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Category: the ugly isms

you’ll never believe what happened

“We live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

– Ben Okri

I’ve been thinking a lot these past two weeks or so about stories and storytellers, unreliable narrators, unreliable memories, and the purpose of conflict in a plot. An essay came out last week — maybe you saw? — about one person’s experience in Haiti that upset a number of people. I was one of them. Reading Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories has helped me understand my negative reaction. But we’ll get to King in a moment. First, that essay.

The crux of the piece is trauma and how one person dealt with it, but the context of Haiti (starting with graphs two and three, but really starting long before that) is what made many of us cry foul. I don’t need to reiterate why. The letter, which I did not write but supported enough to sign my name to, already covers these points.

I’ve been somewhat troubled by the sometimes vicious, mostly vapid back-and-forth on the topic. The arguments praising the author for being “brave”; the haughty, sneering references to her as a “parachute” journalist;  the claws-out attacks on the 36 signatories (among them, a highly respected Haitian author and several Haitian and foreign journalists, activists and researchers who have spent years or decades living in and writing about the country) for daring to question a victim of an ailment they likely have suffered from themselves; disputes over the veracity of the ugly Haitian context of the essay or whether the context even matters. Each side accuses the other of missing the point.

Also, I’m told that PTSD is a hot topic? And that calling someone a “liberal” is an insult? I wouldn’t know.

The point is not the trauma acquisition or recovery process. That is something personal. Everyone has a different threshold for this sort of thing, framed by their own upbringing, exposure to violence and relationship with pain, injustice, death. I’ve seen my friends break to pieces, lash out in anger, withdraw into themselves, drown their memories in alcohol and drugs. Many of them, to escape trauma, will simply occupy their minds with newer, fresher traumas, bouncing from difficult assignment to difficult assignment, layering horror upon horror. But the new images and stories and experiences don’t cancel out the old ones, do they?

(My own panic attacks and chest-gripping anxiety have subsided over the past several weeks, thanks in no small part to two passports, plane tickets, and a six hour time difference. Temporary exile, a luxury that is still accessible to me. I do have a support network, both on and off the island, but the back-home network, unless they’ve been in similar situations, often aren’t much help.

“You are so brave for going there,” they would say. It made me cringe, because there is absolutely nothing brave about it. Some of the people who expressed the most shock or admiration were Haitian friends who were either born in the diaspora or left as small children and never returned. The way they painted their motherland was stark. “You’re going to get kidnapped,” they told me, breathless, eyes wild with a brand of Ayiti paranoia I came to know well. “It is total anarchy. Please be careful.” And again, “you are so brave.”

We have strange ideas about what bravery is.)

Over a week later, I’m looking beyond the online fight-picking and feeling more thoughtful. I realize that, in part, my reaction is fed by frustration with so much of the shoddy, thoughtless, lazy journalism I watched pour out of Haiti in the first eight or nine months I spent there. Both parachute-jumpers and long-haulers have made bad judgement calls in how they describe Haiti, how they contextualize their stories, and in how they selectively — if at all — do their background homework. (I am not immune from this same criticism.) Countless journalists have published and aired stories that paint a Haiti that is far more dangerous and chaotic than it actually is. There are lots of examples. You have probably seen many of them, absorbed them, taken them as fact. I won’t even get into political coverage, or we’ll be here all night. There’s bad, sensational reporting everywhere, but Haiti seems to be spectacularly good at attracting this sort of thing.

I’ve been wondering through all of this, perhaps naively: what is the purpose of making Haiti sound worse than it is? Who benefits from making it come across as a war zone, or yes, a hellhole? Quite a lot of people, I would imagine. All of these stories mean something. They build something. People believe them. Each bad story props up the other, until a new, perceived version of Haiti is papered over the real one. Darkness.

In talking about stories, Thomas King starts by telling the one from which all the others spring: the creation myth. First, the story of the woman who fell from the sky. Second, the biblical creation story. He writes:

“So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation. And there’s the problem.”

From this central story, the one that frames our world and everything in it, stems the desire for dichotomies and battles. “We trust easy oppositions,” He says.

