Sunday, August 31, 2008


So, 31 August and we have Independence day in Kyrgyzstan—you know the one. Landlocked, surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Descended from nomadic tribes, tucked in the middle of ex-SSRs, I feel like Kyrgyzstan gets forgotten by most of the world. I could not have told you yesterday that Bishkek is the capital, though I could have pointed to the country on a map.

Historically the Kyrgyz people did pretty well for themselves in the first millennium or so of the common era, expanding their territory—but then the Mongols began to push them back into smaller spaces again.

Then came Russia—people who think of Kyrgyzstan at all most likely think of it in the same breath as Russia. The country was part of the Russian empire in the 19th century. In 1919 Soviet power was established, and in 1936 the country became the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. Obviously when the USSR broke apart, Kyrgyzstan was left to form an independent nation.

Because the populations around the area had been quite mobile before the establishment of firm borders, there is a Kyrgyz enclave in Uzbekistan, and a number of Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyz. This has been the cause of ethnic tension at different points.

Oh, and the nomadic background of the Kyrgyz people continues as herding families still return to the high mountain pastures in summer.

Interestingly, the Kyrgyz language has been through a few alphabetic changes—at first it was written with the Arabic alphabet. In the early twentieth century this was changed to the Latin alphabet until the impact of the USSR kicked in with the change to Cyrillic.

Also, bride kidnapping still happens sometimes. As in, a man might tell his family he wants to marry, they pick out a girl and go kidnap her. It’s illegal though, and I don’t know how common it is. Still, when it does happen it’s rare that anyone does anything about it.

Today’s poem from Kyrgyzstan is by the Kyrgyz poet Suyunbay Eraliev, and comes from Language for a New Century.


From the green meadows of Altai
I brought back a miraculous new wine
to the great summit of Tyan’-Shan’ya,
so that it might regenerate our self-esteem,
strengthen our people’s spirit
amid the devestation,
amid the battles,
amid our wanderings,
so that it might invigorate our spirit from year to year,
amid our legendary traditions.
In the firmament,
on the vaulted slopes
where flow the crystal waters,
in the villages so highly protected
by the endless stream of years gone by.
One could almost hear the strains of “Manas”
as time suddenly released the reins,
even the rain,
like the glance of an evil eye,
gave up its place to that weather.

—Suyunbay Eraliev
translated from the Russian by Yuri Vidov Karageorge
from Language for a New Century


Malaysia is the first overseas country I ever travelled to (I don’t count my stopover in Singapore, where I sat in a chair at the airport for an hour, worried that I wouldn’t know when to board the plane.) I was eleven and travelled by myself, to go see my best friend whose family was living in Kuala Lumpur at the time. I’d caught a few planes by myself at that stage—in fact, had begun to see myself as something of an old hand—but was terrified of this process of changing planes in one country to get to another. I survived, and ate curry and bought a lot of knock-off t-shirts and plastic earrings. Hey, what can I say? I was shallow. Though it was also during that trip that I read Wuthering Heights for the first time—my first Brontë novel. I wish I could remember more of my trip now that it’s 31 August and we’re celebrating Malaysia’s “Hari Merdeka,” or Independence Day (Independence s from the United Kingdom, and came in 1957.)

My father still calls Malaysia “Malaya” reasonably often. Other people his age that I’ve met do too, which surprises me whenever I hear it. When I hear “Malaya” I think of World War II.

Malaysia has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and Ptolemy knew it. Or that’s what his map suggests—how else would he know to include it? From the beginning of the common era there’s been a fair bit of movement, as well as changing religious influences, with Hindu, Buddhism and Islam arriving in waves—there is evidence of the latter from the 14th century onwards.

Then of course there was the European influence, as Western explorers ventured further afield. First came Portugal in 1511, and then the Dutch in 1641. Britain was late in the game—1786, when Penang was leased to the British East India Company. Essentially the Malay archipelago ended up divided between Britain and the Netherlands, and Malaya (yes, it was still Malaya) was in the British zone.

Japan invaded the country during World War II—after this the local population were more keen for independence to arrive. When what was then Malaya merged with a few crown colonies on Borneo in 1963, Malaysia was born. (Singapore was initially part of Malaysia too, but separated from the nation in 1965.) It wasn’t all smooth sailing—as well as Singapore’s leavetaking, Indonesia and the Philippines caused some headaches.

While we’re celebrating Hari Merdeka, here is a poem to help the festivities along. “Language” by Baha Zain comes from Language for a New Century. Enjoy!


How hard
to accommodate the word to the meaning
such trouble
to wrap decorum with language
the emotions of old bards;
a fish flashing in water
you already know its gender.

—Baha Zain
translated from Malay by Muhammad Haji Salleh
from Language for a New Century

Trinidad and Tobago

I suppose most people don’t know, or don’t remember anymore, that I did a music degree, in addition to my BA, followed by my current studies for an MA (or two) in English. Back when I was studying music to my heart’s content, I was part of the conservatorium’s choir. Yes, there were the usual numbers—Mozart’s Requiem, of course, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And, oddly, The Geographical Fugue. I loved this piece—it was a spoken work, and I still remember it. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t Sprechstimme, but just spoken with varied dynamics, but it was one of the most fun pieces I’ve ever performed in. In four voices (you know, fugue-like) each choir section enters, and the rhythms of the piece all build from the rhythms of places and geographical features. The opening? A great roar of “TRINIDAD!”

And so, when I was looking at my list of independence days, I suddenly thought “TRINIDAD!” when I saw that, yes, 31 August is Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago—Trinidad and Tobago being the two main islands of the nation. Tobago is really very small compared with Trinidad, but it’s important to not leave it out. We like inclusion.

Trinidad and Tobago? Well, they bring us both calypso and the limbo. Also—Trinidad? The earliest settled part of the Caribbean. As in, people arrived at least 7000 years ago. Tobago got its name because it’s shaped like a cigar—or that’s what the people naming it thought. The name Trinidad was given by Columbus—in a sacred mood he named it after the Holy Trinity.

Almost 100 years after the island was “discovered” by the European world, Sir Walter Raleigh went there. While this is significant because he attacked San José, I really just mentioned it because Raleigh is such a great character. I’d be pretty pleased if he’d dropped in on Australia. I’d imagine him laying his cloak on the ground on some dusty bush track.

So, the island was really in the control of the Spanish, with the Frenchman Roume de St. Laurent showing up and getting a Cédula de Población from Charles III of Spain, and free lands were being granted to any Catholics willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish king. A bunch of people showed up. In 1802 Trinidad went to the British, and a whole lot more settlers came from England. It did get passed around a bit still, though—even Courlanders from what is now Latvia took over for a while. (Latvians in the Caribbean? I had no idea.)

After declaring independence from the United Kingsom in 1962, the country became a republic in 1976. Income for Trinis? Well, it started off as sugar, moved to cacao—and these days its oil.

On the downside? Well, Trinidad still enables the use of the Cat o’nine tails when disciplining prisoners—though it hasn’t been brought out in the past few years since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay a prisoner $50,000.

Derek Walcott, though born in St Lucia, has ties to Trinidad, and of course there’s V. S. Naipaul—definitely a famous son. And a poem? How about “In Our Time” by Harold M. Telemaque. Thanks to The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse.

In Our Time

In our land,
Poppies do not spring
From atoms of young blood,

So gaudily where men have died:
In our land,
Stiletto cane blades
Sink into our hearts,
And drink our blood.

In our land,
Sin is not deep.
And bends before the truth,
Asking repentantly for pardon:
In our Land,
The ugly stain
That blotted Eden garden
Is sunk deep only.

In our land,
Storms do not strike
For territory’s fences,
Elbow room, nor breathing spaces:
In our land,
The hurricane
Of clashes break our ranks
For tint of eye.

In our land,
We do not breed
That taloned king, the eagle,
Nor make emblazonry of lions:
In our land,
The black birds
And the chickens of our mountains
Speak our dreams.

