Monday, December 28, 2009

Books in 2009: A personal selection

During the past year, for the first time, I kept a record of all the books that I read. With the year drawing to a close, I thought it might perhaps be helpful to share my thoughts on some of the more notable ones that came across my path.

Best regards,


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s elegiac and tragic story of the clash of cultures between Africa and Europe was every bit as moving now - after I have spent some time in Africa - as it was when I first read it in high school 20 years ago.

Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia by Harvey Arden

National Geographic writer Harvey Arden’s penned this quite beautiful account of his conversations with Aboriginal elders nearly 15 years ago, and when I traipsed through similar terrain earlier this year I found the respect with with it treats its subjects highly apt.

Fulgencio Batista: Volume 1, From Revolutionary to Strongman by Frank Argote-Freyre

This revelatory portrait of the formative years of Cuba’s pre-1959 leader portrays him as self-made, ambitious, ruthless, initially idealistic and then severely corrupted by power. The boy from a dirt-floor shack in Banes here stands as a fully-drawn personality as opposed to a mere slogan.

Reconstruction After the Civil War by John Hope Franklin

The eminent African-American history, who sadly passed away earlier this year, lays bare in an authoritative manner that “reconstruction,” such as it was after the American Civil War, was largely a fraud, with the South almost wholly under the control of reactionary southern whites. Highly relevant today, when a South Carolina congressmen sees fit to scream “You lie!” at the nation’s first biracial president during a congressional address.

Resistance and Betrayal: The Death and Life of Jean Moulin by Patrick Marnham

The riveting story of the man who became the most iconic figure of France’s resistance to Nazi occupation is made all the more poignant by the realization of how isolated the resisters were under the boot of a brutal fascist military occupation and amidst the acquiescence of the French population as a whole. The grotesque excesses of revenge, score settling and ideologically-based brutality that followed the arrival of allied forces in France also make for a somber punctuation to this chronicle of human bravery and duplicity.

The Unknown War: The Miskito Nation, Nicaragua and the United States by Bernard Nietschmann

The gifted geographer Bernard Nietschmann worked strenuously for decades to help indigenous peoples chart their own fates. As a result, the longtime fixture at the University of California-Berkeley weathered criticism from comfortable foreign supporters of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government (whose treatment of said groups within their borders was brutal), but in this book he lays bare the epic quest for survival of this indigenous group in Honduras and Nicaragua, often caught up in power struggles between forces far beyond their control.

Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri

This book is a collection of haunting and often surreal short stories by one of Nigeria’s greatest living authors

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

A book as inspiring by its intellectual honesty as for its faith in solutions that common decency demands, Orwell’s account of the life of miners in the north of England - penned shortly before he departed to fight against the fascists in Spain - is also notable for its highly moral thesis that “the people who have got to act together are all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent...Poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain pen.”

Indeed, and well said.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

A fairly gripping novel of politics and thwarted romantic set in rural Turkey by this 2006 Nobel Prize winner.

Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System by Roberto Saviano

A stunning non-fiction work that earned its young Italian journalist-author a death sentence from Naples’ grotesque Camorra crime syndicate, this book pulls back the veil on the brutal face of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy

Streets of Lost Footsteps by Lyonel Trouillot

A short work delivered by multiple narrators during the final apocalyptic battle between the cadres of the dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal and the followers of the Prophet, this novel by one of Haiti’s most gifted authors (and winner of this years’ Wepler Prize in France) should be put alongside the writings of Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis and Gary Victor as required reading for those seeking to understand Haiti beyond its bare history. Originally published as Rue des Pas-Perdus in French.

Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack, Jr.

A highly valuable if somewhat somewhat jarringly passionless account of the storied Mexican revolutionary, this 1968 book nevertheless should stand as an example of genuine scholarship about a politically controversial figure in an era (our own) where academia is often conspicuously lacking in such virtues.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

R.I.P Vic Chesnutt

I remember helping Vic Chesnutt offstage in his wheelchair in Galway, Ireland after a solo concert he gave there about 15 years ago. A songwriter of rare power and intelligence, he was one my musical touchstones in my late teens and early twenties, along with such artists as the Clash, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Johnny Cash. Vic Chesnutt passed away, far too early for those of us who appreciated his music, over Christmas weekend.

