the house she had spent summers in until her father died.

It's not until she gets to the house that she even finds out about the Codex, as her Uncle Saul has taken up temporary residence and almost the first words out of his mouth are to accuse her of being one of the vultures after the Codex. When she finally convinces him she's not after the Codex, and to kindly explain what he's talking about she's thrilled. What biblical scholar wouldn't be to find out that her own family owned an unknown variation of the Torah?

But it's not that simple, or course. It seems that Uncle Cody has decided it should be given to the people, and has passed it on to an educational institute who are supposed to be checking it for authenticity. There are all the other members of the Shepher family who either claim ownership of the Codex or want it sold at current market value and the proceeds divided up amongst them all.

And who is the mysterious Gideon who also lays claim to the book, saying Shulamit's great-grandfather stole it from his people long ago and it needs to be returned. Since the provenance of the Codex claims that its origins lie with one of mythical lost tribes of Israel Shulamit has a hard time not only believing him, but can't believe her ears when he asks her to steal it for him.

Tamar Yellin's The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a beautifully written book redolent of the spice of Hebrew legend. Interspersed with the story line of the Codex is the history of the family dating back to her great-grandfather Shalom Shepher and his strange quixotic obsession with the lost tribes of Israel. So obsessed with them in fact that he set out on a two year quest in search of them and returned claiming to have stayed with them for a good deal of the time.

It's a story about exile, from one's land and from one's dreams. Shulamit's parents are restless people whose lives are disturbed by reality not living up to their dreams. For her mother it was Israel not being the land of Milk and Honey but of intolerable heat, bad plumbing and a family who she couldn't speak to because she had no Hebrew.

Her father was discontented with life in prewar Israel and left to start a new life in England. But he became the ultimate exile there for his passport read he was the citizen of a country that no longer existed – Palestine- as of 1949. The irony is not lost on Shulamit that her father was a Jewish, stateless, Palestinian. It's not till their death that they both find peace in Israel, buried beside each other in the family plot.

Like the Codex each new generation of the family contains a variant that changes their meaning ever so slightly from the generation before them. Shulamit's brother Reuben completely rejects his past and claims to be the first generation. Reuben, now Mike, and his beautiful wife and angelic child will have nothing to do with the sadness and pain of being exiles.

But it also means they will know nothing of the wondrous myths and stories that have been the legacy of Shalom Shepher the scholar and his great quest for the lost tribes and his claims that through numerology and the proper Codex of the Torah one could figure out the exact date of the Messiah's arrival and the apocalypse. Somewhere among all his papers there might even exist the answer.

Even though Shulamit was born in and raised in England and finds the history and the weight of Jerusalem oppressive it's where her history is and it can't be forgotten. The introduction of the Codex and it's variants, a different blueprint to shape the world with no matter how slightly, has released her from the sadness and pain that dogged her parent's lives. She can travel between her two worlds easily; Jerusalem and England, and not feel like she doesn't belong.

The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of wandering, exile and how difficult it is to find out where you belong. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, his God had ordained otherwise. He was allowed a glimpse into it, before being asked to give up his soul. She would not come willingly and it took all of God's love and strength to gather her to Him. Nobody likes not fulfilling their dreams.

Shulamit has seen the Promised Land and it is in herself and she can live there everyday. She only needs to have the strength to keep her promises to her self. The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of choices and how, like the variations in the Codex, even the smallest can make a huge difference in the way our world turns out.

January 20, 2007

Book Review: Out Holocaust Amir Gutfreund

"Only saints were gassed?"

Is the first note of disquiet that enters into the lives of Effi and Amir. "Only saints were gassed?" Why of course, how could the victims of the gas chambers be bad people? Crazy Hirsh must be crazy, why else does he live in the woods in his hut and wander onto Katznelson St. and yell such a thing?

Effi and Amir may not be "Old Enough" to be told about Shoah (The Holocaust), but they certainly know enough to know that he must be crazy. Look at them, they don't even have real family; they borrow people from here and there who become Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Uncles, Nieces, and cousins, because their families have so few of their own left that they have found people to play the parts for them.

If this is what our family is like, and every family similar, what kind of question is "Only saints were gassed?" It's a question that will have to wait until later to be answered because their priorities are to find out what happened first. Grandpa Lolek who fought with the Polish army, first charging tanks on horse back, then fleeing to join a Polish regiment that fought with the allies for the rest of the war; has no problems regaling them with tales of what he did during the war.

But of the camps, nothing, nobody wanted to tell them about it. Not even Grandpa Yosef who could tell them the name of the longest river in the world, and arbitrated disputes about everything else on any topic. Like their own personal Talmudic scholar he could resolve anything on any subject, but not even he could be drawn out to talk about the mysteries of "What Happened?"

In Grandpa Yosef's neighbourhood, Katznelson St. on the out skirts of the Israeli port town Hafia, nearly everyone was a survivor of the camps. One foot in the present and one foot in the past it was Grandpa Yosef who helped them all straddle the line in safety. But it was also Grandpa Yosef who made sure that no one told the children the stories they wanted to hear.

But have you ever known children to be stopped or have their enthusiasm for a subject curtailed because they've been forbidden or told to wait for later? So it is with Effi and Amir in the recently translated Amir Gutfreund novel Our Holocaust. Being the resourceful types they try any means at their disposal up to and including bribery and theft, but nothing could break through the impenetrable walls erected to keep them from what they considered of vital importance.
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On their visits to Grandpa Yosef's they could see the results of the Holocaust on display in the faces and the actions of the people who lived on the street with him. Aside from Crazy Hirsh, who in the end is not so crazy, each of the survivors wears the camps like an extra suit of clothes that they are unable to take off and hang in the closet.

Of course eventually they are old enough to be told the stories, but by then Effi has lost interest – she's a doctor now – but even though Amir is married and raising a son and built a life for himself, he is still moved to attempt to document what happened to the family at the least, and maybe even the neighbours of Grandpa Yosef.

It starts with Grandpa Yosef; almost like a generation letting go of a breath they didn't even know they'd been holding, they begin to tell Amir what he's wanted to hear for years. From the ghettos, to the camps, to the death marches, and finally liberation, but never really freedom, he bears witness and writes it down.

Grandpa Yosef knows the why behind Crazy Hersh's question, but can't or won't answer it. Others are far less reticent when it comes to the question and have no hesitation in describing the things Jews did to each other. Some of it was in the quest for survival, but some were just men who worked willingly with the Nazis for the sake of the power it offered them. But it was not enough to save them from the fate of their brethren who they betrayed as they too ended up in the gas chambers.

Amir Gutfreund carries his namesake through an odyssey of obsession that turns him into as much a survivor of the holocaust as those whose stories he is documenting. He fumes over those responsible that are living lives of peace and prosperity, while their victims have no escape from their memories save in madness.

He worries that every year, even the year he is living in now, could be 1939, the year before the Holocaust spread its wings. Jews in 1939 lived their lives not expecting anything just like they do today. But he can also see how within everyone, including Jews, is the potential for being the perpetrators of a Holocaust.

It's the ordinariness of evil that is so terrifying, how anybody, anywhere is quite capable of carrying out orders without question. Rounding up the undesirables, placing them in camps for the good of the country. That part of human nature is everywhere, and he sees it in the people around him. One day he thinks it could happen.

Without being a survivor, he turns into one. His obsession with the past and the Holocaust makes him want to raise his son to be capable of surviving anything. He must be able to survive a winter without shoes like his grandmother did or what will become of him. Amir can't understand why his wife can't see that?

What had started out as childish interest and almost humorous descriptions of the children's attempts to discover more about their family's history, during the war, becomes, as the stories are revealed more and more serious. Even though the author has tried to avoid graphic details, it is not possible to narrate stories of the Holocaust without including details of the unspeakable evil that men can do to each other.

Personally I've never been one for wanting to read about the details of the Holocaust, so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I even began to read this book. Amir Gutfreund's approach of leading us into the actual stories by introducing us to the people who the stories are about without just tossing us into the camps head first goes a long way in cushioning the blow. But at the same time because we have gotten to know those people in advance of the stories and understand their connection to the Amir of the story we can understand his obsession with the past and the way it is affecting his present.

It is still not an easy book to read, I don't think it is possible to write a book on this subject and make it pleasant. In fact in some ways that which eases us into the story in the first place makes it all the harder to continue as the personal tales of survival are recounted. Knowing the people involved, and listening to them recount their near death experiences makes them all the more gut wrenching.

The author also makes sure that he doesn't take the easy way out and leave us stuck in the past with the stories. Instead he shows us that although the Holocaust is not something that can be forgotten, it is something that needs to be accepted and placed in a proper perspective. It can't dominate the lives of those of us who were not in the camps like it does the direct survivors, but for those who had family in the camps knowing their stories is important.

Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust is beautifully written document about one family and their coming to terms with their place in history. If you are willing to make the effort, this book will go a long way towards offering an explanation for why even people born well after the war are in some ways survivors of the holocaust as much as those who lived through the camps.

January 19, 2007

The Age Of The Individual: The Loss Of The Tribe

I've written quite a number of pieces that have been, to put it mildly, scathing when it comes to the so-called "New Age" movement. I think I've referred to it as everything from cultural appropriation to inane. But unlike other critics of the people who comment on the issue I've shied away from the whole question of spirituality.

Many people insist that the rise in interest in all things "New Age" is due to the failure of the conventional religions to fill the spiritual needs of their traditional congregations. According to proponents of that theory, mainly those involved in the selling of "New Age" products, the baggage that accompanies Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, is what pushes people away from them.

Whatever excuse they want to use doesn't really matter all that much, the implication is that people are turning to alternatives for their spiritual comfort, and that is what's offered by the "New Age" folk. The thing is though if you walk into a "New Age" emporium you won't find anything that is specifically a "New Age" bible. You'll find books on Celtic, Native American, Tibetan, Hindu, Jewish, Ancient Egyptian, and every other kind of spirituality you can think of with Guardian Angels and Faeries thrown in for good measure.

But are the people haunting those stores really looking for spiritual enlightenment or is it something else they're searching for; maybe even something they can't identify. They have the feeling that there is something missing in their lives but aren't quite sure what the void is. They label the emptiness spiritual because it feels like their spirit is being deprived of something, but I think it's something a little more concrete

In North America we celebrate the cult of the individual; we all strive to get ahead for our own purposes and create ourselves to fulfill the goals that we have established for ourselves. Even if we join with someone and bear children together you are only creating an extension of yourself.

Not to long ago, relatively speaking in terms of the planet's history, man existed in tribal groups. We lived to together in small communities in the Mohawk Valley in New York State, the convergence of Tigress and the Euphrates, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the steppes of Russia. As a member of a tribe you belonged somewhere, and played some vital role ensuring the continual existence of your people.

As today's world gets more and more impersonal; communication done through third party instruments like portable phones or email programs, perhaps we are increasingly made aware of our lack of real community? Even if we don't articulate it as such the need for a sense of identity and the feeling of belonging somewhere provided by community appears to be growing in the face of the world's uncertainty.

A church's congregation is supposed to be a meeting place of people of like minds; people who share the same sense of purpose and belief. While it could be easy to say they once were places that tied people together through those commonalities, I wonder if the unifying factor was more circumstances then anything else.

Church, or whatever you want to label it, used to be the only social activity for the vast majority of people. If you were no longer in school, the only time you ever met up with everybody in the neighbourhood was at the church, or at a church sponsored event. I know there are some small rural communities around where I live where that is still the case.

