Sunday 21 May 2017

Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System

Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System. A review of Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, UK, 2013)

I don’t usually read Man Booker Prize winners – probably from an aversion to worthiness – but I picked this novel up in an airport because of the centrality to its plot of the savagery of the Burma Railroad built in appalling conditions during World War II by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 South East Asian labourers. 
My maternal great aunts who lived in the then Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were imprisoned in concentration camps by the Japanese after the colony was invaded in 1942, but my great uncles were not as fortunate – they all died on “The Line” their corpses among the 12,621 POWs who perished under, as Flanagan neatly puts it, “a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king,” the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. 
Flanagan’s tale revolves around the axis of The Line which serves both as the incubator of the later war hero fame of his protagonist, lanky, bookish, befuddled and remote Aussie surgeon Dorrigo Evans, and as the divider that severs Dorrigo from the only thing that has ever seemed real to him (apart from playing footie as a kid), his intense love affair with his uncle’s young blonde working-class wife, Amy Mulvaney.
The book is somewhat of a meditation on Japanese war crimes and atrocities – 32 Japanese soldiers were hung for their abuses of POWs on railroad – and the nature of inhumanity, as Flanagan spins side-tales of the post-war evolution of Tenji Nakamura, a Japanese officer, and Sergeant Aki Tomokawa who retreat in old age into a peaceful conviction that their crimes were honourable. 
Two other side stories allow Flanagan to explore the nature of suffering and survival, as he follows Sergeant Frank “Darky” Gardiner to his bitter and demeaning terminus, and bugler Jimmy Bigelow to an old age blessed with the loss of his memories of the horrors of having been forced to carve the railroad almost by hand and willpower alone through dense teak and bamboo jungle in torrential rain.
The book is hard to read because of the bleakness of Flanagan’s view of love and loss, and the sheer severity of the POW’s travails. On The Line, Dorrigo throws himself into saving those of his men he can, out of a helpless sense of duty rather than humanity – the same instinct that propels his loveless post-war marriage to a society belle. The text is enlivened by pithy descriptions and scattered gems of Japanese poetry, but if you are looking for a searing love story, this one burns all before it – as a firestorm outside Hobart, so powerfully described – to cinders and ash.


Tuesday 16 May 2017

The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism

The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism. A review of João Freire, Freedom Fighters: Anarchist Intellectuals, Workers, and Soldiers in Portugal's History (Black Rose Books, Canada, 2000)

A good friend of mine is descended from one of the assassins in 1908 of King Carlos I of Portugal and his heir-apparent, Prince Royal Luís Filipe, which precipitated the fall of the monarchy in 1910. Overshadowed in most histories by the Spanish anarchist movement next door, the Portuguese movement may have been numerically smaller but was relatively, by head of population, a *larger* movement, with the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) achieving an almost totally hegemonic position in the working class until the rise of what became the quasi-fascist New State in 1927, the suppression of free labour and the imposition of what was tellingly named "national syndicalism". Its impact was also felt as far afield as Brazil and Lisbon's colonies such as Mozambique or Macau, where the early labour movements were built in part by exiled Portuguese anarchists. 

In 1892 a law was introduced in Portugal enabling the deportation of anarchist agitators to the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Azores, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique and Timor. Sometimes deportation followed jail time in Portugal, and it typically involved further penal servitude in the colonies, sometimes followed by indefinite banishment. As Freire notes, the 1892 anti-anarchist law was followed in 1896 by a law – applied retroactively – enabling deportation for speeches and publications that promoted or defended anarchist acts, with six months in prison to be followed by indefinite deportation; any newspaper that reported on anarchist activities or police actions against anarchists also faced closure and charges against the editor. 

As a result of these laws, several hundred anarchists were deported, mainly to East Timor; an unknown number were sent to Goa, India, and many were also sent to the African colonies and the Azores. Some continued their activities in these countries: for example, two Portuguese anarchists deported from their homeland for their political activities, José Carvalho and Manuel Coelho Traficante, started an anarchist group in Macau called The Dawn of Liberty, but were were again deported, this time to Timor, for their pains. To my knowledge The Dawn of Liberty was the first anarchist group in China - and the seeds it planted appear to have flowered exceptionally well, for south China became an anarchist stronghold, with anarcho-syndicalists building China's first modern union in Guangzhou in 1918, the Teahouse Labour Union, which drew 11,000 members from among trade guilds and teahouse employees, while British-occupied Hong Kong saw a strong IWW current develop.

