Nadim Makdisi Memorial Lecture

Wounds of the world

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Sudanese refugees at a food distribution centre of the World Food Programme in Yida, South Sudan, on February 20. Refugees do not show up in the Mediterranean Sea as if from nowhere. They have left increasingly unproductive fields in western and eastern Africa, or fled wars in the Horn of Africa, in Sudan and Syria as well as places as far off as Afghanistan, and travelled great distances to get to what they see as the final leg of their journey. Photo: Sam Mednick/AP

Palestinian protesters run for cover from Israeli tear gas during clashes with Israeli troops along the border between Israel and Gaza Strip on April 1. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images

A video grab showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and South Korea’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Do Jong-whan during a rare concert by South Korean musicians at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1. Photo: AFP

Cotton workers pile up cotton in Boromo, central Burkina Faso, a file picture. Burkina Faso’s cotton industry, one of the pillars of the nation’s economy, faces catastrophe because of farm subsidies in the West. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP

Excerpts from the Nadim Makdisi Memorial Lecture at the American University of Beirut on March 14, 2018.

I have an emotional attachment to Beirut because it gave refuge to the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose writings inspire my thinking. Faiz spent some crucial years here, writing about Beirut, a city that he saw being battered in 1982 by the Israeli war machine, and about Palestine. The poems on Palestine speak not only to the exile of the Palestinians and their struggle, but to Faiz’s own exile from a Pakistan eaten then by a United States-backed military dictatorship. So, Faiz, in Beirut, would sing,

Dur pardes ki bay-mehr guzargahon main

Ajnabi sheher ki bay-naam-o-nishaan rahon mai

Jis zameen par bhi khula meray lahoo ka parcham

Leh-lahata hai wahan arz-e Falasteen ka Alem

Faraway on the unkind roads of distant lands

Through unmarked, unnamed lanes of strange cities

Wherever the banner of my blood unfurled

There flutters the flag of Palestine.

(tr. Dan Husain)

When I came to Beirut to give a lecture five or six years ago, I made sure to translate Faiz’s poem for Beirut, ornament of the world, he called it.

Ye shahar azaal se qayaam hai/ye shahar abaad tak dayaam hai.

This city stands at time’s creation/This city will stand at time’s end.

Faiz was here as the editor of Lotus, the magazine of the Afro-Asian world, the magazine, by then, of the Third World, of the Tricontinental. These are deeply resonant associations for me, which is why I am so glad to be ensconced in my new project—one that seeks to develop empirical and theoretical knowledge for political movements that work in Africa, Asia and Latin America—movements that seek to overturn the present and create a just future. So, to Beirut, to Faiz, to Nadim Makdisi, who studied at AUB [American University of Beirut], who worked as a professional journalist to tell the truth; to tell the truth—the first casualty of war and business.

Truth, the first casualty

Truth is the first casualty of war and business. Not just war, but also business. Money tends to corral ideas, pushing its own agenda through the mass media. This is what I learned not merely from reading the great work of Herbert Schiller and Ben Bagdikian, but also from the newsrooms where I began work almost 30 years ago.

I went into those newsrooms by accident. I was studying for my PhD, when I found myself dragged back to my schoolboy passion—reporting. I was doing a study of an oppressed caste community when the political party that currently rules India dragged the region into a terrible conflagration. These were the riots of 1992-93. I was in Seelampur, on the edge of Delhi, interviewing sanitation workers when the riots broke out. The newspaper I was then associated with asked me to file some stories from this area, where the riot was particularly hideous. This was a riot against working-class Muslims, where the attackers were working-class people of oppressed caste backgrounds. This was exactly what my dissertation would be about: working-class people attacking working-class people for someone else’s gain. It was where I learned to report difficult and dangerous stories.

