FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" to Learn About the Most Brutal War You've Never Heard Of (DRC)


Horseshoes and Hand Grenade History of DRC:
King Leopold II uses Congo as his own private playground, factory, and torture chamber until the Belgian government wakes up and takes it away from him. They create the Belgian Congo which they run for the next 50 years until Congolese independence in 1960. Rising nationalism combined with the fact that Belgium finally realized they couldn’t administer a country three times the size of Texas. Patrice Lumumba becomes Prime Minister until 1965 when, amidst the Cold War, the US conspires to support Mobutu in a coup to overthrow Soviet sympathizer Lumumba. From 1965 into the 90s, Mobutu Sese Seko rules the country that he renames Zaire. Eventually, in 1996 Laurent Kabila heads up a multi-national, multi-ethnic coalition of forces and takes Kinshasa from a fleeing Mobutu by 1997. Kabila promptly renames the country the DRC. Kabila proves ineffective and a Ugandan-backed rebel movement starts the next year led by warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. Eventually this second war devolves into a struggle between six bordering countries. In 2001 Kabila is assassinated and succeeded by his son Joseph. By 2003 the war ends after much death and destruction. Since then Joseph Kabila has continued to rule through several corrupted election cycles. DRC continues to be a country on edge.

NOTE: In this book we are talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo (if you get them used confused just remember: if a country has “democratic” in its name, it likely is anything but. See a great explanation on the two countries here). The DRC is also referred to as “Congo-Kinshasa” (after it’s capital), and Republic of Congo as “Congo-Brazzaville”.

The Story:
I listened to this lengthy journalistic endeavor by writer Jason Stearns while driving home from work to Annapolis during the month of June. In it Stearns attempts to unravel the most complicated conflict that the world never cared about: the two wars in the Congo as he notes: “generally we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of africa.” This stands in stark contrast to the conflict in, say Kosovo, by contrast (Ch 23: 21:10).

As Stearns digs deeper and deeper into the wars, however, you are quickly struck by the overwhelming intensity of violence. Eventually it starts to weigh down upon you as you hear tale after graphic tale of rape and murder by every side (and there are many). In particular, the sheer level of sexual violence in incomprehensible as there’s likely no one in the country of 64 million who doesn’t know someone who was raped or assaulted (this Guardian piece notes that 12% of women in the Congo have been raped at least once). The reality of this becomes readily apparent as Stearns cautiously queries a gathered mixed crowd in one village as to whether they know anyone who’s been raped. Their reply: “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36) The women go on to explain that in most cases, the rapists still live in their community.

Ultimately, it is the absence of justice that marks the conflicts in Congo as distinct from those elsewhere in Africa. There have been no truth and reconciliations commissions or gacaca courts to salve the deep wounds of most in the country. When one couples this festering infection with the lack of any effective state institutions, one is left without much hope. As Stearns observes, with no real state or effective governance, people default to ethnic identification which in turn only amplifies instability and further conflict (Ch 16: 44:31). The book does not end on a hopeful note but this was never the author’s mission. Rather Stearns has sought to reveal an incredibly complex issue that will hopefully inspire action and understanding. As the renowned Congolese singer Koffi Olomide notes in one of his songs: “Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually”

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 20182017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

Key Quotes:
  • “Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually” -Congolese singer (and assaulter extraordinaire) Koffi Olomide (Ch 1: 25:36)
  • Laurent Kabila, stereotypical Congolese big man. “Who has not been Mobutists in this country? We saw you all, dancing in the glory of the monster.” (Ch 2: 18:25)
  • “Where elephants fight, the grass is trampled” Common excuse used by those who had committed atrocities in Rwandan genocide. In this case it was used by Rwandan leader Rwarakabije, who is today a Rwandan military leader responsible for much of the murdering. This proverb was a refrain commonly used by many leaders who perpetrated evil. You can read more about him today in this 2009 New Yorker Piece. (Ch 3: 54:09)
  • “Africa has the shape of a pistol and Congo is its trigger.” -Frantz Fanon (Ch 5: 00:16)
  • “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36)
  • “Generally we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of africa.” As opposed to say Kosovo (Ch 23: 21:10) 
Key Takeaways:
  • Lack of institutions large part of conflict in Congo: Failure to ever build strong institutions = many actors compete for power and resources in this vacuum. There were 40 different Congolese armed groups at height of war with 9 different african states deploying troops in eastern congo. Don’t simplify for the sake of theoretical clarity. (Chapter 1: 12:21)
  • International attention is stymied by the complexity and breadth of the conflict: No easy way to describe the war so despite its staggering statistics, it gets lost in the momentary headlines. There’s no easy villains. “War of the ordinary person” 20 different rebel groups. (Ch 2: 5:24-6:00)
  • The African World War: The War in the Congo was not a civil war but rather it was African leaders against Mobutu in a regional conflict...in effect Africa’s World War. (Ch 5:28:04)
  • Zimbabwe provided money, Eritrea provided boats, ethiopia and tanzania provided military advisors. (Ch 5: 31:13). Most important front of Congo war was being fought by foreign troops on both sides (Ch 20: 19:01)
  • On the efficacy of using child soldiers: Child soldiers were used as vanguard special forces because they lacked the judgment of olders soldiers who knew to fear death and who would only accept a limited amount of risk. (Ch 12: 25:33)
  • How foreign aid impedes progress: Development of rule of law and governance in the Congo is stymied by foreign aid which takes over the reins of tasks and responsibilities which should fall to a functioning government. (Ch 23: 15:44)
  • The unexamined/unrestrained global economy as a driver of instability and violence: Link between Sony Playstation and coltan in the Congo (Ch 20: 41:02)

Key References (for further study)
My review of "A Bend in the River" is here.

























NY Times 2011 Book Review of "Dancing"
WaPo Review of "Dancing"
African Arguments 2011 Review of "Dancing"
Telegraph 2011 Review of "Dancing"
New Republic Review of "Dancing"
Foreign Affairs Capsule Review of "Dancing"
Lonely Planet Founder Review of "Dancing"
The Life After Fifteen years after the genocide in Rwanda, the reconciliation defies expectations (2009)
Inside Africa's "Playstation War" (2008 Wired)
BBC Country Snapshot
A Tale of Two Congos blog
Pulitzer Center Report on "Plight of the Banyamulenge"