But as alternatives to the church became available as a social focus, these communities dissolved in the face of competition, weakening their claims at being a unifying force. Perhaps some people still belong to churches but their numbers are far less then they used to be.

In the mid to late seventies when Cults were in full swing, organizations like the Moonies would seek out people who looked like they were lost and would promise them a home and a sense of belonging. Much the same motivation is now used to recruit the young men and women into terrorist organizations around the world. They become members of a tribe that works together – they belong and have a real purpose in life that nothing else has been able to offer them.

I recently had a conversation with my mother about her relationship to Judaism. She was raised in a family that were the epitome of secular Jews, in that they never set foot in synagogue except for the usual triad of Weddings, Funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs. At one point in her life she became a member of a Reform synagogue, but that only lasted for a year.

But she said what Judaism does give her is a place in history, a sense of where she's come from as part of something greater than herself and her family. Even though she doesn't participate in the religious life, or even hang out with very many Jewish people, she can still say I'm a Jew and feel like she belongs somewhere.

This wasn't something she picked up in a book from a bookstore; this was something she inherited from her parents, who in turn, well you get the picture. For my mother it's an unbroken line stretching back through more then five thousand years of tribal history that she is a continuation of. It's the place in the world where she belongs that has nothing to do with geography, politics, or religion.

Human beings need to have the sense that they belong to something bigger then themselves. Some find a kind of comfort in patriotism, while others find it in fighting for a cause, and others in religion. Still others are left searching for something external in the hopes of finding their place in the world.

But in reality, with a few exceptions, the trade off for our civilization and our lifestyle has been the loss of our connections to others and the past. We truly live in the age of the individual and we all feel just a little bit lost and lonely because of it.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

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Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

January 4, 2007

Music Review: Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales

It's been referred to as the last noble cause, or the last heroic war. It's also been said it was the war that if the British and the Americans had bothered with it could have prevented World War Two. The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 through 1939 and by the end Fransico Franco had overthrown the democratically elected government.

The election prior to the outbreak of the war had seen a coalition government formed among moderate and socialist parties. The Republican government's goals were to reduce the power of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church and try to redress the economic disparity in the country.

Needless to say that went over like the proverbial ton of bricks with those who were going to have to surrender their power. Calling themselves The Nationalists they formed an army under the leadership of Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government.. They were supplied with weapons, air support, tanks, and troops by the governments of Italy and Germany almost immediately.

The Republicans received little or no official help from any government, save some assistance from the Soviet Union that was too little and too late. In some ways the Republican side was a typical venture of the left and centre in those, and even these days, where internal fights over power, took precedence over an enemy out to destroy you all. Soviet aid only became available after a faction acceptable to Moscow controlled a goodly portion of the doomed government.
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The Spanish Civil War was also notable for two other reasons. It was where the Nazis first put into effect their practice of targeting strictly civilian targets for the sake of the effect on morale. First Guernica, rendered forever immortal by Picasso; then Madrid suffered through bombings.

The other was the fact that in spite of their own government's refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco (Until Hitler signed his infamous non-aggression pact with Stalin, he was actually seen as a bulwark against the Red hoards by far too many Western pundits) young men and women from around the world came to Spain on their own to fight for the Republican cause.

The International Brigade was composed of German, American, Canadian, and others from across Europe who came to fight the fascists. The American soldiers served in what became known as the Lincoln Brigade and became part of the 15th International Brigade. Since there own governments had refused to aid the Republicans, and in some instances had tried their best to prevent people from doing so, it wasn't very surprising that the returning soldiers at the end of the war were ignored in their own countries.

Some of them, like the Germans and the Italian of course, had to become refugees because they couldn't go home again. When it became obvious that nothing was going to be done to honour their efforts, and in fact official policy has been to ignore the veterans of Spain almost entirely, Pete Seeger and the Almanac singers recorded seven songs that had been sung by the Lincoln Brigade while marching. In 1943 they were released as part of an album called Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade.

For the longest time it has been next to impossible to find this and other music of the Spanish Civil War. But now thanks to the Spanish label, Discmedi, they and other music of the war has been released on a great CD called Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales (Songs Of The International Brigade).

The first seven songs are the aforementioned tracks from Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade which have been beautifully digitally re mastered so they sound great. The six songs that follow that were originally released in 1940, but had been actually recorded during the war. The German actor Ernst Busch, who was already living in exile from Hitler due to his politics, recorded six songs with a chorus of soldiers called Six Songs For Democracy

They were recorded in the men's barracks so if you listen closely you can hear background noises of wartime activity. Again the sound is great, and it's really nice not to hear these songs like they're being sung to you via a sewer pipe. The only previous recording I had heard of them was so full of echoes it was almost impossible to hear what was being sung.

Following these thirteen tracks, the producers of the disc have gathered together some performances of these and other songs of the period by different performers as bonus tracks. Six of them are by Ernst Busch again and are Spanish versions of some of the songs that had been performed by Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers on the Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade album. Again he has recorded them with soldiers serving during the war, and in fact this recording was interrupted by Franco's bombing of Barcelona. On occasion you can hear where a brown out is occurring as the sound starts to fade away: life during wartime indeed.

Ernst's voice may not be what a North American audience would expect from a musical theatre actor, but he had been working with Bertolt Brecht in Germany, and they had a different attitude towards what sound they wanted on stage. Brecht wasn't interested in pretty, or in polish; he wanted the audience to listen to the words being sung to them, not to just sit back and enjoy the music.

After Busch, we have a brief visit with Woody Guthrie as he sings his version of "Jarama Valley". What's great about this song, as you will have noticed in The Almanac Singers' version earlier on the disc, is that the tune is "Red Rive Valley". The soldiers who wrote these songs had done what was fairly typical for the day, and just changed the lyrics of songs they were already familiar with to make them suit there needs.

The last four songs on the disc are from what I consider two of the United States' finest treasures; The Weavers and Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson was a star football player, Broadway and Hollywood actor, and amazing singer. He was also Black and left wing, which in the 1940s and 50s meant he was considered a threat to society.

He had his passport revoked by the American government so he could no longer travel to do concert tours in Europe. This pretty much guaranteed the end of his singing career, as very few venues in the States would book anyone who was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy. But here we find him in full beautiful voice singing two of the songs he learned from the soldiers when he went to Spain during the War to lend his support to the cause. His version of "The Peat-Bog Soldiers" has to be one of the best I've ever heard even to this day.

The last two songs included are by the Weavers. Somehow or other the Weavers were able to play the music of the Spanish Civil War during the 1950's in places like Carnegie Hall without people really twigging to what was going on. Included here are two of those songs; both were recorded in Carnegie Hall but one in the fifties and one in their reunion concert in the eighties.

The producers have also included a very good informative booklet with information about both the Spanish Civil War and the musicians who sang the songs on the disc. It is one of the best of these types of booklets that I've seen in a long time; nicely laid out with text that is not impossible to read. If you are multilingual you can read it three times, in Spanish, English, and German.

In Spain today the soldiers who fought in the International Brigade are still considered heroes of the country, in North America where they came from they've either been almost completely forgotten, and even worse some were treated like criminals by their own governments. Canciones De Las Brigades Internacionales is wonderful tribute to men who have been ignored for too long.

December 12, 2006

Mohawk Land Claims Being Ignored Again

When do you think people are going to learn? How many times are they going to try and sell, or develop land that is claimed under treaty rights by a First Nations tribe. You'd have thought they'd have learnt from the mess that's happening in Caledonia in South Western Ontario where the Six Nations Reserve has set up a blockade around a housing development's construction site.

A report in the December issue of The Mohawk Nation Drummer tells how the town of Deseronto is doing just that. Located in Eastern Ontario, bordering the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, they are trying to illegally develop treaty land. Eight hundred and twenty-seven acres of land on the eastern edge of the reserve was illegally removed from the possession of the Mohawks in 1837. The Mohawks at the time had leased it to one man, who then left the land as an inheritance to his grandson. The government at the time illegally gave John Cullbertson, the grandson, a crown grant for the land.

In 1995 the Tyendinaga Band Council submitted a claim for the return of the land, which was upheld by the Department of Justice who agreed the land had never been surrendered nor had any compensation been awarded the Mohawks at the time. It was agreed a settlement would be negotiated with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in the year 2003. The Mohawks are still waiting.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that stipulated all lands occupied by the First Nations people could only be purchased or leased from them by the Crown (read government now) has been accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada as the law regarding title to disputed territory. If you had any brains you'd consider any land that had an outstanding land claim against it as being unsuitable for anything.

Municipal governments and some provinces are still trying to play fast and loose with the treaties and illegally disposing of the lands for their own profit. Even when they are fully conversant with the circumstances, as were all parties involved in the Caledonia situation, they are going ahead and making deals with private interests. Perhaps they are hoping that if the courts see populated housing developments on the territory they won't cede it back to Native control, and allow the municipality to continue to collect all tax revenues.

Town councils, and other local governments need look no further than the most recent settlement in British Columbia where a whole subdivision has been returned to it's original Native owners. The people who own the houses are free to retain possession, but they now find themselves subject to the laws governing the reservation not the municipality, and their property taxes will be set and collected by the band council.

There has been the usual amount of complaining by the right wing about rights etc (non-band member can't vote in tribal council elections, so the owners of these houses can't vote in their "municipal elections" anymore) conveniently forgetting whose rights were originally ignored when the land was developed illegally. If you buy stolen property, unwitting or not, and it is recovered by it's original owner what kind of compensation do you usually get?

If it can be proven you knew it was stolen you can go to jail, other wise you're pretty much out of luck. These people should consider themselves fortunate that they are being allowed to keep the homes they purchased from someone who was dealing in stolen property. If anyone has a problem with the return of the land to the rightful owners, they should take it up with the people who committed the crime in the first place – those who sold it illegally.

But some people just aren't paying attention, and it sure seems like the Deseronto Town Council want to join the crowd. Just before their municipal election last November the mayor of the town, Clarence Zie, announced that construction would begin on a new housing development as of November 15th on one of tracts of land. Local media reported that he claimed 20% of the initial 60 lots were already sold, and that if all went well an additional 100 lots would be constructed.

As a reminder to any contractors who might not be aware of the circumstances surrounding the land in question, a group of Mohawk protesters from Tyendinaga showed up on November 15th. They erected a new sign proclaiming the area Mohawk territory and amended the for sale sign to read not for sale.

Nobody wishes to have a repeat of what is going on in Caledonia, Ontario right now with the blockades and confrontations, but at the same time nobody is going to surrender their land without a fight. The Government of Canada has tried to stay out of the protest in Caledonia, claiming it's a provincial issue due to the nature of the land under dispute, but they won't be able to hide from this one.

With the promise of a negotiated settlement on the books, now three years overdue, they have the responsibility of resolving the issue. Since the Justice Department has already stated that the land was illegally removed from the Mohawks there really isn't much to negotiate save for whether it will be the town or the developer who is going to have to refund those who have already plunked their money down.

It was one thing for Indian Agents and crooked politicians back in the 1800's to try and swindle Natives out of their land; they knew they would be able to get away with it. But now it's not only illegal, it's bad business practices. You trying selling people stolen property once and see if you ever get their business again?

December 9, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Past, Present, And Future Of Native Rights.

