08 December 2007

Chewing gum diplomacy

You can now buy chewing gum in Singapore.

This may not seem particularly newsworthy, but, see, you haven't always been able to. Singapore has a veritable horde of oft-quoted, eyebrow-raising statutes: drug trafficking, for example, famously warrants the death penalty. You're also liable to be slapped with a hefty fine for not flushing a public toilet, and don't even think about importing "gun-shaped cigarette lighters" (drat!).

And then there was Michael Fay...but he might very well have deserved it.

Given this cultural milieu, the chewing gum thing isn't all that surprising. Gum was banned in this country a decade and a half ago, reportedly in response to miscreants sticking their masticated mementos on the sensors of the nascent Mass Rapid Transit system's train doors, causing crippling, nation-wide delays. As with all things Singaporean, though, the ban had been bandied about in discussions for nine years prior. Let me tell you—those among us who lived in this country in those mastic-free days were forced to make do with Mentos, and massive amounts of hawker food.

Beginning in 1999, things began to change. That year, the US and Singapore entered into negotiations for a free-trade agreement (aptly named the "US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement"—or USSFTA—which doesn't roll off the tongue nearly as well as NAFTA once did). The negotiations, however, ground to a halt in 2003 over two very weighty, globally important issues.

1. The War in Iraq, and
2. Chewing gum.

I'm not making this up.

Somehow, the William Wrigley Company had finagled the chewing gum issue into the political and economic discussions of two sovereign countries. It's that important.

The sad thing is, it turns out that expressing support for the invasion of a third country not party to the discussions on—shall we say—tenuous intelligence grounds was the easier of the two decisions.

The chewing gum thing, though...that was a different story. Unfortunately, thanks to Wrigley, a few lobbyists plying the ear of our Executive Branch, and some well-paid (er, well-placed...sorry) Congressmen, unless these two countries could bring themselves to see eye-to-eye on this sticky subject, free trade just wasn't going to be possible. Chewing gum, it seems, is a matter of national security for our President.

Singapore knew that getting into an unrestricted free-trade agreement with the US would be a huge boon to its economy. But, having gained the island nation's support for wholesale destruction of a country, King George the Elastic wasn't bending on the chewing gum issue (Now really. How will he go down in history? He was willing to scrap an entire free-trade agreement, thwarting the economic advancement of an all-around pretty impressive country, all over some edible elastic. Brilliant). This left Singapore in a bind. So, they compromised.

After nearly fifteen years of drought, you can now buy medicinal chewing gum in Singapore! And wouldn't you know it? Wrigley's Orbit gum happens to have "medicinal" properties (surprised?). How amazingly forward-looking of the company!

Unfortunately, the gum has to be sold by a pharmacist or a dentist, who is required to take down your name, thereby tracking your arabica intake. For all their trouble, though, Wrigley's hasn't gained much. We've yet to see a single Singaporean chewing gum. Mentos still reign.

So there you have it. That's how we found ourselves spitting out a piece of gum (into a trash can, of course) in Singapore. And not getting fined.

A satisfied halt
Ah, but Singapore. We inexpressibly love it here, chewing gum diplomacy aside. After a final, overwhelming, scam-ridden day in Mumbai, we've ground to a satisfied halt in this country. Yes, it's a bit of a nanny state, but hey, we're from New York, so we're used to having our trans-fats fondled at the hands of legislators.

We're simply basking in the cleanliness, the broad avenues, the mélange of cultures, the pristine architecture, the tropical climate, and the food (oh, the food!) of this amazing country. We could stay here for a long time.

Which means that we might be relatively quiet for a bit. If things happen in Liberia, we'll write. And when we finally get our pictures uploaded, we'll do the same. Otherwise, though, the next few weeks have us visiting friends and relatives in Southeast Asia and Micronesia, so, if we don't post, it's because we're pretty sure no one wants to hear about Uncle Liverwort's lumbago or Aunt Clothilde's colic.

You don't, do you?

07 December 2007

Liberia in New York

This was in the New York Times, in September. Click on the link below to get the actual article with pictures, otherwise the full text is below:


From Staten Island Haven, Liberians Reveal War’s Scars
Years have passed without anyone asking Meme Manneh if she remembers. She works as a home health aide, emptying bedpans and arranging trays of food, and when she comes home there is a 2-year-old to watch. Daily life muffles what happened in Liberia.

Yes, she remembers. She awoke with adult hands pushing her forward, and stumbled out into the dark front yard to face the soldiers. Through the groggy eyes of a 9-year-old, she saw her brother Jerry slammed in the stomach with the butt of a rifle and felt urine stream down her legs. The soldiers pulled a 14-year-old girl from the group and raped her in the yard, in the dim light of a kerosene lamp.

