Monday, April 29, 2013

Rihla (Journey 37): Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam: MURMURATIONS AND THE DECEIT OF COLOUR

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I like the energy of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. Since the demise of COMECON, the Soviet Block equivalent to the EEC, in 1991 Vietnam has gradually but inexorably developed into a free market economy. It joined the World Trade Organisation in 2006 and it is forecasted that it will be the 35th largest economy in the world by 2025. Vietnamese will eat anything as long it is cooked with care and the major difference in the culinary repertoire in the south since reunification is the establishment of dog-meat restaurants, a previous preserve of the north.

I was sitting in a café at the intersection of Nguyên Thi Nghîa and Lê Lai avenues in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City at evening rush hour and it was easy to imagine that most of the city’s estimated 4 million motorbikes (all generically known as ‘hondas’) from a total population of 7.5 million people had descended at that point to disperse.

Whole families appear with children strapped in, or vendors with mountainous stacks piled perilously high, or girls in purple traditional costumes and personalised helmets, all with a purpose, a destination. Most move in straight lines but then suddenly some weave left, some right into gaps or directions you do not see but which open up and swallow them, disgorging on the other side.

I had been at the same intersection earlier that day at morning rush hour and the effect was the same. When I mentioned the chaos to a friend later, he agreed and suggested that when the lights go green it was like watching flocks of starlings expand and contract in the autumn sky not knowing where next they would head.

The sky-displays by flocks of starlings, their course and speed being dictated to by the movement of their immediate neighbour, are known collectively as murmurations and it is as apt a description for the behaviour and visual impact of Saigon motorbikes on the move as you can get.

Whenever I see a flock of starlings take to the sky I associate a colour with them and think of the purple patches that stain the walls and roof of our house most autumns from the sediment of blackberry-gorging and disgorging birds and as I sat drinking my strong and delicious Vietnamese coffee waiting, not wishing, for an accident that never came I watched the motorbike ‘murmurations’ and the colour orange came to mind: the notorious Agent Orange that the American military had tried to defoliate Vietnam with during the war but because of high contamination with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodoxin (TCDD), an extremely toxic dioxin compound, has left a teratogenetic human devastation in its wake.

Earlier in the afternoon I had visited the War Remnants Museum in central Ho Chi Minh City.

On your immediate left after you climb the steps to the foyer is a craft shop run by the orange tee-shirted mutated children of parents who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war. To the western eye the site-specific theatrical presentation appears a little gratuitous, and manipulated, but on stopping to talk to one of the participants, a 30 year-old man with no arms or legs, you suddenly become aware that the participants believe profoundly in trying to educate the public about the consequences of chemical warfare.

He told me that it was his father that had been exposed to the agent and not his mother and that his brother, who remained hidden behind the craft shop counter, was worse off because he was also without one eye. Thereafter the museum displays, the horrific reminders of war, remain entirely in context.

One of the upper floor sections of the museum dealt with the collected letters, photographs and posters from around the world of individuals, groups and nations who had protested against the Vietnam War and had expressed their solidarity with the Vietnamese people. There was nothing from Ireland that I could find but there was a picture of a anti-war protest group in Aleppo, Syria and given the circumstances in that city and Syria in general at present I found that image the most thought provoking.

On returning to Ireland I watched last week as President Obama declared that a ‘Red Line’ had been reached in the Syrian struggle and that the use of chemical weapons against its own citizenry, if proven, had created the necessity and rationale for international intervention in the country.

I thought back to Lê Lai avenue, to the ‘honda’ murmurations, and to the deceit of colour

Lê Lai was an early 15th-century Vietnamese general who in an act of bravery dressed himself up as his Emperor Lê Loi to deceive the invading Ming army, charged down a hill to his eventual capture and execution, but in doing so allowed the Emperor and the bulk of the Vietnamese army to escape to fight, and win another day.

In a more general optical deception colour is not really colour, by which I mean that if we were to say that ‘I have a red hat’, we automatically assume that the hat has an inherent property of redness contained within. But in fact it is the exact opposite. The hat only appears red because the material or pigment of the hat has absorbed all of the other colours of the spectrum excepting red. So in essence the inherent colour property of the hat is actually blue-green-yellow-indigo-purple-orange etc. etc and its redness is its default or deceit position.

Do not get me wrong. I think immediate intervention in Syria is entirely appropriate and warranted but any rationale based on a greater moral impunity by the US is a deceit of what has constituted a ‘red line’ in the past and is undermined by the US sanction and use of chemical agents against the Vietnamese in that war. Maybe the lessons have been learnt.

I wonder however what would have been thought if President Obama had said an ‘Orange Line’ had been breached.