Ever since the repatriated Constitution of Canadian and its accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982 the Supreme Court of Canada has been kept busy with numerous court challenges. Various groups and individuals have mounted challenges to laws that they consider to impinge upon their basic human rights.

They have had to rule on all the fun ones; euthanasia, abortion, and same sex marriage. People who haven't agreed with their decisions complain about the Supreme Court governing the country, but all they have been doing is their job. Acting as final arbitrator in legal decisions and reaching conclusion based on the letter of our law.

When the law says that all people are to be treated equal under the eyes of the law no matter what their race, creed, colour, sex, or sexual preferences are, they interpret that as being final with no exceptions. That means if a same sex couple wants to get married they can. In the eyes of the court whatever the law and the Constitution say is final.

The areas that have been more problematic are those where there isn't an article in the constitution dealing directly with the subject. The thorniest of these has been the contentious issue of what constitutes aboriginal rights. Neither the Charter of Rights nor the Constitution spells out any specifics when it comes to this issue.

Section thirty-five of the constitution and twenty-five of the Charter of Rights are the only ones that deal with the issue at all, and they offer minimal guidance. In the latter it simply states that no part of the Charter can be seen to over rule any previous laws that guaranteed treaty rights and other rights and freedoms.

The Charter specifically cites the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as the major source defining any and all treaty rights that needed to be adhered to. The Constitution is even more vague in that all it says is that all previous treaty rights are still in effect and recognised. It also makes reference to section 91, class 24 of the constitutional act of 1867. Since all this part of the original Constitution states is that the passing of laws and the preservation of treaty lands as pertains to the indigenous peoples of Canada is now the responsibility of the legislative assembly of Canada instead of the British Government, it doesn't offer much assistance in defining Native rights according to law.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was one of those great documents that promised lots without guaranteeing anything. Prior to the American Revolution it guaranteed that all land west of the Appalachian Mountain range could only be taken from Indigenous people by treaty negotiated by the Crown. That was amended to reflect the reduction of Crown territory after the revolution so that it was enforced in the region now known as Canada.

For the Supreme Court of Canada what this means is that when faced with cases revolving around the rights of Native Canadians they are dealing with rights that were enshrined by treaty more then three hundred years ago when the world was a far different place. If a treaty from those times guaranteed a tribe of people the right to carry on their way of life, meaning hunting, fishing, and harvesting lumber as needed, how are those rights applied in today's world?

Does it mean that a native person can fish commercially all year round while other fishermen must adhere to strict seasonal guidelines? Does it mean that a native person can set up a forestry business and take wood from wherever he so chooses as long as its not privately owned land?

The Court has been trying to walk a fine line here with respect to adhering to the treaties while acknowledging there are significant differences in today's world. An example of this can be found in a ruling handed down yesterday in a case involving three Native men from New Brunswick who were charged with the illegal harvesting of lumber from Crown (government owned) land. While acquitting them of all charges by a unanimous vote of 9 – 0 the court did make certain provisos in order to try and set limits on the amount of lumber that is harvested and to establish precedent for future cases of a similar nature.

One of the conditions that the court stipulated was that in order for a native person of a particular tribe to harvest wood from public territory there had to be proof of either hereditary or treaty granted usage of that land for that purpose. The other control placed on the harvesting of lumber was that there could be no commercial use attached to the raw timber, it could only be put to personal use.

On the other side of the ledger the court said that they could not see the validity in the argument that would have only allowed native people to use the wood they harvested for so called traditional activities; making canoes and wigwams. The court stated that they would not allow native people to be restricted in their usage of the lumber by old cultural stereotypes. The lumber could be used for making furniture, house building, artwork, and pretty much any other personal use you could think of.

What the judges didn't do, or failed to address anyway, was set any sort of limit on how much wood a native could harvest for individual use. And although the ruling said that the wood itself couldn't be sold commercially, there was no mention of whether or not any products made from the lumber, furniture, boats, or pieces of sculpture, could be sold.

The reason for this most likely is that the court was primarily concerned with establishing just what aboriginal rights under the terms of past treaties and agreements mean. What they have been gradually coming to is that these rights entitle native people to continue to make use of resources for personal use on land, or water, that they can lay claim to via their nation or tribe's treaty rights.

They had previously ruled that natives could fish for personal use at any time in the year, but could only operate commercial practices during in season like any other fisherman. This ruling was made somewhat more complex due to the fact that nations on at least the West Coast of Canada have proof that they historically conducted a sizeable amount of trade in fish all year round, therefore making commercial fishing a "traditional practice".

The fact of the matter is that with today's technology combined with the severe reduction in fish stocks makes anyone's desire to run a commercial fishery year round seem stupid and wrong headed. I'd have to wonder at anyone demanding to be allowed to deplete fish stocks that much further by fishing them all year round.

No it isn't the fault of natives that the stocks have been almost depleted, but that isn't what matters now. What matters now is that your ancestors left you fish to eat, are you going to leave any for your descendants?

The Supreme Court of Canada has a duty and an obligation to see that the original treaties signed with the Native population of Canada are adhered to as much as possible. At the same time they also need to take into consideration the realities of today's world when reaching decisions. Sometimes this may mean expanding upon an original definition, other times apparently curtailing some activities.

What's important, and what I believe they are doing their best to achieve, is that the spirit of these treaties is adhered to if not the actual letter of the agreements. I'm sure people on both sides of the issue are never going to be completely happy with the decisions reached by the Court, and that points of contention will continue to linger long after verdicts are handed down.

But little by little, and for better or worse, (in my opinion usually better) the Supreme Court of Canada is defining Aboriginal rights in Canada. They will continue to listen to arguments over various issues from both sides. But now that the precedent of personal use based on historical access to resources has been established as the bar against which decisions will be weighed, at least everyone is beginning to figure out where they stand.

If the government shows a willingness to enact legislature that is reflective of those rulings, we may yet see an end to the repeated confrontations and arrests that have besmirched our dealings with folk who were here before us. Who knows we may even end up equal partners in the country.

November 23, 2006

Quebec Past And Prestent - La Plus Que Change...

Of the many things that Americans find confusing about Canada, after our beer and our incessantly annoying politeness, probably the thing they understand the least about us is Quebec. That's all right, Quebec is probably the thing we understand about ourselves the least as well.

As a service to my American readership I offer this truncated version of the last 350 odd (and very odd some of them have been) years of the history of Quebec in Canada. Although this should by no means be seen as a definitive statement hopefully it will give you a little more of a grasp on how the current situation came about.

The first thing to remember is that the French were the first settlers of the area that stretches from we what know as Quebec to as far West as the Mississippi River and down into the Ohio Valley. If they hadn't actually settled that territory they had explored it and formed trading partnerships with the native nations living there. This of course started to bring them into conflict with the English who were establishing themselves along what is now the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

By the 1700's the conflict between the two nations came to a head in what's now known as the French-Indian Wars, which is sort of confusing as it leaves out all mention of British involvement. The fight ended up being a conflict between the British colonists and their Native allies, the Iroquois confederacy, and the French and their Indian allies, the Huron. (To this day I still hear Iroquois claim that the Huron pretty much ceased to exist as a nation after those wars as the Iroquois were finally able to obliterate their old enemy during this war with the help of the English)

Anyone who has read about any of that conflict will know it was brutal and nasty especially during the wood land campaigns where the British learned the dangers of marching single file through the forest the hard way. Gradually their superior firepower and numbers began to tell, until all that was left was to invade Quebec City.

That turned out to be easier said then done, and it wasn't until the forces of General Wolfe discovered a path from the St. Lawrence River leading up the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham outside the city that they were able to win the day. On September 13th 1759 the British army under the command of Wolfe defeated the army of New France under Louis Montcalm giving England control of the majority of North America.
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In 1763 when the treaty was signed between France and England officially ceding the territory from the one nation to the other, the colony should have in theory become subject to British civil law, Protestant, and solely English speaking. But showing unusual prescience regarding trouble in the colonies the decision was taken by the British government not to tamper with the social and civil structures already in place.

The Quebec Act of 1774 gave the people of Quebec the right to conduct business according to their own civil laws, guaranteed them the right to freedom of religion and to educate their children in French. Before anything else happened in North America, including the American Revolution or the formation of Canada, the British government recognized that Quebec was a distinct society and acted accordingly to ensure it's preservation.

Of course they had a practical reason for their seeming generosity; guaranteeing Quebec's loyalty in the years ahead. Like I said, someone saw the colonies south of the 49th parallel going south, so to speak, and decided that the last thing Britain needed was a large number of irate colonists everywhere. The people of Quebec were bought off with the freedom to hold on to their cultural identity. Something they would have most likely lost had they become part of the new union to their south.

What amazes me is that since everything from the price of oil to the smog in our cities is the fault of Americans, why we Canadians have never held America responsible for the problem of Quebec. If it hadn't been the threat presented by the emerging desire for independence from the crown in the thirteen colonies, nobody would have given a damn about the rights of a few thousand people.

Heck they didn't have any qualms about forcing French speaking people outside of Quebec off their land a few years later to make room for loyal British subjects fleeing the American revolution. They sent them packing to Louisiana, the last French territory in North America and gave their farms in New Brunswick and other Maritime provinces away.

There's no way the British government would have given Quebec those rights in less they felt like they had no other option. So it really is America's fault, what with your independence, and then the War of 1812. If it hadn't of been for any of that Quebec would have been nicely assimilated right off the bat and we wouldn't have all the troubles were having to this day.

Well that's all in the past now, and I guess if your able to forgive us for torching the White House back in the War of 1812 we can forgive you for this. Anyway you're suffering the fall out as much as we are; how many shows has Celine Dion done in Las Vegas now? That's an example of a distinct society raven coming home to roost if I've ever seen one.

It always amazes me that Canadian politicians keep getting up and making big pronouncements about Quebec being a distinct society within Canada. The fact that it's old news hasn't seemed to register on them yet. Yesterday it was Steven Harper's turn, our current Prime Minister, and the leaders of the oppositions parties, to add their names to the chorus of redundancy by calling Quebec a distinct nation within a nation.

If one were inclined to be cynical they might check the polls to see how low the Conservative numbers are in Quebec. There numbers have been on a steady decline since soon after the election, and face the potential for an even greater decline the longer Canada remains embroiled in Afghanistan. (Quebec has the highest rate of opposition of any region in the country to Canada's involvement)

The easiest way for a politician in Canada to try and make points in Quebec without actually committing him or herself to doing anything is make reference to their distinctness. That always plays well in the press. The secret is to learn how to say it without alienating the rest of the country and to get the other political parties to go along with your idea.

Naturally nothing short of separation will satisfy the ardent nationalists, but recognition of the distinct society is enough to satisfy most moderates to give you a bump in the polls sufficient to absorb any minor loss in other provinces. Since without major gains in Ontario or Quebec, Harper and his gang will never have a majority government so he's got to do something.

Since their social conservatism doesn't play well in either province, they need to use something as a hook to establish their power base. Espousing support of Quebec as a distinct society has always been a favoured ploy because it sounds substantial without having any real meaning or committing you to a course of action.

Ever since Canada became a country successive governments have made it sound like they are doing something new and unique by recognising the distinctiveness of Quebec. But in actual fact all they have been doing is reaffirming a position that was taken almost three hundred years ago by the conquering British. Is it any wonder Quebec is looking for more?