Anarchist general Chen Jiongming, Governor of the Guangzhou Commune

Guangzhou even came under anarchist administration over 1921-1923 thanks to the influence of Chen Jiongming (1878-1933). According to Sanderson Beck, Chen’s anarchist-influenced federalism resulted in one of the rare instances outside of Manchuria of Chinese anarchists wielding power over a substantial region, their traditional stronghold of Guangzhou: “The anarchist general Chen Jiongming regained Guangzhou, and he called [republican general] Sun Yat-sen back in October 1920. They set up a republican government in April 1921, and 225 members of the old Parliament under the 1912 constitution elected Sun president. He [Sun] accepted the autonomy [from the Peking republican government] of the [Guangzhou] provincial government with Chen Jiongming as governor and commander of the Cantonese army. Chen promulgated a provincial constitution and limited military expenditures to 30% of the budget while reserving 20% for education… Chen Jiongming’s anarchist friends led the trade unions.” Sun later tried to dismiss Chen “but he was popular from his victories in Guangxi” and it was Sun himself who was forced to flee by Chen’s anarchist forces to Hong Kong in a British gunboat. Sadly, this example of an attempt at pragmatic anarchist counter-power appears to be poorly studied. 

The port city of Guangzhou under anarchist control in the early 1920s

The anarchist impact in Portuguese-colonised Africa was likewise notable but understudied. According to Lucien van der Walt, “After 1896 to 1905, a number of deported Portuguese served time in jail in Mozambique. In November 1896, the Transvaal government was informed by the Portuguese Embassy in Pretoria that the anarchist Joao Manuel Rodrigues had escaped imprisonment on the transport ship Africa when it docked in Cape Town en route to East Timor, and might be seeking refuge in Pretoria. He was not, it seems, recaptured. Gilberto dos Santos also escaped in Cape Town, but was recaptured and died soon after of bilious fever. Several anarchists were held in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, one of whom, António Caldiera, made a ‘spectacular escape’ from penal servitude in Angola and re-entered Lisbon where he was recaptured in 1905 and sent to Guinea-Bissau. After a republican government was established in Portugal in 1910, the anarchist printer and deportee José Estevam was set free in Mozambique, but he was imprisoned again when he set up a Revolutionary League in the port of Lourenço-Marques. He was, however, only one of several Portuguese anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists active in Lourenço-Marques in the first two decades of the 20th Century. The local press in Lourenço-Marques leaves no doubt about the presence of convinced and militant anarchists, and the revolutionary syndicalism of the CGT, whose newspaper A Batalha (The Battlewas available in Lourenço-Marques, remained the dominant orientation of trade union radicals in the city until at least 1927."

Lourenço-Marques harbour, under revolutionary syndicalist influence, in the 1910s

Founded in 1919 as an anarcho-syndicalist restructuring of the National Workers' Union (UON) which had been founded with 50,000 workers in 1914, the Portuguese CGT initially represented 147 unions, as well as a powerful Syndicalist Youth (JS) wing. The CGT newspaper A Batalha achieved a daily circulation of 25,000 by 1920. The CGT won the right to an eight-hour working day, and on the basis of this strength, became the only national Portuguese labour organisation until 1924 when a very much smaller Communist Party union centre was established. By 1922, the CGT reached 90,000 members (anarchist historians like Rudolf Rocker claim a figure of 150,000, which would effectively mean that every fifth Portuguese citizen was a CGT militant, a rather unbelievable figure). The CGT's membership declined over 1923 and 1924 to 55,000 because of repression, and a certain amount of bleeding due to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). Yet the communist challenge saw the CGT mobilise: by 1925, 70,000 members had rallied to its flags and A Batalha was circulating 50,000 copies daily, making it the second-largest daily newspaper in Portugal of any political orientation, though it was often read out to large groups of illiterate workers so its influence was exceptionally broad. 

As with developments in Spain, however, the growth of the Portuguese anarchist movement was interrupted by a military coup, in 1926. The Portuguese Anarchist Union (UAP) was suppressed, the CGT severely restricted, and many militants deported to the colonies, especially to Timor, Angola and Mozambique. After a failed insurrection in 1927, the CGT was driven underground and its headquarters and presses were seized. The PCP fared even worse: in 1928, its total membership stood between fifty and seventy.

By 1933, the year in which Salazar built his New State, ordered the dissolution of the existing trade unions and the creation of fascist-styled corporatist unions, the CGT's clandestine membership was estimated at 15,000. In that year all anarchist activity went underground, but in 1934, all clandestine trade unions and proletarian "revolutionary committees" embarked on a general strike in protest. A state of siege was declared and there was widespread and armed resistance and sabotage. In Marhina Grande, north of Lisbon, working people stormed the barracks and seized weapons and the local revolutionary committees which consisted of both CGT and PCP militants declared a soviet. But the soviet was defeated after two days of fierce fighting. Many militants were deported to Portugal's Asian and African colonies (especially Angola and Cape Verde) and concentration camps were set up all across Portugal. An assassination attempt on Salazar by CGT secretary-general Emidio Santana failed. 