  • Failure to ever build strong institutions = many actors compete for power and resources in this vacuum. There were 40 different Congolese armed groups at height of war with 9 different african states deploying troops in eastern congo. Don’t simplify for the sake of theoretical clarity. (Chapter 1: 12:21)
  • Dan Gertler made fortune off illicit sales of mining rights (US targets Israeli businessman Dan Gertler with fresh sanctions) by exploiting his personal relationship with President Kabila (Chapter 1: 18:17)
  • No easy way to describe the war so despite its staggering statistics, it gets lost in the momentary headlines. There’s no easy villains. “War of the ordinary person” 20 different rebel groups. (Ch 2: 5:24-6:00)
  • In the Congo, the power of the state has been eroded over centuries. In 1885 King Leopold claimed the space as the Congo Free State until 1908 when he turned the country over to the Belgian government. (Ch 2: 9:57-11:00)
  • Good history of Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda/Eastern Congo (Ch 3: 25:55)
  • Humanitarian aftermath of Rwandan genocide in effect whitewashed much of the crimes but erasing good and evil and recasting all as vicitims. (Ch 4: 24:07)
  • The War in the Congo was not a civil war but rather it was African leaders against Mobutu in a regional conflict...in effect Africa’s World War. (Ch 5:28:04)
  • Zimbabwe provided money, Eritreat provided boats, ethiopia and tanzania provided military advisors. (Ch 5: 31:13)
  • Role and history of the Banyamulenge, a persecuted minority discussed in depth and a key group in the conflict. You can read more on it here. (Ch 6: 09:19)
  • It’s difficult to convey how the mass killings could have occurred but its equally difficult to convey the generational and societal history of killing on both sides. (Ch 7: 06:21).
  • 1937 Belgians brought in tens of thousands of Rwandan workers into Kivu due to their “reputation” as hard working and later morphed to another 100,000..this was followed by another wave around Rwandan independence number (due to unrest) which ultimately resulted in 335,000 living in the Congo as part of the Goma elite in Massisi (as much as 70% of the population there). (Ch 7: 08:18)
  • Che Guevara eventually gave up in Congo with his disillusionment with Kabila (Ch 8: 10:12)
  • Laurent Kabila accidental leader of AFDL movement (Ch 8: 26:25)
  • AFDL troops took on names of famous bad guys...even today some captured villagers describe AFDL leaders named Rambo or Qadaffi. (Ch 10:40:10)
  • Congolese army problem was how to reform it structurally but how to reform its corrupt leaders (Ch 10: 52: 36).
  • Child soldiers were used as vanguard special forces because they lacked the judgment of olders soldiers who knew to fear death and who would only accept a limited amount of risk. (Ch 12: 25:33)
  • Mwenze Kongolo, a former bail officer from Philly became Kabila’s Minister of Interior. (Ch 14: 26:48)
  • Big obstacle to progress in Congo is the ethnic identification which is exclusive by nature and which is only strong because the state is absent (Ch 16: 44:31)
  • “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36)
  • Since 1998 over 200K women raped in Congo, 39% of the total population! (Ch 19: 40:52)
  • Most important front of Congo war was being fought by foreign troops on both sides (Ch 20: 19:01)
  • War corrupted anything good in Kabila...he became consumed by it (Ch 20: 49:38)
  • Link between Sony Playstation and coltan in the Congo (Ch 20: 41:02)
  • Development of rule of law and governance in the Congo is stymied by foreign aid which takes over the reins of tasks and responsibilities which should fall to a functioning government. (Ch 23: 15:44)
  • Congo is an outlier because they haven’t had tribunals to bring some measure of justice to victims (Ch 23: 19:29)

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "The Memory of Love" to Learn About Love, Courage and Enduring (Sierra Leone)

Sierra Leone “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" History:

The first European influence in this West African nation came from the Portuguese in the 1400s. Prior to that Muslim traders spread Islam throughout the area. Formal efforts at colonization didn’t begin until the late 18th century, however, as successive series of freed slaves arrived--first from England, then from America via Nova Scotia (the Freetown settlement), and finally from Jamaica (the “Maroons”). At this point, the British government took over and spent the better part of the 19th century “freeing” “recaptured” slaves from across the Atlantic in Sierra Leone (that’s a lot of air quotes n’est-ce pas). These 50,000 former slaves bore a mixture of cultures and languages and England worked to homogenize them and was generally successful in this effort after a generation (i.e., this Creole group came to represent a West African elite group). Fast forward to 1961 when the people of Sierra Leone gain independence from Great Britain in a bloodless (compared to other colonies) transition. The next 30 years saw a number of coups and political transitions, to include an extended period under the one-party rule of Siaka Stevens and his APC party.

Then came a decade-long civil war (1991-2002) that, among other things, popularized the term “blood diamond.” as Liberian president cum warlord cum murderous lunatic Charles Taylor outfitted the Sierra Leone Revolutionary United Front (RUF) with weapons in exchange for the diamonds. The war would claim some 50,000 lives and was characterized by widespread sexual violence to include a particularly high occurrence of multiple perpetrator rape (some sources claim as many as a quarter million women were victims of sexual violence). The cessation of violence came only after the arrival British forces to backup a lethargic U.N. force. Since then, successive cycles of corrupt and ineffective governance has stymied the country’s development.





The Story


“We all were happy here once” reminisces Kai, the local Freetown surgeon, after the death of his last link to the time before. In “The Memory of Love”, with beautiful, striking prose author Aminattah Forna reveals the soul of a nation where nearly everyone is stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the time after. And while PTSD may be the official western diagnosis, as one local notes: “You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.” The life that the reader discovers is one of contradictions as buddinglove constantly collides with the memory of pain. On one hand, Forna expertly frames the bittersweet nature of love as character Elias Cole remarks: “People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.” On the other hand, Cole’s daughter Mamakay shares with her British lover Adrian why she and her friend slipped on jeans when they rebels broached the city: ‘Have you ever tried to get a pair of tight jeans off in a hurry? It was the only thing we could think of to do. To stop them raping us. Well, to make it harder.’

This painful history of sexual violence plays a prominent role as British tourist-psychologist Adrian tries to unpack a the mystery of one wondering, perhaps-possessed patient, a budding friendship with Kai, and the story of a dying man named Elias Cole. In this journey Forna examines what it means to love and to survive in Sierra Leone. And the author does not give in to easy storylines about the courage of the war’s survivors as Mamakay notes: “Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble.” So how does a society, how does a nation go on with this twisted corporate history of incestuous betrayal and violence? How do a people wake up each day? It is Kai who reveals Forna’s central thesis: “And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.” It is the memory of Sierra Leone’s before, that is what gives people their strength to slowly put their lives together again. Ultimately, Forna rejects any pitying outsider’s assessment of her nation: “People think war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure.”

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2018201720162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

Key Quotes:
  • People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss. (27)
  • And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love. (3023)
  • There was nowhere in the world where doctors weren’t cherished. 1550
  • There was the Forty Day ceremony. Do you know the forty days mark the end of a wife’s period of mourning? Among her own people Saffia would be considered ready for remarriage. Life here is too short to mourn for very long. 4345
  • Mamakay turns to look at him. ‘Have you ever tried to get a pair of tight jeans off in a hurry? It was the only thing we could think of to do. To stop them raping us. Well, to make it harder.’ 4563
  • People think war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure.4613
  • Sometimes I think this country is like a garden. Only it is a garden where somebody has pulled out all the flowers and trees and the birds and insects have all left, everything of beauty. Instead the weeds and poisonous plants have taken over.’ Adrian is silent for a moment. 5,699
  • She loved like she was going to war, but she was also not the kind of woman to wait for a man. Valiant in battle, noble in defeat. She walked away and never looked back. 6,196
Key Takeaways:

