Sunday, 21 May 2017

Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System


Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System. A review of Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, UK, 2013)

I don’t usually read Man Booker Prize winners – probably from an aversion to worthiness – but I picked this novel up in an airport because of the centrality to its plot of the savagery of the Burma Railroad built in appalling conditions during World War II by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 South East Asian labourers. 
My maternal great aunts who lived in the then Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were imprisoned in concentration camps by the Japanese after the colony was invaded in 1942, but my great uncles were not as fortunate – they all died on “The Line” their corpses among the 12,621 POWs who perished under, as Flanagan neatly puts it, “a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king,” the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. 
Flanagan’s tale revolves around the axis of The Line which serves both as the incubator of the later war hero fame of his protagonist, lanky, bookish, befuddled and remote Aussie surgeon Dorrigo Evans, and as the divider that severs Dorrigo from the only thing that has ever seemed real to him (apart from playing footie as a kid), his intense love affair with his uncle’s young blonde working-class wife, Amy Mulvaney.
The book is somewhat of a meditation on Japanese war crimes and atrocities – 32 Japanese soldiers were hung for their abuses of POWs on railroad – and the nature of inhumanity, as Flanagan spins side-tales of the post-war evolution of Tenji Nakamura, a Japanese officer, and Sergeant Aki Tomokawa who retreat in old age into a peaceful conviction that their crimes were honourable. 
Two other side stories allow Flanagan to explore the nature of suffering and survival, as he follows Sergeant Frank “Darky” Gardiner to his bitter and demeaning terminus, and bugler Jimmy Bigelow to an old age blessed with the loss of his memories of the horrors of having been forced to carve the railroad almost by hand and willpower alone through dense teak and bamboo jungle in torrential rain.
The book is hard to read because of the bleakness of Flanagan’s view of love and loss, and the sheer severity of the POW’s travails. On The Line, Dorrigo throws himself into saving those of his men he can, out of a helpless sense of duty rather than humanity – the same instinct that propels his loveless post-war marriage to a society belle. The text is enlivened by pithy descriptions and scattered gems of Japanese poetry, but if you are looking for a searing love story, this one burns all before it – as a firestorm outside Hobart, so powerfully described – to cinders and ash.

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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism


The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism. A review of João Freire, Freedom Fighters: Anarchist Intellectuals, Workers, and Soldiers in Portugal's History (Black Rose Books, Canada, 2000)

A good friend of mine is descended from one of the assassins in 1908 of King Carlos I of Portugal and his heir-apparent, Prince Royal Luís Filipe, which precipitated the fall of the monarchy in 1910. Overshadowed in most histories by the Spanish anarchist movement next door, the Portuguese movement may have been numerically smaller but was relatively, by head of population, a *larger* movement, with the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) achieving an almost totally hegemonic position in the working class until the rise of what became the quasi-fascist New State in 1927, the suppression of free labour and the imposition of what was tellingly named "national syndicalism". Its impact was also felt as far afield as Brazil and Lisbon's colonies such as Mozambique or Macau, where the early labour movements were built in part by exiled Portuguese anarchists. 

In 1892 a law was introduced in Portugal enabling the deportation of anarchist agitators to the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Azores, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique and Timor. Sometimes deportation followed jail time in Portugal, and it typically involved further penal servitude in the colonies, sometimes followed by indefinite banishment. As Freire notes, the 1892 anti-anarchist law was followed in 1896 by a law – applied retroactively – enabling deportation for speeches and publications that promoted or defended anarchist acts, with six months in prison to be followed by indefinite deportation; any newspaper that reported on anarchist activities or police actions against anarchists also faced closure and charges against the editor. 