The Army had declared a curfew with an order to shoot at sight. I took refuge in a temple of the oppressed castes. A few hours after I was in the temple, there was a loud knock on the door. The pujari opened the door and welcomed in a group of the killers. They came with their machetes and their knives, blood in their eyes, the smell of death on their skin. “I killed many,” said one young man with mischief on his person. When night fell, there was another knock on the door. An old woman stepped in, handed something to one of the men and vanished into the night. She took a great risk to be there. After all, the order was to shoot at sight. No Armyman would ask her why she was outside. They would simply shoot—as they often did. The parcel was handed to the leader of this gang of killers. I saw him take out a syringe and a plastic bag, and then shoot himself in the arm. The old woman was his mother. She had brought him his heroin.

No one wants to print a story like that. These were foot soldiers of a powerful political movement, backed by a section of the business elites. What the papers wanted to print, and what they did print, was that these riots developed out of a sense of frustration by the Hindu population against Muslims, as if to justify the riots. When the leaders of the Hindu Right said that the riots came as a response to the bomb blast in Mumbai in 1993, the papers later reported this as if it were true. In fact, the bomb blast took place on March 12, 1993. The riots took place in December 1992 and January 1993. The provocations of the Hindu Right through 1992 and the destruction of a 16th century mosque by the Hindu Right created the context for the riots. All these vanished. Our papers reported the violence as if it were a fact of nature—things that happen, things that need no explanation, rally around the police, the forces of law and order, hope that sane minds prevail, no need to deepen our understanding of what happened. No need, in fact, to understand the foot soldiers of this violence and to trace their relationship with the local power brokers and the national political parties. Truth is bad for business.

Truth is the first casualty of war and business. Not just war, but also business.

The Korean peninsula

There is hypocrisy and ugliness in the way we read about our reality.

Both North Korea and South Korea are eager to make peace. There are 75 million people in the Korean peninsula. They want something other than the tension that has existed for six decades. They no longer want to be held hostage by someone else’s politics. Even the Japanese have indicated that they want to open a dialogue with North Korea.

The U.S. is stubborn. It does not seem to want peace in the Korean peninsula. It seems to want the North Koreans to surrender. Or to be annihilated. This is what the North Koreans believe. A senior North Korean diplomat told me that he worries that the U.S. wants to provoke his country to war and then destroy it entirely. He looks towards Iraq and Libya for the future of his country. Neither are positive examples.

Then, as if from nowhere, a story appears that North Korea apparently has continued to sell the components for chemical weapons to Syria. What is the evidence? A United Nations report that has not been released, the word of a U.S. State Department veteran who was on a previous U.N. panel and shared his “suspicions” with the press and “unidentified United Nations member states”. This is the level of the information. The New York Times journalist who wrote this story had not seen the U.N. report (which is unreleased), but he had spoken to William Newcomb, who was deputy coordinator of the U.S. State Department’s North Korea Working Group, and he cited the unidentified U.N. member states. The headline for the Times story is startling, “UN Links North Korea to Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program”. The headline has no hesitation. It is conclusive. The reader will see North Korea, Syria and Chemical Weapons. The associations are clear.

That North Korea denied the story does not appear in a headline. There is no evidence that The Times talked to the North Koreans. Nor is there evidence that they talked to the Syrians. The journalist interviews U.S. State Department officials, U.N. officials and former U.S. State Department officials. That is it. That is the story. This is when journalism becomes stenography, when you sit with your notepad and write your story out of the mouth of officials from powerful countries. You accept their bona fides. They are never wrong. When U.S. aircraft drop bombs on civilians, that is an accident. When Syrian aircraft drop bombs on civilians, that is purposeful. Underneath these words lies ideology, old colonial ideas. “Don’t scare me like that, coloniser,” one wants to say, drawing from the self-possession of the Wakandans.

No one is saying that the North Koreans and the Syrians are virtuous. But certainly their views should be part of the framing of a story, even if their views are pilloried and held to account. But there is no need to talk to a North Korean. The impression of North Korea—and Syria—is so over-determined that there is no need to investigate anything. One can say anything about North Korea and get away with it. In 2011, Isaac Stone Fisher of Newsweek admitted, “After months of research I have to admit that I have no idea what is actually happening inside North Korea.” He blamed it on the North.