November 15, 2006

Who Speaks For Native Canadians

Twelve years ago I was a guest of Her Majesty's Government of Ontario for a few weekends due to a disagreement we had over the legality of certain activities. I would show up every Friday evening at the local provincial correctional facility (local was obviously relative as I had to travel thirty miles at my own expense) around 5:30 pm to be dressed in overalls of a fetching Orange and be bored silly until Monday morning at 5:30 am.

They would keep us weekend guests separated from the permanent residents for a variety of reasons (it's amazing what can be transported via body cavity or to use the correct parlance "hooping") but we were directly across the hall from the minimum security "bucket" which housed thirty plus guys doing sentences of less then two months. Amongst them there was one guy who stuck out from the rest of the crowd by virtue of his size and his skin colour.

He was a large native guy, easily six foot four and probably well over 250 pounds who wore his hair in a braid that hung like a thick rope too his lower back. He appeared to have some sort of force field around him, because nobody ever seemed to come within a yard of him. Quite an amazing accomplishment when you consider how many guys and bunk beds were crammed into such a small space.

It turned out that he was the friend of some friends of mine (not a great surprise in retrospect) so it was easy to find out his story. He had been the leader of a group who had occupied the band council office of the local Mohawk reserve, Tyendinaga. They were protesting the misappropriation of government money, nepotism, and a variety of other irregularities by the band's Chief that they wanted investigated.

Less then a year later this same man was leading a party of Mohawks from his reserve on a raid of the office of the Grand Chief of The Assembly of First Nations in protest against their inaction on dealing with issues that affected the day to day lives of people living on reserves. While his actions were more extreme then other peoples the frustration behind them represented the split between some people who live on reserves and their elected chiefs.

While the Assembly claims to speak for all native people in Canada, its membership is limited to Chiefs. While on the surface this may give the appearance of adequate representation there is a serious problem inherent to the system. The concept of an elected Chief is alien to the majority of native peoples. The position of Chief had been traditionally earned, appointed, or inherited. For example the female elders, grandmothers, of a tribe, selected the Chiefs of the Mohawk people.

The election of Chiefs was a concept imposed upon tribes as a condition of the Indian Act of Canada in order for them to be accorded "status" and be given a reservation. It has long been a bone of contention between those wishing to live in a traditional manner, following the rules and customs of their ancestors, and those more inclined to assimilate.

With most traditionalists refusing to vote and others not caring enough to vote, the same people repeatedly win election to the band council and position of Chief. It's these people who are responsible for the allocation of funds that the government hands out to reserves for education, housing and infrastructure. Now, that's not to imply that all of them are corrupt, because there are plenty of councils who aren't. But unfortunately there are sufficient numbers of councils where nepotism and corruption are still problems.

Conservative politicians in Canada have made a big deal of this issue, and have often used it to call into question other government's Indian policies. So it was no surprise that when they were elected to power they stalled an accord that had been negotiated between the previous government, the provinces, and the Assembly of First Nations on the grounds there needed to be more accountability for how the dollars would be spent.

When a Conservative government says things like that they are accused of everything from racism to not caring what happens to the native people of Canada. While there may be some basis for those accusations based on things that have been said or done by members of the current Conservative caucus, what can you accuse a Native of for saying the same thing?

I think back to the days when my friend showed me photocopies of his band council's bank accounts. They showed where a check from the government for enough money to build thirty-two houses had been deposited. Somehow or other though only two houses were ever built. Other records showed the chief's brother being hired as the contractor for the job, in spite of the fact he had no previous experience.

The same man who was Chief of the band council in those days is still Chief in Tyendinaga. I have to wonder what my old friend would say about trusting him with money for education and health care on the reserve. My friend isn't the only native person who has raised questions about the integrity of a local band council; there have been others across Canada who have done the same.

Native people of Canada face conditions as desperate as those of people living in some of the world's poorest countries. With a standard of living far below that of the average Canadian there is a desperate need to provide reserves with infrastructure that we take for granted, health care the rest of us enjoy, and the educational opportunities that would allow them to compete on an equal footing with the rest of our population.

But before those issues can be addressed, the issue of who speaks for native people has to be decided. While the elected Chiefs are recognised by the government of Canada as the leaders of their communities, do the communities recognise the Chiefs as their leaders? Do they and their band councils adequately represent the hopes and aspirations of their reserves, or only the minority who vote in the band elections?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, because you can't make blanket statements like all band councils are corrupt. But that just makes it that much more important the issue be resolved. Maybe now is not the time to address the whole issue of how natives are allowed to govern themselves, but it will need to be dealt with as the drive for self – government progresses.

The Canadian government's responsibility is too all the native people of Canada, not just the Assembly of First Nations. If any of that membership is not speaking for their community that means potentially thousands of people are going to miss out on the benefits of any new programming. That is not acceptable.
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November 11, 2006

What To Remember On Rememberance Day?

It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the armistice declaring the cease-fire the end of the war to end all wars was signed. Now each day in countries around the world that moment in history is kept alive through ceremonies honouring the soldiers who have fallen fighting in the various wars from that moment until now.

We still call it Remembrance Day in Canada, although what it is we are remembering has changed over the years. Initially it was to honour the generation that was devastated in World War One, but as each year has passed there have been fewer veterans of that war living, until today there are only three survivors. Although the ceremony has been expanded to include the Canadian service men and women who have fallen in battle in the ensuing years, the Red Poppy worn in commemoration is specific to that war and those who fought in it.

When the inevitable happens and the last of three survivors passes all that will remain will be the memory of those we are told not to forget about. But what is it we are supposed to remember? The politicians would have us remember their "supreme sacrifice" and they gave their lives for noble causes. Sure we can do that because most of those poor bastards probably believed that they were doing something of value and worth when they signed up to fight in the trenches.

But perhaps we should also be remembering that war to end all wars for the legacy it produced. Out of the ashes of World War One rose all the ingredients for the wars and nationalistic fervour that currently cause the world so much grief. Britain and France controlled the Middle East and although they devolved power to most of the Arab nations, Britain held on to Palestine after "liberating" it from the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The near and far east, were divided up between: Britain with India (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), Afghanistan, Burma and other territories in that region; France controlled Indo-China which included Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Dutch had Indonesia and surrounding countries. In Africa it was more of the same save that the European masters also included Italy and Belgium among its membership.

The Russian revolution had started before the end of World War One resulting in the Communist rulers of that country having negotiated a separate peace with Germany prior to the 1918 armistice. In 1919 British and American soldiers joined with troops of White Russians to try and overthrow the new regime but were unsuccessful and by 1925 Stalin had established himself as supreme leader.

Although direct confrontation between the West and the East was still a couple of decades away the new government so scared the Western governments that they were willing to appease people like Adolph Hitler and Mussolini as they were seen as defenders against the socialist hoards. It wasn't until they began their own moves against Europe in 1939 that they realized their own danger and almost didn't live to regret their decisions.

In the years since World War Two we have seen almost every former colonial state become a hot spot of some sort or another. India and Palestine were both partitioned into distinct countries along ethnic lines in an effort to curb the very violence that continues to plague them today. In the African countries where colonial authorities had played ethnic tribes off each other in attempts to ensure their rule, their withdrawal resulted in horrible scenes of genocide and deprivation.

From the 1960's and the refugee camps of the Biafrans, through the horrors of Rwanda and the current situation in Darfur that legacy continues. Europe saw her own share of "ethnic cleansing" with the death of Marshall Ttio and the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its distinct parts. Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims began to slaughter each other indiscriminately for no other reason than ethnicity.

Since the end of the war to end all wars, the world has careened deeper and deeper into the embrace of armed conflict. Instead of remembering the horrors that accompany war we have been asked to remember a set of meaningless platitudes that do little too actually speak to the experiences of those we are claiming to remember.

Would we not be honouring their memory further if we were to use these occasions as opportunities to speak against warfare, instead of using them as fodder to justify current follies? In his powerful anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo creates a character who somehow survives losing his arms, legs, face, and ears. We spend the whole of the book inside Johnny's head sharing his memories and the creeping awareness of how sever his injury is.

When he finally figures out what happened to him, and how to communicate (Using his head to tap out Morse code on his pillow he can spell out demands and questions) he requests to be used as a reminder of how awful war can be. He asks to be put in glass case and taken around to recruiting stations and political rallies – anywhere people are going to congregate – and have a sign hung on him that says this is war.

The reaction to his request is pretty much what you would expect; they drug him and prepare to hide him away. All he wanted he says was to give people the opportunity to see what the flip side of honour and patriotism are, what the true nature of war is.

Remembrance Day in Canada is currently a means of honouring all those who have died in wars occurring in lands far away defending concepts and not their country. But if we truly want to ensure they did not die in vain, we must use this day to remind ourselves of the horrors of war so that we can work towards breaking the cycle of violence that started in August of 1914. Other wise it's all been a waste.

November 9, 2006

Which Way Is Left?

In spite of what some of the more extreme elements of the American conservative political spectrum would have people think, Canada is not and has never been a socialist country. The policies of the welfare state that we implement to this day that might give this impression to some people are merely pale imitations of what is considered the norm throughout Europe.

Universal health care, and other programs are not thought of in most parts of the world as the first sign of an out break of communism. In fact Canada has never had a socialist party form its federal government, and there has only ever been one socialist premier of the biggest industrial province, Ontario, in its history.

The three provinces that have had regular left leaning governments in the form of the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Manitoba, are as likely to elect a Conservative Party government as they are the N.D.P. Even the N.D.P. are a far stretch from what anybody would call socialist anymore; think Tony Blair's pragmatic progressiveness as envisioned by New Labour but with a bit more of a social conscience and you'll get a fairly good idea where they stand.

As anybody who has read anything I have written politically should be able to guess when it comes to politics my inclination would be to vote for the N.D.P. I should say that I come by that honestly as my mother and father were both active members of the N.D.P. and its predecessor for most of their adult lives. My father's involvement ended with his death, but my mother's has come about due to feelings of disillusionment over the direction the party, and unfortunately a lot of the left are heading in, regarding their attitudes towards the Middle East and Israel.

It was this fall after the N.D.P.'s national convention that she phoned me angry and upset over a statement the party had agreed to endorse condemning Israel's invasion of Lebanon earlier this year. What bothered my mother about the statement was that there was no word of condemnation directed at either Hezbollah or any of the other terrorist groups who carry out routine attacks against Israeli citizens through suicide bombs or random mortar rounds fired into border towns.

My mother's family is Jewish, but her own history, including her time as a child in her parent's home, has never included religion as an important feature. She refers to her Judaism as her history not her faith, meaning, as far as I can tell, that it defines her cultural place in the world, but not what she believes in.

In our phone conversation she brought up the matter of Judaism and wondered aloud how much a part that was playing in her reaction, although in the past she has never let it stop her from being critical of Israel. But it was something about the way in which the communiqué was worded that felt if not intentionally anti-Semitic, at least being far too specific in its singling out of Jewish people for criticism.

Why did the N.D.P. feel compelled to only blame one side in a conflict where there have been a myriad of circumstances over the years that have precipitated actions and reactions from all sides of the border? It's more than just the N.D.P. of course, it seems to be a prevalent attitude among the left these days that only Israel can be to blame for what happens in the Middle East. Terrorist groups or states that have the avowed aim of driving the "Jews into the sea" seem to have nothing to do with and of it.

During the course of our conversation she mentioned that she was considering not renewing her membership in the party as a protest, which she subsequently did about a week later. This had to be very difficult for her. A huge part of her history was tied up in memories of working with the people of that party for things she genuinely believed in as good and true.