  • On silence in Sierra Leone: If Adrian falls silent, so too do they, waiting patiently and without embarrassment. Here the silences have a different quality, are entirely devoid of expectation. 
  • On conversation: Conversation here can be challenging, language is a blunter instrument, each word a heavy black strike with a single meaning. To say exactly what you mean, to ask precisely the right question, this is what has to be done. For the bluntness of the language doesn’t mean people speak their minds. Rather, they use the spaces to escape into. (778)
  • How the Civil War marked the life of everyone, indeed life itself: ‘I was doorman here,’ he adds. ‘Before.’ He says it as others do, in a way that conveys a sense of timelessness. Before. There was before. And there is now. And in between a dreamless void. 1854
  • On the brutality of the war: ‘It was rage. It wasn’t a war, what happened here, in the end. It was fury. Having nothing left to lose.’
  • On the "thin men": Afterwards the thin men were unleashed upon the town. This was the advance party. Now the war is over she knows their name. G5. Some called it the Sensitisation Unit...Adecali had belonged to the rebel Sensitisation Unit. The Unit’s task was to enter a town marked for invasion ahead of the fighting contingent of the rebel army and by their methods to ensure the villagers’ future capitulation. As a strategy it worked. It saved on casualties – among the rebel forces, that is. It saved on ammunition. The Unit’s planning was meticulous, the process merciless, the outcome effective. Adecali’s job, his particular job, was to burn families alive in their houses.
  • On life after war: The conclusion they reached was that ninety-nine per cent of the population was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’ 5192 Attila and waves a hand at the view. ‘You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.’ 5199
  • On survival: And Kai has never once treated a would-be suicide. War had the effect of encouraging people to try to stay alive. Poverty, too. Survival was simply too hard-won to be given up lightly. 5542
  • More on survival: Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble.’ 5,691 You’ve never lived in a place like this. Here enemies are a luxury only the poor can afford. 6,614
  • On Rape as a Weapon of Trauma:  October 1999. So many children born in a single month. In Kai’s view Mary’s capacity to forgive seems, quite simply, immeasurable. Mary’s parents had taken her son away to raise in the village. Who knows how many children born in the same month in the same year are being raised all over the country like that? Children like Mary’s son who have one thing in common. They were all born nine months after the rebel army invaded the city. 5,953
  • On Love and Death: For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one – which is to remember. Adrian cannot believe with what intensity one can continue to love a person who is dead. Only fools, he believes, think that love is for the living alone. 7,116



Key References (For Further Study):
The Sad Truth About the Fight Against Blood Diamonds
Rebellion and Agrarian Tensions in Sierra Leone (July 2011)
Guardian Review of "Memory of Love" (2010)
http://www.aminattaforna.com/
NYT Book Review (2011)
Colonial Sierra Leone: The agonizing experience of a West African state under British colonial domination
Diane Rehm Interview with Forna

The melody stayed with me for years. This is how it is when you glimpse a woman for the first time, a woman you know you could love. People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss. (27)

He thinks how quiet affluence is: people living in private spaces, arguments in the shape of silences and closed doors. Compares it to the rowdy unselfconsciousness of poverty. The swooping laughter of children, though, is the same anywhere in the world. (319)

He has yet to become used to it, the silences between people. In Britain people came, or were sent, to see him. He learned to examine their silence, to see if it was tinted with shame, or pain, or guilt, coloured with reluctance or tainted with anger. He himself used silence as a lure, pitting his own silence against theirs, until they were compelled to fill the void. Here those tricks have no place, even with those whom he calls his patients. If Adrian falls silent, so too do they, waiting patiently and without embarrassment. Here the silences have a different quality, are entirely devoid of expectation. (482)

Is that where it began? In the garden before the splendour of the Harmattan lilies? Or afterwards, as I watched the two of them dance together? Or weeks before at the faculty wives’ dinner? It’s difficult to say. Beginnings are so hard to trace. Perhaps we three would each put the beginning in a different place, like blindfolded players trying to pin the tail on a donkey. Three different beginnings. Three different endings, one for each of us. (644)

Conversation here can be challenging, language is a blunter instrument, each word a heavy black strike with a single meaning. To say exactly what you mean, to ask precisely the right question, this is what has to be done. For the bluntness of the language doesn’t mean people speak their minds. Rather, they use the spaces to escape into. 778

He had an appetite for history and frequently borrowed books. One or two he returned with phrases underscored and comments pencilled into the margin. Not for my benefit, or the benefit of any future reader, but as a record of his own thoughts. 892

‘Their gift didn’t lie in superior fighting skills. Those they subjugated were mostly farmers, not warriors. Their gift, their trick,’ and here his voice grew louder until he shouted out, ‘their brilliance, was to leave an administrator in every town and village they passed through. Somebody to keep the local rulers in check, and to make sure the right taxes were paid at the right time. All without the benefit of a filing system. 1184

The boy, feverishly beautiful with cheekbones cut across his face and huge, heavy-lidded eyes, stares into the middle distance, dreamy and preoccupied. He looks otherworldly. It strikes Kai how death, so often ugly, can sometimes arrive in the guise of such beauty. 1501

There was nowhere in the world where doctors weren’t cherished. 1550

I’d whispered the words, idly, to certain women. Always in the moments before the act of love itself. But I knew, if I had not known before, that the affection I had felt for those creatures was like comparing the pleasure of a summer’s day to the terror of a storm. 1594

I sat still, gazing at the surface of my desk. I felt a flicker of something burning in my bowels. Not dislike, it was impossible to dislike a man like Julius. Not dislike, then. A small flicker of hate. 1640

The man nods. To Adrian’s relief he speaks English. ‘I was doorman here,’ he adds. ‘Before.’ He says it as others do, in a way that conveys a sense of timelessness. Before. There was before. And there is now. And in between a dreamless void. 1854

Fugue, they call it in his profession, a condition in which the body and the disturbed spirit are joined in shadowy wanderings. 1891

The war was medieval neither in concept nor in tactics, whatever the view from elsewhere, only in the hardware. From the outset the patients came in two classes. There were the soldiers and foreign peacekeepers, victims mostly of gunshot wounds, sometimes grenade and mortar wounds. In the second class were the peasants, the ones who somehow made it from their villages and were admitted with a C scrawled heavily on their charts. Unarmed and poor, the waste of a bullet wasn’t so much resented as simply unnecessary. They were the victims of attacks using machetes and cutlasses. C. The doctor’s own shorthand adapted to the circumstances. C. Cleaved. 1976 Later a team of surgeons including Kai practised the Krukenberg intervention, unused since the First World War, fashioning out of the muscles and two bones of the wrist a pair of blunted pincers: a hand. 1984

A spate of fugues followed the publication of Les Aliens Voyageurs, Adrian reads. Most accounts related to missing servicemen between the First and Second World Wars. The men eventually turned up hundreds of miles from home. All claimed to suffer memory loss, not to know who they were, or how they had ended up in the place in which they were found. Some were using other names and pursuing new occupations. All appeared to inhabit a state of obscured consciousness from which they eventually emerged with no memory of the weeks, months or even years they had spent away. These were not isolated incidents in the lives of these men, but a constant, a pattern of behaviour, of journey, of wanderings, of compulsive travelling. The suspicion, on the part of the psychiatrists treating the servicemen, was of malingering. The men were shot as deserters. The European fuguers one hundred years ago were all men. Here they are women. 2109

was a trick of the mind, the Scotsman explained to Kai: the nerves continued to transmit signals between the brain and the ghost limb. The pain is real, yes, but it is a memory of pain. 3022

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love. 3023

‘This urge to order memories arrives with the age. A final sifting and sorting and cataloguing. To leave things in order before we go.’ 4016

‘What would you say it was?’ asks Adrian carefully. ‘It was rage. It wasn’t a war, what happened here, in the end. It was fury. Having nothing left to lose.’ She leans back and looks around the room. 4138

Through Mamakay the landscape of the city has altered for Adrian. For the first time since he arrived, the city bears a past, exists in another dimension other than the present. 4164

A year passed. For me, a year of waiting. There was the Forty Day ceremony. Do you know the forty days mark the end of a wife’s period of mourning? Among her own people Saffia would be considered ready for remarriage. Life here is too short to mourn for very long. 4345

One word. Yet so much more. She had said yes. Agreed her life was not over. I looked at her. I was consumed by a feeling of inexpressible joy. Only later did I recognise it for what it was. Hope. For in that instant the beauty and pain of the past, the unbearable present and the possible future all ran together. 4401