They told the children to line up beside their parents and asked, “Who is the first person in your family to be killed?”

What nags at her, in memory, is the face of one soldier. Ms. Manneh knew him as a local man who courted her sister — a friend of the family — and she focused her eyes on him, willing him to intervene in what was happening. Gunfire cracked; a girl her age tumbled down the stairs, one by one. But he did not intervene.

“I just watched his face,” she said.

Ms. Manneh, who is now 24, told this story on a recent Saturday in a Staten Island dance studio with a broken public address system and a view of a decrepit municipal parking lot. A small group of Liberian refugees had gathered there to set in motion a grand project: Beginning next month, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission will collect testimony on Staten Island, home to one of the largest populations of Liberians outside Africa, many of them survivors of 14 years of civil war.

The commission aims to construct a permanent historical record for Liberia, a country that has been wracked by power struggles and waves of savage violence.

Truth commissions have become a popular way to confront the crimes of crumbling regimes around the world, often when prosecutions are impractical or impossible. Twenty-nine have been launched, to mixed effect. Public hearings on apartheid in South Africa riveted the country and the world, while similar processes in Haiti and Burundi produced reports that were not widely read or acted upon.

This year, for the first time, a nation’s truth commission is reaching outside its borders to collect narratives, according to Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, which is coordinating the process. The stories are there, in ordinary-looking immigrant neighborhoods like Park Hill on Staten Island. At 160 Park Hill Avenue, just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, lives Eva Yawo, who once watched as rebel soldiers locked her father in a toilet and burned him alive. Victoria Parker, who lives next door at 180 Park Hill Avenue, was caring for seven children when a bomb attack began. She managed to grab three of them, but four she lost in the crowd; she has never been able to find them, or to stop looking. Around the corner, at 80 Park Hill Circle is Isaac Sampson, who watched at a checkpoint as his father’s belly was sliced open. Trying to tell the story one night this spring, he choked on his words, stood up and left the room.
A Refuge in New York
“So, the war is over,” said Rufus Arkoi, 45, a veteran community organizer, who wiped tears away after Mr. Sampson was gone. In four years of friendship, he had never heard that story.
“People are saying to move forward,” he said. “But when you sweep everything under the rug, the rug will be uneven.”

If the war is not an easy subject in Park Hill, there is a good reason for it. The Liberians who found homes in this neighborhood — local leaders estimate there are 3,000 to 4,000 of them — were on different sides of it.

Liberia was dominated by the descendants of freed American slaves, known as Americo-Liberians, until 1980, when a military coup thrust the Krahn ethnic group into power. In 1989, the warlord Charles Taylor gathered an army of boys and men from the Gio and Mano tribes to rise against the Krahn, leading to the massacre of thousands of civilians.

Mr. Taylor was elected president in 1997, but two years later he, too, faced a rebel uprising and was forced to resign in 2003. He is in custody in The Hague, in the Netherlands, waiting to face war crimes charges for his role in the conflict in Sierra Leone, leaving a battered Liberia to set about rebuilding. Among those searching for a place in the new society are child soldiers who, swept into the rebel movement by force or by choice, murdered and brutalized their countrymen. Human Rights Watch estimates their number at 20,000 or more.
Each spasm of violence sent a new set of Liberians to a row of boxy federally subsidized rental buildings in Park Hill. Liberians who moved to New York for school or work began settling there 30 years ago, attracted by the low cost of living. While the wars waged back home, they have found a way to live together: ambassadors’ wives and rural villagers, demobilized child soldiers and a former interim president.

The immigrants work long hours, and “it is easier to forget in that condition,” said Zachariah Logan, who has helped waves of Liberians settle in New York.

“You don’t have time to discuss much,” he said. “It’s just, ‘Hi, hi, hi.’

Still, memories intrude. Soon after he moved into an apartment in the neighborhood, Teah Jackson, 23, found himself listening to a man in his building, a gregarious comic who wore his pants slung low, hip-hop style.

As he heard the man talk about the war, Mr. Jackson became convinced that the man was one of the teenagers who occupied his neighborhood in the capital of Monrovia as part of Charles Taylor’s army. Mr. Jackson was 10 then. He learned to smile sweetly when the soldiers patted him on the head, and then would get away as fast as he could.

“A little child, to see you killing other people and stuff, they’re not going to come around you,” he said.

On Staten Island, though, the distinctions between Liberians have blurred. The man recognized Mr. Jackson as the bright-eyed 10-year-old, and the two have found themselves in long, reminiscent conversations about Monrovia, Mr. Jackson said. They have fashioned a friendship, with limits.

