(Latest in a series)
Our reunion of sorts was in La Marsa, Tunisia in December, 2011. Zine Ben Ali, wife Leila Trabelsi and members of their two clans had been gone from the country for almost a year. Tunisians were both relieved and confused. In a country where previously people rarely talked politics to foreigners for fear of the consequences, now free speech flourished. A person would be hard pressed those days not to talk politics; it was hard to find anyone who had anything but contempt for the Ben Alis and Trabelsis. But now the near quarter decade of mounting economic woes, seething repression and corruption on a grand scale was over.
But it was a strange time as well. A wave of religiosity soon overwhelmed addressing the socio-economic crisis as a coalition of Islamic forces, some moderate, others of a more radical Salafist bent, spread throughout the country, a trend at odds with Tunisia’s moderate and more politically secular modern political traditions. Ennahdha, the moderate Islamic Party, headed by Rachid Ghannouchi had emerged from the shadows of the Ben Ali regime as a disciplined and organized political force. With its fraternal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling circles in Qatar and Turkey, Ennahdha benefited from considerable outside funding from these regional allies. The Salafists enjoyed financial and other support from the Saudis and other Persian Gulf emirates. In short order more radical Islamicists had taken over many of the country’s mosques, replacing – purging would be a more apt description – more moderate imams with more Salafist (and in many cases, more poorly trained) brethren. These elements had also taken over the pre-schools. In short order, having gained such status, the new more radical imams began influencing the country’s youth, especially in Tunisia’s western and southern more impoverished regions, but not only there.
Eleven months after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, many of the country’s more secular personalities found themselves being threatened almost daily. “We’re watching you.” “You’re next.” from unknown voices on cell phones. Art exhibits were trashed as were marabouts (holy sites dedicated to Moslem (and some Jewish!!) pious ones. Critics of Islamic fundamentalist bigotry in the media, film were beaten up while women were threatened for drinking wine in local restaurants or not wearing head scarfs. These fascist elements – in the name of religious purity – had already, by December, 2011 when I visited Tunisia, been unleashed upon a generally unsuspecting and unprepared Tunisian public. They left me even then with a deeply uncomfortable and ambivalent sense of Tunisia’s future – hope mingled with concern, if not fear. All this combined with the understanding that the national discussion had turned from addressing the socio-economic crisis that had triggered the late 2010, early 2011 uprising in the first place to cultural questions – debates over religiosity versus secularism. It was as if the country’s future was being hijacked before my very eyes. The national discussion has shifted – and here the Ennahdha Party bore much responsibility from how to address youth unemployment, the polarization between the prosperity of the coastal urban areas (Bizerte, Tunis, Sousse, Sfax) and the decaying and ignored interior to the appropriateness of showing an animated Iranian-made movie that portrayed God, or Allah as a kindly old man. A collective vision, a common project for the country’s economic future did not exist except in small circles whose voice in the public sphere had been all but lost (but is resurfacing again now three wasted years later). Among those political forces with the least economic vision, again, was Ennahdha, the county’s “moderate” Islamic party and one whose weight in the political body politic was, until a few days ago, decisive.
It was in this labile political environment of his country heading both towards and away from a bright future that, after a 43 year hiatus, I reconnected with my old friend, Ferid Boughedir for an afternoon and evening together in La Marsa, suburb of Tunis north of the capitol known in days of yore (when I lived in Tunisia – late 1960s) for its quiet surroundings and fine beaches. Boughedir had long before emerged as one of Tunisia’s finest and most well known film directors having directed a series of films exploring his country’s post-colonial cultural processes. Among his more well-known, more in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe than here in the USA, were Halfouine, Boy of the Terraces, Camera d’Afrique, Une Ete a La Goulette (A Summer In La Goulette). Halfouine, about a 12-year-old boy coming of age is considered a classic among Tunisians, the film’s title taken from the name of the multi-cultural working class neighborhood of Tunis where Boughedir was born and where he grew up with his parents, sister Samira and brother Farouk. It was a mixed neighborhood, Italian and Greek Christians, Jews, and of course Moslems in which the different ethnicities lived in constant contact with one another in relative harmony during the dying days of French colonial rule in the 1950s and early 1960s.Boughedir is the opposite of a fanatic – religious, political cultural – . His is a world rich in genuine respect for the diverse cultural and historical strand, which merge into what today is Tunisian culture. His films reveal a deeply tender humanist who cares for that great diversity which is the human condition, and in that way, he brings forth in his films, tender, quite funny, profound a Tunisian slice of the human condition.
