Monday, October 28, 2019

Jacmel in all my dreams

The author at Ti Mouillage outside of Jacmel, Haiti, November 2002.

Jacmel in all my dreams

By Michael Deibert

“At All Hallows Eve, the Guédé spirits of the dead overrun the countryside and towns,” wrote the Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux  in his pioneering 1958 study Le Vaudou haïtien.“Clad in black and mauve, people possessed by them may be met not only in the sanctuaries but also in the markets, public places and on the roads.”

The name given to a family of vodou lwa (spirits) that embody the power of death and fertility (and the interlocking relationship between the two), the pantheon of Gede (as it is spelled in Haiti’s native Creole language) also give their name to Fèt Gede, the time on 2 November when, as Métraux noted, the power of the spirits and those “ridden” (possessed, if you will) by them burst forth from the peristyles (temples) of Haiti’s vodou faith and into its cemeteries, streets and squares.

In November 2002, I was living in Haiti and the country was, as is often the case, in the thrall of a political crisis that would see the ouster of a despotic president a year and a half later. Various political factions stood, daggers drawn, waiting for the final dénouement.  As the political situation deteriorated and Fèt Gede approached, a friend from New York came to visit me, and we decided that we would spent part of the weekend outside the southern town of Jacmel, where I rented a cottage by the ocean.

Haiti’s history may have been a relentless drumbeat of tumult, but Jacmel, looking out to the sea and ringed by mysterious, looming mountains, its colonial architecture falling into deliquescent disrepair and wreathed in dripping greenery, had always seemed to maintain some semblance of equilibrium among the chaos.

After the decisive defeat of the French by Haiti’s revolutionary forces at the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803 and the declaration of Haiti’s independence on 1 January 1804 (the second nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States to do so), Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared himself emperor before being slain in October 1806. After the death of Dessalines, Haiti’s black and mulatto tensions erupted anew, with Henri Christophe controlling the north and crowning himself King Henry I, building an extraordinary palace, Sans-Souci, modeled on Versailles, and a massive fort, Citadelle Laferrière, from which to survey the entirety of the northern plains. In the south, Alexandre Pétion ruled a mulatto-dominated government of a less imperial nature and gave refuge in Jacmel to South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar as the latter plotted his campaign to liberate his own region from Spanish colonial rule.

Jacmel remained one of Haiti’s most iconic towns, hosting its most colorful carnival and serving as the setting for, among other books, René Depestre’s 1988 novel Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, a magic realist and often intensely poignant tale of eroticism and vodou.

For me, at least, especially during my early years in Haiti, the city was always associated with an eccentric American named Selden Rodman.

A writer and critic born in New York City in 1909, Rodman had written a play, The Revolutionists, about Haiti’s slave uprising and along with De Witt Peters, had opened the Centre D’Art, Haiti’s first professional art school, in 1944. He had helped supervise the covering of the interior of Port-au-Prince’s Cathédrale Sainte Trinité with stunning murals by eminent Haitian painters like Wilson Bigaud and Philomé Obin depicting Biblical scenes such as a black John the Baptist and a near-nude Adam and Eve with an apple and a snake in between them. On my first visit to Haiti in 1997,  I wandered around the steaming, fume-choked lanes of anba lavil, as Haitians call downtown, and strolled into the chapel, mesmerized by the art I found there. [The Cathédrale Sainte Trinité was destroyed in Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake].

After that first trip, I returned to New York, where I was living at the time, and eventually looked Rodman up and took the bus out to visit him at his home in Oakland, New Jersey. Elderly but still vigorous, he shared rum punch with me after he came into his ranch-style home from a game of tennis. The house, which he shared with his wife Carole, was adorned from floor to ceiling with Haitian canvases, exquisite examples of work by painters such as Stevenson Magloire, and Magloire’s mother, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, one of the members of the highly regarded Saint-Soleil art movement in Haiti. Still quite lucid, he regaled my with stories of his years in Haiti, and spoke fondly of the rambling colonial house he had maintained for years on Jacmel’s Rue du Commerce which, after he had stopped visiting regularly, had been turned into a guest house, the Hotel Florita. Speaking to him, I had the sensation of being in the presence of a living link to Haiti’s past. As I left him with his memories in the gathering dusk to head back to Brooklyn, I wondered how much of his soul the old man had left back in Haiti.

