Sunday, October 31, 2010

Croatia's Best Kept Secret: Korčula

Here's one of my latest pieces on Croatia with a few of Yuko's stunning photos. I think it's about time we put together our own book.
A gentle breeze stirs the napkins on our table, as the full moon rises over the Adriatic Sea. After a day on the road driving from Dubrovnik, my wife Yuko and I had arrived in Korčula just in time for a dinner of fresh seafood and a chilled bottle of the local wine Posip, a golden, dry white from Smokvica.

Korčula is a sparsely populated island off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Marco Polo was born and spent his formative years there before moving to Venice and exploring the world, including Kublai Khan’s China.Korčula was then part of the Venetian Empire.

Too often overshadowed by Dubrovnik to the south, Korčula is a fairy-tale destination chock-full of stone archways, boutiques and narrow, winding lanes. We began exploring, starting with the tower gate at the entrance to the old town. We found a table along the seawall and enjoyed a drink while Obeci, across the water on the mainland, glimmered in the distance.

Korčula is the only place in the world where the Moreška dance is still performed with real swords. Originating in Spain in the 12th century, it celebrated the Moors’ expulsion from Aragon and is believed to have been brought to Korčula via southern Italy in the 16th century. Once a showdown pitting Christians against Moors, it has since been tidied up and all the religious triumphalism watered down for modern consumption.

Today, it’s black versus red, both sides battling it out for the hand of a lovely maiden in distress. The next evening the Moreška started with a dramatic entrance by the leader of the blacks engaged in a heated argument with a princess. It soon became clear that the princess was being held against her will.
The red side then entered and a battle ensued, an ornate and gruelling costumed dance with miniature swords between two sides made up of about 20 men. After almost 30 minutes, the reds finally humiliated the blacks and won back the princess. As the crowd erupted into cheers, it felt like a fitting conclusion to one of Croatia’s bestkept secrets.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cambodia: Killing Fields

Skulls arranged into the shape of Cambodia at Tuol Sleng
After twenty years, scattered bits of clothing and splintered bones still lay embedded in the paths between the graves. Pol Pot, who sowed the seeds of these desolate fields I was standing in, haunts Cambodia despite his death over twelve years ago. I had come in large part because of him. Maybe I could gain some insight into the bitter hatred that continues to plague the world with genocidal warfare. But the more I saw, the less I understood. Perhaps genocide, the ultimate atrocity, remains unfathomable to those fortunate enough to have avoided its terror.

In spite, or because of including torture prisons among its main tourist destinations and claiming a former Khmer Rouge cadre - Hun Sen - as its Prime Minister, Cambodia remains a popular travel destination. Still, the brutal legacy of the Khmer Rouge lingers and as I discovered, more is demanded of the visitor to Cambodia than to Thailand or even Vietnam. Unable to believe that their fellow countrymen could inflict such suffering on their own people many have denied that the Khmer Rouge committed any atrocities. Others still wrestle with the loss of loved ones. I found myself navigating a path between these two extremities as though I were walking through a minefield. One slip of the tongue could set off an explosion of contempt.

Phnom Pehn, once referred to as "the pearl of Indochine" is a tattered, vibrant capital. Amid its ragged facade barbers set up shop along the sidewalks where they shave and trim customers in mirrors propped up against rubble or discarded scooter parts. The dirt and cement roads, riddled with potholes, buzz with cyclos and scooters recklessly dodging one another amid the city's guerrilla-like domesticity. Glimpses of French colonial architecture poke out here and there dilapidated and ruined alongside the modern-drabness of the later Soviet-era buildings.

"While Getting Lashes or Electrification You Must Not Cry At All"
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Prison, where thousands of prisoners where brought to begin their odyssey of death, is located near the center of Phnom Penh. Between April 1975 and December 1978 over one third of Cambodia's population, or two million people, were wiped out. This former high school was turned into one of the most brutal extermination camps outside of Nazi Germany. Within its walls over 17,000 people were tortured and murdered. My English speaking guide was a twenty-eight year old woman who had lost her father to the Khmer Rouge. We went from classroom to classroom and saw the rusted chains, pliers, and barbed wire preserved as they were left on the day the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979.