As a result of these laws, several hundred anarchists were deported, mainly to East Timor; an unknown number were sent to Goa, India, and many were also sent to the African colonies and the Azores. Some continued their activities in these countries: for example, two Portuguese anarchists deported from their homeland for their political activities, José Carvalho and Manuel Coelho Traficante, started an anarchist group in Macau called The Dawn of Liberty, but were were again deported, this time to Timor, for their pains. To my knowledge The Dawn of Liberty was the first anarchist group in China - and the seeds it planted appear to have flowered exceptionally well, for south China became an anarchist stronghold, with anarcho-syndicalists building China's first modern union in Guangzhou in 1918, the Teahouse Labour Union, which drew 11,000 members from among trade guilds and teahouse employees, while British-occupied Hong Kong saw a strong IWW current develop.


Anarchist general Chen Jiongming, Governor of the Guangzhou Commune

Guangzhou even came under anarchist administration over 1921-1923 thanks to the influence of Chen Jiongming (1878-1933). According to Sanderson Beck, Chen’s anarchist-influenced federalism resulted in one of the rare instances outside of Manchuria of Chinese anarchists wielding power over a substantial region, their traditional stronghold of Guangzhou: “The anarchist general Chen Jiongming regained Guangzhou, and he called [republican general] Sun Yat-sen back in October 1920. They set up a republican government in April 1921, and 225 members of the old Parliament under the 1912 constitution elected Sun president. He [Sun] accepted the autonomy [from the Peking republican government] of the [Guangzhou] provincial government with Chen Jiongming as governor and commander of the Cantonese army. Chen promulgated a provincial constitution and limited military expenditures to 30% of the budget while reserving 20% for education… Chen Jiongming’s anarchist friends led the trade unions.” Sun later tried to dismiss Chen “but he was popular from his victories in Guangxi” and it was Sun himself who was forced to flee by Chen’s anarchist forces to Hong Kong in a British gunboat. Sadly, this example of an attempt at pragmatic anarchist counter-power appears to be poorly studied. 


The port city of Guangzhou under anarchist control in the early 1920s

The anarchist impact in Portuguese-colonised Africa was likewise notable but understudied. According to Lucien van der Walt, “After 1896 to 1905, a number of deported Portuguese served time in jail in Mozambique. In November 1896, the Transvaal government was informed by the Portuguese Embassy in Pretoria that the anarchist Joao Manuel Rodrigues had escaped imprisonment on the transport ship Africa when it docked in Cape Town en route to East Timor, and might be seeking refuge in Pretoria. He was not, it seems, recaptured. Gilberto dos Santos also escaped in Cape Town, but was recaptured and died soon after of bilious fever. Several anarchists were held in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, one of whom, António Caldiera, made a ‘spectacular escape’ from penal servitude in Angola and re-entered Lisbon where he was recaptured in 1905 and sent to Guinea-Bissau. After a republican government was established in Portugal in 1910, the anarchist printer and deportee José Estevam was set free in Mozambique, but he was imprisoned again when he set up a Revolutionary League in the port of Lourenço-Marques. He was, however, only one of several Portuguese anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists active in Lourenço-Marques in the first two decades of the 20th Century. The local press in Lourenço-Marques leaves no doubt about the presence of convinced and militant anarchists, and the revolutionary syndicalism of the CGT, whose newspaper A Batalha (The Battlewas available in Lourenço-Marques, remained the dominant orientation of trade union radicals in the city until at least 1927."


Lourenço-Marques harbour, under revolutionary syndicalist influence, in the 1910s

Founded in 1919 as an anarcho-syndicalist restructuring of the National Workers' Union (UON) which had been founded with 50,000 workers in 1914, the Portuguese CGT initially represented 147 unions, as well as a powerful Syndicalist Youth (JS) wing. The CGT newspaper A Batalha achieved a daily circulation of 25,000 by 1920. The CGT won the right to an eight-hour working day, and on the basis of this strength, became the only national Portuguese labour organisation until 1924 when a very much smaller Communist Party union centre was established. By 1922, the CGT reached 90,000 members (anarchist historians like Rudolf Rocker claim a figure of 150,000, which would effectively mean that every fifth Portuguese citizen was a CGT militant, a rather unbelievable figure). The CGT's membership declined over 1923 and 1924 to 55,000 because of repression, and a certain amount of bleeding due to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). Yet the communist challenge saw the CGT mobilise: by 1925, 70,000 members had rallied to its flags and A Batalha was circulating 50,000 copies daily, making it the second-largest daily newspaper in Portugal of any political orientation, though it was often read out to large groups of illiterate workers so its influence was exceptionally broad. 

