Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Humanity revealed in war

December 19, 2009

If it’s possible to see the sunset over the grasslands of southern Nigeria and feel the warm air, when you’ve never been there, you’ve read Adichie’s work. If you now understand what it feels like to feel plagued by the paranoid sensation that the world around you is about to evaporate like  fog when the African sun rises, you’ve probably also read her work.

Truly, I have never met someone who made human suffering so tangible and pervasive that the characters enter my dreams and waking thoughts; not since I read the works of Leo Tolstoy. (I am sadly under-educated in African writers other than Chinua Achebe and Albert Camus.)

Unlike Tolstoy, Adichie  explores the middle, working and poorest classes. She contrasts the opulent lifestyle of revolutionary thinkers, Odenigbo and his friends, swilling back cognac with  Ugwu, a quick-witted villager working  in Odenigbo’s house. Yet, the most capativating charater is Olanna, a beauty whose strength and belief in new future for Nigerians is tested by the horrors of war. The changes Adichie allows Olanna to experience are heartbreaking and dauntingly real; I can only assume this as one who has never been through a war.  

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Nigerian author of The Purple Hibicus and Half of a Yellow Sun, recently spoke at SEIU building in Washington, D.C. in late October. What was most interesting to me during her her talk was how she felt this sense of priviledge in being able to get a good education and become a writer. She was lucky and she was well aware of this blessing. Whenever she would return to see her cousins who stayed in the village and saw how they married young and struggled to make a living, she wondered what they must think of her, the fancy writer working in New York City. Adichie expressed interest in working with aspiring Nigerian writers in the future and possibly running a writing workshop. Currently, she finds herself very busy writing and persuing her book tour of new collection of short stories, The Thing Around Her Neck.

Now, having read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, I can see why the room was packed and full of lit up happy faces. I am a huge fan as well and inspired by her as a writer. Adichie has the innate ability perform as a surgeon, feats that seem impossible to the average person; painting the horrors of a war she was too young to live through. And at the same time, she finds a way to make the readers also experience.  No, sense_the fragility of humanity. I will never forget the image of Olanna sitting on the floor of the train after seeing a town torn apart by fire and human destruction. The strange apathy her character feels staring into the face of a woman mourning the death of her baby leaves the tongue dry and wordless. I can only think of one other time I felt this way: seeing the four-story stupa  piled from floor to ceiling with the skulls of those killed by Pol Pot regime in Choeung Ek, Cambodia. In the same way, it’s a priviledge to have my eyes opened to these atrocities. Hopefully, I can be part of a more positive future as I know Adichie is also hoping for her cousins, former neighbors and her future family.

To learn more about Adichie, visit her personal Web site: http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/.

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Diamonds: African companies want their fair share

February 23, 2009

Every issue has it’s season, and usually results in an oscar nomination. But what happens after all the fan fare? The conflict and the issue is forgotten.

It’s been several years since the release of widely acclaimed film Blood Diamonds and responsible consumerism was a hot topic for a season. Now, Sierra Leone’s civil war is over and the Kimberly Process has started regulating diamond trade more closely. But there is a more subversive crime is still being committed against Africans_inequity in business. Will international mining industry giants secede their power and  give a fair share back to local African businesses? 

“We don’t have a figure because you’ve got lots of African countries that don’t actually produce; instead, all they do is act as a conduit”, said Abbey Chikane, Chairman of the South African Diamond Board and the Kimberley Process in an interview with allAfrica.com’s Charles Cobb Jr.

While a post-conflict region is reestablishing a government, exploitation by businesses were a common concern of both European and African leaders and human rights groups. The European Commission and African leaders discussed matters of peace and security in post-conflict regions at the Joint Summit in Lisbon in 2007.  According to reliefweb.org, they determined that “issues relating to transnational organised crime, international terrorism, mercenary activities, and human and drugs trafficking, as well as the illicit trade in natural resources, which are a major factor in triggering and spreading conflicts and undermining state structures, are of particular concern.”