‘No.’ She shakes her head. ‘He was all right before. He will be again. A lot of people here believe in dreams. So do you, don’t you? Psychologists?’ 4548

Mamakay turns to look at him. ‘Have you ever tried to get a pair of tight jeans off in a hurry? It was the only thing we could think of to do. To stop them raping us. Well, to make it harder.’ 4563

And Kai recognises the expression of the mothers. It is submission, submission in the face of the inevitable. People think war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure.4613

Kai thinks of the day and the journey he now has before him. He does not lack the courage for it. No. Rather it was the courage to stay that had failed him. 4695

Imagine then, how it feels to find yourself in a love triangle with a ghost. Your rival, complacent in death, can never misstep or disappoint. Julius had left Saffia, yet in dying he had at the same time atoned for all his sins, 4730

So, as many women do, she swallowed the bitterness of her regret and submitted. The stillness was what was left. 4809

Perhaps even to talk of an infant’s love is a foolishness, for doesn’t a child love selfishly, like a puppy, whoever will take care of them? But for once in my life I never had to ask what somebody saw in me, or question why she might wish to spend her time with me, wonder at her motives. She was my daughter. I, her father. The first love I had ever been able to take for granted. 4813

Agnes’s husband’s death was the first of many. Afterwards the thin men were unleashed upon the town. This was the advance party. Now the war is over she knows their name. G5. Some called it the Sensitisation Unit. 5060

‘What did you see?’ asks Kai, speaking for the first time. She swallows and her voice drops almost to a whisper. ‘I saw JaJa.’ 5106

translating for him a phrase he’d heard and not understood. ‘It means, “I fall down, I get up again.” When somebody asks how you are, perhaps you can’t honestly answer that you are fine. That’s what it is saying.’ 5146

The conclusion they reached was that ninety-nine per cent of the population was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’ 5192

Attila and waves a hand at the view. ‘You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.’ 5199

Attila’s warning to Adrian. I fall down, I get up. Westerners Adrian has met despise the fatalism. But perhaps it is the way people have found to survive. 5209

their reluctance to talk about anything that had happened to them. He put it down to trauma. Since then he has grown to understand it was also part of a way of being that existed here. He had realised it gradually, perhaps fully only at this moment. It was almost as though they were afraid of becoming implicated in the circumstance of their own lives. 5,239 they elect muteness, the only way of complying and resisting at the same time. 5,235

Fugue. Characterised by sudden, unexpected travel away from home. Irresistible wandering, often coupled with subsequent amnesia. A rarely diagnosed dissociative condition in which the mind creates an alternative state. This state may be considered a place of safety, a refuge. 5,301

And afterwards, if you had asked any of the survivors how they had managed it, they would not have been able to tell you. It was as if those days in the forest, the escape to the city, had passed in a trance. The mind creates an alternative state. 5,309

An injury on such a scale would be hard to self-inflict. And Kai has never once treated a would-be suicide. War had the effect of encouraging people to try to stay alive. Poverty, too. Survival was simply too hard-won to be given up lightly. 5,542

He’d imagined his life differently, both of them had, he and Tejani. War had frustrated all his hopes, shut out the light. Everything had ceased. The foreigners fled, the embassies shut down, no flights landed or took off from the airport for years. The country was a plague ship set adrift. 5,552

They all lie to protect themselves, to shield their egos from the raw pain of truth. And one thing Adrian’s two decades of study and practice have taught him is to discover the purpose served by the lie. 5,627

It’s official. But you see, that’s where you’re wrong, Adrian. Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble.’ 5,691 Mamakay continues. ‘Sometimes I think this country is like a garden. Only it is a garden where somebody has pulled out all the flowers and trees and the birds and insects have all left, everything of beauty. Instead the weeds and poisonous plants have taken over.’ Adrian is silent for a moment. 5,699

does Kai realise exactly what Abass had said. ‘Going away, too’, without even knowing it. Abass had said ‘going away, too’. 5,812

October 1999. So many children born in a single month. In Kai’s view Mary’s capacity to forgive seems, quite simply, immeasurable. Mary’s parents had taken her son away to raise in the village. Who knows how many children born in the same month in the same year are being raised all over the country like that? Children like Mary’s son who have one thing in common. They were all born nine months after the rebel army invaded the city. 5,953

The thing to remember, he tells himself, the thing to hold on to is this: that since he decided to leave he has been sleeping at night. 5,975

Adecali had belonged to the rebel Sensitisation Unit. The Unit’s task was to enter a town marked for invasion ahead of the fighting contingent of the rebel army and by their methods to ensure the villagers’ future capitulation. As a strategy it worked. It saved on casualties – among the rebel forces, that is. It saved on ammunition. The Unit’s planning was meticulous, the process merciless, the outcome effective. Adecali’s job, his particular job, was to burn families alive in their houses. 6,048

She loved like she was going to war, but she was also not the kind of woman to wait for a man. Valiant in battle, noble in defeat. She walked away and never looked back. 6,196

You’ve never lived in a place like this. Here enemies are a luxury only the poor can afford. 6,614

A life, a history, whole patterns of existence altered, simply by doing nothing. The silent lie. The act of omission. 6,699

The fragmentation of the conscience. Adecali, tortured by those acts he had committed. Elias Cole unperturbed by the many he had not. Adecali was made to feel shame, was held culpable. Cole was venerated. Yet where does the greater evil lie, if evil is what you call it? Somewhere in the place he calls a soul, Elias Cole knows. Adrian has been his last attempt at absolution, his last attempt to convince himself of his own cleanliness. 6,705

‘She survived everything else, survived the war. She was never afraid, you know. I never saw her afraid in all that time. There were times I was afraid, Jesus, yes – but not her. Even when they brought her here tonight. Fear equals defeat in her vocabulary. Fear of what, it doesn’t matter. The trick is – you didn’t give in.’ He changes tense as he speaks of Mamakay, from present to past, to present. ‘Like death was a big dog or something. You should never show it you are afraid. I told her that once. She liked it. Death the dog. Or perhaps it was fate. Yes, fate – you must never show fate you’re afraid.’ 6,865

‘We all were happy here once.’ 6,916

What people want is hope and last night Adrian learned what it is like to lose it. 6,931

Unlike those earlier occasions – mourning a lost affection of his youth – this time there is to be no imagining her altered features, her new occupations, no unknown rival or replacement upon whom to project a wild jealousy. For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one – which is to remember. Adrian cannot believe with what intensity one can continue to love a person who is dead. Only fools, he believes, think that love is for the living alone. 7,116

Adrian’s reference to ‘the fragmentation of conscience’ is drawn from the work of M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie. ‘The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain potentially conscienceless and evil until such a time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behaviour of the whole group – the organism – of which he or she is part. We have not yet begun to arrive at that point.’ 7,234

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" To Better Understand the Immigrant Experience

Before Adichie was regaling the world with her story of a relatively privileged immigrant experience in her brilliant 2013 novel “Americanah” (my notes and highlights on it are here), Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu was pulling back the curtain on a much bleaker immigrant experience in his 2007 “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.” I came across his debut novel after reading his masterful “All Our Names”, a story that I dubbed the “Great African Novel” (you can read my review here).

It’s telling that Mengestu chooses to frame his brave, funny, and sad story under the auspices of a key line from Dante’s Inferno. In particular, the title comes from the closing lines of Dante’s Inferno, as Dante and Virgil emerge from their voyage through the 9 circles of hell on Easter morning. With a journey through purgatory and paradise still ahead, the travelers look up to the star-soaked heavens:

“Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears/Where we came forth and once more saw the stars.”