During my years living in Haiti, first as a correspondent for Reuters and then as a freelance journalist, I developed a deep affection for Jacmel, and frequently stayed at the Hotel Florita, which often appeared otherwise nearly unoccupied. Eventually, along with a French photographer friend, I began renting a small beach cottage in the town of Ti Mouillage just outside Jacmel, where I would go on weekends to seek respite from Haiti’s chaotic political climate, swimming in the Caribbean or reading in a hammock amid the incessant crashing of waves nearby.

So it was to Jacmel my friend and I decided to travel on Fèt Gede. After spending much of 1 November in the Grand Cimetière in Port-au-Prince - a sign at whose entrance helpfully reminded Souviens—Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere (Remember you are dust) - interacting with Gede adherents in various states of exultation, we drove south, through a light rain in the mountains that eventually cleared to reveal Jacmel, glittering like a jewel by the sea.

We spent much of that evening at a vodou ceremony in the countryside, returning to Ti Mouillage to fell asleep to the churning sea. Awakening the next morning, we drove into Jacmel. We parked our car and approached the Hotel Florita.

As we walked through the hotel, on this day eerily empty, all the doors and windows were open and white curtains fluttered in through the doors on the breeze from the Bay of Jacmel, as if airing out before its owner returned from a long absence. The moss and vines in the courtyard hung with melancholy, and my friend and I kept close to one another as we walked through the rooms and looked down from the balcony onto a deserted street.
After returning to Port-au-Prince, and following a drive during which we both felt compelled to comment on the the melancholy, sapient aura that filled the house on Rue du Commerce, we found out that Selden Rodman had died the very afternoon we were walking through the Florita. Perhaps, we thought, the presence we had felt had been the ghost of Selden Rodman, after all, come back at long last to Haiti to be among the lwa on this of all days.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”

28 September 2019

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”

Por José Javier Pérez

El Nuevo Día

(Read the original article

El periodista estadounidense residente en Puerto Rico, Michael Deibert, documentó las secuelas del huracán María en el libro "When the Sky Fell"

Winter Park, Florida.– Ver que tanta gente murió innecesariamente durante la secuela del huracán María detonó en la mente y corazón del periodista Michael Deibert la necesidad de plasmar lo ocurrido en Puerto Rico a partir de aquel 20 de septiembre de 2017.

Para este escritor norteamericano, de 46 años, documentar las secuelas de María era un asunto de honor. Se trataba de una historia que debía quedar plasmada en el eterno récord que permite el lenguaje escrito para dejar claro que, si bien ese huracán causó un desastre devastador, ya en la Isla coexistía un catálogo de problemas que el ciclón colocó en una vitrina internacional.

La relación colonial de Puerto Rico con Estados Unidos, que los boricuas son ciudadanos americanos de segunda clase, y la decepción nacional que los partidos políticos puertorriqueños tradicionales han sembrado en la Isla durante las últimas décadas son algunos de esos problemas que saltan en “When the Sky Fell”, cuya presentación ocurrió anoche sábado en el establecimiento Stardust Video & Coffee en la ciudad de Winter Park.

El tema isleño no es abstracto para Deibert. Conoce Puerto Rico por sus viajes frecuentes a la Isla, porque sus abuelos vivían en Mayagüez y porque desde mayo ubicó su residencia en el Viejo San Juan, en un lugar entre la Calle Sol y la Calle Cruz. Actualmente labora como reportero del Caribe para Bloomberg.

El “#RickyRenuncia” fue en realidad un proceso de catarsis colectiva a través de la cual los residentes exorcizaron los demonios que venían acumulando desde mucho tiempo atrás, dijo el escritor en una breve conversación con El Nuevo Día previo a la presentación de su libro.