Global Witness released a report, For a Few Dollars More, How Al-Qaeda moved into the diamond trade, claiming that the Al-Qaeda network successfully infiltrated diamond-trading networks in Africa to raise funds for its operatives and launder money. Author of Blood Diamonds, Greg Campbell had also investigated the link between the Al-Qaeda terrorists who committed the 9-11 attacks on the United States and conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Yet, support of the African Union in  the Kimberly Process and the The Clean Diamond Act is still shaky at best. 

 “Burkina Faso and Congo Brazzaville, for instance. They don’t produce diamonds but they export large quantities of diamonds. So in terms of numbers it is very difficult. If you ask me how many diamond-producing countries there are, I will tell you South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, the DRC – there are very few. The rest, like Zambia, Zimbabwe, all these, don’t actually produce diamonds but they trade; they source their diamonds from elsewhere. That will have to be a subject of discussion at our next plenary: Where do they source their diamonds from because they don’t produce?” Said Chikane.

Even if proper regulation of diamond trade is established, Western diamond industries are showing reluctance to share their profits with African partners.

According to AllAfrica.com, Botswana is boasting over recent ownership of diamond mines and the mining “conflict free diamonds”. Yet, reports of “a messy dispute regarding AK 6 diamond project earlier this year”  revealed that African Diamonds will hold only 28 percent share in the AK06 Discovery project while De Beers has 71 percent.  

DeBeers is blaming the dispute on their joint partner, Boteti. The DeBeers.com website indicated that “African Diamonds apparently believes that Boteti should breach its contracts with De Beers by breaking its marketing agreement entered into at the formation of the joint venture…African Diamonds has commenced legal proceedings against Boteti and its fellow shareholders in Boteti (Debot, Debwat)”.

DeBeers claims that they had nothing to do with this dispute, yet, the AK6 project would greatly affect the quality of life in citizens of Botswana. According to DeBeers website, there would be a  “substantial 30% reduction in supply of power by Eskom to Botswana over the next three to four years…projections show that the shortfall in power supply is not expected to be resolved before the middle of 2012, at the earliest.” This is something that DeBeers has not found a way to resolve.

Does this mean consumers should boycott the diamond industry?Not necessarily.  The diamond industry can provide jobs and generate revenue for working African families. The most important point is to support only companies that are sharing an equal portion of the revenue with their African partners.

There are many human rights groups determined to force the diamond industry to find ways to incorporate sustainable business solutions to enable African business partners and communities surrounding diamond mines to flourish not suffer. Fatal Transactions is one such group.

“The commission repeatedly voices its concern on natural resources, conflict sensitivity, unsustainable natural resources management and underdevelopment” . Fatal Transactions insisted on accountability and third party evaluation of natural resource management procedures.

According to a documentary cataloguing his life, Campbell feels boycotting diamonds is the wrong approach. He pointed out that there is would have a negative impact on peaceful nations producing diamonds such as Botswana.  There are many problems with the certification process. He does, however, point out the glaring holes in the current certification process. For example, while diamonds from Sierra Leone had been essentially banned from the legitimate market, diamond exporting from non-diamond producing nations such as The Gambia dramatically rose during the civil.

The best way to make educated decisions about diamond buying is to read the confidence pact on the diamondsfact.org which is affiliated with The Kimberly Process Corporation. These diamonds are certified and are carefully documented by Kimberly Process Corporation employees. The Kimberly Process cannot certify individual jewelers, but you can encourage your jeweler to go online and register for educational information on conflict-free diamonds.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                          www.debeersgroup.com                                                                                                                                                                       kimberlyprocess.com                                                                                                                                                        www.diamonfacts.org           www.AllAfrica.com                                                                                                                                                                                                                   www.AfricaBusiness.net                                                                                                                                                                                                      The Last Empire: DeBeers, Diamonds, and the World, by Stefan Kanfer                                                                                                Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones, Greg Campbell

Madeleine Albright at the 92nd St. Y, NYC, January 7th

January 13, 2009

Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright shared with Dan Rather thoughts on foreign policy punctuated by her dry brand of wittism last Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y.