“Perhaps this is why we delight in telling stories about heroes battling the odds and the elements, rather than about the magic of seasonal change. Why we relish stories that lionize individuals who start at the bottom and fight their way to the top, rather than stories that frame these forms of competition as varying degrees of insanity. Why we tell our children that life is hard, when we could just as easily tell them that it is sweet. Is it our nature? Do the stories we tell reflect the world as it truly is, or did we simply start off with the wrong story?”

The desire for these masculine, arrow-shaped storylines [PDF] in our own lives — we are the heroes or heroines, pitted against a cast of cardboard villains — is problematic, it is dangerous, and it is very boring.

Perhaps this is what’s bothered me most. I am disappointed with these arguments because I am bored with the flat stories they are woven around. Bored with heroes, bored with villains, bored with black and white judgements, bored of these meaningless, echoing stories we absorb without question and then act out, me versus you, every day. It is so much easier to see a place like Haiti painted in ugly, unforgiving broad strokes than it is to contemplate it in shades of grey, orange, blue, red. It’s so much easier to choose sides in wars of personality. So much easier to enjoy conflict than to question its purpose in a plot. So much easier than challenging these stories. So much easier than telling, or listening, to new ones.

Ayiti yo pa vle wè a…

aweh, my ma se kind

It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.

And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.

I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.

I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.

I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.

madrassa house rock

Six days after I moved to New York in August 2007, Debbie Almontaser — an educator, inter-faith worker, and founding principle of the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy — was forced out of her job. Her employers at the New York City Department of Education had succumbed to a months-long smear campaign led by the NY Post and a swelling group of critics who called themselves the Stop the Madrassa Coalition. Terrorist, radical, Islamist, indoctrinator. “Dhabah,” they called her, attempting to paint her and the others who helped guide the school as alien and enemy.

As this was happening, a very different story was developing. Arabic, the language under siege by those opposed to the dual-language academy, had become the fastest-growing language in the United States. According to a November 2007 report by the Modern Languages Association, there was a 127% jump in Arabic class enrollment between 2002 and 2006, pushing it into the number ten spot.

Almontaser’s case dragged on. After a painful stretch with no movement and no news, earlier this month, a gleam in the distance: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the New York City Department of Education had discriminated against Almontaser “on account of her race, religion and national origin” when they forced her to resign in 2007. Days later, the current principal stepped down.

I wrote about the Khalil Gibran saga over one year. Here’s an excerpt. Better brew some tea, it’s a hefty one.

les affreux

Bob Dénard – now there’s a biography I’d like to write. Né Gilbert Bourgeaud, aka Said Mustapha Mahdjoub, Muslim, Jewish or Catholic depending on the territory being occupied. Father of eight, murderer of many.

Killer of independence.

The lessons he carried out, cautionary tales illustrating the cost of freedom versus the value of it, have weighed heavily on my mind this past week.

For three decades, beginning in the 1960s, he was the patrol dog of Françafrique and beyond. He put his mercenary paws all over Benin, Gabon, Congo, Yemen, Nigeria, Iran, Zimbabwe, and his favourite target, L’Union des Comores. He’s doctored more coups and coup attempts than I have fingers and toes, generally with the backing of Western powers looking to protect their interests in the decolonized South. It was in France’s interest that the Comores be plunged into chaos and poverty post independence. It was in France’s interest that these newborn republics fail. Otherwise, what sort of message would that send to the remaining colonies? Colonies that, to this day, moodily accept overseas territory status and massive inequality, perhaps for fear that the alternative – independence – would leave them in much worse shape. Recent referenda in Martinique, French Guiana and Mayotte show that no, in fact, we do not all yearn to be free. Some would prefer to stay yoked, heads held above water, than drown.


Vive la mort, vive la guerre, vive le sacre mercenaire.

I wonder if Bob the Dog ever looked on Haiti and cursed himself for having been born too late. “A century and a half earlier,” he might have muttered, “and I could have put a clamp on that, too.”

Awful, awful, awful.