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
The Khmer Rouge kept impeccable records of their victims. Each person was photographed and today a few hundred line the walls like a page from some macabre school yearbook. Looking into the photographs I could see, as the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal wrote, that "they weren't looking at the camera, but at death / and the torture before death."

Glancing at my ticket as I left the museum, I noticed it read, "The Kingdoom of Cambodia". Although an attempt to white out one of the o's had been made it could not hide the grim irony of the message.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are a twenty-minute scooter ride south from the city. After Tuol Sleng, the corpses were brought here to be heaped into mass, unmarked graves. At the entrance, in the middle of a gravel lot, stands the Memorial Stupa built in 1988 for the victims. Inside are shelves upon shelves of dry, white skulls arranged in rows behind plexi-glass panels. If someone arrived alive they were bludgeoned to death with shovels to save bullets.

As I pulled in with my driver, children were playing around the fenced in complex and families worked in the surrounding fields. The former killing fields that had consumed over 8000 bodies had been, like much of the Khmer Rouge's legacy, absorbed by the locals but not forgotten.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Torn Between Two Loves: Divided Loyalties

Juan, Juan, Juan. You let Bill O's folksy bigotry get the best of though FOX had some sort of purchase on how all "the folks" are feeling and you just went along, jawing away revealing what is plainly obvious to anyone paying attention to "reality" - Muslims. Killed. Us. "I think you're right," you said during Bill O's "Danger From the Muslim World" (no joke) segment.

This is where my journalist self collides with my human rights advocacy. As a journalist I agree with pundits like Joan Walsh from Salon who frame the issue as a free speech one - basically, don't fire journalists. No matter if they slam Israel (Helen Thomas), Jews in the media (Rick Sanchez), tweet admiration for a Hezbollah leader (Octavia Nasr) or disparage an entire faith (Juan Williams). What we need is more speech, not less. Concepts such as "neutrality" or "objectivity" are nothing more than fables anyway, so more free speech means more transparency and then we can have an honest debate about real issues. I agree with all of that.

But then like that scene in Animal House where the devil and angel pop up on Pinto's shoulder to do battle, my human rights advocacy self takes over. Juan was wrong, irresponsible and he discredits any organization that would tolerate such bigotry. Plus, and most importantly for me, in the current political climate someone has to push back against FOX and its brand of Islamaphobia that's been gaining so much traction recently. NPR did and it's about time. And I feel really good about that.

It's the sickening double standard that I rail against; bigoted speech ultimately reveals itself to be what it is - vile pollution. And the point about shutting down speech? Is that what's been happening since Juan got axed? No, the opposite - everyone's been talking about Juan, Muslims and the media. That's a very good thing.

A lot of pundits are trying to equate Juan's comments with his own feelings and limiting the fallout to "just one person's honest opinion." But that's not what they said for the others who were fired. As Glenn Greenwald writes, this "double standard suffered a very welcome blow." Better to apply an unjust standard equally than selectively. That way it'll reveal itself to be unsustainable and implode into oblivion.

We'll see.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Indonesia: On The Corner

Indonesia is a smorgasbord of cultures laid out over an archipelago encompassing no less than 17,000 islands with approximately 500 languages and dialects and 300 ethnic groups. While "unity in diversity" adorns Indonesia's coat of arms, conflict is never far from the surface.

From a distance, terrorist bombings and the 2005 tsunami has contributed to an image of a country dissolving into chaos. But in fact, the opposite is true: the people, mainly the young, are fighting to keep it together. In a country where 26 is the average age and over 30 percent of the country's 225 million people are under 15, a youthful dynamism is tangible.

Along with the emergence of an indigenous form of moderate Islam and the messy disentangling of human rights abuses, Indonesian Pop Idol remains huge and condom ads risqué. This is a country that is at least trying to "ride the winds of change", to paraphrase a recent Suzuki motorcycle ad campaign. And as the world's most populous Muslim nation, it behooves the world to take note.


Jakarta. "The big durian", as it's called, a durian being a tropical fruit that's hard and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. They also have a putrid odor: imagine a dripping sewage tank on a sweltering day. Hotels in this part of the world prohibit guests from bringing this stink bomb onto their premises. Make no mistake - this bulbous, porcupine of a fruit is an acquired taste. But once accustomed to its flavour, the yellow, velvety flesh can prove to be irresistible. Too bad the same can't be said for Jakarta. As the capital of Indonesia, it's a city best sampled in small morsels before venturing beyond to indulge in the feast that is the rest of the country.