Being forced by the party she had worked so hard for since she had reached legal voting age – more then fifty years ago- to give up her membership because of a policy that went against the very principles that attracted her to it in the first place must have seemed like the ultimate in betrayals. She didn't believe she has changed her principles over the years, she still believes in the same things as before, and in fact had become even more hard line on certain issues then when she was younger, yet she no longer felt welcome in the party because of who she is.

What makes it even more difficult is the fact that the N.D.P. has never been a party in power and those who have been involved with it have done so out of a genuine commitment to the ideals of social justice that it has always espoused. For the longest time it was seen as the only real alternative to either the Conservative party or the Liberals who were fairly much politically interchangeable in spite of their appellants.

It has only been recently that the split between the two major parties along ideological lines has become obvious giving people a distinct choice at the polls without having to look for a third alternative. Middle of the road small "l" liberals can now vote for the Liberal party in sort of good conscience because they are not voting for the extreme social conservatism of the Conservative party.

The business community doesn't really care which one wins because they are equally fiscally conservative, although ironically the Liberals are looked upon more favourably by the business elite because of their Old Boy associations, while the current crop of Conservatives are unknowns to the moneyed classes of Ontario.

This means the N.D.P. have been left scrambling to try and find a way to broaden their appeal across the left, now that they can no longer count on the being able to tar the other two with the same brush as effectively. Instead of holding true to their principles and affecting change whenever possible by being the party of the social conscience, they seem to be pandering to whatever trend that will garner them votes in the short term.

But where does this leave people like my mother (and me for that matter) who can't stomach the results of this catering to special interests at the expense of ideological integrity. While the left gets all heated up with moral outrage over the "war crimes" of George Bush and Israel they are spending an almost equal amount of energy figuring out ways of justifying the actions of people who show no more qualms about blowing up women and children as either of the former.

Hypocrisy works both ways folks; sure the right wing are hypocrites for condoning the bombing of Baghdad and other violent acts in support of what they believe in while condemning those which oppose them, but so is anyone who condones violence from those they approve of while condemning it from those who aren't in style anymore.

A terrorist is a terrorist whether he or she are a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Irish, or other nationality or religion that feels the need to blow somebody up to make the world a better place for imposing their point of view. Violence is the lazy person's answer to communication and conflict resolution, and to condone one group is to condone them all. If there is a quicker way to flush the world down the toilet it's going to be pretty hard to find.

Thankfully people like my mother are not as isolated in their opinions as she first thought, and there is a growing disquiet among the left over the direction things are going within political parties and organizations. Over in England a group referring to itself as a democratic progressive alliance and welcoming people of all political stripes, have come up with The Euston Manifesto as on outline of an alternative political philosophy in response to the types of concerns that have been expressed here.

I've not had time enough to study it thoroughly to either endorse it or not, but I offer it as an example of how people with a social conscience are looking to redefine what has commonly been referred to as the left. While on first glance some of it smacks of the wishy-washy attitudes of Tony Blair's New Labour, there are also elements that were very appealing: no justification of terrorism and an even handed approach to the condemning and condoning of actions for example.

In an increasingly polarized world where far too many people see things in terms of my way or no way, it should be obvious that offering an alternative that is only a variation on that theme is not the answer. As the traditional homes for people who believe in social justice seem to be becoming as alien to them as their political opposites they are moving to shape new responses to the issues that concern them.

With groups like that behind the Euston Manifesto, and others around the world like Alternatives To Violence trying to enact change in a real and personal way, there is reason to think that the "left" might actually reinvent itself back to being what it was in the first place: a voice of hope and reason in a world where those items are in very short supply.

November 7, 2006

The Second Coming Of Daniel Ortega And The Sandanistas

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Nearly twenty-six years after they rode a revolution to power, and sixteen years after they were defeated in an election, the political party that American Republicans love to hate is back. Daniel Ortega of the Sandanista party of Nicaragua looks to have won a commanding enough victory in Sunday's elections to win the Presidency outright, without need of a second round run off vote.

There's quite a bit of history behind this election, and perhaps before a new smear campaign is begun against the Sandanista leader, a quick overview is in order from someone who didn't think of the Contras as kin to the American Founding Fathers.

In the late 1970's a popular revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the reign of the Somoza family. De facto rulers of the country since the turn of the century, either directly as president or the power behind the throne, the Somozas had protected the interests of the elite and American business at the expense of the majority of the population.

The 1979 uprising led by the Sandanista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Leberación Nacional in Spanish or more familiarly known by its initials F.S.L.N.) was aimed at improving the lot of the majority who lived in poverty through an aggressive program of land reform, nationalization of industry, education, and improved health care. Major private landowners – mainly American and British- who used prime agricultural land for ranching instead of food growing were forced to surrender their land for redistribution to the people who had been their former tenant farmers.

After years of seeing American backed governments, like El Salvadore and Chile, in Central and South America oppress and kill its own people, the revolution in Nicaragua became a rallying point for people looking to affect change in the Western Hemisphere. Aid workers from around the world, but primarily the United States and Canada came to the country to help what they saw as building hope.

They helped villages set up agricultural systems that we would take for granted like irrigation, figure out how to maintain the Russian tractors (the United States had imposed a trade embargo in 1985 under Regan so they were forced to turn to anyone who would sell them equipment) they were using, built school houses, and educated teachers in the skills needed to teach young people.

Now I'm not going to idealize them, they were still a single party government in most ways until the 1990 election which saw their defeat, but with the assistance of Cuba and other South American countries they managed to increase the literacy rate to 50% from single figures, and eliminate Polio and other diseases that plague the poor.

Part of the reason for them being unable to hold elections was the Regan administrations creation and funding of armed terrorists called the Contras which placed the country on permanent war footing for most of the 1980's. When the United State Congress refused to fund the Contra's, Oliver North, an American Marine Officer serving with the National Security Council, supposedly set up an arrangement to sell arms illegally to the Iranian government in order to raise money to fund the Contras without anyone else in the Regan administration having knowing about it. (Talking to a Regan staff member about it in 1987 he laughingly said "yeah, everybody knew about it from the secretary pool up – how the hell are you not going to know about an arms deal worth that much money – where do you think he got the weapons from – a pawn shop? But of course none of us knew a thing officially.")

From bases in bordering countries with American friendly leaderships the contras would stage attacks against unprotected villages using helicopter gun ships piloted by "retired" C.I.A. agents and mortar rounds to kill people working in the fields and blow up housing, hospitals and schools.

Friends who were there helping to build school houses in the late eighties tell of coming under fire on almost a daily basis, from small arms and mortar rounds. Whether on purpose of accidentally it seemed that any work they had accomplished the previous day would be destroyed during the attacks. Once a good mortar crew finds the range they can hit the same area day after day without too much trouble, and there just wasn't anywhere else that the school could have been built.

The village was so isolated and near to the border that it took two weeks before a platoon of soldiers from the Nicaraguan army could get there to chase the Contras away. One friend said they were finally able to finish the schoolhouse while the platoon was there, but he has no idea if it survived after the volunteers and the platoon left.

As the civilian casualty toll mounted and the Americans showed no signs of stopping their terrorist campaign against the people of Nicaragua, then President Daniel Ortega entered into negotiations with non-Contra opposition parties to arrange open elections. In 1990, with the promise of restored American aid and the end to terrorist attacks a non-Contra, non-Sandanista President was elected.

But through out their time in opposition the Sandanista's have remained a viable political party always getting at least 35% of the popular vote in federal elections. This year it looks like their time has come again. As in other countries in South and Central America over the past year or so have done, it looks as if Nicaragua is prepared to try a left of centre government.

With more then 60% of the votes counted in the first round of Presidential elections former president Daniel Ortega, the Sandanista candidate, has over 38% of the vote, more then enough to not only win the first round, but guarantee an outright win without the need of runoff elections in January.

Sixteen years after his defeat in the polls Ortega will take power if this lead, as is expected, holds. One of the reasons for his success is the more moderate face he has shown then in previous years. The fact that his running mate is an ex-Contra leader has given people hope that this government will finally be able to unify the country by setting an example of reconciliation at the top.

While the current American administration through their embassy in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, has made some noise about "voter irregularities" the independent Nicaraguan Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency were responsible for releasing the earliest results showing Ortega's substantial lead at the behest of those running against him. There are over 18,000 international observers monitoring these elections including former U. S. President Jimmy Carter.

While it's obvious that Mr. Ortega will not be as friendly towards the current U.S. administration as his chief rival, a banker, it's too early for people to get hysterical and be painting him with the same brush as Chavez the leader of Venezuela. Even in the days of the revolution he was a reluctant ally of Russia and far less of a Marxist revolutionary he was made out to be. Considering his running mate is Jaime Morales former spokesperson for the Contras, the chances of a Red Flag hanging from the flagpole are relatively low.

The reality that the current and future American administrations must come to grips with is that Central and South Americans no longer want to be part of American Manifest Destiny. For over a hundred years, and longer in some countries, the United States has held undue influence over the internal matters of the sovereign nations of the countries to the South of them.

It's time for the United States to stop forcing countries to put the interests of the United States ahead of their own. If they want to win friends and influence people they should remember what they did in Europe after World War 2 and create a type of Marshall plan to assist the nations of South America to develop their own economies that offer well paying jobs and health care to their employees.

Or at least give them the opportunity to do so without raising insurmountable barriers in front of them in the form of embargos and sanctions. America is looked upon by the poor and the downtrodden of these countries as the enemy because they see them as the friend of the people who have kept them in poverty and ignorance for a hundred years or more. If these people choose to vote for a party that promises an end to that can you blame them?

Communism is not about to take over the world any time soon any more, if it ever were, so don't you think its time to stop worrying about "The Red Menace". Learn how to live in peaceful co-existence with your neighbours and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. South and Central America are never going to go back to being the personal fiefdoms of the United States and its business community. One way or another they are going to be more and more resistant to that idea.

This doesn't have to a confrontational situation though, but the choice is yours. Use the election of Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua as a first step in that new direction. You never know, you could find friends in the most unlikely of places.

October 20, 2006

Iraq And Vietnam: Lesson Of The Past Lost On The Pentagon

It had to happen sooner or later but I'm sure any Republican Senator or Representative facing an election this coming first Tuesday of November would have preferred it four weeks later. George Bush used the V-word in reference to his folly in Iraq. He didn't actually use the word himself, but he acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was indeed analogous to the V-word.

Now die-hard conservatives are going to complain about leading questions from a Clinton Democrat (A.B.C. correspondent George Stephanopoulos who got the President to admit the similarity was a former Clinton administration flak) attempting to discredit the policies of the administration in the lead up to the elections. But George Bush has been around politics all his life and should know how to avoid an easy yes and no question.

In fact all he was asked was if he believed the current circumstances in Iraq were analogous to those surrounding the Tet offensive in 1968. He could have easily said, "No I don't believe the circumstances are at all similar". Truth be told he would have been quite correct militarily if that had been his reply. There is really nothing in common with the situation in Iraq and the circumstances of the Tet offensive in terms of what's happening in the field..

What Stephanopoulos was fishing for, and hooked George on, was a comparison between the feelings of the American public now towards the operation in Iraq and the burgeoning feeling of widespread outrage about the war in Vietnam that Tet engendered. It was George's willingness to go along with that assessment that could prove problematic.

