Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review: Ryszard Kapuscinski's "Travels with Herodotus"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger)

Travels with Herodotus” by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Knopf, $25, 288pp)

By Dylan Foley

As the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski battled terminal cancer during the last several years of his life, he worked on his final book “Travels with Herodotus,” which weaved memoir together with an examination of the role that the writing of the ancient Greek historian played in his 50-year reporting career. Kapuscinski died in Warsaw last January.

When Kapuscinski, a legendary foreign correspondent, was being sent to his first disastrous posting in India in the mid-1950s, his editor handed him a copy of Herodotus’ “The Histories,” written in the 5th century B.C. He wound up using Herodotus as a guide and mentor while covering 27 wars and revolutions, including the disastrous civil wars in Nigeria, the Congo, and Angola. Kapuscinski was sentenced to death four times in different countries.

Kapuscinski’s books first hit the United States in translation in the 1980s. “The Emperor,” his sublime account of the fall of Haile Selaisse in Ethiopia in the mid-1970s was told through pompous voices of Selaisse’s courtiers, in hiding after the Marxist coup. “Another Day of Life” told the descent of Angola into two decades of civil war, as the South African and Cuban armies stood poised to invade. His best work came from covering the grotesque wars of postcolonial Africa.

In India, Kapuscinski picked up the role of the eternal outsider, the Western observer, that informed his stoic, matter-of-fact writing. He used Herodotus to explore India.

By the early 1960s, Kapuscinski was working for the Polish Press Agency. He was sent to Ghana to cover Kwame Nkrumah and the liberation of Africa. Meanwhile, he was still reading Herodotus. The central conflict in “The Histories” is the 6th century B.C. battle between the Greeks and the Persians. The democratic Greek city states could not get themselves organized in confronting the rapacious Persians under Darius the Great.

For Kapuscinski, Herodotus is the first reporter in history: “[Herodotus] keeps conducting his investigations, citing various opinions about an incident or else rejecting them all outright as being absurd or contrary to common sense.” In his detached, amused prose, Kapuscinski fixated on Herodotus’ tireless work ethic, his almost modern assimilation of information, and the lack of fear or complaint shown in his writing.

The style and philosophy that Kapuscinski developed covering the bloody and usually pointless wars in Africa and South America was a profound distrust of authority, accentuated by growing up under the Nazis and the Soviets, and compassion for the civilian populations who pay the price. In “The Emperor,” he outlines the greed that led Haile Selaisse to steal foreign aid to build palaces while hundreds of thousands died. He pulled the little emperor off his mythical pedestal.

Immediately after Kapuscinski’s death in January 2007, Jack Shafer of the political website “Slate” published a snide polemic called “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski,” detailing several outright fabrications in Kapuscinski’s reporting, especially in “The Emperor.” The material was troubling, meaning that Kapuscinski’s work now has to be read with other histories to confirm its accuracy.

Like most polemics, the “Slate” piece missed the larger picture, in this case being the true beauty of Kapuscinski’s work, from the absurdity of El Salvador’s invasion of Honduras after a questionable loss in the quarter-finals in the 1969 World Cup to the poignancy of his 40-year-old houseboy breaking down after his 9-year-old son was murdered by the Idi Amin’s soldiers in 1970s Uganda. No other books bring to life the fractured horrors of 1960s African independence, a period of turmoil that led to the corrupt, evil leaders in Zaire (now the Congo) and Kenya. This was the bill from the Cold War, the proxy wars played out on the African soil.

One thing that Kapuscinski never did was bang the drums of war or indulge in shameless bloodlust, as much of the American media did in the 1991 Gulf War or in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the new book, he questions to depth of the work he did, covering riots with burning cars and dead bodies. What did this all accomplish?

At the end of “Travels with Herodotus,” Kapuscinski sails to Halicarnassus, the Greek island (now part of Turkey), where Herodotus was born. Kapuscinski appears worn out, and muses on his relationship with the historian he calls “The Greek.” “We wandered together for years...For although Herodotus was always straightforward, kind and gentle in relation to others, there was always in me the feeling of rubbing shoulders undeservedly, perhaps presumptuously, but always thankfully, with a giant.”

Now Kapuscinski is dead, but his books will remain as standards for writing with compassion about the horrors of war, about corrupt dictatorships that trample their citizens to satisfy pure greed. If we are lucky, maybe a sophisticated editor will pass on copies “Another Day of Life,” “The Emperor” or “The Soccer War” to an untested, newly minted foreign correspondent going out into the field.

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Feature: Liao Yiwu on his devastating oral history "The Corpse Walkers"

The Horror of Chinese History

By Dylan Foley

Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu may be the most censored writer in China. He has just published The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up(Pantheon, $25), his brilliant collection of oral histories of Chinese citizens, including the stories of a crazy peasant emperor locked in prison, a public restroom manager, a former landlord harassed by the communists and an innocent man accused of grave robbing.