Over sixty years ago, on August 17 1945, immediately following Japan's surrender to the allies, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia's independence. Rather than be a place of veneration as might be expected, the area where he made the declaration has deteriorated into a dilapidated enclosure. Including a statue of Sukarno and his comrade Mohammad Hatta, there is also a memorial to his famous speech outlining Indonesia's state philosophy, Pancasila, or five principles. These include the belief in one god, democracy, civilized humanity, unity and social justice.

When I lived there, I used to walk to the corner of my kampong (neighbourhood) for a bite to eat where warungs - groups of movable food stalls - were set up daily. They resemble barbeques, or hot plates on wheels. For a people whose average annual income is less than US$1000, the stalls provide cheap eats; US$2 dollars will buy a full meal. Young chefs serve up such local delicacies as nasi goring (fried rice), gado-gado (spicy mixed veggies in peanut sauce) and kelapa muda (fresh coconut). I usually ordered the nasi and coconut.

The hodge-podge of patrons sitting out on wooden benches and tables under the trees included bajaj and taxi drivers, local peddlers, office workers and people from the kampong. Some were dressed in t-shirts, others in more formal attire, but no one was in shorts, except me, the notoriously casual foreigner.

"The corner was our testimonial to freedom", sing the Last Poets on Common's "The Corner", and this is what it felt like: a gathering of generations rubbing shoulders and sharing gossip under banyan trees amidst the gritty grime of the inner city.

Not unlike the African Americans Common referred to, these too are a proud people who fought to break the shackles of oppression — Dutch colonialism in this case — to forge their own independence. It was such an embarrassment for the Dutch that only recently did their government formally acknowledge Indonesia's Independence Day. Previously, they had recognized 1949, the date they had allowed Indonesia to become independent. It never much mattered to the people down on the corner: Sukarno and Hatta didn't need anyone's permission to proclaim their freedom.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Muslims Killed Us": Who Is Us?

A few weeks ago I watched Irshad Manji speak on a panel moderated by Christiane Amanpour about Islam in America. She said something which I've been feeling for some time, not only about Muslims, but about the left in general. She said Muslims should be prepared to rationally discuss bigoted comments; don't first assume your adversary is an evil miscreant - he may just be misinformed. No matter how "self-evident" the issue may seem to you, be patient and discuss.

So Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar failed that test. As Joan Walsh put it, O'Reilly succeeded in shutting down not only dissent, but liberal women as well, something he often excels at. Whether it was staged or not, it made the women and their ideas look weak. Before leaving, Whoopi mentioned Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber:
"What religion was Mr. McVeigh? Mr. McVeigh was an extremist too."
True, but he didn't do it in the name of Christ or the Bible. This is what confuses people - me included - because it's not an accurate comparison. Liberals like Whoopi and Joy - midday television personalities - need to do a better job at communicating why Bill O's comments are offensive, wrong and bigoted. They've been taking their assumptions too much for granted and seem to have forgotten how to explain such basic concepts as bigotry, equality and even taxes.

Manji attempts to do this and it's why her voice is so important. She's willing to criticize her faith while not shying away from proclaiming herself a devout Muslim. I'd love to hear her destroy Bill O on this topic (rationally and methodically, of course).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Fallout: China's Nobel Crackdown

"This award is for the lost souls of June 4th." - Liu Xiaobo via his wife, Liu Xia
The first to feel the fallout from Liu Xiaobo's Nobel win was Liu Xia, his wife. After the announcement was made she was placed under house arrest and had her mobile phone usage monitored and then restricted. She was eventually allowed to visit her husband, accompanied by some government thugs, and has been living under constant surveillance ever since. As she told the Guardian:
"They have told me not to go out, not to visit friends. If I want to see my parents or buy food, I can only go in their car. I don't even talk to my neighbours because I don't want to get them into trouble."
Yesterday, Beijing stopped a group of diplomats from visiting her. Simon Sharpe, first secretary of political affairs of the EU delegation, said he wanted to deliver a letter of congratulations from Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