Thinking about it some more I realize that any official administration statement linking the two operations, even saying weather conditions were similar would not look great in print. (Vietnam was never a war – it was a police action and the war has been won in Iraq so we're not allowed to call them wars. It's such a nasty word anyway, implying death and destruction like it does, maybe we should just do away with it altogether.). Bush likens Iraq to Vietnam as a headline, no matter what the fine print, would have any Republican hoping to be re-elected this November running from the President like their butt was on fire.

Vietnam is the great bogey monster of modern American military history. It's not so much that they lost the war on the battlefield; it was they didn't understand the battlefield well enough to be able to obtain the easy victory they felt was their due. From the earliest part of the twentieth century the American military had wandered the globe with relative impunity intervening whenever they felt the need.

Ever since Teddy and his roughriders rode up that hill they had protected American investments and interests without any difficulty. America loves a winner and it is her manifest destiny to be one with ease and end up covered in glory.

Vietnam ended all that. There was no easy victory and there was no glory, there was just a seemingly endless stream of unmet expectations and casualties. The Pentagon can blame the media all they want for turning the public against the war in Vietnam, but all they were doing was there job. They reported what the politicians and the generals promised and then they reported what actually happened. Was it their fault there was such a gulf between the two?

The military has spent the last thirty years restoring the finish to their reputation that Vietnam tarnished, There were a series of small wars and invasions, Panama and Grenada, that they carried out with apparent ease, and the first Gulf war gave them the opportunity to perfect their control of the media during an armed conflict.

America was going to be proud of their military if it was the last thing the Pentagon did and they didn't really care what they had to do to accomplish that end. The one lesson they learned from Vietnam was that without public support they weren't going to be allowed to play with their toys and be given millions of dollars to spend. So all their efforts have been geared towards that end.

For the first while things were going along just swimmingly. The invasion went according to plan, the non-existent Iraqi army collapsed like the house of cards they were and casualties were minimal. They even had a triumphal march into Baghdad. It's only been since the "war" has ended that things have begun to unravel.

First there were the revelations that soldiers had been having fun torturing prisoners, some even going so far as to have their pictures taken with them as mementoes of the occasion. There were the various "rebel clerics" who had to be put down which resulted in the heavier casualties then had occurred in the invasion. (That one of the "rebels" had been an opponent of Saddam', his father had been put to death by the ex dictator, seemed to get lost in the shuffle)

But the torture was able to be passed off as the work of rogue elements ("you're always going to get a few bad apples who are going to spoil if for the rest of the class" – although how they all ended up working together and how nobody else in the prison seemed to know it was going on remains a mystery) and the public was willing to accept a reasonable amount of casualties as long as there was the appearance of accomplishment. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs after all.

So even those events weren't the disasters they could have been. The Pentagon handled them with the dexterity of a Madison Ave. agency smoothing over their celebrity endorser's nasal problems. It's only been as the occupation has dragged on and casualties have mounted that unease among the general public has begun to grow.

The problem for the Pentagon is that they have nothing they can announce except casualty reports. There are no battles, aside from the occasional raid on a suspected insurgency hide out, so there has been no decisive victories to celebrate and make the mission appear to be progressing.

Seventy-three American soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi military have been killed so far in October as they come under increased attack in Baghdad from insurgents. Ten Americans alone were killed last Tuesday and forty Iraqis yesterday in attacks in various regions. Numbers like this make it very difficult for the military and the administration to keep painting a rosy picture or predicting a day when American troops might start coming home.

It's that last detail that is most problematic for many Americans. It's obvious that if American troops were to withdraw today the Iraq would descend into an outright civil war. But it's also obvious that the American public is beginning to tire of the ever-increasing casualty numbers.

In a recent poll two thirds of the respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, and that 45% thought the Democrats were more liable to make correct decisions regarding the war as opposed to 34 for the Republicans. Those are not the kind of numbers that make politicians running for election happy.

No matter how hard they've tried to prevent a repeat of Vietnam the military has failed. Iraq, like its predecessor, was the subject of many promises and while they have fulfilled some of them, they have yet to be able guarantee the one thing that is beginning to matter most; an ending. Public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam because of mounting casualties in a seemingly interminable campaign.

History is repeating itself whether the Pentagon likes it or not, and the longer the conflict drags on the more it will. If George Bush was correct in agreeing with his questioner that there are similarities between the current situation in Iraq and those surrounding the Tet offensive in regards to public opinion then the Republicans should look to their history books.

The Democrats were in power in at the time of the beginning of the Tet offensive. By the time the following November rolled around Richard Nixon was starting his first term as a Republican President. If things are allowed to continue as is it's not just this November they need to worry about, but 2008 as well.

The Pentagon thought they could correct the problem of losing public support by controlling the press. Unfortunately it also depends on producing results as promised. That's the real lesson they've failed to learn from the Vietnam War.

October 3, 2006

Communication: Listen And Learn

I guess as a person who uses words everyday for more than just the basic communication of needs that passes as conversation these days, but to try and express an idea or an opinion somewhat comprehensibly in writing, to say I've been thinking of language recently may have a "Coals To Newcastle" sort of ring to it. But than again who is more apt to think of language and how things can be so easily misconstrued than someone who writes for public consumption on a regular basis.

I've had people leave angry comments about things I've written because they've missed the tiny word "not" in a sentence. Sometimes, and I'm not saying this is the situation in all cases, people are so keen to get their own point across that they don't really read (listen) what has been stated by an author and assume that they need to go on the offensive in order for their point to be understood. In those cases it of course doesn't matter what the original opinion was because it is only serving as an excuse for the other person to sound off.

But in either case, wilful and accidental misunderstanding, where the disagreement exists, or the failure to communicate occurs, is on a simple intellectual or philosophical level. The gulf is no more, or less, that a difference of opinion where there is a common body of awareness and comprehension to draw upon. Even if my views on a subject are diametrically opposed to someone else's, we have a similar frame of reference for out ideas.

As long as the person comes from the same philosophical tradition, in my case Western European Judeo-Christian, it doesn't even matter what their native language is, our ways of thinking have been trained in similar manners. There are certain concepts that are simply accepted without question and taken for granted when we enter into a discussion or conversation.

Where things become difficult are the occasions we attempt to bridge the gulf between our way of thinking/being and another group whose core philosophy comes from a different way of thinking. They live according to concepts that our minds can't define because for us they don’t exist. Our language doesn't have the capability to define the concept without years of study, because even if a word is translated to mean the same thing, our comprehension of that doesn't encompass the same comprehension as theirs.

Over the past year and a half I've been offering up reviews of Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of the 3000 year old Indian epic tale The Ramayana. The central character, Prince Rama, is defined by his adherence to the principle of dharma. While we can roughly translate the word to equate to our word duty, in actuality there is far more to it than that.

It has taken me countless discussions with an on line group ("Epic India") over the last year or so to begin to understand the full implications of the word. The problem is that the way my mind has been conditioned to think I lack the means to formulate a definition. My language, hence my brain, doesn't automatically go along those paths and I'm forced to try and adapt them so I can think in a different way.

Those differences have caused me to ponder the question of culture in terms of what could be called the human chicken and egg question. Which came first, the language that we use to define our way of being, our way of being followed by the language needed to define it, or did they evolve in tandem. Language does not necessarily mean English, French, or German, more the means we have of defining the concepts and terminology that in turn define us.

In the eyes of some people the Western concept of being given dominion over the natural world to exploit as we see fit is perverse, Inevitably this philosophy leads to wars for control of more and more territory so as to increase the amount of land you have to exploit for your own gain. It really comes down to a belief system based more on what's good for me, not what's good for us.

That of course over simplifies, but if you were to think about it how else would you define a way of life where actions are guided by "will I receive the final reward of salvation"? If even the most apparently selfless is act is guided by that principle doesn't that imply self-service?

I don't mean for that to sound to judgemental, and I apologise if I've insulted anyone, but I deliberately wanted to state it baldly so I could show how our thought patterns are different from other people's. It's not my intent to analysis the Judea/Christian mind right now and discuss its merits and faults. I'm only trying to point out how all that we do is a result of, or affected by our way of thinking.

Everything is filtered through that philosophical approach to the world from our interpersonal relationships to our governmental decisions affecting foreign policy. The whole structure of our society and our culture take their roots from that base and were nurtured into full flower and bore the fruit we now see.

I've often wondered if a person who is denied access to language – born deaf – has to learn how to think and conceptualize as they learn language skills. Until then what tools do they have at their disposal to formulate anything? I've also often thought when I see a person with a new born infant in a shopping mall that they should be arrested for criminal negligence because of the sensory overflow they are inflicting upon that child.

Until we learn language we can't identify anything except in terms of raw emotion. Is it any wonder that small children when awake are continually in tears when they are brought into areas like shopping malls or any other public location? They are terrified because they have no way of defining what they are hearing, seeing and smelling.

It's only as we develop a vocabulary that we are able to begin to understand and define the world around us. The more we refine our vocabulary the more of course we understand and the less threatened we feel by others. But like the deaf child there are vocabularies that we are born without access to, those of other people's cultures and ways of being.

Like infant children who encounter the babble of the shopping mall before they have the ability to define what it is they are dealing with we are scared and react emotionally to that which we don't understand. Until we allow our vocabularies to widen to include other definitions we shall continue along this path and not be able to communicate with over half the world's population.

Communication has to be a two way street or else we end up sitting alone with no one to talk to. That doesn't sound like a very pleasant future to me.

September 16, 2006

Wishing I Was Wrong

I spend a lot of time hoping I'm going to be wrong. Does that sound like a strange thing to say? Let me explain, I tend to think the worst of most people, but especially those who are our leaders. Be they political, religious or whatever I'm usually of the opinion that those who want to be leaders are the worst people for the job because they want it.

Most people who strive to be leaders of anything from a country to a clubhouse do so with the intent of imposing their will on who ever is subject to their leadership. How many leaders of anything do you know that have genuinely striven to reach a universal consensus of some sort among those who they lead? I don't care what the politics of the person are, whether I agree with them or not isn't even relevant, they don't give a rat's ass for those who have a different opinion.

Leadership these days is all about divisiveness and the obtaining of power, not about building a unified country or whatever. You can tell there is something wrong with the system when one of the most important polls for a politician is his disapproval rating. As long as I only alienate this many people I can still cling to power and impose my will on whomever I'm ruling. Now that's leadership.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that anybody is going to be able to have a 100% approval rating, there is always going to be extremist elements of a society who aren't going to be satisfied with anyone or anything. But shouldn't the object of a leader be to try and find common ground with as many people as possible while guiding his or her organization, country, or religion to achieve its goals.

That's right I said its goals not his or her goals. Most countries already have a series of goals laid out for them to try and achieve on a daily basis – it's a thing called a constitution. In Ontario Canada where I live when you incorporate a company as a not for profit organization you write out a constitution which contains the objects of the company and how you plan to go about achieving them. So if one of your objects is the eradication of child poverty you have to say how you're going to go about getting that done.

If you are going to be the leader of a country, your focus should be on how are you going to fulfill the objects of your country's constitution, not how you are going to impose your will upon the country. If your constitution says "All men are created equal", or guarantees freedom of speech, and the right to assemble shouldn't you be trying to convince people that you have the best plans to ensure those objects are fulfilled?

But what we mostly get for potential leaders are those who want to impose their will upon a country, or even worse leave their mark on history. Leadership is all about ego and the expression of personal power no matter if the person is on the left or the right. In fact far too many leaders tend to look on their constitutions as things they have to circumvent in order to do what they want to do, or that it should be changed to reflect their view of the world.