Thank you, Vic, for all that great music and that very special night in Galway all those years ago.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

2009: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

In 2009 I began the year by attempting to bring attention to the plight of indigenous Australians - as downtrodden and disenfranchised a group as I have encountered - and ended it discussing issues of freedom of expression, secularism and women’s rights with a Bangladeshi author here in Europe. It was, as it turned out, a year during which I had the opportunity to visit a place that I had long wanted to see but never thought I would be able to get to (Papua New Guinea) and returned to my first love, Haiti, for the first time in three years, only to find it dishearteningly poised to lurch away from tentative progress to yet another politically-inspired crisis.

It was a year that began with great hope as we watched Barack Obama, whose candidacy I strongly supported, inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, and ended with more trepidation in the wake of the strong whiff of violence, racism and xenophobia that characterized opposition to Obama’s plan to reform America’s broken healthcare system, and the sober realization that 30,000 more American troops would be sent into harm’s way in Afghanistan in the coming months.

As the whittling down of serious, investigative foreign coverage became ever more dire, I found myself speaking to audiences at places such as the Florida International University in Miami, and the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Denpasar, Bali, wondering aloud what the future holds for a profession in which many of those in positions of power have become ever-more timid in the face of demands that the news business serve as little more than light entertainment for an otherwise-occupied populace.

Since I began reporting professionally a decade ago, I have never for a moment doubted the value of independent journalism, and how it gives voice to suffering and helps to advance the concerns of the disenfranchised in the global discussion of their fate. I have always believed that the highest goal the profession can have, and the reason that we ultimately have to exist as journalists, is to serve the people, not to repeat what the powerful would have us say.

Those wanting to stifle debate about important issues come in many guises, whether as executives of rapacious big-businesses, or as well-heeled intellectuals who seek to deform the struggles of places as complex as Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo to fit into their own narrow and often dilettantish understanding of the world. But I continue to believe that we as journalists, whatever the cost and whatever the financial and societal pressures we may feel, must continue to work for the poor majority that make up this world and whom, in my experience reporting now for a decade from six continents, want little more than an honest wage and a decent government for all their hard labours.

It is to those people who took time to speak with me this year - people such as the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa, Garawa and Mara of Borroloola in Australia’s Northern Territory, and the peasants of Haiti’s Artibonite Valley - that I dedicate these articles, and with them my hope for a gentler, more human and more just 2010.

Much love,


Women’s untold stories: A Conversation with Taslima Nasrin for Le Monde diplomatique (5 November 2009)

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis for AlterPresse (3 November 2009)

A conflict of interests: Corruption case against three African leaders throws into question economic relationships between developed countries and former colonies
for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2009)

Haiti: Back to life for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2009)

Challenges to Haiti’s Security Gains: An Address to the Applied Research Center and the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University
for AlterPresse (10 October 2009)

Haiti: "We Have Never Had Justice" for the Inter Press Service (21 July 2009)

Tentative calm brings optimism to a 'failed' Haiti for the Washington Times (19 July 2009)

Haiti: Deportees from U.S. Face Culture Shock, Retain Hope for the Inter Press Service (8 July 2009)

"The Elites Are Like a Huge Elephant Sitting on Haiti": Michael Deibert interviews Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis for the Inter Press Service (3 July 2009)

Measuring the Drowned and the Saved in Sudan: A Review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror for the Social Science Research Council (15 June 2009)

Manufactured diversity: Economies of North Africa’s Maghreb region are branching out into manufacturing as the demand for hydrocarbon exports continues to decline for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2009)

Papua New Guinea: Time to explore for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2009)

More Calls to Ban Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds for the Inter Press Service (24 May 2009)

The Final Testament of Rodrigo Rosenberg
for the World Policy Journal (15 May 2009)

World crisis spurs protest from French workers for the Washington Times (11 May 2009)

A Note on Violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University for the World Policy Journal (4 May 2009)

‘‘King of Kings’’ Gaddafi Tries to Flex Regional Muscles for the Inter Press Service (24 April 2009)

Australia’s Parched Landscape for the World Policy Journal, (26 February 2009)

Bone dry to blazing in Australia for the Washington Times (20 February 2009)

Xstrata Dreaming: The Struggle of Aboriginal Australians against a Swiss Mining Giant
for CorpWatch (16 February 2009)

Echoes of Obama on Australia Day for the World Policy Journal (26 January 2009)

Selectively shrugging off world conflicts: A review of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence is Ignored for the Miami Herald (20 January 2009)

Drugs vs. Democracy in Guatemala for the World Policy Journal (Winter 2008/09)

Politics of brutality: A review of An Encounter with Haiti
for the Miami Herald (4 January 2009)