Further Reading:

Friday, April 26, 2013

Rihla (Journey 36): Phnom Penh, Cambodia: GENOCIDE AND MEMORY LOSS

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 

This rihla is about Phnom Penh, Cambodia

As a visitor you walk down the streets of Istanbul, Berlin, Phnom Penh, Kigali, or Sarajevo, and you admire in the young the bustle of activity, the laughter, the lightness of being as they go about their daily lives …. and you wonder. 

In your mind you start age profiling and ask the question? Do you remember? Do you have a personal or familial stream of consciousness that does not let you forget? Dares not let you forget! 

Are you a victim or a perpetrator? 

At societal level there is generally an orchestrated reconciliation of that memory, often assigned permanence in stone and legal statute, but equally often hijacked in pursuit of national or international political aims with an emotive blackmailing of commemoration. 

But what of the individual? Who owns the memory? Do individuals want to forget? Do they want to bury past memories because either the pain is too great or they do not feel it at all! People who have escaped wholesale slaughter of their kin intact often carry a ‘survivors guilt’ that prevents full participation in the reconciliation. 

One million Armenians of 100 years ago, six million Jews of 70 years ago, two million Cambodians of 40 years ago, 750,000 Tutsis and 25,000 Bosnian Muslims of 20 years ago… a repeating faultline in human behaviour and we have not learned how to prevent it. 

There is imminent danger of an imploding Syrian regime lashing out with chemical weapons perpetrating yet another genocide. There is an opportunity for the international community to help prevent it, and not ignore as they did the cry of the Armenians, the Jews, the Cambodians and Bosniaks. 

There follows a series of pictures taken recently on a trip to see Choeung Ek, one of the notorious killing fields outside Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng Museum the city centre S-21 detention centre in the former Tuol Svay Prey Highschool that functioned as a clearing slaughterhouse. 

Once of the most poignant of the images is that of a school 'blackboard' on the second floor of Block C in  telling the prisoners to be quiet at all times, written in French, the language of the 'dangerous' educated in Cambodia:

Il est absolument interdit de faire du bruit 

Genocide is a crime of quietness. We must all make as much noise as possible! Cry out to prevent it happening in Syria, if you can.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Rihla (Journey 35): La Pared, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands: THE WALL, PINK FLOYD, JOHN LOCKE, IMMANUEL KANT AND RECONCILIATION

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 

This rihla is about La Pared, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

The Catalan Atlas of 1375
Canary Islands named bottom left.

In 1404 Gadifer de La Salle landed on the black, volcanic sand of Ajui on the western side of Fuerteventura with a mixed force of French and Castillian soldiers to continue the conquest of the Canary Islands that he and Jean de Béthencourt had begun in 1402 in Lanzarote. At the time of de La Salle’s landing de Béthancourt was in Spain having the title Lord of the Canary Islands bestowed upon him by Henry III of Castile and trying to raise more troops but later joined de La Salle in Fueteventura and founded the first settlement in a valley about 10 km inland, a town that still bears the senior adventure’s name, Betancuria. 

Frontpiece from the Le Canarien,
a journal of the conquest of the Canaries,
showing de Béthancourt and de la Salle.

From Roman Times (and particularly as a consequence of Claudius Ptolemy’s 150 CE Geõgraphikê hyphêgêsis or Geography) the Canary Islands had been called collectively the Fortunate Isles but it was in the 1339 portalano of Angelino Dulcert (de Dalorto) that the island was named separately as Forte Ventura (Great Fortune). 

When de La Salle and de Bethéncourt invaded in 1404 the island was known to the native aboriginal peoples as Erbania

The native aboriginals, the Majos were primarily of Bronze Age Berber stock from the north-west corner of the adjacent African mainland, stranded by wind and time on the island, and who spoke a Lybico-Berber dialect. In that dialect ‘bani’ is a word for a low stone wall and Erbania as a name for the entire island derived its origin from a low stone wall built across the narrowest portion of the island to indicate the separate territories of the Kingdom of Jandia in the south from the Kingdom of Maxorata in the north. 

Statues of Ayoze and Guize above the
town of Betancuria. Fuerteventura

In 1405 with the help of the mother-daughter local priestesses Tibabin and Tamonante de Béthancourt managed to get the two opposing Kings at the time, Ayoze of the Maxoratas and Guize of the Jandia to become baptised Christians, and surrender overlordship to the Norman in return for retaining landrights and exemption from tribute for nine years. 

The native population (leaving aside those sold or taken into slavery) appeared to have been assimilated in the main with the invaders. (Of note de Bethancourt’s own nephew and heir as Lord of the Islands in Lanzarote, Marciot de Béthencourt married the daughter of the local Lanzarotian King but later became tyrannical and sold the islands to the Portugese in 1448). 

Back to the Wall! 