It is this experience of capturing beauty following unspeakable evil and adversity that Mengestu likens to the immigrant experience for so many (Africans in the book’s case). In the case of the narrator Sepha and his friends, they have escaped the violence in their own country and arrived in America, “seeing the stars.” Only they soon discover that while their new life in the United States may not be hell, it will likely be much more like the penance of purgatory than that of paradiso. Sepha emphasizes the direction of this journey a la purgatory as he notes: “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)

While Sepha shares some of the experience of living and fleeing Ethiopia at the time of Emperor Salassie, some of the book’s best lines and conversations come from his Congolese friend Joseph. As Joseph shares a childhood experience from when his village was “freed” by rebel forces, he notes that “we didn’t even know we were oppressed.” With wry humor he goes on to explain that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.” In pulling back the veil on the inner sanctum of immigrant conversations, Mengestu encourages readers not to take so much of the headlines spit out about conflict on the African continent at face value but to delve deeper and search for the nuance--for the human experience.

“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” is ultimately about the intersection of expectations, dreams, and reality for many immigrants in the United States. More often than not, Mengestu wants the reader to know, this intersection is a harsh one where dreams easily wither in the face of the drive to just exist between two worlds.


*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2018201720162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.
Car connoisseur Salassie is deposed from power in a VW Beetle 



Key Quotes:
  • “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)
  • “Nobody understands chess like an African.” Joseph from Congo shares this tidbit, noting that in a world of government repression, it’s the one area where their decisions mattered. (63)
  • “Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears/Where we came forth and once more saw the stars” Joseph’s favorite lines of poetry (from Dante’s Inferno) as he says only Africans can truly relate to the sense of being in hell with only occasional periods of relief. (100)
  • “I am one of those people for whom nothing is left of their home country.” Sepha’s Uncle in a letter to President Carter. (124)
  • “We have come this far, to find we have even further to go/The last traces of a permanent twilight have faded and/given way/To what we hope is nothing short of a permanent dawn.” Joseph trying to capture what it was like at the birth of Congolese independence. (169)
  • “Let us stop. Let us begin again./Let us clean the blood from the rubber fields/And do what we promised to do.” Different independence lines from Joseph. (170)
  • “Patrice./Are we ready?” (170) Joseph’s spares lines in his ‘Life of Congo’ poem.
  • “All the best dictators are colonels.” (184) Joseph, Kenneth and Sepha during one of their rehashes of various coups across the continent.
  • “We didn’t even know we were oppressed.” (220) Great line from Joseph that gets at the complexity of so much of the wars and rebellions across Africa. In this case Joseph is describing being violently ‘liberated’ by rebels. With wry humor he goes on to say that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.”
Key Takeaways:
  • Sepha notes the power of small gestures of sympathy at opportune times in a conversation with Naomi, Judith’s precocious daughter. (26)
  • Remittances mentioned. In Sepha’s case, his family didn’t really need the money but it was kind of the price one paid for not enduring life back home. (41)
  • In life, sometime you hold onto things that are cheap or meaningless with the hope that the meaning will emerge later. (50)
  • Ethiopian emperor leaves power in beat up VW Beetle (92)
  • Emperor buried under a toilet (94)
  • At 16, Sepha didn’t yet believe in consequences...to the detriment of his father who was killed after Sepha passed out revolutionary flyers (126)
  • Disappointment close to hatred (father couldn’t act as he was taken away by soldiers) (130)
  • A handshake with Judith breaks Sepha’s heart. Sepha never feels himself worthy. (137)
  • Author notes similarities between Addis and DC. (173)
  • Immigrants and the idea of “going back home” is explored. Mengestu opines that the phrase denotes an understanding that what you return to can never be the same as what you left. (174)
  • The power of his father’s absence frames everything in Sepha’s life. When his father died, so did Sepha’s life in Ethiopia (Absent father wound). (177)
  • Immigrants can’t take Christmas off--they are expected to work in the 7-11s and mini-marts. (178)
  • Someone is always on the run near you (194)
  • Expectations of dead things is that they stay dead. That is, what happens when memories live on like a wound that will never heal. (209)
  • We all want to shape our own destiny--we want to control what we can in our own limited spheres (211)
  • The theme of an immigrant life is that idea of being stuck between two worlds. “A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.” In between idea (228)
Key References (for further study):

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "What the Day Owes the Night" to Learn About the Algerian Revolution, Love and Why Fiction Matters

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2018201720162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

This book is a perfect example of why reading fiction is important. Reading fiction like this forces the reader to internalize and grapple with historical events in a way that a straightforward history never could. In this case, by personalizing something like the Algerian independence struggle, the reader must reevaluate the dry numbers, facts and statistics littering the historical record and connect them to the actual people and struggles behind them.


"Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" History:
This review might not make a lot of sense if you don’t know some basics of Algerian history so here some “accurate enough” background: over the years, waves of settlers from Europe (Spain, France, Italy, etc.) came to Algeria and stole wide swaths of land from the Arabs and Berbers that lived there. For the purposes of this story (which takes place from 1900 to present day), many of these settlers came in the early 19th century and never returned to Europe. That meant successive generations settled and lived in Algeria and knew nothing else. They built farms, vineyards, lives, and communities as the minority ruling class. These people came to be referred to as pieds-noirs (i.e., black feet). There is some controversy as to the etymological background of the term and you can click the hyperlink in the previous sentence if you want to go down that rabbit-hole.

Eventually, the rising discontent of the Arab and Berber populace (you can read more about the Berber role in all this in my graduate school thesis) at the economic/social/political disparity grew to the point where a War for Independence erupted. There were lots of factors to this tipping point: the end of WWII in which many Algerian Arabs fought, bled and died for France and returned to their lives as third-class citizens; the French loss at Dien Bien Phu, the rising tide of independence spreading across the globe post-WWII, etc. In the end, the FLN (National Liberation Front) waged an 8-year guerilla war for independence that was notable for atrocities on both sides (but with some very brutal tactics by the French overlords--particularly when compared with the France’s far less vehement response to Morocco’s independence ‘struggle’) and which resulted in a free Algeria in 1962. This freedom led to the wholesale de facto expulsion of some 800,000 pieds-noirs to an unprepared France. Most of the 100,000 or so who would remain left in the ensuing decades. There you have it--down and dirty history lesson.



Have you ever dared?

What the Day Owes the Night is one of the saddest love stories you will ever read--in it you’ll witness the stillbirth of a romantic love and the lasting depth of a filial one. Khadra’s novel brings to mind the beautiful writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the melancholy sorrow of Neruda’s “Poem 20”, and the powerful narrative arc of Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy. The height of the story’s narrative comes as the woman who should be the love of Younes’ life indicts him with the damning charge: Have you ever dared? And indeed, Younes’ sorry story is one of impotence as he never has dared and we bear witness to the slow disintegration of his life. In contrast, after centuries of subjugation, Algeria the country awakens and dares wildly, breaking its colonial chains, bloody link by bloody link. It’s in his ability to craft a story through these simultaneously ascending/descending narratives that Khadra displays true literary mastery.