—Harold M. Telemaque
from The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Last year I actually got to celebrate Moldova’s Independence Day: I was newly arrived in Washington DC for the start of my Masters at Georgetown, and among the incoming international students I met while we were living on campus (we spent a week frantically searching for housing) was Inga—from Moldova. In fact, of the “Kennedy Orphans,” as I named our group when we all had to leave the Kennedy Hall dorms, Inga is probably the one I became closest to, though I don’t see much of her these days—different programs, and Inga has her husband and son living here too. Last year at this time, though, her family hadn’t arrived yet, and we held a housewarming-plus-Moldavan-Independence-Day party. We looked up the Transnistrian newspaper (Transnistria is a breakaway state from Moldova on the Ukrainian border; you don’t hear much about it, but you probably should—it’s believed a lot of ex-Soviet arms disappear on the black market through Transnistria. Reportedly visiting the region is like visiting a museum/theme park of the Cold War-era Soviet Union. The region is not recognised as an independent country by any other country; officially it’s an autonomous territory—capital is Tiraspol) at the party, and read an article about Moldova Independence from the Transnistrian side: the Transnistrian news site derided Moldova’s Independence Celebration, since Moldova refused to recognise Transnistria’s independence. There’s also an autonomous region in the south known as Gagauzia.

People don’t know a lot about Moldova—in fact, when I talk with people about Europe, a lot of them wouldn’t even have been able to name Moldova as a country (capital? Chişinău). I find that sad. I mean, historically the country is a crossroads: on a route between Asia and Europe it saw plenty of invasions, which I’m sure did not please the local Dacian and Sarmatian populations. Among the well-known attackers? The Huns, the Magyars, the Kievan Rus’, the Mongols. Prior to that, as it’s above Romanian, it’s also just past the end of the Roman Empire. The part of the world just beyond Ovid’s exile.

So the region was once known as Moldavia. As such, I really don’t know how the Moldovan population feel about the infamous “Moldavian Massacre” episode of Dynasty. Even more so, I don’t know how they feel about the plot where Alexis considered marrying the King, and therefore becoming the Queen of Moldavia. (I haven’t seen these episodes—yet—but I do hear that she said she was keeping the crown jewels. Oh, Alexis.)

Another interesting fact? It wasn’t the first country to re-elect a communist government after the end of the USSR (Bulgaria has that honour), but it did, indeed, elect the Party of Communists in Moldova within a decade. I’m fine with it. I just think it’s interesting. The country is a parliamentary representative democratic republic. Also, the official language is Moldovan—which is identical to Romanian.

Today’s poem is by Alexandru Vakulovski, and (once again) comes from New European Poets. Good stuff.

Amputated Homeland

in this town everyone is
unhappy on this earth
there is quiet before an
explosion yes my love I’m leaving
I am leaving across the earth
of my homeland
there everyone lives out the pleasure
of not knowing
the pleasure of losing
of not being run over by
a car of raising
unhappy children of
eating and not barfing
(sorry, vomiting) not once
I am leaving my love
my homeland is where
I am
love love love
you made me happy
you made me forget everything
I will never forget that
not once
I’m leaving

—Alexandru Vakulovski
from New European Poets
translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter

Monday, August 25, 2008


25 August is Declatoria de la Florida in Uruguay! Yes, let’s celebrate Uruguayan Independence, and perhaps thinks about the fact that apparent Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America after Suriname—French Guiana is also smaller, but it’s still an overseas department of France. And that also makes it the smallest of the Latin South American countries. Oh, and they like soccer in Montevideo, or so I hear.

Hey—Uruguay is not corrupt by South American standards! Only Chile is less corrupt these days. That’s a nice index to have. There’s also an index that lists what it considers the 28 full democracies in the world—Uruguay might come in last on that list, but it makes the list, and that’s something.

So we don’t have the legacy of the Incas. We don’t have tangos and sambas emerging from the streets. (Well, actually, there is Uruguayan tango… though it’s not as well-known as its Argentinian cousin.) The Charrúa were one of the better known tribes of native Americans, but they were pretty small, as were other hunter-gatherer tribes. With a lack of gold and silver lying around, the Europeans weren’t terribly interested for a while either. Then the Spanish thought they’d bring in a few cattle, and that took on. Nice stuff. Later the Portuguese built a fort.

Montevideo? It dates from the early 1700s. Its natural harbour made it a natural competitor with Buenos Aires back in the day.

And independence? Well, it took longer to come to Uruguay than to other areas of the Americas. The movement started in earnest in 1811, but it took till 1828 to gain it’s formal recognition. The official declaration came on 25 August, 1825—the delay on recognition was because of the Argentina-Brazil war, then underway. When Britain brokered peace between the countries, it led to formal proclamation of Uruguay’s nationhood. I’ll drink to that.

Today’s poem, “For Tonight” is by Roberto Echavarren and comes from the Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984.

For Tonight

Lovers do not speak to each other
when they listen to the radio.
They listen in silence.
They say what they do not say.
A gush of mercury
trembles on open lips. Smoke is forgotten.
Trills gather in corners of the piano bar
open to the phosphoric beach in stillness.
The music said what they had to hear
to let their abandon grow.
They are a single scene without a fixed limit.
Now a haunch curves
as much as the other wants but did not expect,
as much as the radio

—Roberto Echavarren
translated by John Neyenesch
from Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984

Sunday, August 24, 2008


In 2003 I spent a little time in Poland—I wish I could have spent a lot more time there. I made good friends with a girl named Ania who worked in the hostel I was staying in (well, while I was there—only a few weeks after I left I’m pleased to say she quit. The hostel owner was no prince) and each day after I got back from whatever I’d been doing we talked for quite a long time. One night she told me about how she had had an urge to go east a year or two before. People had warned her when she decided to go to Ukraine—“the people in Ukraine don’t like the Polish,” they said. She decided to go anyway. She loved it—but what interested her, she said, was the Ukrainians she met were so lovely, but had been told not to go to Poland, where they were not liked. I’m not claiming this as universal, but I will always remember Ania telling me this story. Kapuscinski writes of his travels around the former Soviet Socialist Republics in Imperium. Another Pole driven to travel east. It’s a beautiful book.

24 August marks Ukraine’s Independence Day—this is the date in 1991 that Ukraine declared its independence from Russia. There was a referendum on the matter on 1 December the same year, and independence was finalised on 26 December. The name “Ukraine” comes from the Old East Slavic ukraina, which means “borderland.” I love that. It must be tough sharing a border with Russia sometimes. (Look at Georgia today.)

There have been people in Ukraine for over 6000 years—and about 1000 years ago the Kievan Rus’ (remember, Kiev is now the capital) became the most powerful polity in Europe, and Kiev was the most important city of the Rus’, even back then. After the Mongol invasions, though, the area suffered, and fell under foreign power for a long time. And then came the twentieth century, and Russia.

Stalin was not kind to Ukrainians—yes, I realise that’s an understatement. I’m thinking of the 1932-33 famine: some people think of Holodomor as a genocide. While the numbers vary according to who you speak to, all agree that millions died as a result of the famine. I suggest you read more about this tragedy. If you are brave, photographs of victims of Holodomor are wrenching.

Since we’ve been experiencing some Olympic fever lately, you might like to know that in 3 appearances (1996, 2000 and 2004) at the summer Olympics (I’m not including 2008 additions to the tally) the Ukraine has won 69 medals. Good for them.

Today’s poem comes from New European Poets, and is by Oleh Lysheha. Since this is “Song 352,” I hope you feel moved to go look up the preceding 351 songs.

Song 352

When you need to warm yourself,
When you are hungry to share a word,
When you crave a bread crumb,
Don’t go to the tall trees—
You’ll not be understood there, though
Their architecture achieves cosmic perfection,
Transparent smoke winds from their chimneys.
Don’t go near those skyscrapers—
From the one-thousandth floor
They might toss snowy embers on your head.
If you need warmth
Its better to go to the snowbound garden.
In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish.
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish.
Is there a light on inside? —Yes, he’s always at home.
Knock at the door of a horseradish.
Knock on the door of his hut.
Knock, he will let you in.