Liao is is likely the most censored writer in China. “The Corpse Walker,” translated by the journalist Wen Huang, is history from the bottom up, a brutal look at 50 years of communism under Mao and the repressive communist-capitalist hybrid that China is now. As riots break out in Tibet against Chinese rule and worldwide boycotts threaten the Beijing Summer Olympics, Liao’s book could ot come at a better time.

For Liao, the oral histories started in prison in 1990, where he spent four years being beaten and tortured for his poem “Massacre,” which compared the 1989 Tiananmen Square slaughter by the Chinese army of students to work by the Nazis.

“I was thrown in jail,” said the 50-year-old Liao on a phone that was almost certainly bugged by the police at Liao’s mother’s house in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. “At the beginning, everything was quite unintentional. I was with a group of people who were living at the bottom of society. There were people on death row. I was locked up with murderers. Initially, I didn’t know how to communicate with them, even though we were all Chinese. I was like an alien. Eventually, we learned to communicate with each other. I didn’t intend to record their lives, but as a writer, my basic instinct was to listen to their stories.

In prison, Liao interviewed a mad peasant emperor, a safe cracker on death row, and a ex-banker who witnessed the Tiananmen Square, spoke out and destroyed his career. When Liao got out of prison, he traveled around the country, interviewing professional mourners to wail at family funerals, and the almost mythical corpse walkers, who carry dead people hundreds of miles so they can be buried in their hometowns.

Liao then pulls out the horrors of the last 50 years of Chinese history, exploring the famine that resulted from grotesque mismanagement where 30 million died, and the violence and absurdity of the Cultural Revolution by interviewing former Red Guards who harassed and sometimes killed intellectuals and professionals. Liao shows a Chinese government that still crushes the small people and tortures the innocent. In 27 interviews with common people, Liao creates an unforgettable, grim and often witty picture of modern China.

Liao’s history is not about Mao, but the brutal effects of communist on the lower rungs of society. “I am trying to write history from the perspective of ordinary people,” said Liao. “Through them, you see modern Chinese history and the impact on them. I want to show you can learn history through ordinary people.”

A sanitized version of “The Corpse Walker” was published in China in 2001. The book became a bestseller, then the government shut the publishing house down. “The government banned this book because some people think that this book is political,” said Liao. “I don’t think it is so. Some people tell the government, how can this book be so pessimistic? People should always be optimistic and progressive. What I show in the book is that people are living in such misery. This is why the government felt threatened by my book.”

Over the past 15 years, Liao has been subject to constant harassment by the police. He keeps pushing on, remembering his teachers--hunger, prison and homelessness. “What motivated me initially was that I tried to rebel against the government and society when I was young and I had a lot of energy,” said Liao. “As I grow older, I grow more wise and mellow about things. I treat everything as my teacher. My enemies are my teachers. I had hunger and it taught me a lot. I have this incredible memory. I got this memory in prison. When I was in prison moth after month, year after year, I had to force myself to learn. My compulsion is to remember and record things. Prison also taught me the real meaning of freedom. Another reason that makes me write is it has become a habit. That is a continuation from my life in prison. You have to go on, in order to learn.”

Liao sees no choice but to keep collecting his stories. “I have no choice but to go on. For many years, I have survived and have collected many stories. I go on, despite the risks. I hope I do as good a job as my counterparts in the West who wrote about the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camps.”

Sometimes, the temptations of love and a home get to Liao. “ I do crave a healthy and normal life,” he said. “To seek freedom, my mind and soul need to be free first. Someday, when I get tired, I’ll look for another option. I leave my life to the heavenly God. Whatever happens, happens.

Liao’s last interrogation by the police was in December, when he traveled to Beijing to accept a human right award. The police picked him up and barred him from receiving the award. During the interrogation, Liao harangued the police and then the policemen took him to dinner at Liao’s friend’s restaurant before they sent him back to Sichuan province.

“A lot of people characterize oppression as coming from the state machine,” said Liao. “I feel there is the need to communicate, not only with the people I interview, but with the police. The police are human.

Dinner instead of a beating is an improvement, noted Liao. “The fact that I could have dinner with them, then they sent me back to Chengdu, was some kind of progress,” he said. “This would not have happened several years ago. By the way , the police picked up the check for dinner.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Feature: Philip Gourevitch on "Standard Operating Procedure"

The Stain of Abu Ghraib

by Dylan Foley

In May 2004, the world was horrified by photographic images of Iraqi detainees being tortured and humiliated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. The atrocities sparked an international outcry and soul searching over the mistreatment of prisoners, but only a handful of low-ranking soldiers were convicted of wrongdoing.