Although, to be clear, the door to North Korea is not closed off entirely. Journalists from elsewhere than the U.S. and Europe go to the North. For instance, for a dossier we produced for Tricontinental, we used the photographs of Rafael Stedile, a Brazilian photo-journalist who travelled the North in July 2017. If you go on the Internet, you will find many, many stories written by Western journalists that say photography is banned in North Korea. “Pictures that Kim Jong Un Doesn’t Want You to See”, screams the clickbait headline. But this is not entirely true. It merely reproduces the idea that North Korea is, as Fisher wrote, in a “Stalinist time warp” and is inaccessible.

Why bother trying to understand the context when you can merely reproduce the ideology of the powerful states. I was struck to read a headline recently that said, “Ivanka Trump, in South Korea, Calls for Pressure on the North” ( NYT, February 23, 2018). Ivanka Trump? Better talk to her to find out what is happening in North Korea. No need to try and interview the North Korean delegation that came to the South for the Olympics and made themselves available to the media. Why bother with them, robots from a country that needs to be bombed to become free?

You might recall that on October 4, 2017, a U.S. soldier was killed in Niger. What struck me as astounding was that Senator Lindsey Graham of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Armed Services would say, “I didn’t know that there were 1,000 troops in Niger.” He meant U.S. troops. The U.S. media followed suit. So did the Europeans. So did the media of the Global South that take their cues from the Western media. If they ran the story, it was through being dumbfounded by the death.

The soldier was killed near the town of Tongo Tongo, along Niger’s border with Mali. This town is in the middle of a belt that is ground zero to the traffic of a series of commodities that have begun to define the Sahel and the Sahara.

You have cocaine, of course. Success by U.S. policy has slowed down cocaine’s journey from Colombia to the United States through Central America. Which is why the cocaine cartels have moved their operations to North Africa, carting vast amounts of the drug by plane into Mali and Niger (Air Cocaine is the name of the airline), then sending it across the Sahara by individual carters, then across the Mediterranean Sea to European markets and to Rotterdam, from where it is shipped to the U.S. A walk through Gao in Mali and Agadez in Niger shows plainly the cocaine wealth—a neighbourhood in Gao is called Cocaine Bougou; a leading politician in Niger, who died in 2016, was known as Mr. Cocaine (Cherif Ould Abidine). Billions of dollars of cocaine move through the Sahel into Europe.

You have uranium, of course. Niger’s town of Arlit is one of the world’s key sources of uranium. You might remember that the U.S. accused Saddam Hussein’s government of procuring yellowcake uranium from Niger. That turned out to be a hoax, uncovered by U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson when he went to Niger and met its former Prime Minister Ibrahim Assane Mayaki. The accusation against Iraq was false, but Arlit’s mines are real. The town is a fortress of European—mainly French—mining firms (such as Areva). The road out of Arlit is known as Uranium Highway. The uranium of Arlit powers one in three light bulbs in France.

You have refugees, of course. And they, unlike cocaine and uranium, make the news. They make the news because they come to Europe and interrupt the fantasy of Europe’s social cohesion. Europe, since the early days of colonialism, has broadcast itself as the land of milk and honey. Old colonies’ ideas and the wealth of Europe built from colonial labour beckon those whose lives have been destroyed by adverse trade policy and war. It is a siren for the wretched of the earth.

Refugees and unfair trade policies

Refugees do not show up in the Mediterranean Sea as if from nowhere. By the time they get into their flimsy boats on the Libyan coastline, they have lived many, many dangerous lives. They have left increasingly unproductive fields in western and eastern Africa, fled wars in the Horn of Africa, in Sudan and Syria as well as places as far off as Afghanistan, and travelled great distances to get to what they see as the final leg of their journey. Sadly for many Africans the journey ends in virtual concentration camps in Libya, where refugees that Europe does not want now linger—some sold into slavery.