—Oleh Lysheha
translated from the Ukrainian by James Bradfield
from New European Poets

St Barthélemy

So, 24 August and it’s St Barthélemy Day—also known as St Barts, for those a little more casual. St Barts? Why the French collectivity in the Caribbean. They use the Euro, you know. Since it’s meant to be one of those “playground for the rich and famous” type places, I imagine the Euro suits them just fine. Oh, and it was Swedish for a while, though it started French. The Swedish legacy? Well, the main town on the island is Gustavia, obviously named after King Gustav (in this case, the third).

You know, there’s less than 10,000 people on Saint Barthélemy. It’s nice that they still get a day. Unlike a lot of other areas in the Caribbean, the white population is a large majority.

If you go snorkelling, you can probably see green sea turtles. I want to see green sea turtles.

In my tours of world poetry I found the oral poem “My Deery Honey,” recorded in 1805 by Samuel Augustus Matthews when he visited St Bartholomew, as it was known to the English.

My Deery Honey

Shatterday nite aucung lau town,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Run round de lebin street,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Look behind me guaba bush,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Vosh me pot, au vosh um cleam,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au put in paze, au put in pole,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au bine me pot, au bine um sweet,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au sweep me ouse, au sweep um clean,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au clean me knife, au clean um shine,
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au mek me bed, au mek um soff
Chan fine my deery honey,
Au mek um up, au shek um up,
Chan fine my deery honey.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


When I was a child we used to play this game “Around the World” in school. Taking it in turns we’d go around in a circle. To kick things off, someone would say a place name—country, state or city. From there, the next person had to name a place that started with the last letter of the previous place. If you repeated one or didn’t find a place in time (only a few seconds) you were out. I was a bit of a champion at this game. Anyway, “A” could pose a problem. Why? Because there were so many places beginning with “A” that ended with “A.” The game would inevitably find itself in a Alberta—Alaska—America—Alabama—Australia—Austria cycle. Then I would bring out “Afghanistan.” This was the mid-eighties, so the National Geographic photo (you know, the photo) was new, and there was a different war going on there, with the Soviet invasion. The name fascinated me—I thought it was—still think it is—a beautiful word. And on 19 August Afghanistan celebrates Independence Day—marking its 1919 independence from the United Kingdom.

Obviously the country has a long history before its 1919 independence—and prior to its position as part of the British empire. Excavation indicates that the region has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years—and they started farming early. Placed between so many Indo-European civilisations is it any surprise that there’s been so much activity there?

Genghis Khan did some damage there—1219 saw the Mongols run amok in Afghanistan, and their rule was extended after the invasion of Timur Lang, or, as the Western World better knows him (through people like Christopher Marlowe) Tamerlane. The first “Afghan State” came about in the 18th century.

And then there were the Europeans. After the Anglo-Afghan wars (there were three—did you know that? 1839-42; 1878-80 and 1919) most of Afghanistan’s territory came under British control. The Brits had a lot of influence but when King Amanullah Khan took the throne in 1919 Afghanistan regained independence. Good job.

1973 saw the move (via a coup—a bloodless one) to a Republic and some years of internal conflict—until the Soviets moved in. Then the blood really started to flow, with somewhere between half a million and two million Afghani civilians killed before the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989.

Then came the Taliban, followed by the invasion by US troops. I won’t go into all the al-Qaeda stuff. But you remember the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, right? I remember when the story was published in the newspaper—I tore it out, and stuck it in my diary, something to mourn over periodically.

More recently, the film Kandahar had some amazing images in it. The unforgettable? The sight of prosthetic limbs being dropped over the country, floating to the ground with their parachutes. It’s a wonderful film—you should see it.

Today’s poem is called, appropriately, “The Silenced.” We don’t hear a lot of Afghani voices. This is written by Nadia Anjuman, and comes from Language for a New Century.

The Silenced

I have no desire for talking, my tongue is tied up.
Now that I am abhorred by my time, do I sing or not?
What could I say about honey, when my mouth is as bitter as poison.
Alas! The group of tyrants has muffled my mouth.
This corner of imprisonment, grief, failure and regrets—
I was born for nothing that my mouth should stay sealed.
I know O! my heart, It is springtime and the time for joy.
What could I, a bound bird, do without flight.
Although, I have been silent for long, I have not forgotten to sing,
Because my songs whispered in the solitude of my heart.
Oh, I will love the day when I break out of this cage,
Escape this solitary exile and sing wildly.
I am not that weak willow twisted by every breeze.
I am an Afghan girl and known to the whole world.

—Nadia Anjuman
translated from the Dari by Abdul Salam Shayek
from Language for a New Century

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Krakatoa. Doesn’t it evoke a kind of sublime? Sumatra. Java. Bali. Borneo. When are we going?

I’m not sure how I’ve not been to Indonesia, since I have been to Malaysia and Singapore. It seems quite lazy of me, in fact! But rest assured, Indonesia is high—very high—on my list of places to go. Though its not an official Islamic state, Indonesia is still the nation is still the most populous mostly-Muslim country going. It’s a republic—Indonesia declared its independence in 1945. It used to be known as the Dutch East Indies. Like spices? There’s quite a spice-history in the place. Nutmeg, for instance. Native to the Banda Islands. The Europeans were definitely fans. And there’s some serious biodiversity going on there.

Indonesia… reminds you of “Indo-European,” “India,” and perhaps the “Indus Valley.” It comes from a combination of Latin and Greek—“Indus” is Latin for “India”. (Yes, yes, imaginative.) “Nesos” is the Greek for “island.” The name began to circulate in the 18th century, though the Dutch were not fans—this was, after all, the Dutch East Indies. Asserting empire is important. From the beginning of the twentieth century, though, more people began to use the name until it became the official name of the country.

We know, don’t we, that Indonesia has been inhabited for a hell of a long time—at least half a million years.

The Europeans began visiting in the 16th century. While the Dutch established the region as a colony, their control was a slight thing, and it ended with the Japanese occupation of the area. Only two days after Japan’s surrender, Sukarno declared independence. The Netherlands was unsuccessful in trying to put their stamp on things again.

Sukarno became an authoritarian leader, and lasted until he was outfoxed by General Suharto in 1968, resigning 30 years later in 1998. These days Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in charge, though I feel like I still hear as much about Suharto ten years after the resignation as I do about the current president.

Another of those new things I’ve learned from this project: Indonesia is the home of the Toba supervolcano. Not familiar with supervolcanos? Well, the term only official entered volcanology in 2003. Their eruptions are greater than any mere volcano of recorded history, and their eruption can cause global devestation: for instance, a super volcanic eruption can cause an ice age. Wow. Oh, and the Lake Toba super eruption was responsible, apparently for the formation of sulphuric acid in the atmosphere. Who knew?

Now that I’ve read all that, I’m definitely going. Sometime. I want to study geology more, too.

In the mean time, I’ll leave you with a poem, while you’re digesting the supervolcanic info. This piece, “Saint Rosa, I,” is by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, and is taken from Language for a New Century.

Saint Rosa, I

for the husband of my past, I write no history.
the old books in the library of my heart
only record a few sad stories of defeat.
a group of soldiers lined up like children.
returning home to snail shells on coral reefs.
abandoning vague scraps of hope, among
broken sharks’ teeth.
for my lovers, I search for an anxious body
abandoned in a room filled with men
eager to set the world on fire. they offer
stacks on second-hand goods, wonderful
air-conditioning machines. I enjoy the heat,
it is brief, silent, while my thirst is endless.
my disappointment makes me man. I have stayed too long.
I want to climb up into the Himilayas and stay there.
watch my lust grow cold, then explode
and destroy the world.
but I am tired of dreaming
the house is narrow and covered with dirt.
if hope should ever arrive
it would be a useless lump of time.