As with developments in Spain, however, the growth of the Portuguese anarchist movement was interrupted by a military coup, in 1926. The Portuguese Anarchist Union (UAP) was suppressed, the CGT severely restricted, and many militants deported to the colonies, especially to Timor, Angola and Mozambique. After a failed insurrection in 1927, the CGT was driven underground and its headquarters and presses were seized. The PCP fared even worse: in 1928, its total membership stood between fifty and seventy.

By 1933, the year in which Salazar built his New State, ordered the dissolution of the existing trade unions and the creation of fascist-styled corporatist unions, the CGT's clandestine membership was estimated at 15,000. In that year all anarchist activity went underground, but in 1934, all clandestine trade unions and proletarian "revolutionary committees" embarked on a general strike in protest. A state of siege was declared and there was widespread and armed resistance and sabotage. In Marhina Grande, north of Lisbon, working people stormed the barracks and seized weapons and the local revolutionary committees which consisted of both CGT and PCP militants declared a soviet. But the soviet was defeated after two days of fierce fighting. Many militants were deported to Portugal's Asian and African colonies (especially Angola and Cape Verde) and concentration camps were set up all across Portugal. An assassination attempt on Salazar by CGT secretary-general Emidio Santana failed. 

Due to the clandestine nature of their struggles under fascism, the number of Portuguese anarchist groups in the 1930s fell to 12, compared to the 49 that had operated in the 1920s, but in 1931, a Portuguese Libertarian Alliance (ALP) was founded, networking groups in five centres. Changing its name the following year to the Portuguese Regional Anarchist Federation (FARP), the alliance had as its mouthpiece Terra e Liberdade (Land and Liberty) and the Libertarian Youth (JJLL) as its youth wing, worked in parallel to the FAI and managed to survive repression.

The peninsular Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), established in 1927, held a joint congress with the FARP in early 1936 during the Spanish Revolution and the following year, the CGT, FARP and JJLL discussed establishing a united front with the Communists and other anti-facists, as well as a common prisoner-relief organisation and a joint Revolutionary Youth Front, but ideological differences and the role of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in the Spanish Revolution saw the attempt founder. In fact in the 1930s, the communists slowly gained control of the clandestine trade unions from the anarchists and their Intersyndical Committee (CI) rose to 25,000 members. The hand of the Salazar regime weighed down heavily on the anarchists, but the movement was not dead: when Salazar sent 40,000 troops to aid Franco, the crews of three navy ships mutinied until shelled by shore batteries. By 1938, the Portuguese FARP and its allied CGT, cut off by the Spanish fascists from anarchist Spain, were hammered by a new wave of domestic fascist repression, although the CGT still claimed 50,000 underground members.

I guess it's easy to forget that Portugal's authoritarian state of affairs persisted far longer than the nasty, brutish and short Nazi regime or even Franco's long-lived autocracy, until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and Portugal's withdrawal from its African empire. Sadly, because of this long winter, the Portuguese anarchist movement today remains a fringe shadow of its former self with no connecting tissue to previous generations (in the 1950s, the few Angolan anarchists, for example, had to subsume themselves into the dominant Marxist politics of the liberation movements such as the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA). And here I must personally thank Friere for his very helpful messages pointing to the existence of a minority anarchist tendency in the post-war Angolan liberation movement.

Freire's much needed study is commendably analytical rather than anecdotal, backed with statistics and tables. In particular it covers the key role of the anarchist movement which had managed to penetrate the armed forces in overthrowing the monarchy in 1911 alongside the republicans - curiously similarly to what occurred in China in the same year - largely because of a desire to take Portuguese society out of its stagnation and to modernise it. Friere's book is an important study in English of this understudied movement, and an important recovery of memory from the darkness that was the Salazarist era.

