issue 199 - September 1989
by Carole Kismaric
This is a PROBLEM publication - commissioned by the US Human Rights Watch organization. The book uses a dramatic mixture of words and pictures to provoke us into worrying more about refugees.
Certainly the issue is a disturbing one. Some 14 million people around the world have been uprooted for one reason or another. And, as catalogued here, they range from the six million Afghans currently taking refuge in Pakistan and Iran to the 1,300 Ghanaians who are now to be found in Togo and the Ivory Coast.
But what does it all add up to - apart from numbers? This is not at all clear; and probably never could be. All refugees are victims of particular circumstances requiring individual solutions. Ending the war in Mozambique will not stem the flow of boat people from Vietnam. Anything written about refugees has to cope with this diversity.
It's a pity then that Forced Out adds to the confusion by being somewhat incoherent as a piece of communication. The large format allows for some striking photographs but their effect is often muted by heavy slabs of interview and analysis.
On the other hand you might have thought this 'magazine'-type approach would help casual browsers. Not really. For the book is also divided into theme sections - and it is impossible to tell what section you are in as you flick through. The result is frustrating.
The refugee cause would have been better served by a more single-minded approach - maybe a book of strong pictures and tight captions followed by a factual appendix. As it is, the hybrid presentation and the substantial (though doubtless subsidized) price will probably limit Forced Out's appeal.
The Fortunate Isles
by Basil Davidson
This book is a study of Cape Verde. That may make you want to move on to the next review, so unlikely is it that you would want to read about such a tiny and obscure country. But hold on a second. This is one of the world's great success stories, and could have a significance well beyond its own shores if enough people were prepared to learn from it.
Basil Davidson, who has done more than anyone else to popularize a sense of the rich and terrible history of Africa, has homed in on one fragment of the continent's great story. No Westerner is better equipped to tell it, since he knew the main participants in the islands' liberation struggle over many years - including Amilcar Cabral, one of Africa's greatest and most charismatic leaders, who was murdered by the Portuguese secret police in 1973.
This is in part a history of the war of independence waged by Cabral and the movement he launched, and it is rather humbling to read about the sacrifices made by these activists and realize that all over Africa there were people running similar risks in the name of a great ideal. In South Africa, indeed, the risks still apply.
But the most interesting part of the book relates to what the Cape Verdean Government has achieved since independence. It inherited bare and rocky islands with a history of repeated famine and no products or resources to export - except their own strongest and ablest people. Yet its priorities in the ensuing decade and a half were not chasing export-led growth but rather quietly building the participation of people at grassroots level; instead of building prestigious dams the main State activity has been its soil and water conservation programmes and its planting of two million trees a year. These priorities would have been thought cranky in 1975; things look very different now.
And at a time when the high hopes at independence have sunk so low in so many African countries (including Cape Verde's sibling state Guinea Bissau) the model of these islands which have created their own good fortune is all the more vital.
World in Motion
by Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne's 1986 album Lives in the Balance was a wonderful renaissance. He was the most sensitive of singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, but by the beginning of this decade he seemed sidelined, locked into stadium-rock and lacking real conviction in his writing. The conviction was recovered through politics - particularly his passionate opposition to US intervention in Central America. And the concerts that followed Lives in the Balance were memorably powerful. bringing together his moving early songs with his political fervour.
World in Motion moves even further down the same road, as if the personal growth he once so doggedly pursued has now become inseparable from his participation in the world, from his internationalism. Which is, after all, how it should be for us all. The title-track juxtaposes homelessness and consumerism; there is the obligatory 'free Mandela' song (the reggae framing of which is rather unconvincing); another song links CIA deals, US military policy and the drug trade: 'There is a need to keep some things a secret / The names of some countries, the terms of some deals / And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent / Beneath our wheels'.
Two songs stand out. The first is My Personal Revenge, based on a moving poem by Tomas Borge, one Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders (this song is also featured in this month's Endpiece). The other is the most resonant of Browne's own songs here, How Long, which asks incredulously how three things can co-exist in the world: the possibilities in a child's face; the arms spending spiral; and mass starvation. 'If you saw it from a satellite / With its green and its blue and white / The beauty of the curve of the earth / And its oceans below / You might think it was paradise / If you didn't know .. How long can you hear someone dying before you ask yourself why?'