Due to the clandestine nature of their struggles under fascism, the number of Portuguese anarchist groups in the 1930s fell to 12, compared to the 49 that had operated in the 1920s, but in 1931, a Portuguese Libertarian Alliance (ALP) was founded, networking groups in five centres. Changing its name the following year to the Portuguese Regional Anarchist Federation (FARP), the alliance had as its mouthpiece Terra e Liberdade (Land and Liberty) and the Libertarian Youth (JJLL) as its youth wing, worked in parallel to the FAI and managed to survive repression.

The peninsular Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), established in 1927, held a joint congress with the FARP in early 1936 during the Spanish Revolution and the following year, the CGT, FARP and JJLL discussed establishing a united front with the Communists and other anti-facists, as well as a common prisoner-relief organisation and a joint Revolutionary Youth Front, but ideological differences and the role of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in the Spanish Revolution saw the attempt founder. In fact in the 1930s, the communists slowly gained control of the clandestine trade unions from the anarchists and their Intersyndical Committee (CI) rose to 25,000 members. The hand of the Salazar regime weighed down heavily on the anarchists, but the movement was not dead: when Salazar sent 40,000 troops to aid Franco, the crews of three navy ships mutinied until shelled by shore batteries. By 1938, the Portuguese FARP and its allied CGT, cut off by the Spanish fascists from anarchist Spain, were hammered by a new wave of domestic fascist repression, although the CGT still claimed 50,000 underground members.

I guess it's easy to forget that Portugal's authoritarian state of affairs persisted far longer than the nasty, brutish and short Nazi regime or even Franco's long-lived autocracy, until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and Portugal's withdrawal from its African empire. Sadly, because of this long winter, the Portuguese anarchist movement today remains a fringe shadow of its former self with no connecting tissue to previous generations (in the 1950s, the few Angolan anarchists, for example, had to subsume themselves into the dominant Marxist politics of the liberation movements such as the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA). And here I must personally thank Friere for his very helpful messages pointing to the existence of a minority anarchist tendency in the post-war Angolan liberation movement.

Freire's much needed study is commendably analytical rather than anecdotal, backed with statistics and tables. In particular it covers the key role of the anarchist movement which had managed to penetrate the armed forces in overthrowing the monarchy in 1911 alongside the republicans - curiously similarly to what occurred in China in the same year - largely because of a desire to take Portuguese society out of its stagnation and to modernise it. Friere's book is an important study in English of this understudied movement, and an important recovery of memory from the darkness that was the Salazarist era.


The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism

The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism. A review of David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945 (AK Press, USA, 2009).

To an English-speaking outsider, the French anarchist movement - as distinct from the Francophone anarchist movement in North Africa, Vietnam, etc - is often viewed as the "mother" movement because of the massive CGT union federation which, under anarchist sway, amalgamated with the local Bourses du Travail in 1895, establishing an "apolitical" model of mass anarchosyndicalism that was replicated in Fracophile countries such as Poland and most of Europe and lands as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Senegal. 

The French movement proved to be one of the largest, most influential and most durable of all anarchist movements; and apart from its suppression for four years during the Vichy era, it has operated uninterrupted from its rise in the trade unions of the First International in 1868 until today, where it still maintains a 24-hour radio station, several small anarchosyndicalist unions, research institutes, publishing houses, and a significant interlocking set of counter-cultural networks. 

So for a French-speaker, seen from within, the movement while no longer hegemonic in the French labour movement as it was from 1895-1920, can even today provide a totally immersive socio-political experience. Which for a researcher often makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees. What makes the task more difficult is that the movement fragmented in 1920 and subsequently, faced with the prestige of post-1917 Bolshevism, so keeping an eye on *all* the different factional organisational responses to that is rare. 

Berry's huge achievement is to provide a really holistic view of the fragmenting movement as it met the triple threat of Bolshevism, French fascism and Nazism, and reformism (the CGT at its peak in 1920 had 2,46-million members, larger than the famous Spanish CNT during the Spanish Revolution - but it was largely white-collar, very removed from its blue-collar origins). 

While a majority of "pragmatic" apolitical syndicalists were happy to form an opposition within the reformist (including Bolshevik) union centres, in a self-defeating strategy, the explicitly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist minority kept splitting away from these centres to form ever smaller purist federations, while alongside this, the "political" anarchist organisations grappled with the erosion of the mass movement's industrial base, resulting in some bitter schisms, especially between the tightly-organised "platformists" and the pluralistic "synthesists", a lively division that continues to this day.

The fragmentation of the movement also meant very different responses to crucial issues such as how to engage with the French ultra-right, the Spanish Revolution, and the Algerian liberation movement, with the platformists being for direct combat and the synthesists largely for critical support for the latter. Berry also does not shy away from the troubling question of those few anarchist individuals who collaborated with or were compromised by Vichy.