Secular leaders are bad enough, but when it comes down to it the worst ones for abusing their positions are religious leaders. Then again religion lends itself to having such a multiplicity of interpretations even among just one faith, it should be no surprise that each faction would have a leader trying to impose their vision of the faith on the flock.

Even within the individual sects (or denominations as Christians say when referring to themselves) there are divisions. Not all Catholics believe in the same ways of realizing the objects of their faith any more than all Suni Muslims agree with how Mohammad should be worshipped. Other religions, like Judaism with its reform, conservative, and orthodox divisions, have degrees of belief that signify the intensity of their adherence to the laws of the faith.

While Muslims may have individuals who speak for, or claim to speak for, an area's population of adherents, and there is a Chief Rabbi in Israel, and Tibetan Buddhists have the Dali Lama (I'm not familiar enough with other faiths to speak about their hierarchies) only the Catholics that I know of have a process akin to an election for their leader. Not that we're talking about broad based participatory democracy here, as the only folk voting are the Cardinals, who were all appointed by a pontiff in the first place.

Here too they are divided into the usual political factions, ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative. The person who is elected pope gets to set the tone for the church's response to issues, and dictate to Catholics and non-Catholics alike whether or not they are being good. While the adherents of that faith may have ceded him that power through their acceptance of the system that elected him, the rest of us are none of his business.

When Pope Benedict (literally translated from Latin as good word or good speech) was first elected slightly over a year ago I had the feeling he was going to be one of those who had to pass judgement on matters that are none of his business. Of course his argument is that everything is his business as he is the representative of Jesus Christ on earth it's his duty to see that we're all adhering to the laws of Christ as interpreted by Benedict.

Instead of simply being content to minister to the souls of the millions of Catholics around the world, which ought to be more then enough power for any one person, he wants to flex his muscles so that he is considered one of the major movers and shakers in the world. He already has the press eating out of his hand, in so far as they will record verbatim any comment he makes, giving him access to the world stage.

He's had the gall to tell Canadians that they are turning their backs on God because we believe in freedom of choice and equal rights for all people. Not being a Christian I always make the mistake of thinking that Christ was about compassion and understanding, but according to the gospel of Benedict there is either his (Benedict's) way, or a path to Hell.

If it's not bad enough that he deems himself fit to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries he also seems to think he has the right to make speeches where he quotes dialogue critical of the Muslim faith without saying whether he believes it or not. Not only is it offensive for the leader of one religion to be critical of another, taking shots at Muslims like that shows an amazing insensitivity to the world around him.

Preaching a sermon which contains "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…" is about as stupid as throwing kerosene on a fire in an attempt to quench the flames. What could he have hopped to accomplish by saying that without any explanation as to his motivations. Vatican officials are saying that it was his attempt to open a dialogue between the faiths, but the majority of Muslims, from the most moderate to the extremist, are understandably taking it as an insult. Maybe he's looking to be martyred by a suicide bomber so he can have a fast track to saint hood,

Is he so proud that his thinks because of the position he serves that he is allowed to point out to other faiths the error of their ways? The second part of that quote says: "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The head of the Catholic Church has a hell of a lot of nerve criticizing anyone for using force to spread the word of God in the name of their faith. They have to have one of the worst records in history for doing the exact same thing.

In fact up to slightly more then a hundred years ago, the Muslim empires were far more tolerant of diversity among their populations then their Christian counterparts. They may have charged Jews and Christians an extra tax for practicing their religion, but they never tortured them into converting, or forced them to flee for their lives.

What good is Benedict doing the world he so devoutly claims to serve by spewing forth hatred and hypocrisy? The only thing being served is his pride and his ego. It's like he is saying, I'm the pope, I can say what I want whenever I want and you have to believe me because I'm the only one who knows the difference between right and wrong.

I really wish that the people who become our leaders weren't so damn predictable. Instead of trying to fulfill the objectives of their country as set forth in their constitution, and working with others to do so, they impose their will and push their personal agenda no matter the relevance to the country's objectives. They became leaders so they could be powerful, and they are going to be powerful whatever the consequences.

I'd really like to be wrong more often.


September 14, 2006

Canadian Politics: Fishing And A Question Of Leadership

I came across an article in the most recent edition of The Mohawk Nation Drummer newspaper that was datelined last July. That may sound a bit dated but as the story was dealing with an ongoing situation that faces Native people across Canada the dateline isn't really all that important.

The article was dealing with the reactions of Assembly Of First Nations Chiefs to a letter to the editor of a newspaper that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote last July in regards to the issue of Native fishing rights. Mr. Harper referred to Native fishing rights as "racially divided fishing programs"

That expression has been used in the past by people who are trying to rouse racial hatred against First Nations people due to their being given the right to hunt and fish out of season. They're being blamed for everything from the depletion of the Salmon stocks in the Fraser River, to the over fishing off the West coast of Vancouver Island because it is propagated by people like Mr. Harper that they can set up nets whenever they feel like it

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling that guaranteed these rights simply affirmed the original treaties that had been signed by individual bands with the government over a hundred years ago which allowed them to continue on with all their traditional means of survival, including hunting and fishing.

If they are going to enter into an out of season commercial fishery operation, they have to be able to offer some proof that the tribe had conducted trade with other nations with fish in the past, before they can start. The problem is of course when those original treaties were signed everyone still thought they were dealing with the bottomless barrel of fish scenario.

Dwindling fish stocks have nothing to do with the huge trawlers plying the seas off the West coast for years do they? Nope it's got to be those pesky natives and their racially preferential treatment. They're out to steal food out of decent, law abiding, Christian, White folk's mouths with their sneaky rights. They're aught to be law.

Now obviously Stephen Harper didn't say anything like that, but as there have been code words utilized by those opposed to minority rights in the past, "race based fisheries" are the ones most guaranteed to make red neck blood boil in Western Canada. Why else would Mr. Harper write a letter about the fisheries to the editor of the Calgary Herald, a city with no fishing industry, but the heartland of Conservative Party of Canada support, save to send some sort of message to his constituents.

This is a lot like his comments on Gay Marriage, where he has sworn to bring in a free vote on the issue in the house of parliament, where anything the government does is meaningless without mounting a court challenge. Like the rights of same sex couples to have civic marriages, native hunting and fishing rights have been guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Any act of parliament that runs counter to a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada isn't worth the spit of the politician who read it out in the House of Commons. So why does Stephen Harper say he'll oppose racially divided fishing industries when he knows he can't do anything about it? So he's on record as being opposed, and those of like mind will know who they can count on to be sympathetic to their causes.

For me the issue around his writing the letter isn't so much the position he's outlined in the letter, although that is bad enough, but the fact that he wrote the letter in the first place. What is the Prime Minister of Canada doing making policy statements in the Letters to the Editor section of a regional newspaper? He wasn't even acting as a private citizen expressing an opinion; he said, "we will". Unless he's now taken to referring to himself in the third person plural like royalty, that implies he's talking on behalf of his government.

What kind of leader publicly fans the flames of an already volatile situation by implying a linkage between fish stocks depletion and Native fishing rights? He can't be so unaware as to not know there has already been violence and unrest around the issue from both sides in the dispute? Instead of taking a leadership role in trying to find a solution he's just riling up emotions.

It is interesting to note that in spite of various promises and pleas for patience from the new government's Minister of Indian affairs on plans for replacing the Kelowna accord, the only announcements the government has made in regards to Native policies have been along the lines of Mr. Harper's letter to the editor. In spite of any reassuring words to the contrary it really looks like the Conservative Party of Canada is maintaining their old Reform Party platform of "they lost the war, tough luck" on Native issues.

There is no doubt that fish stocks off both coasts of Canada have been horribly depleted. The salmon population making the annual migration in the Fraser River has indeed been reduced substantially. Off the coast of Newfoundland where the Cod have run out, because they don't have any Natives to blame anymore having driven the Beothuk to extinction in the early part of the twentieth century, they use the harp seals as the scapegoat.

Out West they have a better situation because up and down the coast and along the whole path of the Salmon's run there are native tribes who they can blame for depleting the stocks because of their fishing year round. Nobody seems to think that who knows how many years of continual commercial fishing, an ever increasingly polluted ocean, and river systems' environments being changed because of erosion and human wastes, could have anything to do with the reduced populations.

We have reached a point in the history of the world where certain species of fish have had their populations fall to dangerously low levels. There have to be bans on fishing for some fish and set levels for how much in a year any one person can catch of others. I don't care who you are, nobody should be allowed to over fish and destroy a species for money.

But using those circumstances to fan the flame of racial disunity is something low and callous that you'd come to expect from a white supremacist or other divisive organizations. For the Prime Minister of Canada to even begin to walk down that path is irresponsible and reprehensible. The fact that he made these statements in the form of a letter to the editor of a newspaper where he was in no danger of incurring immediate rebuttal and his remarks would be given maximum coverage only compounds the reprehensible nature of his conduct.

A good leader should approach a contentious issue with the idea of minimizing its divisive nature, especially if a solution seems to be a speck somewhere out on the horizon. Stephen Harper seems not to care how deeply he carves rifts between people as he long as he is able to win support for his policies.

It makes me wonder what kind of country he is trying to create; and for who?

August 14, 2006

Cultural Imperialism: The Path To Extinction

My guess is that every time there has been a major world power they think of themselves as the epitome of what humans can strive to be. From the times of the Pharaohs through the Hellenistic era on up past the Romans and the Ottoman empires, the Austro-Hungarian, The British and now finally the American empire; they have all shared the same chauvinistic belief that they are the definition of civilization.

In the past for an empire to be effective they would have to physically expand, seizing territory from other nations to give them the benefits of their superior ways. Unsurprisingly the original inhabitants of the country would take umbrage and tended to discover that the way of living they had practised for generations prior to the newcomers showing up was pretty good.

Although there were many mitigating factors that affected the result, there was usually only two ways this type of conflict of interest could be resolved. Either the newcomers would be forced to give up their role as rulers of the land, or they would completely overwhelm the original inhabitants and reduce them to a shell of their former selves. While continental Asia and Europe fell into the former category, most of North, Central, and South America are the latter.

As the world has changed and technological advances closed the distances between countries until they have become virtually non-existent, it is seldom necessary for a country to actually use physical force to impose itself on another. Armies only come into play when physical assets like natural resources are part of the motivation to dominate.

While all civilizations have had the tendency to try and increase their power bases locally, the rationale for a great many expansions has been based on a need for survival. They have better hunting territory which we need access to for feeding our people, or their land is better for growing crops were the types of reasons that would see Native tribes in North America attempt to appropriate another's land.

Conquest for the sake of conquest in order to impose your worldview on other people seems to be reserved to those cultures whose focus has gone beyond basic survival. The need for expansion is therefore one based in pride and chauvinism. It seems impossible for them to understand that anybody could be happy living in a manner they consider primitive, or that the other culture could have anything of value to offer.

When a culture no longer has as its only focus survival, the belief systems that sustained them through that period will become out of synch with the needs of those who no longer depend on a direct relationship with the planet. A new type of system is needed that replicates the new social order of those with more power than others.