To get to Libya, the migrants and refugees have to cross the Sahara desert; a journey in a pickup truck takes three days at best. It is perilous. The refugees or cocaine mules could find themselves dying from dehydration, extremists, smugglers or the security forces—including the Western security forces—in the region. The Sahara is vast, hot and dangerous. Old salt caravans, the Azalai, mostly managed by the Tuareg peoples used to run across the desert. They would carry gold, weapons and human beings. These old caravans still make their journey, moving from one water source to the next, the camels as exhausted as the Tuareg.

Newer caravans prefer buses, pickup trucks and jeeps to ferry humans and cocaine towards Europe; guns and money southwards. These newer caravans drive along unmarked paths, heading between sand dunes, searching for old tire tracks that have been buried in the disorienting sandstorms. The migrants huddle in the trucks. They are wearing sunglasses, their only defence in the desert. No proper account exists for dead refugees. When a boat sinks in the Mediterranean Sea, it is within sight of Europe. When refugees die in the desert, no one seems to care.

Why do they come? Because their countries have been wiped out, destroyed by unfair trade policies and by the sequestration of wealth into the hands of a few. In 2003, the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso, Amadou Toumani Toure and Blaise Compaore, wrote an impassioned article titled “Your Farm Subsidies Are Strangling Us”. In this essay, they said that for their region cotton is the “ticket into the world market. Its production is crucial to economic development in West and Central Africa, as well as to the livelihood of millions of people there”. But this industrial sector was placed in grave threat by the trade policies pushed by the West through the World Trade Organisation. “This vital economic sector in our countries,” wrote these heads of government, “is seriously threatened by agricultural subsidies granted by rich countries to their cotton producers.” In 2001, for instance, cotton subsidies in the West amounted to $5.8 billion. In that same period, the U.S. government provided its 25,000 cotton farmers $3 billion in subsidy relief. That was more than the entire economic output of the 20 million people of Burkina Faso. These subsidies undermined the cotton producers in Africa. It is what has contributed to the destruction of West Africa’s economy and set in motion this refugee crisis.

Trade wars are real wars. Subsidy regimes are like bombing runs. Two and a half million Malians live with chronic hunger, three out of ten Malian children are chronically malnourished, four out of every five Malian children are anaemic, one in four Malian children are stunted. Mali’s Minister of Economy and Finance Boubou Cisse came to his office from the World Bank. Even he is dispirited by the crisis. “Malnutrition kills,” he said last year. “And it kills a lot. The men and women who survive are affected for the rest of their lives.” The crisis, produced by trade policy, is not only “morally unacceptable”, said Cisse, but what is “at stake is our national economic survival”.

What has been the West’s answer to this crisis?

Not to revise trade polices. Not to see the refugee crisis as a symptom of a broken global economy. Not even to see that about half of Africa’s refugees and migrants move within the continent and not towards the West.

Along the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad, the Europeans and the Americans have begun to build what amounts to a highly militarised border. Europe has moved its border from the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea to the southern edge of the Sahara desert, and it has, thereby, comprised the sovereignty of North Africa. France, by itself, has created the G5 Sahel Initiative that has yoked five African countries into a partnership that allows French military bases and troops to police this region. The U.S. has built one of its largest military bases in Agadez, from where its Special Forces operate in the Sahel and from where it flies armed drones across the region. This is in addition to a U.S. military base—largely unmentioned—in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and others from Dire Dawa (Somalia) to N’Djamena (Chad).