Deibert fue claro en expresar que la devastación que dejó María se convirtió en una catástrofe mucho mayor cuando la ayuda que Puerto Rico esperaba del gobierno de Estados Unidos nunca llegó, y sugirió que esta escasa o nula respuesta estuvo motivada por la visión prejuiciada del presidente Donald Trump.

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”, dijo. “La respuesta fue nula o escasa y hubo miles de personas que murieron y que no debieron haber muerto. Es algo que no se debe olvidar”, dijo.

Es claro también que, a dos años del paso de ese ciclón, la Isla aún atraviesa las secuelas tempestuosas de ese evento, especialmente en el tema político. Según dijo, hay un desencanto general con los partidos políticos tradicionales y esto es especialmente entre la gente joven”, comentó.

“Hay que ver qué pasará en Puerto Rico en las próximas elecciones. ¿Habrá la misma energía que se generó cuando se logró sacar el gobernador (Ricardo Rosselló)? ¿Se traducirá esa militancia en una fuerza política?”, se preguntó Deibert quien como periodista ha escrito sobre Puerto Rico, Haití y otros países latinoamericanos.

Entre sus publicaciones están "Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti"; “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair"; “In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico”; y “Haiti will not Perish: A Recent History”.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

When the Sky Fell Gives Voice to Puerto Ricans Two Years After Hurricane Maria

When the Sky Fell Gives Voice to Puerto Ricans Two Years After Hurricane Maria


SEPTEMBER 24, 2019

The Miami New Times

(Read original article here)

(Photo by Rachel Templeton)

Three weeks after catastrophic Category Five Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, investigative journalist Michael Deibert traveled to the island to survey the damage. He was planning on writing a series of articles on the recovery efforts — and the shocking lack thereof.

Deibert had grown up listening to his grandfather’s stories of the island, a Lutheran Minister who lived in Mayagüez for three years and ran tutoring programs for neighborhood children. He heard of the shaded coconut palms, the lime trees, and the apricot sunsets. In 2010, he visited for the first time as& the debt crisis began to spiral, and the class divide became even more pronounced. Like many before him, he was wowed by the variety of topography and how quickly you could go from Old San Juan to the middle of the lush mountains. But, this time in 2017, Deibert was greeted with the aftermath of nature’s wrath. Telephone poles sliced through homes and old school buses were left upside down by the wind “like a child’s toy.” It was a far cry from his grandfather’s idyllic memories.

Deibert recounts these experiences and decades of political and cultural dissent in his latest book, When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico, which made the New York Post's list of best books of the week, and will be the topic of conversation at Books & Books in Coral Gables Thursday, September 26. The book exposes the fraught relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, tracing as far back as 1493 when Christopher Columbus set a precedent of colonialism and ending on the cusp of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s ousting which erupted this July and bled into August.

“You can see a lot of the buildup that led to people not being able to take it anymore with the release of the texts,” says Deibert of the political scandal that led to Governor Rossello's resignation. “If you’re 25 years old in Puerto Rico or younger, your entire life has been austerity, it has been a recession, and then the horror of Maria, and the aftermath. No wonder people were fed up.” 

Protests erupted on the streets in July after sexist and homophobic text messages from the ex-governor surfaced, and after days of dissent, the embattled Governor Rossello resigned from the office his father, Pedro Rossello once held. But, the succession process was not any less beleaguered. Protestors marched to the governor’s residence, La Fortaleza, singing the national anthem.

“At one point there were three governors in a week,” says Deibert. “I think what happened this past summer was this intense collective catharsis. I think there is so much trauma that has been foisted on Puerto Rico over the past few years and people have to remember that before Maria, people were leaving en masse to move to the mainland. You’d drive around the island, and you’d have these towns that were being depopulated, full of shuttered stores and businesses. Whether or not [what happened this summer] can lead to the rearranging of the political order [on the mainland] I think is an open question — I think a lot of people hope that it does.”