Before going on, the author/pen name “issue” must addressed. Yasmina Khadra is the name you will find on the book cover but the author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul and he’s a former Algerian army officer. In an effort to circumvent scrutiny and censorship by the Army, he used his wife’s first two names beginning in 1997 (4 years later, he went public with his true identity after resigning from the Algerian military). In interviews he’s noted that he used his wife’s names with her permission and as a way to honor her. The crux of why this is an “issue” is because some in the public can’t imagine that someone who served in the Algerian military could not have helped but to partake in civilian massacres. Or at a minimum, many French critics just can’t accept any literary or cultural contributions from someone who participated in violence--even against terrorist groups. The author is fairly open about the horror and violence he has witnessed in his life and denies any wrongdoing and I haven’t found any credible evidence to support the allegations so for me there is no “issue.” Writing this as an American, I’d say “this is a free country, let people use whatever name they want” but we are talking about an Algerian quasi-exile living in France. You can scroll down to my “Key References” section and find several articles/interviews to learn more about this “controversy.” Now back to the actual book.

There’s a plaintive song that an old destitute barber sings early on in the novel while the young child Younes is still living in the slum of Jeane Jato:

I miss your eyes

And I go blind

Every time you look away

I die a little every day

Searching for you

In vain among the living
What does it mean to live this love
When all the world proclaims
That you are gone?
What will I do now with my hands
Now your body is not here… (53)


These lyrics serve in many ways as a soundtrack for this story. One its face, the lyrics describe Emilie and Younes at different points during their relationship. Emilie consistently searches for Younes “among the living”--searches for his love--to no avail throughout her time in Rio Salado. And in the end it is Younes who is tortured with a life of “dying every day” as the world proclaims that she is indeed gone--vanished, expelled with the pieds-noirs exodus from Algeria.

But on a deeper level the lyrics speak to the larger plight of the pieds-noirs community who find themselves living in a foreign country (i.e., France) following Algerian independence. This is the conundrum Younes’ lifelong pieds-noirs amis wrestle with in the novel’s closing pages: what do they do now with their hands, with their lives, now that her “body”--that is, the Algeria of their youth, is not there. The author’s treatment of the pieds-noirs in addressing these questions is surprisingly empathetic (particularly for an Algerian Arab) and even-handed as he creates complex characters who display a deep primordial love for the birthplace of their great-grandfathers--the land of Algeria. But it’s this very love that blinds them to “how” of the manner by which the countryside of Algeria became the land of their grandfathers. There’s a telling exchange (pgs. 284-7) between Younes and the overbearing quasi-feudal lord cum pieds-noir Jaime Sosa that begins with Sosa lecturing on the mission civilisatrice of his ancestors, “men who came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” Sosa’s blindness to the blood and tears of the Arabs who did the bulk of the actual work as quasi serfs/slaves (and whose land was stolen) in “breathing life” into the land provokes Younes to perhaps his one act of courage as he responds with a poetic soliloquy that charges “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that ancient shepherd whose ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it.” It notable that Jaime is wholly unmoved by this and doesn’t bother to even respond to Younes.

Following this conversation we see the acceleration of the Algerian fight for independence, as the Front Liberation Nationale (FLN) steps up its violent campaign against pieds-noirs and equivocating muslims alike--notably Younes tries to straddle the line and finds himself saved from summary execution only by his one-time act of kindness to an arab servant turned rebel. As the FLN victory becomes assured we witness the implementation of le saison de la valise ou le cercueil (i.e., the suitcase or the coffin) with the wholesale exodus of pieds-noirs from Younes’ hometown of Rio Salado--to include Emilie.

Following Algerian independence, the narrative skips forward some thirty years to “present day” as Younes travels to Aix-en-Provence to visit Michel (Emilie’s son) and his old pieds-noirs friends. That the author gaps these thirty years is a profound statement on Younes’ life. This time period, in which Younes marries, has children, and grandchildren is covered in a few throwaway sentences, almost as an afterthought. Because of his inability to act, Younes’ entire outlook has become focused on his mispent past. Younes’ sentimental longing for his los is contrasted with the wider pieds-noirs communities’ own nostalgia--during their reunion his childhood friend Andre points out that “round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me.” This leads to a discussion on the heavy toll of losing one’s country versus losing one’s friends, and love.

While the author Moulessehoul makes it clear that that there’s no easy answer to this, he does end the novel with a stark statement on the power of filial love, leaving the reader with Younes’ final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe: “We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away.”

While this is a powerful sentiment, it stands as a distant second to what Younes gave up in committing the grave offense of not pursuing Emilie when he had the chance(s). In her own final attempt to coax him into action, Emilie implored him that “there is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons.” In this statement, the author offers the reader a call to action to pursue love at any cost. Indeed as the story comes to close, we are left to ponder what could have been had Younes followed his Uncle’s admonition: “Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying...If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty.”

Key Quotes:

