Saturday, March 31, 2012

Coinneal ní solas: Tibéid & Chaisc na Giúdach

Scríobh mé ceithre bliana ó shin faoi droch-uair i Tibéid. Faigh mo post sin ar mo bhlag anseo. Chuaigh mé ar ais ag lorg ar an suíomh ag plé "Coinneal ní solas" ar an ghreásan ansuid inniu.

Bhí dith agam a fheicéail eolas go leor anois. Beidh Chaisc na Giúdach go luath aríst. Bím ag leamh faoi an dúshlán leanúnach i Tibéid faoi láthair. 

D'fhoghlaim mé nuair a chlicéail mé ní raibh beo ansin ar bith níos mo.  Níl láithrean gréasáin bunaidh ann. Fuair sé bas.

B'fhéidir, bhí sé ag obair ceithre bliana ó shin, go fírinne. Chuir mé cuairt go bhfearann sin mise féin roimh scríobh mo aiste beag ar ais ansin. Gan amhras, ní raibh aon gniomhíocht ar líne ó Earrach 2008 leis an feachtas seo.

Ina theannta sin, beidh mé ag déanamh cuimhneachán nua aríst--uair níos mo, ar a laghad go féin-- ar feadh Chaisc na Giúdach seo chugainn. Ar ndóigh, ní creidim go mbeadh daoine go leor ag fáil amach Tibéid agus an dlúthphártíocht leis na Giúdaigh uaim anseo! Mar sin féin, iarr mé go bhfuil tú in eineacht liom le chuis le haghaidh scaoileadh saor.

"An Unlit Candle": Tibet & Passover

I wrote four years ago about the hard times in Tibet. Find that post of mine on my blog here. I went back searching for the site discussing "An Unlit Candle"  on the web over there today.

I had a desire to see more information now. It will be Passover (literally in Irish, "Easter of the Jews"?) soon again. I've been reading about the struggle ongoing in Tibet recently.

I learned when clicking that there was nothing "live" anymore at all. No original website's there. It's dead.

Perhaps, it was working four years ago, surely. I paid a visit to that domain myself before writing my little article back then. Without a doubt, there's no activity on line since Spring 2008 with this campaign.

Furthermore, I will be making a new remembrance--once more, at least to myself--during this next Passover. Of course, I don't believe many people are finding out about Tibet and the solidarity with the Jews from me here! All the same, I ask that you join me in this simple cause for liberation.

DePaul U/Ollscoil: Photo/Grianghraf.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Barbara Crossette's "So Close to Heaven": Book Review

This report from the "vanishing Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas" focuses on the last monarchy, Bhutan. As a New York Times journalist based in India, Crossette favors a style akin to her newspaper. The book unfolds as if extended feature articles in a tone mixing personal encounters with interviews with diplomats, royalty, and, via translators at times, everyday folks. There's a distance between her and her interlocutors which is expected, given her position and strategy.

Veering between popular history, travel notes, political analysis, and stories from her own experiences, the 1995 book takes on a lot in fewer than three hundred pages of text. It succeeds more when it explores the often wretched predicament of animals mistreated by Bhutanese who don't want to kill "sentient beings," but who find loopholes to eat meat butchered out of their sight, or who abuse beasts they will not euthanize for fear of karmic retribution. This was the most memorable chapter, perhaps for the voiceless emotion enriching an otherwise human-focused direction.

Another chapter, retracing the steps of a grandmother who was born in 1914, shows the changes Bhutan's experienced, especially in recent decades. You get some sense of how it feels to be there--warm afternoons, freezing nights, howling packs of dogs, silence otherwise. It's more impressionistic than in-depth, but she gives a sense of how Westerners present and past responded to Bhutan and other small kingdoms as a practical geopolitical problem and an opportunity to play off British and then independent India and Chinese interests from the other side of the high summits.

There's not a lot of natural description but there's a refreshing lack of rhapsodic effusion over Buddhist-this or quaint-that. Compared to a more personal account such as Lisa Napoli's 2011 "Radio Shangri-La" (Amazon US review), Crossette's "elevated" attitude allows her to reveal her own bias, but based less on personal encounters concentrated as were Napoli's in Thimphu, the kingdom's capital, or Jamie Zeppa's 1999 "Below the Sky and the Earth" (reviewed 5-21-12) teaching in rural areas.  Crossette wraps it up, for instance, in Bumthang, and this gives some guarded hope that such an enclave might escape the fate of Tibet, which her coda notes once thought it could rest secure as such a treasure-house of teaching, lore, and folkways. Crossette shifts to a Himalayan survey-travelogue so she can emphasize how Bhutan's situation shows it at the mercy of Nepali and Indian-supported immigration of largely Hindu populations.

This is controversial, but Crossette takes a side, as she admits. She does not ignore the opposition, but she minimizes it as propaganda in the service of non-Buddhist political powers. Coverage by other reporters and media has tilted against the Buddhist kingdom and for southern separatists and rebels against the monarchy.

Crossette shows as an attempt to balance this record how Nepal and India--as in Sikkim and Ladakh--have overwhelmed the fragile cultures and religious traditions that, since Chinese occupation of Tibet, have cut off the small entities on the other side of the mountains from their common heartland and center of spirituality and trade. For instance, the entire population of Sikkim is equal to the growth in a year of Nepalese demographic increase. With no protected border for hundreds of miles, illegal immigrants enter Bhutan easily to take advantage of education and social services. As with Sikkim and Nepal and Ladakh, the Buddhists get pressed against the Himalayas, as Indian-dominated and Nepali-Hindu directed populations seek to supplant and occupy the region.