Beyond that, Boughedir brings to all his films profound insights into the main themes of Tunisian culture, its extraordinary ability over centuries, if not millennia, to blend the traditional with the modern into a kind of harmonious cultural concert that exemplifies Tunisia’s long held position as a cultural crossroads. Ninety miles to its north across the Straits of Tunis lies Sicily which on a clear day from a hill in Cap Bon can been seen from the Tunisian coast. The country’s ties with Italy, actually historically far more important than those with France that colonized it in 1881, are of long-standing. On a north-south axis, Tunisia connects Sicily and through it Europe with sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia’s coastal cities – Tunis, Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax were all transit points in the Europe – sub Saharan caravan trade, far richer and more significant than most Euro-Americans appreciate. On an East-West axis the country is half way between Morocco and the Spanish coast on the one hand and Egypt and the Middle East heartland on the other. If today the country is overwhelmingly both Sunni Moslem, Arabic speaking, still the country’s history, like its geography, is read in layers – Berber, Phoenician, Sephardic Jewish, Byzantine Christian, Sunni, Shi’ite Muslim, Ottoman Turk, even Spanish for a short period during the rule of Philip II, French – all have left their marks on the country’s history, culture, psyche. Boughedir, like most Tunisians, understands, celebrates the fusion of these historical and cultural strains that woven together make up modern Tunisia.
Ferid Boughedir and I lost touch long ago. but I was not surprised that arriving in Tunis in late November, 2011, and making new contacts, not one but a number of them had his phone number and were more than willing to share it with me. I called, we arranged to meet in downtown La Marsa, where on so many wonderful summer days in the late 1960s I had gone to the beach with Peace Corps friends whose names came back to me as the suburban train that took me there reached its destination: Gerry Auel, Dahlia Karaluite, Bob Stam, Kent Middleton, Dan Cetinich, Phil Jones, Stan Suski, Jim Herzog among others. We met at a bookstore near the train station, he showed me his home, I took a bunch of pictures, we went off to an Italian restaurant. Afterward we went to a local art gallery reception where I met some Tunisian artists, sculptors and other cultural figures, his friends, but mostly we walked through the streets of La Marsa, walking, talking, talking, walking as afternoon tumbled into a cool mild early December evening. We talked of the past; he gave me his take on the liberating but confusing situation in Tunisia in those early “post Ben Ali” days, but mostly he spoke about what he knows best – Tunisian culture, his lifetime love affair with the culture of his people, his country, that great melange mentioned above, a kind of cultural “cous cous”, human cultural stew. And as he talked my memory of “the old Ferid” came back to me full force. He had always had what I would describe as an explosively creative mind, yet his descriptions, his analyses were down to earth, understandable , and always, always, always with that gentle sense of humor, a kind of tenderness that emerges in all of his films which are both profound and touchingly funny.
How did Rouen, France, that urban metropolis between Le Havre and Paris on the Seine River, get into this?
Ferid Boughedir and Rob Prince first met, not in Tunis, but in Rouen that fateful Prince studied in that Normandy political and cultural center. I do not remember precisely when it was that we connected, but after wracking my brain finally “the where” somehow bubbled up from the depth of my being. It was at the Rouen “Cine-Club” (film club), where else would one run into Ferid? These film clubs were already in the mid-1960s very popular throughout France. Going to a cine-club film was a different from going to the movies in the United States, at least in those days. Although today it is not uncommon to have a post-film discussion at American film festivals – such as the excellent Denver Film Festival here in Colorado – in the 1960s such events were rare in the USA, but already widespread tradition in France. Virtually every French city had one, including Rouen. It met in a small movie theater a stone throw’s away from the city’s great cathedral, made famous internationally by Claude Monet’s many impressionistic renditions of it. Memory can play tricks, confuse reality with wishful thinking but if mine serves me well (admittedly questionable), the Rouen Cine-Club met on Sunday evenings. I do remember leaving the movie theater at night in the dark.