But Berry's greatest contribution to our understanding of French revolutionary politics of the interwar years regards the forgotten tradition of French Sovietism, a mass movement that tends to be overlooked by students of sovietism (council communism) in other areas such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, and even Britain. The movement had its roots in the hardline anarchocommunist and anarchosyndicalist resistance to the militarism of WWI, and flowered in May 1919 with the establishment of an anarchocommunist Parti Comuniste (PC). If this seems strange, bear in mind that similar anti-statist, anti-parliamentary, anti-authoritarian (and thus non-Bolshevik) CPs were established in the same period in Britain, Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, and arguably in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam, in each instance predating the "official" CPs.

The PC established rank-and-file networks within the CGT which lead to an Autonomous Regional Soviet appearing in Paris and holding a congress in December 1919 at which 35 such soviets from the capital and other parts of France were represented, defeating the Leninist line and reaffirming libertarian sovietism. This resulted in the formation of the Communist Federation of Soviets (FCS), with le Soviet (The Soviet) as its fortnightly mouthpiece. As Berry explains, the FCS was structured on workplace workers’ councils, which together with communities were represented in local soviets, which in turn were represented at regional soviets, with the overarching policy-making body being a congress of soviets to which only workers’ councils and local soviets sent delegations. Sadly, the FCS declined in 1921 with the founding of the official PC, whose members were mostly drawn from organisations to the right of the FCS such as the Socialist Party. Favourable revolutionary conditions would not appear in France again until 1968, by which time anarchism/syndicalism was a still-virile, yet fringe movement.

Berry's book is a crucial text for students not just of the anarchist / syndicalist / council communist movements, but of interwar French politics and unionism more broadly. I hope he follows it up with a book on the denouement of the post-war French anarchist movement to the current day.


In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations

In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations. A review of Nunzio Pernicone's Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892 (AK Press, USA, 2009)

I'm a historian of the global anarchist movement (Black Flame - 2009; Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism - 2013), but during what I term the First Wave (1868-1894), the Italian anarchist movement was always a bit vague to me. The reason was that most historians make a point of stressing that the Italians made their mark not in Italy, but as travelling militants, especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States. But the conundrum was: if Italian anarchists were so influential in the revolutionary labour movement abroad, how was it possible that they had little traction where they came from?

Now Pernicone has helped explain why: Firstly, the dominance in Italy from the time of the Italian Federation of the IWMA of a form of self-described anarcho-collectivism (later anarcho-communism) that was insurrectionist and anti-syndicalist in the manner of Hatta Shuzo and the "pure" anarchists of Japan (they initially supported mass formations, but were just not very keen on unions), and later due to repression became staunchly anti-organisationist / anti-mass too. Not a smooth trajectory, bearing in mind that the likes of the young insurrectionist Luigi Galleani also cut his teeth on worker organising. Secondly, the new Italian state was dominated by two political factions: the “Historic Right” consisting of conservatives and monarchists, while the “Historic Left” consisted of nationalists and republicans – but this “Left” was compromised by its post-unification support for the monarchy; as a result, until the 1890s, government swung between two anti-socialist poles, which saw the emergent anarchist movement and the socialists more broadly, suffer continual cycles of repression. This repression was meted out by two processes that were not submitted to the courts where they could have been challenged: “admonishment” under which militants were put under restrictive surveillance; and domicilio coatto, which involved forced internal exile on islands off the coast such as Lampedusa. 

And yet, despite this climate, organisational efforts were perennial. The first International Revolutionary Brotherhood organisation in Italy, the Society of Legionnaires of the Italian Social Revolution (SLRSI), was founded by Bakunin in 1866, being reformed the next year as the Liberty & Justice (LeG) group, which lead directly to the foundation of the Italian Federation (FI) of the IWMA in 1869 that adhered to Bakunin’s line against Marx. Although initially based in Naples and its docks and the island of Sicily with more than 3,500 members by 1870, and swelling to an early peak of 32,450 members by 1874, primarily in north-central Italy, the FI was heavily repressed by the state in the late 1870s, while its insurrectionist (which later developed into an anti-organisationist) bias meant it would have to wait decades to achieve its own trade union central. But one of the key innovations of the FI was its emphasis on the equality of women: driven by women leaders such as Luisa “Gigia” Minguzzi of the FI’s Tuscan Federation and Vincenza Matteuzzi of the FI’s Marchian-Umbrian Federation, by 1876, the FI had organised women’s sections and groups in the cities and towns of Florence, Aquila, Imola, Perrugia, Carrara and Prato. 