“We talk, we laugh, we do stuff together,” Mr. Jackson said, “but my heart does not take him to be a normal person.”

In all those conversations, the man has never said he was a soldier, which Mr. Jackson said is not unusual.

“Most of them hiding,” Mr. Jackson said. “You don’t know who is who.”

A block away, the man, who gave his name as Sheekiee Mandell, was lounging in an apartment with a handful of friends. He said he never fought in the war, but he had suffered greatly.
“I saw people eat people’s hearts,” he said. “I see people cut people’s hands and legs. I was a little boy. I saw someone kill a pregnant woman and cut the baby out. It keep playing in my brain.”

At 27, he said, he works as a housekeeper in a hospital and takes classes in filmmaking, hoping someday to make films about peace. Occasionally someone will approach him or his friends, all men in their 20s, and claim they recognize them as combatants. When that happens, he said, “you say that’s not me, that’s probably my cousin.”

“People act like they don’t remember what happened, but they remember,” he said.

“Everyone knows what happened. You know what you did.”

In recent weeks, fliers for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have begun to appear in Park Hill, exhorting residents to “Tell your story to clear your heart!” and “Help put Liberia back together!” On Sept. 8, a dozen refugees gathered in a Bay Street dance studio to meet with Ahmed K. Sirleaf of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. The reconciliation process is also under way in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia, among other cities.

Mr. Sirleaf described a carefully crafted tapping of memory. Beginning in mid-October, lawyers on Staten Island will record survivors’ stories, which will serve as the basis of a report to be released next summer. Individual statements — which can include recommendations for individual prosecutions and national reform — will be entered into a password-protected database and not released to the public for 20 years. Those who want to testify publicly can do so at open forums next year.

Mr. Sirleaf faced a battery of questions, most of them skeptical. An elderly man named James Davis derided the process as “the reconciliation fiasco” and said he would not be satisfied unless high-ranking government officials were tried for war crimes.

A few minutes later, Mike Monway rose with the opposite concern. He recalled a young soldier at a checkpoint who singled him out for smiling and gave him a beating. Mr. Monway, 39, said he bore no ill will toward that soldier, who he believes had no choice but to fight.

“The moment I turned my back, I forgot his face,” he said. “If I go and say, ‘Bring him to justice,’ to some extent I would be doing him injustice.”

Morris Sesay sat in a chair in the back of the room and said nothing at all. But Mr. Sesay had made up his mind months earlier, when he spoke of the notion of reconciliation with hot contempt.

“I lost my mother in that stupid war,” Mr. Sesay said. “I lost my first son, my third son. I will not promise anyone that your word ‘sorry’ will make me forget about that. My first born, my last born. My uncle, my brother, my sister.”

Asked if he would like to speak with the man who killed his brother, he looked stony.
“Let him go,” he said. “That is something I will not forget. It will be in me as I go along.”
Mr. Sirleaf, who lost a sister and two brothers during the war, defended the commission with nimble good humor. Criticisms of the process are common, especially in the United States, where survivors are often intent on prosecution, he said.

He sympathized with Mr. Monway’s concern that former child soldiers would be singled out, saying that the war’s planners “turned these people into killing machines against their own people.” He assured Mr. Davis that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can recommend that the government prosecute officials, even high-ranking ones.

“That’s democracy, that’s transparency,” he said. “That’s justice. That’s what we need for ourselves. We have to change that culture, that mentality of impunity. I can’t emphasize enough this is not just about ‘bygones be bygones.’ ” But the resistance remains, he said: Even in confidential statements, Liberians in the United States seem cautious, taking care not to open old wounds.

“You can tell from the stories that there’s no depth,” said Mr. Sirleaf, 37. “They’re leaving something out.”

A Desire to Know
And yet, as she left the meeting at the dance studio, something had begun to change for Ms. Manneh. A week earlier, her brother Jerry had asked if she remembered the night they lined up outside their father’s house in Robertsfield. The question shocked her; it was a subject so seldom raised in the family that Jerry Manneh, who is 27 and works as a computer technician, was not sure she was there.

She had been thinking about it more since her brother asked. The soldiers — Taylor men — had surrounded the house to make sure no one escaped through a window. They had heard that an army captain stayed with them sometimes and hoped to learn his whereabouts. Mr. Manneh remembered seeing one of the soldiers kicking a 2-year-old off a staircase, “just kick him like a soccer ball.” Then 14, he watched as the soldiers raped his niece.

“Imagine that,” he said. “You’d take a gun and kill him. You’re not going to let them walk away.”

Still, he thinks of the episode as ending happily, because the soldiers did not shoot them, but put them to work hauling bags of rice to a rebel encampment. Ms. Manneh’s memory is different. She focuses her thoughts on the dark-skinned soldier, who in peacetime had called her “little sister.”