Monotheistic religions with their systems of punishments and rewards for good and bad behaviour and codes of conduct to control people are ideally suited to a society where a small number of people control most of the wealth and must ensure the obedience of countless others. Whether this is how the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came about, or that they simply flourished because of that fact is now irrelevant

Especially in the case of the latter two, they have been the focal point and motivation for much of the empire building from around 900AD until today. From the Ottoman empire to the Crusades of antiquity they have each tried to dictate how others live or find new countries where they can establish themselves as the predominate belief system.

In North America we have had around four hundred years of this type of rule, more then long enough to develop the chauvinism required to believe that our way of life is not only the best, but to even consider another way preferable means you are potentially an enemy. But that type of cultural paranoia is not limited to the West. When you isolate any species from the rest of the world or outside influences for too long they tend to become insular and fearful of change.

They cling to their outmoded ways of thinking and attempt to force the world to accede to their wishes even if that threatens the well being of others. One need only look at the linkage between foreign aid and anti-family planning that the current administration in the Untied States has implemented for an example of that. Or check out the Iranian government's attitude towards the same issues and you'll see the same thing if not worse.

In fact the United States and Iran have a great deal in common with each other when it comes to foreign and domestic policy. Both governments are very afraid of anything they don't understand, insist upon turning back the clock to a time when women had less control over their bodies, have blurred the line separating church and state, and have elements who believe that they should be imposing their way of life upon the rest of the world.

Each country either fosters or has fostered insurrections in other parts of the world in order to counter countries they consider too different from what they think of as the right way of being. Neither thinks anything of proceeding unilaterally on issues of international consequence even when a large proportion of the world is lined up against them, and they both believe that they have been chosen to do God's work on this planet.

Aside from the obvious worry about what seems like an inevitable clash between these two polar opposites there are other things to regret about living in a world where societies are still dominated by cultural prejudices. There are of course those who suffer from the fall out of either country's influence when it comes to foreign aid.

In Africa where AIDS steals so many lives, health care services and preventative measures are hindered by both nations' refusal to accept that people are going to be sexually active and that steps are needed to ensure their safety. With aid money from America restricted to agencies that will only preach abstinence, and fundamentalist Muslims preaching that women have no rights and sex is not something to be talked about, a difficult task becomes next to impossible.

Than there are the battlefields around the globe where they both have interests in the outcomes. Somalia where a Muslim militia is trying to overthrow some sort of secular government; The Sudan where similar circumstances are underway, and immense oil reserves are also at state; and of course the Middle East. If the United States is funnelling money into Israel, somebody has to be providing Hezbolah with the wherewithal to be unleashing the firepower it has at its disposal. Caught in between, in all three parts of the world, are thousands upon thousands of innocents who just want to have lives like the rest of us; to believe what we want and live out our days in peace.

Aside from those obvious results of single-minded culture at work there are other less fatal, but equally regretful consequences. I can't speak for life under Muslim rule, but I can speak from my own experiences. I look around and see what people are missing by believing they are the centre of the universe.

Can they appreciate the subtlety of design in the Moorish architecture in Spain, the beauty in the drape of a Sari, or the simple awe that's inspired by a Shinto temple? Or does all that matter to them is what's on television? Our empire building has not created a cultural imperialism that destroys other people's modes of expression, it simply doesn't recognise its existence or cede it enough importance to make it worth bothering with.

I live across the street from a family that has rented out four apartments together in an apartment building. Almost everyday they sit out on the fire escape, drink beer and yell at each other starting at around four in the afternoon and sometimes going as late as after midnight. On occasion they've ended up having fights on their front lawn or screaming abuse at each other at the top of their lungs.

Our society has created the circumstances where these people think they are better than someone who lives in Pakistan because of the colour of their skin and because they aren't one of us. I'm sure they are not exceptional and there are millions of people the world over who think like that, no matter where they live or what they believe in.

Until as a species we can shake off the chains of cultural imperialism that we have tied our self up in we will not evolve. The species that doesn't evolve risks extinction.

August 10, 2006

CD/DVD Review: Palm World Voices - Mandela

When Nelson Mandela came to Canada in his first visit after his release from jail, he gave an open-air speech in a park in downtown Toronto. One of the thousands of people who went to that speech was my mother. She told me later that it was one of most fulfilling and inspiring moments she in her life.

My mother had been one of the people who, long before it became fashionable in the eighties, had boycotted anything to do with South Africa as requested by people like Mandela. For people like my mother, seeing him there in that park was the culmination of a struggle that had spanned more then thirty years in an attempt to win equality for the people of South Africa.

For most of those years Nelson Mandela was in jail, but from his cell on Robben Island he became the face of the struggle, the icon of the revolution. But who was this man and where did he come from before his name became synonymous with the anti apartheid movement. To help answer that question Palm Pictures has released Mandela the fourth instalment in their astounding Palm World Voices series.

As with the three prior releases, Africa, Vedic Path, and Babba Maal Mandela is comprised of a DVD, a CD, a full colour booklet, and an extensive National Geographic map. Not only do these packages give you insight into a particular person or region, but undertake to place them in a social/political, historical, and cultural context. In the case of Mandela that is of course inseparable from the subject matter.
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The DVD that is included in this package is the 1997 Academy Award nominated documentary Mandela: Son Of Africa, Father Of A Nation. The film makers have used stock and archival footage to recreate the historical events of fight for freedom in South Africa, and inter cut them with present day interviews with some of the principle figures in Mandela's personal and political life.

They also have the man himself narrate his younger days and he comes across as remarkably unaffected. Whenever I listen to a person of renown speak of themselves, I don't so much listen to the words but how they are said. When Mr. Mandela talks about himself there is none of the false humility that you so often hear from the mouths of "celebrities".

He talks openly and plainly about his life without hiding his accomplishments or playing down his setbacks; each of them apparently of equal value in his eyes. I tried, with very little success, to visualize any political figures from our society acting in a similar fashion.

For those of us who only know Nelson Mandela as the symbol of resistance and the elder statesman of a nation, the question of who was this man prior to his incarceration and what had he done to merit the idolatry showered on him by his people begins to be answered by this DVD. Neither does it shy away from the controversies in his personal life; the multiple marriages, and the politically motivated separation and divorcing of his second wife Winnie Mandela.

Although politics and the social situation are of course the primary focus of any study of the man Nelson Mandela, the Palm World Voices package utilizes the diversity of the music that made up the soundtrack of the documentary to provide an overview of the different musical styles of South Africa. The CD included in this package is the soundtrack for the DVD, but can also be seen as a documentary in its own right.

It provides a history of the music of the people; as they matured politically and became more militant it was only natural that their music became more militant and nationalistic in tone. What was most commendable on the part of the producers was the fact that they resisted the temptation to utilize a good deal of popular European and North American music that had been written about the struggle and confined it to primarily South Africans.

With the exception of "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Specials, the music comes from musicians native to the country and is indicative of the different cultures of South Africa. As was the case with most of the artificially created borders in Africa, the nation that is South Africa contained many nations with distinct languages and beliefs. While ethnic hatreds have proven horribly deadly in places like Rwanda and Uganda, South African black leaders had realized early on that they must unite as one people in order to gain freedom.

This doesn't mean there weren't problems. The justly proud Zulu people wanted to ensure that they were not going to lose the powers that they had as rulers of their own little fiefdom under the homeland restrictions of Apartheid. In an attempt to polarize the people along tribal lines the white government had created "homelands" which all black South Africans were tied to. A black person could only live in their "homeland" unless they were given special permission to travel from the place of their birth.

Not only did this curtail freedoms and enforce poverty by prohibiting travel in search of better work or permanent residences in the cities, it served to separate the nations so they could be played one against the other. But because of the message of inclusion that Mandela and the African National Congress had preached since the 1950's the horrors of Biafra and Rwanda were not repeated in South Africa. There was still violence but it paled in comparison to the genocides of the other two countries.

So on the CD you'll hear the sounds of the Zulu nation next to the original jazz sounds of the forties by the first wave of South African popular musicians. Of equal quality are the segments of the original score from the documentary that have been included on the CD. In the movie they assist in the creation of ambiance, but here they serve to remind us of the source for this album of popular music and its subject matter.

The Palm World Voices series was created with the intent of giving their owners as complete an immersion as possible in the subject's culture as modern media can allow. Music, video, and support material have been combined in superb packages to achieve that end. In the case of Mandela they were faced with the challenging prospect of doing that job for one of the iconic figures of the past century.

While no one will probably ever be able to claim to tell the definitive story of Nelson Mandela, Palm World Voices, Mandela offers a record of a remarkable man and the country he was willing to die for "if needs be" If you ever wondered why Nelson Mandela and not somebody else; after watching, listening and reading this material, that will no longer be a question without an answer.

August 4, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Lie That Is Afghanistan

Back in 2001, the shock waves had barely abated from the horror of September 11th when George Bush announced his intent of invading Afghanistan to overthrow a regime openly committed to terror attacks on the West. The Taliban had gone from being the plucky rebels fighting the Communist hoards of Russia to being despotic overlords responsible for evil deed after evil deed.

But in spite of the propaganda, and whatever other agenda's may have been pursued, it seemed at the time that the Taliban were something that the world should be concerned about. The people of Afghanistan, for whom survival has been a tenuous and iffy proposition for the last twenty years, needed help badly. The country needed basic infrastructure rebuilt, educational facilities created, and anything that might have promised hope for a future.

It seemed like the perfect country to begin a type of Marshall plan for the developing world. Where the original served to rebuild Western Europe in order to curb the spread of Communism, in Afghanistan hope for the future would be the best enemy against terrorism. Terrorist organizations don't just form overnight, or on the whim of one person.

Rather they require a generation of disaffected and despairing people, and opportunistic zealots who can give the masses something to live for. In the Cold War it was supposedly about economics and ideology; freeing the proletariat against free elections. Now it just feels like hatred in both directions and to hell with issues or causes.

But there are ways to make terrorism less attractive to the majority of people, just as there was a way to make Communism unattractive back in the 1940's. Give people hope for the future. Help them rebuild their houses, improve their irrigation systems so that their crops have a better chance of success, build roads so that their produce can get to markets. Instead of investing money in bombs to drop on them, invest in their industry so that jobs can be created, show you care by investing in their people by rebuilding the local schools that had been destroyed.

Sure there will always be those who are dissatisfied, but they exist in every society – witness the bombing in Oklahoma City if you require any proof – but if we do our best we can at least remove popular support from their cause. Without grassroots popular support it becomes harder for groups like the Taliban to vanish into the villages of the backcountry because they won't be welcomed or supplied.

Unfortunately this opportunity was squandered. Once it appeared that the Taliban had been routed and the terrorist training facilities overrun, victory was declared, a sham government was installed and a token number of multinational troops was left behind to enforce the peace. It was a situation that cried out for long-term aid and direct involvement by the parties involved in assisting with the rebuilding of the country.

Unfortunately token involvement was all that was considered necessary and the new government was left to fend for itself in a country that had nothing and was being offered little. It only took a couple of years and the Taliban is now back as strong as ever, with the support and backing of people through out the countryside. Troops that were supposed to be overseeing the rebuilding of a country have all of a sudden found themselves in the midst of a full-scale guerrilla war.

When Canada became part of the multinational force involved with the invasion of Afghanistan it was with the understanding that the services of our troops would be best utilized in support positions. They would see some combat, but on the whole there work would really begin when the major hostilities were ended.

After all the training our troops have received for the last quarter century or more has been geared towards peacekeeping missions that involve trying to ensure that cease fires are obeyed and truces kept. It's highly specializ