By 1880, the FI was essentially dead in the water – although well into the decade in northern Italy, groups in various cities remained loyal to the internationalist line and still considered themselves part of the FI, now aligned to the Black International. Although repression had a generally negative impact on the Italian anarchist movement, with the majority adhering to a self-defeating self-described “anarcho-communist” line that talked insurrection but adopted anti-organisationism, so did little but produce incendiary newspapers and eschewed worker’s struggles, there were some positive organisational developments among the constructive minority. For example, in 1885, Ambrogio Galli’s Anarchist Communist Group (GCA) of Milan founded the Upper Italian Federation (FAI) with the purpose of reviving the movement, particularly among the workerists of the Italian Workers’ Party (POI) founded three years earlier with a programme that excluded from membership any who were not working class; initially the two camps had much in common, but the hostility of most anarchists to what they saw as the reformism of trade unions lead to a parting of their ways. There was better progress in 1885 when the Forlì Congress brought together 11 northern cities, scores of anarchist groups and federations from almost every region, resulting in the formation in August of the regional Anarchist Socialist Federation of Pesaro-Urbino (FASPU) and by 1887, a Forlì International Federation (FIF) was founded with 300 members; meanwhile although in 1876, a tiny and ephemeral Florentine Anarchist Federation (FAF) had been founded, adhering to Malatesta’s pro-organisational line, significant advances were made by Minguzzi among women workers at one of the two cigarette factories in Florence. However, these initiatives remained overwhelmingly regional and were unable to achieve national federation.

One of Bakunin’s main Italian disciples and in many ways his successor, was Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) who turned his back on his middle class origins to become an inveterate militant, insurgent, organiser and polemicist, and moved from an “anarcho-communist” insurrectionist position that he had held in the 1870s to a mass anarchist position. In 1889, he wrote his Programme, published in his newspaper L’Associazione, in Nice, France, as a call to arms against the deleterious effects of the anti-organisationist, terrorist and individualist deviations which had driven the Italian anarchist movement into isolation from the working class. Impressed by the strike-wave then surging across Europe, especially the struggle of the London dockworkers, Malatesta wrote in another article in the newspaper that “The masses arrive at great vindications by means of small protests and small revolts. Let us join them and spur them forward... Indeed every strike has its revolutionary characteristic; every strike finds energetic men [sic.] to punish the bosses and, above all, to attack property and to show the strikers that it is easier to take than to ask.” 

In his neo-Bakuninist Programme, Malatesta stated that “a great revolution is approaching, perhaps it is imminent,” and so the anarchist movement was faced with a “great mission” for which it needed to construct an international revolutionary anarchist-socialist party (later described by Malatesta as “the totality of all who embrace the programme, who advocate its triumph and who consider themselves bound not to do anything opposed to it”). As Pernicone paraphrases it, “Malatesta believed that although only the masses could make the revolution, they needed the guidance of a vanguard anarchist party. For only the anarchists, who harboured no secret desire for power, could arouse the masses to full consciousness of their might and spur them to destroy the state and every other obstacle blocking emancipation. And only the anarchists could be relied upon to resist the formation of new governments that would impose their will upon the masses, arrest and divert the course of the revolution, and prevent the evolution of a libertarian society.” 

Malatesta’s Programme finally bore fruit in 1891 at the Capolago Congress in Switzerland, to which more than 200 associations (two thirds of them anarchist and one third socialist and workerist) affiliated, representing more than 50 Italian cities and towns, plus exile groups from Switzerland, France, Britain, Egypt, the United States, Argentina and Brazil, at which it was overwhelmingly decided to found a Revolutionary Anarchist Socialist Party (PSAR), which soon established regional federations across Italy; repressed by the state, the PSAR’s regional federations were revived in 1897, though by then, Malatesta had moved away from the party’s original syncretism towards endorsing a far more ideologically coherent programme; within fifteen years, the Italian pro-organisational anarchists controlled their own 80,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist labour centre, the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI).

In sum, Pernicone has: corrected a longstanding Marxist occlusion regarding the Italian revolutionary left between the Risorgimento (state unification) of 1861 and the eventual establishment of a Marxist party in 1892, a bias that reflects the initial dominance of the Bakuninists; restored the pro-organisational history of the Italian movement - which was especially defined by its dispute with the anti-organisationists, a battle that it eventually won, in time to be on the barricades during the anti-colonial Red Week in 1914, not to mention the revolutionary Red Years of 1919-1920, with the USI peaking at 800,000 members, backed by a political organisation - in echo of Bakunin's dual-organisational strategy - the 20,000-strong Italian Anarchist Union (UAI); and lastly, Pernicone has offered tantalising glimpses of the establishment of Women's Sections which were to prove so influential as the vanguards of anarcho-syndicalism where it dominated the labour movement in most of Latin America until the 1930s.