Did I approach Ferid, or he me? I am guessing it was the latter and not the former. Did we speak in English, a language in which he was already proficient or was it in French. Mine was pretty primitive in those days. Here my memory fails me. But what does return loud and clear was his personality. He was short in stature and if I remember correctly sported a goatee in those days. He was so open, so full of life, knowledgeable, intellectually very, very sharp, not at all shy. Our main social connection in those days was the Cine-Club. In fact I don’t remember seeing outside of those occasions, but over the course of several months we would meet prior to the showings and sit together during the films. Ferid liked to sit in the first row. I didn’t. It strained my neck. I asked him why it had to be the first row. He answered presciently enough, “I don’t want to just watch the film, I want to be in the screen. Unfortunately for the moment, this is as close as I can get.”
Ferid liked to sit in the first row. I didn’t. It strained my neck. I asked him why it had to be the first row. He answered presciently enough, “I don’t want to just watch the film, I want to be in the screen. Unfortunately for the moment, this is as close as I can get.”
Many of the films we saw that year were French “nouveau vague” (new wave) films, films of Godard, Resnais. These films were, predictably enough very much the opposite of American films of the period,. They were dark, dense films, highly symbolic, depressing critiques of life in advanced capitalist countries, piercing through the Doris Day like happy talk and sentimentality of the American gendre. Like many Americans, I had trouble understanding them, would miss the symbolism or the message of the director’s eye. In fact, I specialized in missing the message of those films at the time. They were enigmas for me, hardly than doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. But Ferid absorbed and understood – everything, especially what the director was trying to convey and how he or she was trying to convey it. He would explain the films to me, both the plots and the more technical aspects of film that modern day connoisseurs like to get lost in. I would respond “oh”. He must be brilliant I thought to understand modern French cinema.
Ferid was also the first North African, the first Tunisian I ever met, a worthy introduction to the people and culture? Was he studying in Rouen at the time like I was? I don’t remember. What I do remember though was that he was very poor,, living in Rouen on a shoestring budget, but somehow getting by. Besides actually understanding Godard’s films, he was also the first person who ever asked me if I knew what is socialism. I had no idea at the time, nor frankly did I know much about capitalism either. He didn’t advocate socialism, just asked me what I knew about it. No hard sell, but my curiosity was provoked. If Ferid knew so much about cinema he must know about politics too. He also very much wanted, like many French friends I made that year, to visit the United States. Could I help him? Well I didn’t understand Godard but sure I could help him arrange a trip, at least to New York City where my family lived. My mother, still living in Queens with my sisters and her second husband, Nat Kaye agreed to host him. And so soon after our year in Rouen ended, Ferid arrived in New York City. He came with his French friend Bruno. I don’t remember spending much time with them in New York City nor how long they stayed with my family because I had to head back to college in Canton, New York in September of 1965 when they arrived in the USA, but in classic fashion, Ferid, like a series of foreign friend who came and staye d with my mother, soon ran out of money and asked to borrow some from my mother, who was always obliging and generous in response. For years afterwards though, my mother would speak of Ferid with much respect, he having been the only foreign (mostly French) friend who stayed with the family who actually paid her back!
Shortly thereafter, in September of 1966, our paths would cross again, this time, not in Rouen nor Jamaica, Queens, but in Tunis.
The day I came home having graduated from college in June, 1966, I found on the kitchen table in our family’s home, two invitations for foreign travel. They were both generous offers – two all expense paid tours so to speak. The one was my draft notice, a probable ticket to Vietnam. The other was an invitation to join the Peace Corps in Tunisia. I agonized – Tunisia or Vietnam? – my indecision lasted no more than a milli-second. While the jungles of Vietnam assured an adventure fulled two years, I preferred building bridges to blowing them up and opted – on the spot to accept the Peace Corps invite. In early September in a charted TWA jet plane a group of some 250 new Peace Corps volunteers deplaned at Tunis Airport. As I got off the plane, I remember the heat wave nearly knocked me out. Within weeks, I had reconnected with my friend Ferid. He had held my hand intellectually in Rouen and walked me through the murkey world of French cinema. Now for the next two and a half years he would be my cultural guide , the best one an American graduate of a liberal arts college with no marketable skills could ask for, to explaining the wonders that make up Tunisian culture. Might not sound like much, but it changed my life. More on that later. Maybe.