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The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism


The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism. A review of David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945 (AK Press, USA, 2009).

To an English-speaking outsider, the French anarchist movement - as distinct from the Francophone anarchist movement in North Africa, Vietnam, etc - is often viewed as the "mother" movement because of the massive CGT union federation which, under anarchist sway, amalgamated with the local Bourses du Travail in 1895, establishing an "apolitical" model of mass anarchosyndicalism that was replicated in Fracophile countries such as Poland and most of Europe and lands as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Senegal. 

The French movement proved to be one of the largest, most influential and most durable of all anarchist movements; and apart from its suppression for four years during the Vichy era, it has operated uninterrupted from its rise in the trade unions of the First International in 1868 until today, where it still maintains a 24-hour radio station, several small anarchosyndicalist unions, research institutes, publishing houses, and a significant interlocking set of counter-cultural networks. 

So for a French-speaker, seen from within, the movement while no longer hegemonic in the French labour movement as it was from 1895-1920, can even today provide a totally immersive socio-political experience. Which for a researcher often makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees. What makes the task more difficult is that the movement fragmented in 1920 and subsequently, faced with the prestige of post-1917 Bolshevism, so keeping an eye on *all* the different factional organisational responses to that is rare. 

Berry's huge achievement is to provide a really holistic view of the fragmenting movement as it met the triple threat of Bolshevism, French fascism and Nazism, and reformism (the CGT at its peak in 1920 had 2,46-million members, larger than the famous Spanish CNT during the Spanish Revolution - but it was largely white-collar, very removed from its blue-collar origins). 

While a majority of "pragmatic" apolitical syndicalists were happy to form an opposition within the reformist (including Bolshevik) union centres, in a self-defeating strategy, the explicitly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist minority kept splitting away from these centres to form ever smaller purist federations, while alongside this, the "political" anarchist organisations grappled with the erosion of the mass movement's industrial base, resulting in some bitter schisms, especially between the tightly-organised "platformists" and the pluralistic "synthesists", a lively division that continues to this day.

The fragmentation of the movement also meant very different responses to crucial issues such as how to engage with the French ultra-right, the Spanish Revolution, and the Algerian liberation movement, with the platformists being for direct combat and the synthesists largely for critical support for the latter. Berry also does not shy away from the troubling question of those few anarchist individuals who collaborated with or were compromised by Vichy.

But Berry's greatest contribution to our understanding of French revolutionary politics of the interwar years regards the forgotten tradition of French Sovietism, a mass movement that tends to be overlooked by students of sovietism (council communism) in other areas such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, and even Britain. The movement had its roots in the hardline anarchocommunist and anarchosyndicalist resistance to the militarism of WWI, and flowered in May 1919 with the establishment of an anarchocommunist Parti Comuniste (PC). If this seems strange, bear in mind that similar anti-statist, anti-parliamentary, anti-authoritarian (and thus non-Bolshevik) CPs were established in the same period in Britain, Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, and arguably in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam, in each instance predating the "official" CPs.

The PC established rank-and-file networks within the CGT which lead to an Autonomous Regional Soviet appearing in Paris and holding a congress in December 1919 at which 35 such soviets from the capital and other parts of France were represented, defeating the Leninist line and reaffirming libertarian sovietism. This resulted in the formation of the Communist Federation of Soviets (FCS), with le Soviet (The Soviet) as its fortnightly mouthpiece. As Berry explains, the FCS was structured on workplace workers’ councils, which together with communities were represented in local soviets, which in turn were represented at regional soviets, with the overarching policy-making body being a congress of soviets to which only workers’ councils and local soviets sent delegations. Sadly, the FCS declined in 1921 with the founding of the official PC, whose members were mostly drawn from organisations to the right of the FCS such as the Socialist Party. Favourable revolutionary conditions would not appear in France again until 1968, by which time anarchism/syndicalism was a still-virile, yet fringe movement.