The vast majority of this book shows Bhutan's struggle. The backgrounds of the region's conquerers, culminating not with Britain despite its centuries of "protectorates" and "hill stations" so much as India with or without Nepal, cast a shadow on what Bhutan faces now. Sikkim and Ladakh loom as cautionary tales. It's hard to argue with Crossette's advocacy, although her tilt is marked if moral.

She does favor Bhutan's monarchy. Despite its dodgy deeds according to some critics who've gained the ear of the West, Crossette makes a strong case for Bhutan (as well as the diminishing Buddhist and native populations in Sikkim, Nepal, and Ladakh, and the Muslim-dominated regions further to the northwest under Pakistani occupation) as possessing its own ethical and political right to exist as a repository of traditional ways and lifestyles. The romanticism of the "happiest kingdom on earth" since promoted internationally aside, and published in "I fell in love with a Bhutan man" memoirs, Crossette forces us to confront the impact of ecological devastation of the Nepal side of the hills, of Bhutan's attempt to hold back India's intrusions, and Sikkim and Ladakh's compromised cultures. (Amazon US 3-20-12)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Adele Barker's "Not Quite Paradise": Book Review

A few weeks after 9/11, this professor of Russian lit lands in Sri Lanka. She and her teenaged son, who left Tucson after some unspecified dissatisfaction, face a year on a Fulbright. Barker, a steely and incisive observer of her surroundings in this land racked by war, reveals why it's "not quite paradise."

She takes the title of her account after the Victorian and early 20c British colonial narratives she scours. The "colonialist torpor" appears to overcome her too, in the tropics where two monsoon seasons swirl around her base near Kandy at a university where she tries to teach a few undergraduates. Her work load appears admirably light, affording her time to pursue "indolence" and sip endless cups of tea.

Two days gone and her house succumbs to the insects and rodents again. She opens a microwave and sees a film of ants, so black it reminds her of a poem by Sappho about rubble on a beach. She learns to deal with "election violence" as its own expected interruption, along with full-moon holidays and frequent breaks from work. "Normal murders" come to sound almost routine, as the civil war continues to the north, although later events will induce her to enter the war zone, if briefly. For now, in 2001-02, she tries to figure out with "ten words of Sinhalese" where to go next as she encounters the assault of birdsong in a land where others have had to learn the whistles of incoming bombs.

As she relates this all to us, her mood alters, and her own emotions appear to ruffle or smooth chapters in turn. This sudden downshifting into what her native hosts tell her translates as "nothing special happening" in our terms inspires her to recognize how she, as with her "white" predecessors, will always be on display, out of reach of the indigenous mindset, no matter how she labors to master Sinhalese or find a Tamil translator. As she looks at them, so they at her. Refusing to romanticize, what we're left with here, as she insists, is a harsher, more unsettled pair of stays on this unstable island.

However, globalization means change, and Sri Lanka meets its own challenge. Barker returns to the island the year after the tsunami kills 35,000 (the book jacket says 48,000) the day after Christmas, 2004. Eerily, as she was on a listserv, she in Arizona received e-mail warnings from the U.S. Embassy long before the islanders knew the impending disaster, as the Indian Ocean lacks the early warning system installed for the Pacific.

Part two of this book, therefore, finds her determined to traverse the island, to follow the coastal path of devastation. This reminded me of Emma Larkin's story about Burma after a massive 2008 cyclone, recounted in "Everything Is Broken" (see my review). Barker fills her report with similar sadness, and of attempts by international aid workers as well as diligent Sri Lankans to help ease suffering.

She hears from a survivor at a beach she had loved to visit, Mt. Lavinia, three years ago. "Those first few weeks, you could not, madam, have believed this ocean. There were pots and wooden spoons floating on the waves. It was a kitchen, but we couldn't eat the food it prepared." (qtd. 171) For half a year after, the islanders would not eat the fish caught, for fear of the diet that had sustained them.

Barker tells nearly nothing of her life prior to her visit; she aims instead to focus on Sri Lanka. (A list of suggested works and links is provided on Beacon Press's reader's guide for the book but it is lacking here, as is an index.) While researched and nuanced, as one supposes would be a work by a literature professor, it tends to minimize other sources in favor of Barker's own confrontations with them, and how she aligns them with the events witnessed and people interviewed.

A contrast with William McGowan's harrowing 1992 "All Man is Vile" (see my review) notes how McGowan strives for a war correspondent verve akin to Ryszard Kapuściński crossed with a preference for the exotic oddity as with Bruce Chatwin. For Barker, who writes after a dozen years more of the war have ground on, you find out far less about the reasons for the war, and you feel less of its savagery, but you learn to listen as she does to the conversations of the locals, more hesitantly.

She avoids the pitfalls of a memoir that rattles on about the writer's own shortcomings, even if the context for the war and the chaos it creates is under-explained. This tone, rather detached, reflects how she learned about the events as they were told (or not told, just as often) to her as a resident--not a tourist, but not an expatriate. Yet, as other reviewers on Amazon agree, you don't learn what drives her away from Arizona to of all places Sri Lanka. Her son's difficulties are often muffled. She appears about to reveal more about her motives, then she retreats. That liminal status never leaves her.

She tries to teach the students in Jaffna about Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and Woolf (whose husband had lived as a colonial in Sri Lanka and had written about his stint). But the civil war follows her north, and she must flee. In the end, after her two sojourns, she asks the same question of her students and neighbors and hosts as she had years before: "were they, I wondered, any the less on display for me than I was for them?" (291) (Amazon US 3-24-12)