“That, to me, was like a shock, that he would watch my sisters and brothers get killed,” she said.

It is because of this memory, perhaps, that she is planning to give a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She does not want him prosecuted. She describes herself as a “warm-hearted, easily forgettable person.”

Still, it would be a relief to address some questions to that soldier.

“I would like to ask,” she said, “didn’t you have a conscience?”
Copyright 2008, New York Times

02 December 2007

Twenty-five things India teaches you

These are the things we've learned while travelling in India:

1. The food here is spectacular. Navrattan curry, Rajasthani thalis, Goan seafood...you really can't do better.

2. The Don't-Lucknow Delhi-Belly, however, isn't. Nor is it confined to either of its two namesake cities. Don't we wish...

3. Hello is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, and is immediately followed by a loud, staccato, Sa! This is prelude to any number of come-ons: Rickshaw? or Hash? or Where did you lose your hair? Often, it is also accompanied by a rickshaw-wallah planting himself directly in your path and tugging on your arm. This is a great way to attract customers.

4. Another good way: chase two tourists, at full clip, down a dusty street and offer to transport them in exactly the opposite direction that they're walking. When they say "No," start arguing with them. Tell them, "I know you want a rickshaw!"

5. It is perfectly acceptable to name your business enterprise White Negro Advertising (I'm not making that up).

6. Satan himself is responsible for the scheduling of Indian trains (and probably for their upkeep). Not a single train we've been on has been less than an hour late—not even the one that was supposed to take only five hours. Most have been four hours behind. But, as you wait on the train platform, you're never told this; instead, delays are announced in five-minute increments. At one point, three separate trains, running in two different directions, were announced—with marked officaldom—arriving on the same platform at exactly the same time. And no one caught the irony.

7. It is appropriate to grab. Men and women. Front and back. It is preferable, in fact, for this grabbing to happen in the holier cities, and in the holiest times of year.

8. Staring is simply a way to say I love you. Staring at (or touching) breasts is a deeper declaration of undying devotion.

9. Perfecting a profound affect when informing a tourist that his internet usage will be ten times the amount a local would pay is essential for survival. (Especially if you're at White Negro).

10. There are thousands of uses for cheese. And curd is actually good. Especially with bananas and honey.

11. A bus isn't full until there are more people on its roof and hanging onto its windows than there are seats.

12. You can enjoy a Bollywood movie without understanding its actors.

13. Bollywood actors can become gurus (viz: Amitabh Bachchan) or model themselves after Vanilla Ice (viz: Shah Rukh Khan), both with eminent solemnity.

14. Using your horn when you drive is essential. This is simply to make sure that the pedestrian on the other side of the street, minding his own business, doesn't consider crossing.

15. Disposable plates and bowls can be made of leaves and disposable cups of earthenware. This—in all seriousness—is an amazingly environmentally friendly habit in a country in which people don't think twice about littering in a national park.

16. There's always something else. Spend three days on the phone trying to book a hotel, and you'll get a confirmation e-mail saying you're booked "pending your flexibility" to stay at one of three different "sister" hotels. Or, relax, satisfied, in a rickshaw after a heated bout of haggling, until you realize that the definition of where you wanted to go was, unbeknownst to you, also up for discussion (this has resulted in more than a few furious rickshaw drivers).

17. It is perfectly appropriate to charge tourists three times the maximum retail price, actually printed on the side of a bottle of water.

18. The best lassis in the world are found at a roadside stall (using earthenware cups, natch) off a busy thoroughfare in Jaipur. The best omelettes in the world are made at another roadside stall, by a bespectacled man, in the middle of Jodhpur.

19. On public toilets, "Zents" means "Men".

20. Spigots labelled Safe Drinking Water are great place to practice a farmer's blow.

21. Even native Indians die from tainted water. (There have been four deaths in Jaipur so far).

22. Vodafone sponsors everything. Including police stations. And national monuments.

On a more serious note:

23. The love you have for your country is directly proportional to your income level. We have talked to a number of well-off Indian businessmen on trains who have tried to convince us that India was the greatest country in the world. We have also met the less-well-off taxi and rickshaw drivers who bemoan the difficulty of living here.

24. Fervor, devotion, and passion, though—they may be inversely proportional.

25. In 1947, in a letter to her confessors explaining why her new society would need to live in absolute poverty, Mother Teresa wrote, The world is too rich for the poor. It has been a blow to the psyche to find out that, if we're honest about it, perhaps we are too. Coming up against poverty so abject it's ineffable—and not two months before we're set to go to Liberia—has been the biggest psychological and philosophic struggle of this month. There, but for the grace...