Friday, March 18, 2016

Reading Around the World - Libya: Dictatorship, self Determination, Desolation

The skyline of Tripoli 

This week I read "Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution", which follows the months of fighting around the revolution. The author conformed to the dominant western depiction of Gaddafi as devious but blundering kook, and a pervert at that. From our standpoint, he seems almost a cartoon villain, complete with a face collapsing from botox and a squad of suspiciously attractive female body guards. But in Africa, he was often thought of quite differently. Libya was quite a wealthy country – it has a lot of oil and a low population to split the proceeds. Gaddafi was generous with this wealth. He supported what he saw as social change around Africa, from the terrorist Charles Taylor in Libya to the revolution in South Africa. Nelson Mandala saw him as a great friend. When I traveled to Kampala, in Uganda, I was struck by the magnificent mosque that dominated the skyline. When I went to visit, my guide enthusiastically told me that Gaddafi had built it. The Libyan people too, benefited from this wealth. Education was universal, literacy improved, and women's status increased with their education.

Gaddafi's National Mosque I visited in Kampala. Unfortunately my pictures didn't survive the trip, so you'll just have to imagine me posing with it in a pink rhinestoned hijab. 

Gaddafi with his 'Green Book', a manifesto he wrote and mandated study of in Libya

The problem comes with absolute power. Gaddafi never took an official leadership title, claiming that “the people” lead Libya, and he was merely a guide. But an institution-less government meant there were no checks on his power. He treated governance as a playground for his family and friends. When power is based entirely upon relationships, there is no room for truth. No room for dissent. Instead, there were prisons. Dissenters were quickly hidden in these black holes, with no access to the outside world. Many died of starvation or torture. Families brought food and clothes to their loved ones week after week, only to eventually find out they had died years ago. The population was well educated, but without connections there were no jobs to be had – the government had a stranglehold on every sector of business. After 40 years, Libyans were tired. They were tired of the endless dull humiliation of unemployment. Tired of seeing their money splashed carelessly across the continent. Tired of waiting, hoping, that one day their sons and brothers and husbands would emerge from prison alive. So they began to fight. A barely armed ragtag group of untrained young men stands little chance against a national army armed with some of the most expensive weapons in the world. It looked bleak for the revolution. Until the United States began to fight on their side.

Gaddafi turned into a meme by the revolution - in this speech he claims he will hunt the rebels down 'zenga zenga', or alley by alley. This threat was transformed into a catchy dance number. 

My lifelong study of violence has, paradoxically, left me not unconditionally against violence. I believe in the potential for killing to prevent killing. I would gladly reach back in time and fire the gun that could have prevented the Rwandan genocide: it could have been done, should have been done. Even a hundred lives of the tiny elite who orchestrated the slaughter is surely worth the 80,000 who died for their hate. The problem is we can never know what would have happened had we not acted. Unspilt blood doesn't stain. So Libya emerges as a test: we fought on the side of “the people”. Did they win?

The easy answer is No. Libya dropped off the media map. I struggled to find an article on their post-Arab Spring prospects written in the past year. And perhaps this was the death of it. As Western attention faded, so did any semblance of order. Ghaddafi left a fractured country without established institutions, a country where the only people left qualified to lead had been in exile so long they barely knew Libya. The fragile interim government failed to bring the country together. Now hundreds of armed groups vie for power in the aftermath, and the Muslim Brotherhood grows in the vacuum. Gaddafi may have been a dictator. But ultimately, it seems, he was better than nothing. So should we have acted? Should we have allowed the slaughter that surely would have occurred if the US didn't act to protect the rebels? Or by preventing it did we just allow a drawn out slaughter which will consume the whole country? Libya offers the hard lesson: you cannot act without taking responsibility. Western assistance dried up with Gaddafi's death, and without this, it is little wonder the inexperienced and unprepared idealists who tried to built a functioning government from the rubble of revolution failed. We bought them a revolution. But it is the Libyan people, now, who pay the price.

Bhengazi after years of fighting 

If you are interested in learning more about post-revolution Libya, I found these articles helpful. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Jaffna part two: The Gods Revealed

On the train 

As we travel North the water disappears. When we leave Colombo at sunrise mist covers emerald green rice patties, a delicate rose sky reflects in pools around the crops. The air hangs heavy with water. Along the road to Jaffna the water recedes, slowly at first, but suddenly you look up and palm trees are replaced with stubby palms, and gnarled plants cling close to sandy earth. A swamp devoid of water. I sit in the door of the train and let the girtty air play across my face. Air is unfamiliar without the clinging embrace of moisture – feel alien.

Money, too, drains like water from the landscape. Houses cobbled together from sheet mettle, or half finished with one wall painted or plastered and rest crumbling and forgotten looking. We pass wells for the whole town, and NGOs advertising their landmine clearing services. Though I know all this is here, I am shocked to see it. My first tangible evidence of the war. If in Colombo war hides in the shadows, here it covers the landscape like dust. I lose count of the empty shells of houses we pass.

Jaffna is a place of picturesque destruction. From remnants of empire, to remnants of pre-war prosperity, everything seems in ruins. Even the nicest streets are pockmarked by lots empty except for collapsing concrete and the occasional cow. I am torn: do I capture the crumbling beauty in my camera, or turn away, leave the emptiness to the ghosts. How strange to find the remains of destruction and violence beautiful.