Puerto Rico has been under the thumb of the United States since 1898 when it went from Spanish to US rule under the Treaty of Paris. Eventually, the Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. But, the political status of Puerto Ricans remains a contentious issue. It is a Commonwealth controlled by the United States, but its citizens do not have a vote in US elections, nor does their representative have a vote in the US Congress.

“No one ever asked the Puerto Ricans if they wanted to become US citizens," says Deibert. "The island was just treated as war booty by the Americans after the Spanish American War, and I think in order to understand a lot of the ongoing dysfunction of the island, one has to reach back to that point. You don’t have to be an apologist for the independence movement to be able to recognize that the fact that three-however million Puerto Ricans are ultimately ruled by a US president and a US Congress that they have absolutely no recourse to, that they can't elect or vote out of office, that is profoundly undemocratic.”

Back in San Juan in 2017, Nydia Melendez-Rivas, a photographer native to Maunabo, joined Deibert and they interviewed locals who were left devastated where the Hurricane made landfall. One Friday afternoon, they arrived in the town of Aibonito. People were still recovering, but much of the town’s urban core had been able to restore electricity. Neighbors from the surrounding towns gathered to drink, eat, and blow off steam after a day of grueling physical labor salvaging their homes and neighborhoods. Later, in a restaurant in a converted colonial building, Deibert watched a band play Marc Anthony’s “Preciosa.” The crowd sang along, recounting all the wonders of the island. Ending with a bittersweet, “Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.”

“In that moment, you saw the never-say-die spirit of Puerto Rico,” says Deibert. “As we drove out of town the next morning, I saw a banner strung outside of a shuttered escuela de danza. ‘Y si el cielo cae, bailo bajo la tormenta’ it read. 'And if the sky falls, dance under the storm.'”

The vitality instilled in the banner’s message and the resilience of Aibonito's people inspired the book’s title. Deibert weaves incisive history with on-the-ground reportage to explain why the US territory was so badly ignored by the federal government during the aftermath of Maria.

“I think with most Americans you have to start at the level of telling them Puerto Ricans are citizens. You have to start that low and build from there, so I hope this will help educate people on why things are the way they are out here,” says Deibert, who is now the Bloomberg Caribbean correspondent stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Deep in Old San Juan on the corner of Calle del Sol and Calle de la Cruz, there is an unassuming three-story bar where locals drink into the wee hours of the morning. But, in 1950, Nationalist Party President and leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Pedro Albizu Campos, called this place his home. This is where he spent years orchestrating the failed uprising that incited Nationalist revolt all across the island, all for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico. Today, the Nationalist Party headquarters and Campos’ home’s history is forgotten in the lull of music and mundane conversation over stiff drinks — except for a makeshift plaque dedicated to Campos. Deibert now lives across the street.

“I live across the street from the house [Campos] led [the uprising] in, what are the chances of that? It’s so strange,” says Deibert. “There’s a little plaque to him, but the building is not even a museum; it’s a bar. There’s a little plaque that says this is where Albizu Campos lived that looks like an individual put it up. It doesn’t look like an official mark. It's strange to me that it wouldn’t be a museum of the national patrimony. He played a pretty historical role whether you like him or not — he was a historical figure.”

As Deibert and Melendez-Rivas traversed the aftermath of Maria in Aibonito, they drove to a local gymnasium where a group of volunteers was working with the Puerto Rican National Guard to distribute food. Deibert writes that one guard was disappointed to learn he was not from FEMA.