Thursday 4 May 2017

The Red of His Shadow

A review of Mayra Montero's novel

Vodoun, the syncretic religion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti in the west and Dominican Republic in the east, is seldom accurately represented in fiction, subject as it has been for centuries to white mistrust of black theology, and in recent times to B-grade horror movie renderings of zombies.
Even Harvard scientist Wade Davis’ excellent 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow – a unique investigation into the real psycho-pharmacological bases of zombiesm, combined with a history of the rebel black republic of Haiti after its successful slave revolution of 1804, and a detailed explanation of how vodoun developed as an underground slave exaltation of West and Central African religions under the guise of their overlords’ Catholicism – was turned into a cheap Wes Craven thriller in 1988.
An unsurpassed exploration of the roots of rock ‘n roll via Haiti, where the faiths of African and Irish slaves combined to form vodoun and shape modern American culture, is the 1985 essay by Texan writer Michael Ventura, Hear That Long Snake Moan, which is available online. But Davis and Ventura offer rare English-language non-fiction insights into vodoun, so it was perhaps inevitable that an accurate depiction in fiction would be penned by a Cuban writer, in Spanish.
With a light touch, but penetrating empathy, Mayra Montero explores the mutual antagonisms, racism and interwoven cultures of pitch-black migrant Haitian “Congo” cane-cutters working for a pittance in a coffee-coloured Dominican mulatto world. Bucking traditional prejudices and a rain of curses from her family, the clairvoyant Dominican Anacaona marries the Haitian cane-cutter Jean-Claude Revé, brother to the vodoun houngan Papa Luc Revé, whose shy but willful daughter Zulé, possessed of a natural susceptibility to be ridden by the Loa, those ancient African gods, is destined from a young age to become the mambo of her own vodoun Societé.
Every year during Holy Week, Zulé’s Societé prepares itself with incantations, appeals to the Loa for protection and profit, dresses in its finest, beats its ritual drums, and, lead by its elders and queens, sets out from the batey, the worker’s barracks near the sugar mill, on a sacred procession, a Gagá, through the countryside, during which time they will exchange gifts of rum, cigars, cakes and fowl with the batey communities and Societés they encounter, while the mambos and houngans dispense advice and intercede with the spirit world.
It is usually a time of great celebration, but this year everyone is on edge because they know Zulé’s Gagá is destined to cross paths – and machetes – with the rival Gagá of the Haitian houngan Similá Bolosse, feared as a bokor, a master of the dark arts, not least for his connections to the disgraced yet still dangerous tonton macoute death-squads of ousted Haitian president Papa Doc Duvalier, and their drug shipments, the loss of one of which is blamed on Zulé. 
Montero’s lush and livid prose is brought to us by the skilled translation of Edith Grossman, who has also made Latin American greats like Gabriel García Márquez accessible to English readers. Peppering her text with vodoun chants and slave songs in Haitian Creole, Montero draws us into the realities of the cane-cutter’s physical poverty and spiritual abundance. 
With language as plain as cassava yet as firey as rum, she spins a tale – apparently inspired by a real crime of passion – which for all its grittiness has the lyrical, doomed beauty of many of Latin America’s great voices; definitely a talent to watch.


"Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?"