Abandoned Churches 

But our third day in Jaffna was one of life. We went to the Nullar Kovil Temple for a Pooja, or worship service. As we neared the temple we were greeted by a cacophony of bells, which I thought must have come from a church, but realized hung from one of the many great towers of the temple, looming in great pyramids above the white sand and alive with carved demons and grinning faces. As we drew close, the bells were replaced with drums and the winding call of a horn. The priests, shirtless and striped in holy ash, lead us with a crowd or worshipers from shrine to shrine around the vast temple. The drummer hammered a beat that the horn player wove in and out of while the priests opened door after door to reveal the God hidden behind, and offer incense. The people around us held up their hands or knelt in prayer as their favorite God was revealed. As we circled around the temple the horn player began to break away from the repetition of his song, soaring above and around and then returning to his rhythms in a way I have only one word for... it was Jazz.

A Buddhist monk once told me that sees the world as infused with kindness. That behind every object, machine, or place, is the kindness of hundreds of people who helped to create it. Kindness of those who built the building we stood in, kindness of those who made the carpets, kindness of those who changed the lightbulbs and swept the floors. In what we in the west call “self interest” and “profit motive”, he sees a sacred network of interconnected individuals working to help one another. I don't know if I can fully subscribe to this kindness theory, but it is a worldview I like to fit over my own from time to time, like tinted glasses. As I left, I realized, you can do something similar for Jaffna. You can concentrate on the shells of homes, mourn their emptiness, gnash your teeth at the slow pace of reconstruction. But, for every abandoned house, there are a dozen full ones. Jaffna was completely empty for years during the war. The residents fled to squalid camps or hid and starved in jungles. Everyone over the age of 12 remembers. But still, they come back. Open shops. Rebuild their homes. Go on dates. Love. Fight. Mourn. Have children. In Jaffna you can see tragedy in everything. Or, if you choose, a world infused with hope.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Jaffna Part One

Traveling is sometimes rife with the awkward and the uncomfortable, as language and cultural barriers collide head on into some terrible wreckage of social interaction. All of my experiences of this ilk in Sri Lanka, it seems, were waiting for me in Jaffna. Within 30 minutes of arriving in Jaffna someone offered me their child. Within 3 hours, I was 90% naked and dripping in oil.

After the 7 hour train ride to Jaffna Jonathan and I stumbled immediately into the nearest restaurant, one of those places that demonstrate the revitalization of the North... sort of. It was a largish place busily installing a superfluous decorative pond and concrete circles with no discernible purpose. The restaurant staff, of which there were many more than patrons, hurriedly busied themselves with not taking our order for a good 15 minutes. While we fidgeted hungrily, a man dragged his little son over to our table to look at us. While the boy eyed us with an appropriate level of sullen suspicion, his father attempted to coax him to speak to us. To fill the awkward silence, I asked how old the boy was, to which his father disconcertingly responded “Oh, do you want him?” We could think of no better response to this than nervous laughter and frantic head shaking.

Once we joined our friends Natasha and Shabia, Fulbrighters teaching in Jaffna, they mentioned they were going to get a massage at a place recommend by a neighbor. Thinking it would be nice to relax after the train, I went along. A long, confused Tuktuk ride later we pulled up outside a slightly dilapidated house with a 'Herbal Healing' sign out front. Shabia valiantly attempted to explain to our masseuses (whose English was quite limited) that we were meeting friends for dinner and would only have time for a half hour massage. Remembering the leisurely restaurant experience, I gave up on explaining time sensitivity in a small underdeveloped town of the global south, and tried to relax into the experience. I was guided behind some curtains to the massage table (literally, a table) and took off most of my clothes. The massage turned out to be more oil than massage, mostly just dripping the warm slippery stuff over my body and squelching it around. Nevertheless, I felt oddly safe with my masseuse, who was blind in one eye and blithely asked me questions in Tamil, undiscouraged by my complete inability to respond. I was just beginning to relax to the melodramatic tones of that great linguistic universal, the soap opera, which blared on the TV outside, when she flipped me over and deftly removed my bra. 

I find that in countries with strict barriers between the sexes, barriers within genders tend to break down. I reminded myself of this repeatedly as she rubbed oil into my boobs. Just when I felt the experience could hardly get weirder, she emerged from the shadows with a large plastic contraption. It was vibrating. This was liberally applied all over my body – yes – boobs too. After I had been vibrated to her satisfaction, I went to rejoin my friends, and was taken aback to discover them receiving massages a room with a coffin. Natasha sprawled on a massage table that looked suspiciously like a door. On closer inspection, I think the coffin was actually some kind of derelict massage equipment, but I'd choose the door any day.

From there we hurried to shower before joining our friends for a movie (we had given up on dinner). It took 4 shampoos to get the oil out of my hair. We did make it – just in time for the 9 pm showing, which, it turned out, started at 9:30. Tickets for the 9:30 movie, we were informed, would begin selling at 9:45. As we waited the lobby gradually filled with about half of Jaffna's male population under 40, whose universal reaction to seeing the group of us (five women and one man) was to laugh hysterically. Though I don't speak Tamil I'm pretty sure I understood their response “Women!?! But it's after dark!!!”. The guys took our brazen and shameless appearance in a movie theater after 7 pm to be clear evidence that we were some sort of prostitutes, and they passed the time by discussing various parts of our anatomies. The leer-giggling continued for one of the most uncomfortable half hours I've had in Sri Lanka, until, fuming, we finally got to into the theater.

The movie was great though. Somehow Kollywood turned medical certificate fraud into a rollicking action movie, complete with chase scenes, warnings against the terrible dangers of alcohol, and inexplicable dance numbers. The plot doesn't bear repeating, but the metaphors the romantic leads used to describe each other certainly do. I've saved my favorites for you:
“my tribe of monkeys”
“google glasses”
“like a touch screen” (sensual!) and finally,
“my jaggery paste”.

More to come on Jaffna. Later explorations of the town were a lot more contemplative and lot less absurd. But now that I've had one of those zany adventures that people turn into travel memoirs (you know, the kind which focuses a little too much on the lack of toilet paper), I feel I can't waste it.