About 30 km south of Ajuy is another volcanic beach and port known as La Pared or The Wall in Spanish and it is from here that the ancient wall separating the Jandians from the Maxoratas originated. According to the guidebooks segments of the Wall still exist but when you ask about it nobody is quite sure where exactly. And this is not surprising. Dry stone-walls in Fuerteventura are generally made from volcanic pumice stone and whether the wall was erected yesterday or 2000 years ago in the absence of dating pottery or coinage or plastic they appear the same. The wall that separated north and south was not defensive like Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China but literally a line in the ground, a border to indicate organisation of a tribal society, a demarcation to reduce hostility. Sometime in the past, long before the European conquest, warring tribes had called time-out and decided on the Wall. It then became a symbol of everything in that society, it was not a mere pile of rocks: it was Erbania. 

The headland at La Pared inlet, Fuerteventura.

I pondered on this notion of intentional isolation, while huddled in a typical Canarian beach stone-walled circular windbreak against the strong northerly wind that drove Atlantic waves crashing onto the La Pared shoreline, and thought of Pink Floyd’s Roger Water’s disaffection with a Montreal audience and the expressed desire to build a wall between him and the audience, and his feelings of abandonment and isolation. The expressed disaffection (and spittle) that was to result in The Wall concept album of 1979 and songs like Empty Spaces, Is There Anybody Out There? or Outside the Wall. 

In my bunker of separation from the winds and sand I extracted from my knapsack the book I had brought for holiday reading: A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton, a fantastic exploration of the importance in historical terms of 12 key developments in cartography. I had reached his 5th chapter entitled Discovery, which concerned the 1507 World Map of Martin Waldseemuller.

Besides its value as probably the first map to name the newly discovered (or re-discovered!) American continent it was more for his contextual analysis of the map’s publication as a verification of the 15th century Renaissance humanist developments. Brotton writes: What is found at the historical moment of the creation of any world map is not the inviolable identity of its origin but the dissension of disparate stories, competing maps, different traditions

As I reared my head above the parapet of pumice, for some reason the backward message to Luka in Roger Waters’s Empty Spaces song from the Wall suddenly resurrected in my consciousness. Was the space beyond the wall truly empty, or do we as a society create spaces of imaginary ‘emptyness’ by erecting artificial barriers to desire, to discovery, to intercourse? Are we so afraid of the ‘dissension of different stories, competing maps, different traditions’ as to try and separate them in space. To cross from one space to another within society implies some form of consent. But from whom? Is it from within oneself or without from society in general? 

Before leaving for Fuerteventura I had been examining, from a medical perspective, the true nature of consent and had just finished reading an article in the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy: Special Issue on Justice, Legitimacy and Diversity on the tradition of “Consent” in society by Gerald Gaus, a philosopher from the University of Arizona. 

In contrasting John Locke’s (1632-1704) rejection of a medieval supremacy rooted in God-granted rights and his liberal social contract declaration based on Natural Law that all people are intrinsically free and equal and that prospective political authority or the legitimacy of any state must be based on the individual consent of the governed with the Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) perspective that because of an a priori Idea of Reason, and the absence of justice in Nature, a social contract is necessary to fully realise individual freedoms, rights and justice and the notion that individual consent to the legitimacy of that contract is subsumed to the notion of a primary duty to participate, Gaus concluded in Mevlana fashion that there is a role for both approaches. Consent is basically a form of reconciliation of the individual with society, and that different traditions have different strengths in achieving that reconciliation. 

And this is what the Wall is, was: a reconciliation of that early Erbania society. 

There and then I felt the need to see for myself as to whether there were any obvious remnants of the Wall at La Pared. Logic, reason even, told me the wall must have ended where the land cascaded into the sea and getting up from the shelter (of reason!) I walked to the far end of the beach and climbed up the spur of land that jutted out from the village towards the sea. Halfway up I was certain that I had found what appeared to be a faced wall, so obvious and so unmarked as to then immediately dismiss it as a volcanic rock formation. I am still not certain and will just have to leave my photographs of it as a question posed.

The 'WALL' at La Pared looking east.

The 'WALL' at La Pared looking south.

On returning to Ireland I turned to Google Earth to try and explore the terrain more closely. A definite linear feature appears to completely cross the isthmus on the first line of hills just on the northern edge of the sand plain. The pictures that follow show a portion of a wall traversing the north facing slopes just above a dry bed about 5 km east of La Pared, and crossing that river bed at one point. This continuity would not be characteristic of field enclosures where the rivers edge would provide definition. The rest is conjecture. Again it is for the reader to judge.

Regardless whether this is the Wall or not, its existence remembered in the name of Erbania, in that of La Pared, and by the Canarian peoples, was of far greater importance than its physical construct. The Wall was a product of individual and collective reason, and a reconciliation of the legitimacy of a societal contract.