Preparing a lecture on the commodity cycle for smart phones (with emphasis on the [not so] lovely working conditions of Congolese cobalt miners and Chinese electronic component workers for rip-off companies like Flextronics (1.5 million employees worldwide)…came across the growing figures for electronic waste. Some interesting figures…for 2012 a whopping 50 million tons (not pounds or kilos but TONS) of electronic waste was produced – throw away cell phones, computers…all that stuff that people world-wide buy every two years. Leading the wasters is China which alone produces 12 million tons of electronic waste, the US of A nibbling at Peking’s heels, producing some 10 million tons. It is expected that by 2017 that there will be 33% increase in electronic waste worldwide predicted to top off at 65 million tons, something to look forward to…but I’m hoping we, the USA, failing hegemonic power, can overtake China by then and become NUMBER ONE AGAIN…something to aspire towards…then we can say we have the most foreign military bases in the world (more than 900 worldwide – next competitor is France with 5, China has none) and that we waste the most electronic equipment, more than any other country, I mean what kind of superpower is the United States anyway if it can’t produce more electronic waste than China.
So far the Ebola virus has effected exactly three people in the United States. Yet there is so little coverage these days about the Ebola outbreak where it is actually taking place – in West Africa, Sierre Leone, Guinea, Liberia or the fact that the health services in Senegal and Nigeria the outbreak has been contained. Instead we read election-produced scare tactics of the few cases that are emerging in the USA with Republicans having triggered a national fear crisis in hopes that this will help them over the top in the upcoming mid-term elections in a few weeks. As usual, the Democratic response to this cynical public relations campaign, is tepid…if that.
Although the United States has considerable medical resources to fight such an epidemic, that the Ebola virus could spread, follow a global path like that of the AIDS virus 40 years ago, is not at all impossible. Much depends right now on stemming the disease’s spread in Africa before it reaches even greater epidemic proportions there and moves aggressively beyond the continent.
Shutting our country’s borders – which seems to be the way the United States deals with many international problems – might have “public relations value” that play on fear, but medical authorities point out it is a rather useless tactic in putting out the Ebola fire. That requires, to use too oft-repeated term – boots on the ground…medical boots that is. It is only in recent weeks that a major shift to transfer more human resources to the region has started to take place while thousands have died in the three countries including hundreds of medical workers.
In Sierre Leone, the news continues to be grim, at least 1200 killed, probably an understatement. Region-wide now the number of infected has reached 10,000. The World Health Organization estimates that 70% of those will probably die. The disease is far from having been contained and continues to spread. As it does, the lackluster foreign effort to combat it continues to grow as the potential for the crisis to spread that much further intensifies. And grow it will underlining the urgent need for a coordinated global campaign targeting West Africa to contain its spread and hopefully eliminate it. No country alone, to say nothing of those directly affected by the Ebola crisis, can overcome the virus by itself.
Both the United States, Britain and other countries have started to dramatically increase their commitment in terms of personnel and equipment. For example, in August, Britain announced it would set up a hospital with space for 300 beds; in recent days, they have announced that now they will provide for 4000 beds for Ebola patients within a month. This past week the United States also upped its commitment. After a stingy initial commitment, the Obama Administration has greatly increased both its financial and human pledges promising $400 million in aid and a pledge to send some 4,000 troops to the region to help with the logistics of fighting the growing plague. Up until now Washington’s contribution was limited to 65 uniformed officers from the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, as reported in The Wall Street Journal
Perhaps “(not so) great powers” like the United States and Britain have been embarrassed, if not shamed into upping their ante by Cuba’s effort? According to the Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 15, 2014), Havana announced that it would immediately dispatch 165 health workers to Sierre Leone to deal with the Ebola outbreak. A few days later, Cuba announced that it would send 296 doctors and nurses to ailing Liberia as well. These medical delegations are, apparently, only the beginning, a small percentage of those Cuban medical workers who have said they too are willing to go.