In their damning and engrossing new book Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin Press, $26), Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch and filmmaker Errol Morris have linked the Bush administration’s attempts to strip prisoners in the “war on terror” of all protections under Geneva Conventions and to sanction a broad range torture techniques and humiliation during interrogations, to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. The book is a companion to the Morris documentary of the same name. Gourevitch’s stark and fluid prose brings alive the events behind the infamous photos of the seven months in 2003 at Abu Ghraib, where “standard operating procedure” meant nude Iraqis being menaced with dogs, beaten, stacked in human pyramids, and chained in stress positions.

“Abu Ghraib is a very charged address,” said Gourevitch in an interview from the New York offices of the Paris Review. “In the spring of 2003, American soldiers were coming into a prison which had been a symbol and synonymous with the worst of Saddam’s torture chambers. Then the Americans decided to use the prison. Prison contractors were told to set up a prison in a month. They found Abu Ghraib and said this is the only real prison in Iraq. It had been built with American blueprints.”

In the book, Gourevitch first lays out the Bush administration’s work at the highest levels to remove post-September 11th detainees out from the protections against physical abuse.

“You have the slow substitution of the ‘war on terror’ laws rules and policies in the place of what had been a conventional war between states,” said the 46-year-old Gourevitch. “In the Justice Department, with the president’s legal counsel, in the vice president’s office and in the Defense department under Donald Rumsfeld, you have a consistent and coherent strategy to dismantle the laws against torture and against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and to allow a great deal of abuse.”

Torture techniques were imported from Afghanistan to Iraq. “Captain Carolyn Wood had run the interrogation center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan,” said Gourevitch, “where they used dogs, nakedness, sleep and sensory deprivation, constant abuse and beatings. Three prisoners were murdered under her watch. She was transferred to Iraq and promoted. Nobody gave her any rules. She said, ‘I’ll bring the rules from Afghanistan.’”

Gourevitch’s writing shines when he recreates the concrete hell of the cell blocks of Abu Ghraib. Several hundred undertrained MPs were guarding up to 9,000 Iraqi detainees. They were shelled every day by Iraqi insurgents. The MPs were stressed and terrified.

Eventually, it was discovered that more than 75 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent. Most of the rest were common criminals and people who had been arrested for looting.

On the ghoulish military intelligence cell block, prisoners were kept naked and were routinely beaten and humiliated. Gourevitch reconstructs the infamous Abu Ghraib night shift of Charles Graner, Jamal Davis, Sabrina Harmon and others, where their brutality and callous disregard towards detainees was encouraged and fostered by Army and CIA interrogators,and one prisoner was beaten to death by an interrogator.

“The soldiers at Abu Ghraib did not get a standard operating procedure or a rules of interrogation,” said Gourevitch. “The rules got totally confused. If you set out to create a muddle of instructions which would lead to anarchy, abuse, and minimal accountability for the higher ups, you could not have designed things better.”

Gourevitch refers to Graner and the other MPs as amateur photographers and amateur torturers. “To put it simply, it was obvious they were never read into the program. They were never told, ‘This is a black operation and you are sworn to secrecy,’” said Gourevitch. “That is why, in part, the book is called ‘Standard Operating Procedure.’ There is an absurdity about including people who weren’t even told, ‘You have to keep your mouth shut.’ It was amateur hour all the way. They were amateur torturers.”

The tragedy and the sick joke of Abu Ghraib was that the intelligence obtained through beatings and abuse was worthless. “In the end, Abu Ghraib actually turned out to be a useless.

When Saddam’s battle-hardened general and colonels from Saddam Hussein’s regime were brought into Abu Ghraib, they faced inexperienced interrogators.

“You think of one of Saddam’s generals, who’d survived wars and several putsches in the regime,” said Gourevitch. “He’s survived in a cutthroat government. Into the cell walks a 19-year-old interrogator, straight out of boot camp. He’s no match for an Iraqi general who is playing for keeps.”

Gourevitch dismisses the idea of atrocities being inevitable in war.
“There is the idea that terrible things go on in war, but this is not the horror of war,” said Gourevitch. “This was a deliberate reversal of policy on torture.”

The book was intentionally published without the iconic photographs of Iraqis being menaced by dogs or nude men stacked in a pyramids. Without the photos, the book has a timeless quality, where seven months of atrocities at Abu Ghraib become a war story of American troops acting out tortures that have been approved from the highest levels of the American government.

In the end of the day, the photographs documenting the abuse damned the people in them and allowed the higher ranks to escape prosecution.