—Dorothea Rosa Herliany
translated from the Indonesian by Harry Aveling
from Language for a New Century


17 August is Gabon’s Independence Day—the Gabonese gained their independence from France on this day in 1960. So, that’s 48 years of independence nationhood, right? The country has had two presidents in that time. Well, discounting a 24 hour interruption. Let’s find out more.

Initial inhabitants? Pygmy peoples. Absorbed into an influx of Bantu tribes. Europeans came along in the 15th century—in fact, the name “Gabon” comes from a European source. It originates in the Portuguese word for cabin—Gabâo. So, that was the coastal contact. The interior always takes a bit longer—it was 1875 before Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza led his first expedition into the Gabon-Congo region. He founded the imaginatively named town, Franceville.

When France put together a bunch of territories to make French Equatorial Africa (yes, it’s equatorial), Gabon became part of that federation—lasting from 1910 until 1959. And then came independence.

So the first president, Léon M’ba, led the country for 6 years, from 1961 until his death in 1967. (There was actually a usurper in 1964—for 24 hours. Jean-Hilaire Aubame ended up in prison for ten years.) His vice president became the successor, and Omar Bongo has ruled the country ever since. In the 1990s reforms came in to move the country to a multiparty democracy, but President Bongo has been consistently re-elected. Though there have been questions about the fairness of these elections, international observers say that the results were representative, though there were perceived irregularities.

Mmm. Rainforests. They cover 85 percent of the country.

Poetically, I have a Gabonese Pygmy song for you today—it comes from 3,000 Years of Black Poetry3,000 Years of Black Poetry, and was translated by C. M. Bowra.

The Elephant II

Elephant hunter, take your bow!
Elephant hunter, take your bow!

In the weeping forest, under the wing of the evening
the night all black has gone to rest happy:
in the sky the stars have fled trembling,
fireflies shine vaguely and put out their lights:
above us the moon is dark, its white light is put out.
The spirits are wandering.

Elephant hunter, take your bow!
Elephant hunter, take your bow!

In the frightened forest the tree sleeps, the leaves
are dead,
the monkeys have closed their eyes, hanging from the
branches above us:
the antelopes slip past with silent steps,
eat the fresh grass, prick their ears,
lift their heads and listen frightened:
the cicada is silent, stops his grinding son.

Elephant hunter, take your bow!
Elephant hunter, take your bow!

In the forest lashed by the great rain
Father elephant walks heavily, baou, baou,
careless, without fear, sure of his strength,
Father elephant, whom no one can vanquish:
among the trees which he breaks he stops and starts again:
he eats, roars, overturns trees and seeks his mate:
Father elephant, you have been heard from far.

Elephant hunter, take your bow!
Elephant hunter, take your bow!

In the forest where no one passes but you,
hunter, lift up your heart, leap and walk:
meat in front of you, the huge piece of meat,
the meat that walks like a hill.
the meat that makes the heart glad,
the meat that we’ll roast on our coals,
the meat into which our teeth sink,
the fine red meant and the blood we drink smoking.

Elephant hunter, take your bow!
Elephant hunter, take your bow!

—Gabon Pygmy song
translated by C. M. Bowra
from 3,000 Years of Black Poetry

Friday, August 15, 2008

South Korea

In an episode of The Gilmore Girls, Lorelai tells Rory to turn off the stereo because it’s time for Rory to leave for school, only for Rory to say it wasn’t her listening to the music. Cut to Lorelai opening Rory’s bedroom door to find Lane dancing. “Where does your mom think you are?” asks Lorelai. Lane’s answer? “On a park bench, contemplating the reunification of the two Koreas.” (The conversation continues—Lorelai: Not here, skanking to Rancid? Lane: Wouldn’t be included.) I do like that The Gilmore Girls had Korean characters in amidst the whitebread Connecticut set of Star’s Hollow. My other association? The 1988 Seoul Olympics of course. Watching Debbie Flintoff-King win gold for Australia as I watched the action obsessively.

We hear a little more about North Korea than South Korea these days, what with rumblings about weapons of mass destruction and all that jazz. The Korean empire ended in 1910, and South Korea was established in 1948. 15 August both marks the 1945 Liberation Day and the 1948 creation of the First Republic. Happy Liberation Day! These days, the country is still working towards reunification.

The Korean civilisation is an old one—5000 years. And, something I really didn’t know, it has the world’s sixth largest armed forces and tenth largest defence budget. How could I have had no idea? Sounds like a powerhouse, though it’s overshadowed by neighbouring China, its attention-grabbing sibling to the north, and Japan just across the way.

Korea produced the Jikji in 1377—this is a Korean Buddhist document, and it’s the oldest existing book printed with the world’s oldest movable metal printing press. Gutenberg eat your heart out.

The split between the Koreas came about with Cold War antagonism—the north established its communist government, while the south went for capitalism. 25 June 1950 saw North Korea’s invasion of the South, leading of course to the Korean War. And technically, since there never was a peace treaty signed, the two countries are still at war. Ah, for technicalities.

The coolest thing about Korea? Well, how can you choose just one? My two favourites, then: it’s a world leader in robotics; their film industry has been doing some awesome stuff.

Plus, there are of course South Korean poets to think about. Today’s poem us “Foreign Flags” (we’ve seen a lot of them on this blog…) by Kim-Nam-Jo.

Foreign Flags

There I first glimpsed
such desolate loneliness.

Above the soaring towers of the old castle
at Heidelberg
a flag is waving
like a boat being rowed
like a windmill turning in the wind
waving on and on
until the threads grow thin
then casting away that body like a corpse
they raise a new flag

I wonder
what it’s like to be up there all alone
in the sky with the drifting clouds,
what it’s like
to be shaking all over, looking down
on the mutability of people and things?
There I first glimpsed
such adult prayer.

—Kim Nam-Jo
translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé
from Language for a New Century


Another new thing I learned from this project: there is such a thing as a “doubly landlocked country”—though there are only two of them in the world. Liechtenstein is, however, one of those two. (The other is Uzbekistan… we’re not there yet.) 15 August is Liechtenstein’s National Day. So just what is a doubly landlocked country? It’s a country entirely surrounded by landlocked countries: to get to the sea you have to cross at least two borders. Also, it’s the only (solely) German speaking nation (official language, obviously) not to share a border with Germany. (Most actually speak a dialect know as Alemannic, which differs substantially from standard German.) Forgotten the capital? I’ll forgive you—it’s a tiny, tiny country. (The answer is Vaduz.)

I have a confession to make. I recently discovered that the television series Dynasty is available to watch online—well, the first two seasons. So when I read about the “Liechtenstein dynasty” I have to admit my mind does stray towards the Carringtons. Is that an unforgivable offence? You have come to expect these moments of lowbrow from me, haven’t you?

The Liechtenstein dynasty comes from the Castle Liechtenstein, which is in Lower Austria. (It being in Liechtenstein would be too obvious.) The family held the castke from 1140 until the thirteenth century—and then apparently from 1807 onwards. It all gets a little confusing. (Hey, that’s what dynasties are all about, right?)

To fastforward a little, Liechtenstein joined the German Confederation, which came about in 1815, and continued to advance its society. The product of its first factory? Ceramics. The year its first cotton-weaving mill was founded? 1861. How about bridges? A lovely pair were built over the Rhine in 1868. Once you have bridges, you clearly need a railway line, so one was constructed across Liechtenstein in 1872. It must have been interesting to watch all this taking place, given how small the nation is.

It was only after World War I that the country really began to function independently. Before the end of that war Liechtenstein was closely associated with Austria; following World War I it moved closely to its other neighbour, Switzerland. And though I’ve read that there was a Nazi sympathy movement in the lead up to World War II, Liechenstein again followed Switzerland’s lead and remained neutral—in fact, a lot of treasures were brought to Liechtenstein for safekeeping.