Berry's book is a crucial text for students not just of the anarchist / syndicalist / council communist movements, but of interwar French politics and unionism more broadly. I hope he follows it up with a book on the denouement of the post-war French anarchist movement to the current day.

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In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations


In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations. A review of Nunzio Pernicone's Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892 (AK Press, USA, 2009)

I'm a historian of the global anarchist movement (Black Flame - 2009; Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism - 2013), but during what I term the First Wave (1868-1894), the Italian anarchist movement was always a bit vague to me. The reason was that most historians make a point of stressing that the Italians made their mark not in Italy, but as travelling militants, especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States. But the conundrum was: if Italian anarchists were so influential in the revolutionary labour movement abroad, how was it possible that they had little traction where they came from?

Now Pernicone has helped explain why: Firstly, the dominance in Italy from the time of the Italian Federation of the IWMA of a form of self-described anarcho-collectivism (later anarcho-communism) that was insurrectionist and anti-syndicalist in the manner of Hatta Shuzo and the "pure" anarchists of Japan (they initially supported mass formations, but were just not very keen on unions), and later due to repression became staunchly anti-organisationist / anti-mass too. Not a smooth trajectory, bearing in mind that the likes of the young insurrectionist Luigi Galleani also cut his teeth on worker organising. Secondly, the new Italian state was dominated by two political factions: the “Historic Right” consisting of conservatives and monarchists, while the “Historic Left” consisted of nationalists and republicans – but this “Left” was compromised by its post-unification support for the monarchy; as a result, until the 1890s, government swung between two anti-socialist poles, which saw the emergent anarchist movement and the socialists more broadly, suffer continual cycles of repression. This repression was meted out by two processes that were not submitted to the courts where they could have been challenged: “admonishment” under which militants were put under restrictive surveillance; and domicilio coatto, which involved forced internal exile on islands off the coast such as Lampedusa. 

And yet, despite this climate, organisational efforts were perennial. The first International Revolutionary Brotherhood organisation in Italy, the Society of Legionnaires of the Italian Social Revolution (SLRSI), was founded by Bakunin in 1866, being reformed the next year as the Liberty & Justice (LeG) group, which lead directly to the foundation of the Italian Federation (FI) of the IWMA in 1869 that adhered to Bakunin’s line against Marx. Although initially based in Naples and its docks and the island of Sicily with more than 3,500 members by 1870, and swelling to an early peak of 32,450 members by 1874, primarily in north-central Italy, the FI was heavily repressed by the state in the late 1870s, while its insurrectionist (which later developed into an anti-organisationist) bias meant it would have to wait decades to achieve its own trade union central. But one of the key innovations of the FI was its emphasis on the equality of women: driven by women leaders such as Luisa “Gigia” Minguzzi of the FI’s Tuscan Federation and Vincenza Matteuzzi of the FI’s Marchian-Umbrian Federation, by 1876, the FI had organised women’s sections and groups in the cities and towns of Florence, Aquila, Imola, Perrugia, Carrara and Prato. 

By 1880, the FI was essentially dead in the water – although well into the decade in northern Italy, groups in various cities remained loyal to the internationalist line and still considered themselves part of the FI, now aligned to the Black International. Although repression had a generally negative impact on the Italian anarchist movement, with the majority adhering to a self-defeating self-described “anarcho-communist” line that talked insurrection but adopted anti-organisationism, so did little but produce incendiary newspapers and eschewed worker’s struggles, there were some positive organisational developments among the constructive minority. For example, in 1885, Ambrogio Galli’s Anarchist Communist Group (GCA) of Milan founded the Upper Italian Federation (FAI) with the purpose of reviving the movement, particularly among the workerists of the Italian Workers’ Party (POI) founded three years earlier with a programme that excluded from membership any who were not working class; initially the two camps had much in common, but the hostility of most anarchists to what they saw as the reformism of trade unions lead to a parting of their ways. There was better progress in 1885 when the Forlì Congress brought together 11 northern cities, scores of anarchist groups and federations from almost every region, resulting in the formation in August of the regional Anarchist Socialist Federation of Pesaro-Urbino (FASPU) and by 1887, a Forlì International Federation (FIF) was founded with 300 members; meanwhile although in 1876, a tiny and ephemeral Florentine Anarchist Federation (FAF) had been founded, adhering to Malatesta’s pro-organisational line, significant advances were made by Minguzzi among women workers at one of the two cigarette factories in Florence. However, these initiatives remained overwhelmingly regional and were unable to achieve national federation.