“The thing I think that is really important: It wasn’t the storm that killed so many people here. It was the absolute lack of response on the part of the president, and it was the absolute lack of caring as people here were dying and dying and dying and he was sitting in his golf club in New Jersey and couldn’t care about it.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Shelf Awareness reviews When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico

When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico   

By Michael Deibert

Shelf Awareness 

(Read original article here)

When Puerto Rico fell to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, it was "an afterthought," named a territory only because of its "strategic importance." By 1996, U.S. industries began to abandon the island when they lost federal income tax exemptions that had made Puerto Rico a manufacturing haven. Unemployment skyrocketed and, by 2013, Puerto Rico was $87 billion in debt. Four years later, the government had closed more than 300 public schools.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the island with winds reaching 165 miles per hour. Buildings collapsed, homes were flooded and 80% of Puerto Rico's crops were destroyed. Communication, electrical power and municipal water systems were almost nonexistent island-wide. Five days later, FEMA's director arrived to assess the disaster, leading a Florida congressman to observe, "We've invaded small countries faster than we've been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico."

When the Sky Fell gives a vivid account of Puerto Rico's dark colonial history and the economic difficulties that have befallen the island while under U.S. control. Journalist Michael Deibert (Haiti Will Not Perish) shows how depredations of the past created fertile ground for the tragedies of the present, giving voice to the words of a San Juan resident in 2018: "The United States is a superpower, one of the greatest in the world, and they can't get the lights on and the water running for a 100 by 33 mile island...? They can take their citizenship and get out of here. Let us have our island."

--Janet Brown, author and former bookseller  

Discover: A journalist shows how past colonialism and prevailing economic exploitation have damaged Puerto Rico as deeply as the savage force of Hurricane Maria did in 2017.Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico by Michael Deibert

Friday, September 13, 2019

Library Journal review of When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico

When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico. 

By Michael Deibert

Apollo. Sept. 2019.

216p. maps. notes. bibliog.

ISBN 9781948062367.



Library Journal

(Read original article here)

Following the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, journalist Deibert traveled to the islands to investigate the controversial, and underwhelming, aid efforts by the U.S. government. His account of the weeks and months following September 2017, when the hurricane hit, accompany a thoroughly researched history of Puerto Rico, both presented with the goal of helping readers better understand the ongoing impact of colonialism, and how the U.S. mainland responded to the hurricane’s impact. Deibert begins by explaining the first European colonization led by Christopher Columbus. He then journeys through the region’s complex shifts in power, revolutions, and natural disasters. This historical background takes up a significant portion of the book, with the final chapters touching on the relationship between the mainland and Puerto Rico, as it relates to the federal response to the hurricane.

VERDICT ­Recommended for teen and adult readers interested in Puerto Rican history and the effects of colonialism, which continue to impact the present day.—Monique Martinez, Univ. of North Georgia Lib., Dahlonega

Publishers Weekly review of When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico

When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico 

By Michael Deibert.

Apollo, $24.99 (224p)

ISBN 978-1-948062-36-7

Publishers Weekly

(Read original article here)

In this impassioned analysis, journalist Deibert (Haiti Will Not Perish) explores the role of the U.S.’s territorial relationship with Puerto Rico in the context of the damage wrought on the island by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Once a Spanish territory, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American War, administered by a governor and an 11-member panel appointed by Congress. Deibert recounts a history of inhumane treatment and economic exploitation: thousands of Puerto Rican women were forcibly sterilized in the 1930s; workers received unlivable wages on the sugar plantations; and Puerto Ricans marching for workers’ rights and independence were continually met with brutal police violence until as late as 2007. All the while, the often-corrupt government and outside investors exploited the island’s resources and drove it into debt. The commonwealth’s second-class status—without independent finances or voter representation in the government controlling it, the island’s infrastructure had greatly deteriorated—rendered it unable to respond to the hurricane’s destruction, and the U.S. government failed to launch a significant relief effort for months. Deibert reports that, a month after the hurricane, 80% of the population was still without power, schools had not been reopened, and 5,000 people were still living in shelters. This grim account of the U.S.’s treatment of this territory will shock readers not familiar with the details.

Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to share some of the articles I have written/been involved with this year. It was a year that was often hard on the soul, when evil seemed ascendant in many places, & the good, righteous & tolerant assailed from all sides. But push on we must, and will.

For me this means continuing to do the kind of journalism I do, despite the economic hurdles it presents, publishing my new book on the history of the United States in Puerto Rico, possibly starting a new one on DR Congo & continuing to help, how I can, Haiti on its path.