  • Every day these women would gather around the well and spend most of their time turning over the past as you might turn a knife in an old wound. (28) 
  • In describing a reknowned musician named Slimane, Younes admires his embodiment of “the greatest of virtues: discernment, a quality that is all but lost today.” (45) 
  • I miss your eyes /And I go blind/ Every time you look away/I die a little every day/Searching for you/ In vain among the living/ What does it mean to live this love/ When all the world proclaims/ That you are gone?/ What will I do now with my hands/ Now your body is not here… (53) 
  • Her smile was like a benediction, Younes visits his mother after his uncle adopts him. (80) 
  • Younes, seeing his failed, stumbling drunk father one last time: A look of such despair that it choked the life out of a noble father’s promises to his son. It was a look such as a man can give only once in his lifetime, since after it there is nothing. (88) 
  • For one searing instant, I mistook her for my destiny, Younes’ keen observation as he is seduced by Madame Cazenave--perhaps the great mistake of his life. (163) 
  • Younes observing the reaction to the FLN mobilization within the country: We knew Algeria was at war, that a seething anger festered among the people, but the villagers in Rio Salado seemed to care little about this. They built high walls around their happiness; walls with no windows to the outside world. (206) 
  • There is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons, Emilie to Younes as she makes a final fruitless effort to explain her love to him after Jean-Christophe’s disappearance (242) 
  • For a man to think he can fulfill his destiny without a woman is a misunderstanding, a miscalculation; it is recklessness and folly. Certainly a woman is not everything, but everything depends on her. Look around you, look at history, think about the whole world and tell me what man is without woman; what are his promises, his prayers when it is not her praise he sings? A man may be as rich as Croesus, as poor as Job, he may be a slave or a tyrant, but there is no horizon wide enough is woman turns her back...sunset, springtime, the blue of the sea, the stars in the sky...the rest, all the rest, exists simply to adorn her. Younes uncle counsels him to no avail. (249) 
  • Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying. (273) If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty. The last words of Younes’ uncle. (355) 
  • The love of Younes’ life, Emilie, sentences him: Have you ever dared Younes, even once in your life? (308) 
  • You took my love for you and strangled it before it could take flight. Just like that...my love for you was dead before it even hit the ground. Emilie after an impotent, much too late attempt by Younes to profess his love. Also hearkens back to his days as a boy catching and selling finches. (309) 
  • Pieds-noirs--as though we’ve spent our whole lives trudging through mud, Dede in a letter to Younes from France as he comes to grip with his new reality. (357) 
  • The pieds-noirs in France were easily recognized as they “rolled their Rs with relish like stirring couscous.” (358) 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Every generations has its own drugs, Younes comments to Emilie’s son Michel who has just lamented the booming consumerism prevalent in France. (366) 
  • Round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me, childhood pieds-noir friend Andre shares with Younes as they discuss (as old men) the heavy toll of losing one’s country vs. losing one’s friends. (377-8) 
  • We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away. Younes bidding a final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe. (389) 
Key Takeaways
  • Importance of land to farmers: Younes’ father had eyes “only for his land” (4) 
  • The pride of Younes’ father (his inability to accept Younes’ money) warps his own conception of everything: “I no longer understood anything. I was no longer certain of anything.” (49) 
  • The idea that poverty is noted fated but a state of mind. The poverty of Jenane Jato is that they did not dream. What then is the idea of a people who’s ability to dream has been crushed or stolen? (81) 
  • To the Europeans, time is money but to the Arab time has no price. This is similar to the adage about the US having all the watches but the Taliban having all the time. In the story’s case, Arabs find happiness apart from money--from simple shared experiences (85) 
  • 4th generation greeks in Oran (107) 
  • Oran referred to the “la ville americaine” because of its sophistication and grace and the idea of possibility that existed there. (141)
  • With the end of WWII, independence movements mobilized but were brutally suppressed. Younes’ uncle observes that the children of these movement died fighting for France in world war II only to have their family killed protesting back in Algeria (172) 
  • Poetry has always been the soul of Algeria (180). Here’s a link to the Algerian national anthem, We Pledge,: http://fuuo.blogspot.com/2010/07/poet-of-week-from-algeria-moufdi-zakaria.html
  • Again and again, Younes decides to do nothing in the face of a decision or conflict. He refuses to be the master of his own destiny. In this novel he represents a distinct part of colonial Algeria (280) 
  • There’s a great exchange that brings to live the terrible tension between the colonizers who viewed themselves as great men in the mission civilisatrice, men who “came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” It’s telling that Younes’ one moment of bravery or courage comes in a poetic response to the Jaime Sosa’s solilquoy in which Younes charges that “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that that ancient shepherd who ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it. Jaime is unmoved. (284-287) 
  • Younes eventually loses his own sense of self to the point when he turns his own mother into a stranger as he questions her following his release from prison due to Isabelle’s intervention. (332) 
  • Younes’ uncle still dreams of an enlightened nation for Algeria (335) 
  • French talk of ‘self-determination’--De Gaulle June 1958 speech: I have understood you. En francais: je vous ai compris. But the pied-noirs likely don’t believe him and consider it an empty speech (337) 
  • December 1960, the non-Algerian villagers of Rio Salado come to the realization that Algeria will be Algerian. (338) 
  • Warfare between the OAS and FLN. The OAS was a secret paramilitary group formed by recalcitrant pied-noirs and the french military that ended up killing both muslims and French in terrorist attacks. The Front Liberation Nationale was the military arm of the Algeria’s independence fight and is estimated to have killed far more Algerians (i.e., muslim arabs) than French/pied-noirs. The FLN made this season of killing one of “the suitcase or the coffin” ("La valise ou le cercueil") as they strove to drive out remaining pied-noirs. (342) 
  • The book is also an examination of what is home? What is a nation? The pied-noirs settlers may have been there for generations and not know any home other than the countryside of Algeria but there were also only there for generations because there ancestors had stolen or appropriated the lands in the 19th century. (344) 
  • When the mass exodus of pied-noirs began, it brought with it a startling realization that is really was all over for them--but this gets to the idea that it never really began because it began in thievery, brutality and illegality (350). 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Pieds-noire Gustave wonders during the discussion of the old men why they were all treated as one mass? He hits on one of the great political questions of the ages, the human tendency and political necessity to lump groups of people together. In this case, Gustave can’t come to grips to how he lost the country where his great-grandfather was born, that his family built with their own sweat and blood. Of course in these comments he displays his blindness to the sweat and blood of all the arabs who did most of the actual sweating and bleeding. (379) 
Key References (for further study):

Cities: Rio Salado (current day El Malah), Oran

Messali Hadj , who meets with Younes’ Uncle early on in the story(98)

Operation Catapult (122)

Max-Pol Fouchet presents Younes’ friend Fabrice with national poetry prize (179)

2013 CRS Report "Algeria: Current Issues"

North Africa Berber Language Map

My Grad School Thesis: Amazigh-State Relations in Morocco and Algeria

(78 and 79 footnote from thesis)

2005 Guardian arrticle on Khadra

2002 Guardian article on Khadra coming out as Moulessehoul

Article of Moulessehoul bid for Algerian Presidency

2006 New York review of "The Attack"

The Atlantic Chronology on Algerian War of Independence

Article on Jean-Senac: Poet of Algerian Revolution

Monday, April 16, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "Beyond the Rice Fields" to Experience the Beauty, Love and Tragedy of Madagascar

It’s hard to express how much I looked forward to reading this book.  I spent three years living and working in Madagascar beginning in late 2013 (my collected writings from that time can be found here and here).  Prior to my arrival, I had scoured the libraries and internet for anything that I could find in English on Madagascar (my list of collected articles and books can be found here and here.).  Unfortunately, this was a rather small task once one gets beyond the myriad travel guides and nature-oriented literature.  
Then near the end of 2015, I came across a post from Ann Morgan, who spent a year reading a novel from EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.  In the post, she lamented the fact that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into English, but that a translator named Allison Charette had received a PEN grant to translate one and  she’d chosen “Beyond the Rice Fields.”  So I’d been literally waiting for the last two years for the book to be released and it did not disappoint.  

Malagasy author Naivo has crafting a heart-wrenching tale of love sets amidst one slave’s seemingly impossible yearning for success and upward mobility.  Impressively, the author’s expansive piece of pre-colonial historical fiction doesn’t hold back in addressing some oft-considered taboo subjects in Madagascar such as slavery and the wholesale execution of Christians under Queen Ranavalona’s reign in the 19th century. The narrative centers on Tsito, a child whose family were “forest people” and captured, then sold into slavery by the ruling Merina highlanders (called amboalambos, i.e., pig-dogs by the atandroy or antakarana--it’s unclear which tribe the author refers to when he uses the denotation ‘forest people).  He grows up with his master Rado’s family and develops a bond with Rado’s daughter Fara.  The story unfolds through dueling narratives between these two characters.  

The book reads as a mixture of hainteny (oral tale/poetry) and tantara (historical narrative) with a liberal dosing of Malagasy proverbs/adages (I counted 29 of them).  One in particular proves emblematic as Fara ponders her destiny:
Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way.  It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil.  But it also bears fruit (188).
Fara’s observation captures the tension and movement with Beyond the Rice Fields as the central characters and family find themselves uprooted numerous times amidst shifting factions as King Radama dies and the throne is passed to his wife Ranavalona.  Her reign marks the beginning of an increasingly fraught relationship between Christianity and political power in Madagascar, especially since the crown Prince becomes a Christian.  

While neither Fara nor Tsito are themselves Christians, they find themselves caught in the ill effects of Ranavalona’s power consolidation as she upends traditional tribal power alliances and eventually publicly executes thousands of Malagasy Christians.   Within all this chaos, however, Fara and Tsito ultimately find each other.  
In one key conversation, we hear echoes of the fampitaha song from the novel’s beginning as Fara lovingly spars with Tsito:
“And how will you love me?”  
He replies: “I will love you like my eyes, the windows of my soul; without them, I am as weak as a child, but with them, the world smiles at me.”
“Then do not love me, for I will be of no use to you in the darkness.”

“I will love you like the door to my home, protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm.”
“Then do not love, for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends.”
“I will love you like the Sovereign of this realm, mistress of the our lives and destiny.” (238)
Naivo proves himself a skilled and brave writer in Beyond the Rice Fields. With the publication of his novel in English, he has illuminated a period of Malagasy history previously hidden from most of the world.  Along the way, he has brought to life the rich traditions and deep culture of a country and people that are all too often wrongly associated solely with lemurs and coups by radio DJs.  