After the war years the Liechtenstein dynasty reportedly had a spot of financial both—selling family treasures, including the da Vinci portrait “Ginevra de’ Benci” in 1967. These days, though, the Prince of Liechtenstein is the world’s sixth richest leader. Hans-Adam II was born in 1945 and (sorry ladies) is already taken. His country enjoys a high standard of living these days too.

An odd fact about Liechtenstein? The majority of the world’s dentures are made there. Visit a tax haven, come back with false teeth. Now there’s a catch phrase.

A poem? In the end I’ve chosen a poem from a Croatian poet—Vlado Franjevic—who now lives in Liechtenstein. The other poet I found was born in Liechtenstein but lives in Austria—and her poem was too unwieldy for this little space. I found this morsel online here.

By the Small Window

by the small window

one detects still another smaller

and by this

a quite tiny

with a gold-flacky framework

who knows who is behind there

—Vlado Franjevic


India. It’s such a large idea. I don’t feel that I can do it anything approaching justice in a little posting here. I feel like it’s one of the places that has a bunch of associations that you can’t quite escape from. Seventh largest in area, second largest in population, and home to four major world religions, at the same time as being early outposts of other major religions. It has an ocean named after it. It’s not just the British East India Company. And, in case you didn’t know, the central motif of the flag is a chakra—the 24 spokes correspond to the 24 hours of the day. Apparently this implies that there is life in movement, and death in stagnation.

I feel like India would be one of those countries to understand through food: the differences between curries in different regions, the different ingredients and how they line up with the different cultural identities. The ceremony around drinking tea, or drinking chai. The ways herbs and spices are used—and why those spices were so valuable to the rest of the world.

For instance, in the north of India they use a lot more dairy products—the gravies are dairy cased. In the north the cuisine features a lot of flat breads, and they also have samosas. The staples are generally lentils, vegetables and bread, and the meat dishes arrived with Muslim influence in the country.

In the east, think about desserts—think of something like ricotta cheese combined with semolina, think sugar syrups and maybe some coconut. Think of things a little bit fried. And then there’s rice—the stable in this region, served with side dishes of vegetables, and maybe some fish.

The south is all about rice, with lots of coconut, and lots of pickles. A fan of bhaji (that is, onion pakora)? That’s from the south as well.

Then there’s the west: the Gujarati are in the west, and Gujarati cuisine is primarily vegetarian. (I have met a number of people from Gujarati background who have never eaten meat.) Goan cuisine, also in the West, is influenced by Portuguese foods—beef and pork are both popular, while they’re not as common in other areas of a nation whose largest religious groups are Hindu and Muslim.

Obviously this is simplification in the extreme—but it’s interesting to think through the differences within a large nation. And food really is a big part of religious and social identity—not just in India, but everywhere. But in India, about a third of the population is vegetarian. Spices like turmeric, cardamom, pepper and mustard have been harvested in the region for over 5000 years. When tomatoes, chilli and potatoes arrived from the new world, Indians quickly found uses for them in their own food traditions. Islamic rule brought with it gravy, kebabs, and a slew of fruits—apricot, melon, peaches, plum, while the British, alongside the Portuguese, introduced the idea of baking. Anyone who has ever moved from one country to another knows how much of national identity can be bound up in what comes from the kitchen.

Today’s poem from India comes from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry—it’s by the poet Jayanta Mahapatra.

Main Street Temple, Puri

Children, brown as earth, continue to laugh away
at cripples and mating mongrels.
Nobody ever bothers about the,

The temple points to unending rhythm.

On the dusty street the colour of shorn scalp
there are things moving all the time
and yet nothing seems to go away from sight.

Injuries drowsy with the heat.

And that sky there,
claimed by inviolable authority,
hanging on to its crutches of silence.

—Jayanta Mahapatra
from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry

Republic of the Congo

We’re back in Heart of Darkness territory, as on 15 August the Republic of the Congo celebrates its Independence Day—the country became independent from France in 1960. Compare with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo is quite small—but size isn’t the issue. (After all, 15 August is also Liechtenstein’s national day—now that is a tiny nation…)

Original inhabitants? Pygmy peoples. Their replacements? Bantu tribes. First European contact? 15th century, with the Portuguese. Slavery? Check: the Portuguese were trading for slaves in the interior, while the coast was a source for the transatlantic slave trade. Scramble for Africa? Well, the Congo river was a target for conquest, and a number of powers fought for the territory. Eventually it was divided between three powers—the Portuguese got Cabinda (now an area of Angola), which is north of the Congo on the Atlantic Coast, Belgium got only a small part at the mouth of the river—but the enormous hinterland, while France took the area north of the river.

The area that is now the Republic of the Congo was initially joined with other French holdings, and called French Equitorial Africa: it included Chad and the Central African Republic too.

While there was a pretty quick ousting of the first president, it took eight years for a coup d’état to happen. (I have to admit to finding it quite depressing that I read these histories now waiting for the coup—but I expect them all over. They just happened longer ago in some places.) A year after Captain Marien Ngouabi took over, he announced that the country was a people’s republic. In 1977, still president, Ngouabi was assassinated.

After being under a Marxist regime for decades, in 1992 mutli-party democracy entered the game—though, as usual, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. 1997 saw the beginning of a civil war that ended when a peace deal came into effect at the end of 1999. The 2002 elections following this were considered a sham—and a new constitution allowed the president more power and a longer term.

Most people live in the southwest area of the country—there’s a lot of tropical jungle up north that doesn’t see many people.

Today’s poem is by Tchicaya U Tam’si. I have to admit it’s another I found while roaming around looking for pieces, but I didn’t record where I found it. When there’s time, I’ll fill in these gaps.


from L’Arc musical (1970)

We are this union
of water salt and earth
of sunshine and flesh
bespattering the sun
no more among the sea marks
but because there is this song
which ruins all the gulfs
which recreates a genesis
of wind weather and flesh!

I predict a babel
of unoxidized steel
or of crossed blood
mixed in the dregs of all surges!
After the red man,
after the black man,
after the yellow man,
after the white man,
there is already the man of bronze
sole alloy of the soft fires
we have still to ford.

—Tchicaya U Tam’si

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Pakistan was once home to the Indus Valley Civilization—the first cities in the region grew up there, with urban planning and municipal government evident from what’s been pieced together. Impressive stuff. Following that, the influence of Vedic, Persian, Indo-Greek and Islamic cultures arrived—long before the British showed up. Pakistan was part of “British India” until 1947. Obviously it is when Pakistan showed Britain the door that year that we celebrate: Independence Day. Just under a decade later the country officially became an Islamic Republic.

Obviously the British arrived in the form of the British East India Company. I’m sure a lot of you have heard of the Sepoy Mutiny—this was 1857, the last big armed struggle against the British Raj. Following this, the more peaceful struggle for freedom began, though it was led by the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress. In the 1930s, the Islamic side of then-British India responded with the formation of the “All India Muslim League,” to make sure the Islamic faith was not under-represented. This began with the 1930 call for an autonomous region in northwestern India for Indian Muslims—obviously this paved the way for Pakistan. Initially there was an East Pakistan too—in 1971 this became the independent nation of Bangladesh.

Following the 1956 establishment of Pakistan as a republic, democratic, civilian rule was put on hold by a coup—General Ayub Khan ruled for the eleven years from 1958-69. There was a return to civilian rule in the 1970s, which ended in 1979 when General Zi-ul-Haq came to power. Following his death in 1988, Benazir Bhutto was elected as the first female Prime Minister of the country. After her assassination last year, the election process was postponed, and the instability of the political process in Pakistan was highlighted again.

Did you know that, in size, Pakistan is as big as France and the United Kingdom combined? I feel like that doesn’t come across in maps. (I think that the “Cartographers for Social Equality,” the fictional group portrayed on The West Wing, had a point... Check out the Hobo-Dyer projection map. It’s really interesting.)