For all of us, I think it means trying to create a more gentle, humane and decent world, and to try to amplify the voices of those who for so long have had none in the discussion of their fate.

Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.

Feliz año nuevo.



A Review of Michael Deibert’s Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History in AlterPresse (3 January 2018)

Haïti ne périra pas: une histoire récente de Michael Deibert in Le Nouvelliste (16 January 2018)

Haiti: time to take a second look? for fDi Magazine (13 April 2018)

Haiti's new president embarks on cross-country mission for fDi Magazine (13 April 2018)

On the Ground With Cops Hunting El Salvador’s Gangs for The Daily Beast (30 April 2018)

El Salvador seeks to ride an investment wave for fDi Magazine (14 June 2018)

Portugal's impressive turnaround for fDi Magazine (16 August 2018)

Portugal economy minister shows power of positive adjustment for fDi Magazine (16 August 2018)

Trump Says Puerto Rico Is ‘Unsung Success.’ Actually, Power Still Goes Out and People Aren’t Coming Back for The Daily Beast (12 September 2018)

San Juan’s Iconic La Perla Neighborhood Defies Trump for The Daily Beast (17 September 2018)

Puerto Rico still rebuilding one year after Hurricane Maria: Interview with CCTV's The Heat (20 September 2018)

Mixed signals after victory of Mexico's longtime maverick
for fDi Magazine (18 September 2018)

What is forcing thousands of migrants to flee their home countries? for The Guardian (5 December 2018)

The winter of the gilets jaunes for Michael Deibert's Blog (11 December 2018)

DRC elections: 'people aren't just angry - they're outraged': Interview with the BBC (27 December 2018)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Books in 2018: A Personal Selection

"Freedom is my sect," protest in Al-Zabadani, Rif Dimashq Governorate, Syria

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Published in 1968, this book serves as something of an elegy to an American West that was vanishing even then, suffused with lyrical, though never mawkish, descriptions of desert springs (some of them poisoned), thunderstorms and a beautiful account of a multiday odyssey paddling down the Colorado River.

“The desert says nothing,” Abbey writes. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation…Despite its clarity & simplicity, however, the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a view of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed. Since the desert does not act, it seems to be waiting - but waiting for what?”

Congo's Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War by Kris Berwouts

A very useful primer by the Belgian author and analyst that is especially illuminating in the light it sheds on the inner working of the government of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, in office since 2001 and now attempting to cling to power.

Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth

One of the darkest figures in the Nazi pantheon, police chief and and “Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” Reinhard Heydrich is the subject of this chilling, highly readable biography by German historian Robert Gerwarth. Tracing Heydrich’s role in the Nazi evolution to genocide, Gerwarth does an excellent job of demonstrating how the gradual whittling away of the ability to see any humanity in Nazi opponents - Jews, communists, gypsies and others - eventually laid the groundwork for mass slaughter, as telegraphed by the invasion of Poland in September 1939 when “the targeted liquidation of Poles noted for their education, nationalism or social status demonstrated that the Nazis were capable of and committed to murdering by the thousands.” The “effective system of terror” it had taken Heydrich and his nominal boss Heinrich Himmler less than a year to set up in Bavaria was soon ubiquitous, with traditional security forces now managed by rabid ideologues and, as this book demonstrates, step by step, the minute bureaucracy of mass murder becomes a tool of the German state.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

A 100 page satirical tirade against the author’s native country of El Salvador - in which the narrator expressed a consuming terror of one day being trapped and which, in his view, “is a hallucination, it exists only because of its crimes” - this often uproariously funny novella provides a dim survey of the nation in the years following the end of its civil war.

“These politicians reeking of the blood of the hundred thousand people they sent to their deaths thanks to their big ideas,” Castellanos Moya writes. “It doesn’t matter if  they’re right-wing or left-wing, they’re equally vomitous, equally corrupt, equally thieving, you can see in their faces how anxious they are to rob what they can...These crooks in suits and ties that once had their feast of blood, their orgy of crimes, they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering.”