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2018201720162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.


Key Quotes:

“Sing for your highest dreams, dance for your most starstruck plans.  Then you cannot lose (120).”

Key Takeaways:
  • Unless you live in Madagascar I don't think that I can ever make you understand how important rice is to Madagascar, to its culture.  For starters, Malagasies eat rice AT EVERY MEAL. Living in its capital you see the rice fields everywhere, they are inescapable--RICE IS LIFE in Mada! 
  • Book captures a tension that exists today between the Merina highlanders, who consolidate power across Madagascar and everyone else (in the novel’s case the ‘forest people’ who refer to the Merinas as pig-dogs). While many would disagree as to the level of this tension today, I saw evidence of it, particularly between the Merina highlanders and those living on the coasts (6).
  • Torture as a whole plays a central role throughout the novel, whether in its use to break down slaves (9), or as an overall method of societal control.
  • The idea of “purification” also plays an important role in the culture and tradition of the villages and the palace.  Earlier on, we see the ‘witch doctors/seers’ practice of determining a child’s purity by putting them in the path of stampeding cattle and seeing if they live (56).  
  • Fara’s belief that “the city is my destiny” is a harbinger of doom (64)
  • Short hair done as a sign of mourning (72)
  • Keen insight into rather insidious ways that early white missionaries exercised control and ensured their livelihoods as they spread rumours that “killing a white man will give you leprosy” or “vazaha blood was a slow poison that made anyone who spilled it go deaf” (90).
  • Fampitaha singing/dancing competition is seen as elemental part of Malagasy society (117). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBUxRMAZ6oM 
  • Merina referred to themselves as “People under the sky” (117).
  • Lanterns and lights are associated with childhood and celebration of children (133)
  • Annual Bathing feast described as essentially a sexual free for all, as long as the participants hide while they do it (144)
  • While the Queen starts anti-Christian actions (171), they also had the effects of galvanizing the spread of Christianity (175).
  • Tangena poison test played a huge role until the Queen’s successor outlawed it.  Anyone so accused would be required to drink the poison (derived from the toxic nuts of tangena tree.  Then they’d have to swallow three bird skins.  If they could vomit up the three bird skins without dying then they’d be declared innocent.  Evidently this was a widely accepted method of guilt determination with something like 2% of the population dying from it every year (much more during Ranavalona’s reign) (216).  
  • Under the quee, the palace/government started to confiscate everything from the people (220).  
  • Beautiful writing: “I will love you” (238)
  • Words in English as holding no sacred virtue (267)
  • More beautiful writing: “My heart is as solid as a shield” (274)
  • It becomes evident under the queen that the military generals wield the real power (342)
  • Habits of a slave described (23)
Proverbs:
  1. A slave skilled at valiha: when you ask him to play, he refuses, but as soon as you speak of work, he goes mad for the music. (9)
  2. A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand. (10)
  3. Do not cook meat without knowing its name (15).
  4. The seer who wants to make the impossible believable is not afraid to make dying men dance (17).
  5. A banana threatened with a knife with eventually be pierced (33).
  6. A lie likes to dress itself up as a story (40).
  7. A servant’s undivided piaster is the master’s esteem (48).
  8. You must not judge the stranger by his yellowish face but think of his family on the other side of the earth (58).
  9. Better a small soul respected by his friends than a great soul who perishes in vain (69).
  10. The tree that grows too tall will be thrashed by strong winds (70).
  11. The sovereign’s word is law; it enters our homes not on tiptoes, but stomping its feet (88).
  12. He who changes lords changes status (93).
  13. The City’s great houses, the first built are soonest dissatisfied (107).
  14. Hope cannot vanquish destiny (110).  
  15. Only simpletons want to be like their fathers (116).  
  16. He who shows his back hides what’s in his soul (125).
  17. He who has a white soul is like a bird of ill fate (125).
  18. If the waterfall rumbles, it is because of the rocks; if kings rule, it is because of the vahoaka (128).
  19. The poor are not friends of the affluent (171)
  20. Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way.  It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every Time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil.  But it also bears fruit (188).
  21. They can rise to the top as cream does, but milk will always reveal a common ancestor (189).
  22. A meeting of dogs where they only sniff each other’s asses (199).  
  23. Those who are unified are like a rock, those who are divided are like the sand (221).
  24. Love is like the silkworm in winter: touching it makes its eyes open wide(232).
  25. Only halfwits have less ambition that their fathers (242).
  26. The soul is what makes us human (251).
  27. Everyone is in himself a noblemen (251).
  28. Destiny is a chameleon on a tree branch, it only takes a hissing child for it to change its color (318).
Songs and Hainteny:
We’ll go to the City of Thousands
To eat the laying hen
To eat the fatty zebu hump (18)

The village is rich with children
Grandmother is lucky indeed
Her home has a hundred slaves
Her home holds a hundred cattle (26)

To mediate the difficult
        As saffron does (73)

Come forth! Let them appear
        And the most beautiful will triumph
They will be judged
And the ugliest will disappear (126)

Tell me how I can keep your love:
        If I knot it into a corner of my gown
        The thread might break it and I could lose it.
        If I place it in the palm of my hand
        I’m afraid it might dissolve into dampness…
Instead, I’ll put it in my heart
Although it will make me perish
Will that not make me love you all the more? (131)

Bulls fighting within the herd
        The victor is not cheered
        The vanquished is not booed (135)

The trees of sweet-smelling wood
        Counting two, there finding three
        There on the tall mountain
        On Mount Adrigiba
They wanted to sleep
Pressed against each other
At least rejoice, oh my soul,
That you do not possess
The one you do not love (146)

A thousand words
        A hundred stories
        But all talk ends
        At the hour of confrontation (275)

I implore your forgiveness, O my earth
        I appeal to your mercy, O my earth!
        You, who cover our dear ones
        You, their final shelter
        We trample you underfoot
        But you are the water’s cradle
        And you grow the ears of rice
        And you absorb all sorrow
        O my earth (348).

Key References (for further study):

  • Fampitaha competition (12)
  • Fara name (15)
  • Kalanoro (96)--mythical creature--there’s some weird stuff on the internet about this one
  • “Paul and Virginia”  love story of star-crossed lovers in Mauritius.  You can read more about it here(123)
  • Christian holy man who was killed by the Queen--more about him here. (162)
  • Fara describes the dying away of fampitaha competitions, are these still held today? (192)
  • Mantasoa, man-made lake/Laborde built the city there is and is buried there. (193)
  • Royal decree for export rights (227) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Laborde 
  • Menamasos artists society to surpass Vazahas (236) reference book
  • Zafamanelo family right to recite kabary was rescinded by the Queen(239)
  • Crown prince Radama I a christian (243)
  • Madagascar sent ambassadors to England and France in the 1800’s (247)
  • Sidikina derivation of God Save the King played when foreign rulers would visit Madagascar (259)
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/veloma-list-of-madagascar-posts.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/veloma-list-of-poems-written-while-in.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/antananarivo.restaurantlist.bestofmadagascarhediard.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/p/mada-articles.html
  • www.brooklynbookfestival.org/authors/naivo/
  • http://ile-en-ile.org/naivo/
  • http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/december-2015-the-conspiracists-naivo-allison-m-charette
  • https://pen.org/introducing-the-literature-of-madagascar-on-translating-naivo/