There is plenty of desert in Pakistan. Makes up for a lack of pirates. Though speaking of pirates, Pakistan is something of a haven for pirates of another kind—you know, the kind of piracy that upsets the entertainment industry Plus the amazing Markhor goats are the national animal. Also, there are rare Indus River dolphins. I feel like, exotic big cats aside, we don’t find out a lot about the animals of this region: wild sheep, beautiful varieties of goat… It’s worth it. I promise.

While you’re still thinking about wild sheep and goats, I’ll give you a poem. Today’s is called “Non-Communication,” and it comes from the inimitable Language for a New Century. Pakistan has a long literary history—definitely worth checking out. The poem is by Kishwar Naheed.


Like the body peeping through a muslin dress
now all the taut veins of my brain are evident.
Separation’s first day was easier than the second
for the first day’s first night
was spent telling stories like Sheherzade.
A night like one thousand one nights,
white like unwritten paper,
this creaseless brightness
is like the image formed in the mind
before a word comes to the lips.
In the crowded era of my days and nights
like a comb passing through hair
keep announcing your existence
but passion and love
like my unkempt hair
keep knitting a web inside me.
Like broken, diffused clouds in the sky
the termite-ridden page of life
will not even sell at the price of scrap.
Thundering like clouds you,
cascading like the rain I,
like two deaf singers
are singing each other a song.

—Kishwar Naheed
translated from the Urdu by Mawasg Shoaib
from Language for a New Century

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Central African Republic

On 13 August, 1960 the Central African Republic attained its independence from France—only two days after neighbouring Chad. A lot of people I talk to don’t even know that the Central African Republic is a country—it is, and its name tells you where it is. How could you forget a country whose acronym is CAR? The country is mostly Sudano-Guinean savannah. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an area designated at savannah. Another thing for the list. Oh, and the first democratic elections were held in 1993—and a few years ago the country was thought to be a leader in sustainable development, though its one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Central African Republic was one of those areas of Africa that came under European control during the Scramble for Africa. A few countries wanted to territory, but it ended up in Frances hands after some swift moves and negotiations. The colonial rule began around 1900. With colonial rule came the brutal exploitation of native populations by the private companies hoping to turn a buck in the region.

Prior to full independence, the country—then still called the colony of Ubangi-Shari—became an autonomous territory in 1958, and it was then that it took the name of the Central African Republic. Early on it established a one party state, which was followed by the first overthrow in 1965 by Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who declared himself president for life in 1972 and then named himself emperor in 1976—following this up a year later with an opulent crowning ceremony. President-for-life-ness/emperorhood were cut short by a 1981 coup, and the country was ruled by a military junta again, with the movement toward democracy arriving in the late 1980s. This movement gained ground after the fall of the Berlin Wall—yes, that had reverberations even in central Africa.

Recently there’s been violence in the country, and while there have been battles between government troops and rebel forces, civilians have been caught in the middle—some refugees have fled to Chad.

Today’s poem is by Emmanuel Boundzéki Dongala, and comes from the anthology Négritude: Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean.

Prayer and repentance of a little Christian

why did you make this morning
so grey so sad
is it because I sinned
last night
are you that angry

even the strutting rooster
hasn’t sung this morning
even the little sparrows
haven’t left their nest under the eaves

lord lord
I have sinned and I confess it
but it isn’t really all my fault
when I let my eyes look deep deep down in hers
(O lord those eyes
they could have made me do all kinds of things
they could have made me eat meat on good Friday
they could have made me put my cross away
they could have made me talk back to the holy-father-pope himself)
I kissed her and the catechism lesson slipped my mind

lord lord
I have sinned and I confess it
I confess
I found her long black flowing hair
prettier than the holy-virgin-mary’s
(O lord I’m so ashamed)
make me suffer the punishment of sinners
no don’t take pity on me
I admit my hopeless my unpardonable and my mortal

but lord
take pity on my uncle who wants a healthy crop of palm wine for a dowry

take pity on mamma who needs a healthy crop of maize and manioc

take pity on that poor black skinny ant who’s carrying his heavy cross of straw

I admit my hopeless my unpardonable and my mortal

but to them dear lord who aren’t to blame
give them back that shining sun that’s all their joy
give them back that sky of blue that makes them throb with love
and give mamma that sun she wants so badly for her crop of manioc

but don’t let me go on living
because I skipped my Sunday catechism class.

—Emmanuel Boundzéki Dongala
from Négritude: Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean
translated from the French by Norman R. Shapiro

Monday, August 11, 2008


Chad—its sometimes call the “Dead Heart of Africa.” It’s a long way from the sea, and is mostly in a desert zone—including, of course, a swathe of the Sahara. I actually didn’t know until today that the capital is N’Djamena. In fact, I’d ashamed to say I had never even heard of N’Djamena. Chad is a melting pot—over 200 ethnic and linguistic groups, though the official languages are French and Arabic. The former comes from the countries time as a French colony: Chad gained its independence from France on 11 August, 1960, leading us to today’s Chadian Independence Day. The French period was practically a blink of the eye in terms of the countries timeline—though of course those colonisers had a big impact for a relatively short stay. Still, the French only officially moved in in 1920—so Chad spent a mere 40 years under French control, while there have been people living in the region since the 7th millennium BCE.

Following independence there has been a bit of tension—the first president, François Tombalbaye proved unpopular after a few years—a civil war broke out in 1965 that lasted a long time. There was a coup in 1990, and then more recently the Darfur crisis has spilled over from neighbouring Sudan into some areas of Chad, causing a few problems.

This year saw the Battle of N’Djamena (which makes me even more ashamed I didn’t know the capital). On 2 February Charian rebel forces entered the capital, initially taking on a large part of the city, attacking the presidential palace. The palace didn’t fall, though, and within a few days the government’s troops had pushed the rebels out of the city, and they retreated. It has been the first revel attack—there was another failed attack in April 2006. There was a peace agreement signed last year in October 2007—but that collapsed a month later. There’s concern that what has been considered a humanitarian crisis in the country could become a humanitarian “catastrophe.”

I had a hard time finding texts from Chad—there are a few writers (including Joseph Brahim Seïd, Baba Moustapha, Antoine Bangui and Koulsy Lamko), but their work is hard to find. I still hope to track some down at some point. In the meantime, while I was ferreting around in the strange places this project takes me, I found an account of the legend of how the Buduma tribe—who primarily living on the islands of Lake Chad—came to Chad. It’s from P. A. Talbot’s article “The Buduma of Lake Chad” which appeared in the The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 41, (Jul. - Dec., 1911).

A Kanembu, Bulu by name, fell in love with his sister-in-law during the absence of his elder brother, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. As the latter’s return was delayed, the pair took his death for granted, and went through a form of marriage. On the husband’s return Bulu feared punishment for his misdeed, so he fled to Lake Chad, and lived in hiding on one of the islands. He was obliged to live on fish or such small game as he could snare, till one day a great calabash of millet was found entangled in the reeds which fringed his place of retreat. Bulu thought that this must have been blown over from the western shore, and therefore determined to go thither and procure a supply of grain. He was captured on landing and taken before the head chief of the Sos, who treated him kindly. The chief had a beautiful daughter named Saiorom, from whom perhaps the peninsula takes its name. Bulu repaid his host’s kindness by making love to the girl, with the result that her father was obliged to give her to him and send them both back to Lake Chad in order to conceal the disgrace which had befallen his family.

—P. A. Talbot
from The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Yes, Ecuador is equatorial. That’s what the name is, gringo. Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands for a Darwinian experience? You’ll be stopping in Ecuador first. Embrace it. And embrace Ecuadorian Independence Day. While the country didn’t gain its independence on that fateful day, it was 10 August in 1809 that the first demand for independence from Spain was made—not just the first in Ecuador, mind you, but the first in Latin America. Leading the charge. Fanfare, thanks.