Afghan playwright and actor Monirah Hashemi in Sitarah – The Stars

Michael Schmidt

Monirah Hashemi’s slippers slide on the polished floorboards of on the stage at the orientalist Moriskan Paviljongen. The microphone echoes to the rhythmic thumping of her fist against her chest. The audience of arts rights defenders from across the world are silent, horrified, entranced.
Her performance of the play Sitarah – The Stars, a portmanteau tale of the struggles of three Afghan women against patriarchy – of Halima, sentenced to death by stoning in 2013, of Sara, dealing with the aftermath of the civil war in the 1980s, and of Gul Begum, forced into slavery during the 1892 pogrom – is harrowing. One character sums up her pain by asking “Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?” Yet before the play began, Monirah herself answered that “the women who are the stars are screaming – not that they are victims, but that they are fighters.”
And Safe Havens 2016, the second in an annual series of three gatherings hosted by the City of Malmö, Sweden, brought together fighters for artistic freedom from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America to debate challenges and innovations against the backdrop of the swing towards neo-fascism and right-wing populism in countries as diverse as the USA, Syria, Britain, Turkey, Poland, and South Africa.
The overarching theme of Safe Havens 2016 – the defense of cultural heritage and the protection of its defenders – is underscored in a presentation by Iraqi writer and artist Ashraf Atraqchi, whose slide images of the bulldozing of the ancient gates of Nineveh, dating to around 7000BCE and reconstructed in the 20th Century, and the destruction last year of Mosul’s ancient Assyrian sculptures and city wall by Islamic State fanatics reduce him and many in the audience to quiet, angry tears.
Ashraf had worked on a cultural radio programme alongside several writers. Around 2004, he started receiving death threats from a group that evolved into Islamic State (ISIL) – then a friend on the programme was murdered, so he mounted an exhibition in Mosul. The destruction of artworks themselves began in 2006 with the detonation of a public sculpture cast in the early 20th Century.
“I saw they destroyed a most beautiful statue that I knew from my childhood [it was] lying broken on the ground, with people silent around me. I felt responsibility about my city – and someone wanted to delete my memory, my cultural memory.” His response was to document all the city’s sculpture on an Arabic website, an initiative that earned him further death threats. In 2014, ISIL invaded Mosul and Ashraf fled to Turkey. Two years later, ISIL began the wanton destruction of Mosul’s heritage.
“They destroyed the wall around the ancient city. When I saw the ISIL propaganda film I felt as if my body was destroyed because they destroyed my life… I don’t understand why they destroyed the gate and the wall. Before, when they destroyed the sculpture it was an Islamic thing because of some text by Mohammed... I hoped for an airstrike [against ISIL] when they were doing this but nobody cared, the international community didn’t care.” 
Over the past few years, the Middle East and its peripheries have been at the epicenter of Salafist fascist assaults on human rights and freedoms and especially the arts that express those – yet many political and state responses to the crisis in the form of the huge wave of migration it has generated have been as anti-democratically hardline as the original ISIL threat.  
At Safe Havens 2015, the question had been raised in a workshop about what country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could possibly have cities that would fit into the ICORN galaxy. Although Tunisia’s Revolution is troubled by reactionary forces wanting to turn the clock back, as warned by 2015’s keynote speaker Lina Ben Mhenni of the blog A Tunisian Girl, the capital Tunis certainly has potential as a City of Refuge. However, workshop participants felt that Turkey fitted into a list of “grey countries” where it was feared the authorities might abuse the presence of a City of Refuge to whitewash their human rights violations. Then in on 15 July last year, Turkey experienced an apparent coup attempt that gave President Recep Erdoğan the excuse to purge not only the civil service, but the academies and to persecute artists too, which has made the working and living environment for Turkish artists far more dire.
Last year’s Safe Havens organisers decided to take a “deep dive” into the Turkish situation and the first speaker is Sara Whyatt of the Sara Whyatt Consultancy: “When I joined PEN in the 1990s, the number of writers and journalists in prison [in Turkey] was around the 100 mark, already high: most were Kurds held under anti-terrorism laws and others held under insult laws. The scenes were very similar for many decades, but I will jump to the issues still current today. In 2010/11 there was a crackdown on Kurdish writers, activists, lawyers, politicians and their supporters: several thousand were arrested across Turkey… There was very little evidence that any of the writers were involved in terrorism. Ragıp Zarakolu and Büşra Ersanlı are still on trial now, seven years later, though they are released, and it is even worse for the Kurdish writers who spent more time in jail: Muharrem Erbey spent five years in pre-trial detention and he is also still on trial. And this was taking place during the peace process with government talks with Öcalan, and while conditions in the south-east getting easier – but they were getting 10-year sentences. By 2011 there were 85 writers in prison and 79 more on trial. 
“During the 2013 Gezi protests there were thousands of arrests including scores of journalists and 13 people were killed. Yet there was no significant increase in the prison population as relatively few were convicted... However artists and actors are unable to get work, people were sacked, so there was an impact other than imprisonment. As president Erdoğan got more authoritarian, he also got more thin-skinned: around 1,400 people were sued for insult, including even people such as Merve Büyüksaraç, Miss Turkey, who was convicted for a tweet. 
“To look at the current crisis, we need to go back to December 2013 when a money laundering scandal that implicated many high level officials, among them Erdoğan’s son, broke. Erdoğan has accused the scandal of being an attempt to undermine the government, so a purge was started of the academy, judiciary, business, etc. Erdogan pointed finger at exiled religious leader and businessman, Fetullah Gülen, accusing him of orchestrating a plot to overthrow the government. This was the start of campaign to cleanse the judiciary, police and others of Gülen supporters, which by July 2016 had extended to media, academics, schools and latterly business people. Many thousands are under arrest, facing trial, lost their jobs and suffered other penalties.
“Meanwhile we’ve seen the Özgür Gündem case, where supporters of a Kurdish newspaper under censorship – writers, activists, academics and others - formed a rotating editorship. Scores of them have been arrested and their trials are under way. Most well-known are Aslı Erdoğan, internationally renowned writer who was living in a city of refuge in Europe then decided to return to Turkey to support her colleagues. She has been imprisoned for several months.” Note: She was freed later in December to face trial.