One of Bakunin’s main Italian disciples and in many ways his successor, was Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) who turned his back on his middle class origins to become an inveterate militant, insurgent, organiser and polemicist, and moved from an “anarcho-communist” insurrectionist position that he had held in the 1870s to a mass anarchist position. In 1889, he wrote his Programme, published in his newspaper L’Associazione, in Nice, France, as a call to arms against the deleterious effects of the anti-organisationist, terrorist and individualist deviations which had driven the Italian anarchist movement into isolation from the working class. Impressed by the strike-wave then surging across Europe, especially the struggle of the London dockworkers, Malatesta wrote in another article in the newspaper that “The masses arrive at great vindications by means of small protests and small revolts. Let us join them and spur them forward... Indeed every strike has its revolutionary characteristic; every strike finds energetic men [sic.] to punish the bosses and, above all, to attack property and to show the strikers that it is easier to take than to ask.” 

In his neo-Bakuninist Programme, Malatesta stated that “a great revolution is approaching, perhaps it is imminent,” and so the anarchist movement was faced with a “great mission” for which it needed to construct an international revolutionary anarchist-socialist party (later described by Malatesta as “the totality of all who embrace the programme, who advocate its triumph and who consider themselves bound not to do anything opposed to it”). As Pernicone paraphrases it, “Malatesta believed that although only the masses could make the revolution, they needed the guidance of a vanguard anarchist party. For only the anarchists, who harboured no secret desire for power, could arouse the masses to full consciousness of their might and spur them to destroy the state and every other obstacle blocking emancipation. And only the anarchists could be relied upon to resist the formation of new governments that would impose their will upon the masses, arrest and divert the course of the revolution, and prevent the evolution of a libertarian society.” 

Malatesta’s Programme finally bore fruit in 1891 at the Capolago Congress in Switzerland, to which more than 200 associations (two thirds of them anarchist and one third socialist and workerist) affiliated, representing more than 50 Italian cities and towns, plus exile groups from Switzerland, France, Britain, Egypt, the United States, Argentina and Brazil, at which it was overwhelmingly decided to found a Revolutionary Anarchist Socialist Party (PSAR), which soon established regional federations across Italy; repressed by the state, the PSAR’s regional federations were revived in 1897, though by then, Malatesta had moved away from the party’s original syncretism towards endorsing a far more ideologically coherent programme; within fifteen years, the Italian pro-organisational anarchists controlled their own 80,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist labour centre, the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI).

In sum, Pernicone has: corrected a longstanding Marxist occlusion regarding the Italian revolutionary left between the Risorgimento (state unification) of 1861 and the eventual establishment of a Marxist party in 1892, a bias that reflects the initial dominance of the Bakuninists; restored the pro-organisational history of the Italian movement - which was especially defined by its dispute with the anti-organisationists, a battle that it eventually won, in time to be on the barricades during the anti-colonial Red Week in 1914, not to mention the revolutionary Red Years of 1919-1920, with the USI peaking at 800,000 members, backed by a political organisation - in echo of Bakunin's dual-organisational strategy - the 20,000-strong Italian Anarchist Union (UAI); and lastly, Pernicone has offered tantalising glimpses of the establishment of Women's Sections which were to prove so influential as the vanguards of anarcho-syndicalism where it dominated the labour movement in most of Latin America until the 1930s.