Drawing insights from her new memoir, A Memo to the President, Albright answered Rather’s probing questions on  tough calls past presidents’ had made in foreign policy as well as her hopes for the new administration. Albright is expecting great things from the new administration:  change in the American approach to foreign policy, greater open discussion and collaborative decision making within the White House and a chance for America to turn around the negative view the world currently has for the most part of American society and politics.

“There is a sense that this election will change how America is viewed by the world…We’re going to be engaged actively (in improving relations with Middle Eastern countries) and we’re going to have a very smart president,” said Albright, evoking a shattering round of applause.

The next administration has great challenges to confront, far more intimidating than anything the nation has ever faced, even Roosevelt. There is once again a dire economic crisis, but we also have many issues to deal with overseas. While we’ve fought Afghanistan and Iraq, the Hamas and Iran have gained power. We “took our eye off the ball in Aghanistan” and Al Quada has continued to grow in strength. “The U.S. has been absent”, she said.

The most important thing is to change our approach and give up this notion of a “war on terror”.  Albright sees  fighting terrorism through predominantly military force as the wrong approach.  It won’t work. Our aggressive and military-driven approach has only fueled the extremist groups’ agendas. She indicated that our purely militaristic approach devoid of diplomatic means gave the world a dim picture of the U.S. foreign policy. And made it easy for terrorists to glorifying their agenda.

Clearly, Albright said, the current administration thought that they could go into Afghanistan and create enough damage that the terrorists would run away and hide and not try to bomb us again. We were egotistical to think that they could be so easily subdued and we lack the foresight to have a plan b, c and d.

Iraq was “the greatest disaster in foreign policy”. Albright claims that the results were worse than Vietnam War because of the damage done to America’s reputation in international relations.  Albright’s advice for turning around the world’s current view of America:  close Guantamanamo Bay was the second step. The first step has already been achieved _electing President-elect Obama.

Another item on her wish list for the future president’s foreign policy agenda is to create a global atrocity committee that can monitor possible conflicts and develop strategies for negotiations and conflict resolution, watch for the signs that lead to genocidal activity. The situation in Somalia and Rawanda taught her that detachment from conflict at the level of genocide is not an option.

“It is our responsibility to prevent genocide”.

The Israel and Palestine was also at the center of the conversation and at the top of Albright’s concerns in foreign policy. Albright saw a bi-lateral instead of unilateral with drawl of military would have been a more successful solution. And using a moderate from Israel or W.Gaza who could take credit for the withdrawl would have been the best approach.

The major benchmarks for change in Gaza-Israel conflict are related to the cause/effect of many political leaders tactics and their opponents’ reactions.  If there is a ceasefire for long enough to initiate a peace process, probably led by someone such as Tony Blair or Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Nazif, there might be some progress towards a resolution between the two nations. Also, it is very important to see what the U.S. role will be in this situation and how we will become involved under the new administration or possibly the old. Albright also saw a need for more consistency in the U.S. approach to the foreign policy on the Middle East. A regional policy may be necessary.

There is also a considerable amount of work overdue in the Americas region. Illegal border crossing continues despite the recent increase of 18, 000 border patrol officers. Albright believes the U.S. can influence Latin American countries in a positive way.  Encouraging and promoting democracy is important but not at the expense of the peoples’ quality of life.

“People want to vote and eat.”

Can Obama achieve all this? The most important thing is that he act as a “confident not a certain president”.  A confident president isn’t afraid to be challenged by various points of view, to insist his cabinet members’ challenge each other and remain open himself to considering all the angles his team has presented to him before making a decision. That takes team work. And the American people should also be a part of the president’s effort to create change.

“I hope that when you stand for the first time behind the presidential seat you will have uppermost in your mind the need to restore our faith in each other. Speak to us as adults–share with us your thinking, tell us your doubts…Beyond that, let us know what we can do to help. Challenge us. We aren’t afraid of the truth and we’re more willing to make sacrifices than we ordinarily let on”.*

To read more about Albright’s insights on foreign policy during her service as Secretary of State, pick up a copy of A Memo to the President. Her memoir gives you a 101 class in modern foreign policy since World War II. It’s an engaging peice of nonfiction and worth sharing with fellow history/current affairs fanatics.