The Europeans and the Americans say that this has to do with the War on Terror, that the enemies of freedom—Al Qaeda in the Maghreb—must be held in check or destroyed. But who are these terrorists? Amongst them are certainly hardened fighters, led by men experienced in the U.S.-led jehad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, now freshly armed and given buoyancy by the destruction of Libya. These are men like Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel, eager to overthrow the government in Algeria by conducting sabotage operations against Algerian energy fields, such as in Amenas, Algeria, in 2013. But the work of these groups is not militancy of a conventional sort. Al Qaeda in this region is the pre-eminent smuggler of cigarettes as well as the main organiser of a protection racket for the smugglers (taking a tax of between 10 and 15 per cent of the product). Most of their foot soldiers are motivated by smuggling rather than theology. It is as likely that the shootout near Tongo Tongo was between smugglers and the American troops than Al Qaeda and the American troops. The War on Terror is evoked each time an American shoots a gun.

Neither an open border nor a closed border, nor a drone base nor a Special Operations Force will end this flow of refugees into the dangerous desert. The root cause of the conflicts is the same as everywhere: environmental destruction and climate change and the vagaries of private appropriation by the few of the social wealth produced by the many, what we called capitalism. These causes produce war and desolation, drive the poor to blame other poor people on ethnic or religious lines for their grievances, push the world to war and fanaticism, which in turn allows mendacious states to use conflict as a reason to offer a military solution to every problem. A CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] agent once told me in Afghanistan, if you have a hammer, why not use it. More is spent on military forces than on human security.

A 2016 report from the Institute for Economics and Peace showed that the total cost of the infrastructure of state violence a year is about $13.6 trillion, with half of this ($6.6 trillion) going to military expenditure and a quarter ($3.5 trillion) going to internal security. The total cost of violence amounts to 13.3 per cent of the world’s GDP [gross doemstic product]. Since the stated commitment for Official Development Aid is merely 0.7 per cent of GDP, this discrepancy between aid and violence shows that the market has failed. Neoliberal policy has little answer to the widening inequality gap and the deepening sense of despair that grips large parts of the planet. Guns intimidate people, but they do not provide them with any hope for a better future.

No one will report that in July of last year [2017] in Tunis, sensitive and decent people formed the North African Network for Food Sovereignty. Nor will there be any reflection on the assassination of hope for the region that includes the actual assassination of Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, on October 15, 1987. Sankara, largely forgotten outside Burkina Faso, offered an alternative to the kind of deleterious trade policies and war-making culture that has now swept the world. “We must dare to invest the future,” Sankara said. What lies before us is not the future. It is wretched.

Non-Aligned Movement

A few years ago, I was in an Al Qaeda encampment in the Qalamoun region of western Syria. The chief of that group asked me about Hindi films. He was an aficionado and had many films downloaded on his laptop. It was his distraction from the perils of close combat. “Who is your favourite film star?,” he asked casually. To fill the uncomfortable silence, he said: “Should I tell you my favourite?” It went on from there, a discussion of this film and that. It was surprising that many of these men—plucked from as far afield as North Africa and from Central Asia—enjoyed sentimental Hindi film songs.

In a quiet moment, away from the others, an Algerian man began to sing a song that was hard to identify. His accent was too strong and he had garbled the Hindi words. It took a while to figure out that he was singing “ Jaane tu ya jaane na” from Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973). Sung by Kishore Kumar and starring Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore dancing in the snow, this song has a lovely catchy chorus. Few would argue that this movie and this song in particular would define Hindi cinema in the 1970s. In this remote camp of hardened fighters, an Algerian expatriate wanting to talk about a film that he knew only by the first two words of its hit song— Jaane Tu.

The Bangladeshi film-maker Naeem Mohaiemen and I were in Algeria two years ago to shoot his new film that showcases the 1973 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Algiers ( Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017) [the film, by the way, is playing at the Beirut Art Centre till April 9]. We travelled across the city, meeting a range of people and visiting the sites of that historical NAM meeting. It was at this conference that the Third World countries pledged to push for a New International Economic Order. The charismatic Algerian leader Houari Boumediene urged NAM members to be far more confrontational on the world stage against imperialism. Boumediene backed the freedom fighters of his time, from the Palestinians to the South Africans.

