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welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

 

 

 

On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.

Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?

I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?

It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.

strange theatre

 

I snapped this photo at about a quarter to four on the afternoon of March 29. A friend had called me up an hour or two earlier, saying — Hey, the ex-military are going on parade, do you want to join them? We were there within the hour, the only journalists in sight. This image was taken just down the road from their base. I posted it to Twitter with the following caption: “Ex-FAdH military en route to #PAP. Crowds cheer. Just a regular Thursday afternoon in Carrefour…”

I remember hearing about ex-military training and recruitment camps in March of last year. They were called Lame Woz, President Martelly’s pink army, held up by some as evidence of his fascist, repressive tendencies. Busy with other matters, I mostly ignored the reports for a full year. When the militarized groups began to clash with the national police two months ago, I finally paid them a visit.

A few of my shots from March 29’s parade were picked up far and wide. I saw them pop up in a handful of Haitian newspapers and sites, and the above shot especially made quite a few rounds on Facebook. A neighbour emailed it to me days later, saying: “You can thank [our electrician] and his Blackberry for this photo, taken on Canapé Vert.”

The photos stirred up some panic. These men and women in army green look armed, but they were not armed. They were not aggressive. They were playing out a scenario, in the theatre of Port-au-Prince.

The military term “theatre” is apt, as so much of what I’ve seen unfold over the past two and a half months has involved some level of acting, posturing, and scripted conflict. But I no longer know who is benefitting. I no longer know who, if anyone, is controlling the curtains.

 

I put together a doc for CBC Radio One’s Dispatches, but as is always the case, a few points got left on the cutting room floor or didn’t make it into the final script at all.

One is that this military narrative has changed over time. They’ve gone from cursing the tactical units of the national police to praising them as brothers. I accompanied them to the same police station they had once threatened to take by force, and they were hugging and shaking hands with the officers, smiles all around.

Another is that they feel they’ve been lied to. They’ve long said that the current president — a long time fan of Haiti’s military — had encouraged them last year, and even paid them a visit during his campaign while they were training at a different base. These men (and women) say they were encouraged to continue drilling and recruiting so that they could be ready for when the army is officially re-instated. Now the official line is that these groups must be dismantled, and the plan for a modern army revival is to be shelved for a time.

Today, May 18th, Haitian Flag Day, they’ve promised to ride the streets again. They say they’ll bring their guns out. Some of them, feeling bolder, say they’ll meet resistance with violence. They’ve been painted variously as a menace or as a band of clowns. I’m not sure they’re either.

There’s always more to it than that. This is about pride, about past, and to an extent, about sovereignty. This is about plot twists that could have been. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, in today’s act, nothing more than a few already-bruised egos get hurt.

 

 

sispann pedi

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

/james baldwin

I landed back in PAP a few weeks ago after a short time away, and returned to a city floating in a strange, grey, time warp limbo. My American Airlines flight hadn’t bothered to update to Haiti’s new timezone, so their clocks were still behind. When its plane full of clapping passengers touched down, joyed to arrive alive, they were already an hour late. President Michel Martelly’s office had announced the timezone switch late on a Friday evening in early March — a heads up of 30 hours for a population mostly deprived of electricity — to match the springing-forward of the north. None of this seemed to matter to the airline; early, late, it was all immaterial. The sky looked heavy as I walked outside. Thick air, humid and choked with car exhaust, smoke. It was uncomfortable. The long, uneasy week that followed was without sun, flush with rowdy rains day and night. Everything seemed more tense. Everything seemed more weird.

It wasn’t always like this. There had been some optimism early this year, a different energy, a feeling that, slowly, things might get better. I know I didn’t imagine it. I hope I didn’t imagine it. That mood began to wobble around Carnival, in February. A slap on the wrist for ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier after a year-long investigation, gossip-fueling feuds between the president and prime minister, defiant bacchanale excess in Les Cayes, and finally on the 24th, the resignation of the four-month-term head of government. Political turmoil, it was called. A string of high-profile murders. An early start to rainy season. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I can pinpoint when it fell apart.

It began the week the earthquakes came back.

The evening of March 7 , a Wednesday, I was at a friend’s place in the high hills of Petionville when the quake hit. I didn’t feel it, but even if I had, I don’t have traumatic memories to draw on. This small tremor sent people running into the streets, panicked, the apocalyptic horror of douz janvye flooding back like no time had passed. It was enough to give many Port-au-Prince residents a sleepless night and to keep them on edge for the days that followed.

And like clockwork, two senators went on the radio the next day to stoke that tension. They announced, separately, that there would be a mad panic in the capital soon, and advised listeners to be home by 4 pm for the sake of their safety. Rumours had already swirled for weeks that former President Jean Bertrand Aristide would be arrested, and the announcement of a sudden, mysterious press conference at the National Palace did nothing to allay the frightened chaos. When I went out later that evening, the streets were ghostly. Not a single police patrol in sight.

After that came Friday, the 9th. The day played out slowly, gingerly. There had been no catastrophe the night before. People went back to work. Vendors spread their fruits and cell phone cables and dried biscuits out to sell. Tap-taps and taxis laboured up and down their usual hills. Another minor earthquake hit — and this one I felt. Another high-profile assassination. That evening, at 8:23 pm, an abrupt announcement from the office of the president landed in my inbox, decreeing the adoption of a new timezone the following night. The chatter over the left field time change overshadowed another drama — a standoff between national police and rogue paramilitaries in Carrefour. The bizarre scene played out for hours on 104.9 FM: demobilized soldiers and their new recruits from three bases spread across the metropolitan area threatened to storm a police station where one of their own was being held, arrested on a traffic violation. A nameless national palace representative ordered the police to release their suspect, a former sergeant went on air to order the enraged paramilitaries back to their respective bases, and a temporary peace was declared. Not their last public flexing of power.