World in Motion isn't quite in the class of its predecessor. But there is still no more welcome contributor to the global justice soundtrack than Jackson Browne.
by Greenpeace and various artists
(Geffen/N America, RCA/Aus & UK, WEA/NZ)
This is the logical next step on from the Live Aid, Mandela and Amnesty concerts, a fundraising album that pulls in more big names than a campaigning group has a right to expect. With Greenpeace's customary publicity panache, this has been launched with a big splash in Moscow and sailed out to most countries of the world with a fair marketing wind.
And who can knock it? Once you accept the concept of stars donating one song from their back catalogue - there are no specially written contributions here - this two-hour long extravaganza is exceptionally good value. Though it must be said that it functions more readily as a sampler of the pick of mainstream rock than it does as a political or ecological statement, since very few of these songs connect directly with the green subject matter - the most notable exception to that rule being Lou Reed with his Last Great American Whale.
Artists range from the prophets of concern (U2 and Sting), through the ancient aristocrats (Bryan Ferry and the Grateful Dead) to the new progressives (REM and the Waterboys). The only real problem is that in this sort of sampler context all the artists seem somehow to converge towards a white-dominated and rather coffee-table view of what 'serious' popular music is all about. But then a fundraising package is hardly the place to expect a sense of musical risk.
.being the book that anatomized the art of despotism
Just after the Tiananmen demonstrations and the June 4 massacre in China, I started re-reading Ryszard Kapuscinski's book The Emperor. As an intricate account of the workings of bureaucratic tyranny and the gradual gathering of a rebellion, I found it fascinatingly accurate.
But then what else would you expect of a Polish foreign correspondent who has witnessed 27 revolutions around the Third World? Yet the book is not set in China at all but is about the last days of Haile Selassie and his scheming Ethiopian court, which fell to military rebellion in 1974. It could just as easily have been about the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, the last days of the Shah of Iran (also the subject of a Kapuscinski classic, Shah of Shahs) - or almost any other state made static by corruption. As an account of Haile Selassie 's last days, The Emperor is a good book; as a handbook to the working of corruption and the prelude to revolution, it is a great book.
But this is by no means the standard journalistic overview of the seasoned foreign correspondent. Instead it is a novel which enmeshes the reader in the minutiae of the court, told through the eyes of the courtiers. As Kapuscinski says in one of his rare journalistic interventions, 'In those years there existed two images of Haile Selassie. One, known to international opinion, presented the Emperor as a rather exotic, gallant monarch, distinguished by indefatigable energy, a sharp mind and profound sensitivity, a man who made a stand against Mussolini ... The other image showed a man who was above all a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite that he had created and coddled. Both these images were correct.'
Telling the story from the inside creates an intimate picture of a system which balances tragic absurdities to maintain a facade of power. 'His Majesty would take his place on the throne,' says the Emperor's pillow bearer of 26 years' standing, 'and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch's legs hanging in the air for even a moment ... A contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child.'
In Haile Selassie's world, rituals substitute for reality, empty envelopes for monetary aid, promises for action. In an emerging police state, people's personal files, held in cardboard folders, determine their fate: 'It can also happen that a folder which for years has remained thin and yellow comes to life at a certain moment, rises from the dead, starts getting fat ... Often the life of a folder, which has begun to stir and gain weight, ends as abruptly as the life of its hero. They both disappear, he from the world and his folder from Makonen's cabinet'.
With 'the cost of loyalty going up', and 30 million farmers receiving one per cent of the national budget while 100,000 soldiers and police get 40 per cent, the Emperor has to be careful in his exploitation. The people will never revolt just because of the burden they have to carry, he reasons, but only when someone suddenly throws an extra burden onto their backs. So he tries to add only that little extra to their burden that will leave them more borne down by taxes or by labour yet will not tip them over into resentment and rebellion.
Ultimately, though, even this methodical approach to oppression fails and the Emperor falls. A courtier muses on the collapse as if to provide a guidesheet for future students and practitioners of the art of despotism: 'A man starved all his life will never rebel. But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness of going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. Just think: who destroyed our Empire? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had nothing but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.'
You laugh at the early stages of the book, detailing everyday ritual in the isolation of the court; but in the later chapters, when seeing the court from inside means colluding with it to brush away crisis and famine, the laughter turns savagely cynical. 'What money are you talking about?' asks the Emperor, when challenged by the police of the new military government about foreign aid. 'Everything went for development.' The police get up from their armchairs, lift the great Persian carpet from the floor and find beneath itso many rolls of dollar bills stuck together that the floor looks green.
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1984, available in Picador).