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre

A magical realist tale of eroticism and vodou that brilliantly evokes the southern Haitian town of Jacmel (where I lived for a time), this novel by one of Haiti’s greatest living author appeared in English for the first time last year. Though the text becomes somewhat bumpy with awkward literal translations of place names (the Haitian town of Croix-des-Missions becomes “Mission’s Crossing,” for example, a name meaningless to anyone in Haiti), Depestre’s words still come through as often intensely poignant, such as when he writes “for the first time since leaving Jacmel, I was able to think without sadness about all those years of failure and guilt that stretched behind me in the swirling elsewhere of Haiti."

Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Spooky and intensely British, this collection contains such classics of the genre as “After Dark in the Playing Fileds,” “A View from a Hill” and “Casting the Runes” and makes an entertaining distraction from weightier matters.

Moonbath by Yanick Lahens

A beautifully conceived and realized novel from Haiti appearing in English for the first time, this book tells the story of “a village lost between stone, sun, sea and rain” in “a country where the most dependable weapon is erasure; the most lucrative defense, evasion. To let the storm pass, before spreading our wings again and running with the pack of the moment.” Moonbath shows how the destitute and struggling so frequently find themselves, through little fault of their own, either the subjects of the cloying largess or violent bullying of the country’s various political factions, with repeated references to the depredations of both former presidents François Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Simone by Eduardo Lalo

Part romance, part detective story, this novel traces the fraught relationship between a Puerto Rican writer and an immigrant Chinese student in San Juan .

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

I would not have predicted that the author of the World War II historical novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) would author one of the best pieces of modern war reportage I’ve read in many years, but this account of the resistance to Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad and his crime family in the western Syrian city of Homs is certainly that. Introducing the reader to an extraordinarily wide swathe of liberation fighters, civil society activists, doctors and others, Littell gives some flavor of the scope and complexity of the forces that rose up to try and topple Syria’s dictatorship. As regime snipers deliberately target children and non-Arabic speaking “specialists of the Arab-Muslim world” serve up war crimes denial, the tragedy that later befell the rebel movement, becomes palpable.

“Smiling and full of life and courage,” Littell writes of these early heroes. “For whom death, or an atrocious wound, or ruin, failure, and torture were nothing compared to the incredible joy of having cast off the dead wight crushing, for forty years, the shoulders of their fathers.”

Guadalajara by Quim Monzó

Brief, surrealistic vignettes by the respected Catalan writer

Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

By a noted Puerto Rican author, one of the best short story collections I've read in years. Poignant, wistful, emotionally powerful. Recommended.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

An important survey of how fascism took hold in the first half of the 20th century in Italy, Germany, Hungary and Romania, this book examines how a mad supremacist philosophy was able to sweep to power with establishment “accomplices who helped at critical points,’ whether they be Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, who refused to sign Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s martial law decree blocking Mussolini’s blackshirts from entering Rome, or the veteran diplomat Konstantin von Neurath, who served as foreign minister during the early years of Nazi rule. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell might find much to recognize here.

“The fascist route to power has always passed through cooperation with conservative elites,” Paxton writes, going on to conclude “no dictator rules by himself. He must obtain the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of the decisive agencies of rule - the military, the police, the judiciary, senior civil servants - and of powerful social and economic forces.”

Though published more than a decade ago, the book reminds more timely than ever, as does Paxton’s conclusion about the nature of fascist political rule:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Michel Surya

An interesting survey of a deeply strange man, this biography of the transgressive French writer and philosopher contains many surprising details, such as those of Bataille’s early fervent Christianity and of the internecine politics and squabbles of the French surrealist movement of the 1920s.

“My true church is a whorehouse, the only one that gave me true satisfaction,” Bataille once wrote. “Ending up drunk and red-faced, in a dive full of naked women.” This book gives some idea of the kind of figure who managed to hold down a job with the Bibliothèque Nationale while still penning such works such as L'histoire de l'œil (Story of the Eye).

The Collaborator Book by Mirza Waheed

A searing portrait of occupation, repression, state terror and familial and community ties amid India’s war in Kashmir.

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

An indispensable history of the uprising against Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, this book lays out clearly why the ossifying, four decade-old family dictatorship was ripe for collapse.

Cosmetic attempts at reform in the early 2000s were then ruthlessly reversed when it appeared they might flower into an actual independent civil society, a reaction that included the ruthless repression of Syria’s Kurds and the apparatus of a terrifying police state where torture was systematic and systemic.

Despite the “anti-imperialist” rhetoric Assad’s regime employed, it was only too happy to put its skills in oppression to use on behalf of the “war on terror,” hosting and torturing terrorism suspects on behalf of the United States following 2001 (despite at the same time allowing Salafist remnants to operate unimpeded in Syria to launch attacks against the U.S. in Iraq).

Though little remarked upon at the time, the spark for Syria’s revolt was not some dark foreign plot, but was rather literally set when Hassan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in in the small town of al-Hasakah in January 2011, only weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi had done the same in Tunisia. The Assad family responded to the Syrian peoples’ calls for democracy with sickening crimes, including the kidnapping and killing of schoolboys who wrote revolutionary graffiti in Daraa in March 2011 and the torture and murder of 13 year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb in the same city two months later.

The book reminds readers that, from March to October 2011, while it was massacring non-violent protesters, the Assad regime was busy releasing violent jihadists from its own prisons, including Jaysh al-Islam’s Zahran Alloush, Ahrar al-Sham’s Hassan Abboud, Awad al-Makhlaf (late a key figure in ISIS) and founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra. Eager to brand the Syrian revolution as a sectarian conflict, the regime itself targeted Sunni areas for collective punishment, including during massacres of Sunnis on Syria’s central plain between Homs and Hama during the summer of 2012. As the authors note, by the summer of 2013, Assad’s battles were increasingly directed by Iranian military experts, and Iranian-funded and trained Shia militias helped the regime ethnically cleanse areas such as Zabadani and Daraya. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Iraqi organizations Kata’b Hizbollah and Asa’b Ahl al Haqq also helped.

Assad was often helped in buttressing this narrative by the lack of nuance of foreign writing on the revolt. Early banners with slogans such as “Freedom is my sect” and the early demonstrations in Aleppo which brought together Arabs and Kurds, Christians & Muslims, holding both cross & crescent aloft, and the winter 2013/2014 offensive in the same city which pushed ISIS out, were lightly covered by the Western media. United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura also proved reliably sympathetic to the regime’s point of view.

In the most shameful chapter of his presidency, readers witness U.S. President Barack Obama’s erasing of his own “red line” following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, after which, the activist Lubna al-Kanawati says, “a profound sense of depression and isolation afflicted the people. They knew they’d die hungry and in silence, ignored by the world.” Likewise, we witness Obama’s refusal to help local forces in Deir ez-Zor which fell in July 2014, leaving its oil fields to ISIS, and the cynical on/off spigot of arms to bring Assad to negotiating table but not topple him.

The book does a great service to the historical memory of the Middle East, preserving for history within its pages such important (and now dead or missing) figures as human rights lawyer and civil society activist Razan Zaitouneh, Ghaith Matar (who came up with the idea of giving a rose and bottle of water to soldiers during protests) the filmmaker Bassel Shehadeh and the economist and anarchist Omar Aziz.

We are left with a chronicle of the failure of humanity to stop, as they did Franco’s march across Spain more than 70 years earlier, a great atrocity that the whole world watched unfold, and a betrayal of the dreams all freedom-loving people hold dear. With many of my fellow Western leftists engaging in genocide and war crimes detail on behalf of the Assad regime, we are left to ponder the words of the great Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, quoted within its pages

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftist of the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. what I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, it contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analysis. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional; occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate…We rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners…do not exist…But honesty I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view…Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream western left needs to help themselves.