A weekend of disquiet.

Monday morning opened with a morbid editorial digest in Le Nouvelliste: “Haiti is open for… crisis?” The insecurity, the murders, the political bickering, and the unsubtle “Trojan War” being scripted by so many professional tragedians had convened to crush the last remaining optimism of a new year. Haiti’s positive re-branding campaign seemed empty. There was a heavy, disappointing sense of being trapped in a familiar time warp. The mood “is gloomy, and the old demons will come back to haunt this country if we do not take lessons from history.”

Two months later, I don’t know how to measure the mood anymore. I do not revel in the negative. My mind often wanders back to those intense 72 hours in March, though there have been many more highs and lows since: a new prime minister and Cabinet, a surge in cholera, a reduction in IDP camps, increased settlement south of Titanyen, disappearing rubble piles, a corruption scandal involving the president and a DR senator, more kids in school, road-choking protests over a police officer’s murder, gold medal beer, rain, rain, rain. I’m told that American Airlines has adjusted its timezone for Haiti by now. At least the time, if not the timing, is right.

 

takeoffs and landings

Tomorrow marks 10 years since peace returned to Angola. From 1961 to 1975, the war of independence. Then, nearly three decades of cold, cold civil war. But stretched out before either were hundreds of years of Portuguese occupation, colonization, slavery. A successful ceasefire agreement between former nationalist-guerilla-groups-turned-civil-war-rivals on April 4, 2002 changed all of that. This is the simplified version of events, in any case.

It’s been a very long road.

If you know me, you know how badly I wish I could be in Angola right now. My family’s history is tied to that place, tied to those wars. But for lack of finances, and at least a few unlucky missed opportunities, my time to visit has not yet come. In the meantime I read things like Judith Matloff‘s “Fragments of a Forgotten War,” a warm, beautifully written memoir of Angola’s false peace ten years earlier, in 1992. It took months (and at least two unscrupulous eBay sellers) to track down a copy, but it was well worth the effort. Matloff, a former Lisbon correspondant now based in Apartheid-era South Africa, arrives in post-ceasefire Luanda. Roads, railways and buildings had been obliterated during the wars, vast swaths of the country were littered with slumbering landmines, but offshore oil infrastructure remained intact. The ceasefire brought with it a frenzy of activity, new hopes, old demons, opportunism, and an uneasy chaos that I’m well familiar with in my own corner of the world:

Suddenly, small shops were opening and people were plastering over the bullet holes and painting their houses. Foreigners were coming in, looking for good business deals. Suddenly, too, there was a proliferation of cars–and traffic jams.

Bars were opening everywhere. The favoured one at the time was the Bar Aberto, or Open Bar, which was on a rooftop and played the latest techno-rap music from New York. I never ceased to marvel at where all these trendy people in tight black outfits appeared from; you never saw such hip well-dressed characters on the streets during the day.

The optimism that followed the Biçesse accords led to talk of physical reconstruction. Consultants and experts flew in to calculate how much it would cost to repair the shattered country. The World Bank estimated it would take a decade to fully rebuild the roads, bridges and other infrastructure. One of the more ambitious projects was reviving the Benguela Railroad (estimate: $340 million). Portuguese citizens visited factories and farms that had been nationalised with a view to buying them back.

Another negative side of peace, for the MPLA at any rate, was that it could no longer blame the ills of urban life on the enemy. Earlier it was UNITA which had thrown the city into a waterless dark by sabotaging electricity pylons and water tanks. But now that the rebels were in Luanda the MPLA had to assume responsibility for the deficiencies of city life.

These deficiencies were myriad. The MPLA as administrators embodied the worst of Portuguese bureaucracy, African lack of training and Marxist-Leninist inefficiency. Luanda had become a monster of a city.

For most of the population — and one-fifth lived in Luanda — there was no proper health care or education. Public services had all but broken down. I saw this most clearly at the city morgue, which I visited by accident. I was suffering from symptoms of malaria and a friend took me to the military hospital to be tested. I was advised to take my own clean needle to avoid the possibility of contracting Aids from the used ones they had at the hospital. When one entered the clinic one became keenly aware of one’s mortality: it was right next to the morgue. The building emitted a terrible stench. As the Cuban doctor pricked my finger for blood I heard what sounded like a small explosion.

“What’s that?” I asked. Another noise followed.

“Oh, it’s probably a body at the morgue,” the doctor said nonchalantly. “When the electricity goes off the refrigerators go warm. Then the bodies swell up and pop.”

konstitisyonally speaking

With the possible exception of the interpretation-obsessed U.S., I’ve never lived in a country so devoted to its constitution as Haiti. The 25th anniversary of the 1987 manman tout lwa was marked on Thursday by marches–by grassroots activist groups, by people under ex-President Aristide’s Lavalas party banner, and by former members of the demobilized national army. The first group called for citizens’ basic right to housing under article 22, highlighting in particular the plight of the hundreds of thousands living through their third rainy season under ratty tarps and tents. The second group protested for Martelly to step down due to his alleged dual nationality, which is forbidden under article 15. The third group defied government “orders” to stay confined to their (illegally occupied) military bases, and paraded their constitutionally-enshrined right to exist, citing articles 263 through 266.

In honour of these and other ongoing constitutional quarrels, here are some “scans” (er, photos–if you live in PAP and have a scanner, kindly let me know) of an illustrated Creole guide to the constitution. Click the right/left side of the image to go forward/back. Decentralization, dual nationality, the division of powers, provisional vs. permanent electoral council, physical abuse of cheeky journalists, it’s all laid out. Thanks, National Democratic Institute!

Konstitisyon 1987