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Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Red of His Shadow


A review of Mayra Montero's novel

Vodoun, the syncretic religion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti in the west and Dominican Republic in the east, is seldom accurately represented in fiction, subject as it has been for centuries to white mistrust of black theology, and in recent times to B-grade horror movie renderings of zombies.
Even Harvard scientist Wade Davis’ excellent 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow – a unique investigation into the real psycho-pharmacological bases of zombiesm, combined with a history of the rebel black republic of Haiti after its successful slave revolution of 1804, and a detailed explanation of how vodoun developed as an underground slave exaltation of West and Central African religions under the guise of their overlords’ Catholicism – was turned into a cheap Wes Craven thriller in 1988.
An unsurpassed exploration of the roots of rock ‘n roll via Haiti, where the faiths of African and Irish slaves combined to form vodoun and shape modern American culture, is the 1985 essay by Texan writer Michael Ventura, Hear That Long Snake Moan, which is available online. But Davis and Ventura offer rare English-language non-fiction insights into vodoun, so it was perhaps inevitable that an accurate depiction in fiction would be penned by a Cuban writer, in Spanish.
With a light touch, but penetrating empathy, Mayra Montero explores the mutual antagonisms, racism and interwoven cultures of pitch-black migrant Haitian “Congo” cane-cutters working for a pittance in a coffee-coloured Dominican mulatto world. Bucking traditional prejudices and a rain of curses from her family, the clairvoyant Dominican Anacaona marries the Haitian cane-cutter Jean-Claude Revé, brother to the vodoun houngan Papa Luc Revé, whose shy but willful daughter Zulé, possessed of a natural susceptibility to be ridden by the Loa, those ancient African gods, is destined from a young age to become the mambo of her own vodoun Societé.
Every year during Holy Week, Zulé’s Societé prepares itself with incantations, appeals to the Loa for protection and profit, dresses in its finest, beats its ritual drums, and, lead by its elders and queens, sets out from the batey, the worker’s barracks near the sugar mill, on a sacred procession, a Gagá, through the countryside, during which time they will exchange gifts of rum, cigars, cakes and fowl with the batey communities and Societés they encounter, while the mambos and houngans dispense advice and intercede with the spirit world.
It is usually a time of great celebration, but this year everyone is on edge because they know Zulé’s Gagá is destined to cross paths – and machetes – with the rival Gagá of the Haitian houngan Similá Bolosse, feared as a bokor, a master of the dark arts, not least for his connections to the disgraced yet still dangerous tonton macoute death-squads of ousted Haitian president Papa Doc Duvalier, and their drug shipments, the loss of one of which is blamed on Zulé. 
Montero’s lush and livid prose is brought to us by the skilled translation of Edith Grossman, who has also made Latin American greats like Gabriel García Márquez accessible to English readers. Peppering her text with vodoun chants and slave songs in Haitian Creole, Montero draws us into the realities of the cane-cutter’s physical poverty and spiritual abundance. 
With language as plain as cassava yet as firey as rum, she spins a tale – apparently inspired by a real crime of passion – which for all its grittiness has the lyrical, doomed beauty of many of Latin America’s great voices; definitely a talent to watch.

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"Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?"

Journalist and arts rights activist Sidd Joag, photographed by Fredrik Elg

Introduction by Sidd Joag

During the 2016 Malmö Safe Havens meeting, I had the opportunity to meet Michael Schmidt, a veteran journalist from South Africa who was charged with documenting the event. After two full days of performance, screenings, panels, conversation and debate, the idea of a series of articles placing the city of Malmö at the center of the current global matrix of civil unrest, repression, violence, displacement, migration and integration emerged. Malmö in particular is a fascinating yet understated cultural nexus with an air of welcome and acceptance that is rare, and increasingly threatened by wide-sweeping anti-immigrant sentiments across the Global North. This is especially noticeable in countries like Sweden with long histories of hosting displaced people amicably.