While the media here in the United States celebrates the precious few medical personnel here willing to lay their lives on the line for others, in Cuba there seems to be quite a different attitude towards addressing the Ebola crisis. While Cuba too is taking health precautions, its main concern appears to be how to give concrete aid to the people of West Africa suffering from the outbreak. It should also be noted, that while underfunded due to the country’s ongoing economic crisis caused by 64 years of U.S. imposed sanctions that Cuba has one of the few tropical medicine research centers anywhere.
Imagine! A country that thinks beyond its own national interests, and it appears to have, all the propaganda against it aside, a genuine spirit of empathy, solidarity for their fellow African human beings. Now novel! As the same article notes. “Cuban state media reports that some 15,000 health professionals have expressed an interest in traveling to West African nations to help.” For those who would argue that all this is little more than a Castro propaganda stunt, it might be pointed out that Cuba has a long history of providing medical aid to countries in need. As the same Christian Science Monitor article points out:
Soon after its revolution, Cuba sent doctors to Chile to help the nation recover from a deadly 1960 earthquake.
• Cuba sent 2,500 health workers to Pakistan after an earthquake in 2005.
• 1,500 Cuban health professionals traveled to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake.
• Some 30,000 Cubans currently work in Venezuela’s health system; Cuba is partially paid in oil for its contribution.
• An estimated 4,500 Cuban doctors are currently (2014)supplementing Brazil’s public health system in rural parts of the country or undesirable city neighborhoods.
Another recent article, this one in The Nation magazine (Oct. 15, 2014) adds more perspective to Cuba’s medical contribution to poor countries in need.
“Havana’s been sending healthcare workers to Africa since the early 1960s, staffing clinics and training medical faculties, including in Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea. When white doctors fled South Africa after the end of apartheid, Cuba stepped in. According to one report, Cuba in 2007 had 30,000 healthcare professionals, including 19,000 doctors, working in over 103 countries.”
Addressing this health crisis, thus, it is Cuba, more than any country that has shown the way. Let us hope that the nations of the rest of the world follow, for this is one crisis, like global warming, that will require a major international effort in which no one country, large or small, will be able to resolve the issue on its own.
Ah, if Raytheon could only develop an Ebola drone!! Wouldn’t this solve everything? A technical fix to stop these undocumented, illegal microbes from entering the country. Its production would make profits for the military industrial complex to boot, always an important consideration in the country’s economic well-being these days. A micro-weapon to be directed by a microchip that could be anus inserted, like a suppository. Cutting edge technology!
As they, drones, come in all sizes these days, it needs to be made small enough to enter the human bloodstream to attack all those nasty viruses. Of course the will be collateral damage, a lung here, a kidney there, a testicle here, an ovary there ..but given precision bombing of our developing micro-weapons we could find a way to fight the virus and keep down our own organ casualties.
Go for it!
Here in the United States, as would be expected to a certain degree, much media attention focuses on the growing number of Ebola cases of people States-side. On some level, this concern is needed to prevent the disease from spreading here in the United States.
Let’s keep in mind that while vigilance is appropriate that the kind of scare tactics which are currently being employed by the nation’s Republican Party in an effort to swing the upcoming mid-term elections their way, have transformed a potential danger into something approaching a panic, with the media and certain elements of the government responsible for it and it is pretty cynical stuff. Read more…
Ebola and the American Christian Right: Fine-tuned Nincompoopery
This country’s Christian Right, at least some of its more prominent voices, spokespeople, are at it again, defying reason in their rush to see signs of the Second Coming wherever. In this respect many of them see the Ebola virus, and the possibility of it exploding as a full-scale pandemic, as “a sign.” But then they tend to see everything as a “sign” of the Second Coming, be it Middle Eastern wars, the Black uprising against police abuse at Ferguson, Missouri, 9-11, the 2008 global financial crisis, you name it.
Many of them not only see Ebola as a “sign” but, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as a welcome sign suggesting the day of the Lord is closer at hand. Perhaps. But their campaign seems well coordinated the overall Republican Party campaign to use the Ebola crisis issue as a last ditch vehicle, a kind of “October Surprise” to push Republican candidates over the top in the upcoming mid-term elections but exaggerating the fear campaign concerning Ebola’s possible spread here in the USA. Don’t be surprised if the campaign loses some of its luster and hysteria after November 4.