Of course, before the Spanish arrived, the local civilizations came into the Inca Empire—wars, marriages, the usual. (Before that, Ecuador had been inhabited for a few thousand years. Go explore the pre-Columbian section of your local museum.)

So. The Spanish. Disease. Death. An all-round experience of mirth. That is, in the Edith Wharton House of Mirth kind of (extremely non-mirthful) way.

The whole country was independent from Spain by 1822—it then joined Gran Colombia for a few years before full independence in 1830. Smooth sailing from there? Not entirely. Territorial disputes with Peru developed into war in 1941. Needless to say, with World War II going on at the time, this was frowned upon, and the matter was resolved relatively quickly when Ecuador and Peru signed the Rio Protocol in 1942—Peru got the territory, but the Americas presented unity in opposition to the Axis powers. I hope Ecuador was at least pleased with the latter half of the equation.

Oh, and on the bumpy road (as opposed to smooth sailing) theme, the 1970s saw a military junta overthrow the government. The country was subject to military governments from 1972 until 1979—when elections brought back democracy. (Democracy is the new black.)

Hey, did you know that Conservation International has a “megadiverse” category? There are 17 megadiverse countries, and Ecuador is one of them. Awesome.

A poem for you, my dear readers. This one’s by Jorge Enrique Adoum, translated by the inimitable Wayne H. Finke, taken from the Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984. Titled “Ecuador,” how could I choose any other poem?


I. Geography

It is an unreal country limited by itself,
divided by an imaginary line
and yet carved out in concrete at the foot of a pyramid.
If not, how could the foreign woman be photographed
astride my homeland like on a mirror,
the line just below her sex
and on the back: “Greetings from the center of the world.”
(Children, large skeleton-like eyes
surrounded, and an indian weeping
mountains of centuries behind a burro)

II. Memory

The soul cavitied, that passageway aches in
the root’s nerve, and I, Pavlov’s dog, in a leap
sit beside the doorway of the tin-shop
(there it was always during the day) to sniff about the street
on which I returned and they follow the beating me.
When one has no homeland yet save
for that incurable sadness beneath one’s pride,
the homeland is the pocket of memory from which
I extract this: throngs of indians in the drunkenness
of the mass and flailed with kicks on Sunday afternoon,
the cemetery where I accompanied so many school
mates to review principles of law: this,
pieces of an old animal, this suffices me, I reconstruct
integrally the torrid patriotic Paleolithic folkloric,
the tanners of the republic, the daily clay
where we slip pleasantly. (You too, little dinosaur
bone, your ankle by which you are tied to
me, monstrous quartering, and your other ankle
by which you are bound, for I am you exile.)
And the song with which they lull the victim
so that he dies without uttering a word
and with which they torment the dog
in order to see how his member swells erect.
Willingly. Just for the experiment.

—Jorge Enrique Adoum
translated from the Spanish by Wayne H. Finke
from Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984

Saturday, August 9, 2008


9 August is Singapore’s National Day—it marks the country’s separation from Malaysia. (It’s a little confusing: on 31 August in 1963 the country attained independence from the United Kingdom. Just over two weeks later, on 16 September, Singapore merged with Malaysia—then just under two years later the country separated from Malaysia again. These days? Sixth wealthiest country in the world (that’s in that whole GDP per capita way of thinking…).

So there are records of settlement from around the 2nd century, back in the days of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire. When I think of “outpost of empire” I always think of poor Ovid in exile. But I suspect I’m the only one with that problem. Back then it was called Temasek—a Javanese name that meant (imaginatively) “Sea Town.” There have been some artefacts from Temasek found,

When Portugal was engaged in their Malay-Portugal wars in the 17th century, they basically played arsonists to the settlement of Singapore. Grumps. Then they took control for a while, until the Dutch took over for a while, but it didn’t seem to have much impact. The fishermen of Singapore continued to fish.

Then the British East India Company came along. 1819 saw Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles—the perfect British name, really—land on the main island. Raffles realised that this was a great place for a trading post and did some wheeling and dealing with the Sultan Hussein Shah, of the (Malay) Sultanate of Johor until Singapore officially became a British colony.

Oh, and World War II saw the Japanese invade Malaya, with the Battle of Singapore being the main event. The Brits were beaten in six days, and Winston Churchill was not pleased at all. The Japanese occupied the island from 1942 until a month after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

They’re extremely serious about law and order in Singapore. Right down to the appearance of the streets. Litterbugs will face serious consequences. The negative side is that the government controls everything very tightly—for instance, there’s not a lot of freedom of the press. There are more restrictions elsewhere, but Singapore is definitely at the strictly-curtailed end of the list.

Oh, and I’m sure those of you flying around Southeast Asia a lot will stop in Singapore regularly. The airport is, shall we say, huge.

Today’s poem is by Paul Tan—it comes from the wonderful new treasury of Asian poetry, Language for a New Century. Indulge. Buy it. Read it. Email me about how much you love it.

The Sentry at Mutianyu Speaks to the Astronaut

I watch strange creatures unfurl
with each labored breath
and think of your dragon’s flight,
launched to such fanfare.

At the end edge of the kingdom,
language is pointless,
even if our lips were not blistered,
our tongues frost-dead.

These vats of oil dispatch flames
to the sky. In blazing sequences,
we send stories to the capital.
What cosmic language do you use?

Can you see me, nameless sentinel
on this endless line of stones?
Are there marauding barbarians
in cold outer space?

You and I have linked destinies—
we puncture small holes
in the wintry darkness against
strange winds and shifting stars.

We obey the emperor’s bidding,
do not think of earthly rewards;
the festooned laurels we will
save for another life.

—Paul Tan
from Language for a New Century

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Côte d’Ivoire

I know some of you will look at the name of this country and then say “Oh! The Ivory Coast!” but I’m discouraging that. The reason? The Ivoirian government officially discourages this usage, and asks that Côte d’Ivoire be used in all languages. Côte d’Ivoire is in West Africa—and, yes, it is on the coast, with the Gulf of Guinea to the south.

We don’t really know much about Côte d’Ivoire from the period before the Portuguese pulled up in the 1460s. Apparently the major ethnic groups arrived quite recently. So pre-European contact it’s a little bit of a blank slate.

The country didn’t suffer from the slave trade as much as neighbouring countries—the European ships seemed to like other areas of the coast better, so the Ivoirians were lucky there. The colonial era started in the 1840s when France decided they wanted to get involved, and built naval bases along the coast. Taking over the interior took longer—into the 1890s the French were battling it out with the Mandika forces that were coming in from Gambia, and the Baoulé kept up guerrilla warfare until 1917—even as France had another war on its mind.

And what did the French have to offer? Coffee, cacao and banana plantations. Of course, with plantations came forced labour. How is it that the abolition of slavery only applied outside of Africa? If the mountain comes to Mohammed does that suddenly allow the mountain to put Mohammed to work? (I suppose it’s obvious that this makes me a little grumpy. The country basically dodges the bulk of the slave trade, only to be effectively enslaved after its over.)

But then came independence: first Félix Houphouët-Boigny started a trade union for cocoa farmers. Good stuff. Soon enough Houphouët-Boigny was elected to the French parliament, and the French abolished forced labour. And about time. In 1958 Côte d’Ivoire became autonomous, followed by independence in 1960. 20 years later Côte d’Ivoire was the world’s leading source of cocoa. Yum.

So Houphouët-Boigny became the country’s first president. Unfortunately this was a one party system, and he ruled right up until his death in 1993, though his government was forced to support a multi-party system at the end. Nonetheless Houphouët-Boigny’s favoured successor (Henri Konan Bédié) succeeded him, nad was then re-elected. (The opposition was disorganised.)