 

*Albright, Madeleine. Memo to the President. HarperCollins Publishers; New York: 2008, pg. 310.

 

Award-Winning Iranian Authors Read in Noho, NYC

November 29, 2008

She was arrested, pushed to the ground, humiliated and taken into custody for attending an anti-war rally? Did she do anything wrong? Nothing. Was she given a phone call? No.

Sitting in silence, Goushegir’s audience listened intently as she read from her one-act play, “My Name is Inanna,”  a story not uncommon to middle-eastern people living in the United States. This is one of many stories, Iranian exile, playright, Ezzat Goushegir was born to tell.

Captive, her audience sits on stools, at the bar, even cross-legged on the floor of the KGB Bar in Noho last night, silently watching Goushegir reveal how a courageous Iranian woman’s sense of self is challenged by American social standards and rules, in a prison and  in a beauty store. The mask that her character Inanna wears in the beauty store and in the questioning room is the same, doing what she is told and trying not to cause trouble. These scenes bring to mind the questions: how has Inanna’s life changed in America?  Does she truly have more freedom here? The irony of a woman exiled from post-revolutionary Iran only to be arrested at an anti-war demonstration is felt heavily in a room full of 1960’s activists, intellectuals and fellow Iranian exiles. Goushegir goes on to account for the fears that might infect someone’s mind as the clock ticks by and she waits and waits for the police officer to return.

When asked during the question and answer session, Goushegir admitted that the play was based on a compilation of stories from many Iranian people and their experiences and perceptions as a foreigner living in the United States. She said that most Iranians living in America fear being imprisoned at one point in their lives.

Censorship is also a point of concern for both authors. Rachlin, author of Persian Girls and the opening reader, discussed the difficulty of getting her work read in Iran. She says that censorship of anything immoral is strong right now. Both writers agreed that during the Shah’s rule, there was also censorship but it was more about not discussing anything negative about the government or how the country was run. Rachlin said that made it impossible to share even the most basic realistic details of life in Iran such as the cockroaches scurrying down the alley. Due to censorship and other inequities in Iran, both authors touch on protests in America during the 1960s. One man commented that the Iranian students he knew in NYC opened his eyes to the situation in Iran and difficulties people were facing there.

If you happen to be in Chicago and Goushegir is reading “My Name is Inanna”, be sure to see her performance. It will leave you speechless. There are no upcoming readings scheduled yet. Rachlin

 

Goushir is a playwright, short story writer, theatre critic and poet. Her published work includes: The Woman, the ROOM, and Love and … And suddenly the panther cried: WOMAN, collections of short stories in Farsi; “The Sulking Sunflower”, Stylus, Medea was born in Fallujah, Exile in America, Now Smile, Crawdad, English translations of short stories for literary journals, Migration in the Sun, a book of poetry, and  Metamorphosis and Maryam’s Pregnancy, Two plays, a book of plays. She has won a Richard Maibaum award and a Norman Felton award for her plays. Goushegir is currently a Creative Writing and Iranian Studies professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She recently read “My Name is Inanna” at Women and Theatre Program (WTP) Conference, Confronting the Silence: Building Bridges of Engagement, in July 30, 2008 at El Centro Su Teatro in Denver-Colorado. She also actively contributes to literary journals. 

 

Rachlin, a novelist and short story writer, is well-known for her memoir, Persian Girls and four novels, Jumping Over the Fire, Foreigner, Married to a Stranger and The Heart’s Desire. Rachlin is a winner of the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her work has been published in Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Farsi, Arabic. Rachlin currently teaches at the New School University and Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. She also is an Associate Fellow at Yale.

 

Aside: As I’m so close to the center of a major metropolitan hub for writers and intellectuals, my plan is to try to attend a reading or lecture a week so I can share news on great new authors and people to watch in politics, business, art, etc. to my friends and former colleagues throughout the world.

Comment from Joel Simpson: jsspoto.verizon.net-Thank you for this sensitive review of Ezzat Goushegir and Rachid Nachlin’s readings last month. It’s very gratifying to know that their respective messages were received and deeply appreciated.