“The photographs from Abu Ghraib provided a frame that made it seem like the abuse were the actions of a small group of rogue soldiers,” said Gourevitch. “It allowed people to say, ‘Oh, it’s these kinky, weird, messed up group of hillbillies who were alone of the night shift, who created these pornographic images and disgraced us all.’ There was an investigation, but it was bagged early on. (cut three begins--75 words) The photographs seemed ended up limiting the damage to those soldiers in the photographs. In the Washington spin rooms, the master framers were able to say, ‘Wait a minute, no one is going to find a document signed by Donald Rumsfeld saying, “Stack these naked people into a pyramid.”’ Therefore, there is no connection to the abuse. I believe the soldiers convicted were scapegoats in the end.” (cut three ends)

Gourevitch writes that Abu Ghraib is a stain on America, a stain that remains because U.S.-sanctioned torture is still being committed in the “war on terror.” His book asks the searing existential question, if we can be indifferent to torture in our name, what kind of country are we becoming?

“Now we have congressional approval of waterboarding,” said Gourevitch. “We have the second national election since Abu Ghraib and no one is making an issue of torture, in either party. There must be an idea that people are willing to make their peace with torture, which is a very disturbing discovery.

“There is a big difference between saying, ‘There are times in the republic where dark and dirty things must be done,’” added Gourevitch, “and saying ‘These aren’t dark and dirty things. These things are who we are and we do these things with our eyes wide open, and we do not pretend to be embarrassed.’ This has been the policy of this administration.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q&A: Daphne Beal on "In The Land of No Right Angles"

In Daphne Beal’s enthralling debut novel In The Land of No Right Angles(Anchor, $14), Alex is a 20-year-old American woman spending a year in Nepal. At the request of her former teacher Will, she helps a Nepalese girl named Maya escape from her bleak village in the mountains to the opportunities and dangers of Katmandu.

Alex, Maya and older Will quickly form a strange romantic triangle that spans almost a decade. The spirited Maya and the more cautious Alex become like sisters, but their troubled, symbiotic relationship can’t bridge the cultural divide. When Alex returns to America to become a photographer, Maya begins a slow descent into of life of sex for survival, then full-fledged prostitution in the grim Falkland Road red light area of Bombay, India, where more than 100,000 Nepalese prostitutes ply their trade. Alex goes to Bombay to try to save Maya, but saving her is more complex than it appears.

Beal, 38, was raised in Wisconsin and educated at Brown and New York universities. She lives with her husband, the writer Sean Wilsey, and their two children in New York City. Beal spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe near her home.

Q. How did you create the character of Maya?

A. Maya is an amalgam of more than three different people I knew. When I was in Nepal in 1990, I was 20, and felt incredibly lucky to be there and wanted to disappear into the place. I met people trekking and in Katmandu. I was 20, and the women I met were 20. For Nepalese women in their twenties, making their way on their own was very tough. They were street smart, but had no education.

When I got back to the U.S., I became aware of the trafficking issue. Nepal’s economy was in shambles, so people told me that of course, women were “choosing” to go to Bombay’s red light districts. I became interested in what free will and choice for these women really meant.

Q. What interested you in the relationship triangle between Will, Alex and Maya?

A. Relationships are so much about power, and when you have three people in that situation, you watch things go boing, boing, boing. There are different kinds of power--economic, sexual and intellectual power. There is so much to play with.

Q. Alex helps Maya escape from her village. Were you involved in such a situation?

A. I really did know a woman who was desperate to escape her village. We left under very similar circumstances, but I did not deliver her into prostitution. I am grateful this is a novel, not a memoir. Later, I realized how hard this woman’s life was in Katmandu. I watched her life disintegrate.
For me, the novel is a story about a friendship in your twenties. This kind of friendship is almost like romantic love. At times, there is a twining that goes on--you laugh like each other, you dress like each other. It may be the friendship between a Nepalese and an American woman, but there are reverberations for other friendships. What is it that you need from a friendship?

Q. With her can-do American attitude, Alex tries to save Maya from prostitution in India. Why?

A. It is a very common impulse for Americans traveling abroad. In Katmandu, it can be, “I’ll sponsor your child through high school.” In Bombay, people would adopt street children and take them home to Detroit. It is not a bad impulse, but it has complicated repercussions.
If I could rewrite Maya’s ending, I would choose to have her be saved. I would choose to have her go back to Katmandu and become an amazing trekking guide.

Q. You spent six weeks on Falkland Road doing research. What was it like?

A. The thing that I got over pretty quickly was any feeling of anger towards the male clients. There was a level of tenderness. Everyone was so vulnerable. It’s weird being a woman interested in prostitution. People are like, why do you care? I became friendly with three Nepalese women in Bombay. They were beyond the shame stage of prostitution. What they did was not the only part of their identity. Somebody somewhere will accuse me of voyeurism, but it wasn’t a voyeuristic thing. In my novel, I am trying to understand how fluid the boundaries of sex, romance and money are, as well as what role survival and happiness play.