The next step? A coup in 1999. This was followed by a peaceful election in 2000, which saw Laurent Gbagbo oust the stager of the previous year’s coup. Unfortunately in 2002 there was an uprising while Gbagbo was in Italy, and some say that Robert Guéï, having led one coup, attempted another—this is disputed. Either way, Gbagbo returned, signed accords with rebel leaders and, when the peace agreement fell apart, ordered airstrikes against the rebels. While Gbagbo’s term expired in 2005 it was deemed impossible to hold an election under the circumstances, and Gbagbo’s government was extended by a year. In 2006 the UN backed another one-year extension of the Gbagbo government. In 2007 a peace deal was signed.

Oh, child soldiers. There are child soldiers serving in militia groups linked to the government in Côte d’Ivoire. Ex-rebel groups also employed child soldiers. Needless to say, I—to understate my position in the extreme—am not a fan.

A poem. “Leaf in the Wind” by Bernard B Dadié, who was born in Côte d’Ivoire. He worked for the French government in Senegal for a time, but when he returned to to his homeland he became part of the independence movement. He was Minister of Culture in Côte d’Ivoire from 1977 to 1986. Once again I’ve failed in my duties to record the exact place I found this poem, and it’s translator. I’ll have to followup when I get a chance to clean up these entries…

Leaf in the Wind

I am the man the colour of Night
Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

I am the tree putting forth shoots in the springs
The dew that hums in the baobab’s hollow.

Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

I am the man they complain of
Because opposed to formality
The man they laugh at
Because opposed to barriers

Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

I am the man they talk abut:
‘Oh him!’
Him you cannot hold
The breeze that touches you and is gone

Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

Captain at the stern
Scanning the scudding clouds
For the earth’s powerful eye;
Ship without sail
That glides on the sea

Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

I am the man whose dreams
Are manifold as the stars
More murmurous than swarms of bees
More smiling than children’s smiles
More sonorous than echoes in the woods.

Leaf in the wind, I go at the drift of my dreams.

—Bernard B Dadié

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


6 August, and we’re heading to Bolivia to celebrate their National Day, the anniversary of independence from Spain. The honouring of Simón Bolívar continues with the naming of this country. (Okay, the bright among you didn’t need to be told that, did you?) Bolivia? South American, one of the landlocked. I want to go there. Immensely. I’ve heard wonderful things about La Paz—when I was travelling in Central America I met a lot of people who were heading either north or south—just passing through Panama. I quizzed everyone heading up from South America. Oh, and Bolivia has two capitals—the constitutional and judicial capital is Sucre. The administrative capital is La Paz.

When know about the Spanish in South America. They came, they saw, they conquered. Well, not absolutely everywhere, but you get the general idea. The conquest of Bolivia took place between 1524 and 1533—in nine years, to all intents and purposes, the deed was done. They called the area “Upper Peru.” They were pleased with the silver they could export to make money for the Spanish empire. Obviously they put the locals to work. Still, these days 55 percent of the population is Amerindian, and a further 30 percent is Mestizo. If only a lot of other countries retained this kind of indigenous population…

It took 16 years for independence to become a reality: from 1809 to 1825 the country was engaged in their War of Independence—this war, too, was named for Simón Bolívar. Oh, and revenue from silver started to go into the coffers of an independent Bolivia throughout the 19th century. In the 20th century their export of tin took over as the important industry.

I feel like we sometimes forget the size of Bolivia—out of mind, out of…relative size. We all know Texas is pretty big, right? Well, Bolivia is about one and a half times the size of Texas. And it’s beautiful. The altiplano looks spectacular. There’s the Andes, the Amazonian rainforests, and Chaco. And let’s not—ever—forget Lake Titicaca, which is on the border between Bolivia and Peru.

We remember, too that Bolivia shares its border with Peru—sits just inland from Peru. It also borders Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile.

A poem? Don’t mind if I do. May I present “I Do Not Know” (I don’t, you know) by the poet Blanca Garnica. It was translated by Wayne H. Finke, and comes from Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984.

I Do Not Know

I do not know
from whence
I came to stop
in this autumn train,
the wing, tango
of the butterflies
and the path chews
the smile,
up the street,
from Monday to December.

How much this tour journey, unplanned,
weighs down!
But the complaint
in the throat
ticket and stamp
from the arm already.

Ah, I do not know.
I do not know why
the soul
became a pupil
for the night
of tulips;
nor why I scratch
the ashy voice
of an absent guitar.

And, yet
I go on:
the ineffable face
of a cloud
keeps me company,
and at twelve noon
and twelve midnight
the rain

—Blanca Garnica
translated by Wayne H. Finke
from Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature 1960-1984


So, swimming below Cuba and the west of Haiti lies Jamaica. I know, I know: you’re all thinking of Tom Cruise’s character Brian Flanagan mixing cocktails by the beach in Cocktail (am I right, or am I right?) but, please, let’s think about independence for a moment or two. On 6 August, 1962 Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom, and now we’re here to celebrate Jamaica’s Independence Day.

And stop thinking only of the Rastafari movement. There’s more to Jamaica than rastas, reggae and ska. There is also, for instance, James Bond. Ian Fleming lived there and liked to send the super-spy there regularly.

We’ve been reading about the Arawaks whenever we get to the Caribbean, and Jamaica is no different—the Arawak (and, apparently, maybe the Taino people as well) first settled on Jamaica anywhere between 6000 and 3000 years ago. Whether they died out immediately after European contact or survive for a little while longer, what is apparent is that there’s little trace left of the first nation peoples of Jamaica.

We’re back to Columbus—or, as I like to think of him by now, my old friend Chris. He landed in Jamaica in 1494, and claimed the island for Spain. The first settlement on the island was at Sevilla. It didn’t last long—the settlement was abandoned in 1554. Abandoned?, you ask. Why? Why, the best reason—pirates!

The English got rid of the Spanish, and in 1655 the English took over Jamaica, and then Jamaica became a sugar hot-spot. In the early nineteenth century the island was producing more than 77,000 tonnes of sugar a year. Go brush your teeth, just for thinking about that. Obviously at this stage there were slaves working on the plantations that produced all this sugar. When abolition took effect, the British brought in indentured servants from China and India. Because that’s not exploitative at all. (You can tell when I’m writing with sarcasm, right?) Oh, and Jamaica were a bit slow off the mark in letting abolition become reality: the 1833 law was enacted on 1 August 1834, but in Jamaica full emancipation didn’t really get declared until 1838. Today about 90 percent of the population are of African descent.

Around the middle of the 20th century Jamaica started to edge towards its independence until it gained full independence in 1962.

On my! The name Montego Bay (yes, I believe the Beach Boys mention Montego in "Kokomo") comes from the Spanish name Manteca bahía. Translation? Bay of Lard. No, I didn’t mis-type Lord. I mean Lard. As in, named in honour of the large boar population which contributed to the lard-making industry.

But forget about the lard. Go. Lie on a beach. Wait for your cocktail.

Before you fall asleep in the sun, a poem. I have, for your reading pleasure, “Getting There” by Edward Baugh from The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry.

Getting There

It not easy to reach where she live.
I mean, is best you have a four-wheel drive,
and like how my patty pan so old
and spare parts hard to get, I fraid.
I wonder why that woman love
hillside so much and winy-winy
road, when everybody know
she born under Cross Roads clock and grow
by seaside like all the rest of we.
Some part, I tell you, two vehicle can’t pass
and if rain falling is watercourse
you navigating, and rockstone mashing up
you muffler, and ten to one
a landslide blocking you. You must
keep you eye sharp for the turn-off
or you pass it and lost. I bet
by now you dying to know
who this woman I talking bout
so much! Well, to tell
the truth, I not too sure
myself. My friend who study
Literature say she is the tenth
muse. Him say her name
is Silence. I don’t know
nothing bout that, but I want
to believe what them other one say
is true—that when you reach
you don’t worry so much
bout the gas and the wear-and-tear
no more, and it have some flowers
and bird make your spirit repose
in gladness, and is like
everything make sense, at last.

—Edward Baugh
from The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry