Saturday, March 31, 2007

A disgraceful campaign by the government of the Dominican Republic

News has filtered out from the Dominican Republic about how the government of Dominican President Leonel Fernández intends to respond to the growing international outcry regarding the labor conditions and treatment of immigrant Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-descent within the country. Apparently, the Fernández government will responded the only way it seems to know how, through a sustained demagogic campaign of whipping up of even further bigotry, character assassination and, I fear, potential physical violence against those who speak out for the rights of the disadvantaged in the country.

In the wake of a 21 March statement by Amnesty International saying that “deep-rooted racial discrimination against Haitian migrants living in the Dominican Republic is causing arbitrary mass deportations and the denial of birth certificates to thousands of children” and in advance of Esclaves au Paradis (Slaves in Paradise) exhibition in Paris later this spring, Dominican officials have announced that they are seeking to revoke the citizenship of Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) leader Sonia Pierre, a Dominican of Haitian-descent who was born in the Dominican Republic in 1963. A recipient of the 2006 Human Rights Award from the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, Pierre has been one of the most active and eloquent voices for the disenfranchised in the Dominican Republic. The campaign against Pierre appears to be of a piece with similar campaigns against two activist priests, Father Pedro Ruquoy and Father Christopher Hartley, who were driven from the country in late 2006 and late 2005, respectively, after advocating for better treatment of behalf of Haitian workers laboring in the bateys, as the Dominican Republic’s sprawling sugar plantations are known.

Concurrently with the moves against Pierre, the internet publication Dominican Today, which slavishly parrots the Dominican government line at nearly every opportunity (reminding this observer of nothing so much as the propaganda machine that was Agence Haitian de Presse during the regime of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), has printed libelous claims by an unnamed “government official” that the human rights situation in the Dominican Republic is being exaggerated by “foreigners” who use it “to obtain financing and to justify themselves” and that Father Christopher Hartley, who labored bravely for ten years in the bateys before big sugar interests drove him out, was accused of committing "serious crimes," two statements for which no evidence whatsoever exists.

Since its return to power in 2004, the Fernández government has appeared to be completely beholden to the whims of big sugar. Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso, one of Sonia Pierre’s bitterest critics, has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, and the wealthy Vicini family, who run the Batey dos Hermanos sugar-growing territory, maintain close ties with the government. Nevertheless, even by this rather compromised standard, the behavior of the Fernández government and its representatives over the last week has been nothing but demagoguery of the lowest kind.

One of the reasons for the recent attacks against Pierre is likely the fact the she was part of the legal team that, in September 2005, successfully argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Dominican Republic was in violation of Articles 3, 5, 19, 20 and 24 of the American Convention on Human Right Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica in denying citizenship to two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico, born in the Dominican Republic. That decision also reinforced the fact that, in its denial of citizenship to persons born within its borders, the Dominican Republic was in violation of its own constitution, Article 11 of which reads in the original Spanish as follows:

“Todas las personas que nacieren en el territorio dela República, con excepción de los hijos legítimos delos extranjeros residentes en el país enrepresentació n diplomática o los que están de tránsitoen él.”

In a gesture of disrespect for international law, Fernández has said that, though his government has begun paying damages to the two girl, it will not follow the Inter-American Commission’s broader ruling demanding that the country follow its international obligations by granting citizenship to those born to families living there.

Many of us had hoped for far greater things from Fernández when he returned to office in 2004, looking forward to a socially progressive, pro-business, vigorous and law-abiding government to correct the drift and corruption that characterized the administration of his predecessor, Hipólito Mejía.

Unfortunately, it appears that was not to be, and that the influence of money and the instinctual reflex to cheap nationalist sentiment and scapegoating was too appealing in the narrow political advantage it offered to resist. It looks increasingly like Fernández’s second term will go down in history as one of the great lost opportunities that the Dominican Republic ever had and that, much like their brothers and sisters in Haiti, the majority of decent, poor, gentle Dominicans will have been betrayed once again by their cynical and opportunistic politicians who had a real chance to uplift their country and blew it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

NYC to Wal-Mart: fuhgeddaboudit

Saying "thanks, but no thanks" but to union-hostile, low-wage jobs with employer-provided healthcare often worse than the meager public health benefits available to its employees, upon my arrival from Europe, New York City succeeded in doing me proud once more by prompting Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. to exclaim “I don’t think it’s worth the effort.” Scott was referring to the efforts of Wal-Mart, one of most visible manifestations of corporate banality, to come to the five boroughs.

In a city of such dizzying variety of choice, the New York Times opined yesterday that, in addition to union-led opposition to a New York invasion by the chain, “Wal-Mart, a cost-minded retailer known for its dowdy merchandise, and New York, a city of excesses known for cutting-edge style, have long had an uneasy relationship.”

Damn straight, and hopefully this beautiful city will resist the malling of America for many years more.

In Zimbabwean, meanwhile, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was detained by police for several hours in an apparent attempt to keep him from addressing reporters on the spiraling violence by the government of Robert Mugabe against the citizens there. Tsvangirai was eventually released, but this situation requires vigilance.

An interview with me, conducted in Spanish, was published on the Haitian media outlet AlterPresse, after originally appearing in the New York Spanish-language publication La Voz. It can be read here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Adieu, Paris (for now, at least)

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure,
Les jours s'en vont je demeure.
-Guillaume Apollinaire

When I told my friend Justin, an Italian-American currently resident in Rome, that I was coming to France to recuperate from India last month, he wrote to me sarcastically “Oh, I feel so sorry for you. Paris. What hell. What condemnation. What a despicable place. Cultured people. Good looking, well-dressed people. Gourmet food at the corner shops.”

Of course, this is one image of France, a country that also has a ton of problems and appears to be going through some sort of agonizing personality crisis at present. It is a crisis perhaps best typified by the riots in the banlieues in fall 2005, the million-plus protesters the following year successfully scuttling a jobs bill designed to reduce the soaring youth unemployment the was one of the main causes for the unrest and this spring’s rather underwhelming presidential campaign, which pits a former interior minister given to feinting to the far right (Nicolas Sarkozy) against a rather unreconstructed big-spending socialist (Ségolène Royal) and a relatively undistinguished former education minister who enjoys portraying himself as a yeoman farmer (François Bayrou), none of whom seem to have the mixture of new ideas and compassion needed to bring France out of its slump.

When people in the United States complain about 4.5% unemployment and a 3.4% GDP growth rate, the picture in France looks as follows: France's jobless rate has not dipped below 8% for 25 years (measuring an astonishing 21.5% for the under-25s and nearly 50% in some housing projects) and its GDP growth was just 2% last year. That is in some ways a sick, staggering economy.

However, the French do have many things to be envied, not the least of which is first-class public healthcare and an excellent public transportation system, something that, living in New York, it is often easy to forget the rest of the United States conspicuously lacks, with some urban exceptions. There is a sense of societal responsibility for the welfare of the average citizen that has all but vanished from Washington after two terms of one of the most venomous, corrupt, oligarchic and unfeeling administrations the United States has ever seen. There is a brutal inequality in the American system, where minimum wages are beneath any possibility of making a living on them and generalized health care is non-existent (I myself lack any). The key for the French, it would seem, is how to reconcile the social protections and comforts they have grown so used to (and elements of which, in my view, the U.S. could learn much from), with an entrepreneurial and free-market zeal that will unblock the vast, dispirited underclass and youth that feel they have very little to gain from the French economy on the whole, and whose sense of hopelessness has been a main driver in the civil tumult seen here in recent years.

But alas, before France makes it big choice, I will have to depart, back to the United States. I will have to momentarily leave behind the rainy streets, the exquisite museums, the people selling stolen watches and households gems along the Marché Dejean, the call centers offering special rates to Côte d'Ivoire and Algeria, and the warm, inviting bistros and boulangeries that seem to line every street. But I will be back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

“Le monde est comme une goutte de rosée…

…Qui s'évapore aux premiers rayons de soleil.”

That is the wistful Syrian proverb that greets visitors to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, one of outgoing French president (and long-time Paris mayor) Jacques Chirac’s most notable cultural contributions to this ever-more diverse and multicultural European capital. The fruit of the merger of two Paris institutions - the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l'Homme - in a defiantly modern setting in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, as well as likely a tribute to Mr. Chirac’s immense self-regard and desire for “legacy,” the museum has stirred more than its fair share of debate since opening last summer. The International Herald Tribune described it shortly after its opening as "defiant, mysterious and wildly eccentric,“ while the New York Times last summer adopted a pouty theater-critic’s tone, bemoaning that “if the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection ( of the Quai Branly).”

Back from Spain, I finally made my way there today, taking in the market along Avenue du President Wilson (the name itself an echo of a time when the United States and France were not seen to be at odds) before crossing the Seine at the Pont de l’Ama to the Quai Branly itself.

Certainly, the dimly-lit, often music-filled chambers of the museum may seem rather otherworldly and transporting when stepping in from the gray, rainy boulevards of Paris on a March afternoon, but, on the whole, I found the museum’s impressive collection more reverent and subdued than sensational. One aspect of the material on display that has gone oddly underreported is the fact that it contains what is probably the best single collection of carvings and statues from Papua New Guinea that I have ever seen, including beautiful Asmat funerary posts, masks, matted shields, elaborate ritual costumes and even decorated skulls, all presented with an explanation as to their cultural significance to a region with a dizzying variety of ethnic and linguistic lines.

There are radiant Christian tapestries from 17th century Ethiopia depicting familiar kings and prophets with features that delicately blend African and Semitic traits, robustly-colored images from the northeastern Indian state of Assam illustrating the story of Manasa, and a 13th century Hebrew manuscript from the Moroccan city of Fes laying out the story of Esther. If there is any message to be taken from these various representations of the secular and divine, to me it was that the unity of spirit in cultures that political and religious leaders often try and put in opposition to one another, a unity that in facts shines through loud and clear. There is a common humanity in the simplest carved spoon just as there is in the most exquisite statuette of the Buddha, in protective figures from Angola and Congo as there are in mannequins from Malekula.

The weather in Paris, by the way, keeps getting stranger and stranger. The day began with a rainstorm, which gave way to bright sunshine. This in turn gave way to gray, cloud-streaked skies, followed by a steady drizzle, which unexpectedly erupted at around 4:30pm to a full-fledged hail storm. Now the sun is shining brightly again. If it keeps up like this, tomorrow I expect that I will walk out the door and there will be fire everywhere.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Michael Deibert interviewed on KDVS

I was interviewed by France Kassing on KDVS (University of California, Davis) on a variety of subjects - including Kashmir, Haiti, Spain and Zimbabwe - yesterday. The audio link to the broadcast can be found here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Suerte, España

I passed my last full day in Madrid with a long and hugely enjoyable lunch of paella with a roomful of Haitians and another token American, and again tonight we found ourselves wandering the streets around the Plaza Santa Ana, more crowded and active than even its usual buzz of activity because, I later found out, that it was St. Patrick’s Day, which explained the preponderance of visibly intoxicated people and British Isle brogues and American accents, I think. Dinner was a long affair at a streetside café.

It has been a very interesting and productive time here in Spain, and one that left me with a taste to return. I’ve seen some of the richness of Spanish culture and its hospitality, and also have witnessed Spanish politics at perhaps its most bare-knuckled since the 1981 coup attempt here. The Partido Popular conservative opposition has done a good job of whipping up a demagogic frenzy against what many Spaniards see as the weak and vacillating policy of the socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in allowing convicted Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) terrorist Iñaki de Juana Chaos to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest after a hunger strike left him near death. In a country where, despite claims of a ceasefire, ETA attacks continue to claim lives (a 30 December bomb at Madrid airport, which killed two Ecuadorian immigrants, added another pair to the ETA’s 800+ total), this is potent stuff. In a country with such a lively, vivacious people and such impressive artistic traditions, it would be good for all concerned if the political temperature was lowered a few degrees but, given the current climate in Spain, I don’t know how likely that is to happen.

Tonight, sitting in the silence of my friend’s home on the northern outskirts of Madrid and having experienced some of this deep country’s greatness and fragility over the last 10 days, I think of some words by one of Spain’s greatest sons, the Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca , killed by Nationalist partisans in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War at the age of 38 years old.

My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars…

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Slaves in paradise, Tsvangirai to hospital and Tracy Quan downtown

My new article for the Inter Press Service, on the Esclaves au Paradis (Slaves in Paradise) exhibit, Father Christopher Hartley and the state of Haitians laboring in the Dominican Republic, was published yesterday and can be read here. I was going to post it yesterday but thought that, given the situation with Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, it could wait until today.

Reuters reports today that Tsvangirai is now in intensive care with a broken skull, after having been released from police custody along with 30 other opposition figures arrested on Sunday. But, given the track record of the Zimbabwe government up until this point, it would appear that this crisis is far from over and continued vigilance is required. Many thanks to all of you who wrote, called or faxed the Zimbabwean embassies in the U.S. and the U.K.

On a far lighter note, my friend Tracy Quan will be having a reading tonight at East 9th Street’s Manhattan nightspot Solas, for any of those who are in town, celebrating her "special relationship with the Upper East Side," a neighborhood I have never been able to afford to live in (being a Brooklyn and Queens boy) but have visited from time to time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Help save Morgan Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe's democratic opposition

The regime of the man who is perhaps Africa’s most repulsive dictator, Robert Mugabe, he of the Hitler mustache and Mobutu-esque pretensions, has committed another outrage against the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe, news reports say.

A visibly battered Morgan Tsvangirai, the president of the largest faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, arrived at court today dazed and bloodied, with part of his hair shaved as the result of an apparent head wound, the Associated Press reports. Tsvangirai was arrested on Sunday along with scores of others, some who were also brutalized when Mugabe’s riot police violently attacked a planned meeting of opposition groups in the poor neighborhood of Highfields in the capital Harare, the New York Times’ Michael Wines reports. At least one man was shot and killed by police. Colleagues said that Tsvangirai was tortured severely after his arrest. Michele Montas, the former director of Radio Haiti-Inter and now the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement in the wake of the government attack saying that such “actions violate the basic democratic right of citizens to engage in peaceful assembly.”

As this is the latest chapter of brutality written in the blood of his people by the petty tyrant Mugabe, now, more than ever, is the time to allow the Zimbabwean government know that the eyes of the world are upon them and that such crimes will not go unreported and, inshallah, unpunished in the international legal realm.

One cannot forget the despot Mugabe’s attacks against Harare’s poorest residents in May 2005, when, under the guise of a long-planned operation codenamed Operation Murambatsvina - Shona for Operation Drive Out Trash - the Mugabe governed acted as follows, recounted by the Zimbabwean Sokwanele organization:

Zimbabwe's police have used sledgehammers and bulldozers to reduce brick homes to rubble, and they have torched flimsy shacks. At the same time, thousands of informal businesses have been destroyed, with more than 20,000 traders arrested, their possessions smashed or irretrievably confiscated by those entrusted to uphold the law...The onslaught came like a military raid with overtones of a Zimbabwean Kristallnacht. As on November 9 1938, when rampaging Nazi mobs violently destroyed Jewish properties and businesses, the Zimbabwean police have completely disregarded the law, focusing instead on wholesale destruction.

The operation was dubbed “slow genocide by bulldozer” by the Affordable Housing Institute, by Christian Aid as an act where “hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless…and thousands have since been detained” and as a “blatant violation of civil, political, economic and social rights guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights” by Amnesty International.

Let the Mugabe government know that this attack will not go unrecorded by the world at large, and let Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition know they are not alone. Contact the Zimbabwean embassies in the United States and the United Kingdom at the links below to demand proper medical attention, access to attorneys and human rights advocates and an end to the violence directed at those arrested during Sunday’s attack.

Embassy of Zimbabwe in the United Kingon

Embassy of Zimbabwe in the United States
1608 New Hampshire Ave
Washington, , DC 20009
Phone: 202-332-7100

Yon sel, nou feb,
Ansanm, nou fo!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rioja, flamenco y crispación

It was an unexpectedly sumptuous and enjoyable weekend around Madrid and its environs over the last few days, with free-flowing Rioja and much fine Spanish food. My Haitian friends and I spent an enjoyable Saturday lunch with the owners of the Aldea Santillana retreat, with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Central rising in the distance. The afternoon concluded with a visit to the colonial town of Buitrago de Lozoya and a stroll over its finely preserved old city walls as the sun was setting and in the evening, following a rest and a bit of reading, we sampled some of the movida - the perpetual partying lifestyle that Madrid is so famous for - in the streets along the Plaza Santa Ana, including a stop at the beautifully preserved bar Viva Madrid.

Sunday saw a day of Spanish culture, co-promoted by Guillermo Fesser, the co-host of Madrid’s hugely popular Gomaespuma radio show, who has co-founded an organization to help promote indigenous musical and artistic traditions here. Commencing with a many-hours long lunch at a finca outside of the capital that included spontaneous (and highly energetic) outbreaks of flamenco guitar, singing and dancing, there was interesting conversation with a wide cross-section of Spanish and European political viewpoints. The evening ended up with an outstanding concert of modern flamenco music by the singer Diego el Cigala in the small industrial city of Guadalajara. One could get used to this.

As we were enjoying ourselves, though, all was not quiet in Spain. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Madrid to protest the decision of the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to allow José Ignacio de Juana Chaos (aka Iñaki de Juana Chaos), a leader of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) Basque separatist group convicted of killing 25 people, to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. De Juana had been on a 115 day hunder strike that he threatened to continue until death if he was not freed. Despite supposedly having initiated a permanent ceasefire as a pre-condition of becoming involved in peace talks with Zapatero’s government, the ETA exploded a bomb at Madrid airport on 30 December, killing a pair of Ecuadorian immigrants, and, unlike Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, Juana Chaos has never expressed any remorse for his blood-drenched past. The image of Miguel Ángel Blanco Garrido, a politician in the Basque region kidnapped and murdered by the ETA in 1997, one of the group's more than 800 victims, was prominent among the demonstrators.

It is a misstep that has been adroitly, and perhaps a touch cynically, exploited by the opposition conservative party, the Partido Popular, that has seemed to effectively be tapping into a very real well of outrage here that I heard expressed by people of various social classes and political stripes in my travels around the capital. Many are wondering aloud what the ramifications will be for Zapatero’s Partido Socialista Obrero Espanola (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party or PSOE) in Spain’s upcoming municipal elections. A British friend of mine, a keen observer of Spanish politics for over 20 years and living in the southern city of Málaga, wrote to me that, although he felt that the PP was “making dirty politics out of trying to sabotage the peace effort” by their rather strenuous attacks on Zapatero’s government, “releasing de Juana Chaos into house arrest may have been a major political blunder, if the PP is able to use it to convince a majority of voters Zapatero is someone who gives into terrorists and lets unrepentant mass murderers out on the streets.”

In Spain, as elsewhere, it appears that politics is a complicated business.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Desde Madrid

My first full day in the city of Almodóvar was marked by bright blue skies and a leisurely stroll through Huertas up to the Plaza Mayor in the company of a friend who has lived here since 2001. The plaza was as sweeping and grand as one would expect the heart of Spain to be, and there was a great hum of activity as we descended on foot back down through the book fair on the Paseo del Prado and finally into the famous galleries of the Museo del Prado itself, my first visit to one of the world’s great museums.

Mulling over works by such justly renowned artists as Spain’s own Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velasquez and the Germany’s native son Albrecht Dürer, I was immediately taken by the extraordinary power of Francisco de Goya’s later-period work when, beset by deafness and isolation, the painter’s tone shifted markedly from portraits of self-obsessed and foppish noblemen to far darker visions of war, chaos and the true price exacted on ordinary citizens by the vainglorious war making of Europe’s political leaders of his time, the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Coloso (The Giant), Goya depicts the bestial back of some massive being turning away and towering over a scene of anarchy and bloodshed, a possible allegory for what Goya himself saw as his beloved Spain was ripped apart by a French invasion as occurred during Europe’s so-called Peninsular War.

Most stunning of all in its emotional power, though, rendered with all the immediacy of a Robert Capa photograph, is Goya’s painting El 3 de mayo en Madrid: Los fusilamientos en la montaña del Principe Pío, which depicts the merciless French suppression of a rebellion against Napoleon’s invading forces by Spanish patriots in May 1808. Following the revolt, the French army executed at least 5,000 Spanish citizens and in doing so provoked a general uprising and guerilla war that would drive Napoleon’s armies from Spain in defeat only a few months later, marking the first major defeat for the French empire on the European continent some four year after the Haitians had handed the pint-sized tyrant a similar drubbing in the Caribbean, half a world away.

But, victory dances aside, in El 3 de mayo, Goya cuts right to the bloody heart of military conflict: A nighttime execution, the simultaneous terror and dignity in the eyes of those about to be slain, the stigmata-like markings on the hands of the condemned man draw in greatest relief, the terrible machinery of killing represented by the French firing squad and, in the distance and removed and seemingly uncaring, the rising steeple of a church.

My friend, who watched from feverish exile in the United States as many members of his family were massacred by the Tontons Macoutes of Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier during the appalling Jérémie Vespers that took place in that Haitian town of that name in 1964, commented to me that it reminded him of the indifference of the United States to the terrible crimes that Duvalier and later Haitian presidents committed against that country's people. For me, something of the picture spoke of the day in February 2004 when three companions and I drove to the central Haitian city of Saint Marc and, instead of finding the town I had driven through dozens of times before, found a charnel house of burned homes, Bale Wouze (Clean Sweep) paramilitary forces and Unite de Securite de la Garde du Palais National d’Haiti (USGPNH) personnel seemingly drunk on blood and as terrorized and victimized a population as I have ever seen.

By authoritative counts, at least 27 people were killed by forces acting in support of the government of then-Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide when, on 11 February, Bale Wouze and USGPNH re-took the town from the lightly-armed anti-government Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicos) forces that had seized it on 7 February. The victims in Saint Marc were people like Leroy Joseph, killed in front of his wife and children; Kenol St. Gilles, thrown alive into a fire; Yveto Morancy, killed on 13 February; and Ketia Paul, gang-raped over the course of seven hours in the burned-out remnants of the Saint Marc police commissariat where she had gone to plead for the release of a friend held there.

These are also victims worthy of remembrance and now, three years on, with still no one having been brought to trial for the crimes they were subjected to, they are still crying out for justice.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

From beneath the rooftops of Paris

A good and very productive writing time in Paris thus far. The gray and rainy weather cleared for the last two days into warm sunshine, lending itself to leisurely strolls from Chateau Rouge to Montmartre, but today the damp returned, which lends itself well to literary endeavors and continuing on with my reading of S. Hussain Zaidi’s account of the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts, Black Friday. The book, incidentally, has recently been made into a Hindi-language film which, after being stalled by the Indian government for three years, has been released to rave reviews in Bombay and elsewhere. Though I alas did not get to see it before leaving India, they say Pavan Malhotra’s performance as Tiger Memon is something to behold.

Speaking of books, some fantastic news reached me from stateside as it has been announced that my good friend, the author Ben Fountain, has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for his first collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. I met Ben on the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince many years ago, only to find out that we had a mutual friend, the one-of-a-kind Haitian ophthalmologist and intellectual Dr. Frantz Large, and Ben has proven himself to be a fine writer and an even finer man ever since, so the kudos are very richly deserved.

Meanwhile, another amigo, the Indian journalist and author Dilip D'Souza, continues his picaresque journey across the American south, all of which can be followed in great and amusing detail here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Chateau Rouge

A world away from the mountains and valleys of Kashmir, as well as the pollution-choked streets of Bombay, is the neighborhood of Chateau Rouge in the heart of Paris, where I find myself for the next several weeks, recovering from a sickness that saw me coughing up blood after significant time spent inhaling the assorted pollutants in India’s Dharavi and Dongri slums.

In the 18th Arrondissement of northeastern Paris, Chateau Rouge, with its famous (and often illegal) street vendors crowding the lanes around the Marche Dejean, is like a bit of West Africa dropped down in the middle of one of the world’s most romantic and cosmopolitan cities. It is a neighborhood heavily informed especially by the scents and sounds of Congo, with many originally hailing from that war-battered nation clustering in the inexpensive (by Parisian standards) apartments and hotels along streets like the Rue Doudeaville and the Rue des Poisonniers, video and music shops pumping out a steady soundtrack of soukous and a myriad of call centers offering discount rates to cities such as Kinshasa and Abidjan. It’s a heady antidote to gray and rainy Paris, though the geometry of life in the district is not always so pleasant, as I have witnessed a fair number of street brawls here and one occasionally feels, amidst the cacophonous shouting in coarse Parisian street argot and the rather rough way some of the residents deal with one another, that one is catching a glimpse of the particular desperation that comes with urbanized country folk thrust from the village into the dog-eat-dog mercilessly competitive struggle for survival that is modern city life. Quite by chance, in the apartment I am staying in I found a copy of A Continent for the Taking, the compelling memoir of time spent covering Africa as a journalist by New York Times correspondent Howard French. The book, which focuses to a large degree on the fate of Congo amidst its own legacy of dictatorship and civil war, the genocide in and subsequent military adventurism of neighboring Rwanda, the charnel house of Liberia in the 1990s, the virtual rape of Nigeria by Western oil companies and the continent’s astoundingly resilient civil society and musical and artistic traditions, lays bare, often with more than a dash of bitterness, a grim roll call of failure and destruction , more that not abetted by venal and short-sighted North American and European political and business actors. The book is a worthy successor to The Africans, former Los Angeles Times correspondent David Lamb’s 1990 whirlwind tour of the continent.

Having attended a press conference at the Hôtel de Ville this week announcing the exhibition Esclaves au Paradis: L’esclavage contemporain en République Dominicaine, to be held here in France in May, and having had the great good fortune to meet and chat with Father Christopher Hartley, who has done so much to help Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, my time in Europe appears off to a productive and interesting start.