Sara screens a picture taken inside a women’s prison showing the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem produced by hand in the prison, with visitors taking pictures of the newspaper by smartphone, then distributing it. 
“Then in July 2016 came the coup attempt and another surge of arrests and dismissals under emergency regulations under which the government can shut down any media organisation, impose curfews, bannings of demonstrations, restrictions of access to spaces, criminalisation of talking about Kurdish issues, no access to lawyers for five days, and even restrictions on who can act as lawyers. Again alleged supporters of Fetullah Gülen were targeted, although very soon others not connected with the coup and once again Kurdish activists are being penalized under anti-terror laws although they were not involved in the coup.
“These events have overshadowed yet another case in early 2016 – the Academics for Peace case where 1,400 academics in Turkey signed a petition ‘Not in Our Name’ in response to a police and military crackdown, sieges and shootings in Kurdish towns, and the response was swift: more mass arrests, job losses and other penalties. 
“What is notable over the past two decades is that while the numbers of people in prison changes, the misapplication of terror and insult laws doesn’t change. Media and freedom of expression is the first target. So ultimately, to stop this pattern being repeated, what needs to be done is a review of laws, to repeal anti-terror legislation, remove insult as a criminal offence, and end the targeting of Kurds and ethnic minorities.”
Responding to Sara is Turkish curator and producer Pelin Başaran, who is based in the UK and Turkey and who founded the Siyah Bant (Black Ribbon) campaign, “to analyse censorship cases and advocate for freedom of expression. Until now, we are documenting censorship cases, and linking some English articles. The website is just one of the media we are using to understand censorship dynamics and modalities: we visited 10 cities around Turkey and spoke to 80 artists about censorship, then published the results in a book that mapped censorship cases in Turkey. 
“We were so much inspired by work done in Beirut in 2012. We collaborated with the university, and collaborated with lawyers and others. We focused on music, art, dance, cinema, and literature: five areas. We designed some research projects: justifying the cases it was not possible to go deeper, so we produced research projects of about 10 pages summarised for the blog. The first was on the effects of cultural policy in Turkey: the peace process in Turkish Kurdistan – nothing changed for artists during the peace process; we talked to curators and artists about freedom of expression. And the next report to come out next week, will focus on questions of soft power and the limits of arts freedom. 
“After that we can also talk about advocacy: we were a bit weak because it was difficult to get people around our work, but their first need was a toolkit. They didn’t understand how to act if something happened to them. We ran the webpage but also disseminated the research articles free to arts departments, schools, etc. We invited arts and law students in two cities and gave training to them about artistic freedom of expression, arts rights, women’s rights, etc… 
“We submitted reports to the UN and regularly report to the EU. We support artists: legal support for them, write letters to the Cultural Ministry, artists come to us for advice, we work closely with artists. Until Erdoğan’s coup we weren’t looking at artists at risk, but we felt it was coming to the arts as well, so we established a hotline for legal assistance. We get lots of information on how to act. Anti-terror and defamation laws are problematic, but there are also non-state actors: many censorship cases happen though informants going to the police who then shut down exhibitions. The state gives impunity to those who attack artists and artistic works. All who challenge norms are under threat, some are jailed, some lost their jobs.”
Pelin screens an image of a man in a crowd at the 2013 Gezi protests. “Here is an actor who is beloved even by the police because he portrays a police character. He tweeted that it was not just about Gezi Park, and he got death threats and is now living in the UK, though he went with a business visa. It is interesting how he became very popular including with the police, then became an artist in exile. One of the documentaries about Kurdish guerrillas, Bakur [North], was invited to the Vienna Biennale, but its film certification was denied so Bakur was denied.
“The Kurdish party was getting support from society, then in 2015 the Kurdish party went for the first time beyond a threshold, but just after, there were many attacks by Kurdistan Eagles and ISIS made attacks, and some 300 people died. In 2015, the peace process ended with PKK, and a curfew was imposed on many Turkish cities; it was difficult because we were aware of what was going on in Kurdistan, and they asked for help and we were not able to do anything. The people who want to stop this state violence in Kurdistan have received many threats, many have lost jobs, and many have had their passports cancelled. In January 2016, there was an ‘I Am Walking For Peace’ march across the country, but two artists [who marched] were arrested; they were released but are still facing trial. There was an exhibition called ‘Post Peace’ in February 2016 in a private gallery: the exhibition was cancelled by the gallery itself – and so it is impossible to talk about peace.
“After the coup, 100 journalists were purged, 100,000 officers and 30,000 teachers lost jobs, 180 radio and TV stations, mainly Kurdish, were shut down… Meanwhile democratically elected Kurdish leaders were arrested, and the government has placed their own people in around 30 municipalities, so the PKK doesn’t govern those municipalities anymore, which affects the cultural activities, as festivals and activities and gatherings are cancelled. Some actors are working as city police because they needed jobs. 1,495 NGOs are closed, 12 of them cultural and most of them based in Kurdistan.”
The situation for artists affected by the rise of right-populism and neo-fascism – especially those artists who have by force of circumstance taken on the mantle of human rights defenders – remains of critical concern to the organisations that will in December this year again gather for the third Safe Havens conference. So in the interim, ArtsEverywhere has facilitated that a cohort of some 60 individual arts rights activists from organisations across the world engage in an ongoing series of learning sessions to share best practice on how to defend our artists within their home countries and how to relocate them to safety should it prove necessary. That process will culminate in the first Arts Rights Justice Academy under the aegis of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development at the University of Hildesheim in Germany over 26 August to 3 September. 
In answer to Monirah Hashemi’s question, the global arts community has responded unequivocally: “We will ignite more stars to banish the darkness!”