Plain-clothes thugs keep watch where Liu Xia is being held. (via SCMP)
Sharpe was accompanied by diplomats from the embassies of Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy and Australia. (What about Canada? At least we issued a statement). But three guards at the gate of Liu's apartment complex prevented the group from entering. Now it appears she may not even be allowed to leave the country to collect the award:
"I can't even get out of my home, how could I go out of the country?"
This is how it's done in modern China - when all else fails, target the family. Then go after anyone remotely associated with the award, like other human rights advocates...and those damn Norwegians. China has called off a planned meeting with the Norwegian fisheries minister, blocked the Nobel peace prize website and promised further dire consequences. All this fuss because of an independent foreign committee made up of five members. As secretary of the Nobel committee, Geir Lundestad, said:
"We stand for a set of principles. A committee can't just overthrow a government. That is self-evident."
In China, that's not so - this "Gang of Five" is feared for precisely that reason.

Things have not fared well in Hong Kong either, despite our much vaunted "one country, two systems" principle. While celebrating Liu's win by drinking champagne and eating Norwegian salmon outside the central Chinese government's local liaison office, a woman was arrested for splashing an officer with some bubbly. I can't really blame the guy - he was probably feeling left out. Next time pass around some glasses.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波): China's Nobel Laureate!

Hong Kong is all abuzz over the announcement that Liu Xiaobo has won the Nobel Peace Prize "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." Rumours abounded, but few believed it would actually happen. Then a few weeks ago when the Chinese government warned the Nobel Committee not to give Liu the prize "because he had violated Chinese law" you could smell the fear rising off their scabby hides and it raised hopes around the world. It also likely encouraged the Norwegians to go right ahead and do what they dare not do.

Liu was sentenced for "subversion" and jailed for 11 years on Christmas Day 2009, a day chosen by the authorities because they hoped the West would be preoccupied with other matters. It had much to do with his leading role in promoting "Charter 08," a movement advocating human rights and democratic reforms in China. It was modeled on Soviet-era Czechoslovakia's "Charter 77" in which Václav Havel took part. Havel has been among those who have protested Liu's sentence.

This is absolutely glorious news. Anything that makes Beijing livid has to be celebrated and Hong Kong is the only place in China where a body can righteously scream it from the rooftops. And we will. Liu is now the first Chinese citizen to ever win a Nobel Peace prize. The Dalai Lama won in 1989, but is classified as a refugee and the 2000 winner, Gao Xingjian, won for literature and is a French citizen.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Wow. I just finished Alison Bechdel's "graphic memoir," Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. It's such a daunting and moving piece of work - a true tour de force. Here's a great video where Bechdel details her process and you can see how friggin' laborious it is:

The end result is stunning. And that's just the visual presentation. The writing is equally as spectacular. Bechdel is the creator of the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, and (surprise!) she's a lesbian. The book recounts her life from before her birth through her parents bio - up to the time her father dies in a mysterious accident in 1980 when Bechdel was 20.

His death occurred around the same time she had come out to her parents, which also coincided with her mother filing for a divorce. None of these events appear to be related until Bechdel learns that her father was a closet homosexual ("a manic-depressive, closeted fag," as she puts it) and had been having lovers for years during the marriage. His wife finally had had enough.

This causes Bechdel to go back over her relationship with him and she discovers little hints along the way that she was oblivious to at the time, but which make sense in light of what she now knows. She had tried a few months before his death to broach the subject and establish a rapport, but there wasn't enough time. In the end, she realizes that he was there for her and empathizes with his struggle over his identity. In a strange twist Bechdel also realizes that he was both Daedalus, the great artificer, as well as Icarus, the tragic child who plunges to his death. He took her place...or she was too self-aware to fly too high. Either way, she knows he loved her and discovers that she always loved him, too.

In many ways, Bechdel's father was forced to remain "hidden" and repressed due to society's stifling conventions that sadly still prevail. Sexual identity is at the core of one's being - it's morally reprehensible to deny a person's right to express it or circumscribe any civil or political rights because of it. Despite the senseless Tyler Clementi tragedy, I still draw much hope from actions like Dan Savage's recent "It Gets Better" project - LGBT equality is one of the final frontiers for human rights...