In “Should I wait for the darkness to see the stars?” Michael Schmidt, quoting the playwright, brings us into an atmospheric performance of (and by) Monirah Hashemi in her latest play Sitarah – The Stars, a disturbing contemplation on the role of women in Islamic society, the grave injustices they face and the transfer of their extraordinary resilience globally through diaspora communities. Schmidt weaves a series of vignettes that give us a glimpse into the deeply personal motivations of activists on the frontlines and how they actively affect change in their countries of origin.

What is the range of damage that we acknowledge or evaluate when we consider the psychological and socio-cultural toll of violent conflict and displacement? Schmidt presents us first-hand accounts of possibility that fortify our collective resolve to address the disturbing and divisive issues of today with clarity and kindness.

The remainder of the article is here: Arts Everywhere

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Monday, 24 April 2017

Yom HaShoah 2017

Sugihara Chiune

At the weekend, I attended as I do every year Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Jewish Cemetery in West Park, Johannesburg, known as Yom HaShoah. I personally prefer the Romani term Porajmos, the Great Devouring, to the terms Shoah (Destruction) or Holocaust (Consummation by Fire), as it reminds me of a Kali-like devouring demon and in fact, an alternate Romani term is Kali Traš, meaning Black Fear, but this is merely a matter of personal resonance. 
This year, the survivor’s testimony was given by Don Krausz, one of the fifty or so survivors who live in South Africa, a man I have often encountered at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and who spoke on behalf of survivors at my event there last year commemorating the conclusion of the 22nd annual remembrance of the “Hundred Nights” Rwandan Genocide. 
I had, however, never heard him speak before of his personal experiences, as a child between the ages of 12 and 14 as he traversed the concentration camps of Ravensbruck, primarily a camp for women and children, and Sachsenhausen, which had originally been set up to detain the politicals, but which Krausz described as a “destruction camp,” a final way-station on the way to the terrible terminus of the gas chambers.
There in Sachsenhausen, Krausz’ job as a teenager so wasted away that his hands could almost encircle his waist, was to remove the corpses of those who died overnight of starvation, disease or the extreme winter cold of -28⁰C so that they could be tallied with the morning roll-call of the survivors. 
He recalled one day passing “The Bunker”, the camp’s Gestapo interrogation block, and seeing a woman stripped to her underwear in that icy weather and tied to the barbed wire as a punishment – but miraculously still alive. He recalled talking to the Sachsenhausen veterans which included old communists and anti-fascist fighters from the Spanish Revolution (there were likely anarchists among them, though most Spanish republicans were sent to Mauthausen where 10,000 of them died) about their experiences. 
Eventually, after having survived a death-march where perhaps 500-6,000 were shot en route for not being able to keep up the punishing pace of 30km/day on starvation rations of a single potato and slug of water every three days, he was liberated and returned to Holland to find his mother and sister still alive – though his father and so many others had perished. By the Nazi’s own records, he said, some 12-million people died in their archipelago of more than 42,000 concentration, labour, and extermination camps.
Krausz’s moving testimony was followed by Rabbi Yossi Goldman who spoke of his late father’s escape from Poland through to Japan with the help of the Japanese diplomat Sugihara “Sempo” Chiune, the vice-consul stationed in Lithuania, and thence on to Shanghai and eventually to Johannesburg where, Goldman said, his father’s proudest achievement had been rebuilding his Shoah-decimated family. 
Sugihara, who died in 1986, is today recognised by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” – an honorific for non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi annihilation – for rescuing between 10,000-40,000 Eastern European Jews by giving them transit visas to travel through the USSR to Japan and China.
At the end of Goldman’s testimony, steeped as it was in his religious convictions, a lone voice – seemingly that of a frail old man – cried out from under the cypress trees, as it does every year, to the obvious discomfort of the mourners, though security made no move against him, probably knowing him to be a concentration camp survivor, “There was no God at Auschwitz!”

[ENDS]