The religious right’s grasping on to ebola is reminiscent of a recent idiot cocaine-brain-soaked U.S. president, who, carried away with his air force jump suit, and speaking of the unending war on terrorism he was about to launch, said, “Bring Them On.” So it is with Ebola. Bring it on…it would simply dumb if it weren’t so cruel, actually taking joy in the suffering of others, West Africans in this case. They are such a frightening, seethingly fascist element in our midst, the Christian Right, one that continues to grow and influence our body politic. Imagine, smiling, “rooting on” human suffering because it fits their pathetically narrow framework of the cosmos.
Here are a few case studies:
John Hagee has long called for Washington to attack Iran, Syria, anywhere frankly that might hasten the apocalypse. The spokesperson for the 1.8 million strong Christian’s United For Israel, explained the true causes of the Ebola epidemic for those of less mentally and intellectually endowed and in need, as I have been all my life, of “spiritual guidance.” In case you didn’t know it, Ebola is “God’s punishment for dividing Jerusalem. Read more…
Of the many strands, that woven together, make up one of the world’s greatest rivers, the Congo, there is one which enters the river’s main waters as the great river arches to its most northern latitude. Starting from the southeast regions of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it first stretches almost due north, its main artery referred to as the Lualaba. A ways beyond Kisangani and Bumba, the main branch, fed by hundreds of tributaries, lurches almost due west, making a gentle west-north-west arch until, past the rapids just after Kinshasa, it tumbles dramatically to the ocean past Goma.
Near the northern most point of the Congo’s flow, a tributary merges in from the north just west of Lisala, the Mongala, a river that flows essentially longitudinally from north to south. Near the head waters of the Mongala, the Ebola, “a tributary of the tributary,” itself a 155 mile river, flows into the Mongala from the northeast adding to its volume and energy. At the point where the Mongala enters the Congo mainstream, the great river is flowing almost due west from the continent’s interior.
The Ebola River gave its name to viral disease which has now reach epidemic proportions in West Africa having, by official statistics already taken the lives of 5000 people. As statistical analysis in Sub-Sahara Africa is far from precise, it is possible that the actual number of victims is quite higher and that frankly, there is no accurate estimate of how widespread the disease has managed to extend its range. According to Pierre Piot, the Flemish (Dutch speaking Belgian) researcher who, in 1976 first identified the disease as a unique new pathogen, quite different from Marburg’s Virus with which it was first confused. Read more…
(note: This also appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus)
Upcoming elections in Tunisia will be the focus of both national and international attention in the coming period. Parliamentary elections on October 26, will be followed by a presidential election on November 23. The election campaign is in full swing at the moment. With these elections, hopefully a period of rocky political transition is coming to a close, but this is far from certain. Unlike the rosy analyses coming out of Washington suggesting that Tunisia is an island in a sea of instability, the actual picture in the North African country remains essentially fragile at best and could, despite the rosy prognoses, collapse. Still, Syria and Iraq might be in shambles, Egypt in the hands of a military dictatorship, Yemen in full political crisis, Libya for all practical purposes essentially (or nearly) in a state of collapse, here in the United States, Tunisia is being showcased as the Arab Spring’s only success story, a somewhat exaggerated sketch..
It would be surprising (to this commentator) if the upcoming election would change the country’s fundamental situation very much if at all. That the political process and that freedom of speech – that hard won victory -continue since Zine Ben Ali’s hurried exit from the scene in January 2011 is accurate enough. But it has otherwise been a rocky road these past years marked by assassination of leading democrats, bizarre (for Tunisia, with its history of tolerance) growth of radical Islamic fundamentalist trends, a decidedly narrow factionalism of the leading Ennahdha Party (which still retains a sizable base in Tunisian society), virtually no progress whatsoever in addressing the socio-economic crisis which triggered the late 2010 uprising in the first place. A dangerous shift to the political right and the growth of extremist Salafist influences has been, for the moment, held in check, although many dangers remain. At different times over this period, it has only been the intervention of massive popular demonstrations which has kicked a lack luster, unimaginative transitional government back onto the path of democracy and genuine reform. Read more…