These were fighters from a different era, sharing only the gun with the Al Qaeda guerillas along the western flank of Syria. The line that runs from people like Boumediene to the Al Qaeda leader in Syria, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, is broken. Naeem Mohaiemen’s film recovers the period when that old order in the Third World began to fray and the current malignancies began to emerge. Boumediene, like so many radicals, would die in mysterious circumstances in 1976, a decade before the assassination of Sankara, a decade after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. If Europe underdeveloped Africa, as Walter Rodney (assassinated in 1980) wrote, then the Western powers and their friends assassinated hope in the postcolonial continent and replaced it with violence and despair. I have walked this landscape of desolation, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen to Sudan, where once the Left was strong, but then the Left was destroyed actively. I am in search of people like Fahd of Iraq, murdered in 1949, Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub of Sudan, murdered in 1971, like Mahdi Amel, murdered in 1987, like Aminah Rahhal, like Fatima Ibrahim... comrades from Iran to Morocco.

Amine Hattou, a young Algerian film-maker, made a short film a few years ago called Nostalgic Laziness. In this one-minute film, we see a man lying on a bed with a television set in front of him. You first see a news report of the Arab Spring protests, with the reporter commenting how Algerians—exhausted by their civil war in the 1990s—had no desire for an upheaval. The man changes the channel. Shashi Kapoor appears. He is singing “ Aye mere bete sun mera kehna”, from Aa Gale Laj Jaa. The father, in the film, tells the son to listen to him and warns him against chaos. Syrupy nostalgia overcomes political protest.

Protests that are unprepared are not always going to be successful. They can end smothered by older logics, congealed power equations that have not been shifted. The revolutionary movements of the 20th century picked up Marx’s Capital or Mao’s Red Book, listened to Castro’s speeches and adopted Ho Chi Minh as their icon. Those movements had a theory of the present that was rooted in its contradictions and so, proposed to move the dialectic forward towards a socialist alternative. That agenda, while still alive in sections of the world, went by the wayside.

Imperialism’s support of religious and ethnic parties to destroy Marxist movements and revolutionary nationalist movements paid off. If these new struggles have a theory it is often rooted in religious texts or millenarianism—forms of Islam here or Pentecostalism there, charismatic warlords here or gang leaders there, Osama bin Laden there and Donald Trump here. Theories of the present are cast aside for eschatological visions of history or else for no notion of the future at all. Older neighbourhoods of the Iraqi Communist Party turned themselves into stalwarts of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, while areas loyal to the Bombay textile workers’ communist union turned toward the right-wing Shiv Sena. Ganglords and warlords moved into areas that had once given their hopes and dreams to nationalist forces, including the military, and to a socialist horizon.

Poems for Palestine

I started this talk with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose poems for Palestine were published in 1981 in a collection called Mere Dil, Mere Musafir (My Heart, My Traveller), dedicated to Yasser Arafat. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Pakistan’s ambassador came and begged Faiz to join him in East Beirut. But Faiz would not go. He would later write to his wife, Alys, “I could have done the same, but the heart didn’t agree to let the side down.”

“What the poor Palestinians and Lebanese and the city went through,” he wrote, “beggars description.” Azam Khan from the U.N. eventually came and whisked Faiz off to Damascus, where he took up residence in Hotel Meridian, near Umayyad Square, and had “a hot bath after ten days”. He knew what it meant to live inside the wounds of our world, now so many wounds. In one of his most powerful poems for Palestine, Faiz had written:

Tere aaqa ne kiya ek Filistin barbaad

Mere zakhmon ne kiye kitne Filistin aabaad.

Your enemies destroyed one Palestine.

My wounds populated many a Palestine.

The bad side of history might destroy the world, but each of the wounds it makes produces—by the logic of contradictions—its own gravediggers. Wounds, in other words, populate the land called freedom. May it be so.